You Can Break Your Brain: And 4 Other Things I’ve learned from My Struggle with Depression & Anxiety
Three months ago I took my last antidepressant.
Well, it was more like a sliver of an antidepressant, a pink little tab cracked off from a larger one. I had been weaning off Paroxetine (the generic form of Paxil) for a month, taking increasingly small doses—25mg, 20mg, 15mg, 10mg …
As the last 5-milligram pharmaceutical crumb dropped into my hand, I couldn’t help but reflect on the long journey that had led to this point. I hope you’ll excuse me as I do a little reminiscing.
If you’re someone who has struggled with mental illness, perhaps you will benefit from my experience. If you’re someone who’s fortunate enough to never have travelled that path, I hope my story will shed light on the experience of friends and family members who have.
In 2006, while I was a student at Fuller Seminary, I had a nervous breakdown. I know that’s probably not the technical term for what happened, but it certainly conveys something of the strange and debilitating effects of what occurred.
It all started with a minor physical symptom: my thumbs were twitching. Every few minutes they would jump toward my forefinger as if controlled by puppet strings. A few days later I experienced a burning sensation on my arms.
After investigating my symptoms online (big mistake!) I became convinced there was something seriously wrong. And it didn’t take too much time online to pinpoint the problem.
I remember walking into the office where my wife was working at the time to give her my diagnosis. My eyes were wide.
“We need to talk,” I said, “I think I have MS (Multiple Sclerosis).”
In my mind’s eye, the future was all too clear. My poor young wife would have to push me around in a wheelchair by day and hoist me into bed every night. She’d have to work doubly hard to support us both. (Of course I knew nothing about MS, including the fact that most sufferers lead active, productive lives.)
The next day I entered the doctor’s office barking about my MS symptoms. After a few minutes of listening to me, the doctor leaned forward and firmly said, “You do not have M.S.”
I didn’t believe her.
After a few weeks, even I had to admit the MS diagnosis didn’t quite fit. But a new, more terrifying specter rose in its place: ALS!
And so began a months-long journey of being convinced I had a degenerative neurological disease of some kind. People tried to talk sense into me, told me not to jump to conclusions, but I wasn’t convinced. I don’t know how many times I had to tell people, “I’m very logical!”
The truth was, there was more than just physical symptoms. I was experiencing something that’s tough describe, even for a word nerd like me. I felt inexplicably sad. I had a constant, grinding anxiety that made concentration impossible. Forget reading or writing. I couldn’t even watch TV. I had to be reminded to shave and shower.
I tried to go back to school, but could only make it a few minutes into a lecture before being overcome by a nameless dread and slipping out the back door. I ended up dropping all my classes, which my professors were kind enough to let me wrap up later.
For a couple weeks, I’d wake up in the middle of the night overcome by a suffocating feeling that I was dying. Sometimes I’d flee our little apartment to find reprieve in the night air or just pace until the sun came up. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing classic panic attacks.
Of course I was still absolutely convinced all of these symptoms were caused by an underlying physical illness. I remember explaining it with growing frustration to a different doctor. “There’s something wrong with me. And it’s physiological, not psychological.”
I was a nightmare patient. I wouldn’t accept the conclusions of medical professionals. And I had an aversion to taking medication. Those medications were for weak-minded people, not sane, strong, well-adjusted people like me!
I’d always had some psychological peculiarities. I checked my sheets every night for spiders before climbing into bed and my shoes for hiding arachnids (I’m told this is weird). I also struggled with depression, but nothing incapacitating. Just par for the course for an aspiring writer, I told myself.
But this was different. My world had been turned upside-down. For the next year my life returned to a level of normalcy (I’m an excellent public faker), but inwardly I was still tortured by fears and a grinding anxiety that would leave me physically exhausted by the end of each day. The turning point came after a doctor challenged me with an analogy:
“If you were diabetic, would you refuse to take insulin?”
I repeated my mantra about my problems not being psychological, but he pushed back.
“Just try medication for a month and see if it makes a difference.”
I did and it did. To my surprise, a week in I felt my muscles begin to relax and my physical symptoms improved. I still struggled with anxiety and depression but it was much more manageable.
This past fall my doctor asked how long I’d been on antidepressants.
“Almost nine years,” I replied.
“I think that’s long enough,” he said.
Thus began the weaning process, which fortunately, went smoothly. Now I’m off antidepressants and I feel good. The depression and anxiety are still there, but I’ve learned methods to control them. Just as important, I’ve learned to recognize my own delusional and dangerous thought patterns. I’m also blessed to have a wise and patient wife who keeps me off WebMD.com and snaps me out of it when I start marinating in existential angst.
Looking back, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Here are five of them.
1. You Can Break Your Brain.
I’ve made a tremendous amount of progress since I had my breakdown. But my experience during seminary still runs through my life like a fault line. There’s a clear before and after; one person before that incident and a different one after.
