How do you maintain your grip on reality?

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. It was barely three months after what had been my debilitating bout of depression to date, and I was a little nervous. To realize that for eight out of twelve months I could have been so wrong about so many things, so blind to so many truths, so caught up in the half-lies of my distorted reality — it was a world-shattering realization. (In my previous post, I write in greater detail about the distorted thought patterns of a depressed person.)

I say world-shattering because most of us grew up being told to believe in ourselves, that if we believed something about ourselves then that’s true. Or at least, that what we see in ourselves is supposed to be more valid than what others see in us. Never let anyone else have the final say. They are but naysayers. Trust your heart. 

I was finding that that wasn’t so great of a mantra to live by. In my depression, I believed that what I had was not a treatable illness, regardless of what anyone told me. I also believed God had either abandoned me, or He simply hated me, regardless of what anyone told me. Because it sure seemed that way to me.

I remember being 15 or 16 and watching supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks instruct the teenage girl on her show to “go home, take a post-it, write I am beautiful, stick it on your mirror and recite it to yourself every day until you believe it.” The live audience promptly rose to their feet for a watery-eyed standing ovation. I remember grimacing at my laptop screen, not because I disagreed that this girl looked perfectly pleasant, but because all these women were essentially telling her to completely disregard her own conviction. And they expected it to work? I won’t pretend to know how one overcomes Body Dysmorphia Disorder, but I doubt that was it. I don’t think they let the poor girl say anything, but I knew that if I were her, I would have thought supermodel Tyra Banks was just patronizing me by telling me I was beautiful when I really wasn’t. It’s not going to work. Not unless our culture stopped worshipping self-belief and self-determination above all else. Because sometimes, many times and for many reasons, we are going to be misguided and we are going to be wrong.

Who, then, can we trust to tell us truths that can be so counter-intuitive?

Back to the letter I wrote to myself. I hoped for this letter to protect me against depression’s most powerful trick: the distortion of perceived reality. This is part of what I wrote to a future self who might be caught in another raging mental storm: If that’s what’s happening now, hold on to this golden nugget of truth: Many things in life have failed you, but God will not fail you. If you’re going to succumb to the lies of depression, fine, but this is one thing you can vouch with all your mind, heart and soul is true. Otherwise, strive to know more of Him and His plan for your life, his role for you in His kingdom. Go into storms confident that you are standing on solid rock. . . . You are a daughter of God and He loves you more than You could ever know.

zoomed in

This was written solely to myself, and no one else has seen it till this moment. I thought this would be foolproof. It’s in my handwriting, and it’s sincere — how could future me distrust it?

But I did. About six months later, I opened this letter again and I wanted so badly to rip it to shreds. I read my own words and chastised myself for being so delusional at the time of writing. For the second time, I became obsessed with the theory of depressive realism: depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. While everyone around me insisted that my depression gave me a negative cognitive bias, I believed in myself so much that I thought it was them who had a cognitive bias — a positive cognitive bias. And I, being supposedly depressed, had the more accurate appraisal of myself and the world.

What arrogance, Karen.

I remember my then-boyfriend trying to tell me I was being arrogant. It made no sense to me at the time. How could I possibly be arrogant when my self-esteem is at rock bottom?

It turned out that while depressed, I lost many things — self-esteem, self-love, empathy, love for others — all but my idolatry of my own intellect. I suppose it didn’t help that I’d been immersed in an academic environment that worshipped the intellect as the harbinger of Truth.

Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.

I see now that as a Christian, I must, using my free will, submit my intellect to God. While this must sound like blasphemy to any post-Enlightenment atheist, I declare this unashamed because there is no better option.

To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism. It comes down to the question of which is the more reliable tool. Well, my religion is not quite a tool, but a relationship with the true and living God. He gave me my capacity to think and capacity to rationalize. When my brain is “broken” and doesn’t perceive things quite accurately, I can turn to its manufacturer to tell me what I ought to be perceiving. Thank God for the Church that has been entrusted to guard and dispense God’s truths, so we will never be left as orphans (John 14:18) flailing around trying to make sense of everything given our limitations.

I repent of my life-long arrogance and self-idolatry. I will end this post with one of the most-cited verse of the Bible: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). I used to think this applied mostly to those who “aren’t smart enough to come to their own understanding of things”. I take that back, and I would even add that this is particularly relevant to those we consider to be highly intelligent.

