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!
At long last, we come to the final post in this series. As I promised in the previous post, I will be explaining about the supplements that have been critical to my recovery and stability in the aftermath of coming off all my medications and living med-free long term. So lets begin.
If you’ve followed the previous posts in this series, then you already know why I decided to ween off my medications, as well as the pretty major pitfalls I encountered doing so (if you haven’t read them, please do check them out! You can find Part 1 here.) If you had asked me 5 years ago whether it was possible for someone with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder to live a happy, stable life without any pharmaceutical medications, I’d have told you a very emphatic “No way!” I’d have said you’d be crazy to even try it—after all, the life threatening dangers of psychotic mania and suicidal depression are all too real. And yet, as I write this post, I have passed the 1 year mark of living a completely medication free existence. How is this possible?
For the record, I’m in no way affiliated with the company I’m about to point you toward. I’m not getting any perks for promoting them. Their products have just worked so incredibly well for me that I can’t not point them out to other people to try.
The company is called Truehope. As a side note, I have to share a funny detail with you all. A few years back, before I started this blog, and before I had even the slightest notion I would ever be coming off my meds, I had the idea come to me in prayer that I ought to write a book about journeying through the spiritual life with mental illness, and entitle it Finding Hope. The title came to me so clearly and emphatically that I wrote it down at the front of my journal and kept it there. While I haven’t dismissed the idea of writing a book, I later decided to start this blog first as a more immediately doable option. I just have to say I find it ironic that years in advance I was prompted to “find hope,” only to discover the eventual solution to my mental illness problems in a company called Truehope.
So what is this company? Well, here is their mission statement in their own words:
And because the story of how they all started is so compelling, I will quote it in full, as it’s described on their website:
The Truehope Story
Before Truehope… the beginning
Ten children were left motherless the cold January day that Debbie took her own life. She had been suffering the pains of Bipolar Affective Disorder (BAD) for years and finally succumbed to the dark and irrational side of the disease. Somehow, out of the sheer agony and crushing pain of her loss came a determination for Anthony her husband. He began a prayerful and desperate search to find hope and health for their children who were also ravaged by the disease. At the time of her death, two of Debbie’s children had also been diagnosed with BAD. As a desperate father, and after exhausting all known medical routes, Anthony sought the help of a friend. Together these two men established a program of nutritional supplementation that would eventually lead to the recovery of Anthony’s children and the formation of The Synergy Group of Canada Inc. – a non medical research group dedicated to researching and overcoming the disorders of the central nervous system. Debbie’s tragic death had initiated that series of events which would change the grim picture of mental illness forever.
Joseph Stephan exhibited signs of attention deficit disorder as a child. By the time he entered puberty, the symptoms were escalating into panic attacks, delusions and violent fits of rage. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with BAD shortly after Debbie’s death.
Joseph was first treated with lithium, an element used to make batteries, which caused severe side effects. When he refused to take it, he lapsed into severe mania and panic within a couple of days.
Then, on January 20, 1996, Joseph started using the nutritional supplementation program created by his father. The results were dramatic and immediate. Within four days he was off the lithium; within two weeks, his mood and emotional control improved immensely. In the years since, he has maintained his well being and has had no recurring symptoms of BAD.
Autumn Stringam’s recovery is, if anything, more dramatic than her brother’s. At 12, she showed signs of suffering from Bipolar Disorder, a condition which deteriorated throughout her teens. She married Dana, had a child at 20, and was subsequently diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder I with rapid cycles; a daily seesaw of mania and depression. Those eventually gave way to regular visual and aural hallucinations and the belief her husband and other family members were conspiring to kill her. These visions often led her to act out violently.
Following a particularly terrifying episode, Autumn was admitted to a psychiatric ward. After many adjustments to her medications, she was released a few weeks later. Drugged and with her cognition impaired, she “broke through” her medications frequently and was extremely unstable.
After threatening suicide, she was again hospitalized. Upon release, she was taking a pharmaceutical cocktail of Haldol, Rivotril, Ativan, Epival and Cogentin, a combination that failed to control her psychosis. She continued to rapid cycle.
Told Autumn would require round-the-clock adult supervision, Dana took her to her father to begin the alternative treatment, which had helped Joseph. Within four days she was forced to eliminate Haldol and Rivotril because of the drastically increasing side effects. Ativan was no longer required when hallucinations ceased. After one week on the program, she returned home to her husband. Less than a month later, she reduced, then eliminated, the mood stabilizer Epival. Her only “medication” now was the nutrient supplement which would become Empowerplus.
