Anxiety, Atheism, and Religion: Suppressing the Spiritual Instinct

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I was 19 when I had my first existential crisis. If that sounds too grandiose let’s just call it depression. But for me, especially at that age, whatever I was stuck on was definitely a spiritual problem. Gradually, the more I renounced my childhood evangelicalism, the more I re-framed it as depression, as a mental health issue.

Essentially, though, it was a loss of meaning. I stopped believing in God. More than that, even if it took me years to see this clearly, I lost faith in pretty much everything: God, my upbringing, my ability to find meaning, and ultimately, myself.

I retreated more and more into myself — or rather, into a shell of my former self. For a couple of years this was a slow, almost imperceptible process. From the outside, I seemed mostly all right.

Then, when I was 22, I got into hallucinogens. Something shifted. I’m still not exactly sure what. I got interested in religion again. I felt like I had found some kind of meaning, or at least a pathway to meaning. It seemed like a step in the right direction. It felt familiar, somehow.

Meanwhile, my mental health took a turn for the worse. What had been a low-level depression transformed into crippling anxiety. I’ve always been nervous and high-strung, but this was the first time that shit became pathological.

It’s a fine line, here: I’m tempted to say that drugs are bad, m’kay, and that hallucinogens will fuck you up, kids, but it’s more complicated than that. Like I said, in some way the drugs helped with the depression; life felt somehow brighter, more full of possibilities. But I myself felt constricted — suffocated, diminished.

I could see the potential for meaning. I was just cut off from it.

Over the next seven years, even as the anxiety persisted, there were bright spots. I found things that helped and things that made it worse. I could go into a lot more detail, but that’s not really my point, here.

Meditation has really seemed to help. Not because it’s spiritual, necessarily. I find it valuable as a tool for introspection. It helps me pay more attention to what is going on in my body and mind. It puts just a little bit of distance between my actual experience and the wild, often catastrophic interpretations I invent about it.

Anyway, to get to the actual point of this post, I’ve found increasingly that my anxiety is a kind of suppression. I know that, in terms of psychology, that’s very uncool and passé, but I confirm this over and over in my daily life.

Anxiety is a kind of emotional friction. Call it cognitive dissonance, if you prefer that. I feel it when I clamp down on uncomfortable thoughts and feelings — when I try to deny what I’m feeling or convince myself that my reaction is somehow unacceptable.

It’s funny, if you see where I’m going with this, because I think I got a lot of those bad mental habits from my evangelical upbringing. I can’t pin this squarely on religion since my family life was also kind of fucked up, but Christianity probably didn’t help.

Even acknowledging that, in the past couple of years I’ve been identifying a big, tectonic sort of suppression — a bedrock emotional friction that has been at the root of all my mental health issues over the past decade.

It’s the God thing. The loss of faith, the renouncing of my childhood religion. On some level, that renunciation was dishonest. It was a kind of despair mixed with pretension. As I grew intellectually and encountered a rich new world of ideas, I resented my narrow evangelicalism more and more — even if I couldn’t quite escape it.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m going back to evangelicalism or even Christianity per se. What I’m saying is: on a deeper level than any particular tenet or belief, Christianity is in my blood. I can stop being Christian about as easily as I can stop knowing English.

I like the analogy of language. Religious stories and symbols are a kind of spiritual language. They determine how we see the world, whether we like it or not.

I’m probably not being clear. What I’m trying to say is this: for me, depression and anxiety were a kind of suppression — a suppression of that part of me that will always be somehow “Christian.” I use scare quotes because I don’t really believe in the literal resurrection of Christ, or in the whole God-man thing, either. I know, I know. For most people that’s kind of a disqualifier.

But the part of me that persists as Christian is more of an emotional posture. It’s a certain stance one takes toward life and a specific way of relating to oneself and others.

For example, I think that, objectively, “God” or “Jesus” is just a part of my subconscious that I’ve been taught to split off and deify. But I also think that, as long as I’m walking around telling myself that, it doesn’t work. Somehow, whatever is happening internally, if I don’t address God as an external entity, I don’t have the same feeling of wholeness — of essentially, on a deeper level, being okay.

Anyway… for anybody who actually read all that, I’m not sure I made it worth your time. I’ll probably spend more than a few posts unraveling this stuff. Great, I know. Part of me wants to save it for my journal, since it is embarrassingly personal, but I have this sneaking suspicion that other people out there are in the same boat — and I haven’t heard many of them talking about this stuff. So I’ll keep putting it out there.

Anybody else out there suppressing their Christianity? Am I just hopelessly brainwashed, guilt-ridden, or stupid? Or am I not Christian enough? Leave a comment, oh theoretical reader. Let’s talk.

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