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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.

Sudden Descent

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?

Big mistake.

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.

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We’ll be left with a church of upstream swimmers, people who cling to their faith identity despite a powerful counter current of anti-Christian sentiment.

For one brief moment last May evangelicals and atheists celebrated the same thing. What had these disparate groups clapping in unison? The Pew Research Center’s report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”

Atheists trumpeted the continuing rise of the “nones,” those who affiliate with no religion. The study showed that, in the space of seven years, the number of unaffiliated had jumped from 16.1 to 22.8 percent of the population.

Read the Rest at Patheos.com

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podcast
Ryan Huguley and I discuss how young writers can get better, some challenges facing the evangelical church at large, and the consequences of taming God. Listen here!

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The Reflex of Worship

November 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

sky

Have you ever sensed God in a room?


I think I have.

Sounds strange, I know. But if you’ve participated in enough corporate worship or prayer, you may know what I mean. And hopefully you’ll sympathize with how difficult it is to explain.

The first word that comes to mind is lightness. There’s a certain levity that pervades the room, this sense that you could almost climb into the air.

At the same time (and here’s where things get odd) there’s a heaviness. Not a bad heaviness, like gloom. It’s a good heaviness. The air feels heavy—thick with God, if you’ll forgive the expression. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word for glory, kābôd, comes from a root signifying “weight.”

I know such a description will sound hopelessly subjective to an outsider. I wouldn’t submit it for proof of God’s existence to my skeptic friends. Yet if you’ve experienced it, there’s no denying God’s presence. It’s palpable, vivid. As clear as the nose on your face.

God is always present, I believe. But he doesn’t always manifest his presence in quite the same way. The remarkable thing about those services in which I have sensed his presence, it wasn’t because the music was particularly good or the prayers especially profound. It was because there was a collective sense of God’s power and glory, of his holiness.

I recall standing in a room with three hundred people singing “How Great Is Our God” and feeling like we were blending into heaven. Only an intense appreciation for God’s holiness produces such moments.

We go to great lengths to create atmospheres conducive to meaningful worship. Each year we publish hundreds of new books on worship, hold conferences, and spend millions of dollars on instruments and décor we hope will lead people into the presence of God. None of this is wrong. Atmosphere is important. But I believe that no matter how much we invest, from stained glass to strobe lights, without an appreciation of God’s holiness, our worship is fated to be superficial and, at best, momentarily moving.

“Ultimately transcendence is what makes a worship service meaningful,” writes author Bill Giovannetti.

He’s absolutely right.

When God shows up, worship doesn’t have to be manufactured or drummed up. It happens instinctively.

Worship is the natural reflex of mortals to the presence of a holy God.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Most people quote the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18. As much as I love the poetic cadences of the King James, this is one instance where the famous translation misses the mark. The context and content of the verse make it clear this isn’t just any “vision” the people need. A better translation would read: “Without a vision of God, the people perish.”

It’s God himself who makes worship meaningful. It’s a vision of his holiness that drives us to our knees. God’s holiness is the heart of our worship.

Theologian Rudolf Otto described the experience of the holy as the mysterium tremendum. That is the phrase that became popular, but his original description was longer. He called it the mysterium tremendum et fascinates—the overwhelming mystery that fascinates or attracts.

These Latin words capture a paradoxical truth about God’s holiness. It overwhelms, but it also draws. It terrifies and captivates. It bows our heads even as it lifts our hearts.

This is an excerpt from YAWNING AT TIGERS: YOU CAN’T TAME GOD, SO STOP TRYING. Click here to read more!

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Lagoon

My wife and I recently celebrated our ten-year anniversary in Kona, Hawaii. It was an incredible trip, though not your typical romantic getaway. The reason? We brought along our eight-month-old son.

It’s amazing how many things you can’t do on the Big Island with a baby in tow. No surfing, no snorkeling, no kayaking, no crater climbing, no late-night luaus.

More than once we wondered aloud whether we should have made the trip with such a young child. But by the end, we were glad we did. There’s nothing quite like watching a child watch the world. And when that world is filled with the vivid sights of a tropical paradise, it’s even better.

On one of our first evenings there, while my wife was getting ready to go out for dinner, I walked our son down to the beach. The early months of his life had passed in the landlocked Midwest, so this would be his first glimpse of the ocean.

As we neared the water’s edge, I was curious to see his reaction. Would he smile? Giggle? Open his mouth and unleash one of his familiar “Gee, gee, gee!” exclamations? Or just stare, wonderstruck?

He cried.

I should have anticipated his response. The tide was in. The waves were high. They sped toward us with a growing roar before slamming into the rocky shoreline, churning up stones and spewing them across the pebbled beach. It was a violent scene.

As my son took it all in, his bottom lip started to tremble. Then he jerked his head from the sight and stifled a scream against my shoulder.

Suddenly I understood how strange and terrifying the pounding waves must have appeared to him. He’d never seen anything like it. What guarantee did he have that the next angry surge would stop before swallowing us whole?

His reaction made perfect sense: the ocean is overwhelming. And not just for children. Truth be told, I’m a little scared of it too. Poets wax eloquent about the ocean’s beauty, its power to inspire serenity and introspection—and that’s all true.

But there’s another side to the sea, a scary side, the side of powerful tempests and deadly creatures and dark depths. There’s a reason swimming instructors tell you to respect the ocean. If you don’t, it can kill you.

When I was about twelve years old, I remember looking out over the ocean at night and trying to imagine what it would be like to swim out into those black waters. It was about the scariest thought I’d ever entertained.

Vast, beautiful, powerful, dangerous—that’s the ocean. It makes me think of God, which is probably appropriate. Both are immense, mysterious. Both can make us feel frighteningly small.

