Bad Words and Good Days

“How was your day?” My wife asked me, looking into my eyes hopefully. I didn’t say anything. I just looked back at her and thought of how to answer. And then I cried. It wasn’t an unusual day. Nothing happened. It was no different from the day before and no different from 15 minutes before she asked. Why cry? It is not enough to describe depression as a long series of bad days. Depression is waking up in prison in the pre-dawn darkness of your execution day with no hope of anything changing. The sun never rises, the dread never relents, there is no escape, everything reminds you that you are in jail, everything repeats the sentence pronounced against you by a judge you’ve never seen: you shall die while you wait to die. So some times when my wife or another innocent bystander dropped by my jail cell and asked how I was doing or how was my day, I cried.

As I began to heal from treatment resistant depression, I started to notice the way I answered the question: “how are you doing?” Specifically I noticed when I had a day that wasn’t as bad as the one before, or when I had a couple of days that felt a little better, I was hesitant to answer the question honestly. I was hedging my bets. I would never say “I had a good day.” The most I would say was “today wasn’t as bad as yesterday” or “I’ve had a lot worse days than today.” This made me curious. Why would I hold back hopeful information?

A quick analysis of this habit gave me an answer. I was so used to feeling bad that I had developed a defensive strategy to protect myself from people, places and things that required me to expend energy. I knew my tank was low from the moment I woke up and I had to be careful not to run out of gas. When I was having a little bit better day or two, I would not say so because it meant people might begin to expect more from me; more that I was pretty sure would not be there when I needed it. Keep expectations low. Keep my words in line with my dark reality. And there is another aspect of it. The depression never lifted very far or for very long. Every time I thought I might be getting better it boomeranged against the back of my head. They say many prisoners of the Nazi death camps would not leave even when the guards ran away and left the gates open. They couldn’t accept the possibility of change when they’d been hopeless so long. Hopelessness is its own kind of paralysis.

I listened to my words more closely and discovered how much I used the word “bad.” I used it a lot: I feel bad, I had a bad day, things are going badly. It seemed like I should do something about this. It seemed like I might be the person repeating the jail sentence over myself again and again. Maybe if I could find new words it would help me change. It couldn’t hurt. So I changed my words a little at a time. There were lots of adjustments that emerged once I got started. Using the word “bad” turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I’m not going to bore you with my list of negative vocabulary words I had to weed out of my life, but I will share the most significant one because I’m pretty sure it will help you. What we decided to do was to substitute “hard” for “bad” when it came to describing my days. At first, when my wife asked me how my day went, I’d usually stumble over bad and get to hard. Before long, I would say it had been a hard day, and not too long after that I began to say this: It was a hard day, but hard days are not bad days. Hard days mean I am working, I am trying, I am moving. You see the difference? Bad days are just days to endure. That is what the depression jail cell is; something to be endured, not lived. Hard days are working days. Hard days are the days spent lifting weights and building our body and studying for a career. Hard days are preparing for the day I get out of this cell. Soon the hard days felt like accomplishments instead of feeble scratches on the cell wall marking off the passage of time. Eventually I had the confidence to say “today was not as hard as yesterday” and that led to “today was a good day.” And they really began to be good days!

While this transformation happened I found out that my tank was not as empty as I thought it was. One day about six months into the walk out of depression, we went to visit friends. As we sat in their back yard talking, the inevitable question came: so how are you doing? I said I was having a lot of hard days, but then for some reason I began to think of things that had happened since I’d made the space for healing. I ticked them off: I had not been able to read anything for about two years, but now I was reading again. I had not been able to workout more than one day a week, but now I was working out 5-6 days a week. I had not been able to listen to music, but now I was enjoying it. I had not been able to write, but now I had started to write a novel. Sitting there I realized that I was doing great compared to where I had been only six months ago. I saw that I was no longer in jail at all! Depression is a distortion of our image. It is a funhouse mirror that we use instead of reflecting on our true state. Language plays a large part in perpetuating or breaking the image. Try it out. Find your own distorted words and make your own substitutions. Stop pronouncing your own death sentence. Sentence yourself to life. Ask your friends to help you see you more clearly. Let me know if I can help you. I’d be glad to do it.

Side note: Many of the things I’m writing about began around the same time. It may be that some are more significant for your healing than mine. The combination of these things is potent – kind of the opposite of what they tell us about dangerous drug interactions. Emotional bandwidth, making space for healing, getting a new perspective on medicine, changing our words, and a few more things I’m writing articles about have the potential to combine in ways that will move the immovable object that’s sitting on our chests. We can walk out of this jail. Believe it.

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue

I was mowing the lawn when a friend called and shared some bad news. I should say he shared some more bad news. I hung up the phone and went back to mowing. I love my time in the yard. After many years of relentless depression it has become a place of joy. It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I could barely function. The grief was so heavy and I felt so useless that I retreated to the yard and mowed the grass just so I could accomplish something – anything – useful; something that would say I had some value. It was a pitiful declaration of being alive in spite of the weight of death inside me. I did not enjoy it, I only wanted to get it done. I was so sad all the time that everything tasted sad. There was no place to go that didn’t feel sad. There was nothing to see that didn’t look sad. Everything was sad. The yard was one of the few places I could swim in a sea of sorrow and, if not move forward, at least tread water. I used to shed a lot of tears while I worked in the yard. They were like juice from a crushed piece of fruit. The sorrow squeezed my heart so hard the tears just came.

