Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thought's Captive, part three

(You may read Part 2 in this series here.)

Becoming Thought's Captor

Lady Macbeth - Elisabeth Ney
image via
Macbeth:  How does your patient, doctor?

Doctor:  Not so sick, my lord, as she is troubled with thick-coming fancies, that keep her from her rest.

Macbeth:  Cure [her] of that. Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?

But Lady Macbeth could not, or perhaps would not minister to herself.  For in order to be healed it would be necessary for her to face the terror of the fanged serpent within.  She would have to admit her guilt and face the shame and consequences her actions deserved. Finding herself trapped between two intolerables, she went mad.  Refusing to contemplate her wicked acts while awake, she suffered the somnambulant lunacy of a conscience at war with her monster-self.  

Shakespeare's clairvoyance of human nature has kept his work alive and relevant through the ages, but this is only so because human nature has not changed. His tragedies reveal to us the furthest ends to which unrestrained evil will go, and the toll it takes on sinner and victim alike.  So, for the sake of the tragedy, Shakespeare did not offer his characters redemption, or when he did, he deepened the tragedy by not permitting them to accept it.  

"Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent? 
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that struggling to be free 
Art more engag'd!  Help, angels!  Make assay, 
Bow, stubborn knees, and heart, with strings of steel, 
Be soft as sinews of the new born babe!  
All may be well.....

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go."
Claudius, King of Denmark, Hamlet

My thanks fly to highest heaven that Shakespeare is not the author of my life, because mine is not a tale of tragedy or comedy (though it contains plenty of both).  Mine is a story of redemption and peace.  Though I was no Lady Macbeth, I lived with my own dark character, deeds, and fears and had my own shame and consequences to avoid.  But perhaps even more daunting than those was the embarrassing lack of desire to be the kind of person I knew I should be.  Why should I do good when others do not? Why should I forgive others when they don't forgive me, or when they refuse to change or even be sorry?  Why should I deny myself the pleasures of  my undisciplined ways?  Why should I commit myself to the hard, hard work and oft-denied pleasures that are part and parcel of a virtuous life?

Hence came the temptation from within and the encouragement from others to medicate my condition.

For a time the sin nature's hissing would be quieted.  I was always, on some level, aware that it lived there still, but as it more silently went about its business, its ways of undermining my life and peace only became more secretive.  That subtle creature remained my captor. Taking the medication away did not set me free from my depression.  I did not expect it to.  Pain, you see, has its purpose.  It's an alarm to alert us that something is wrong.  It is not meant to be ignored.  I knew when I gave it up that living unmedicated would be a challenge, but hoped that the arduous ordeal of  grief and withdrawal, once survived, would make any depression I suffered later seem insignificant.  It didn't.

Dark, bitter, and hopeless ways of thinking had spent many years making their home with me.  Our relationship was both passionate and abusive.  As in an abusive marriage, the patterns of life we'd settled into together were intricately woven.  My thoughts, on the one hand, charmed me.  They loved me and would defend me ferociously.  They would take my side against others, make excuses for me, absolve me of guilt, and soothe my self-image.  They would encourage me to build cases against people who'd hurt or offended me, or people whose excellence made me feel inferior.  They would judge them to find them lacking.  Sometimes they would goad me into acting against them in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, trying to make them feel sorry for me, or to lay guilt on them for their behaviors.  Once things had gone too far in this direction, they would take the other hand, team up with my troubled conscience and turn on me, telling me how everybody hates me and will never forgive me (even God....even though they should forgive me because they're no better than me...see how fickle the thoughts are!), how I'm a monster who should never have been born, and how I'd be better off dead.

Though this deceptive cycle characterized of years of my life, I was none the wiser. I continued to fall for it.  When my head is clear, I can see that it is little different than the relationship I had with alcohol. I would welcome, nurture, and trust in it until it turned on me, which eventually and inevitably it would.  I was no match for the forces that were destroying me.  I was truly my thoughts' captive.