Autumn’s recovery exceeded the expectations of her psychiatrist, doctor and family. The woman who was expected to remain a prisoner of BAD, confined by a medley of psychotropic drugs and pursued by thoughts of suicide for the rest of her life, continues to be healthy and stable to this day.
But perhaps even more compelling is how Autumn, once counseled to be sterilized after the birth of her son, gave birth in 1999 to a happy, healthy daughter, and again in 2001 and 2003 to two more healthy daughters!
“My life is a miracle and an example for all who suffer,” she says now. “There is hope, healing and ultimately, health for all who seek it; there is an alternative to despair.” Autumn spends her time raising her four wonderful children, remains happily married to Dana, her beloved husband and volunteers for her church and community. Hers is a parable of hope to those who follow her footsteps.
Anthony Stephan, in reflecting on the marvelous recovery of his children, said; “Truly God has answered my pleadings and intense prayers with a great blessing.” Hundreds of participants have borne that same witness and acknowledged the hand of God in bringing restoration to their life or that of a loved one. Hence, we have named this web site “TRUEHOPE” because we believe that true hope can only be found in the healing sustenance that God has provided for us. No man or company or science can ever replicate or replace that which our Creator has provided for us. In seeking to treat the symptom, we have all ignored the Source.
My mother (a pharmacist) had been pointed in the direction of this company back in 2017, however since I didn’t seem to be having any major problems at that time, she didn’t bother looking into it. After my psycho-manic episode and hospitalization in early 2018, she began searching for solutions for me, since despite having succeeded in coming off all my meds, I was far from stable and only just barely getting through my daily life. She found Truehope again in the spring and got in touch with the branch of the company which operates in southern Alberta. The lady she spoke with, Teresa, has since kept in regular contact with us. She was able to give mom very helpful advice and reassurance. They sent us a number of supplements, most importantly the EMPowerplus Advanced micronutrient formula.
I noticed immediate, dramatic results within a day or two of starting the EMPowerplus supplement. Previously, I’d been dealing with high levels of anxiety and panic attacks (the result of my ongoing mania and some mild PTSD from the trauma surrounding my hospitalization), not to mention agitation and racing thoughts. The EMPowerplus completely halted the anxiety and panic attacks, reduced my agitation and slowed my thoughts to something approaching normalcy. This is not to say it made me groggy–I felt none of the fatigue, drowsiness or befuddlement that I was used to living with when taking antipsychotic medication. I was simply beginning to feel normal again.
I first began taking the supplements in April. By May, the mania had dissipated almost completely, leaving me with only mild hypomania. Then, as I mentioned, following my exam, I crashed into depression. From my understanding of it, this supplement is more effective for treating mania than depression, but it helps with depression too. However, my body needed to go through a healing process after being on various psychiatric med combinations for close to 6 years. Teresa stayed in touch with me, suggesting supplement tweaks, and promising me hope that yes, the depressive episode would end and I would be stable in the future.
To be honest, I didn’t believe her. But I kept on taking the supplements because there was no way I would ever go back on pharmaceutical medications again. And slowly, the depression eased. The “greyness” lingered, the sense of anhedonia and lack of any creative drive, clung on for months. Then suddenly, in December 2018, it began to lift. My creative drive began to slowly come back to life. My sense of joy and pleasure at life returned. And by January, 2019, I felt completely back to normal.
We’re now partway into March. My stability has remained rock solid in a way it never did when I was on psych meds. The few times I’ve thought maybe I was getting more energetic, and my old fears about mania reared their head, I simply increased the dose of my supplement and added in some Choline for a day or two, and the anxiety and hints of hypomania vanish without a trace. It’s so much more effective than my old medications that it makes the thought of them laughable.
Teresa told me that as long as I’m on these supplements, I won’t ever have a relapse of mania. I didn’t believe her initially, but I do now. I’m back to a place where I don’t even think about my disorder much anymore. I’m still careful with my sleep schedule and I take my supplements consistently. But I’ve stopped worrying about having episodes. Despite having experienced several major former triggers (various stressful, emotionally difficult situations that would have formerly sent me swinging up or down with a certainty) I’ve remained completely stable.
Lastly, did I mention there are no unpleasant side effects with any of these supplements? None. Zero. In fact, I’ve noticed a number of positive side effects: my hair is way healthier, I don’t feel tired, and I find stress way easier to manage than I ever have before. I only wish I could have found these supplements before I started coming off my medications because they would have made the whole process much easier and I probably wouldn’t have ended up hospitalized at the end of it for mania.
