Pills and Prayer

park sunriseI am having a pretty good month or two.   That is not to say everything has gone exactly as I’d want over this period of time or that I’ve been wandering around with a beatific smile on my face.   But I navigated my sixty-ninth birthday without spending hours ruminating about mortality … and a broken tooth that will eventually require major dental work didn’t send me into a tailspin.  Work has been occasionally intense but I’m finding myself fulfilled rather than frazzled.  I’ve simply been in a good mood for an old curmudgeon.   I like to think it’s because I’ve been paying more attention to the things that make me tick emotionally and spiritually.  I’ve been writing regularly, both here and in my journal.  I’ve been studying the 12-Steps again with a new sponsor and spending more time with the men I sponsor.   I’ve been taking time to read something inspirational every day (almost) and to pray more regularly.   I’d like to think that my attention to things spiritual is responsible for my improved mood.   But there’s more going on here.

I have discovered in my late sixties that I’m prone to mild to moderate clinical depression.  I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise … it was depression that moved my Dad from his house to a nursing home and an anti-depressant that helped him move from there to assisted living.  Back in January 2012, in the midst of a dark period, I talked to my therapist and took the Goldberg test for depression and it came up moderate.  I very publicly (as public as it gets here on Older Eyes) began taking the anti-depressant, Celexa.  It very much improved my mood but made me intolerably shaky, so I stopped after a few months (gradually … you should always stop these things gradually) and tried to go it medication-free.   But in April of this year, I was finding myself in the dark again … ungabluzum, as Muri would say.  After a particularly curmudgeonly post, a blogging friend, thesinglecell, suggested I might be depressed and Goldberg agreed.  My doctor suggested Prozac, which I decided to try without advertising it here.  So, for over two months, I’ve been taking Prozac.   It would feel somehow more noble if I was working hard on my spirituality and that was what improved my mood, but there’s absolutely no doubt, the Prozac has contributed and it doesn’t make me shaky   In the 12-Step world, there are those who believe any mood-altering substance is verboten and others believe the Steps should be enough.  It’s sometimes hard not to feel less-than that I need both.  But OK, I feel good and that’s good.

But what if, instead of my improved spirituality contributing to my mood, it was my chemically enhanced mood that accounted for my spirituality?  Does that somehow cheapen my faith?  Or if, like most everything we think and feel, spirituality is rooted in chemicals within our brains?  It turns out that scientists at Johns Hopkins University are studying exactly that possibility using hallucinogens like LSD.  Much of the excitement back in the sixties over LSD was with respect to the mystical experiences it seemed to create, but when use got out of control, government restrictions ended most serious research.  And Native Americans have used peyote as part of the religious experience for hundreds of years.  According to an article on NPR under the topic of The Science of Spirituality, scientists are studying the behavior of the brain during LSD-induced mystical experiences to see if there is a region responsible for spiritual experiences.  I’m sure there are those who would love to hear that spiritual experiences are all in our heads.  And others who would say drug-induced experiences aren’t really mystical so they have no bearing on faith.

In the NPR article, I found this: Snyder, who is chairman of the neuroscience department at Johns Hopkins and was not involved in the study, says scientists suspect that a key player in mystical experience is the serotonin system. The neurotransmitter serotonin affects the parts of the brain that relate to emotions and perceptions. Chemically, peyote, LSD and other psychedelics look a lot like serotonin, and they activate the same receptor.  Hello.  The way Prozac works is to increase serotonin levels in the brain.  And, interestingly, a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition on depression and serotonin reports on a study by Pedro Delgado that showed that if you take a normal person and deplete them of serotonin, they will not become depressed.  Delgado says that he feels this demonstrates that low serotonin doesn’t cause depression although other scientists say that some abnormality in the serotonin system clearly plays a role.   And it is well-known that talk and cognitive therapy work well in conjunction with anti-depressants.  So.  We have a potential link of serotonin with spirituality.  And we have a partial link between serotonin and depression, which can be supplemented by cognitive therapy – modifying beliefs, identifying distorted thinking, relating to others in different ways, and changing behaviors – in other words, spiritual practice.  Serotonin supports spirituality and spirituality supports serotonin’s effects on depression.  Bingo.  Pills and Prayer.  It seems to be working for me.