While I mowed, I listened to an audiobook about Winston Churchill. He was familiar with depression to the point his loved ones set people to watch over him lest he give in to it. He lived in sad times with enough bad news in any given day to crush anyone. Did you know he cried a lot? It comes up again and again in the book. Churchill cried publicly. He cried without shame. Churchill’s tears. It makes me cry to think of it. And as far as I can tell, he had no reason to believe things would change. I mean he had no logical reason. He believed in spite of all the bad news. He spoke to the people with the facts. He spelled out the bad news. Then he told them they would prevail. There was something hard in him that did not break. He was crushed and sad and he cried and he did not break. He believed. When he told the people they would prevail, they believed it too. I think they believed it because he did. I can’t see any other reason why they should have believed it.

Mowing. Listening. I decided to switch to music. There was a song I wanted to hear. Everything Sad is Coming Untrue by Jason Gray. I listened and I mowed and I cried some more. But I cried the most when I heard these words:

Every winter breaks upon
The Easter lily’s bloom

This is the hard thing in me that’s not going to break. Depression couldn’t crush it; it only drove it deeper into my being. I died a thousand deaths in my yard. I attended the funeral for my happiness. But there was something in me that was not me. Everything else in me was pressed down into the ground; into the perpetual Narnian winter that knew no Spring.

Life is coming Alive
Death is destined to die
And love…

Love. It is love in me that could not be crushed. Not my love for others or love for my own life, not even my love for God could withstand the depths of the coal mine. It was His love for me that hardened to diamond in the emotional hydraulic press. God loves me. He loves me. I believe. I believe. I believe.

I’ve had enough bad news to last a long long time. People are sad all around me. People wonder if this war will flood over them. Can we prevail? Do not look away. Do not deny the bad news. Do not hold back your tears. It looks bad. It looks hopeless. We’ve suffered much loss. We expect more. Now. Let me tell you. We will prevail. We will. Believe with me. God loves us. He loves you. This isn’t another thing, it is the thing. Anyone presenting a war strategy that leaves Jesus out is sadly mistaken. Listen. God spoke to all of us in Jesus. He said it plainly. He made it simple enough for a child to grasp. He said I love you; all of you. Can we be friends again? Come back to the garden and this time, eat from the Tree of Life. That other tree was poison from the first bite and it is today. Listen. Stop eating from it. The knowledge of good and evil isn’t helping anyone. You eat it all day long. You feed yourself on your news and your social media and your politicians, and it’s made you sick and weak and given you a stomach ache. The other tree is right here. Life. Eat it. Take it in. All day long. Taste it. God loves me. God loves me. God loves me.

Broken hearts are being unbroken
Bitter words are being unspoken
The curse undone, the veil is parted
The garden gate will be left unguarded

Now let’s win. Let’s play like the outcome is assured. It is. Hate is a parasite and sorrow is the echo of the death of death. Love prevails because God is love. Easter is the proposal of heaven. Down on one knee God says “I love you, will you marry me?” The engagement is sealed. His promise ring around my finger is the Spirit of Christ. The wedding day is set. The celebration is here. Let’s put on wedding clothes while the bombs fall. Let’s declare that we are subjects of the King before we are citizens of a country, or members of a race, or constituents of a party. We are the beloved of God. What can they give us that compares? And how will they take away from us what heaven has proclaimed over us? We are begotten and beloved not buying and behaving. Listen. We are the change. Let heaven speak to you. Let it whisper. Let it shout. Let it resonate. Jesus repeats it. He doesn’t mind saying it again. He is like a lovesick suitor who cannot resist turning back to get another kiss and to say one more time “I love you.” He never tires of saying it and will say it until we hear it; say it till we believe it; say it till we feel it; say it till we know it; say it till everything sad comes untrue. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Could it be that everything sad is coming untrue?
Oh I believe that everything sad is coming untrue.
In the hands of the One who is making all things new.

When I sat down from my mowing I wrote this down. I realized it is already happening. I’ve already lived it here in this yard. His love for me is gently persuasive and the sadness is gone. I am helping Him to do it in my family, my work, my neighborhood. I know it will work for everyone. I know His love is the cure that runs in my veins. I rested from my labor and wiped the good sweat from my face. On my patio where I used to cry without hope, I smiled and watched my bluebirds building a nest.

The frozen rivers run
The death of winter comes undone
Whispers of Kingdom come
While the bluebird sings

Everything
Everything that I thought I knew
Everything
Everything sad is coming untrue

Making Space for Healing

During the quarantine of ‘20 we cleared out two crawl spaces, the attic and the shed. We found a lot of things we had forgotten; most of it went to Goodwill, a little to the landfill, a few items went back into storage, and fewer still returned to the land of the living. It was therapeutic, getting rid of useless stuff in the attic, but the most practical thing we cleared out was the shed. We use the shed for storing bikes and yard tools and other odds and ends. It took work to sort it all out and reimagine how to use the space, but now that it’s done, it’s easier to get to the useful and necessary things for everyday life.