If you or a loved one is on any psychiatric medications, I encourage you to check out the Truehope website for their much healthier alternatives. They don’t just specialize with Bipolar Disorder. They also work with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Depression, Fatigue and Stress related problems. I’ve heard they also help people with schizophrenia, even though it’s not listed on their website specifically. At the very least, it can’t hurt you to learn more about the alternatives that are out there.
My post last week was of a rather somber tone. But sometimes somber is necessary. And sometimes God confirms that in bold ways, in-person, in real time. I experienced that today.
Yes, I will elaborate.
This past weekend I visited Edmonton for a wedding, and on Sunday (yesterday) I attended mass with my piano instructor. She was still struggling with the loss of her elderly father to illness several weeks ago, but it was a gloriously beautiful Mass and it moved her a great deal. When I returned home yesterday evening, I read Janet Klasson’s post “For those who will die unprepared…” and found it a confirmation of the tone I took last week. (As a side note, her posts, and Mark Mallett’s, have been of immense help to me in my own spiritual journey. I highly recommend both of them though they are, perhaps, not for the faint of heart…)
This afternoon at my music history lesson, I happened to walk in moments after she had gotten off the phone with her daughter, who had called to inform her that her best friend’s brother died in a tragic accident last night, around the same time that I was reading Janet’s post. He was 19 years old and unbaptized. His 22 year old sister, the best-friend of my piano teacher’s daughter, was baptized this year after a powerful conversion experience that took place during the same week as my hospitalization this past February. My teacher was understandably badly shaken, and I spent the first fifteen minutes of our lesson praying the Divine Mercy chaplet while she called her daughter’s friend, then we prayed together for the young man’s soul and his family, and I offered her what comfort and reassurance I could.
To be honest, I wasn’t floored. These sorts of experiences have happened with such frequency in my life over the past year that while they usually take me off-guard, I find them comforting now rather than unnerving. I’m not a “seer.” I don’t receive visible apparitions from Our Lady like some people do. But I have experienced direct, internal communications in prayer on very rare occasions, and divinely inspired dreams (which occur which equal rarity and which I usually don’t share with anyone, since I often can’t interpret them properly until years later).
This evening, while beginning my daily family rosary, I experienced the soft, maternal touch I’ve come to associate with Our Lady and inwardly heard four words:
“I need you here.”
There is work to be done in this world. Heaven may be my eternal home, but God still has a purpose to fulfill with my life and if I wish to do his will, I have to be willing to accept whatever length of life he gives me.
I have no guarantees it will be a “long life,” but at the very least, I don’t anticipate I’m going to keel over tonight. Each and every person has a mission to fulfill with their life, whether they know it or not.
Are you aware of the mission God has given you?
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” ~ John 21:21-23
None of us can know for certain (leastways not without direct divine revelation) how long we have to live. John (the above-mentioned “man”), ended up being the only Apostle not to die a martyr (or by his own hand, if you count Judas). Personally, I think his fate in this life was much more difficult to endure than the fates of the others. He lived to old age, and left us with a number of beautiful letters and the ever-puzzling, endlessly deep Book of Revelation. Don’t assume he “got off easy” because he was the “favourite.” To live a long life after knowing Jesus personally would have been immensely painful. Not only that, he lived through the loss of Mary as well.
No, a long life is not necessarily a “golden ideal.” But neither is a short life, necessarily. There are no “golden ideals” on this earth. This life is not “the point” of our existence. It is temporary. Yet our actions here, in this brief period in history, hold consequence for all eternity.
So it’s worth asking yourself on a regular basis:
How am I using my daily life?
Personally, I wish to use my life to bring hope and joy into the world, in accordance with God’s will for me. I wish to use the time I’ve been given to create as much beauty and love as I can, to help my fellow sojourners in their respective life journeys. For as long as I’m here, I will strive to “wake the dawn.”
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?
It’s fashionable among conservative Catholics to complain about our culture of Relativism. But have you ever considered the reality that evil destroys itself? Because it does. Lashing out at our “culture” with vitriol only spreads Satan’s kingdom of hatred. Our goal as Christians should be to spread Christ’s kingdom of peace and love.
Next time you open your mouth to criticize someone, ask yourself this:
What will I achieve by saying this?
Do I truly know what this person is going through?
Do I know what it’s like to live as this human being every single day?
Do I know what sort of personal hell this person is living in at this moment?
And is what I’m going to say about to make things better, or am I simply pouring salt in a wound?
Even well meaning advice is sometimes the wrong answer. Sometimes there is no right answer, except surrender to God’s will and acceptance of his mercy. Sometimes that means falling apart. Sometimes keeping one’s “chin up” is impossible. We are weak, fragile human beings and we break under pressure.
