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Ask Surly Amy: Sad Panda

Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,

I’m pretty active in the skeptic community, and I used to blog about my atheism. I’m a 21-year-old gay atheist, formerly a Southern Baptist being groomed for the ministry.

I’m also really depressed.

Depression medications haven’t helped. Talk therapy gets me nowhere. I’m not suicidal or in danger of becoming a shut-in, but I just can’t seem to find enough reason to truly be happy with where I am in life.

The thing is, when I went to church, I was almost never blue. I had a huge, supportive church family that loved me and cared for me. After I lost the faith and left the church, losing that family has really been the number one thing holding back my happiness.

Is there something skepticism/atheism can offer to fill this gap? The drinking skeptically group near me just doesn’t have that family feel. What am I missing? I know I’m not the only de-convert who has this problem.

~Sad Panda

Dear Sad Panda,

I feel your pain. Literally.

Depression runs in my family and I have struggled with it for most of my life. It’s good that you have sought out professional help. That would be my first bit of advice. As for community and family, I wish I had some brilliant words of wisdom to share. Unfortunately, I agree with what you have brought up and the fact that organized atheism and (skepticism for that matter) hasn’t nearly reached a level where it can fulfill the sense of family and community support that organized religion has. That’s not to say that it won’t in the future but for now our community is fragmented at best.

I am lucky because when I am feeling blue I can often lean on my network of Skepchicks for support and understanding. Man, I love these girls (and Sam too.) And we consciously try to foster that type of feeling of community here on the blog. The community of readers and commenters is important to us. We are in this together. I do realize however, that a blog is no substitute for the actual one-on-one community support that church groups are so great at providing.

My advice is to continue to search out like minded individuals. Attend conferences or other events not related to drinking. Look, I like Skeptics in the Pub as much as the next guy/gal but I’m pretty sure I have made better connections with people on twitter than I have at SitP. I have made better friends at TAM too. If you can afford it, I recommend going to conferences and different places to find like minded individuals.

Or heck, start your own group! Maybe you like to knit or bake or you like to go fishing or whatever! Start a meetup group for atheist basket-weavers in your neighborhood. Just find something that sparks your interest. We are only going to have a supportive community if we continue to build a supportive community. Kammy will be happy to post your event on our calendar to help get the word out! I guarantee you are not alone and you will find many others who feel the same way you do.

I’m often surprised at how a little extra effort on my part can make me feel a whole lot better in the long run even when I’m struggling to chase ‘the blues’ away. Losing your sense of ‘family’ and community is very difficult. Don’t give up. There are others like you, they just might be a bit harder to find.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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30 Comments

  1. At the risk of being openly scorned and mocked here, I’d suggest seeking out a new church. Baptists are not, in a broad stereotypical way, considered one of the the more accepting and progressive denominations. But there ARE churches out there that welcome ideas and thought and questions. Check out John Shelby Spong’s book Jesus for the Non-Religious (http://amzn.to/fzu4n2) as a way to investigate for yourself the ideas of the very human Jesus and how they might still be applicable to those of us who don’t buy into “literal” interpretations of the bible. To paraphrase what christian scholars like Spong and Marcus Borg often say, “Which god is it that you don’t believe in? Because I probably don’t believe in that god either.” I’d say you can be an atheist and still participate in a church community – but you may have to do some serious digging to find the right congregation, and be open to the possibility that there can still be value in tradition. The right church “family” will love you and accept you for yourself. Even something like a Unitarian Universalist congregation may be something for you to look into. I don’t know. Just some thoughts from a fellow struggling soul…

  2. I’m not sure Skepticism/Atheism groups can fill that gap for most of us, at least not yet! But humans gather and create “families” for all kinds of reasons. And different families fulfill different needs. I have my exercise family, and my work family, my volunteer family and my Skepchick family!! What do you feel strongly about besides skepticism/atheism? Maybe you could tap into that and find an established, like minded group.

    Even if the group does not describe itself as skeptical, your participation as a skeptic might encourage conversation on the subject and that’s a good thing.

