To anyone clinically diagnosed with some form of Bipolar Disorder, the title of this post probably sounds like some click-bait ad along the same lines as “Make millions of dollars fast and easy from your own home!” or “Look 20 years younger overnight with this one simple trick!” Would those promises be nice? For sure. Are they actually legitimate? No way.
In the case of my post title though, I’m living proof that its actually possible, as impossible as that may sound. 8 years ago shortly before Christmas I was clinically diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder. I was hospitalized on two separate occasions for psychotic mania (ie. suffering from delusions and hallucinations), and went through various different prescription medications and years of misery and struggle. Yet now, as I write this post, I am currently sitting at the one year mark of being entirely symptom free. And that isn’t for lack of triggers and the stress of various momentous life events: from missing way more sleep than usual, to entering into a serious romantic relationship for the first time, to dealing with unexpected family emergencies, and more, 2019 has been a very eventful year!
Despite my hopes of getting into the habit of writing more regularly on here (something I mentioned in my first post at the beginning of the year), I haven’t written anything new since March. This is largely due to the fact that my previous motivation for writing stemmed from my own personal experiences with depression, mania and everything in between that I was going through on a day to day basis. Having been completely symptom free for an entire year has meant that Bipolar Disorder in general has rarely come to my mind, and I’ve had no new thoughts and inspirations to put into a post. But aside from that, its also something I haven’t had any desire to dwell on much. I’ve just been savouring the ability to live life like a normal person again, free from the looming shadow of having to juggle everyday life while avoiding triggers and bracing myself for inevitable future episodes on the horizon.
If you haven’t read any of my previous posts before, I encourage you to check out my post Withdrawl – Part 5: Med-Free Bipolar for an explanation as to what has helped me reach a place of complete stability for such an extended period of time. At this point, I consider my Bipolar Disorder to be cured—though there is a caveat to that. The reason I’ve been symptom free is that I continue taking the supplements I mentioned in that post with the same borderline-religious regularity that I used to take my prescription meds. Were I to come off of those supplements, I have little doubt I’d start having symptoms again sooner or later. So in that sense, I’m not completely cured. But for all intents and purposes, I’m no longer someone who deals with Bipolar Disorder.
Of course, I still hang onto a lot of my pre-established life routines from my bipolar days—I try my best to get regular sleep, I don’t go out wildly partying or binge drinking (not that I would even if I could), I continue to watch my stress levels and organize my schedule so as not to get overburdened and burn myself out. But I have way more flexibility in my day to day life and choices, and a sense of peace and freedom knowing that if I have a night here or there where I only get a couple hours of sleep, or I have an especially stressful/difficult week, I’m not going to plunge into weeks of depression or skyrocket into weeks of steadily escalating mania as a result. I thank God over and over again for the unbelievable miraculous blessing that this is. For years I thought I’d spend the rest of my life chained and constrained by my disorder. Now I feel like I can finally live again.
So I come to ultimate reason for this post: I think I may be putting this blog to rest. I started it because I felt strongly called to minister to other people going through the same challenges as me, to offer them a Christian, faith-filled perspective on the gritty realities of living with a serious mental illness. Now that I’m free of my illness, I’m not sure what else to say except to urge other fellow sufferers to look into the things that brought me to this place of restored health. Even if your illness is something other than Bipolar, the supplements formulated by the TrueHope company help with managing many other conditions as well, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, autism and others. Diet and lifestyle are also important components of recovery— for instance, I eat a ketogenic diet now by and large, though I do allow myself to indulge and eat whatever I feel like now and then when hanging with friends.
I may change my mind and write other posts in future if ideas come to me. But even if I don’t, what I’ve written so far will remain here for anyone who needs it. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll be notified of any comments here and will respond to them.
I mentioned back in Part 1 of my series on my withdrawal from psychiatric medication that I might post the research paper I wrote about the subject online. Now, three years later, in the aftermath of successfully coming off all medications and living med-free for a year with great success, I’ve decided to finally post it. This will have a decidedly different tone from my usual posts, and it includes citations and endnotes because this was written as an undergraduate paper several years ago. For a more personal explanation of my own story and the important supplements I’ve discovered to make this lifestyle possible, please read Part 4 and Part 5 of my Withdrawal series.
I promise to return to my usual style of posting after this! I have a number of important faith subjects I intend to tackle this year. But for now, here is my research paper, tweaked slightly in formatting for the purposes of making it a blog post:
The Advent of Psychiatry and the Rise of Mental Illness in America
If you were diagnosed with manic-depression (now called bipolar disorder) while living in pre-1970 America, you would have a 75-90% chance of a good long-term outcome. Today your chance would be 33%. Prior to 1950, one out of every ten-thousand Americans received such a diagnosis. Today that number has jumped to one out of every forty (Whitaker 192-193). If you find that hard to swallow, consider this: in 1955, depression severely impaired about 0.02% of the total American population; in 2014, the number had risen to 12.5% (Whitaker 151; NIMH RSS). Psychiatry has made a number of major breakthroughs in the past sixty years and there are numerous psychopharmaceutical treatments now available for doctors to prescribe, but mental illness in America has not declined; on the contrary, it has exploded (Whitaker 5). Where is psychiatry going wrong? A look into the history of the profession shines a light on information little-known by the general public, and it raises the uncomfortable possibility that the psychopharmaceutical treatments themselves are doing more harm than good.
Psychiatry as we know it today was born in the mid-1900s, during the era of “magic bullet” medications. German scientist Paul Ehrlich coined the term when, in 1909, he discovered a compound that cured syphilis without harming the infected patient. In 1935, the Bayer chemical company discovered a drug that cured staphylococcal and streptococcal infections. Penicillin came to market in the early 1940s, and other antibiotics followed hot on its heels, offering cures for pneumonia, scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and many others (Whitaker 40-41). The magic bullet revolution had begun in earnest. It was time for psychiatry to catch up with the rest of the medical field. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was founded in 1949 to oversee a much needed reform of the mental health system (See endnote 1), and a few years later, the profession had finally developed some “magic bullets” of its own. But they did not arrive in the same way as had other such discoveries (Whitaker 46).
The grandparents of today’s psychopharmaceuticals were all stumbled across unexpectedly while scientists were looking for other things. What would become the first antipsychotic medication was discovered in 1946 by scientists trying to formulate a compound that would cure diseases such as malaria and African sleeping sickness. Though the research did not work out the way they had hoped, a compound they discovered in the process seemed to have promising potential as an anesthetic. After more research on it, they were able to develop a drug that seemed to disconnect parts of the brain that controlled motor movements and emotional responses, without inducing unconsciousness. It was considered a breakthrough in anesthesiology. It was in 1951 that the drug, called chlorpromazine, was first suggested as a possible treatment for psychiatric ailments, since it produced “a veritable medicinal lobotomy” (qtd. in Whitaker 49). This “medicinal lobotomy” was marketed to the American public in 1954 as Thorazine, the first antipsychotic medication for the treatment of schizophrenia (Whitaker 47-51).
Thorazine became psychiatry’s first magic bullet medication, thus bringing the profession up to speed with the rest of the medical field (Whitaker 59). An article published in Time magazine on June 14th, 1954 claimed that the new “wonder drug” allowed patients to “sit up and talk sense with [the doctor], perhaps for the first time in months” (qtd. in Whitaker 58). Articles in the New York Times called the drug miraculous, claiming that it brought “peace of mind” and “freedom from confusion” to psychiatric patients (qtd. in Whitaker 58). The Smith Kline and French company had obtained approval from the FDA to sell this medication in America, and according to the company’s president, Thorazine had been put through the most stringent of tests and had been proven safe for human administration. But though the company had done extensive animal testing of the drug, fewer than 150 psychiatric patients had been exposed to it at the time the company submitted its application to the FDA (Whitaker 58). Furthermore, the French researchers who had initially discovered the drug had found that it worsened the conditions of one third of the schizophrenic patients they treated with it. It was not, in their opinion, a cure for the disease. Nevertheless, because studies in the United States showed that the drug worked, on average, marginally better than a placebo, it was marketed to the American public as a key breakthrough for psychiatry (Healy 88).