The important thing is that we recognize the “break” is temporary, and we will emerge from the ashes like phoenixes reborn if we trust in God’s grace to rebuild us rather than our own frail willpower.
Sometimes the only right answer is a hug. A touch on the shoulder. Looking directly into another human being’s eyes and telling them “It’s all right. I still love you, even though you’re broken. I will always love you, even though it’s breaking me. For now, we can be broken together.”
Take good care of yourself, and others. And may God bless you. ❤
I was recently having a conversation with a concerned parent who was thoroughly puzzled as to why so many of her daughter’s close friends are cutting themselves. She couldn’t fathom what would drive a person down such a path. This isn’t the first time I’ve run into an “adult” (by which I mean people in the age-group of 40 and upwards) who doesn’t understand the phenomenon among young-adults that has come to be known as “self-harm” or “self-injury.” I’ve already done a three-part series on this subject, which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t already. But those posts were mainly directed at people who are dealing with self-harm personally. It’s different for people who are “on the outside looking in” at a loved one who is struggling with such a problem. So this post is for all of the parents, siblings and friends who don’t understand self-harm, but want to help somehow.
The first thing you need to know is that it’s not your fault.
It’s a horrifying thing for a parent to discover that their child is self-harming. It prompts a million questions and self-torturing emotions — how did I miss this? What did I do wrong? Am I a failure as a parent? What should I do?
I can’t answer those questions for you. What I can tell you is that self-harm is a personal decision that your loved one decided to make because they were/are going through serious psychological/emotional pain. The cold, scientific reason behind self-harm is that it releases endorphins which distract from the internal anguish the self-harmer is experiencing. It creates an “afterglow” of sorts that offers a sense of relief. And this effect is highly addictive. It creates a pattern that is very difficult to break out of. And the more often you’ve done it, the harder it is to get away from. It’s no different than alcoholism or drug addiction — except on one very important point: breaking free of the addiction is not as “easy” (I say that with irony) as resisting the urge to go to the liquor store, or not making a trip to your local drug-dealer. Self-injury comes in many, many forms, and short of cutting off your own arms and legs, there’s really no way to “remove yourself from the source temptation,” as one would be normally advised in Christian circles.
So what is one supposed to do?
Therapy is a good place to start. Another option is getting the person in-question committed (voluntarily or involuntarily) to a psychiatric institution. There are a few things you need to keep in mind, however, if you make that choice:
1. There are psychological consequences to a person spending time in a psych ward. You are likely going to face some backlash later on as the person tries to cope with the serious wound to the self-esteem that spending time in an institution creates. Like it or not, there is a stigma around mental illnesses and psych wards, and the people inside them are just as vulnerable to it as the people outside them.
2. People can still self-harm in psych wards. The staff do their best, and if the patient is there voluntarily and cooperating, it can be a good and safe environment. But if the person is there involuntarily and is angry/depressed, they will still find a way to hurt themselves, regardless of what the staff do. I’ve seen this first-hand.
3. Regardless of where the person is, a measure of trust is required on the part of the family and friends of the self-harmer. The worst possible thing you can do is turn into a “hovering helicopter” that refuses to leave the individual alone. While it’s important to keep up regular, positive interaction with them and make sure they know they are loved, smothering them is going to have the opposite effect you want. It will drive their already damaged self-esteem even lower into the dirt, which can lead to angry outbursts and an increase in self-harming behavior.
You will have to sit down with your family and decide the best course of action, because every family is different. Just know that self-harmers deal with a great amount of shame and disgust over their own condition. Criticizing them, or demanding answers, even in a “nice” way, is not helpful. People who self-harm don’t “do it for kicks.” It is the result of deep psychological pain, and it will take time to heal from it (in more ways than one). Prayer, patience, and emotional support are the best things to surround a self-harmer with. Recovery is guaranteed, just so long as the self-harmer themselves has the personal desire to break free, and the outside support necessary to make that desire a reality.
It’s been a long time since I posted anything. Or at least, it feels like a long time. Realistically it’s only been a few months, but that might as well have been a lifetime ago. A lot as happened since then.
I’d like to start with the good news: I successfully came off of my last medication (Lamictal/Lamotrigine) mid-December last year. It was, in a way, the most freeing experience of my life. It precipitated a manic episode that ended with me in the hospital, but that’s all right. I learned a lot from it. Christmas 2017 was beautiful for me. So many blessings. I had a strong re-conversion experience in which I gave my life to Jesus again to do with me what he willed. Admittedly, if I’d known doing that would end with me in a hospital, I probably would have hesitated. But God knows our weakness. He hid from me how things were going to turn out. He wanted my complete and unconditional trust, and he was there for me every step of the way. He and His mother, Mary.
