[TW attempted suicide, disordered eating, mental illness, reclaimatory ableist language, misogynist slurs]
While I have my issues with the skeptic/atheist movement, as I have with pretty much any ideological structure (including that of my own religion, Buddhism), and though there are a few things in this talk that I wish were less demonstrative of kyriarchy, it’s a moving talk by JT Eberhard about his struggles with anorexia nervosa and athletica, clinical depression, and a suicide attempt. I found it through No Seriously, What About Teh Menz?, who were unable to provide a transcript. Here you are. (Note: I do not know any of the people personally, so I have no idea how to properly spell their names. Apologies.)
(A woman with short hair stands with a microphone) I’ve given a lot of thought on how I’m going to introduce this next speaker, but I…I don’t think I have the words, because I mean, he’s one of my greatest friends. We made Skepticon together, we sing Tenacious D in my car together, he’s awesome! He’s just amazing, and I…JT, I know I’m probably messing this whole thing up, but I love you (she hops from foot to foot) and I’m glad you’re speaking here at Skepticon and…rock it, man. JT Eberhard.
(Eberhard comes up, they hug) I’ll try not to fuck this up. (He moves onto the stage) Hi. (Audience members shout hellos and welcomes and we love yous) There’s a lot of you out there. I don’t think I’m going to give a talk, I’m just going to sit here and let you guys yell things. (Audience cheers)
Um, starters, this thing is free, and that’s really impressive. It’s run by a student group. (Audience cheers and applauds) A lot of work goes into this, I’m fully aware of that and, whenever we have a baby or a pet project like Skepticon was for me, it’s always so hard to let go of it, and this, the group that’s taken it over, Katie Hartman, Blythe, Lauren, Rob, Ryan, and everybody else involved, has turned it into something I never dreamed it could have been, and I want you guys to stand up and give them a round of applause because they’re fantastic. (Applause and cheering) Now siddown, we’re runnin’ late!
Um, my name is JT Eberhard, I work for an organization called the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio (cheers) and there are some SSA groups in the house, if you guys haven’t filled out your affiliation renewals for this semester, do that please. Um, I was also asked to give a brief plug for Reasonfest, a SOMA group in Lawrence, at KU, who makes up about half the audience, uh, they’re running that in February and I’m gonna be speaking there and doing a debate, um Skepticon created a wave of free conferences run by student groups, and theirs is one of the best out there, if you’re in the region, seriously consider going. Um, also a plug for weareatheism.com, I’m gonna talk a little bit about coming out of the closet, and if…it’s such an important thing, uh, check out their website. I also, everyone’s been asking me the same thing all week, and I’m missing one more thing, Gail Jordan is here from Tennessee, and it was her birthday yesterday, along with Deeny from the same group, um, so we’re gonna sing happy birthday to Gail and Deeny, one two three! (all sing Happy Birthday) Thank you for that, happy birthday guys.
When I got asked to come back and speak at Skepticon this year, after doing an immediate and inappropriate dance in public ’cause I was so excited, I started thinking about what I was going to talk about. Last year I gave a talk called “Dear Christian,” in which I talked about the previous year of my life, and how I had attended church and gotten to hear some of the rancid arguments religious people use when you don’t stand up and pray with them. And, it was a good talk, but our movement is evolving. The way we approach things is changing, and to come in here and do a talk on how to beat a bunch of religious arguments isn’t really something we need anymore. I mean, you guys know how to beat the first cause argument, you know how to beat the fine-tuning argument, and if you don’t, there are people who do it a lot better than me, buy Richard Carrier’s book “Sense and Goodness Without God,” it’s a manual for that stuff. So the topic I eventually wound up on was mental illness.
And I decided on this talk because it’s a way I can have a chance at changing the minds of everybody in the audience. So whereas I didn’t need to tell everybody how to beat religious arguments, I really think I can get to everybody here in some way. The most recent numbers tell us that either twenty-two or twenty-three percent of Americans have a mental disorder of some kind. So I’m looking down in the front row right now, I count fourteen people. Four of them probably have a mental disorder. Extrapolate that back through this entire house.
