(If you missed it, you can find part one here.)
It was a beautiful summer day in July of 2005, but it was not beautiful for me. It was the longest day of my life—the day when I gave in fully and surrendered, handed over my wallet and my toiletries, signed all the papers, waived my rights, and said, “Something inside me is broken, I am not myself, and I can’t fix this on my own.” I kissed my worried husband goodbye and entered the locked-down psych ward of the behavioral health center with very little dignity but a whole lot of courage—the most courage, I believe, that I’ve ever had to muster.
I have sat, since that day, bald and sick, as gloved nurses infused red toxins into my veins. But the thing is, when you sit down in the chemo chair to fight cancer a host of people are cheering you on. You are a hero and your bravery is lauded with kudos and praise and love from everyone who has ever been part of your life. When a Christian walks into a psych ward to fight depression the support is hard to come by. There were not kudos or praise or love, except from a very precious few who either saw what kind of shape I was in or had been there themselves. Everyone else will surmise and judge or rationalize and dismiss, and it is hard not to be very, very aware of that reality.
And as that awful, longest of days came to a close, I sat at a conference table safely tucked away off the main hallway of the ward, and I looked across the fake mahogany at Dr. White—with whom I’d just shared all my feelings, all my darkest thoughts, all my smallness, all my fears, all my very real desires to just give up—and waited with sagging shoulders for his response.
It didn’t come right away, and I wasn’t used to that. I had grown accustomed to knee-jerk diagnoses, quick solutions and swift prescriptions from busy mental health practitioners. But just when I believed that maybe he’d fallen asleep, maybe he hadn’t been listening at all, his voice suddenly came at me from over the table, gentle but imploring …
“So, Tamara, … how does all of that make you feel about God? I mean, how do you feel about him … in light of all of that?”
I’m fairly certain I burst into tears. No clinician—even the Christian ones I’d seen—had asked me a question so open, so honest and without a hint of expectation. Dr. White (a Seventh Day Adventist, I later learned) genuinely wanted to know how I felt. About God. As a Christian in pain. And so I told him my truth, which might surprise you. The truth was, I felt very close to God that night. There would be plenty of other nights, years later, when I would be angry with God, when I would wonder where His justice had gone, if He’d forgotten my name, how He could be so silent, but on that night, despite my depression and sadness and desire for eternal slumber, I was at peace with God.
I was at peace with God.
And if your theology and beliefs about mental illness prevent you from believing the sincerity of that, then I hope you’ve never uttered words like “come quickly, Lord Jesus” or “he’s gone home to be with Jesus—thank God his suffering has ended.” Because if you have then you should be able to understand how it is possible for one to be tired of living and tired of suffering, but not tired at all of Jesus … but I digress.
And Dr. White didn’t second guess my answer that night. He didn’t try to tell me that being at peace with God was incompatible with depression and that I must have been harboring a secret sin or being dishonest with him. He accepted my truth gracefully. He asked a few more gentle questions, changed my medications, told me I was in the right place, told me I would get better again, and told me to get some sleep.
His question that night, so raw, so simple, was one I would turn to again and again when my depression became more manageable, but my life got harder.
The first time I sought a counselor was years before the psych ward stay, in the summer of 2002. I had postpartum hormones going awry and had not yet uncovered the reasons I’d struggled with depression and anxiety since my teenage years. I didn’t yet have the information I needed to unlock that puzzle, and wouldn’t get it for another eight years. (Not until long after my stay on the psych ward.) So, I did the only sensible thing I knew to do at that point: I found a Christian counselor and begged her to fix me.
Her “fixing” was both life-giving and life-altering. I don’t even remember her name anymore—that’s what time and stress can do to you. Though she was not the first professional to suggest medication to me, she was the first Christian to explain it in terms I understood.
She walked me through the power and importance of seratonin.1 She talked me through options—both homeopathic and pharmaceutical—and in the end we decided that I would call my doctor and ask for the prescription antidepressant he’d been offering for months but I’d been refusing out of misguided guilt. It was a difficult decision, but it was the right one for me and for my family, especially my children, and I’m so glad she helped me make it. It changed all our lives for the better.2
Because of that choice, I experienced a reprieve from depression and anxiety for several years before I began another downward spiral—the one that led to being hospitalized for a few crucial days in 2005—but in those couple of years of good mental health I moved twice, took on a dream career, participated in ministry, weaned a precious baby, and put a toddler into kindergarten. Theses were no small accomplishments. These were gifts—gifts I was only able to enjoy, because I had found the beginning of healing with medication.
But I didn’t just rely on medication. My depression had many sources and causes and varied slightly in form from year to year. So counseling was something I returned to repeatedly, even after some attempts ultimately failed to help me much. To be sure, I’ve seen counselors who did more harm than good. And many psychiatrists prescribing medication who didn’t really listen to my symptoms at all. Many professionals who had no business being professionals. But the ones that offered me healing have made the terrifying act of vulnerability in a professional setting worth it—it’s been worth it, it’s been worth it, it’s been worth it.
