Q. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker showed a woman telling a friend she's discovered there are times in a person's spiritual journey when prescription drugs are "entirely appropriate." The joke seems to be that a person on a spiritual journey is copping out if they take an anti-depressant. Is taking Prozac or similar mood-enhancing drugs regarded as "spiritually incorrect?"
Sad but true! Recently a friend who was suffering a deep depression told me she feared if she followed her doctor's advice to take Prozac, or similar anti-depressant, it would mean she was not on "The Path." I strongly debunked this idea, quoting Rev. Theodore Ferris, a former rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, who said in a sermon "Our faith is neither in pills nor in prayer. It is in God, who may use both pills and
prayer as channels of his healing power." In an article called "The Gospel According to Prozac" in Christian Century magazine, Archibald Hart, dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, said that doctors prescribing drugs for the depressed "is no different than giving insulin to a diabetic."
Whereas most contemporary Americans are happy to credit medicine with curing their physical problems, many still feel demeaned by acknowledging medication as a cure for emotional problems. It seems especially uncomfortable for people trying to follow a spiritual path, as if the use of chemicals is "not fair" or that it's "cheating" to use medicine instead of--or as well as--the "spiritually correct" techniques of prayer, meditation, yoga, or martial arts disciplines.
The man I will always think of as "my minister," who recently retired after 35 years as pastor of King's Chapel (a Unitarian Christian church on Boston's Freedom Trail), immediately quoted scripture when I asked him if he felt taking Prozac for depression indicated a lack of faith in the power of prayer:
"For medicines come from the hand of God and a wise man would not refuse them" (Ecclesiasticus 38:4**).
Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," told me "If it's used to solve a particular problem, I totally approve--but if it's used because you feel good but you want to feel super, then I think it's wrong."
The fear of these drugs being used casually--because someone just had a bad hair day--is a shared concern of most people of good faith. The counselors interviewed by Christian Century felt this medication should only be used for "severe" depression. California yoga teacher Paul Gould says "There's use and abuse. But I do feel certain that for people with a chemical imbalance that Prozac can help balance out, it's a godsend. It can even help them see the spiritual path more clearly." His partner-teacher Jenni Fox agrees, saying "You have to heal on all levels--you don't do medicine instead of other things but in addition to healthy practices like yoga and meditation."
Phyllis Pilgrim, fitness director of the renowned health spa Rancho la Puerta, who teaches a course there on "The Inner Journey," feels people should first try natural remedies like St. John's wort and ginseng "before leaping into drugs like Prozac," which she feels too often happens in "affluent America." But in cases of "a deep depression brought on by some serious trauma, Prozac could help."
To her surprise, Ms. Pilgrim found on a recent trip to Asia that Tibetan doctors at Delek Hospital at Dharamsala in Northern India were using Prozac to help Tibetan refugees who had suffered deep physical and emotional trauma from the six months of crossing the Himalayas into exile during winter. "Even with the spiritual help these refugees get from Tibetan Buddhists," she explained, "the doctors find Prozac helps their recovery."
When I went through a period of depression seven years ago I took Zoloft (one of the selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor medications) on the advice of a Jungian therapist, who is herself on the path of genuine spirituality. The drug's effect seemed to me a true blessing. It did not make me feel jangled or "high," but rather, simply lifted the depression and left me in a condition where I could function at my best and enjoy life. I am not presently taking it, but would not hesitate to do so again if I fell into the pit of depression again.
I don't consider using such medicine a sign of weakness or spiritual failure, but a willingness to admit to a problem and take legitimate means to solve it. Putting down people who use such medications shows a spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness. The best corrective to such negative attitudes is from James Baldwin's book of essays "Notes of Native Son," when he quotes a Harlem preacher who says you can't judge a person "if thou knowest not his wrassling." To that, I add a hearty AMEN!