About nine years into the cycle of depression and anxiety that stole so much of my life, I came to the conclusion that I would not get better unless I made space for healing. I needed breathing room, or I would drown. I needed to reimagine my life; to see life without depression and anxiety as its defining characteristics. This meant leaving my job and accepting a season in which healing was the priority. It meant moving one of the biggest things in the shed so that everything else moved.

Much of the way we are told to treat depression is adding something to our lives; a pill, a counselor, a diet, an exercise regime. Those things may have their merits, but they can also be a matter of working around stuff that needs to move in order for us to live well, and to get healthy. We might need to remove and reorder things rather than adding things. We may just need space to heal.

Depression has gravity. It draws things into our lives we don’t necessarily want or need. The longer depression remains in our lives the more it sets up its own miniature solar system of misery. People and tasks, attitudes and habits begin to orbit around the depression. When this continues for a long period of time, we are dehumanized; we become depressed people; eventually we become depression itself. This is part of the disease and plays a role in perpetuating it. Our vocabulary changes. Our countenance changes. Our bodies change. We need to break up the system. We need to reimagine our lives and make space to change and heal.

When I worked as an intelligence officer in the navy. I met a civilian who worked with the tech side of our organization. He was a nice guy and once in a while we’d chat. One day he told me he didn’t like his job very much but it paid the bills, and he had a lot of family obligations with college aged kids, and he had a mortgage and… a shed full of stuff. I asked him what he really liked to do. He told me that even though he had no experience in medicine, he thought he’d like to be a doctor. While he was talking it hit me – why did he have to keep doing life this way? I blurted out “why don’t you quit your job, apply to school, and become a physician’s assistant?” It wasn’t premeditated. It just came out. I remember the look on his face. There was this shadow of doubt and then I said something like “why not just look at it as a possibility? Think about it differently. It’s your life after all.” Not long after that I transferred to a new command and lost track of the man.

A couple years later I went back to my old office and I ran into him. He was a different man. His countenance was different. His physical energy was different. Before I could ask him about the change, he told me he was about to finish up PA school. He said that after our talk he went home and discussed the possibility with his family and they were for it. The process had been tough on them and had caused some disruptions in their lives, but they’d gotten through it. He was so thankful and insistent on praising me that it felt like too much. It was almost embarrassing. I hadn’t done anything. But as I think back on it now, I see that it was a big deal. He had never taken the time to reimagine his life. He had never given himself the space for things to change. All it took was a suggestion. It made all the difference in the world. When he was willing to move the one big thing – his job – everything changed.

I don’t advocate making change for change sake. If you are fairly functional you may not need to move the big things. You may be able to improve your life with less drastic measures. But if you are dealing with treatment resistant depression, you need to make space for healing. You need to create a season in which healing is the priority. You need to make a big change to break up the depressive center of gravity in your life.

Do you want to get better? Are you sure? What seems so big that you won’t consider moving it? I left my job and took a significant pay cut. I changed the center point of my community and had to alter the way I related to most of my friends. I made some people mad and disappointed others. Everything shifted, but now I know how to get to the essentials without stumbling over stuff. There is room to breathe.

Take some time to think about your life. Do you have to keep doing the job that is sucking your life away? Do you have to live in the place you don’t like? What if you didn’t have to make the same amount of money? It helps to think of space to heal as a season for healing. Maybe you love your job but it stresses you out and keeps the shed too full for other things. What if you stepped away for a year or two? And what if you moved to another place for a season? Birds migrate, we can too. Maybe all you need to do is reimagine your life and it will be enough to break you loose from depression’s gravity. Go ahead and dream it. Live anywhere and do anything. Allow yourself the freedom to be free.

We can change. We can be healed. You can reimagine your life. It will cost others and you will need others to help you, but depression is already costing others around you and asking others to help us is ok. You can ask me. I’d love to help you. I bet there are folks already in your life who will help too. Let’s do it. Let’s clean out the shed and make space to heal. It helped me a lot and it can help you.

Depression & Emotional Bandwidth

For many years we hosted Chinese students who lived with us while going to high school in the States. We seem to be a family that can adapt to having people in our home and, for the most part, it did not create disturbances in the way we lived. We just treated them like they were our kids and they treated us with respect. Two of them grew to be what we now call our “Chinese sons.” We’ve been to China with them and met their families and while they are now living in other towns they often come home to be with us. We love them. Our kids love them. They count them as brothers. We made room for them in our lives. And there was more room.

When my daughter was born I discovered many things, but the most profound was the expansion of my Grinchy heart. I knew I loved my wife and family, but the first time I saw my little girl I realized there was a new dimension to love I’d never known even though I’d seen it playing out in others all my life. I thought I knew it but then I experienced it. It was like seeing triangles all your life and suddenly discovering they were just sides of a pyramid. My heart could do things I didn’t know it could do.

A few years later we decided to add another baby, but not before we talked long and hard about it. We were so in love with our little girl. Would we be able to love another person this way? I had my doubts. It really troubled me. What if bringing another baby into our lives meant we didn’t love either one the way we loved the first? We talked with people who had already done it and they all said the same thing: you don’t understand it now, but you will be able to love them both with your whole heart. I admit I wasn’t fully convinced, but being forearmed with the expanding heart experience from having our daughter, I agreed to try it again. And again my heart surprised me. Love surprised me. We loved our son the same way we love our daughter; comprehensively and profoundly. I had to change my paradigm again. It seemed the triangle wasn’t just a pyramid; that my heart was more like a paper football made of a very large piece of paper and it could keep unfolding – maybe infinitely. There was more room.

