Every year a teenage soccer player will hobble up to me wearing a knee brace, asking for prayers on her upcoming ACL surgery. And I’m quick to share the story of how I was forced to quit playing soccer in 9th grade when my doctor told me my shin bone wasn’t long enough to reach my knee. I tell her I spent my new free time investing in youth group… “And now I’m a pastor!” I smile sarcastically, trying to reassure this young lady that she is much more than just a great soccer player.
Cause that’s what Pastors do. You tell us a story, and we tell you a story…sometimes it’s about Jesus and sometimes it’s about our lives.
But when it comes to medications, I’m hesitant to tell my story.
I’ve heard parents sigh as they tell me they’re putting their kid on Adderall.
I’ve listened to WWII vets leaning on their walkers as they talk about their latest regiment of Alzheimer’s Medication.
And as I listen I go back and forth in my mind whether I should talk about the medications I’m on. But in the end I nod along understandingly, unable to admit that I take anti-depressant meds. My church members would probably be surprised if they knew. I’m an excellent small talker. I don’t come off as a worrier. I’d rather listen to Justin Timberlake than Elliot Smith.
But that’s the funny thing about anti-depressants. If you’re happy, that means they’re working. But there’s this rumor going around that if you feel better than you should get off of them.
But that’s when people backslide.
So here’s my confession: I’m doing ministry on anti-Depressants.
And yes…I have tried to get off of them.
A few years ago, I was working part-time as a Youth Minister and finishing my degree at Seminary. For the last 6 years I had taken a daily dosage of anti-depressants high enough to turn a basset hound into a rodeo clown. But sandwiched between the dual side-effects of increased hunger and decreased metabolism, I had put on 30 pounds. So I was always on the look-out for ways to get off the medication. I wanted my old body back.
“How long has it been since your last depressive episode?” The psychiatrist asked me.
“A year and a half,” I said. I had spent two weeks of sick leave lying on the couch watching daytime TV while I was supposed to be doing Youth Ministry.
He was a world famous psychiatrist my mom had found on the internet, known for helping his patients get off psychotropic drugs. His method was a unique regiment of vitamins, muscles relaxation, diet, meditation, and exercise in order to boost the body’s natural endorphin levels. And for the last hour he had asked me questions about my lifestyle, my prior medications, and my therapist. I told him I was working out three times a week, doing 20 minutes of daily breathing relaxation, I was on a low carb diet and I’d spent the past four years working on controlling my anxiety with my therapist.
“Well you’re doing all the right things. Your lifestyle is really excellent,” he sighed, adjusting his glasses to look back at the computer screen. “But with your family history of anxiety and alcoholism, my guess is that you’ll probably always need to be on some sort of anti-depressant.” Then he turned towards me, “But we could significantly reduce your dosage.” He half-smiled as if he was offering me a consolation prize.
I left his office with a long list of vitamins to pick up. And after 3 months I was able to cut my dosage in half.
But something else happened when I left his office.
I stopped obsessing over getting completely off the drugs. I never wanted to get on anti-depressant medications and I would have loved to get off them.
But they keep me stable.
They help me to care for the people in my church. So I can listen to their stories instead of listening to the voice in my head reminding me of every task I have waiting for me in my office.
They allow me to advocate for the children in Kenya without crumpling under the emotional weight of their difficulties.
They help me be a good husband, instead of constantly worrying that she’s gonna leave me.
In short, medications allow me to live my life.
I don’t spend entire weeks lying on the couch anymore.
I don’t wake up exhausted after a night of stressful dreams.
I don’t cry during kid’s movies.
And there is a segment of society that feels that medications are a private matter. I respect that. But I wanted to tell people that some ministers take anti-depressant medication too.
Because there are some people who feel ashamed for relying on medication. Especially Christians who often feel they should be able to pull it together with a heady mix of Jesus, prayer, fellowship, diet and exercise. These things are all part of the equation for me. But they haven’t been enough.
And they weren’t enough for another girl from my hometown.
As a high-schooler I stood outside my car talking to my Bible Study leader after youth group. He was a gen-X skateboarder-turned-suburban church dad. We would go to punk concerts together and he seemed to look at me sort of like his nephew.
“Nathan if you ever get depressed, tell me okay?” He said, scratching his platinum blond mohawk.
He told me that his friend had recently committed suicide. “She kept insisting that Jesus was enough.” He said leaned against my car in the dark, his arms folded. “She would get sent to the hospital and then she’d take her meds and for a while I’d see her at church. Then she’d start to really feel better, so she’d get off her meds again.” He stopped swallowing his emotions as I watched all the other teenagers pull out of the parking lot.
“You know what I’m saying?” he said to me.
8 years later I was sitting in my therapist’s office as he told me that I needed to get on anti-depressant medication. And as I left his office I thought about that late night parking lot conversation with my Bible Study leader. And I made an appointment with my doctor the next day.
And in case you don’t have a mohawked Bible Study leader telling you its okay to take medication. Let me.
It’s okay to take anti-depressants – even if you’re a minister.
But make sure you start exercising. Because if you get on my medication the side effects are serious love handles.