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: 3-5Until 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.