During this time I began teaching a Sunday School class. It was only a little group of people to start, maybe eight of us. Each week I noticed this feeling inside me that started to grow. I didn’t know these people very well but the feeling was like an echo of the love I felt for my family. The class grew and visitors began to come and I found myself telling them I loved them. The words just came out of my mouth without much thought. I got some strange looks but I couldn’t help myself. Soon I began to realize I really did love these complete strangers. Some of them became people I knew intimately but that happened later. My heart was doing that thing again; unfolding and making room for more and more people. There was more room.

I’m betting that a lot of people understand this love thing better and more naturally than I do. My wife is more wired to love first and ask questions later. I’m more cautious and contemplative. But even if you don’t love many people I bet you feel a desire for it. We feel the desire to love and be loved and we sense the possibility. It’s in us. There is a huge emotional bandwidth for love; it might be infinite. Test it out and be honest: can you imagine a scenario where you love too many people? Would you ever be able to tell someone “I’ve got so many people who genuinely love me, I just can’t take another”? No. We are wired for lots of love.

It took me a long time to see the other side of this emotional bandwidth thing. Feeling bad about people has the opposite affect on our hearts. I mean exactly what I say. It’s not just hating people that goes to work on our hearts. It is holding people in a place inside us marked “this space reserved for idiots.” This may not be too problematic for those who are relatively emotionally healthy, but it is deadly in people with depression and anxiety. It can choke off emotional bandwidth to the point that we can’t function.

One of our Chinese students who lived with us was a big time online gamer. It usually wasn’t a problem, but at nights when we tried to stream movies and he was running his games, it sucked up enough of our WiFi bandwidth that every five minutes we got the spinning circle of death buffering thing. It made me very unhappy. It’s no fun trying to watch a movie in three minute segments. It ruins the whole show. Feeling bad about people can do this to us.

Just as our hearts seem to be created for infinite love, just a little criticism, ill will, judgment and – drum roll please – CONDESCENSION – is like one of those tiny little pellet sponges you can get at the Dollar Tree for your kids. Drop it in some water and sproing! It’s a big ole T-Rex. We are just not made for the stuff. Another test: isn’t it true that you can remember a slight against you longer than you remember a compliment? Isn’t it more likely for you to tell a friend that someone was rude to you today than to tell them someone did you a courtesy? Be honest. What’s more common?

Emotionally healthy people are not bitter people. It could be that the seeds to our depression and anxiety are sown by others but watered by us. If this becomes a habit we can end up with a whole prison block of people we keep in our hearts that we feel bad about. And we have to house them and feed them and make sure they don’t escape. It’s exhausting. It steals emotional bandwidth. It is the opposite of adding more people we love. There is not more room. I really believe there is no room at all for these negative feelings. Even one is one too many.

Part of my recovery has been the rejection of bad feelings toward anyone or anything. I became aware of the need to clear out the prison; release the captives and quit being the judge, jury, and executioner for those who offend me. I discovered it took too much energy; it was contributing to me beginning to buffer in real life. isn’t that what depression and anxiety feel like? Buffering – not present in our own present. Spinning wheel of death.

I have a suggestion for you. I would take this to the extreme. I would not allow a single bad feeling about anyone to take up space in my heart. And I mean it. Not a politician. Not a celebrity. Not a past lover. Not a current boss. Not a sports person. None. No one. Not a single one is worth me losing my emotional bandwidth. This takes practice. I realized I’d grown so used to harboring bad feelings about certain people that they were confined in maximum security. It took me a while to even find the keys to unlock the cell doors. But little by little I emptied the jail. And you know what? It wasn’t the bad guys who got free, it was me. Try it. Depression and anxiety feel bad enough, jettison the unneeded bad from your heart. And if you want to accelerate the process try something else: love a stranger. Love someone who has no way to give you anything in exchange. You don’t have to do something large. You don’t even have to talk with anyone to start loving them. How about this: think about how nobody really knows the deep pain inside you and how they probably think you are doing ok but you’re not. Now look at the next stranger you see and consider that they might very well be feeling like you do. Let your heart feel for them what you’d like someone to feel for you. Healing happens a little unfolding at a time in little moments that aren’t far away. You can do it. We can do it.

Placid Stones

I had a vision of the storm Jesus calmed. I saw him stand in the bow of the boat. He spoke. He didn’t shout. He said simple words; few words. The words fell out of his mouth onto the face of the sea. The sea went flat. It was as if he had a placid stone; a stone that could do the opposite of stones we drop into the sea that create waves. And in my vision I saw us as those new stones falling into the storm; falling from Jesus’s lips; living words spoken into the turmoil. And my heart cried because I know I am not a placid stone. Even when I try to be a placid stone my words fall into the sea and create waves. Most days I’m not trying to calm the sea, I’m looking to agitate it or to use the storm to get me somewhere. Worst of all, there is a storm in me, ready to break at any time. Can I be a placid stone. My vision changes back to the boat in the storm. In the bow is Jesus but he’s me and then he’s him, but it’s us. “Speak to the waves,” he says. “You can, with me.”