    I would also encourage you to do volunteer work. Getting out of your own head and thinking about someone else might help.

    Exercise.

  3. Just because people might leave the church due to skepticism doesn’t mean that this should replace the church. There are hundreds of other social groups that are organized around shared interests and because of this can form much tighter bonds and more lasting friendships.

    If you like the Skeptics in the Pub great but I can see why you wouldn’t; frankly it has little interest for me either. Go to meetup.com or check out other community groups. Find some people that like hiking, swimming, knitting, black and white movies, book clubs, stamp collecting, train spotting, endurance running, photography or something else you’re interested in. Join them for their activities and join their socials, BBQs, and other events.

    Don’t think that just because you got your social needs met through a religious group you need to turn to an explicitly non-religious group now – there are hundreds of other groups which have nothing at all to do with religion, either pro or con. (And I’ve read that exercise helps with depression so consider a sports group for double the punch.)

    Good luck.

  4. Sorry to hear about your condition, not much I can say but my best wishes.
    As for religion, don’t go back, even for the camaraderie, long term it will be way more trouble than it is worth.
    My advice, same as our mentor above, Amy, join a few groups, but my suggestion, look a bit further. Look at science fiction fan groups, there are lots there. Computer clubs, role playing game groups.

    These people are smart, interesting, and engaging (ok, not all, but most). You will make new friends, have lots of fun, and you will have created that support group you need.

    Best of luck.

  5. Sorry to hear that meds and therapy aren’t working for you. Sometimes a different therapist can help–maybe you’ve already tried different ones with different approaches. Depression sucks–I submitted to a voluntary emergency psych evaluation before I was diagnosed and treated years ago. Best thing I’ve ever done.

    I can only echo what others have suggested. I hope you find the support you need.

  6. I echo what has already been said, I too struggle with depression and the meds aren’t that helpful any more.

    The only thing I would add is, don’t limit yourself to only skeptical activities.
    While I wouldn’t join a Bible dicussions group (unless it was a very open minded one) you can look into religious-nuetral activities such as a bowling league or take a class or two at a communty college, try something that you only have a small interest in, it may become a lifetime love.

  7. There are a host of charitable organizations such as Big Brothers/Sisters that are in constant need of volunteers. Most such groups have socials where volunteers can come together often enough to form their own support/family type groups. That might be worth a look at too.

  8. In some respects the church serves up a community like living in a small town where everyone knows each other, which is often a good thing as well as being irritating. Wanting this kind of community is normal and all I can suggest is making the effort to invite people over to socialize or plan some potluck dinner parties with folk whose company you like. Community happens when you make the effort and engage with folk. I joined a community choir almost two years ago which has led to a number of new friendships and lots of great parties.

  9. I’ve often considered joining a Unitarian Universalist church. I’ve heard that many of the members identify as atheist and they’re not really pushy with any beliefs. I have yet to actually try it because I like to sleep in on Sundays, but it seems to me that it’s a church community without the religion. If anyone else has had experience with UU, I’d like to hear about it, good or bad.

  10. I have to agree with the comments above me that some groups and activities are better for a community feel than others. You mentioned you’re 21, which makes me thing of two things:

    1) Are you going to a college or university? I’m loathe to push school as a social outlet (education should be your priority there), but, among other things, it certainly offers that. Many universities have a fairly liberal atmosphere where your sexual orientation and religious views will be accepted. Many universities even have their own secular humanist student organizations. In addition to having social connections with peers (and with faculty as you work on more focused classes), working toward a degree in a field you love will help your mood as well.

    2) Statistically speaking, life is all downhill from here, in terms of mood and “happiness.” As you age, not only will you accomplish much, have many experiences, and learn more than you didn’t realize you had yet to learn, your priorities and perspective will shift. Older people tend to be happier, or at least more content, than their younger counterparts. At 21, you still have three years before your brain has even fully developed! Please don’t take that to be condescending. What I mean here is, you have a lot of changes coming in your life. It doesn’t diminish the reality of the pain you feel right now, but aside from a freak accident taking your life, you have every reason to believe life will get better.