What I needed was not a letter from me. What I needed was God’s Word and the teachings of His Church, and the humility to trust Him over myself.

I know not all my readers share my convictions, so I’ll open this up to you: how do you maintain your grip on reality? Or more broadly speaking, how do you know what’s true?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me an “innocent in hell”

Recommended reading: In Miracles, C.S. Lewis demonstrates how the fact that we can even reason and rationalize is a great argument for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Or go to Wikipedia for a summary of the argument from reason.

43 thoughts on “How do you maintain your grip on reality?

  1. Be true to yourself…be good to yourself !
    So much in this world is unnecessary so much in this world need not concern us. Strip down your world and throw out all you don’t need mentally and physically and live with what you have left. Whats good for you may not be what others what,make life simple and make yourself happy 🙂


  2. Your thought about your free will being that sacred gift that resides outside of your intellect, emotions, and body begs the question, “Do you think free will exists in heaven?” It also makes me think of Mary’s response to Gabriel. That was no instance of free will, but rather a willingness that Mary, mother of Christ, held to throughout her days. One’s intellect will never submit to God’s will by itself, and no amount of free will and determination will be the answer either. It is in the dis-assembly of the intellect and the strengthening of one’s spirit – the real gift from God – which will provide one the way to His will.


  3. Thank you for your post, free will is so important in keeping our faith. I like the words of a theologian (whose name escapes me right now) who says we need to “fight the fight of faith” each day, which is interpreted as “would you believe that God is good and his promises are true for your life today”, “would you choose to have your heart be happy in God”? That’s the fight we each have to fight every single day. In depression it is soooo hard to believe that, but I remember this thought, this fight, helped me be at peace in the mist of the storm. No I didn’t feel like God was good, or that He was doing anything in my life, but I choose to believe this, I chose to fight this fight each day anew, and it was my constant to keep coming back to when reality seems to scape me….


  4. Hi Karen – I’ve really been enjoying your posts. I found you when you liked one of my posts – so thanks for that! As a fellow Catholic who also suffers from depression, I really empathize with where you are coming from. How do I maintain my grip on reality and know what’s true? What a great question! I recently visited my psychiatrist and was even wondering if I should ask to be taken off my meds. What a mistake that would have been because just days later, I would feel the tendrils of depression slowly winding their way back into my life. It is so difficult to know sometimes. All I can do is reflect on my attitude and ask myself, “am I living the way God intends me to live at this very moment, or have I drifted off course?” So far it’s worked and I can see that it’s when I begin to dwell on myself instead of focusing on others that the depression begins. Anyway… thanks for a great post and great blog. Blessings –RP

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, you’ve certainly gotten people talking on this topic! I have struggled with depression for 20 years or more. I now know my depression. I can look at it and recognize what it is. It’s as if I’m in a physical place, like in a pit, or under a blanket. Rather than beat myself up over being there or over feeling so awful, I invite God to come and stay with me where I am and comfort me. If I can get outside to see the beauty of the world, sometimes that helps. But He whispers Truth to me and tells me of his love for me and wraps His arms around me and keeps me safe from the lies I hear.Sometimes I believe He isn’t there, but I know that is my own distorted perception because of where I am. I think the fact that I’ve been there SO often keeps me from getting so desperately lost. I hope you don’t ever find yourself there again, but if you do, you are already that much more prepared for identifying the lies you hear in your head.


  6. “To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism”. Our Enlightened society values reason and the intellect. In so doing I think we have put our own intellect and reason on a pedestal. Often religion tries to get ‘rationalized’ – to fit into our paradigms of intellect.
    Religion comes before intellect, not after. I would suggest you read some of the philosophy of Soren Kirkegaard, he writes a lot on the relationship between faith and reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I never thought I’d lose my connection with God[] when I was little. I thought it was impossible. But during my first mental breakdown, I felt that God[] actually wanted me dead. I thought I was no longer welcome on this planet. It goes on and on. Needless to say, I completely lost all hope and connection at that point.