So today I say to my own soul, peace be still, in the presence of Jesus, with his words filling me and overflowing into my own heart. And I say peace be still, in my home and to my family and in my street. Peace be still where I work and wherever my feet tread. He is the placid stone and I am in him. I can and I will bring peace.

Addicted to Medicine

If you feel bad and you expect medicine to fix you, it changes the way you relate to medicine. I don’t mean pills; I mean the capital “M” Medicine. The term used to describe the huge swollen mass of accumulated knowledge and practice that educated folks allude to when they say things like “look at all the amazing advances in Medicine over the past fifty years.” The system. There have been some truly amazing discoveries in medicine through the years; so many in fact, that from a distance we can be deceived into believing medicine has all the answers. That’s too broad a statement, I know, but it’s a reasonable starting point. And it’s a dangerous one. Before you get sick; before something goes wrong beyond upset stomachs, headaches, or broken bones, the average person could be forgiven for believing medicine does have all the answers. Doctors are glorified in our culture. They are upheld as the most intelligent and capable among us. Whether they seek it or not we ascribe a kind of nobility to them. Beyond the individuals themselves, medicine itself is glorified. It’s like we feel a need to celebrate the knowledge of our bodies as if we’ve climbed the highest mountain; we are masters of the heights. But, suffer from an ailment like depression and fall into the hands of medicine, and you’ll learn a harsh truth: doctors are all just practicing medicine; that doesn’t mean they get it right.

Unmet expectations are the source of our greatest frustrations. I entered into the medical system believing treatments existed for every ailment. It was just a matter of time and testing to get to diagnosis and on to treatment. Of course I knew that all treatments didn’t work, and some ailments are terminal, but it never entered my mind that medicine would eventually look at me and shrug it’s shoulders. But that’s what happened, and it took a decade to break me if my addiction to medicine.

I had all the classic traits of an addict. I arranged my life around getting access to my substance – the medical system. I spent tons of money on it. I couldn’t think of changing jobs without accounting for a medical plan that would keep me close to my medicine. I let it abuse me. I showed up for office visits on time only to wait and wait for my “fix”: a visit with a doctor with too many patients and too little time to spare on me. I kept going back to it even when it gave me nothing and sometimes made me worse. I thought about it all the time. I lived for the hope that the next hit would be the one that really made me feel better. I spent hours and hours searching the internet for doctors who had a new way or a deeper understanding of my condition. I gradually came to realize my addiction but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t believe my Medicine; our Medicine was failing. Just one more time. Just one more hit.

What’s rock bottom for the person addicted to Medicine? When do you give up on it and admit you can’t go on pursuing it? You see the issue. Heroin? Yes. Dope? Sure. Even if you’re addicted to work you can give a good explanation for walking away. But medicine? Try to tell people you’re giving up on medicine and you’ll see the look in their eyes. Crazy.

Is it difficult for you to get into this headspace? Imagine living with no health insurance. No doctor to call your own. How does that sound? How does it feel? Now imagine telling your family and friends you aren’t going to pay for health insurance for you or your family any more. What kind of response do you expect to get? Before you get all squirrelly on me, I’m not saying you need dump health insurance or doctors. It’s just a thought experiment to get you to see that we have a relationship with Medicine that needs to be examined. If you can’t see your life without it, you need to ask why and you need to ask what it is you expect of it. You see? It has the potential to abuse you if you blindly give yourself over to it. And just in case you think I’m excluding them, I feel the same way about “alternative medicine” and “homeopathic medicine” too. All of it. It’s all addictive.

Let’s take a step back from the glorification and addiction and give ourselves permission to get healthy with or without all mighty Medicine. Let’s remember that almost 2000 years of medicine was based, to a large part, upon the color of fluids that drained out of bodies. There were years upon years of practices like “bleeding” performed by all members of the medical community; a practice so unquestionably accepted as “orthodox” and “good medicine” that a doctor who wouldn’t bleed a patient would have been suspected of quackery. Every one of us has the potential to fall into the trap of believing we live in the cultural moment of all moments; that in our time we’ve reached the state of the art; and we know more and better than we ever will. Medicine is not unique in having a short memory for embarrassing episodes. Let’s agree that there are probably things we are doing which will look as foolish as the bell bottom jeans I wore in eighth grade (there are no surviving pictures out there…I hope). If we do this we can free ourselves to look elsewhere for healing while at the same time keeping a healthy relationship with medicine. Give yourself permission to live without medicine. Get separation from it and then decide how you want to relate to it. Maybe you’ll find you don’t need it or maybe you’ll decide to come back to it; hopefully not as your master, but as your servant or your friend.

In closing I’ll remind you again that I’m not writing to people who have a good relationship with medicine or medicines. I’m writing to people who are suffering from depression and anxiety that is either treatment resistant or is not helped very much by “state of the art” medicine. People like me. From my years of reading about this, I believe there are many of us out there. I want to help them. Healing is possible, and we don’t have to put all our hope into medical advances. It’s a big deal to give yourself space to walk away from things that don’t work for you and just breathe. The energy you’ve used on medicine can be used elsewhere. Have courage and hope.

The Pharmaceutical Rabbit Hole

Q: How do you know you’re depressed?

A: Someone gives you antidepressants.