    @Amy: It’s good that you have sought out professional help. That would be my first bit of advice.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I can only copy verbatim what CatFurniture has said here. Finding the right therapist/psychiatrist is vital to identifying and dealing with the issue. It made all the difference for me.

  11. Well, my grandparents actually founded a Unitarian church up in Indiana, so I do have some experience. I was raised as a Uni, and at the age of 7 or so quit the church because i just didn’t get it. I didn’t know what we were supposed to be believing. Nowadays I have a better understanding of it all and I can only speak for the one congregation in Elkhart Indiana. But they are absolutely accepting of all beliefs and all personalities. I still don’t go to church because I am NOT a social person, but they are the friendliest group of people I have ever known. And their beliefs lean heavily on the greatness (not necessarily the holiness) of Earth and nature. I would highly recommend just giving a nearby UU church a try one Sunday. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t go back.

  12. My local skeptics group has a book club, which is good way of meeting people in a less hectic, noisy environment than a pub. However, we try to stick to talking about the book (except for the occasional obligatory Star Trek and Buffy digressions), so it isn’t a purely social event. (We are trying to save the world through science and education, so stay on target, dammit!)

    Maybe other similar groups (such as a nature or environmental or outdoors exploration group) with a skeptical, scientific focus exist in your area, or you could start one. Many parks have a “Friends of …” group which act as volunteer caretakers and spokespeople for the land, plants and wildlife of the park.
    I live a few blocks from such a park (actually the protective buffer around a reservoir), that has a group that organizes bird walks, nature classes (for adults and kids), drawing workshops, invasive plant eradication, a book club and many other activities.

  13. The lack of belief in a given thing cannot give you purpose and connection, nor can a tendency or desire to review evidence. Human beings are complex social animals. We, generally, require regular social interaction and daily ritual (don’t read into this too much) to maintain a positive outlook. This is, of course, different from depression. Depression is an illness with a physiological cause. If you are depressed, there are more options than talk-therapy (I’m going to presume you mean classic psychoanalysis wherein you do all the talking) and basic medications.

    But, I suspect you are really experiencing a loss of joi de vivre. Take up a hobby with a communal aspect. Skepticism isn’t one of them. Maybe cooking or art or something you can take a class in. Join a group or a local sports league (exercise is good for your brain!!) or a young professionals club or something. Participate in regular social outings. Consider going to a UU church or liberal Friends meeting house. Create a family for yourself and seek out fulfilling relationships with people who check in on each other and seek to create a regular social schedule. Reading Skepchick at 5pm daily is not a ritual. You might also seek fulfillment through a social cause. This is exactly where atheism and skepticism may play a part. But to really do the trick, it has to again involve regular social activity along with the opportunity to inflame the passions. As SUPERAWESOME! as it is to sign petitions and make calls for Elyse, it’s not going to engage your need for human contact.

    As it happens, I suffer from chronic depression and have previously had success with both talk therapy and medication. I’ve also gotten loads better by involving myself with a local roller derby league (Go TRG!), getting involved with academic and social organizations, and seeking–instead of avoiding–regular informal social outings. It’s hard work for me and requires a lot of effort and dealing with some anxieties that I’d rather placate. But it has been so helpful in keeping the beast at bay.

    Right, and sunshine helps.

  14. For disclosure I am not an Atheist. But if you are happier when you go to Church, go. I belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and I know a few active members who are atheists. They belong for the culture and community. Just because you belong to a religious institution, doesn’t mean you have to believe in the dogma. Try out different ones and figure out where you are most comfortable. If you really are happy with it, enjoy it.

  15. Sad Panda, I’ve had a lot of serious depression in my life, but I’ve been doing much better lately. A few tips: Every morning get up and spend about 20 minutes in or near sunlight. A window is fine. If it isn’t suny turn on a full spectrum light bulb. It can be a cheap one. You don’t have to sit IN the light, you just have to be able to SEE it.

