Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thought's Captive, part one

A dozen or so years ago I was diagnosed with depression. Out of respect for those with whom I was closely involved at the time, I will spare the details. Suffice it to say that I realized that some of my critical life-decisions had been dreadful mistakes. Some of them were very foolish; some were very sinful; some were made by others, but whichever the case, my life was never going to be what I had dreamed it might be.  When the diagnosis came, I had very recently made a huge life-change that I hoped would finally bring me happiness, stability, and security. Instead, it became quickly evident that it had only made things worse and there was no turning back.  With my last hope dead, I began to wish myself dead.

Some days were better than others. Sometimes there would be small things to look forward to, to keep me going. Sometimes I could function as if everything was okay. Sometimes  there were fun plans, or fun purchases. But when things would get difficult again the deeper disappointment and hopelessness was always there, lurking just below my consciousness, waiting, whispering, beckoning me toward despair. My happiness, like the crust of the earth over its heated mantle, floated thinly over the surface of the great pressurized, seething mass of my discontent. The slightest crack could lead to an eruption. I would explode in anger, sometimes inwardly, sometimes outwardly, often both; but in any case once the temper subsided I was left feeling like a failure, or a monster, often both. Again my thoughts would turn to suicide. (I have to admit that were it not for the rumors of eternal hell, I would likely not be alive today.)

By this time anti-depressants had become wildly popular. Everybody had heard of Prozac and the people I knew who took it sang its praises. I was miserable and making those closest to me miserable as well. Weary of living in the shadow of my dark cloud, they encouraged me to go to a doctor and get medicated. By that time I was so desperate  for any glimmer of happiness and emotional stability that I would accept it even in the form of a pill. I went to the doctor. He handed me a questionnaire, one page, double-spaced as I recall. Easy, a dozen questions or less. I went home with a prescription for Paxil, the latest, greatest thing at the time. It made me feel foggy at first, but after a time that passed.

Along with the pills, I was also given a referral to a counselor.

I think my counselor was a good one, so far as that sort of thing goes. She was calm and understanding. Her recommendations were always reasonable and sensible and never involved anything my then nominal Christianity would have labeled "New Age". My treatment plan was to begin with me working through a book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David D. Burns, M.D.  Eager to taste happiness, I dove headlong into the homework and just as the book description on Amazon says, I was amazed to experience the results of "the remarkable, scientifically proven techniques that will immediately lift your spirits and help you develop a positive outlook on life."  I felt like I had been given new life and was seeing the whole world through new eyes. This lasted for several happy months.

According to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists' website:
"Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events.  The benefit of this  fact is that we can change the way we think to feel/act better even if the situation does not change...
Simply put: Cognitive behavioral therapy taught me to re-think things, and this re-thinking really did work.  For a time, I was able to look at the behaviors of the people around me differently, with more understanding and patience. For a while I wasn't angry. For a time I could love people and be patient with them in the way I had always wished I could. But only for a time.

The problem I found, at least with the particular program I was using, was that it eventually became clear to me that many of the ways it was telling me to look at things were simply not true. For instance, one of the tricks was to alter the way you think of another person's behavior by reminding yourself that they are doing the best they can - just like you are. There was a lot of mental energy expended in making excuses for other people's bad behavior. It worked well for a while, but eventually the evidence piled up and I just couldn't buy it any more. In truth there was a lot of truly unkind, unloving, and insensitive behavior going on around me for which there was no good excuse, and for which no apologies were ever made. The truth was, nobody was trying their best, and, so far as I saw it at the time, I was the only one trying at all. I lost faith in the program, because, though it was well-meaning and based on some premises I still believe to be solid, once I became aware that I was telling myself lies, I could no longer believe them. Bitterness began to set in and the hopelessness settled into despair. Therapy failed.

Only the pills remained. I had a new doctor by this time, and he switched me to a new pill - Effexor. It would be some years before I would learn the hard way that this is a drug from which some can never turn back: 
"For many people Effexor XR has the absolute worst discontinuation syndrome of an antidepressant. Effexor (venlafaxine hydrochloride) is a medication people utterly loathe to have taken. It is not uncommon for someone to fire doctors during or immediately after they quit taking Effexor XR(venlafaxine hydrochloride)." - Crazy Meds
Which is exactly what happened to me. I should never have been given a medication without being informed of the devastating side-effects of giving it up, or that missing just one or two doses (like when you forget to call your refill in before the weekend) is enough to trigger the terrifying symptoms, or that giving it up in the manner recommended would require the doctor's willingness, cooperation, and assistance - and many months of misery. But I've gotten ahead of myself.

As I said, only the pills remained, and they were no cure. What they succeeded in doing was to rub the edges off my feelings, but this they did indiscriminately. For every hard, angry, dark, or despairing emotion they dulled, they also dulled a joyous or pleasurable one. My soul was quenched and life became little more than existence. I upped the ante of my behaviors in an effort to feel alive. My reading material became more sensational and graphic; my talk-radio became more shocking; my alcohol intake increased. I smoked like a chimney. These behaviors had become my life-line, but they were destroying me.

And this was the condition in which Christ found me, on the first morning of October, 2004, the day I suffered a devastating personal loss. Sitting in my smoking-chair in the backyard alone, desperate for an ally, I bowed my head to pray to God. Eyes closed, I saw an image of a human heart, blackened, rotting and crawling with maggots. It was my heart, and this is what sin had done to it. My life flashed before my eyes and I realized that all the while I had been blaming God for the pain in my life, He had been caring for me, even answering my prayers. The pain in my life, I realized, was not a result of His vengeance. Some of it was the fault of others, but much of it was a result of my own sin. All of a sudden I knew it: God is good and He loves me. I began to seek Him, hoping for a new heart in exchange for the rotted one, and a new life. In a few months my faith and hope in Him would lead me to tackle my depression head-on.

In my next post I will write about that experience seven years ago, and the ongoing fight to maintain my hold on the peace, hope, and joy I have found in Christ.

(You may read Part Two of this series here.)

8 comments:

Scott said...

I just want say, Thank You for writing.

Laurie M. said...

Thanks for the kind words, Scott, especially since you were so fast that you read it with all the typos. (Why is it that no matter what I do, I can't ever spot them until after I've published?)

couragetotremble said...

Well written. Eager to read your next post. I suspect these posts will be helpful to many who are suffering from depression and a feeling of hopelessness. What a wonderful Saviour is Jesus!

HYDRIOTAPHIA said...

Living testimony that Christ is the great psychotherapeutic healer.

Laurie M. said...

Yes, Kevin, He is, and the most Wonderful Counselor as well!

Lobbans said...

What a journey, Laurie! Very interesting that the "Cognitive-behavioral" therapy did help, but only as you put it, for a time. There is only One lasting solution. I've got a sneaking suspicion and high hopes we are going to hear about Him in the next chapter - when you are ready. I don't suffer from depression myself but have been relating to many from time to time and your testimony would be of great help. Thank you!

John Child said...

Waiting in anticipation for part 2. Praying that you'll soon be able to finish your story. Given all the controversy in Christian circles I'm really keen to hear what helped you.

Laurie M. said...

Thanks John. Part 2 is taking me longer than I anticipated, but it should be up, hopefully, no later than Wednesday. Hopefully I won't contribute to the controversy. What I really want is to step around it and offer hope.