Given the praise lavished on Thorazine at the time of its release, it would be expected that it must have had a significant impact on the treatment of the mentally ill (See endnote 2). Initially, the short-term effects of the drug on patients seemed dramatic. A study conducted by the Psychopharmacology Service Center in 1961 found that 75% of patients treated with Thorazine, or a similar drug, were much improved over the course of six weeks, versus 20% of patients treated with a placebo (Whitaker 96). In 1977, a review of 149 similar trials concluded that in 83% of them, antipsychotic drugs were superior to placebo (Whitaker 97). However, when the Cochrane Collaboration (an international group of scientists not at that time funded by pharmaceutical companies) conducted a meta-analysis in 2007 of all the chlorpromazine-versus-placebo studies conducted up until that point, they were surprised at how weak the evidence of efficacy was for the drug. On average, for every single case of “global improvement,” seven patients had to be treated; furthermore, they admitted that “this finding may be an overestimate of the positive and an underestimate of the negative effects of giving chlorpromazine” (qtd. in Whitaker 96-97 footnote).
This leads us to the question of negative side-effects. The test of time has shown that the use of Thorazine provides questionable improvement for some steep costs. Over half of the patients treated with the drug in state hospitals developed tardive dyskinesia, a disfiguring, sometimes disabling, movement disorder that remained even once the drugs were withdrawn (Breggin 15; Whitaker 104). It has also been found that even though the drug can successfully combat psychosis over the short-term, it increases a patient’s susceptibility to psychosis over the long-term. For instance, in two drug-withdrawal trials, the NIMH found that 65% of the drug-treated patients relapsed when withdrawn from Thorazine, while only 7% of the placebo patients relapsed. It was also found that the higher the dose of medication pre-withdrawal, the greater the risk of relapse (Whitaker 99). Why? Thorazine and other antipsychotics have been shown to cause alterations in the brain that are often permanent after long-term use. The frontal lobes shrink, while the basal ganglia structures and the thalamus begin to swell. The latter effect results in patients becoming increasingly psychotic and more emotionally disengaged, while frontal lobe shrinkage eventually leads to frontotemporal dementia. In essence, the drug eventually increases the very symptoms it was supposed to treat (see endnote 3). (Whitaker 114; Frontotemporal Disorders)
While its fate is less than encouraging, Thorazine was only the first of many advances made in the field of psychopharmacology. Other drugs launched between 1954 and 1959 included the anti-anxiety agent meprobamate, marketed as Miltown, the “psychic energizer” iproniazid, and the first tricyclic antidepressant, imipramine. Miltown had been accidentally discovered during the search for alternative antibiotics to penicillin. Iproniazid was developed for the treatment of tuberculosis, but it was turned to as a potential treatment for depression because it had the unexpected side-effect of causing patients to start gleefully dancing in the wards (Whitaker 52). Imipramine had been stumbled across by Swedish researchers while they were searching for a treatment for schizophrenia (Fitzpatrick). These new discoveries were accidental, and none of them were “cures” in the sense that antibiotics were cures, because they were not treating the illness; they were simply treating the symptoms the illness caused (Whitaker 50-51). But this was not the picture that was painted for the American public.
At the time that these new drugs were being discovered, the American Medical Association (AMA) had recently given up its role as a watch-dog for the medical community. Previously, it had published a book each year detailing all of the drugs that had been proven safe and effective. But in 1951, the Durham-Humphrey amendment was added to the 1938 Food and Drug Cosmetics Act. This amendment mandated that prescriptions would be required for most new drugs, as well as their refills, thus putting doctors into a much more profitable position than they had hitherto been. No longer would the public be coming to them solely because of their expertise, so it mattered less from a business perspective if they made a point of only dispensing drugs proven to work. In 1952, the AMA ceased publishing its book of useful drugs and began to allow advertisements into its journals for drugs not approved by its Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry. A 1959 review found that 89% of these advertisements failed to provide information about the side-effects of the drugs, but the AMA received a convenient boost in advertisement revenues—from $2.5 million in 1950 to $10 million in 1960. It even lobbied against a proposal put forward by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver in 1960 that drug companies be required to prove to the FDA that their products worked (Whitaker 57). Such was the scene into which psychiatry stepped as it began to expand and improve in the public eye.
One of the next major breakthroughs in psychiatry came in 1988 with the drug company Eli Lilly releasing the antidepressant Prozac, the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). The drug was said to work because it caused serotonin to pile-up at synapses in the brain, and since it was hypothesized that depression could be the result of low serotonin levels, the logic was that an SSRI drug would correct the chemical imbalance (Whitaker 79). Before the drug’s release, Eli Lilly employee Joachim Wernicke claimed it had “very few serious side effects,” and after its release, its efficacy was compared by some to be as great as that of antibiotics (qtd. in Whitaker 288; 291). According to the American Texas Medication Algorithm Project in 1994, Prozac and the other SSRIs that followed it had become the drugs of choice for treating depression (Healy 140). Psychiatrist Peter Kramer, in his book Listening to Prozac, announced that the drug even made some patients “better than well,” suggesting that people might be able to expect future pills to allow ordinary people to have whatever personality they wanted (qtd. in Whitaker 294). It seemed Eli Lilly had done something right.
Despite glowing reviews in the media, a look at the development of Prozac and the studies conducted with it reveals a very different side to the story. When the first human trial of the drug was conducted in 1977, Eli Lilly’s Ray Fuller admitted to his colleagues that “none of the eight patients who completed the four-week treatment showed distinct drug-induced improvement.” Furthermore, it had caused “a fairly large number of reports of adverse reactions” (qtd. in Whitaker 285). These included an incident of psychosis, and a number of reports of akathisia—a state of agitated distress that increases the risk of suicide and violence. This was a problem for the company, and in order to solve it they decided that future studies would allow the use of benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety agents) to help suppress reports of akathisia and boost efficacy results, even though an Eli Lilly employee later admitted in court that such a decision confounded the results and “interfered with the analysis of both safety and efficacy” (qtd. in Whitaker 268). On top of that, in six out of seven studies that Eli Lilly conducted comparing Prozac to the tricyclic antidepressant imipramine, the latter was proven more effective. In Germany, the country’s licensing authority in 1985 declared Prozac to be “totally unsuitable for the treatment of depression” (qtd. in Whitaker 286). In their study, it had caused an incidence rate of suicidal acts that was 5.6 times greater than that of imipramine. This increased risk for suicide was also found in many studies conducted in the United States, which on average showed that patients on Prozac committed twice the number of suicidal acts as patients on placebo (Healy 212). In order to get the FDA’s approval for the drug and to gain acceptance for it in the medical community as an effective treatment, Eli Lilly chose to hide and intentionally misinterpret its own data regarding both its lack of efficacy and its potential to increase the risk of suicide (Breggin 14).
Given such poor results in the studies, it should come as little surprise that the results of Prozac’s 1988 release to the public were less than positive at the grass roots level. By 1997, 39,000 adverse-event reports about the drug had flooded the FDA’s MedWatch program—far more than any other drug in that nine-year period. These events included instances of patients committing horrible crimes, committing suicide, and reports of numerous unpleasant side-effects, including psychotic depression, mania, hostility, amnesia, convulsions, and sexual dysfunction. Furthermore, according to FDA estimates, only about 1% of all adverse events end up being reported to the MedWatch program. It can be safely assumed that the 39,000 reports were only 1% of the poor responses to Prozac (Whitaker 287-288). There is also reason to believe that antidepressants such as Prozac have contributed to the sky-rocketing number of patients being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A recent survey of members of the Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association showed that 60% of those with bipolar disorder had been exposed to an antidepressant prior to their diagnosis (Whitaker 175-177; 181). The generally accepted belief is that antidepressants simply reveal a pre-existing condition by triggering mania that would have eventually appeared anyway on its own (Bressert); however, a look at the aforementioned number of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder before the advent of antidepressants, and the number of people diagnosed with the same disorder today, is telling. Keep in mind, too, that the expectancy of good outcomes for bipolar patients today is far lower than it was fifty years ago.