Watch a football game. One of the offensive linemen has a mental disorder. He has fame, he has money, he has the respect of millions, and he has a mental disorder. Probably something that leads to some kind of depression. And so, I’m talking to all of you in the audience who have a mental disorder, because a lot of them don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know that they can live a life that is somewhat close to normalcy, and I’m talking to the rest of them because those people need you. This is an invisible disability that ends lives. Of all the mental illnesses, anorexia, which happens to be my little baby, um, has the highest death rate of any mental illness, and it’s higher than a lot of other conditions that are not relegated strictly to the mind. The myths and ignorance about mental illness touch all of us. Which is why it was so important for me to come in here and talk to you guys about this.
Now in Des Moines this year, at the American Atheist National Convention, I gave a talk called “Coming Out Skeptical” with the title borrowed with permission from John Corvino, in which I talked about the importance of coming out of the closet as atheists, for a number of reasons. Someone may think that atheists are all evil, but they may not think their son is evil, or their brother, or their parents. It’s a way we normalize the things that are burdened by stigma. And It’s a way we make the world a better place, and it’s a tremendous power that’s available to all of us that isn’t actually even available to Richard Dawkins himself. And I realized in May of this year that by not coming out about my mental illness, that I was being a hypocrite, and that’s a pretty shitty way to live life.
Most of you who know me know I’m a very happy person. Most people who have mental illnesses are, which is why it’s such a problem. There’s no pain telling you you’re sick. There’s nothing generally hinting to the people around you that something is wrong. So it’s something that we need to know to look out for. So, I’m gonna take the first half of my talk, and try to put a bit of a face on mental illness by explaining what it’s been like for me. Bear with me.
How many people have insecurities about their body? Freaking all of us. And I did too, growing up, and I thought it was no different than, I was no different that anybody else. And then I started feeling subtle changes to my life. Everywhere I went, I didn’t enter the room looking for other human beings, I entered the room looking for reflective surfaces, a mirror or a puddle, you know, something where I could just look at myself, not because I was shocked about what I would see, but just hoping that it would have changed somehow. And this began to dominate every facet of my life. I couldn’t speak to somebody about the weather, or about video games, or about Skepticon, without this just being the predominant thing on my mind. I started to drift, drift out of conversations because I couldn’t think about anything else. And after that, everything started to affect me in very odd ways. I couldn’t see other human beings without being just convinced that no matter what, they didn’t want to be around me, not because I was obnoxious, not because I lacked social grace, but because they just didn’t want to look at me. Which just, looking back now it just fucking stupid.
But that’s the thing about mental illness is, it takes away your ability to reason at times, and you don’t even know it. And so, how do you beat this, how do you beat the fact that every time you go out into public, something sets you off into a panic, ’cause you don’t want to be a burden to anyone around you, you don’t want to be a burden to your friends, do you just gut it out? I tried. Uh, Lauren, was here when I went to school, so many of my friends are. I tried to get out of the house. I tried to go hang out with friends, and I would do it for a few hours at a time at most, and then make up some excuse to leave, just because I couldn’t stand being out of my house. And eventually, I just stopped leaving until I was dragged out.
It got to the point where it was on my mind so much that I had to do something to fix it, and so I stopped eating. I started weighing myself, you know, double digit times a day. And it was the best feeling in the world to just look at the scale and see that I’d lost two-tenths of a pound or three-tenths of a pound (voice becomes choked up, and he pauses). And it didn’t make things better outside of my house, but it gave me just a few seconds of not having this on my mind. And if (pauses, holding back tears) Yeah, I’m a firebrand. (Audience starts to cheer and clap encouragingly, he laughs) Rock, I love you too. (wipes his eyes and drinks some water) And it didn’t fix what was going on outside, but it gave me a brief reprieve, which was pretty swell. And it told me that maybe if I just kept losing enough weight, this whole problem would get fixed. And it never did, that’s kind of the nature of the beast with that, but my friends started to notice that I wasn’t hanging out as much. and they tried everything from interventions, to dragging me over to their house and cooking for me, you know just throwing food in front of me, and the thing is, you know, to an anorexic, it’s not a simple as picking the food up and putting it in your mouth and chewing.