The appropriate response to such greatness is respect and awe, even resignation. Yet often we tend to do something else, something very strange. We devise ways to make them more manageable. We scale them down to our size. We domesticate them. Or at least we try.

The god lagoon
One of the highlights of our anniversary trip to Hawaii was staying in the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a sprawling four-star resort located on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island.

We could only afford to stay there two nights, but it was worth the price. You didn’t even have to leave the 62-acre, 1,240-room resort to have a good time. It featured a dozen restaurants and a variety of shops, boutiques, and galleries.

In the daytime we swam in the pools and dined in the open-air restaurants. In the evenings we strolled the meticulously gardened grounds, taking in the lush vegetation and cascade waterfalls. When our feet got tired or the baby got fussy, we simply hopped on the air-conditioned tram that whisked us back to our room.

But the big draw for us was the lagoon, an enclosure the resort’s website described as “teeming with tropical fish and rare green sea turtles . . . a protected oasis perfect for snorkeling and swimming.”

The lagoon, of course, was man-made. Every min- ute ten thousand gallons of water were pumped in from the ocean. All dangerous marine life was screened out.

There were no jelly fish or barracudas or sharks in the lagoon. Nothing with stingers or poison or fangs. No spiny backs or razor teeth. Just slow-swimming turtles and brightly colored fish.

Beside the lagoon was a perfectly rectangular, white-sand beach, with cabanas for rent. And yes, a Lagoon Grill to fill you up between swims.

After getting situated on the beach, my wife and I took turns swimming while the other parent watched the baby. I jumped into the water first and swam for the other side.

The water wasn’t perfectly clear, but I made out several large fish passing beneath me. When I reached the rocks on the far side, I even spotted a sea turtle. I swam back to the beach, toweled off, and it was my wife’s turn.

The lagoon was enjoyable (it definitely beat a cold night in Chicago), but after an hour or so something unforeseen happened. We got bored.

Why did the initial thrill of crisscrossing the enclosure fade so quickly?

Maybe we had unrealistic expectations. I had been attracted by the promise of an authentic marine adventure, but this felt more like swimming in a large pool stocked with fish and turtles. Perhaps the experience was diminished by the fact that the lagoon was crowded with other vacationers, many riding inner tubes, paddleboats, canoes, and giant water bicycles.

But the problem really wasn’t what was in the lagoon. It’s what wasn’t. There were no waves, no spray from the surf, no tides, no coral reefs, no danger, no depths.

It wasn’t the ocean.

At one point I looked over my shoulder at the sea. It lay about a hundred feet away and seemed to stretch forever beyond the horizon. “You know,” I said to my wife, “we could swim in there.”

I believe there’s a spiritual equivalent to that man-made lagoon. If the ocean is like God, the lagoon is a poor, but useful, replacement. It’s domesticated Christianity. It’s engagement with a lesser deity. It’s the golden calf in place of Yahweh. It’s a life designed to give us spiritual experiences while cushioning us from the reality of a dangerous God.

Just like the manmade lagoon had real ocean water and marine life, this “god lagoon” may contain some spiritual truths. We may even encounter qualities of the true God—but only the ones we deem acceptable. Divine characteristics we find threatening or that clash with our modern sensibilities, we carefully screen out.

Life in the lagoon means never being surprised by God. It means never having to take seriously what he might have us do or ask us to give up. Ultimately, it means we are in control.

The power of the god lagoon lies in its subtlety. It’s easy to think you’re in the ocean when you’re immersed in saltwater and surrounded by sea turtles. And it’s easy to believe we’re encountering God because we go to church, sing the songs, pray the prayers, and interact with Christians. But we can do all of those things without ever having to grapple with the real presence of God.

And it’s not like the lagoon is filled with pagans and heretics. It’s filled with us—well-meaning believers who gladly pay lip service to the central doctrines of the Christian faith. But here’s the rub. Somewhere along the line we’ve distanced ourselves from those truths. We haven’t let them, or the God who revealed them, invade our reality.

In a thousand little ways, we’ve chosen the comfort of the shallows over life in the deep.
deep

Striking off for the deep
So many of us live what one writer called “lives of quiet desperation.” We’re bored to death of living but scared to death to really live.

What if what’s really missing are the deep things of God?

What if it’s not that next accomplishment or superficial thrill? What if only a ravishing vision of God’s grandeur will make the difference? Maybe that’s what it takes to make you want to crawl back into your life.

Maybe only the deep will do.

If we have access to the deep things of God, why would we ever be bored? Why are we so often spiritually complacent?

I don’t think it’s because we lack faith or are more sinful than anyone else. And it’s certainly not because God is boring. But over the years, we slowly lose sight of how strange and splendid God truly is.

My friend Margaret Feinberg wrote about this tendency:

Many of us say we want to experience God, but we don’t look for his majesty. We travel life’s paths with our heads down, focused on the next step with our careers or families or retirement plans. But we don’t really expect God to show up with divine wonder.

Slowly, subtly, God becomes ordinary, commonplace. As our view of his grandeur dims, our spiritual lives become dull. Instead of striking off for the depths, we never leave the beach. We’re like marine researchers, equipped with all the tools and resources to explore the deepest fathoms of the sea, who instead opt to build sandcastles on the shore.

Speaking of the sea, something strange happened next time my son saw it.

The day after swimming in the resort we went down to the water again. Not to the man-made lagoon but to the wild sea itself.

This time my son’s reaction was different. Rather than turning in fear from the pounding waves, he was mesmerized. Craning his neck to see past me, he looked out at the majestic swells.

He wouldn’t stop staring.

THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM YAWNING AT TIGERS: YOU CAN’T TAME GOD, SO STOP TRYING. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE!

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