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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Out of the Medicine Cabinet

Today I come before you to make a confession. It is not a confession of guit, but of something that many Christians hesitate to acknowledge. It is something that should not, but sometimes does, carry a stigma: I suffer from clinical depression. I take medication for my depression, and in small doses it helps me make it through the day. In proper doses, it helps me to experience the emotions that "normal people" experience.

The reason that I approach this so tentatively is that depression, and chemical assistance to overcome it, are truly very little understood. Some say a Christian "should not" experience depression. "If you had a stronger walk with the Lord, He would heal you," or even "depression is not a real condition; it is only a manifestation of God being absent from your life." Most, I think with gratitude, do not believe that way. Enough, though, to add to the burdens of people who are already suffering. I speak here not for myself, but for those who might fall into the trap of believing these things when they hear them.

Far more common than thinking that depression is a sign of moral sloth is the widespread belief that depression is attitudinal sloth. This perspective frequently comes with some sympathy, but little patience. "I know you're hurting, but you need to snap out of it." Sometimes this is accompanied by "you need to smile and just decide to be happy. Eventually your mood will follow your decision." While this well-intentioned advice may work for many who suffer from wallowing or gloomy moods, it does not help nearly so much for those who suffer from depression caused by a chemical imbalance.

We are a self-motivated society. We are taught, at least in the United States, to decide our destiny and make it happen. This is the land of opportunity! You can choose to pursue wealth, or family, or self-fulfillment, or love, or any combination of the above, and with enough perseverance, we learn, it can happen. If we can't make all of our goals come to life, it is because we have changed our priorities somewhere along the way. Maybe all of this rhetoric is true, and maybe it isn't. Probably, it is true to a degree. So most of us, even the uncontrollaby depressed, have a nagging temptation to fall into this line of thinking when we consider the "decision" to be happy. Surely, we've all known someone who chooses to be happy or chooses to be unhappy; isn't this evidence enough that all of us are able to take control of our emotions?

Well, no. The truth is that chemical depression changes a lot. A person whose brain chemistry works "right" may well choose to be happy or unhappy. The person who is chemically depressed, though, doesn't find it so easy. Even with the "evidence" we've seen of people being able to choose their feelings, we must remember that this evidence does not apply to everyone. Some people need assistance on a physical level, to balance out whatever imbalance of chemicals it is that causes the emotions to swing and sway. Some people need a "happy pill."

Did I just say that? Did I actually say "happy pill"? I tell you now that I didn't mean it. In fact, I only used that choice of words to bring up the next point I wanted to make. I cannot count on two hands how many people I've heard use the phrase "happy pill" to describe antidepressants. The implication is that these tablets cheer us up and make us happy, like alcohol might make us unrestrained. It's a lamentable choice of words, though, because that really isn't how antidepressants work. They don't make people happy. They merely tidy up the workings inside the brain so that the patient is able to be happy. They increase coping skills, slow down the triggers that cause things like brooding, anger, and paranoia. To put it more simply, Paxil doesn't make me "happy." It makes me normal.

Several years ago, I heard a talk by Fr. Benedict Groeschel on the subject of depression. In addition to being a spiritually and theologically well-grounded priest and spiritual director, Fr. Groeschel has another qualification: he is a psychologist. In his talk, he discussed chemical depression, and the sort of people who refuse to take medication because they believe it is shameful, and it admits to a defeat of faith. No, he explained. If you have a physical ailment and you refuse to get it treated, you are refusing to be a good steward to the gift God has given you of your body. God heals through many avenues: sometimes through faith healings, sometimes through sheer will, and sometimes by the hands of a competent professional, such as a doctor or pharmacist. Faith should not prevent us from taking care of our gifts, but should rather motivate us to do so.

Right now, I am carrying another gift from God: a 5-month old baby in my womb. For the first half of my pregnancy, working with my doctor, I reduced my medication to the lowest possible helpful dose in order to minimize risk to Peanut. It was a very rough time for both me and my family. Recently, with the first trimester well behind me, my doctor and I decided that it was time to return to a full therapeutic dose. The other day, while my charming and very patient husband and I were shopping together, we shared banter and smiles. Yes, the realization hit me in a very startling way: I was smiling.

I don't want to see anyone unable to smile, and least of all in the name of faith. If you think that God would rather have you incomplete than see you taking medicine, perhaps it is time to reevaluate your ideas about Who God is. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, in the image and likeness of God. When we get damaged, if it takes a cast, a bandage, cough syrup, or antidepressants to return our bodies to good health, then that is what it takes to be a steward of one of the most personal gifts He has given us.