I stuck with Sharon the longest.
I found her in 2011, through the help of my church, when it became clear that I’d experienced sexual abuse and had never received proper counseling for it. Like Dr. White, Sharon sat across from me and asked the gentle question without expectation or judgment: “How do you feel about God now, in light of all of that?” And this time, because my depression was different, because my perspective was different, my answers were different. This time my answers were more like the Psalms of David. The angry Psalms. The where-have-you-been-God Psalms. And like Dr. White, Sharon didn’t judge. She sat with me in my pain and reminded me that I was not alone, that even a man after God’s own heart voiced the same kind of hurt and despair. She cried with me when it was the only thing to do. She challenged me with love when it was needed. She gave me the most logical, practical stress-relieving advice I’ve ever been given. (Watch Downton Abbey when you need to escape.) And she nurtured my spirit when life kept breaking me down. She was, again, a gift. A gift with proper training, a license, and an hourly fee, but a gift that was worth it, a gift that kept me from needing a second stay on the psych ward.
With Sharon’s help I began sleeping normally again after almost a decade of insomnia, where sleep was only possible with medication. With her help I cut back dramatically on my various medications, eliminating most entirely, because the therapy she gave me was needed and while I still have some work to do, it changed me for the better.
I have learned and I have grown and I have experienced a lot of healing, but I personally do not believe there is a one-time cure or even a one-size-fits-all cure for most mental health disorders. Prayer, nutrition, medication, therapy, exercise, etc.—all of these things (and more) can blend together in a unique salve depending on the size and shape of our wounds at any given point in our journey, but that’s just it: all of our wounds are different. I can’t say to another person with anxiety and depression “here is what worked for me, it will work for you too” because these issues are too complex. These issues defy simplistic solutions and spiritual platitudes because we are all so unique, so individual, from our body chemistry to our life experiences. And sometimes our struggles are hardwired into us because of trauma—these chemical responses to stresses and emotional pain that can lead to devastating depression and crippling anxiety and other afflictions. A triggering event can set off the chemistry again and again, and anxiety and depression need only follow the road map they know well to debilitate us for the hundredth time.4
While I don’t know how many of us will ever experience complete and total healing from clinical depression, anxiety disorder or other afflictions in the spectrum of mental illness, what I do believe is that remission—through various means—is possible for most of us and that being vulnerable with the right people at the right time can get us closer to it.
It’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it.
1Her explanation went a little something like this: “You can listen to your favorite song or you can laugh at a sitcom or do a thousand other good things and your seratonin will rise. But if it’s been depleted for too long, if it’s too far gone—whether it’s gone because you are depressed or whether you are depressed because it’s gone—no amount of lavender baths or meditations on your favorite verse will bring it back. You’ll need help. Now, we don’t know exactly why these medications work for so many people, but they do. And there’s no shame in admitting you need help.” Her summary of Seratonin in lay terms was actually quite accurate, but this site has a more scientific approach to answers.
2Various medications have come and gone in my life, and I’ll write more about this at another date. I believe they are often needed, but I have been grateful to have left many of them behind once I got proper EMDR counseling for PTSD—which can sound like a strange therapy until you realize it’s very simple brain science that seeks to engage both sides of your brain as you talk about your trauma … and this simple act of engaging both sides of your brain while you reprocess painful events tends to work for a lot of people. (Originally it involved eye movement, but as that tends to cause headaches and dizziness, many therapists simply have their patients engage both their hands, back and forth, left and right, instead of their eyes.) As far as medication goes, to be clear, antidepressants are not happy pills. They work slowly, over time. And while it took several tries to get the right dose and the right drug, I experienced a dramatic change in the first month of treatment. I could function again. I could get off the couch. I could be a good mother, a good wife. As I have often put it to others, it was like the clouds above me parted and I could see God again, and I’ll be forever grateful for that gift.
3It was the amazing Marilyn Meberg, who I’m quite certain did not expect the professional journalist on the other end of the phone to commence weeping on the morning of our interview. But I did. And she gave me a gift that day with her time and her compassion—and her professional expertise as a Pepperdine-trained counselor—that I’ll never forget.
4PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is neither a joke nor a cop-out. It’s a very real problem with its roots in brain science and biochemistry, and it’s not just about big dramatic flashbacks (though some people suffer from those) and it’s not just something veterans get (though many veterans do). Just about any kind of emotional or physical trauma could potentially cause PTSD, depending on the individual. If you struggle with the concept of PTSD because you went through something traumatic and didn’t experience it, I’d encourage you to think of trauma like a car accident. You can expose four individuals to the same car accident and they are going to come away with four very different wounds depending on where they were in the car, if they braced for impact or not, if they had pre-existing physical ailments, etc. In other words, we are all unique and our responses to trauma will be as unique as we are, usually for reasons that are completely out of our personal control.