I remember when I read it. I was in the basement in my bedroom with the lights off in the middle of a summer day, because that what I did that summer.
I don’t remember what website it was, but my gut tells me it was some kind of chat room, the author an anonymous commenter replying to a worried questioner. And I remember how worried I was, that summer. I was standing at something of an impasse. A moment of decision.
On my desk next to my laptop was my first batch of antidepressants and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know if I could twist off the top and pop them in my mouth and not feel like a failure. So I just looked at them. Suspiciously. Waiting for the right answer to come.
During the summer following my freshman year of college I collapsed into depression. I had such deep anxiety that I developed insomnia, and what I learned quickly about insomnia is that it is best friends with depression and anxiety. Insomnia is to mental health what an earthquake is to a tsunami. Everything goes Boom. First to go was my energy and then my humor about it, next my personality and my forced smiled and my weak grip on things, and at some point I went under. The darkness matted over every single moment.
And so I wound up in my bed at night wondering when insomnia would finally kill me, and if it mattered if it killed me. I wondered if God was getting any of my messages or if he existed or if he loved me at all.
Raised to look at things first through a spiritual lens, I considered myself spiritually sick. I believed depression was a disease of my soul. And so for help, I turned to my emotionally healthy Christian friends to see what they thought of my antidepressants, if they thought I should take them, if they thought it was wrong to.
They said I was right. This was a sickness of the soul. To try to turn to anything else, like meds, was like turning to a golden calf idol. “God’s love should be enough…” they said quietly. “Keep praying. Keep studying scripture. What if God is just waiting for you to quit smoking so you can feel the fullness of his love? Try that, see if it helps.”
And like most good Christians, they had testimonies to back it up. They told me about friends who God rescued out of grief. They told me about friends who went insane after taking antidepressants. They tried to give me hope, but I got trauma instead.
So, there I sat, in front of the terrifying open sea of the internet and I typed in my questions. I asked if it was okay with God that I take antidepressants. I asked if antidepressants make you crazy. And this is what I remember reading:
“The amount of sunlight you get in a day affects the chemical balance in your brain.”
Just a fact. Just information. Hardly the kind of quote you write on your bathroom mirror. In retrospect, it’s sort of strange how teary it made me.
But I think it’s because the writer wrote about depression and anxiety in a language I had never heard before. She opened the door into the world of the brain. She went on to discuss the inner workings of our minds, how malleable they are, how imbalanced they can become, how depression and anxiety require more than a DIY response. They require a whole new vocabulary. They are chemical: serotonin and dopamine and noradrenaline. They are genetic, passed on through our parents and grandparents. They are real ailments with physiological roots and they do not spring up because of a bad prayer life or a cynical attitude or some deep seed of moral depravity. They are illnesses and they need to be known as such. They need to be understood if they are to be helped, and simply understanding that as I sat there alone and cold in the basement demystified the mystery, diffused the fear.
I could breathe.
I popped in a pill and made a promise to myself keep doing the work and to reject the shame. This, I told myself, is an illness, not a failure.
As a Christian, I have been fascinated by the brain, how it works and how it goes wrong, how it all informs our experience of faith. As someone who has been companion to those that have walked these dark hallways, as someone who has gone mad in these dark hallways myself, I know how important it is to understand our wiring. I know how damaging it can be when we misidentify, misplace blame, tell a different story than the truthful one. When we are talking about matters of the mind, we are talking about matters of the heart and soul, and I believe only the truth will set these parts of us free.
This month is #Write31, a project for bloggers to publish something every day for thirty one days on one subject. I’ve barely written thirty-one words in the last month, and so to snap me out my apathy and get me back into the super fun discipline of brutal writing for public consumption, I have signed up.
And I’m going to talk about the Brain. Because I can. Because it fascinates me. Because I think it’s important to talk about.
I’m going to talk about mental health, yes, but I also want to talk about disequilibrium, the magical thing that happens when we learn something new or unlearn something we once believed. I want to explore the power of our mindset and the way we see the world, the way we reason and the reasons why. I want to talk about nature versus nurture, fight or flight, how our memory works, what concussions do. I want to talk about our intellect and our anger, and God’s hand in it all. There’s a good chance it’s going to be random.
I’m leaving this whole thing wide open for me. It’s a little scary, a little strange. I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ll be up front and say I already have one foot out the door, because the BRAIN, and because FALL IS BUSY, but I hope I can succeed in this little writing challenge. And I hope you’ll walk along with me.