    Every evening turn the lights down a bit for a few hours leading up to your bed time. You don’t have to live in the dark, just don’t make the room bright as day. The point of all this is to use light to help get your body clock on track, which helps you feel better.

    Get some exercise if you feel up to it. Walking is fine. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Just a few times a week. Invite a friend if you have one who would be interested. You could walk someplace fun together.

    Reduce your sugar intake. Don’t go hungry, you don’t have to diet, just eat less sugar.

    Call all of your friends and tell them “I’ve been feeling depressed lately and I need to get out and socialize more.” Arrange visits with them. Repeating visits are great. I have a weekly restaurant dinner arranged for every thursday at which 4 to 8 friends show up. We laugh a lot.

    Accept every social invitation from people you actually like (except to church, which is really a religious invitation rather than a social invitation) even if you don’t feel like it, the only exceptions being if you’re sick or have a scheduling conflict. I call this the “just say yes” strategy, and it has changed my life completely. I’ve found myself going on week long camping trips I didn’t want to go on… and loving them. Parties I didn’t want to go to where I had a great time. Dinners I didn’t want to go to where I enjoyed marvelous food and superb company. JUST GO. You’ll occasionally hate it but most of the time you’ll be glad you went.

    Feel welcome to come to my web site at tomfarrell.org and use the Contact Me page, which has a chat widget. I’d be happy to just chat about stuff.

  16. Sometimes VIGOROUS exercise helps when nothing else does. If you’ve never tried something where you really push yourself, heath permitting, I’d strongly urge you to give it a shot. Worst that can happen is that you’ll be fit and depressed.

    Personally, I like my exercise solo, but I know several people for whom running groups are a major source of community. (But then, marathoning is something a bit like a religion.)

  17. I’m going to lay myself open to a lot of hate mail with this suggestion since in some circles it is not regarded as politically correct.
    Why not join Mensa? This is a social organization with local groups in most American communities. It also has branches in dozens of other countries. (It was founded in Britain.) It has no ideology and cares nothing about your gender, orientation, religion or politics. The only criterion for membership is to have tested in the top 2% of the IQ scale.
    If you are a skeptic then you are highly likely to qualify for Mensa. Unfortunately, the converse does not apply. Many Mensa members misuse their intelligence to rationalize quite unbelievable levels of woo. One finds, for example, Mensa members with incredibly detailed “knowledge” of astrology.
    Local groups differ significantly in their level of support for newcomers but I have been finding “friends and family” through Mensa in several countries for over forty years.
    American Mensa can be found at http://www.us.mensa.org

    Please do not read any intention of mine to disparage those who do not qualify for Mensa. In my book, skepticism trumps IQ level any day.

    Time for a lighter moment. Back in the mid-1970s Cosmopolitan published an article on how women could meet intelligent men. I wrote them a letter, which they published, that suggested joining Mensa.
    Years later a strange woman came up to me in a rather public meeting and exclaimed, “You are responsible for my baby!” It turned out that she had read my letter, had joined Mensa, had married someone she met there and had ultimately produced a child. She was actually rather please to finally meet me, the person who had changed her life around.

  18. Sad Panda,
    I agree with the others who have recommended that you visit Unitarian Universalist churches. I would submit that despite your alienation from Christianity (and being gay is as good a reason as any to reject it), you still have deep spiritual needs that are not being met by your being alone. I’ve been there, and that is a very dangerous state to be in, for you can get easily seduced to join some other religion that may be just as screwed up as Christianity, if not worse.

    Please read these blog entries to see what happened to me:

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/my-spiritual-journeys/

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/2007/10/19/why-i-quit-the-baha%e2%80%99i-faith/

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/my-resignation-from-the-bahai-faith/

  19. As an atheist, I’ve often felt the same thing missing in my life. I’ve tried out Unitarian Universalists and they haven’t filled the bill. They’re too much like a religion for me. I have to agree with commenters; there are other groups which fill my needs for community. It’s a gap I’ve felt since I stopped being a christian.