After the advent of SSRIs, psychiatry’s next breakthrough came with the creation of a new class of antipsychotics, referred to as “atypicals,” that functioned somewhat differently, and supposedly more effectively, than typical antipsychotics like Thorazine (Atypical Antipsychotics). One such example is Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa, a drug brought to market in 1996. After its handling of Prozac, and the lawsuits that inevitably followed as a result, one would hope that the company’s approach to later medications might improve. Initial reviews after the drug’s release were encouraging. A number of psychiatrists at various academic schools declared that it was well-tolerated by patients and that it caused a better global improvement of symptoms with fewer side-effects than the first atypical, Risperdal—a drug that had been brought to market by one of Eli Lilly’s competitors (Whitaker 301-302). Stanford University psychiatrist Alan Schatzberg described the new drug as “a potential breakthrough of tremendous magnitude” (qtd. in Whitaker 302). He might very well have been right, however, “tremendous magnitude” can be applied to negative events as well as positive, and the true nature of this “breakthrough” is questionable.
Psychiatric drug studies seem to inevitably shatter the glowing picture that drug companies paint of their products upon their release. During Eli Lilly’s trials of Zyprexa, two-thirds of the patients were unable to complete the studies, 22% of those that did suffered a “serious” adverse event, and twenty patients died. Today the drug is well known to cause hypersomnia, excessive weight gain, diabetes, and a host of other troubling effects that include some of the very same problems caused by Thorazine (Whitaker 301). In 2005, a study conducted by the NIMH showed that there were “no significant differences” between atypical antipsychotics like Zyprexa and the typical antipsychotics that they were supposed to replace; in fact, both classes of drugs had proven startlingly ineffective. Due to “inefficacy or intolerable effects,” 74% of the 1,432 patients had had to come off of the medications before the trial was complete (qtd. in Whitaker 303).
After seeing these results, it’s worth asking what exactly these drugs were supposedly doing in the first place. The theory that is widely considered common knowledge among the general public is that mental illness is due to chemical imbalances in the brain: for instance, depression is the result of a serotonin deficit, while schizophrenia is the result of an overactive dopamine system. These answers are simple, easy to understand, and easy to market medications with. But the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness has been repeatedly proven false. Numerous studies have shown that people with unmedicated depression have the very same variations in serotonin levels as those without depression, while schizophrenic patients that have never been exposed to medication have the very same dopamine levels and receptor numbers as people without the disorder. (Whitaker 72-79). As editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times Ronald Pies wrote on July 11, 2011, “the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists” (qtd. in Whitaker 365).
Rather than correct chemical imbalances in the brain, psychopharmaceuticals actually create them. As neuroscientist Steve Hyman explained, “[psychotropic drugs] create perturbations in neurotransmitter functions” (qtd. in Whitaker 83). In essence, these medications work by distorting the mechanisms of an ordinary brain in order to have an effect on the symptoms of the mental illness. The truth that is openly acknowledged within the medical community, but that the general public remains surprisingly ignorant of, is that there is still no known cause for any of the mental illnesses we see today. Thus, we have no way to treat the illnesses themselves. We are treating the symptoms, not the disease (Whitaker 84-85).
Perhaps one of the most telling examples of the effect psychiatric drugs can be seen in the long-term study funded by the NIMH and conducted by psychologist Martin Harrow on sixty-four young schizophrenic patients. They were divided into two groups: those on antipsychotics, and those off antipsychotics. In 2007, Harrow announced that at the end of fifteen years, 40% of the group that was off antipsychotics were in recovery and 28% still suffered from psychotic symptoms. In the group that remained on antipsychotics, 5% were in recovery while 64% still suffered from psychotic symptoms (Whitaker 115-116). This may seem shocking, but this is far from the only evidence of schizophrenic patients faring better when not kept on antipsychotics long-term.
In 1978, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a ten-country study, primarily enrolling patients suffering from a first episode of schizophrenia. All of those involved had been diagnosed using Western criteria. At the end of two years it was found that in “developed” countries, including the United States, just over one-third of the patients had had good outcomes, while nearly two-thirds had become chronically ill. In contrast, just over one-third of the patients in “developing countries” had become chronically ill, and nearly two-thirds had had good outcomes. What was the difference? WHO investigators found that 61% of patients in “developed” countries had remained on antipsychotics, while only 16% of patients in “developing” had done the same. In places where patients had fared the best, such as Agra and India, only around 3% of patients had remained on antipsychotics. Contrast this with Moscow, the place with the highest medication usage, and the highest percentage of chronically ill patients (see endnote 4) (Whitaker 110-111).
What can we take away from all of this? I think that Robert Whitaker hit the nail on the head in his book Anatomy of an Epidemic when he stated that “[t]he psychopharmacology revolution was born from one part science and two parts wishful thinking” (47). Are psychopharmaceuticals behind the rise of mental illness over the past half-century? I think it’s safe to say that their indiscriminate use has, at the very least, been a significant contributing factor. Many doctors place far too much trust in the information they receive from drug companies. In 1992, the FDA’s Division of Neuropharmacological Drug Products warned that the testing done to acquire the FDA’s approval of a drug “may generate a misleadingly reassuring picture of a drug’s safety in use” (qtd. in Breggin 14). The drugs are by no means a cure, and while it isn’t true for every case, repeated studies have shown that many cases of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, can be handled more successfully when medication is either not used, or is limited to very short-term usage. This flies in the face of psychiatric convention, and one might very well ask if it’s truly possible for an entire profession to be so mistaken about its practice for so many decades. My response is a confident ‘yes.’ Case in point: bloodletting was once considered to be highly beneficial and was one of the most common medical practices for a span of nearly two-thousand years (Bloodletting). In fact, I believe an argument could be made that one of the things the medical profession has been most successful at since the dawn of time is coming up with treatments that cause more harm than good, even when they are thought up with the best of intentions. This certainly seems to have been the case in psychiatry.
The first half of the twentieth-century was not one of psychiatry’s high points. The popular “cures” that the profession made use of included treatments such as convulsive therapies and frontal lobotomies. It wasn’t until 1948 that the deplorable treatment of the mentally ill in American asylums was brought to the attention of the public. That year, journalist Albert Deutsch published his book The Shame of the States, giving the nation a photographic tour of such facilities. The photos showed naked patients left in rooms with nothing but their own feces, over-crowded sleeping wards filled with thread-bare cots, and facilities riddled with mold, rotted floors, and roofs that leaked. The public was horrified (Whitaker 43-45).
Some credited Thorazine for emptying out America’s asylums, but this was incorrect. In 1955, there were 267,000 schizophrenic patients in state hospitals, and in 1963 there were 253,000—a modest reduction, at best. It wasn’t until the 1965 enactment of Medicare and Medicaid that the numbers of patients in asylums began to noticeably decline, since states began shipping their chronically ill patients out of state mental hospitals and into federally subsidized nursing homes in order to save money (Whitaker 93-94).
In 1985, the publication of Dr. Peter Breggin’s book Psychiatric Drugs: Hazards to the Brain laid these results out for the public and pushed the FDA to upgrade its warnings about Thorazine. While it is still prescribed to patients today, it has fallen from favour in the wake of new drug developments (Breggin 15-16).
Despite how alarming these results may first appear, it does not mean patients currently taking psychopharmaceuticals should abruptly stop them. In fact, doing so would be disastrous. The brain adapts itself to being on such medications for any length of time, and once it does so, any immediate withdrawal of them will almost certainly result in a relapse—likely more severe than previous ones. As Dr. Peter Breggin explains in his book Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal, “the brain can be slow to recover from its own biochemical adjustments or compensatory effects.” Coming off of psychiatric medications requires a carefully managed, often slow weaning process. Unfortunately, the fact that coming off of medication too quickly results in a relapse has reinforced the belief that the pills are helping to keep an otherwise out-of-control disease at bay (Breggin xxiii).