  8. Wow, I could relate to exactly how you described the show where they told the girl to tell herself she’s beautiful until she believes it. Your comments about that were really relate-able for me. There are people who tell me I’m beautiful. I smile and appreciate it and I even believe that that’s what they think. But I also tell myself that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and just because they see me that way doesn’t mean I look beautiful to most people.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This will be a hodgepodge, maybe not that well organized, but some thoughts I wanted to share.

    So many young people these days seem to be depressed and I am blown away by the numbers. Why? What is it in their training that causes them to feel discouraged and feeling unwanted or useless? Maybe it is like the girl you describe who was lied to by the talk show host Tyra Banks. We know mirrors don’t lie! Their eyes can easily see the skinny legs, and pimply faces.

    That being said, I must confess that I once determined to destroy myself and would have if I had actually known how to accomplish it. Why or how did I pull out of that state of mind? I focused on my studies and determined to learn all there was to know. *I focused outward rather than inward.*

    My depression came on because I could not cope with my parent’s quarrels. Accepting my inability and telling myself I was no less valuable than anyone else in a similar situation made me able to ignore it and move on. In my experience, I have seen those who focus on self become depressed more easily.

    I also had very large casement style windows on two walls of my bedroom and often lay across the foot of my bed and prayed day after day. I prayed and begged the God of Heaven to save me from my own self, and He did. I continue to serve Him because he loves me and knows what I need more than anyone.

    The whole world is selfish and mostly has no intention of catering to anyone in particular *unless* it is for advantage. If we expect to be catered to, we will lose every time. If we learn to serve others in need, we will be rewarded. If we gain skills that others need, then we will not only be needed but valuable too.


  10. As I was reading through your post, I realized that the wisdom you are sharing came about during the difficulties you have lived through. Christians are distinguished by the wisdom we gain during tough times. God be praised for this wisdom and the opportunity to share it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jessica,

      Thank you so much for this comment! It really made my day. It’s really encouraging to know that you can identify with my posts even though you’re not religious. Truth is truth after all, regardless of the label you put on it! I would add, however, that many of my deepest insights have been inspired by my journey into the Catholic Church, whom I believe God has entrusted with a huge repository of truths.


  11. You think to much try not to think you will feel a lot better. The Lord gave me this I give this to you. If you think of the past you renew your herts, it is like beating yourself with a stick, it just continues the pain that you felt so long ago.


  12. I too have written a letter but it wasn’t to myself but to the person I am when I am in a depressed state. It was to my “dark half” as I call him. I wrote it when I was happy and in control of my life. This is a reminder for me of the person I don’t want to be.

    Your story reminded me of that. It is one of the things that has helped me get through some tough times. I know who I am and what I want but when depress none of that enters my mind so I read my letter. I have had the same ideas as you have. I believed everything I though when depressed and it was farther than the truth.

    Thank you for sharing this. It hits home and helps to know I am not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. B,

      Thank you for sharing this. Yup, you are most definitely not alone! And I’m so glad the letter has helped you during rough times. If I may suggest something, I wonder if it would help to not think of your depressed self as a different person, but still you, just with your thoughts and perceptions greatly distorted. That way, you can remind yourself that you were not always this way, even if there is some truth to what you may be perceiving while depressed.


      1. I know that the other person is still me but I refer my depressed self as someone else because when I am depressed I am not me. The things I do and the things I say are not who I am. I am a totally different person. It reminds me of the person I don’t want to be. It has helped me to get out of depression by telling myself not to be like him.


  13. As a fellow RCIA convert, I love the comfort I get from Catholicism regardless if how I am feeling I can go to church and just for that short time, I feel peace. As to how I maintain my reality, I often don’t. At it’s worse it very nearly killed me, scarily right now I know where I am headed and will do everything to stay in this reality but it’s exhausting. My reality changes, I am never 100% sure what is real and I often question everything – yet my belief holds strong. For some reason, even in my darkest hour, it is one thing I have never questioned since converting over, perhaps because it is comforting to think there is something bigger than me, bigger than us, bigger than my reality, that whatever my mind does whatever it tells me, there is something else out there keeping an eye out for me. And if one day my reality does kill me, I trust He will take me still.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. You ask how I maintain my hold on reality.
    First, what is the frame of reference? How do I know what is reality?
    My starting point is here:
    Hebrews 11:1 (HCSB) 1 Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.

    Hebrews 11:2 (HCSB) 2 For our ancestors won God’s approval by it.