Does that sound right? Part of my story is the long term use of psychotropic drugs. I’ve been on SNRI’s, SSRI’s, antipsychotics, methylphenidate, and some others that don’t fit into neat categories. I’ve been on them in combinations and for varying lengths of time and doses. I’ve been on some of them more than once and some in doses that were ridiculously high. I’ve done a lot of reading about these drugs, and I’ve experienced their effects, their “side effects,” and their withdrawal effects. In my journey I’ve run across lots of people who rail against these drugs and accuse the people who develop and sell them of being evil and interested in making money from the pain of others. You have to remember when you read things like that it’s because the drugs didn’t work in their case; if the drugs worked for those people, they’d have the opposite opinion.

The problems I have with psychotropic medicines aren’t that someone tried to create a pill that would fix depression; if you really know what depression is and what it does to people, it is noble to pursue a cure. I don’t mind people making money from the things they produce either. What are they supposed to do? Work for free? People have to pay their bills! The problems I have are different. They are more about my opening Q and A.

The first doctor to prescribe me an antidepressant was my General Practitioner. I was having issues with fatigue, brain fog, and stamina. I was also going through a hard time of transition in career and with my kids leaving home. I’d done a bunch of tests (I will write more about the medical system in another post) and they all came back negative. By the medical yard stick I was “fine.” Only I was not fine. Frustrating. So one day, after reading out the results of all the latest tests, my doc pulls out a pad and writes me a prescription. It was for something I’d never heard of before: Effexor. “Let’s try this,” he says. I feel pretty bad so I don’t ask questions, I just go and fill the prescription and pop the pill. This may sound incredible, but I don’t believe I knew I was taking an antidepressant. I’m an American. When things are broken we fix them. When we feel pain we take a pill and it stops. I wasn’t too curious about how it worked, or why the doc wanted me to take it. He was the expert and I wanted a solution. As I said in a previous post; when the pain is bad enough you’ll try anything to get it to stop.

I don’t know what your first experience with psychotropic medicine was. I hear many different stories. Some of us may have been put on meds before we were old enough to have a say in the decision, others got prescribed like I did by a GP, still others sought out psychological help and this is where they started with the drugs. One thing I do know is this: whoever gave you a psychotropic medicine did not know how it would work. And it stands to reason if they didn’t know how it would work, they didn’t know if it would work. The truth is that when a psychotropic medicine works, it was at best an educated guess; a shot in the dark. I will tell you what my GP said when I went back to him a couple of weeks after I started taking Effexor. By then I knew it was an antidepressant and I was concerned and confused. Maybe you can relate. I took a low “loading dose” to begin (these drugs require titration to get them into your body when you start taking them and out of your body if you stop) and in the first two days I felt an immediate improvement. It was like my brain snapped back to its normal pattern. I had been dizzy and fuzzy and tired, but I had a lifting of the grey cloud. One of the things I distinctly remember was the way my vision changed. There was a literal clearing of my eyesight. I had not even known that my sight was dim. I’ve since come to associate what I call “the lift” – times when I am aware of the release from depression – with clarity in my eyesight. I asked the doc why an antidepressant made me feel better when I wasn’t depressed. He said my body didn’t make the distinction between depression and non-depression, it just responded to a drug that met a need and we didn’t have to worry about what we called it.

That’s my problem with psychotropic drugs, right there. Why do they work? Nobody knows. Why do they get prescribed? People who feel bad want to stop feeling bad and people who want to help them can’t find anything wrong with them. This is hard to imagine in other areas of medicine, but it is the common place story for people like me, who don’t have a problem that has a root detectable with any modern medical tests.

Imagine telling a cardiologist your heart hurts all the time. Their response is doing all the tests they can do, and, finding nothing, offering you a drug they don’t understand and only guess might make your heart stop hurting. Now add the fact the drug they give you has potentially serious and permanent side effects, will take, on average, a minimum of 6-8 weeks to show any benefit, has significant withdrawal issues, and may damage your heart. Now imagine going back to the cardiologist in two months and telling them you don’t feel any better and maybe a little worse. They advise you to take a higher dose of the drug that’s not working and come back in another two months. When you do that and it isn’t getting better, they tell you to quit that drug and start a second drug which is also a substance that they don’t understand and are only guessing if it will work. You start over again, hopeful that your aching heart will feel better. Good news! This time after 6 weeks you notice a slight improvement, but…your sex drive is in neutral and you’ve gained ten pounds. No worries, the doc says, we will start you on a second drug that should knock down the weight gain and possibly a third drug to get your sex drive out of neutral. You had a painful heart to begin with, now you have sexual issues and weight issues to go with the heart issue. Congratulations, you’ve fallen down the pharmaceutical rabbit hole.

Do you know the side effect most often reported for psychotropic medicines? Depression. In the speed reader portion of commercials for the latest and greatest pill, just listen. You’ll hear it. May cause depression. Having fallen down the pharmaceutical rabbit hole myself I want to give you some advice. This is for you if you have treatment resistant depression or long term “treatable” depression, and for those of you who love someone who is dealing with this problem. For the purposes of this advice I’m going to assume you’ve been on (or you currently take) meds that don’t work or meds that give questionable improvements.