“Atypical Antipsychotics.” Drugs.com. Drugs.com. n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
“The Basics of Frontotemporal Disorders.” National Institute on Aging. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, June 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
“Bloodletting.” Science Museum Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine. Science Museum. n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Breggin, Peter. Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal: A Guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients, and Their Families. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2013. Print.
Bressert, Steve. “The Causes of Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depression).” Psych Central. Psych Central. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Fitzpatrick, Laura. “A Brief History of Antidepressants.” Time. Time Inc., 07 Jan. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Healy, David. Pharmageddon. Berkeley: UP of California, 2012. Print.
“Major Depression with Severe Impairment Among Adolescents.” NIMH RSS. National Institutes of Health. n. d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
“Major Depression with Severe Impairment Among Adults.” NIMH RSS. National Institutes of Health. n. d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Whitaker, Robert. Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. Print.
That concludes my paper. Keep in mind that due to restrictions on length, this was a very cursory treatment of the subject. I strongly encourage you to do your own research. Check out my sources, especially Whitakers book. Visit Dr. Breggin’s website and see what he has to say about psych meds and withdrawal from them. And look into the very effective alternatives to psychiatric medications which I detail at length it my post on Med-Free Bipolar. This information is for anyone, with any mental illness, on any psychiatric medication. If you or a loved one is has been diagnosed with an illness and prescribed psych meds, please, please look into this further. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be armed with knowledge so you can take the best care of yourselves that you can.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I will do my best to find you an answer!
First off, I’d like to wish a very belated happy New Year to all my readers. It’s hard to believe I haven’t written a post on here since May 2018. Last year proved to be a long and difficult series of months, but I’m happy to say I’m in a much better place now at the end of January 2019 than I was at the same time last year.
As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, I was hospitalized for a week at the beginning of February 2018 for a full manic episode, complete with psychosis and all that that entails. Following that, I made a number of posts on here, some of which I have since taken down, since I was still decidedly manic while writing them and now either no longer agree with that I wrote, or they simply no longer make sense to me now that I’m stable again. To be honest, it’s taken a full year to begin fully coming to grips with everything that happened. The idea of blogging about any of it before now was something I just couldn’t face. However I’ve been feeling increasingly prompted lately to start writing on here again. So to start, I will finish of this Withdrawal series with two final posts.
Despite what happened last year, I am indeed completely off all psychiatric medications and have been since December 2017 (setting aside the very small dose of antipsychotic medication I took while in hospital). And believe it or not, I’m actually doing much better now than I was back when I was on medications, though I believe this is largely due to the special supplements I began taking in April last year and have remained on since. I will explain about them in depth in my next post. I detailed my reasons for deciding to ween off my prescription medications back in the first post in this series. In this post I will give you all a summary of how that process went, and the biggest pitfall I fell into.
As I touched on in Part 2 of this series, coming off my antidepressant medication Bupropion (aka Wellbutrin) actually proved to be much easier than coming off my mood stabilizer Lamotrogine (aka Lamictal). The withdrawal from antidepressants resulted in some mild-to-moderate depression symptoms and fatigue, however I went slowly, breaking the pills into smaller and smaller pieces. From April 2016 to August 2016 I weened myself down from 150mg daily, to nothing, dropping by 25mg increments every few weeks. I took a break from pill withdrawal for a little while before attempting to withdraw from Lamictal, since it’s better not to come off multiple medications within a short period if you can avoid it. I didn’t keep as close a record of my Lamictal withdrawal, since it took most of a year (I was on 250mg daily, if I remember correctly). Each drop in that particular medication caused anxiety, disorientation and mixed-episode symptoms that were mild-to-moderate, so I had to move slowly with it. And when I finally came off the last of it on December 17, 2017, I hit a major pitfall.
Early on in December I could feel the very first inklings of hypomania tickling the edges of my consciousness–more energy, increased cheerfulness and optimism, much stronger creative drive, etc. However I continued to taper anyway and ignored the symptoms, assuming they would go away. What I should have done, was stopped tapering for a while until I was past the Christmas season (always a troubling time for me when it comes to my disorder). But I didn’t. And I mistakenly believed that because I had tapered off the medication so slowly, I wouldn’t have any sort of relapse upon completely coming off of it. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that it’s common to relapse with a manic episode upon reaching a completely med-free state even if you taper off slowly. In my ignorance of this fact, I slipped into a state of denial over what was happening.
Generally I am quite self-aware with my episodes, but with this particular one, I lost all personal insight. As the hypomania began to escalate to full out mania in late January 2018, grandiosity and delusions took over and I became convinced that I wasn’t bipolar, that I had been misdiagnosed all along, and that I was just entering a new state of consciousness, a heightened level of existence (very similar to some of the delusional beliefs I experienced back in my first manic episode). I was in complete denial that I was manic, so I flat out refused to take any of my antipsychotic medication, Zyprexa. No one could convince me to. I actually had someone slip some of it into my drink at one point, unbeknownst to me, but I quickly discovered it and became utterly incensed and even harder to reason with thereafter.
Looking back, I can safely say my irrational denial sprang in large part from the fact that having to go through another full manic episode had been my worst fear ever since my diagnosis (worse even than a natural fear of death. I had essentially developed a phobia of mania and psychosis). I couldn’t bring myself to admit the reality of what was happening. Even after ending up in the hospital and experiencing the remission of most of my psychotic symptoms, I remained convinced that I had been unjustly hospitalized, and that I had never been manic in the first place. My behavior was normal enough during my hospital stay that I was able to persuade the doctor to release me after just a week. Looking back though, I can see that I remained manic for months after my release. This, of course, was readily apparent to my parents and close friends, however they felt I was manageable and would be better off at home.
Astoundingly, I managed to go back to work right away and continue “functioning” in daily life without any of my coworkers or students picking up that anything was amiss with me (at the very least, no one ever commented on it). Though internally, I was still fluctuating between various mild delusions and paranoia. For instance, I firmly believed the RCMP were following me around and spying on me for several weeks, and could not be convinced otherwise (this was not helped by the fact that the RCMP did in fact show up at the college where I work and kept undercover surveillance on the place for a week, though this was due to an incident caused by some unruly students and had nothing to do with me. It just happened to be very bad timing) . Thankfully, I kept all of these beliefs to myself, only occasionally mentioning them to my parents and close friends, which is likely why no one else in my life noticed.
It wasn’t until April that my family discovered the supplements that I subsequently began taking. These had an immediate effect—my previously high levels of anxiety and agitation almost completely vanished. For the next month and a half I remained in a hypomanic state, still more extroverted, enthusiastic and impulsive than I usually am, but grounded once more in reality without any lingering delusions or paranoia. Thankfully I was able to direct my extra energy into studying for my RCM music history exam, which I took and passed successfully. Within a week after the exam, my hypomania vanished entirely, and I dropped into the inevitable depressive episode that always follows my manic episodes.
This particular episode reached a moderate-to-severe intensity by the end of May, beginning of June, though it was no worse than episodes I had experienced while on medications. It lessened to a moderate level throughout most of June and parts of July, then eased off further to a lingering mild depression that continued into December, when it finally lifted completely. The episode lasted a total of 6 and a half months, by far the longest episode I’ve ever had, though that probably isn’t surprising considering the 5 month hypomanic/manic episode that preceded it. December was actually my only month of stability in 2018, which is ironic since that’s usually my most unstable time of year. That stability has continued throughout January this year. It’s a real blessing to feel normal again. I’ve been told that as long as I stay on my current supplements, I am not likely to experience any future episodes of mania. I would very much like to believe that, but only time will tell for sure.