    Hebrews 11:3 (HCSB) 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.

    I chose to trust what Christ says above what I see.
    So I MUST spend time in scripture to know what He says. He says my suffering has a purpose so I believe him when I don’t see the purpose. He says he will never leave me or forsake me, so I believe him when I feel alone.
    Philipians 4:4-8 are the walkway I follow when my world is falling apart.
    Good question.


    1. “He says my suffering has a purpose so I believe him when I don’t see the purpose.” Amen. As a wise priest recently told me, God’s work is like an impressionist painting — it may not make sense up close, but take a step back and you’ll see a masterpiece.


  15. You have a few posts I want to write, posts I wish I could write right now, but maybe that day will come. I’m not sure about this one, though. I am rather confused in terms of religion. I think that’s partly because I’m not a people person. I present myself as a christian, and I have even written a few posts where I have defended the faith I don’t really have. I have warned against some of the negative signs in society (and our growing dystopia), which can be found just as much inside the christian organizations as outside. It doesn’t make any sense at all to me, but I find it hard to believe in God, and I find it hard not to. I still see a lot of traces of God in science. Yes, I know this sounds bizarre. Yet it surprises me that anyone can point to science and say without a doubt that there is no God. So I have sided with God, either He exists or not.

    You raise a good question. The scary truth is that we don’t know anything. I believe there was a theory among scholars a couple of hundred years ago that God created earth and then left us alone. He doesn’t intervene. That theory appeals to me, scary as it is to be alone in a dark world where evil slowly consumes you, unless you push back. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. The truth is that we have to manage on our own. We have to take responsibility for ourselves. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me. It’s not true that we don’t know anything. What we know is limited to our intelligence, how you choose to use it and a tiny core in the Bible.The Bible consists of a lot of fiction, but it also contains some truth.That is the navigational instrument that can help us. I’ve never been able to point out any direction for myself, and I’ve never felt any presence of a God, but I’m trying to sort of navigate through life. It doesn’t work on myself, but I focus on taking care of my family. I guess they keep me from going off the deep end.


  16. As a non-believer, the idea of “submitting your intellect to God” I understand as you are opening your awareness to all of existence. You are simply personifying that existence, which can make it more relatable.


  17. A very interesting question, one which requires some careful consideration. Having done so, I have come up with two things.

    The first is reasoned faith (as opposed to blind faith). One the one hand, I can read an author like Lee Strobel as he describes how his skeptical reporter style search to know whether God exists or not (and if so, who is He) led him to find that very God almost in spite of himself (particularly see The Case For Faith and The Case for Christ). On the other hand, when I am alone and praying or reading the Bible or worshiping with others (a few or thousands) I can know the presence of that very God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, blessed three in one. There is no argument, no reasoning, no persuasion that can take that knowledge away from me or that would make me recant it. I am very capable at doing very detailed, mostly left-hemisphere work (tax preparation) and have been told that I am capable at expressing my thoughts and making cogent arguments, so my presumption is that my mind works just fine. And I know what I know.

    Second, is the understanding that there is the reality we can see and a reality that we cannot see. Both are true, but the one we can see is temporary and the one we cannot see is permanent. Knowing that fact, which comes from my reasoned faith, it helps me to hold on to the reality of something greater when these things that are seen are no more. Someday, the flowers in my vase will wither, my computer will crash or be obsolete, loved ones will pass on or desert me, governments will change, and my own body decays daily. But that which is eternal is eternally real and unchanging. Troubles may come and friends may fail, but Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.



  18. “Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.”

    This is one of the easiest things to refute. Any choice must have a reason. If you could choose to love god or not, what would that choice be based on? I don’t think there is something that can operate outside of intellect and emotions.


    1. Chandler,

      Thank you for your input. I can see where you’re coming from. I guess my question to you would be, where does your ability to reason come from? Is it merely the product of the irrational forces of natural selection? I don’t want to presume I know what your answer is, so I’ll wait for you to respond. But I just wanted to add that I’d be really interested to hear your response to the argument from reason, because it compelled me to believe that my ability to reason comes from a supernatural source (not sure if this is a good summary, because I read it in much greater detail in a book:

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!


      1. I think the ability to reason comes from the fact that all events happen for one or more reasons. Things are automatically relevant to each other because of cause and effect.