It’s like jumping out of an airplane. You know you’re safe, you know that there’s virtually no chance this can go wrong, and you just can’t make yourself do it, because your brain’s telling you that this is death. This is, that reprieve you get every time you weigh yourself, this is gonna take it away from you. You know, my friends told me, my friend Amber told me “by not eating, your body’s eating away at your organs, and it’s eating away at the brain you kind of need, you should probably start eating.” But to the anorexic, it’s not about being healthy. You can’t say, not eating is keeping you from being healthy, because we don’t care. We don’t care if we’re healthy, we don’t care if we’re trimming away years off our life, we just care that people can look at us. So there’s no real motivation to eat there. (Wipes his eyes)
And the stupid thing about conditions like this is you start to become attached to them. You know that, that moment when you weigh yourself everyday is the best time of your day, and any time someone says “you need to get rid of this condition, you need to change this,” they’re, to the anorexic, they’re trying to take that away from you. And to your friends, you get this, you get this attitude of “how dare you try to take this away from me,” and it traps you. I had a friend tell me before I came up here, quote unquote “you’re gonna be a pussy, aren’t you?” (wipes his eyes) And I swore that I wouldn’t. And I lied. Atheist, no moral compass.
I had really good friends in college and they put up with a lot. They could have abandoned me and been totally justified. It was years of trying to get me better. Until finally, Amber, who was a psychology student at the time, dragged me, almost literally kicking and screaming, to the doctor to get put on medication. And the thing is, I thought that it was my fault, and I was trying so hard to force myself to be better, really, I thought it was a flaw of my character, and if…to me, if I took medication, that means I failed, you know, and I was weak in some way. Thankfully Amber was having none of that shit. And, yeah. (Audience applauds)
She even went with me to the doctor. To quote her later, she would say “Yeah, I drug this whiny guy to the doctor because I was sick of putting up with his shit.” So, I got into the doctor and talked to him about what was going on in my life, and Amber, in her usual brevity, after I got done, said “yeah, he needs to put on an SSRI.” And the doctor started asking me questions, you know, I guess to ascertain the nature of what was going on with me, and he asked me “have you ever thought about killing yourself?” and I had to say yes with my friend there. Twice I had been close to doing that. And so he prescribed me an SSRI called Citalophram.
We got out of the doctor’s office, and Amber, thankfully, was anticipating what was going through my head, put the pill in my hand, had a bottle of water handy, and told me to take it. And I did. And I felt guilty. And I felt weak. But that stopped after about a week. I remember being a LAN party down in Arkansas, and one of the people there had brought in dip with sour cream, and I had a bite of it. It was delicious. And there was no panic. It was like breathing, it was easy. And that was a great year. That was the year we started working on Skepticon 3. I was full of energy, I was happy. I could get out of the house, it was like, it was literally like waking up from a nightmare. It was glorious. And so, time went on, and I got better, and things were good. But I noticed, I noticed that when I was taking these SSRIs, I was a little fuzzy. I couldn’t solve puzzles as well, I couldn’t recall facts as quickly. And because I was doing debates and I was doing some minor speaking, and general antagonism of religious people, that was kinda bugging me. And I had been on these things for a year and was better and I was a bad skeptic and hadn’t done my research and thought I was cured. And so I stopped taking them. And for about a year after that, things were good, I was in an excellent relationship, I have, as I always had, a great family life, everything in my life was wonderful.
Of course, everything in my life was wonderful when this whole thing set in. Which is kind of the nature of the beast. Most people who are clinically depressed don’t really have a reason to be clinically depressed. They just are. Then Skepticon 3 happened and it kicked ass, and Liz Ledel in the Secular Student Alliance, Liz who would go on to be my boss, offered me a job in the atheist movement with the Secular Student Alliance, and I thought about it for all of two seconds before accepting, and then in January I moved to Columbus. If there is ever a time when a person can expect to be happy about life, I mean, that was it. I had my dream job, I was moving to a city, everything was perfect. And the thing is, there are certain stressors, in life, that psychologists warn you endanger you for a relapse. New job, ending a relationship, and moving, turns out to be three of the top four. I was lucky enough to get away without death of a loved one. But the thing is, I didn’t even know, I was so happy, and two weeks after moving to take this job, food started being a threat again. And so over the next month, I lost about, I don’t know, twenty pounds. It got to the point where I had to leave work early because I couldn’t focus through the day, and it was the same thing as before, everything I looked at sent me into a panic. And so I moved January the third, on February twelfth I was back in the emergency room, and back on new meds.