I did learn a number of important, if painful, lessons last year, which I will unpack in future posts. In particular, it was a time of much spiritual growth. Jesus and Mary were both very much beside me, guiding my steps the entire way, though there were times when I felt entirely cut off from them and in the dark, and I backslid to a large degree in many of my devotions for an extended time. That, in and of itself, was a learning experience (a strong blow to the spiritual pride I’d been falling into prior). There were times I felt as if I’d gone completely astray and was right back to square one spiritually, my relationship with Christ and my trust in him reduced to tatters. I will delve into that much more in a future series. Suffice it to say, by the grace of God I am back on my feet again with a reinvigorated spiritual life, and a restrengthened desire for growth in holiness. I can safely say that the process of renewing my 33 day consecration to Mary that I began on December 31 and will finish this Saturday, February 2nd (Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord), has had a large part to play in my spiritual recovery.
I’ll leave it at that for now. In my next post I’ll explain the supplements I’ve been taking and discuss my plans/strategies for the future. In the mean time, take care, and God bless you throughout the coming year!
As a devout Catholic, this is something I ask myself every day.
I may only be 23, but with my life experiences and mental illness, I think it’s safe to say that I am far more aware of my own mortality than most other adults, both young and old. I don’t assume that because I’m young I have a long life ahead of me. I could die in my sleep tonight. I could die on the drive to work tomorrow. I could be diagnosed with a life threatening disease next week and be dead within the month.
Whenever I make reference to that reality to any of the people in my life, they almost always brush it off and discourage that line of thinking as “negative” and “doom and gloom.” I’ve had people who know me less well quip comments such as “don’t be silly, you have your whole life ahead of you.”
Have you received a personal revelation from God that I’m going to have a long life?
Because in case you haven’t noticed, people my age die all the time.
I understand why the people who care about me dislike this subject, because they emphatically don’t want me to die. I also understand why people in general dislike this subject. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? Nobody wants to talk about death. Not until it’s staring one in the face. And even then, many people would rather run from it. Turn their back and flee from reality. Hide in the newest distraction — the next experience, gadget, book, hobby, job, educational endeavor, vacation extravaganza… you name it.
Run away. Just keep running. Don’t ever look back.
That seems to be the motto of the society we live in: Never. Acknowledge. Death.
To the point where we cover up murder with fancy names like “euthanasia” and “abortion” and claim they are “humane options” to “difficult problems.”
Here’s a difficult problem for you: You’re going to die someday, regardless of what life choices you make.
How does that make you feel?
This post is a rather dramatic switch from my usual tone, but it’s not intended to be depressing. It’s meant to be thought provoking. Because how you respond to the thought of death says a lot about how you are currently living your day-to-day life.
I actually look forward to death, and not in a suicidal way. Trust me, as someone with type 1 Bipolar Disorder, I do not take suicide lightly. I’ve been suicidal before. I couldn’t be farther from that place now. What I currently feel is homesickness for heaven. I long for a reality that cannot be fulfilled in this life. I long for my Lord and Savior. For complete union with Him in heaven. But my time here on earth isn’t finished yet, and in the meantime, I have to be patient. My greatest “fear,” if you will, is that I will, in-fact, have a long life and die of “old age” when I’m 101.
I do not want to be stuck here that long. I really don’t. And not because my life is bad. I have a very good life. I just know that as long as I’m on this earth, living this life, I will never be fully satisfied, and I yearn for more. I’m impatient.
That said, I would never, ever allow that impatience to rush me.
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” Philippians 1:21
As long as I am still breathing, God has a purpose for me to fulfill on this earth. And in my better moments I want nothing more than to fulfill that purpose. That awareness fills me with peace and happiness far more often than I am anxious or unhappy.
A very great deal of the anxiety and depression experienced within our society has nothing to do with “mental illness” and everything to do with “life choices.” And I don’t mean big choices like who your spouse should be, or whether or not to get cancer treatment (though obviously such choices will have a major impact on you). I mean daily decisions moment to moment. Where do your thoughts go when you first open your eyes in the morning? What’s your first choice when you get to the end of the day and want to relax? How do you approach the work you do for a living? What is your attitude? Why?
I don’t care of you’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist… Really, I don’t. I know what I believe, and there’s nothing anyone can say to fundamentally change it. Though I must say, if you don’t have a faith or opinion on a belief system, you may want to do some serious thinking and research…. far better to do it now than put it off until you’re dying. Because you are going to die, whether you like it or not.
Most religions believe in a higher power of some sort that we have to meet when we die. If you’re a Christian, then you believe that “being” is a Good and Loving God in Heaven. But have you considered the fact that Heaven, by its theological definition is not a place, but a person?
Heaven is God. It’s a relationship with supreme Love.
If you haven’t started that relationship now, while you’re on earth… what sort of meeting do you expect with this “God” on the other side?
“Hey there. I know you gave me 23 years to start building a relationship with you, but there were just so many shows on Netflix to binge-watch I couldn’t be bothered to get around to getting to know you…despite the fact that you loved me into existence and died for me. Sorry bro.”
That really isn’t meant to be funny. It’s actually quite sad. Because it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in my country, were we to be wiped out tonight in a nuclear war, most of my generation would be making a just such an excuse to their Creator.
So the next time you reach for a game on Facebook, flip open Pinterest, or open the browser on whatever electronic device you prefer, ask yourself this:
What am I doing? Why am I doing it? If this were the last 15 minutes I had to live… how would I rather be spending it? And why do I feel that way?
Once again, this post is very late in coming. And as the fall semester is well underway, I foresee my future posts this year, if there are any, will be few and far between. But worst-case I’ll pick up writing again at the beginning of the New Year. Since there will likely be a gap between this post and the next, I’m going to focus on offering some hands-on, tangible things to try. Essentially, I’m assigning you homework. And I’m assigning me homework. If you’re a student, you’re probably already swimming in homework. But what we’re discussing today is spiritual homework, and if you make the effort to include it in the rest of your busy schedule, you’ll suddenly find yourself far better equipped to deal with the challenges you’re currently facing in your life.
If you’ve read the previous posts in this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), it should be fairly clear to you why I believe that a personal relationship with God is critical to being able to suffer the ravages of mental illness (and any other form of suffering) with peace and joy. Embracing the cross means praying “thy will be done.” To pray that from the heart requires that you trust God, and in order to trust God, you need an intimate relationship with him. The good news is that God actively wants an intimate relationship with you, and if you take even a small step forward in opening your heart to him, he will come to your aid with a shower of graces and love to help you continue down this path. And the deeper you go in your relationship with God, the more peace and joy will abound in your life, even in the midst of suffering, because you’ll trust him and you’ll learn to rely entirely on his strength to get through every challenge you face.
So how does one go about forming a deep, personal relationship with God? I have five suggestions I’m going to share with you that have made an overwhelming difference in my own spiritual life, my relationship with God, and my ability to cope with my mental illness. You may already be doing some, or all, of these things. If that’s the case, fantastic! Keep at it! And if you haven’t tried one or more of these suggestions, consider adding one into your routine.
The only caveat I have before I launch into this is that if you haven’t been doing any (or most) of the following suggestions, I’m not suggesting that you promptly start trying to do all of them at once. That’s a surefire recipe for discouragement. Pick one or two, and start slowly trying to implement it in your life. The key is not amount, but consistency. Ideally you’ll get to the point where you’re including all of these things in your routine in some way, but it takes time to build up to that. Pray for grace and start with something you know you’ll be able to realistically stick to.
This one pretty much goes without saying. You can’t form any sort of relationship with someone unless you talk to them. And if you’re trying to actively form a deep, enduring relationship, you need to talk with the person regularly. Every day. Preferably multiple times a day. If that sounds excessive, ask yourself this: how often do you talk to your significant other? Or, if you still live at home, your family? If you happened to be a roommate with your best friend, how often would the two of you talk? Maybe you aren’t a naturally chatty person, or maybe the people in your life aren’t especially receptive to chatter. But if you want to get to know God, you need to make a point of turning to him in prayer everyday. First thing in the morning and before you go to bed are good times because they’re (usually) easy to remember. But its good to get in the habit of turning to God repeatedly throughout your day. Even just an inward glance and a thought: “thank you!” “I love you!” “Help me!”