1. Be willing to imagine yourself healed without meds. This sounds pretty simple, but if you’re down the rabbit hole, especially if, like me, you’ve had a period of relief with one of these drugs but now nothing works, it gets hard to believe there is another way. The nature of the pharmaceutical rabbit hole is to trap us in a one dimensional way of thinking. Meds worked, therefore I am depressed/anxious, therefore I need meds. There is an almost endless progression of “new” psychotropic meds with claims to effectiveness. Each cycle of trying a new drug with a slightly different operating mechanism eats up time (=life) and money (=life) and keeps us from looking at other paths to healing. If you can’t imagine yourself without meds, ask someone to help you believe it; to believe it for you until you can. I will believe it for you. I have believed it and I’m living it. I’m no different from you.

2. Don’t accept marginal improvement as a reason to keep taking meds. The way most of these meds effect us is, generally speaking, a dulling of our personality. We become less ourselves. We lose a lot of what makes us unique people. We also lose motivation. The rabbit hole becomes the pain we know and we are timid about the pain we don’t know. We can become convinced we can’t be better. We can be better. Give yourself permission to be better; to feel better than just “not horrible.” You are worth it. Your full self is valuable and needed. Hard to believe? It can be. If I can help you to know this it will be a great point gained.

3. Make a plan to get off meds. I am not telling you to get off meds if they work for you. But if they did, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Some psychotropic meds are very difficult to leave behind. All require us to make a plan. There are lots of horror stories of people doing very bad things when they stop taking psychotropic meds too quickly or take them irregularly. The trouble with mood altering meds is that they are mind altering meds. We may not be good judges of how we are doing when we take them or stop taking them. It isn’t helpful that some drug manufacturers distort or minimize the truly harsh effects of withdrawal from their drugs. And we don’t have to be on a drug for very long to experience significant withdrawal problems. The first time I got off of Effexor it was horrible. I was told the drug would be fully out of my system in about a month. I set out to grind through the withdrawals and get to that mark. But it didn’t get better a one month, then two. All the “experts” said this couldn’t be withdrawals because the half life of the drug was short enough that it was all gone. I felt the way I felt and that’s all I know. It was bad, and there were lots of testimonies from others about the same thing. I gave up and went back to the drug not because it helped my depression, but because it had created a dependency I couldn’t ignore. Not all the meds are like this, but many are, and none should be dropped casually. Make a plan. Get help. Make it into your work; your job. It’s a hard job. Give yourself a break. If you are walking through it with someone help them make space to rest a lot. Tell people what you are doing and ask them to support you. If you fail to get off the meds the first time, don’t think you can never try again. You will learn things by the first attempt that you can apply to the next try. Go easy on yourself. Those voices in our head that call us failures are not us and they are not our friends.

4. Make your own decisions and be your own advocate. People are risk averse and mental health professionals are not an exception. They all have caseloads and pressures of their own. They try to help their clients but they usually have too many to be fully engaged with one.

5. Give up on the speed solution.

Healed

Today is the start of something new. For over ten years (maybe closer to fifteen – it’s hard to track) I struggled/fought with depression. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (mdd) – there’s a reason I don’t capitalize that. Eventually I found myself in a category of depression called treatment resistant depression (trd) – also no caps. Can you guess how you end up with treatment resistant depression? Right. You treat it with things that don’t work. Lots of things. I will go into some of those things as it becomes useful to us, but for now I will just say I tried a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals, diets, counseling, and other therapies looking for relief; everything up to electroshock which I looked into but didn’t do solely because I couldn’t carve out the three months of my life it seemed to require. I wasn’t afraid of doing it; the threat of suffering significant memory loss is nothing compared to getting some relief from the relentless grinding gray misery of depression. I have a YouTube video saved somewhere of a man explaining his struggle with depression. In it he makes the statement: if you told me that eating rat dung every day would fix this, I’d do it with no hesitation. Serve it up. Yeah. True. There is an amazing discipline to feeling so bad so long. Eating nothing but meat? Did it two months straight. Go to an hour long treatment every day for six weeks in a facility an hour from your home? Did that – no t-shirt, lots of money. Take a little white pill at precisely the same minute three times a day for a year? Without fail. What should we call this? The discipline of hope?

As solution after solution failed I found my options shrinking and becoming more expensive in real terms: the loss of time and the long term risk to bodily health. And I also found a strange phenomena at work; the need to keep something out there in reserve. If you are reading this and have a loved one suffering from depression or it’s evil twin anxiety, or both – probably both because they invite one another to the party in our minds – it’s good to understand that sometimes we look like we are procrastinating but sometimes we are just keeping a potential treatment out there because if it fails it eliminates another path to a better future. It snuffs out another hope. “If this doesn’t work, I can always do that.” But it’s a very bad day when “that” was the most extreme solution out there and it didn’t work. Then where do we go? I have a friend who was diagnosed with a severe form of multiple sclerosis. It was so severe his docs recommended he go to the Mayo Clinic. He resisted going at first because of this very reason. “I mean,” he said, “if I go there and they can’t do anything for me, what’s next?” I get it.

Hope is the thing. If you’ve ever lived through a period of lost or diminished hope you’ve tasted the taste of depression. It’s like waking up with cigar mouth; everything tastes like smoke until it wears off. The thing about depression is that you wake up with it, spend all day with it, and go to bed with it, and do it again and again. And if it’s treatment resistant, no amount of Listerine and Colgate helps.