I plan to write a blog series explaining what happened. For now, though, I’m still processing everything and picking up the pieces (i.e. catching up on everything I’m behind on after two weeks out-of-commission, and praying to discern God’s will moving forward). I just wanted to send a shout out to my few followers that yes, I am still alive! And I’m doing great. Just decidedly worn out after everything. I look forward to writing more in the future.
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.
Has it really been two months since my last post? Time sure flies. I just got back from a 10 day trip to Kansas to visit a close friend and attend a writers’ workshop. I’d intended to get a post written up before I left, but clearly that didn’t happen. And now, in the aftermath of a very exciting, blessed trip during which I didn’t get nearly as much sleep as I should have, I am experiencing what is likely the start of a mixed or depressive episode. Which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.
An excellent time to write a post on suffering, yes?
What a perfect opportunity to sit back and analyze whether my belief that it’s possible to suffer depression joyfully is at all accurate.
I may be repeating myself, but having a proper definition of the word “joy” is required for this belief to make any sense at all. And pondering that definition led me to a question:
Is it acceptable to conflate “joy” and “peace”?
One could argue that it’s possible to be at “peace” without being joyful. If you take “peace” to simply mean “freedom from disturbance” or “tranquility,” and nothing more, then apathy can fill the shoes of peace just as easily as joy could. An apathetic person feels no disturbance or anxiety. They don’t care enough about anything to be anything but tranquil. But I don’t think anyone in a rational state of mind would conclude that apathetic peace is in any way comparable to joyful peace. It certainly isn’t preferable. Anyone who has ever reached the point of depression where they’ve lost all ability to care about anything in life, knows that the absence of cares does not equal peace. Of course, if you’ve been suffering through a firestorm of self-hatred and you suddenly drop to a level where you don’t even care enough to hate yourself anymore, it can certainly feel peaceful in comparison. Cool water can feel hot to someone dying of hypothermia. But no ordinary person would choose a cold bath over a warm one to ward off a chill. And even the severely depressed person will reach a point where the numbness of apathy becomes a smothering prison that they would do anything to break free from.
True peace is inherently joyful. I’m not quite sure whether you’re peaceful because you’re joyful or you’re joyful because you’re peaceful. But both are simultaneously present and neither would be possible in the absence of the other. True peace requires joy. True joy requires peace. And I don’t mean external peace. A look at the lives of any of the saints demonstrates that it’s possible to be a very peace-filled person in the most turbulent of external situations.
So when I say it’s possible to be joyful in the midst of depression, I believe what I’m really saying is that it’s possible to be at peace. Because to me, peace is just a calm, gentle form of joy. And I can reaffirm with great confidence that yes, it is possible to be at peace while depressed. I’m not saying it’s easy to reach that head space. I’m certainly not saying I automatically feel that way when my bipolar symptoms rear their head. I’m tempted to say “I have to work at it” in order to reach that place. But really, that isn’t true at all. To be honest, whenever I “work” at being a peaceful person, I usually wind up even more anxious and mentally disturbed than when I started. You can’t will yourself into peacefulness. It works about as well as willing yourself into happiness. If you achieve anything it all, it’s temporary, and the experience is a tense one.
So how does one achieve peace? It’s actually startlingly simple. The plain, uncomplicated truth is that you will never have peace if you make it a goal in and of itself. Why? Because true peace is simply a side effect. It’s the result of something else. And that something else is trust.
This year has been a year of trust for me. At the end of last year I read an article about picking a word to focus on in the new year. I sat down and prayed about it. And the first word that came to mind was trust. At the time I thought it was weird, because it struck me as something more applicable to my mother, who struggles with anxiety. But this has been a year of realizations for me about the importance of trust in one’s spiritual life — and a real eye-opener as to how mistrustful I really am. When it comes right down to it, the fastest way to become a joyful person is to trust in God. I mean really trust in God. If you aren’t joyful, you don’t trust God. It’s as simple as that. Last year, I thought I trusted God. But now I can see I was deluding myself. Because I’ve gotten a few tastes of what trust actually feels like this year and the peace and the joy that springs from it is like nothing I’ve never experienced before.
If you want to suffer joyfully, you must be at peace. If you want to be at peace, you have to trust in God. If you want to develop true, childlike trust in God…you have to get to know him. You have to develop a relationship with him.
In the next post we’ll take a look at the process of doing precisely that, and we’ll discuss some tangible steps to take.