A lot of bosses – I told Liz what was going on, and a lot of bosses would have decided to abandon that project immediately as a liability, and Liz didn’t. Liz held my hand, (starts to tear up) if any religious people get a hold of this video, my reputation is shot, (audience laughs) Liz held my hand and I called her that night and told her that I need my brain for what I do, I can’t live with the fuzziness. And Liz in all her wisdom, you know, told me that “you with a fuzzy brain is better than you not being able to get through the day,” which you think I would have figured out, but I was pretty depressed, and so every day – I gave her my bottle of pills ’cause I was, there was a voice in the back of my head, not an audible voice like prayer or anything, just a temptation, to swallow the whole thing. Which is bad – So I gave it to Liz and every day when I got to work there was one right there by my computer, so I started taking them again. And things got better. I got to eat again. But the thing about this condition is, and as I would later learn and the thing I would have learned if I had done my research sooner, is it’s not like um, it’s not like having a cold. It’s not something you get cured of. A seratonin deficiency in your brain is like an insulin deficiency in the rest of your body. It’s not something that gets cured, it’s something you manage. And when I stopped taking my pills, I was failing to manage it. But also, it can always jump up and bite you, if you’re not careful. And, I wasn’t careful. I got complacent, and in July of this year, I hit a particularly low spot, that was worse than anything I’d ever been through with this.
Our military tortures people, because there’s only so much people can take. There’s only so much pain they can go through, and then they’ll do anything, they’ll tell you anything, they’ll do anything just to make it stop. Our biology allows for nothing else. And I…I had to make it stop. It was keeping me from doing anything. And, when you’re in that kind of situation, (tears up and voice breaks) you don’t always do what’s best. Sometimes you panic, and I panicked. I took my bottle of pills and I emptied about half of them into my hand, and I swallowed them.
Thankfully, there was a friend there who found me, and, that’s the thing about being depressed, you don’t want to be a burden to anybody around you, so you try to conceal what’s going on, which, I was going into seratonin shock, so it was kind of hard to disguise that, I was begging her not to go get a doctor, thankfully she ignored me, because she’s a good friend, or she hates me, one of those two. (small laugh from the audience. He wipes his eyes) And I got to the hospital, and every single person I talked to was questioning me as though I’d wanted to die. “Why did you do that, did you want to die? No? Why’d you do it then?” And I didn’t want to die. I just needed it to stop. And you might be looking at me saying, “God, this guy’s fucking nuts, who else has this?” And the answer is a significantly high portion of the population…(voice chokes and he drinks more water.)
So how have I managed it since then? Um, my condition has transitioned. Whereas once I had, it’s called anorexia nervosa, which is the difficulty in eating, it’s transitioned into anorexia athletica. I pretty much have to work out all the time. Recently I had a particularly bad day where I went to the gym after a rough day at work and I exercised until I threw up, and then went back out and I exercised until I threw up, again. And this whole time, I just hear my therapist’s voice in the back of my head saying, you know, “this is, you know, stop, you need to stop, this is bad,” and you just can’t make yourself sometimes.
Why do these meds work? Actually, I have my life story on my laptop because I anticipated this might happen. How many people need a laptop presentation for their life story? You’d think I’d know the material.
You spend so much time fighting this because nobody wants to be crazy. There’s such a stigma on it. Whereas if someone tells you, “I have cancer,” the response is always “oh that sucks,” but if you tell somebody “I see things that aren’t there,” or “I can’t make myself eat,” a lot of times the response is “oh, you’re crazy,” or “oh, why don’t you just be better?” And it doesn’t work that way.
The drugs I’m on, why do they work, how do they work? In your brain you have these cells called neurons, and the space between them is called the synapse, and you have these little chemicals that send the information back and forth between the neurons. It’s what tells you you’re tired, it’s what tells you you’re hungry, and it’s what tells you whether you’re happy or sad. And there are two neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine, that control, essentially, whether or not you’re happy. And if you don’t have enough of them in the synapse, you’re just going to be unhappy. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, it doesn’t matter how good your life is, you’re going to be unhappy. It’s like not having enough insulin. And whereas nobody blames a single person for having diabetes, society has a tremendous tendency to blame people for lacking those two neurochemicals. And people die on account of it.