Another thing to consider is, what does your prayer life involve? Are you simply reciting formal prayers such as the Our Father? Rattling off a list of petitions for yourself and your loved ones? It’s certainly important to include such prayers in your day, but for forming a relationship with God you need to spend time in strictly mental prayer as well. By “mental prayer,” I mean having a natural conversation with God, using your own words, pausing at times to give him a chance to respond if he wants to. If this isn’t something you’re accustomed to doing, you might very well wonder how to go about it. St. Josemaria Escriva has this to say about it:
You wrote to me: “To pray is to talk with God. But about what?” About what? About him, and yourself: joys, sorrows, successes and failures, great ambitions, daily worries — even your weaknesses! Acts of thanksgiving and petitions — and love and reparation. In short, to get to know him and to get to know yourself —“to get acquainted!”
~ Point 91 in The Way
If you put your mind to it, everything in your life can be offered to the Lord, can provide an opportunity to talk with your Father in Heaven, who is always keeping new illumination for you, and granting it to you.
~ Point 743 in The Forge
If you’re thinking that this sort of prayer would require more than a minute or two, you’d be right. If you’ve never tried to do this before, 5 minutes is a good place to start for a period of mental prayer. Though, you should increase the time after a little while. Personally, I try to fit in a 15 minute block of mental prayer daily, not counting other other little moments of prayer throughout my day. But some people go for 30 minutes or more.
2. Spiritual Reading
Protestants tend to be more reliable than Catholics about reading their bibles. Or at least, that’s the stereotype. I think it’s important to try to read at least a little piece of the Bible everyday. For Catholics, the daily Mass readings are a great resource. You get a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. I highly recommend The Word Among Us as a source for these readings, since it also comes with a short little meditation about the readings of the day, not to mention a number of other interesting articles for each month.
But there’s more to spiritual reading than just the Bible. It’s important to read from other sources too in order to expand your own ability to understand scripture and gain new insights about things. Writings by the saints are fantastic, but there are other good resources, such as excellent blogs, and many different books on various topics. I highly recommend Mark Mallet’s blog. His posts are incredible. Even 5-10 minutes of reading every day can go a long way, but if you can’t fit in both scripture and other readings into your day, pick one day a week (Sunday is my preference) to fit in some time for spiritual reading other than the Bible.
If you’re a Catholic, you believe that Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist. You believe that when you go to church and the light is on beside the tabernacle (as it always is, aside from on Good Friday), Jesus is physically present in the room. That’s why we genuflect before taking a seat in our pews. That’s why it’s considered a serious sin when we choose, without serious cause (such as illness, or some inability to travel to a church), to skip Sunday Mass — we’re in essence telling God “I have more important things to do with my time than to come and receive the mind-boggling gift you have offered to me by giving your divine Son to me to nourish my soul.” That’s also why we have adoration services, where we come before the exposed Blessed Sacrament to offer our prayers and worship. Some churches even offer 24-hour adoration, so people can come at any time to pray. But it isn’t necessary for the Blessed Sacrament to be exposed. Jesus is still there in the tabernacle whenever we arrive in the church.
I believe very strongly that visiting Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is an indispensable part of forming a relationship with him. Yes, we can pray anywhere, anytime — just like we can pick up the phone and call our friends at any time. But there’s a marked difference between calling someone on the phone, and going to visit them personally. There is a level of intimacy that comes when visiting in-person that can’t be achieved in any other way. There two aspects to this: one is the simple fact that you’re in the same place, seeing each other face-to-face. The other is the unarguable demonstration that you care about the other person enough to get in your car and drive to their house to spend time with them. That’s a sacrifice of both time and energy. Love is proved through sacrifice. And building a deep relationship with someone requires more than just spending the bare minimum of an hour with them once per week (a.k.a. Sunday Mass).
Personally, I’m in the unusual position of being able to go to adoration everyday because I have a key to our church (perks of being part of music ministry). The decision to start doing this has made an incredible difference in my spiritual life and my relationship with Jesus. If you attend a large parish, there are probably official opportunities available to get to adoration outside of Mass at least once per week. But even if there aren’t, there are still ways of getting to visit our Lord if you set your mind to it. My own parish is quite small, since we live in a small town, and so adoration is only offered once per month — not ideal, but far better than nothing! And if you’re clever about it, you can probably find ways to visit more frequently. For instance, you can make a point of arriving an extra half-hour early to Mass to spend the time in prayer. Or, if you have a Catholic hospital nearby, they will have a chapel that is open to the public with the Blessed Sacrament there in the tabernacle. Or you could become involved in a church ministry that gives you regular access to the church via a key… 😉
4. The Rosary
I recommend this devotion so highly I don’t even know where to begin. The rosary imparts incredible graces. Since my family began the practice of saying the rosary together every evening, I cannot begin to list the miracles, both small and great, that have occurred. It’s transformed our spiritual lives and brought more peace to our home life than we’ve ever had. It’s mind-boggling to me how few Catholics actually make use of this invaluable tool.
Now, if you aren’t in the habit of saying the rosary, I can already hear the objection flooding your mind — “A whole rosary every day? That takes like 15 minutes! I don’t have that kind of time or patience…” To which I respond “How much time did you spent on social media or watching TV today?”
That said, you don’t have to say the entire rosary in one sitting. It can easily be broken up throughout the day. A lot of people (myself included) say their rosaries while driving, waiting in line, or performing mindless tasks like laundry. Admittedly, it’s better if you can just sit down and focus on praying it, but if your schedule doesn’t allow for it, then there are other ways to fit it in.
Committing to say the rosary every day does take self-discipline. It’s not easy. One thing I strongly recommend is having a “rosary buddy.” Find a friend or family member who will be willing to say the rosary with you, and then commit to doing it together every day at the same time. You don’t even have to be in the same place to do it! Shoot each other a text and then both start saying it together. Having another person to keep you accountable makes a world of difference.
5. Weekly Holy Hour
My last two suggestions have been specifically Catholic devotions, but this one applies to everyone, regardless of your denomination. A weekly holy hour is exactly what it sounds like — a commitment to spend an entire hour, once per week (outside of the usual Sunday Mass or service), with God. This time should include prayer, but it can also include spiritual reading. It can be done at church before the Blessed Sacrament, or at home with your family, or on your own. Really, there’s no “set” way of doing a holy hour. My family does one on either Thursday or Friday as part of our devotion to the Flame of Love movement. We say the Flame of Love rosary (a bit longer than an ordinary rosary), a few extra prayers, and either watch a video from the Flame of Love website (they have tons of fantastic resources on there, so I strongly encourage you to check it out!) or one of us reads aloud from a spiritual book or blog post.
By this point, if you haven’t been doing most of the things I’m suggesting, you probably feel like this is getting more than a little excessive. I don’t blame you. Don’t be discouraged! You aren’t somehow a failure for not already doing these things, or feeling like attempting them is impossible. A couple years back I never would have thought I’d be doing all these things — and believe me, I didn’t start doing all of them at once. It took years. But the difference it’s made in my spiritual life (and my life in general) is beyond words. I honestly can’t imagine living life without these now. They’re what keep me sane and happy, especially when my mental illness is acting up, or my other physical ailments are giving me grief.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you can be a bit clever with all this. There’s nothing wrong with combining these things. For instance, I do my 15 minutes of mental prayer while I’m at adoration each day. And my family makes use of the weekly holy hour to say a rosary and do some spiritual reading. Experiment and see what works best for you! Maybe your weekly holy hour could simply be a weekly visit to the Blessed Sacrament, during which time you pray, get your spiritual reading done, and maybe say a rosary. Bam! Suddenly you’re doing all five of my suggestions, just like that! Of course, you shouldn’t limit your prayer time to once per week. That’s got to be an everyday commitment if you want to grow your relationship with the Lord. But try things out and see what works best for you.