Before, my brain and body were invisible to me. I didn’t have to think about them. I could depend on them. They never caused any problems. But ever since that experience, it’s been a struggle. My flight-or-flight instinct is easily triggered, my serotonin levels depleted.
My advice for people who feel mental illness creeping into their lives is simple: get help early. Don’t try to tough it out. Looking back, I can see that prior to my breakdown, I was under a dangerous amount of stress. I’d taken on multiple freelance writing projects while juggling a full load of challenging courses. I was also approaching graduation and the prospect of what I was going to do post-seminary weighed heavily on me. I wish I‘d had the wisdom and discipline to slow down and find outlets to deal with the stress.
I also regret the months I spent trying to battle the beast of anxiety on my own. During those days, my resting heart rate was 120 beats per minute. It took a toll on me. You really can break your brain—and getting it back to normal can be a long, difficult endeavor.
2. The Stigma Is Real (And It Isn’t).
I was extremely reluctant to share what I was going through with others. I was embarrassed about it. I didn’t look down on people that struggled with mental illness, but somehow for me, it wasn’t OK. Maybe it’s partly because I’m a man. “Panic attacks” don’t exactly scream manliness. Even now, I’m embarrassed by the whole thing. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to even publish this post several times.
I’ve had people divulge their struggles with depression and anxiety. I would nod sympathetically—but not even come clean about my own struggle. When I have discussed it, people are completely understanding. So many people have similar experiences. The people who condemn you for struggling with this aren’t the kind of people whose respect you’d want anyway.
For the most part, I’ve found the stigma was mostly with me. I heard one person say of mental illness. “It’s people keeping a secret from people who are keeping the same secret from them.” How true!
3. There are Spiritual Benefits.
When I had my breakdown, it changed the trajectory of my life. I was excelling in my classes and in the process of applying for PhD programs. Suddenly everything came to a halt. I felt my ambition evaporate. I remember thinking, If I get through this thing, I don’t care if I work at 7/11 for the rest of my life.
I’m a proud person, brimming with opinions. That changed too. For the first time in my life, I felt completely empty, meek, vulnerable. I sometimes wonder if God used the whole episode to cut me out at the knees. The Greek word used for such a state is Kenosis. It’s the word used in Scripture to describe how Christ emptied himself, setting aside even claims to divinity, to take the form of a suffering servant. My kenosis wasn’t voluntary, but it yielded benefits nonetheless. I wish I could say I’ve been humble and meek since that day, but pride has a way of mounting a comeback. Still, I’m grateful for the spiritual lessons I’ve learned through my depression and anxiety – even if they were painfully gained.
4. It’s Not (All) Spiritual.
Early on in my struggle, a pastor friend gave me his frank appraisal of my struggle: “You need to get delivered!”
Part of me wanted to give a hearty amen to his assessment. Who wouldn’t want to be delivered from depression and anxiety? But I knew there was a misunderstanding implicit in his statement. He believed my condition was purely spiritual (maybe even demonic) and that simply by praying, or mustering up enough faith, I could be free of the problem. That was an extreme reaction among Christian friends; most acknowledge that the issue is more complicated. Spiritual? Sure, but it’s also blend of other factors – psychological, emotional, physical, and environmental.
It’s unhelpful to simply urge friends struggling with mental issues to be more fervent in prayer and Bible-reading. Don’t get me wrong: prayer and Scripture are a tremendous source of comfort in the valley (especially the Psalms), but when you’re really low, it’s hard to even muster the energy or concentration to engage deeply in spiritual practices. You can’t pray yourself out of the problem. No, when you’re in the thick of the battle, you need others to pray for you. That’s the beauty of the Body of Christ. When you’re too weak to raise your head, others come alongside you to hold you up. Which brings me to my last point …
5. Lone Rangers Are Dead Rangers.
That first major run-in with anxiety couldn’t have come at a worse time. My wife and I were still fairly new to Pasadena. We had virtually no close friends in the area. Even though I was attending Seminary, we didn’t really have a church home. We went to church most Sundays, but often different ones. We figured there wasn’t much point in settling down in a church since we weren’t going to be in the area for long. In some ways, we felt the same about making close friends. What was the point?
When I started to experience “symptoms” the only person I could talk to was my wife, Grace. She was supportive—and scared. She was only 22 and couldn’t quite figure out what was going on with this previously solid-seeming guy she’d married.
Meanwhile, our family and best friends were thousands of miles away. And even though they were supportive, (my poor parents fielded multiple 3 a.m. phone calls from me when I couldn’t sleep), they weren’t there. What I really needed was a community to swarm me. At times like this, a loving community provides help, advice, perspective—all of which were in short supply at the time.
It was my own fault of course. Even when I realized I was in bad shape, my instinct was to close off from others and fix it myself. But these things thrive in the shadows and I would have benefited tremendously from the presence of others.
God put us in community for a reason. We aren’t designed to navigate life on our own. That may be doubly true for those of us who struggle with depression and anxiety. The worst thing we can do is do battle alone.