  20. I have clinical depression as well and I think my dogs saved my life. They gave me purpose and had needs that I was able to meet. It’s good to be needed. If you don’t like or are indifferent to animals or if you can’t afford to take care of an animal (budget $1000/ yr or get pet ins), then this is not a good choice. Otherwise, get a cat or a dog, not a pocket pet, since you want something with a long lifespan.

  21. @themcp: This is good stuff. I like the “just say yes” strategy. It can be so hard to make myself go out, but I almost always feel better when I do.

    Sad panda, I don’t know if your local skeptics or atheist group holds discussion nights or games nights, but those often get the endorphins flowing for me. A good vigorous discussion where I learn new things about the amazing world we live in, or a little friendly board game competition with like-minded folk – always worth my time.

    I know it’s a lot easier to say than to do, though. Clinical depression is a daily reality for me and while it’s not something I would have chosen, I try to understand how it shapes who I am and think about what I can do with the perspective it gives me.

  22. I struggle with this on a daily basis, too. I was into community theater, not so long ago, but I haven’t done a play in quite some time. I miss it. More than just the fun of doing the show, there’s an old adage in the performing arts; when a cast arrives, they are friends. when they leave, they are family. I had heard it a hundred times from many directors, but I never really understood it until it was gone.

    @tyro: for a lark, I decided to try what you suggested about meetup, but within 100 miles of my location, I found only 1 event.

    @ Sad Panda… Ditto the above, they said it better than I could, at any rate. I would add that my situation isn’t unlike your own, except that my depression is a side-effect of the frustration caused by ADD (ADHD, Innatentive Subtype, clinically speaking)

  23. Sad Panda, from what I had read, you are ‘formerly a Southern Baptist being groomed for the ministry’. This would bring about a tremendous sense of purpose in your life as it is a job that is community minded and a job many people appreciate. I also for the last ten years had jobs that were deeply community minded and had recently changed fields. It has been hard to reincorporate that sense of community and purpose back into my life. Reinventing yourself is hard. Since you were active in your church community, maybe you could consider jobs that are community centered and work toward that. If you were looking at ministry, it may not be a big step to work for a non-profit organization. For me, I am going the volunteer route and I am active in my community.

    Best Wishes.

  24. @Anthony: After spending 5 minutes gobbling down sugar pills at our 10:23 protest, we went to brunch, where it turned out almost everyone there had some sort of theater background. Theater has a reputation for being a pit of superstition and woo, but there actually seem to be a lot of skeptics in that world. I did lots of stage carpentry and set painting in college (to the exclusion of school work in many cases), and it was a great way to get involved with people.

  25. i would definitely suggest checking out UU congregations. i periodically go to one, which only mentions god in the hymns. they are open to all sorts of different beliefs, or lack thereof.

    i found them when looking for somewhere to get married, as the laws on civil weddings in the UK are pretty restrictive.

    though it is important to remember it depends on the congregation. some will care more about their “Christian heritage” than others. i do always avoid Christmas an Easter, as i find they don’t resonate with me, even as myths.

  26. I used to suffer from severe depression myself, so much so that I ended up taking a year off of university because I couldn't handle it. When I was finishing up, I ended up in the position of having no close friends to interact with, but only vague acquaintances around… Oddly, what helped me both feel better and begin to gain new friends was just getting out and about. I'd sit with a cup of coffee and some notes or a book in a busy public area. The ambient sociability really helped me feel less alone, and the other regular people eventually began interacting with me… To the point where a couple of those people are still some of my best friends.

    Granted a university environment is very different from… well, basically any other, but I don't think the suggestion about ambient sociability is a bad one until you can find an interest group…

  27. I’m so glad that this question was posted….I’ve been in almost your exact position for a while now. I’ve been doing cultural research on an Evangelical Christian student group for a class, and I find myself getting jealous of them! So I’m not much help in offering solutions, other than to say you’re not alone (and now I know that I’m not, either!)

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