A few years ago I was tired, stressed out and burned out to the point of depression. I had planted a church and while not having it nearly as hard as some others I know, the process had taken its toll. My elders sent me on sabbatical- a rest from ministry life which I gladly accepted.
Probably the worst of what I was experiencing was a near panic attack-like response to the noise my kids would make in the natural course of being kids. They yell, they cry, they run around like the boisterous balls of energy that they are. And while most parents I’m acquainted with confess to struggling with the racket at times, in me it seemed different. My kids and their noise brought up in me a fight or flight response. I can remember driving them places and when the noise reached a certain level, when I had asked them to be quiet over and over with little to no effect, having the thought that I could just pull over, get out of the car and walk home. My wife Amy could drive the rest of the way, but I just had to GET OUT. I never did this, by the way, but I was close a number of times. I would find myself yelling at them, an unreasonable level of anger rising in me when they acted like what they were- children.
I believed that the sabbatical, the rest, had the power to undo all of this and to reset whatever switch had been thrown that was leading me to react to the regular noise of life with kids with an over the top emotional response. But it didn’t.
Towards the end of my sabbatical, though feeling refreshed in many ways, I still struggled mightily with the noise and my response to it. In desperation, I asked my doctor for something, anything, that would chill me the heck out and allow me to respond to me kids reasonably, proportionately. Xanax? Valium?
He prescribed for me an anti-depressant called citalopram, the generic version of Celexa, often used for anti-anxiety. They say it takes two weeks to get into your system and take effect, but for me, the change was immediate. I think I’m especially sensitive to drugs, because I immediately began to feel more relaxed, more gregarious and much, much more chill. I also realized that what I had attributed to introvertedness was actually a slight case of social-anxiety. I knew this because the citalopram seemed to make me fearless in public- able to chat up total strangers, something I rarely ever did before.
But as with all things, there was the law of diminishing returns to contend with. On returning from sabbatical I brought some wonderful things with me: the ability to sleep, a better outlook on myself vis-a-vis my role, a more relaxed attitude towards the general stress of life in ministry. But that response to the noise, the inability to deal with the chaos of kids kept sneaking up on me.
Slowly, in a couple of increments, the doctor began increasing the dosage. Each increase brought relief, but I knew this was not a permanent answer. Eventually I was tapped out at the maximum dosage (40mg a day) and more, I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life taking this drug.
But most importantly, I didn’t want to solve through drugs what was basically a spiritual issue- my lack of patience with my children.
This was a concern I shared with my spiritual director when I first started taking the citalopram. His wisdom for me was that I take the drugs, but listen to God- listen for the time when God was calling me to be less dependent on the pharmaceuticals and more dependent on the Spirit.
It’s been about four years now, I think. I say “I think” because I’ve honestly lost track. I’ve been in a happy, chill-y haze for these last couple of years. Citalopram has given me an ability to handle stress, but has left me in something of a fog, devoid of energy to think about new things, to write, to engage beyond superficial levels… to strive. I think of something I would like to write, or something I would like to do and then…nothing. Without the drive that the drugs seem to have robbed me of, it all remains firmly in space of “I should really get around to that.”
I have tried to wean myself off the medication a number of times, each time returning to the full dose when the feelings of panic and anxiety came back. But over the last few weeks, I have been prayerfully cutting the dosage. Each morning and each evening I pray for myself and my family- that I would be the husband and the father I need to be.
And slowly but surely, the fog is lifting. My thoughts are becoming clearer. My ability to focus is returning. The words are coming back.
I am grateful for modern medicine. I am more grateful for the Spirit of God who works in us to make us more like Jesus and fills us with things like love, patience and kindness. I’m grateful for the doctors but most grateful for the Great Physician.