So why should this be an issue for the secular community, the skeptic community? How many people in here are pissed about homeopathy? (clapping) And rightly so. It preys on people’s gullibility, it maintains ignorance, and it prevents people from getting the proper medical attention they need for whatever ails them. We all know what happened to Steve Jobs. This is not an isolated incident. But the exact same thing happens with people suffering from mental illness. There is this tremendous ignorance of the way the brain works in society at large, and this stigma on mental illness, that not only keeps people like me from coming out of the closet, from getting the help we need to try and live something closer to normalcy, that’s something that kills us, it’s like homeopathy on steroids. And it’s something that skepticism would cure.
I had so many points I want to bring up, and I’m trying to sit up here and not be a pussy. (audience member says something inaudible) Aww, thank you. (more inaudible audience comments, he laughs) With friends like mine. (unintelligible) Aw, shucky darn.
Um, we could be leading the way with this. You know, we oppose so many things that are anti-science: religion, because it ends lives, we oppose psychics because they, they bilk the gullible out of their money, this needs to be something we take on for ourselves, and I’ll tell you why. Trying to make myself better by force of will and trying to tough this thing out was hell, and this is coming from a guy who’s read the Bible four times and spent a year going to church to give a talk last year at Skepticon. I mean, it was hell. And, I was never, I never had a better day in my life than when I finally admitted to myself that I was crazy, because it meant that it wasn’t my fault. There was nothing I could have done. I was just sick.
You know, but it is. It is, I’ll tell you something else that I didn’t even bring up. When I first got into exercise, I was killing myself, I was working out a couple hours a day, really watching my diet, and after every workout I would look in the mirror and I would think that I was getting hea- I would literally see that I was getting heavier, even though I was going down belt notches. I…it was just so weird to me. And so I decided to start taking pictures to try and track my weight loss and I noticed something. When I took a picture in my phone, and held it up to the mirror, I would literally see two different images. And in summer this year I got diagnosed with hallucinations on account of this. Another thing about admitting that I was actually cool, ’cause then that got to be something really neat. It’s like, I just wish I could show somebody that, it’s so nifty. Um, but I am crazy. And the thing is, the knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t be to say “no, I’m not crazy,” it should be to tell society that being crazy is like having cancer, it’s not their fault. And there is treatment available that could help people live something that is close to a real life that they’re not getting because nobody knows this. (Audience applauds)
I made a new friend when I moved to Columbus. Her name is Natasha. And she had been diagnosed with bipolar too when she was young and she’d been on medication all her life, and she collected people in her life who had mental disorders, she thought it was nifty. For Christmas, for Christmas last year, she bought all of her friends pillboxes, not joking, and so when, in conversation it came up that I was a recovering anorexic, her immediate and honest response was “That’s SO COOL.” And I thought she was out of her fucking mind. Like, mental illness is not something that’s cool, it’s something you manage, it’s something you try to sunder from your personality. And that was in February, right before I went back to the emergency room. And at that conference, the American Atheists National Convention in April, when I gave that talk about coming out as an atheist, the last Sunday I was there, there was this woman there, her name was Katie, and I was walking along and she was giving one of these looks and kind of shuffling her feet and then she does the charge up and goes “Hi” and I’m like “hi” and she says “I’ve been trying to get the nerve up to talk to you all day,” and I said “Don’t,” and she said “I read your blog, and I’m a recovering anorexic too.” And my immediate and honest reaction was “that’s SO COOL.” And I must have had the dumbest look on my face after I said that ’cause she’s like, “are you okay?” And I was like…and I had just realized how far I had come with this. And that is the reaction everybody needs to have. That is where everybody needs to be with this, for a lot of reasons.
I lucked out, in my experience, in that I had exceptional friends, who, God, went to the ends of the earth and further to take care of me, even though I was a pain in the ass, and not everybody has that. We try to hide this condition because we don’t want to be a burden to those close to us, (inaudible, probably cell phone from audience) Tell them we’re busy! (wipes eyes) And so we can’t…we can’t count on those close to us to make it readily apparent that they’re sick – they’re trying to deny that they’re sick, and they don’t wanna be a burden on you. You need to be looking for it, because just like four people down here in the front row have a mental disorder, there are people in your life who have a mental disorder, and you may not even know it. And they need you. They don’t only need you to drag them to the doctor, and tell them that they’re not weak, they’re just sick, they also need you because of the myths about treatment. And because they’ll need support. I want to talk about one particular myth of treatment before I get off the stage, and that myth in particular is that taking these medications for depression, for anorexia, for hallucinations, what have you, the SSRIs, will make you kill yourself. There is a movement in the United States going right now that is spreading this message, not unlike the Catholic Church spreading the message in Africa that condoms cause AIDS, and it’s wrong.
