OF PULPITS, PUNDITS, & PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
In obtaining a graduate degree as a counselor, our state requires a basic pharmacology course. It provides a working knowledge of brain chemistry, its functions, and how drugs, prescription or illegal, affect the body. The intricate interplay of chemistry, electrical impulses, and brain tissue is a wonder to behold. Understanding the microscopic choreography of neurotransmitters, neurons, dendrites, the synaptic gap, and re-uptake ports is undeniable evidence of a Greater Source at work.
Ten years ago, within a couple weeks of each other, my boss and my family physician delicately asked if I would be willing to try an antidepressant. If they asked that question ten or even five years earlier, I would have brushed them off. My wife has had a lifelong struggle with an Obsessive Compulsion Disorder. A year before I tried an antidepressant she took Paxil, a medication that works well with those struggling with OCD. About six weeks into her medication she looked up at me one morning and said, “So, this is what normal people feel like?” I could not agree more. The change in her was dramatic. I realize that is not true in every case, but for her, it was a miracle.
I make my living meeting one-on-one with people. Sometimes it’s in a small group. For several years, I found it increasingly difficult to meet with people. I am an off-the-charts extrovert. Struggling to meet with people is not something I ever encountered. Even more discouraging was my unwillingness to answer the phone. In fact, when it rang a deep sense of dread came over me. Days would go by before I had enough emotional energy to pick up the phone and get my messages. Not surprisingly, some messages were terse for not calling back or even answering the phone. That would make it even more difficult to call them back. Hindsight, of course, is twenty-twenty. I can now see what an incredible funk I was in. “Funk”, as in clinical depression. You literally could not see the surface of my desk. I would do just enough administrative paperwork to keep myself out of trouble. I was simply hanging on.
Although the science of brain chemistry is still quite new (1950’s +) and knowledge about the workings of some neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine) incomplete, researchers are beginning to understand that our emotions are regulated through those “Big Three”. Specific chemistry is released when experiencing specific emotions. Probably the most commonly known neurotransmitter is adrenalin. Working late one night you stop at the grocery store to pick up a few items for dinner. While putting groceries in the trunk of your car you hear footsteps quickly approaching you. When confronted with a perceived threat, adrenalin is dumped into your bloodstream via the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal cortex. Your brain computer races through a series of options and, depending on the threat, you initiate a “fight or flight” response. That’s just one chemical initiating one emotional response.
Scientists have discovered that the neurotransmitters that engage our emotions can be depleted. In some cases they are never restored. In addition to alcohol, there are three other major transgressors in chemical depletion: illegal drugs, age, and trauma. Here is a micro-synopsis of that process:
- Alcohol and illegal drugs mimic and then hijack neurotransmitters. Like pouring gas on a bonfire, ecstasy, cocaine, meth and the like flood our brain giving our emotions an exponential rush. This is followed by a “crash” or depression and loss of neurotransmitters – some permanently.
- The aging process causes our external bodies to break down and our internal organs follow the same path. As bones, thyroid, and our metabolism are depleted through time, so brain chemistry is no exception.
- Trauma and its relationship to neurotransmitter depletion are gaining much attention. Scientists are beginning to understand that ongoing trauma in a person’s life contributes to the stripping of our emotional stability. That is, the big three neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, noreprinephrine, and a host of others) that give us balance and perspective become depleted. The more ongoing and severe the trauma, the faster the imbalance occurs. Childhood abuse, occupational stress, combat, divorce, rage, rape, hatred, and bitterness all contribute to a loss of emotional stability.
When doctors recommend a prescription drug to restructure emotional balance they are attempting to create a fairly exact replication of the neurotransmitters that are lacking in some patients. Like adding motor oil to an engine or taking vitamin B12 for the body, so “brain drugs” replenish what has gone missing.
And we need to know this because…?
It is most discouraging in the counseling community to hear a church leader, parachurch leader, or well-meaning Christian state that mood-stabilizing prescription drugs are not what God intends for us. This can be followed by “The Bible and the Holy Spirit are more than sufficient in healing those with troubled minds.” The collateral damage done by those statements can be tragic. What unwise counsel we give others in the name of Christ. Flippant clichés and cost-me-nothing quotes can have devastating results. Those thoughtless, un-researched remarks, given to those who are struggling deeply with depression or mental illness, may result in the taking of their life or the life of someone else. Exaggeration? Sadly no. The documentation of this is damning to the Christian community.
Except for a few cults, no one counsels his or her friend to stop taking insulin and trust God. There are some people born into this world with a lack of insulin. There are some people born into this world whose bodies stop producing insulin later in life. Do we condemn these folks? Do we ever tell them that all they need is the Bible and Jesus? There are some people in prison today for offering that sage counsel.
Why is it so difficult for us in the body of Christ to wrap our heads around the possibility that some folks are born with fewer neurotransmitters than others? Why is it so difficult for us to believe that some people lose those chemicals later in life? What is so threatening for a pastor or lay leader to acknowledge that prescription medicine can heal a hurting brain? Possibly, it is a lack of understanding regarding our physiology and specifically the interplay of our brain and emotions. Even the phrase “chemical imbalance” conjures up all kinds of mumbo jumbo and rationalizations for not “poisoning” the brain.
The sad irony of it all is that the person who most needs medicine to balance out-of-control emotions steadfastly refuses to take any pill that would cause them to “lose control.” It bears repeating. The solution that would bring harmony (control) into that individual’s life (and those around them!) and thereby give them mastery of their emotions is instead seen as a terrifying entity – as if he or she would no longer have control. This could well be the enemy’s doing – a stronghold keeping believers in bondage to their fears. The second saddest irony is that pastors unknowingly can be in collusion with the very enemy that is attacking their flock.
We hear very little from the pulpit and in Christian journals talking about psychoactive drugs. Even hearing the pros and cons of “brain medicine” would be a great start. It is important to state that chemical replenishment is not a silver bullet. Much is still to be known about psychoactive drugs and how they help an individual lead a productive and normal life. Sometimes it takes weeks, even months, to get the right dosage. It’s like tuning an engine or deciding what grade of gasoline and oil is best for that engine. Finding the right mixture can be a process. But once the correct prescription is identified, the results can be stunning. For many, these medicines have provided true emotional freedom and the ability to think and act responsibly after years of deep discouragement and hopelessness.
Tom Perkins is a staff representative for the Navigators, an international, interdenominational Christian ministry established in 1933. He lives with his wife Ann in Virginia.