But the day I first trusted Christ, a new life truly was born in this worn out old body of mine. This life was characterized by an all-consuming love for Christ and desire to be like Him.  For the first time I saw Him and His words, even His commands as beautiful and right.  This had never happened before.  This new life in me cried out to be lived, wanting to be fed, and like a new mother with her first baby, I had to learn, listen, and respond appropriately to these new cries, letting them pull me out of the deep ruts of a life devoted to myself.  I had to put off that old "body of death", that clung so tightly and felt heavy enough to drag me back to darkness.  Like the apostle I would find myself crying, "Who will deliver me?" and I would find my answer in the words, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"  

This excruciating struggle, which continues to this day as the life of God in me grows and finds itself at war with my lingering old self, is what the Scripture refers as "spiritual warfare."  
"For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ..."  2 Cor. 10: 3-5
"and take... the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Eph. 6:17
Our minds are the spiritual battleground.  Our thoughts are the weapons which either defend or destroy us. The intent of the enemy is to steal, to kill, and to destroy.  Christ came to give us abundant life (John 10: 9-11) According to the Scripture, my part in this battle is to take captive the very thought life that once made a prisoner of me.  The only way to win the battle is to take responsibility for my thoughts and make them obedient to Christ. In order to do so, it is essential that I set my mind on the things of Christ.
"Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God."  Romans 8:5-8
A mind set on the Spirit means a mind deeply rooted in the Scriptures, which are God's words given to us  by the Holy Spirit through his apostles and prophets. In His words we will find all we need. In them God reveals Himself to us. Through them that we can know Him and learn of His great power and His promises to us.  And through this knowledge the unimaginable takes place - we become partakers of the divine nature:
"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire." 2 Peter 1:3-4
And all this transformation occurs not through magic, or osmosis. It is not an automatic result of exposure to Scripture - though God's Word is essential. It is the product of a mind determined to be changed by the knowledge of God. The sword of the Spirit must be wielded! Spiritual worship, the Scripture tells us, is a very practical and intentional matter:
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:1-2
I would say that the first step for the Christian struggling with battles of the mind is to become devoted to knowing God through the Scriptures and to believing what you learn of Him there.  This will become the heart of your transformation.  The first step for a non-Christian is to trust Jesus Christ, as He is presented in the Scriptures, and find peace with God through Him.  This peace with God, made available to us through the loving sacrifice of Christ, is the purpose of redemption and it is the fountain of all peace.

In my next posts I will discuss some of the nuts and bolts that have helped me survive various battles for my mind.  My prayer is that in whatever place you find yourself in your struggles, you will find some encouragement and some more weapons for your fight.

(You may read Part 4 in this series here.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thought's Captive, part two

(You may read Part One in this series here.)

During those first tragic and glorious October days in 2004, my devastated heart, overwhelmed by grief, finally trusted Christ and embraced hope. At first, in some ways, my hope was misdirected. I thought that because I trusted Him, He would erase the tragedy, undo all the pain, and make everything just like it was before, only better. It would take some time before I would understand that hoping in Him did not mean things would turn out the way I wished they would, and more time still before I learned that hoping in Him will, eventually, change the things I wish for.

In the meantime, hope was the tiny candle I huddled against in the vast, gaping cavern of grief. Upon learning the first details of the loss I'd suffered, my stomach heaved and I began to wretch. It would be a week before I could keep down food, much longer before I would feel hunger again. For the first time in my life I found I couldn't sleep, or if I did, I would awake at the same dark hour of the morning at which I had first woken to learn of my great loss and get up to drive aimlessly through the dusk-lit streets of our town. Another week or so left me looking so thin and haggard that a friend urged me to get to the doctor. I did.  He sent me home with more medication: an antibiotic cocktail to rid me of H-Pylori, and Klonapin (which I was told would help me sleep). The grief and the antibiotic regimen made such a mess of me that in three months I lost 30 lbs. and looked like an anorexic.