Why is it wrong? SSRIs fix different aspects of your personality in time. Now whereas when I was at bottom and I couldn’t leave my room and I didn’t want to work on anything, which is generally what happens with clinically depressed people, my SSRIs fixed that, and it’s the first thing that gets fixed. All of a sudden you get your motivation back and you want to run out and just take life by the horns and do everything you never got to do when you were trapped in your room. And the problem is that that part of the brain gets fixed before the depression side. And so we do actually have data that confirms that within the first few weeks of taking SSRIs, suicide rates do go up. But the thing is, that threat is always there, and it gets better after the first few weeks when the depression gets fixed. So if you’re someone who doesn’t suffer from a mental illness, and you know somebody who’s just gone on medication, don’t fucking leave them. That is your job. And it’s our job (audience applause, Eberhard wipes eyes) Not only is your job to be there for them, it’s your job as skeptics to go out into the community at large and tell people that there’s nothing wrong with being insane. There’s nothing wrong with being depressed, there’s nothing wrong with being crazy. And that this horseshit about SSRIs making people kill themselves, rather than keeping people from killing themselves, is fucking wrong. It’s not anti-scientific, (applause) it is not merely a matter of their irrelevant opinion, it is fucking wrong. And it’s not going to get fixed until the skeptics, and the members of the secular movement, and the people who have never had an appreciation for bullshit go out and start challenging it. And if there’s anything you can take away from me this weekend, whether it’s, you know, this event that I had a hand in starting four years ago, whether it’s, you know, shaking your hand or just having a second to talk to you, you know, lay into religion, lay into homeopathy and psychics, but lay into this, ’cause there is a lot of suffering that happens because people aren’t, and because society has no fucking clue about what people like me go through. And what people like twenty-two to twenty-three percent of everybody in this audience goes through. Be a friend, be an advocate, stop this. Thank you. (applause, other speakers come up and hug Eberhard)
Actually, give me another two seconds, actually. Since I came out about this, I thought there was going to be, you know, rejection and you’re crazy, and ever since I went public with this, and there’s been so many welcoming voices and people taking care of me, Sid Fisher’s in the audience, she’s been great, Michael and Ashley, I…Elise, I’ve met so many people who’ve been so good to me. So I know the capacity to fix that is in this movement, otherwise I wouldn’t have given this talk. And thank you to all of you, I’m so grateful, you have no idea. Thank you. (Another hug, and the woman who introduced him picks up the mic)
Okay, uh, where’s (audience heckles) you bastard, (wipes her eyes and clears her throat) Well all right. Uh, skeptic (audience heckles) yeah, Skepticon 4 everybody! (Everyone cheers) Fuckin A!
(Eberhard steals the mic) I’ll see all you guys at Skepticon 5, by the way. (hands back the mic)
It’s been such a wild ride, since the beginning of Skepticon, this weekend has been amazing and I want to thank each and every one of you for coming here and making this happen. Without you guys we’d just be a couple of assholes in a theater going “whooo,” so really, thank you for coming out, and I want to thank the speakers for also coming out and hanging with a bunch of kids from Springfield, let’s give it up for our speakers. And I want to point out a few volunteers – Blythe, our stage manager, for making sure everything went smoothly, Blythe, whereever you are, thank you! And I want to thank Rob, our camera man, for making sure that all of this can get on Youtube so anybody can watch it anywhere, thank you Rob! And where the hell is Katie Hartman because I want, YES, thank you for making this year happen! This woman made sure that Skepticon 4 happened. Give it up for Katie. It’s all you. And before we go, you know, if…support events like this. Make events like this. Donate to our cause. Buy a calendar, I’m totally in it. Buy poster. Buy a pen, it’s a dollar, I know you have a dollar. Go out there, spread the message of awesomeness [note: autosubtitles suggested “naked arsonist]. Thank you.