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.