Through this dark time, as I grew weaker and weaker, my faith in Christ grew stronger. Blaming alcohol in large part for my troubles, I'd given up drinking that very first October day. But I found that my appetite for food had also dried up. The only hunger I had left was a desperate craving for God's Word. I spent hours a day reading Scriptures and examining the first 40 years of my life in the light of them. Body fasting, heart filling, I was unwittingly preparing for the challenge that lay at the next fork in my road.

In December, three months into this new life, a friend from bygone days contacted me. Our friendship had crumbled years before under the weight of his drug addiction, but he had since gotten into recovery and had been clean for a few years. He'd heard of my troubles and wanted know if there was any way he could help.  As a new Christian, I wanted to tell him - an unbeliever - about how I'd gotten saved and how great it was to trust in Christ. I don't recall how the subject of depression came up, or how he found out that I had been taking anti-depressants.  What I do remember was feeling my credibility as a follower of Christ crumbling in his eyes.

He told me many things I didn't really want to hear. I was shocked and hurt, but I heard him out because he spoke with the voice of experience, and with the genuine concern of a friend. As a recovering drug addict, he'd spent several years in programs with many other recovering substance abusers. Many of these people, as you might imagine, wind up taking anti-depressants. He related story after story of friends who, after taking one such psychoactive drug for a while would be switched to another, and then another, and another still, as each one either failed or else ceased to be helpful. Often these people ended up dependent upon a veritable cocktail of prescribed medications which were not all that effective, which they were unable to function without, and which they were unable to give up due to the hazards withdrawal presented to their fragile mental states. In short, what he'd seen were addicts becoming...well...addicts. He urged me to get off of the anti-depressants as quickly as possible.

Shaken, I assured him I would think about what he said. I hung up and sat there, stunned. I had expected to tell him all about what God had done in my life - how, in spite of my grief, I was so much better than I had ever been. But here was this man who didn't share my faith in Christ worried sick about the path I was taking. He did not see me as a Christian whose life was being radically transformed by faith, but as a person who needed to  be rescued from the road to addiction. As far as he was concerned, I was worse off than when he knew me years before. If what he was telling me about anti-depressants was true, not only was I traveling the same old chemical-dependence road I thought I had left behind, but I was also putting the lie to my testimony of the power and sufficiency of Christ.

Troubled, I prayed for wisdom and went to the internet to see if there was any truth to what he had said.  I was sobered by what I found: first by how many of the users of these medications, even those who were happy with them, were also taking this, that, or the other pill to address their sundry psychiatric needs; second, and most disturbingly, by what I learned about the specific anti-depressant I had been prescribed.  Apparently it was about as bad as an anti-depressant can be when it comes to discontinuation. At that time I could not find a single account of a person who had successfully discontinued its use. This is not to say that no such people existed, only that in my poking around I could not find one. It was distressing to find so much failure everywhere I looked. Still, I really shouldn't have been so surprised. I'd experienced on more than one occasion the terrifying emotional melt-down that inevitably followed the second missed dose. Though the drug produced none of the highs or cravings associated with drug addiction, coming off of it felt like hell.

I learned that discontinuation of the medication would require months of gradual reduction in dosage, with each reduction renewing the dreadful symptoms of withdrawal. This whole process would have to be overseen by a physician. I tried to imagine going through this for a year or more and was terrified. I tried to imagine getting my doctor to go along with such a program and realized that would likely be impossible.  What had I gotten myself into?

The thing is, I knew then what I had always known, whether I was willing to admit it to myself or not - that  my depression was a matter of my soul, rooted in my mind and thought life. My experience with cognitive therapy had proven to me that my depression could be reversed, at least temporarily, by changing my thoughts. Though my therapy had reached a dead end, the exercise was valuable for having pointed me to the source of my disorder. I knew that my depression was the symptom of a deeper problem, but I was tired of trying and failing to overcome it. I just wanted the pain to go away. The anti-depressants didn't cure me or even take away the pain. I was still depressed, but they took the edge off, and that seemed better than nothing.

Until I received that phone call from my friend.