I’m writing this now because I want to give hope and help to people suffering like I did and to the people who love them and don’t know what to do. As things got more and more hopeless for me I remember googling the phrase “healed from treatment resistant depression” in any form I could come up with. Mostly what came up were sponsored ads for treatments that had already failed me. Not good. The other things were usually not encouraging; usually people telling stories of temporary relief and commiseration about how truly terrible it was to have this chronic condition. It hurt my heart and pushed me down further. I’m sure that out there somewhere there are more stories of healing and hope, but I couldn’t find one. I wondered if the people who got relief were so afraid to go near the topic again that they shut the door, locked it and threw away the key. I can’t say I blame them. If you’ve ever felt as badly as I’ve felt as long as I’ve felt it, you could be excused for leaving it as far behind as possible. But I also thought it was ominous. Wouldn’t at least one leper out of ten turn back to express the joy of being healed? So I’m writing this down and inviting you to come along and see if we can find healing and hope together. If you or a loved one is suffering from depression/anxiety I want to help you. I want to start by saying today I am healed. I am not on any medication or treatment. I have my life back without the defining words “depressed” or “mentally ill” hanging over me. I’m present in my own present. It’s possible and accessible, and no, I’m not selling anything. What I have I will give freely and cheerfully. I will continue to tell the story and give away what I have discovered as I can write it down here. I’ve discovered that public comments and exchanges usually don’t lead people to good places, so I am not going to open these posts for comments. If you want to interact with me you can email me at the contact email and I will do my best to respond promptly. I will share anything I believe that will be helpful and my wife, who has suffered through depression with me will also offer her insights. Today I am healed. You can be too.

Try a Little Bitterness

The guy tailgated me up the freeway. When I got to the merge lane and patiently eased into the flow of traffic with everyone else – one car yielding to the next in the polite morning ballet we all participate in – he screeched around me and pushed into traffic at the very limit of the lane. And I mean the very limit, because that merge ends at the mouth of a two lane tunnel. I gaped at this. He had advanced three whole positions. I felt a familiar heat rising in the middle of my chest and I started to mutter out loud to myself about the dude’s IQ. I may have used a little Egyptian. Obviously this guy deserved condemnation. He needed a little judgment from me. I thought I might even keep a little bitterness in my heart towards him. If only I could take note of the car make and model and the plate I’d be set. I heard another voice saying “No.”

“No?” I said back. “No?Did you see what he did? I have a right to feel this way. I deserve it.”

“And what good is that? What will it do for you today? What will you get out of it?”

“But I just want a little bit! I just want a little taste! It’s good!”

“It’ll make everything else taste different if you don’t spit it out right now. Bitterness never stays where you put it. Never. It spreads out. It finds the other little pockets you’ve kept in your mouth like a cow’s cud or a cowboy’s chaw. Spit it out.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Look. Do you see that car anymore? It’s gone. He’s gone. Gone. Not coming back. You had zero effect on him. This is stupid. It’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Give it up. Spit it out and drink something to clear out the taste.”

“There. I did it. I spit it out. Now will you leave me alone?”

“No. I won’t leave you alone. And I can see you’re still hiding some of it by the way you’re holding your mouth. Come on. Let’s talk about this. You know we did this whole routine yesterday…”

“And the day before and the day before…yeah.”

“You know I’m right. And you know how it feels when you admit it and take a sip of water. It’s the best water.”

I took a sip. I had to admit it was good. My mouth tasted sweeter. My heart felt lighter. My eyes grew clearer. “Poor guy was probably late for work. I hate that feeling. It makes me do crazy things. It stresses me out and makes me feel angry and scared at the same time. Yuck. Bless him. Get him to work safely. Ease his mind. Give him a good day. Yes. Give him a good day just like we are going to have a good day.”

“Amen.”

Acts 1:1

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,

 First book… began to do and teach

Luke is the author of the book of Acts.  He is also the author of the gospel of Luke.  He is conducting a research project that takes him from the birth of Jesus to the birth of the church.  Theophilus is the person to whom Luke wrote both books. 

We know that Luke was a doctor and his writing is meticulous. Of all the gospel writers he is the most detailed and thorough.  He uses words precisely. When he says his first book was what Jesus began to do and teach we need to take note.  The first work is the gospel of Luke where Jesus is the lead character from start to finish, but in this second work, the book of Acts, Jesus is going to make a brief appearance and depart the scene.

How are we to understand the word “began”? Luke tells us that Jesus is going to continue both doing and teaching. How?  The way this is written is supposed to make us lean in and look for the answer right at the outset. We are supposed to enter here looking over the shoulder of the resurrection man, listening to a dead man teach about how to live in light of his destruction of the laws of sin, death, and physics. He is going to continue doing things and teaching us things and we’d better pay attention. He is no longer the peasant prophet, he is now the ruler of life and death. We listen in on the conversation and find out that he is not planning on sticking around and that some other person (thing, event) is going to shape and guide the movement he has begun. 

It is the Holy Spirit. It is not an it but a he. A person. He is the Spirit of Christ. What does that mean?  It means we should look for and expect Him to act like Jesus and to do the kinds of things Jesus did and say the kind of things Jesus said. He is not unknown to us. The whole gospel of Luke tells us what to expect from Him. Now we wait to see how He will arrive on the scene and what the gospel of Acts will be.