Medicating the Religious Mind

I’ve been taking an antidepressant for six months now. Psychiatry wins: I’m a more functional human. I don’t feel so isolated and restless. The tasks of daily life don’t seem impossible. Even the feeling of shame that I need to be on medication has been lessened by the medication. But it’s a dry season, God seems distant, and some days I don’t recognize myself.

I wonder how much higher the dosage would have to be to silence that little voice that wonders with every shift in mood and emotion—is this me or Celexa?  Is the real me revealed when the medication suppresses my anxiety, or am I suffocating her with an SSRI?  Is there a drug that can quell this stubborn refusal to be well—even though I feel well—the belief that peace is just a chemical haze that clears as soon as the bottle empties?

At the risk of sounding like a religious freak, or even just a garden-variety freak, I confess I’ve often worried that this voice inside is the devil. Except it’s the same voice that urges me to write and to throw myself at the foot at the cross—two good things I’m decidedly less inclined to do now that I’m on drugs. Physically, mentally, I’m waking up, getting well, returning to life. Why do I feel so spiritually and creatively dead? [Read more...]

Light One Candle

Every week after Mass I light a candle. I love the smell of hot wax and matches, the action of my own hand kindling one small flame that will burn for hours, a visible sign of my unseen petition flickering beside the anonymous hopes and burdens of others. I’ve always clung to this little ritual.

In those moments of life when I’ve felt most powerless, when I’ve felt there’s no comfort at all for myself or a suffering friend beyond a cry for divine help, lighting a candle has made me feel like I’ve at least done something, turned my body and my heart to some purpose, performed an act of faith that has changed the atmosphere of the dark night even for just a moment and lit the room with prayer.

“Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” is the motto of The Christophers, an organization that recognizes work that “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” Last month at their annual awards ceremony, The Christophers honored Love and Salt, the book I wrote with my friend, Amy Andrews.

It felt really good to win something, especially for this book, which grew out of years of personal letters chronicling the crushing grief that followed my mother’s death, and so soon after my co-author Amy’s conversion to Catholicism, the stillbirth of her first daughter.

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Slumping Toward the Altar

Congratulations to Jessica Mesman Griffith and Amy Andrews, who won a 2014 Christopher Award for their book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters (Loyola Press). Launched in 1949, The Christopher Awards are presented to writers, producers, directors and illustrators whose work affirms the highest values of the human spirit.

There has always been something unappealingly puritanical to me about getting up early. It’s so Midwestern. But I’m glad my husband is an early riser. He’s from Illinois, and he springs from bed before dawn like he just can’t wait to get to work. He plays Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Loud. He also brings me coffee in bed.

Dave’s early rising is one of many ways he’s a mystery to me. I’m a native of that strange country around New Orleans where people like to stay up late and sleep past sunrise. Like my mother, I thrive in the late night and need a good ten hours of unbroken sleep to function.

Of course, I haven’t slept like that in the eight years since our daughter was born. Mornings in our house are a horror show of Dave flipping on all the lights and the children jumping on the bed. I only get up reluctantly.

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Against Gratitude

The other day a Facebook friend linked to a blog post on fifteen ways to raise happier, more grateful children. Just that morning I’d been complaining about how ungrateful our kids are for all the comforts they have and all the sacrifices we make for them—all the writing and living my husband and I don’t do so they can have nutritious food and a good education and lots of playtime in the open air. And what thanks do we get?

Though I know better, I clicked on the link. The blogger approached the whiny, sullen child as a spiritual problem that could be remedied with a combination of crafts and mindfulness exercises. Her advice included passing around a pad of tulip-shaped sticky notes at dinner so your kids can write down what they’re grateful for and then sticking the notes to the window to make a gratitude garden.

My first thought was, if I gave my kids Post-its with instructions to write down what they were grateful for they’d write “butts” on every single page and I’d end up yelling. Then I felt guilty that I haven’t raised kids who would be able to engage in such a wholesome activity without referencing body parts or excrement (which, I assure you, makes them deliriously happy).

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Tuesday Morning at the Old Asylum, Part 2

Continued from yesterday

For most of the fall after we moved to Northern Michigan, I was sick with a bad respiratory infection that turned out to be bacterial bronchitis. The doctor sent me home with an antibiotic and a prescription for an SSRI—an antidepressant.  She said she was concerned about the coming dark months and the cold of my first northern winter and my compromised immune system. The stress of the move, she said, could be why I can’t seem to get well. She’d looked over my family history.

So she prescribed the pills even though I didn’t tell her I was depressed, and I definitely didn’t mention that I’d been haunting the grounds of the old insane asylum brooding over my schizophrenic uncle. Or that I’d bought a pack of Venus disposable razors at Meijer the week before—because shaving my legs was the only sort of self-help plan I’d been able to launch that day—and now I couldn’t get that Bananarama song out of my head.

I didn’t tell her how much I hated the idea of that song being lodged deeply in my subconscious, not just because it’s so awful, but because it’s the sort of thing that would have tormented my uncle to the point of violence. We couldn’t turn on the radio in his presence. When it was really bad, he wasn’t allowed books either.

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