I had wanted to tell him about Christ, about how He had carried me through three months of unimaginable grief, during which time I had not turned once to alcohol for comfort, and about how He had been my comforter. I'd hoped my friend would see God's love and power at work in my life and put his hope in Christ too. But I realized that my dependence on anti-depressants had invalidated my testimony in his eyes. I realized that if I wanted anyone else to believe in God's power and love and faithfulness, I must believe in it myself and that my belief must prove itself in every aspect of my life. 

Did I really believe that God could be trusted with my deepest emotional pain, with my anger, and with my fears?  Could I count on Him to bring me safely through all of life's dangers, disappointments, and losses? I pulled up my life and inspected it and became even more convinced that God had been there providing for me every step of the way, even when I didn't trust Him, even when I was certain He was out to destroy me, and that it was my failure to trust Him and recognize His loving care that had been the source of so much of my sin, pain, and depression in the first place. If only I would have trusted in Him years before my life would have been so, so different.   

My friend's counsel, my internet research, my honest self-examination, my reflection on God's steadfast love and kindness, when combined with my earnest prayers hardened into that determined resolve known as faith. I was convinced that it was essential that I trust God with my emotional pain and all my fears, and that the time had come for me to do it. Yes, I could trust Him, and I would. 

Gripped by faith, I embarked on a course that I would never recommend to another person*, but one that I will never, ever regret. I went against all medical advice and gave up my depression and "sleeping" pills cold turkey. I knew my doctor would not understand or support me in my decision, and I knew time was of the essence. I was unemployed and would need to find work before long. I knew I would not be able to work while going through withdrawals. I did not have a year to spend "coming down". I told my then teenage children what I was doing and why, what they might expect regarding my behavior, and what to do if things started going sideways. Then I began a months-long trek through what felt like the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  

The withdrawals began, predictably, on the third day. My mind felt disconnected, as if I'd taken a whole bottle of cold medication, a terrifying feeling which lasted for several months.  I had both manic and depressive episodes, and insomnia the likes of which I'd never experienced before or ever have since. As the weeks crept by, I began to wonder if my mind would ever be normal again. After all, how can a chemically altered brain know how to right itself?  But I was determined to trust God no matter what. In the meantime, I devoted myself to the Scriptures, to prayer, to taking my crazy self to church whenever the doors were open, and to walking my dog (because I thought the exercise might help my brain re-wire itself). I forced myself to begin doing the things I had neglected doing because of my depression and alcohol abuse: cleaning the house, cooking meals, working on little household projects.  

The days and weeks inched slowly into the past, more slowly than I could have imagined possible, but my faith in Christ grew. Eventually, almost imperceptibly, sanity began seeping in. In time I would be blinking the eyes of my soul as I began to awake from a strange, dark, disconnected nightmare, which also happened to be my real life. I would look back on those dark months and remember that through it all I had been guided, carried even, by the gentle hand of God. I'd been the prisoner of my dark and sinful thoughts and the chemicals I used to numb myself to the pain of my captivity. My escape had been harrowing. Looking back, just over my shoulder loomed the towering gates of the prison I had just escaped. I had emerged from the darkness still clinging to the hand of the Savior who had rescued me, and in the brightness of freedom I was filled with hope. So long as I had Christ I had all I needed to face this life and its heartaches. 

I would love to be able to say, that I left that dark prison far behind and that life ever after was a sunshiny day. But the truth is the darkness stalks me. It was the ruler of my life for forty years and will not give me up without a fight.  Previously, I had tried to fight this spiritual battle with weapons of the flesh -  drugs, alcohol, and worldly wisdom - but now I knew my methods would have to change:
"For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ..."  2 Cor. 10: 3-5
Until Christ set me free, my thoughts were my cruel captors. Now, in order to remain free, I must capture them, make them my captives, and teach them to obey Christ.  This very practical process will be the subject of my next posts.

(You may read Part 3 in this series here.)

* It is not my intent here to make a blanket condemnation of anti-depressant use. I believe they can be helpful for some people in some circumstances. My intent in sharing my own experience here is to give hope to others sufferers who may wish to avoid such medications, or who may hope at some point to leave them behind.  I also believe the lessons I have learned can be learned while taking anti-depressants. 

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.)