        I think that life has always existed and perhaps it has evolved over an infinite amount of time. I don’t view anything as being random since everything has a cause.

        I don’t believe in a god but here is a question to think about. If a god existed, where did that god get its ability to reason?


    2. My choice to love God is based on my gratitude to God for sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die in my place so that all my sins are forgiven and I can live eternally with HIm. Wouldn’t you love someone who had given their life for yours? I know what He has done for me, and I choose to love Him and follow HIm 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So what you are saying is that it was really God’s choice to love you and send his son to die for you that caused you to love him.

        I was once the same and was taught all that. I understand why you would love someone for first loving you. For most of my life, I believed it.

        The problem came when I questioned why Jesus would even need to die in the first place. Why would someone need to die in order to forgive someone else? I never believed in that type of justice.When I forgive someone, I don’t crucify somebody.

        I do believe that if you love someone, you will possibly be willing to give even your own life to protect them. The question is why would such a thing be necessary for someone as powerful as the christian god is described to be.


        1. I think that possibly you are missing the whole point….Not only is God extra-ordinarily powerful, He is also in many ways incredibly alien to our thinking. We seem to expect that He should act and react as a human being would. Let’s suspend our arogant disbelief for a moment…. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere at once, perfect in love, justice and mercy. We are mean, spiteful, vindictive, biased, etc. What makes us think we could imagine what God was thinking? How can we possibly comprehend WHY Jesus needed to die, to pay for our wrong-doings in His own body…. HE never did anything wrong – WE do wrong things all the time… SOMEBODY had to do SOMETHING, or how could we stand in the presence of a Holy God? Once we grasp how small we are in the great scheme of things, we are truly grateful that God decided to make a way for us to return to HIm. And don’t forget, Jesus not only died to save us, He rose again to give us life eternal…!!! 🙂 x

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That is where I became frustrated. I want to know and understand everything. If god did create us, aren’t we only doing what we were created to do?

            If you say god is all powerful, then surely there is nothing we can do without god making us do it.


            1. Chandler, I struggled with the same thoughts. I was so frustrated with the idea that perhapse God just created us to be actors in a pre-scripted puppet show. But I learned that that is incompatible with God’s nature: love. Yes, He is all powerful and all sovereign, but because He loves his creation (angels, human beings), He gave them free will so we can choose to love or not love Him. Rather than simply be robots/puppets. Out of his total sovereignty, He chose to relinquish part of His full sovereignty in the domain of our free will. He is so sovereign that He is above His own sovereignty and isn’t governed by it!


              1. I think we are robots. Like any other machines, we are capable of amazing things. The main difference is that we are biological machines. We are conscious and feel pleasure and pain. I think all living organisms are amazing. I wish we didn’t feel pain though.


            2. It is not possible to know and understand everything… YOU are not all powerful or all-knowing. your mental capacity is not as great as that of God…If God had created us to be morons, and programmed us accordingly, then ,yes, we could only do as we were programmed. But God has chosen to give us the gift of free will so we CAN choose… that is the whole point…. that is why Jesus died, etc, etc…

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I did not claim to be all powerful or all knowing. If you look around you, you may notice that a lot of people are acting like morons. This is not their fault of course since they do not choose who they are born to or how they are raised. Many people need a lot of help or they are incapable of choosing something different that what they are doing. But for every choice, there must be a cause, reason, or motive.


  19. Essentially where you found your anchor in your faith, I found mine in secular thought.

    The feelings you expressed above are quite similar to me. Last November was the bottom of my last downward spiral. Coming out of it after attempting to end my life, I entertained the simple notion that I might be wrong. I managed to get home and take stock of my illness, eventually getting diagnosed.

    What anchors me now is questioning thoughts about myself in a disciplined, orderly fashion. I also have to entertain the notion that I could be wrong until I can identify that my thoughts are the result of my disorder. It’s not a perfect system, but it does work for me.

    Furthermore, I try to get my thoughts out in the open whenever feasible. Letting others examine them and testing them is a great way to ensure I’m suffering from irrational thought and can discard it.

    And I’d like to leave with just a quick thought about faith and depression. Mine got wrapped together pretty tightly, to the point where my faith was a tool that my depression used to get at me.


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