In my thirty-five years as a Catholic, I've only walked out on one homily. A sophomore in college, I sat Indian-style, with 30 other students on the floor of the Dillon Hall chapel at Notre Dame.
"Psychologists have begun to replace priests when in comes to personal problems," the priest explained. "This is wrong. The place for reconciliation, for peace, within one's soul is the confessional, not a therapist's office."
My jaw dropped and my body temperature began to rise.
"People don't need medication today," he went on. "They need's God's grace."
I stood up and exited the room.
At that time, having struggled with a deep depression for two years—since I was 18 and gave up booze—the counselor I saw every week strongly suggested I take an antidepressant. I refused for a whole year, afraid that the "happy pills" would interfere with my sobriety. But feeling desperate, and having finished Colette Dowling's book "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?", I decided to try Prozac, and then Zoloft, and then the two together.
I was just beginning to accept the fact that there might be physiological reasons behind my condition when the priest went off against the whole field of psychology. I was angry at him, at my sober friend who told me that taking Prozac would be cheating on sobriety, and for everyone else who regarded depression as a character flaw.
With prescriptions of those two SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) I remained functional, very functional, until the birth of my second child 12 years later. Postpartum depression hit hard, and had me questioning everything all over again: Was this pain punishment for not praying enough? Did I have childhood issues I hadn't resolved? Was I not grateful enough?
My guilt and shame worsened with the reaction of a few well-intentioned but ignorant friends who told me to snap out of it, to sing praises to God, to remember what I was grateful for, and to positive think this thing away. In their estimation, my depression was a mind-over-matter deal, and I was simply weak for giving into it.
So I tried to make it go away through prayer and meditation. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Weekly counseling sessions. Regular yoga classes. Light therapy. Acupuncture. Gogi juice. Massage therapy. Cranial-sacral therapy. Magnets. Spiritual literature. Self-help books. Novenas to St. Therese. Lighting votive candles at Mass. Composing gratitude lists. Affirmation tapes. Breathing exercises. Chinese herbs. Omega 3 fatty acids. Arctic cod liver oil. Magnesium, vitamin B complex, folic acid, and vitamin E. Sessions with a spiritual guru. Running 25 miles a week. Swimming laps. Twelve-step support groups. Reiki. A consultation with a medical psychic. A high-protein diet. Homeopathic remedies. Eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and sugar from my diet.
But even after all that I was still shaking and crying over my bowl of Kashi and green tea in the morning, breathing into a paper bag during panic attacks.
I stayed sick until I found a good and compassionate doctor that convinced me that although all these techniques can be helpful, a person with depression or bipolar disorder truly has a chemical imbalance, an organic, brain disease that chanting or meditation or vitamins alone can't treat. My doctor and I tried many medication combinations, and eventually one worked.
With the medication working for me, I was able to fight the negative thoughts that crippled me, to use the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy, and to say thank you to God for my many blessings. I was able to get more out of weekly counseling sessions, yoga, and my time of prayer and meditation. I didn't stop taking Omega 3 fatty acids and all my vitamins and minerals. I still run and swim religiously, and read self-help books and spiritual literature whenever I get a free minute. But I also know that I need my meds, and that gratitude lists and fish oil alone aren't enough. Sorry, Tom Cruise, but you are dead wrong.
I say dead because suicide is the second-leading cause of death worldwide among females between the ages of 15 and 44 according to the World Heath Organization, and fourth among males. In 2000, suicide took 29,350 lives, accounting for 10.6 out of every 100,000 deaths. It took the life of my godmother, my aunt Mary Lou, who ended her days with the turn of the ignition.
Even now, although well educated on depression and mental illness, I admittedly go through periods where I doubt the disease, when I feel ashamed of it, and am convinced that I am some sort of wimp who hasn't learned how to master her thoughts. Since we haven't found one specific "depression gene," it's easy to discount depression as a physiological disease. Even though numerous studies indicate a genetic transmission, depression and other mental illnesses are still so complex—usually combining biology, psychology, and sociology. It's confusing, even for doctors, so most people presume the depressed person is somehow at fault.
For strength and determination, I turn to other figures who have battled this monster in public, inspirational leaders like Abraham Lincoln, whose depression made him the empathetic leader he was; British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who referred to his deep melancholy as his "black dog"; Archbishop Raymond Roussin, SM, who followed doctor's orders to take a six-month break from his pastoral duties to the Archdiocese of Vancouver in order to treat his clinical depression; Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan who candidly revealed his diagnosis of depression as the reason why he bowed out of the Maryland governor's race; and author-psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who beautifully articulates her journey to recovery from the unique perspective of the healer and the healed in her memoir "An Unquiet Mind."
I learn from the courage of these heroes who not only have persevered through immense suffering, but who have contributed immensely to the education about mental illness. With them in mind, I find the confidence to walk out on any priest who suggests a little penance would cure me and to correct the misguided friend who thinks I'm one prayer away from health.