Sin and Effexor//: what drugs do to my sanctification

I’ve got these two little pills I take every day. One end is gray, the other a very light pink. Each has 37.5mg (edit October 13, 2009) I take one red pill every morning at 7 am(ish). It’s 150mg of a drug commonly known as Effexor.

In early June, I was diagnosed with a mood disorder, bipolar II to be exact. Basically, it means that the mood swings, the highs and lows, the thought patterns, overwhelming emotions and apathy I have come to know as regular life are not healthy.

I’m still trying to get an equilibrium back.

Since starting the Effexor, my moods have shifted. At first, there wasn’t much of a change… other than the trepidation I felt at taking a “crazy pill” every day. I didn’t want something to change the way I see the world, the way I think and feel, the way I am. Then, I started feeling good. I can’t describe it very well, but for anyone who has experienced it, it’s like coming up for air after having no idea you were underwater. This lasted a few weeks, and now I just feel. I feel sad sometimes, happy other times. Sometimes my mind seems sharp and focused. Other times, I feel sluggish and sleepy. I feel stress, relief, joy, anger, disappointment, excitement… I feel normal.

There is a part of me that is still pushing against the idea of getting better. Something inside of me gets misty eyed and nostalgic for the way life was. The way I understood my world and myself has come to radically change, and part of me wants things to go back to the way they were. This part of me I call sin.

Is sin really related to some misfiring neurons and learned patterns of thought? I’ve always been taught that sin is about my relationship with God. It’s the ways I fail to be righteous, loving, and holy. Isn’t it how we all fall short of the glory of God in our lives?

Yes, it is. Which is exactly why this mood disorder is not just something that I need to get over so I can feel good. The way my body is broken, the way my brain’s biology is lacking, keeps me from being like Jesus.

OK, let’s back up for a second. First of all, let’s define sin as not what you do, but how you are. Sin is being in a wrong relationship with Yahweh. Jesus came to reconcile us to God, to make our relationship with him right. This was necessary because we are all totally depraved and cannot make ourselves right with God.

Total depravity… now there is a word that brings up some crazy images of worthlessness and poverty. Total depravity has been used by some Christians to beat us down into self-deprecation and pity. But that’s not what I see.

Total depraved means that you and I as humans have no area of ourselves that is not bent, twisted, and marred by sin. Our mind, our heart, and our bodies are broken. This does not mean that we can’t do good. We can still produce creativity and beauty, love, strive and learn to adhere to a moral code. I can still help Grandma Higgins across the street just because it’s the nice thing to do. But, my thoughts can’t get me into a right relationship with God. No matter my capacity to love, care and forgive, I can’t feel my way into righteousness. And I can’t assume that it is only the intangible parts of myself that need sanctification.

Part of the bipolar mood disorders is guilt, guilt over everything. You are having a bad day because you ran out of jelly for your PBJ? My brain fires off and tells me that somehow this is my fault, and even if it’s not, I should be able to fix it. Since I can’t, I feel guilty.

Growing up, I learned that guilt is a tool that God uses to convict us of our wrongdoing. This led me to relate my emotions as a reflection of my spiritual standing. If I felt guilty (was in a depressed mood), I was far away from God. If I felt excited and happy (moving into a hypo-manic state) I was on that mountain top with God.

But, if my moods were partly caused by a brokenness in my brain, then maybe guilt and peace are not ways that I truly can see God at work in my life.

It’s not just my lifestyle or my actions or my behavior that needs to be sanctified. It’s my neurotransmitters, my serotonin levels, my patterns of thinking, feeling, and reacting. My body, mind, and heart all need to be healed, made to be more like Jesus who was truly the true human.

So, I’m taking the Effexor, and thinking of it as a disciplined practice in my learning to let the Holy Spirit have his way in me, all of me, every area of my life that is bent and twisted. My medication and my counseling sessions are all part of the transformation God is doing in my life, the sanctification that is making me like Jesus. In the resurrection, I am sure I will find myself with a whole brain, whose neurotransmitters fire correctly and Godly.

But, in the meantime, I am through excluding bodily limitations and physical causes from my talk about sin. It’s ok that I am broken so deeply, so completely. It’s ok that my brain needs drugs to help it get balanced right now. It’s ok because it’s not my fault, but it is part of my condition. And my condition is what Jesus came to heal. My condition, as well as my debt, is what Jesus took on himself on the Cross, and what he beat totally in the resurrection. My condition is where he has found me, where he is healing me, and here is where the gospel brings me to my knees. Here is where I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. My condition, physical, mental, and spiritual is what I am being saved from.

  • Excellent post! Thanks for sharing!!!

  • Dan Brown

    About 2.5 weeks after I started taking an SSRI for anxiety, I suddenly realized that I felt amazingly good, like I hadn't felt for a dozen-plus years. I thought to myself, "Oh, yeah, that's what it's like not to be on edge all the time!"

    As for the sin issue: I don't believe in "total depravity", only that there are certain aspects of human nature which, if not tempered by the higher faculties, naturally lead to evil. In any case, though, a person whose brain is chemically defective has diminished competence. I deeply regret the hurt I brought people due to my erratic behavior before I overcame my mental screwiness, and it took me a long time to forgive myself. As I see it, though, all you can do when you're in that state is to do your best to get better and make yourself less hazardous to others. If you are diligent in pursuing health, you will eventually be able to say that you have fought the good fight.

    Let me know if you ever need to talk about these issues with someone who's been through similar struggles.

  • Will Kiefer

    Very inspiring. You have shared you viewpoint beautifully and I have gleaned a new perspective because of your observations. Thank you.

  • So often redemption through Jesus is viewed as nothing more than a transaction. We give God our sin, he scans it, hits the total button on the register, and gives us our change, Jesus.

    This removes the whole process of sanctification from the equation, and leads us to guilt because we are not able to ‘just change’ because of the Holy Spirit. Guilt is exponentially greater whenever a chronic condition—mental illness or otherwise—remains in our life. This condition is pointed to as proof of our immaturity, and dosing ourselves with something beyond worship and prayer is viewed as lack of faith.

    No! We are broken in body soul and spirit. Jesus doesn’t take it all in a magical prayer. Its a process, and sometimes this bustedness means we need medical help. There is no shame in this.

  • You taking Effexor for a medical condition is no different than me taking Synthroid for hypothyroidism–both treat a legitimately diagnosed medical condition. Neither is the consequence of sin, but rather of being born into a fallen world. Before I was on thyroid supplementation, I went through all kinds of diagnoses–from heart conditions to sleep apnea to depression. All were a result of hypothyroidism.

    I don’t understand how mental illness gets stigmatized the way it does. Do we shun a cancer patient for taking chemo? As I see it, the brain is an organ (a very complex one), and like the other organs in the body needs appropriate care. That care is different for different people.
    I don’t understand why Christians so often feel the need to spiritualize physical conditions. Little, or no good, comes of it.

  • aLovelyFrame

    Love this. so.much.

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