And I may be in good company.  According to an article in the New York Times, the blinding-light spiritual awakening of Bill W., the founder of AA, in the hospital to detox may have been the result of treatment with belladonna, which is known to cause hallucinations.   The article, titled An Alcoholic’s Savior: God, Belladonna or Both? concludes as follows:  Were Bill Wilson’s spiritual awakening and influential sobriety the products of a belladonna hallucination shortly after his discussions with his friend Ebby Thacher? Could they have been incited by his alcohol withdrawal symptoms? Or did something else happen to him that science cannot explain? In the end, millions of people who have benefited from Alcoholics Anonymous and similar 12-step programs around the world would say that such pharmacological, physical or spiritual parsing hardly matters.

What do you think?

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8 Comments on “Pills and Prayer”

  1. The first thing I think is that I’m so glad you’re feeling better balance in your life – internally and externally.

    The second thing I think is that it’s easy to believe in something when everything is good. Spiritual success is sometimes based in positive experience. When we’re struggling (and I have found this to be the case in my own life), it’s harder to sustain spirituality. When we’ve worked for a long time to sustain it and we still struggle, it’s easier to think spirituality won’t help, which then leads to a loss of it.

    The third thing I think is that it’s typical of an analytical person to try to analyze the reason for his improvement in mood. JUST LET YOURSELF BE BETTER. Why go looking for a reason to tear down or invalidate your improvement?

    And before that puts you on a path to another post: the fourth thing I think is that that’s not your intention. You just have a natural curiosity about how things work, coupled with a desire not to be a fool. I suffer the same condition. (Along with anxiety, which mimics depression in some cases and can lead to it if left untreated.)

    Ultimately, balance is best in any case. That’s demonstrated by your research as much as it is by your mood. Which leads me back to my first thought. Which achieves a circle. Which is balance. 🙂

    • oldereyes Says:

      Balance is one of my favorite themes … and it’s interesting that you used the term circle. I considered ending the second to last paragraph with a sentence like, “It’s circular.” But I forgot. Anyway, you nailed me perfectly. One of the big differences between now and ten years ago is that I never fall in love with my analyses. A Rabbi I read says that, “Anything we think we know about God is just a metaphor that helps us to know the Unknowable.” It helps me to remember that.

  2. Margie Says:

    Depression runs like a river through my husband’s family, and it is the opinion of several of them that the drug is what keeps them on an even keel, though they are helped by their therapists.
    One of the family members has also decided to stop drinking completely, and that person has chosen the SMART Recovery program which is based on cognitive/behavioral methods that mesh well with the psychologists methods. I think they are all very fortunate to have access to so many options that weren’t available in their parent’s time.

    • oldereyes Says:

      Agree completely. So many people are put off by the stigma attached to “depression,” “therapy” and “anti-depressants.” That’s part of the reason I write about my experiences here.

  3. Coming East Says:

    Fabulous, Bud, that you would share this with us. I wonder how many people live under the cloud of depression, even if it is mild and they are functioning, and are afraid to try something that could make their lives so much better? I know there are people out there, me included, who think that they should be able to talk themselves into feeling happy or feeling focused or being more productive. When your life sucks, you understand that you have reasons to be depressed. But when you have a basically good life, with a loving spouse, fairly decent health, etc., you have a hard time accepting that maybe you need help, too. I’m glad you took the step, Bud, and I hope it encourages others to do the same.

  4. cherperz Says:

    I am glad you are feeling better. I don’t think it matters what the course that takes you to a better place is …as much as if it gets you where you need to be. The Prozac along with the reading, writing, working, being with friends and sponsors, it all comes out that you are feeling more contentment. Yay!!!

  5. Rick Gleason Says:

    I don’t even know where to begin on
    this one and will probably return to this subject/blog at a later time. (I’m writing fast here Bud!)

    I’ll only add, I’ve suffered from depression myself, a family thing but didn’t realize it until I was in my thirties. While there’s been a few attempts to deal with it pharmaceutically it was only a stab at it and was ineffective. That’s been quite a while ago now, after going through a divorce. I have found that my attempts to get some form of normalcy back in my life since then have been an utter failure. So is my depression more a result of that or is it more deeply rooted? A little of both I’m guessing and afraid

    Thanks for sharing those things with us Bud. I too have written a bit about depression in my own blog. “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Me”

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