Antidepressants Ushered Me Into Deeper Communion with God and with Myself
I grew up in a family that was very mental health literate. Both of my parents have experience with mental health challenges, in their own lives and in the lives of people they love. When a doctor suggested that I might be struggling with depression at 14, my parents were eager to facilitate access to a counselor. As I continued to experience depression—eventually re-diagnosed as anxiety—through my teens and twenties, they continued to support me, whether by talking to me about whatever I was dealing with or helping out with the costs of therapy.
In February this year, I began to experience the most intense mental health disturbance yet. Whereas in the past my struggles with anxiety had been triggered by some particular life event—bullying, the end of a toxic relationship, university pressures—this one took me totally by surprise. In fact, I was feeling more content with my life than I had in a long time: my marriage was in a great place, my kids were in regular childcare, I was beginning to establish work doing something I enjoyed.
But suddenly, it seemed like something in my brain just snapped. I was plunged into a terrifying darkness, no longer able to look forward to anything in the future. Only fear and doom lay ahead.
Despite my mental health “literacy,” I never imagined that something like this would happen to me. In fact, because of it, I thought I was immune from this kind of major disturbance. I knew the “right things” to do to preserve good mental health, so I assumed I would be able to recognize a mental health crisis before it overwhelmed me, in order to get the help I needed.
I had been offered antidepressants in the form of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) several times before, but had always turned them down. Although I had no prejudices against utilizing medication for mental health, I did have some wrong ideas. I thought that antidepressants would numb the bad as well as the good feelings, leaving me “checked out” from my life. I was afraid that I would grow dependent on them, and find myself unable to cope with life without them. I thought that medication was for people who had already reached a breaking point, and that I hadn’t suffered enough to warrant their use.
When I reached that crisis point in February, I knew that I needed medication. I couldn’t cope with my daily life: I was hardly eating, I couldn’t do more than meet my children’s most basic needs, and I had to shut myself off from the outside world as much as possible to reduce my exposure to triggers.
My husband and parents encouraged me to seek medical attention as soon as possible, and thankfully the doctor I met with was very responsive to my experiences. She wrote a prescription for a benzodiazepine (a class of sedative drugs typically used for anxiety and insomnia) for some immediate relief from my symptoms and referred me to a psychiatrist for assessment to determine a longer term treatment plan.
Taking medication for my mental health has been one of the holiest experiences of my life. Far from living a “checked out” life, it has allowed me to be more alive to the joy and beauty of my very ordinary life. It has not numbed me to sadness, worry, anger, or stress, but it has helped me to recognise those feelings as parts of a full, beautiful life, rather than be drowned by them.
A common metaphor used in connection with psychotropic medications is that they “turn down the volume” on anxious or depressive thoughts, which is an accurate reflection of my experience. When my mental health plummeted, the fears in my mind were so loud that they drowned out all moments of happiness or contentment. I could still recognise the presence of things in my life that had previously brought me joy—my children’s laughter, a hug from my husband, a great book, a beautiful scene—but they felt far away from me, and I could no longer hear them.
As the SSRIs began to work, it was as though the fog was fading and the lights along my path were being turned back on, one by one. That’s not to say that life suddenly felt easy, but it felt manageable. Another crushing headline is still upsetting or worrying, but won’t derail my entire day (or week). I still have anxieties about my children, but I’m not tortured by outlandishly horrific worst-case-scenarios. I still have concerns about the future, but I also have hope.
I don’t want to spiritualize poor mental health into God using it to “teach” us things, but I do believe that God reveals himself to us through suffering in new ways, in the same way that we manifest our love for our children in a different way when they are going through hard times.
As I emerged from my own living hell, I understood that God truly does not want us to live “mourning and weeping in [a] valley of tears,” as goes the beautiful prayer Hail, Holy Queen. He wants us to live in his light: a light that illuminates the breathtaking beauty of this life, as well as its brokenness. He wants us to experience the reality that darkness cannot overcome that light.
Talking about the intersection of prayer and healing can be dangerous territory, because the idea that we can or should pray away mental health struggles is so damaging. Although I received some spiritual consolation during the depths of crisis, I strongly feel that God’s clearest answer to my cries for help was medication. I asked God to show me a path back to joy, and that path has been paved by little yellow pills.
Thanks to SSRIs, I feel the truth of the famous quote by Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Being fully alive allows me to live in richer communion with God, with myself, and with my loved ones. I am able to inhabit my mind, my body, and my life more vibrantly, more authentically. Antidepressants have taught me perhaps more clearly than anything in my life that God desires us to become the fullest, freest versions of ourselves possible.
Gina Dadaglo is a wife and mother, living near Paris, France with her husband and two small kids. She is a convert to Catholicism, and is driven by the desire to make space for a wider range of voices and experiences within the Church. If she could have coffee with someone in heaven she’d pick Dorothy Day, although she’d be a little intimidated.
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