One last important thing to keep in mind:
The point with all of this is not to spend hours and hours in prayer and make immense sacrifices. The point is to build a relationship. And you’re building that relationship with someone who loves you more tenderly than you can comprehend, not with some exacting deity who frowns on your every weakness and failure. Even the smallest effort and sacrifice pleases God. In your effort to start doing more for him, you’re going to fall down. You’re going to have days when things don’t go according to plan, and you aren’t able to fulfill your resolutions. Sometimes it won’t be your fault. Sometimes it will. But the important thing is not that you fell — that’s entirely to be expected. The important thing is that you get up and keep trying. I quote Christ’s response in the Prayer of Sorrow that I included in my post about suicide:
Come, Child, look up. Isn’t it mainly your vanity that is wounded? If you loved me you would grieve but you would trust. Do you think that there is a limit to God’s love? Do you think that for a moment I stopped loving you? But you still rely on yourself. You must rely on me. Ask my pardon and get up quickly. You see, it’s not falling that is worse, but staying on the ground.
In Part 3 of this series we looked at how Jesus’ scourging bore some similar characteristics to mental illness. This post will examine how his crowning with thorns fits into our discussion.
If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.
This Mystery is a bit easier to address than the previous one was because it centers around a topic that most mentally ill individuals are uncomfortably familiar with: humiliation. The label “mentally ill” is embarrassing enough all on its own, but when people witness you being tripped up by the symptoms of your illness, it takes things to a whole different level. Different mental illnesses bring different symptoms, but I can’t think of any that aren’t humiliating to some degree or another when they rear their head.
The list of humiliations is as diverse as the number of illnesses that exist: Panic attacks in public, having to compulsively return to your front door and check that its locked ten times before you can bring yourself to leave for a lunch date with friends, making a complete fool of yourself because you can’t seem to stop spewing out the first words that come to your mind at a speed which is difficult for your listeners to follow, bursting into tears against your will in front of other people, struggling to make sense of what people are saying to you when you’re completely unable to focus on the conversation, finding yourself completely unable to live up to the expectations required of normal people in everyday life, flying into a rage over a minor trigger and spending days afterwards kicking yourself and trying to put back together the pieces of a damaged relationship…the list goes on, and on.
Then there’s the shame brought on by the criticism of people who either don’t know any better, or are just utterly insensitive. e.g. “Your life is great. You’ve got nothing to be depressed about. Get over it already.” There are looks of disapproval and gossip behind your back. Or, rather than scorn, you’re faced with unease, nervous whispers, unwillingness to make eye contact with you, and a desire to get away from your presence at the first opportune moment. Or you have people hovering over you, smothering you with concern, watching you like a hawk, trying their best to be helpful, and unintentionally rubbing salt in an open wound: I’m fine right now. I am able to make rational choices without assistance. I’m not a child. I don’t need 24 hour supervision.
How does Christ’s crowning with thorns relate to all of this? Well, a look at the Gospel passage says a lot. It shows him going through some pretty cruel, humiliating things.
1. Being rejected by the people he loved.
Have you ever had friends, ones you thought would be there for you, abandon you, as if your illness was a plague that they were afraid of catching? Or as if you’re somehow a completely different person now that they know you have an “ominous” label slapped on you? Perhaps they turned on you and became like enemies out of fear, misunderstanding or prejudice. Does your own family blame you for your illness as if it’s somehow your fault? Jesus gets it. He spent three years among his people, teaching them, curing their illnesses, offering them hope… And then suddenly he winds up in serious trouble, through no fault of his own, and what happens? Do they remember his kindness toward them? No. They gather in a mob and shout for his crucifixion at the top of their lungs, even after he’s been turned into a bloody mess from a brutal scourging. And where are his closest friends during all of this? Are they there for him, trying to support him and help him through it? No. They run away in fear, abandoning him, after everything he’d done for them and taught them, afraid that something bad will happen to them if they associate themselves with their teacher and friend.
2. Being stripped naked, dressed up and mocked.
Have you ever felt utterly exposed and vulnerable in front of people you know are judging you for something you have no control over? Have you had people assign false motives to your behavior, making unfair accusations based on ignorant assumptions? Have you ever been rendered completely helpless by your symptoms, only to have people tell you that you’re just being weak, that it’s all in your head (no kidding), or blowing you off because they think you’re making it all up? Jesus gets it. In a half-dead state, covered with deep, bleeding wounds, he was dragged before an entire cohort of jeering soldiers. They tore off his clothes— can you imagine how much that would have hurt in his battered state? —leaving him naked and helpless in front of numerous unfriendly eyes. Then they threw a purple cloak over his shoulders, pressed a crown of thorns onto his head and thrust a reed into his hand as a fake scepter, and they mockingly paid him homage, making fun of him for claiming to be who he actually was.
3. Being beaten over the head with a reed and spit on.
Have you ever been kicked when you were down? Have you had people criticize you and harass you when you’re in too poor of a condition to defend yourself? Have you been publicly embarrassed by other people talking about your disorder in front of you in a condescending or derisive way? Maybe you’ve even been physically assaulted or taken advantage of because of your disorder. Things like this cut deep, especially when you’re already embarrassed and hurting to begin with. Jesus gets that too. He’s been beaten, rejected, stripped, crowned with thorns and mocked. And now the soldiers take the reed from his hand and beat him over the head with it, driving the thorns into his scalp, opening new wounds. Then, rubbing his weakness in his face, they spit on him, despising him for who he claims to be, not considering for a moment that perhaps he’s telling the truth. Then they strip off the cloak and the crown, put his own clothes back on him— and you can bet they didn’t do that gently —and drag him out to be crucified.
Jesus understands helpless humiliation intimately. He can sympathize with whatever you’ve gone through or are going through on that front.
So back in part 1 I discussed the details of self-harm, what drives people to it, and my experiences with it. Now I want to move on to a slightly different discussion. I want to examine what St. Paul has to say about this issue. Of course, he wasn’t addressing this issue in a specific sense, but his words still apply.
To clarify if confusion arises, I’m using the NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition) Catholic Bible, so the quotes might be translated a little differently than the ones you’re familiar with if you use a different bible.
Lets start with some reasons why self-harm is sinful. Might as well get the painful stuff out of the way first, right? Self-harmers, this isn’t to heap burning coals on your head. It simply offers some spiritual reasons for why you need to keep making a serious effort to stop— or better yet, not start in the first place. I am NOT pointing fingers here. Remember, I’m just as guilty as you when it comes to self-harm. I’m one of the perpetrators, and I’m addressing myself as much as you.
Lets start with a quote that most Christians are probably pretty familiar with from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.”
That’s pretty straight forward, but let’s unpack it line-by-line.
If you’re Christian, you probably go to church. Maybe you don’t go every Sunday. But you go to a church building to worship God. Would you ever consider scrawling graffiti on the walls? How about carving things into the pews or breaking a window or two? Would you knock over the altar, or rip pictures and crosses down and smash them? Of course not. Why on earth would a Christian want to vandalize God’s temple, right?
I’m sure you already know what I’m going to say. Your body is God’s temple. When you self-harm, you are doing that exact same thing as what I just described you doing to your church. But it’s a little worse than that. See, if you look at the rest of that line you’ll notice that you received your body from God. But it’s not yours. He’s loaning it to you. So you aren’t just trashing a church— God’s home. You’re also smashing up the car you’re leasing from the all-mighty Creator. And if you read a little further you’ll see that it’s an expensive car. Jesus died to redeem that car (not to mention it’s driver).
I look at that and wilt. Yeah. I not only vandalized my Creator’s house, I also damaged the high-end, expensive sports car He loaned me. Okay, so it’s a bit harder to drive than some of the cars other people are borrowing. But I didn’t accidentally damage it. I did so intentionally. And God was expecting me to respect and cherish it. Whoops.
Now that we’ve reinforced our guilt, lets move on to something a little more encouraging.
“What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” ~ Romans 7:15
I don’t know about you, but that strikes a chord for me.
“For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” ~ Romans 7:19
So what can we take away from this admission by St. Paul? We’re sinful. All of us. Every single person is a sinner. We’ve all messed up. Assuming we don’t die within the next 5-10 minutes, we’re going to mess up again at some point. That’s just the way things are. Have you made the resolution to not self-harm? Are you feeling discouraged because you’ve broken that resolution? Guess what: St. Paul gets that.
“For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.” ~ Romans 7:18
Those of us who are mentally ill would probably be the first to admit that good does not dwell in our flesh. Our bodies seem to be constantly out to sabotage us. Sometimes it feels like just making a resolution to improve ourselves guarantees that we’re going to fail. Why should we even bother?
Oh, right… we’re vandalizing our Dad’s house and wrecking the car He paid for with His Son’s life. That’s a problem. We can’t really afford to keep that up. So what do we do?
“So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand… I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” ~ Romans 7:21-24
Miserable one that I am!— I think it’s safe to say that St. Paul sympathizes.
It helps to recognize that messing up and breaking our resolutions doesn’t make us failures. It’s normal. Yes, it’s something to be avoided at all costs. But it’s normal. What’s more important to recognize is that this isn’t something we can do alone. In fact, trying to do it alone is prideful, and we all know what pride leads to (here’s a hint: it involves hitting the ground. Hard). Pride is a sin. We’ve got enough trouble with sin already if we’re self-harming. Let’s not add to it. It should actually come as a relief that we aren’t expected to fix ourselves on our own. God expects us to go to him for help.
Think of it this way. If you were to put an enormous, eye-catching, cringe-worthy scratch in the paint of your human dad’s sparkling new sports car (pretend for a moment that he has one), would you rush into the garage, grab a can of deck-paint that’s roughly the same color, and use it to try and cover up the scratch? It’s a given that going and admitting to your dad that you just badly scratched his new car probably isn’t going to make his day. In fact, depending on your dad’s temperament, the odds of him blowing a fuse are decently high. But how much happier would it make him for you to attempt the above mentioned solution to the scratch? Wouldn’t he much prefer you to allow him to get it repainted properly?
This isn’t a very good comparison because God isn’t mad at us. But the childish solution of trying to fix the scratch with deck-paint is similar to us trying to dig ourselves out of the pit we’re in without asking for assistance. Our heart might be in the right place, but that doesn’t mean that what we’re doing under our own steam is going to fix the problem. Maybe it is working right now, and that’s great. But keep in mind that when we start feeling self-sufficient, we are very close to falling. When things are going well we need God’s grace just as much as when they aren’t.
“The concern of the flesh is hostility towards God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it;” ~ Romans 8:7
According to Paul, your body really is out to sabotage you. By “flesh” he technically means our carnal nature, not our actual physical bodies. But the desires of our bodies fuel that nature. The only solution to that is God’s grace.
If your attempts to give up self-harm haven’t been working, or if you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle to avoid starting in the first place, it’s time to turn to God and ask for his grace and guidance. As I said before, He isn’t mad at you. He doesn’t see you as some colossal failure because you ended up down this road.
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we are formed, remembers that we are dust.” ~ Psalm 103:13-14
In other words, He understands what we’re up against. He knows our weaknesses and how difficult it can be for us to do what is right. For those of us with mental illness, He (unlike some people) actually understands exactly how much that handicaps us. He knows how heavy our cross is. He allowed us to have it in the first place. But he has a purpose for it, even if we can’t see what it is, and He wants to help us bear it.
Do you feel like you’ve put an impossible wall between God and yourself, and that God couldn’t possibly want you anymore? That’s a lie that satan loves to feed us. Do you recall the parable of the shepherd leaving his flock of 99 sheep to chase after the single stray and bring it home safe? That shepherd isn’t mad at the stray sheep. He wants to rescue it. And He wants to rescue you, but you have to be willing to let Him.
Sometimes when we ask for God’s help, there is a part of us that only wants the help if it’s the kind of help we want. We don’t want just any help. We have a specific sort of help in mind, and that’s what we’re expecting from God. But what we want isn’t always what is actually best for us in the long run.
Here’s something to consider: At the wedding in Cana, when they ran out of wine, Mary (wisely) turned to our Lord for help. But stop for a moment and think about what she actually did, specifically. She asked for help. She didn’t get the answer she was looking for. In fact, Jesus’ answer seems a bit cold.
“Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” ~ John 2:4
Look at Mary’s response to this. Does she get upset with her son and tell him what she expects him to do? Did she tell him “Listen, I want you to turn water into wine and help these people out. I’m your mother. It’s the least you can do!” No. She didn’t. She didn’t even demand a miracle, even though she knew her son was more than capable of it. Instead, she put her trust in him completely, knowing that whatever he saw fit to do would be best.
“His mother said to the servers ‘Do whatever he tells you.'” ~ John 2:5
She had complete trust in him to find a way to fix the problem. He could potentially have instructed the servers to rush out and buy some more wine. But he didn’t. Instead, he rewarded Mary’s faith and gave her a miracle. The idea of his fixing the problem by turning water into wine probably hadn’t occurred to her. It only seems like an obvious solution to us because we’ve read about the story over and over again for years. It’s not an obvious solution. It probably wasn’t what Mary had in mind. But she allowed him to do what he thought best, and he did something marvelous.
What I’m saying is that you have to be truly open to whatever God wants to do for you. You have to be willing to listen for His advice and then accept it. If you recall from the previous post, I demanded help from God. I knew He could fix me, and I didn’t understand why He wasn’t doing so. And to my surprise, He gave me a very direct answer. I can’t say I was terribly happy about it at the time. Telling my parents was quite literally the last thing I wanted to do. He very well could have just taken away the urges. But that isn’t what He wanted. And there turned out to be a very good reason for that. Had I not opened up to my parents at that point, I never would have been able to open up to them later on when I faced the much more dangerous temptation of suicide, and there’s every possibility I wouldn’t be here today to write this.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that God’s solution for me will be His solution for you. Your family might be drastically different than mine. Maybe your parents are abusive, or simply wouldn’t care. Or maybe you’ve even tried to reach out to them already and they refused to help. Everyone’s situation is different. The only thing I can guarantee is that God does have a solution for you, whatever it might be, and He wants to communicate it to you. Once again, I don’t know how He will choose to do that. The number of times I’ve received a communication from Him that was that unmistakably direct are usually few and far between for me. He has many different ways of communicating, and some ways won’t work well for some people. The main thing is that you truly want His help.
If you’re feeling frustrated by the lack of concrete ideas for you to try so far, check out Part 3 of this post. I discuss some coping mechanisms you can try (along with a few more verses of scripture). The most important thing is to persevere in prayer, even when it feels like no one is listening. He is. And He will help you if you let Him.
Take care and God bless,
Set Me Free by Casting Crowns
It hasn’t always been this way
I remember brighter days
Before the dark ones came
Stole my mind
Wrapped my soul in chains
Now I live among the dead
Fighting voices in my head
Hoping someone hears me crying in the night
And carries me away
Set me free of the chains holding me
Is anybody out there hearing me?
Set me free
Morning breaks another day
Finds me crying in the rain
All alone with my demons I am
Who is this man that comes my way?
The dark ones shriek
They scream his name
Is this the one they say will set the captives free?
Jesus, rescue me
Set me free of the chains holding me
Is anybody out there hearing me?
Set me free
And as the god man passes by
He looks straight through my eyes
And darkness cannot hide
Do you want to be free?
Lift your chains
I hold the key
All power on heaven and earth belong to me
Do you want to be free?
Lift your chains
I hold the key
All power on heaven and earth belong to me
You are free
You are free
You are free
We are free
We are free
Jesus set us free