I have been suffering from withdrawal side-effects from medication this week. My doctor was supposed to reduce my risperidone from 3mg to 0 by 1mg a month, as per my consultant’s instruction, however he didn’t reduce it at all for three months, then when I reminded him he reduced it to 1mg last week, and next week I will be down to zero. Unfortunately, tapering the dose so quickly has left me with anxiety, shivers, and generally feeling not too well mentally, and weird physically. This week has been decidedly strange – my last post, which I have made private, is an example of that, because I am not ready to deal with those issues, I think. To top everything off, last night I forgot to take all of my medication, and have spent the day in bed feeling terrible, and have had to cry off working on the free coffee van that the Christians in town run, which has made me feel guilty.
All of us who take medication for mental illness know what an absolute pain in the bum the side-effects can be. I am very fortunate – so long as I religiously take my medication the only thing I get is a slight tremor in the hands, and I have been told my pills are the reason I find it so hard to lose weight. I have also been told that the medication I am currently withdrawing from caused me to get diabetes, which was just delightful to hear, obviously! Other people suffer with confused thoughts, hair loss, weight gain, shaking, twitching, and all manner of horrible effects. I was once on seroquel – the only medication I have ever refused to take – which left me so zombie-like that I literally just sat there dribbling and had to be reminded to drink water every so often. (It also apparently gave me an expression of murderous rage, even though I myself felt and thought nothing at all, which scared my mum.)
It is hard for many of us to continue to take medication which, although it may treat the depression/mania/schizophrenia, also makes us feel bad in other ways. That is especially true when the medication itself doesn’t seem to be doing much – I still get ill even though I have been on medication for the last ten years and it is pretty much an article of faith that the meds are actually doing something – I am assured that I would be worse if I did not take them, however bad I might be feeling while I am taking them! No wonder that many people simply give up on them, and try to either go it alone or take alternative medicines for their conditions. Of course all of us live with the threat that if we become ill we may be forced to take medication, whether we consent or not.
Thinking about medication in terms of faith is difficult. How do we deal with questions of whether it is OK to take medication when the Bible very rarely mentions it, and far more often mentions people who sought help from physicians when they should instead have consulted the Great Physician?
I wrote, some time ago, about whether it is a sin to take medication. I firmly believe that it is not – that just as we take medication for physical illnesses, so also we should take medication for mental illnesses. That is not to say that there are not problems with medications, with the pharmaceutical companies, with the lack of available talking therapies and other sorts of therapies. To me, God created the elements by which the people he created came up with various drugs, and granted the intelligence and learning for us to make drugs, trial them, and use them to treat illnesses. Like any work of man, those drugs may have horrible side effects, they may be faulty, they may not work the way they should. But they are not evil.
The Bible does mention medication – not often, I admit. It talks about using oil for wounds (as in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10,) about using wine for stomach complaints (1 Timothy 5:23) and about the balm of Gilead (Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11; 51:8 and 2 Chronicles 28:15.) We know that there were at least some doctors in Biblical times because Jesus mentioned that the sick need them (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31). I have been reading the Holman Bible Dictionary online and it has this to say about the treatment of mental illness:
Mental illness and epilepsy were not uncommon in the ancient world, and the victims suffered greatly. Their sickness was usually associated with demonic powers. The afflicted person was often isolated, and even abused in some cases. King Saul became mentally unstable, and it is of interest that he gained some help from music (1 Samuel 16:23), a form of therapy that has proved to be beneficial in some cases of mental illness. Perhaps the most dramatic example of mental illness related in the Bible concerns the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:1). No treatment is described, but the king’s sanity was restored when he acknowledged the true God.
This is what makes it incredibly hard to be mentally ill and a person of faith. The Bible just doesn’t mention mental illness in the context of being an illness like any other, and it doesn’t really talk about treatment. The concept of a mental illness, as separate from demonic influence, is a recent one. This is why it is still common for Christians to say that if a person is mentally ill that they need prayer and/or deliverance rather than medication and therapy.
How do we deal with this? I think, in part, by recognising that the Bible was written in and to a specific time and culture, and we, as 21st century Christians, have to understand that, while it is relevant, true and useful to us in this day and age, it was not written outside time and culture. That is not to say that the Bible is wrong – but it is to say that we cannot expect biblical authors to write about mental illness – or indeed medication for any ailment, because the understanding that they had of disease and health at that time was different to ours. I don’t believe in the idea that if it is not in the Bible it is false, that if the Bible does not mention bipolar/depression/etc then these things do not exist. I think that is a reflection of when it was written. I do believe that the Bible is inspired and trustworthy – but I do not believe that God dictated a series of books to the authors, that those authors had no input into the text, and that the text was not contextualised to the time and place it was written.
So, I don’t think we should worry that the Bible does not mention mental illness or medical treatment as we understand it – and I don’t think we can or should condemn people for taking those treatments in the absence of biblical evidence. I do think we can and should look to Jesus and his example – in treating people with compassion, in having a heart for the suffering and the oppressed, and in seeking healing for all people. We are not Christ – we can pray for healing but we cannot choose who is healed and who is not. That is up to God – and we know that he does not always heal in this life, although it is important to remember that we shall all of us be healed in the kingdom.
I read once that there is a distinction between healing and cure. We can be healed – by medicine, by faith – without finding a cure that will make us well forever. Healing, too, can take forms that are not obvious – bringing us closer to God, being aware of his comfort when we are ill, of his presence with us in the depths of our pain. It is not the answer I would like – but, it is the best, because God wills it to be so.
This has been a little disjointed today, I’m afraid, but the “take-away” message that I would like to give is that medication, while it can be deeply unpleasant, is important. While I often have a problem with taking it and I hate the side-effects I do get, I keep taking it, because I trust that it is doing good. I am slowly being taken off it now – which is a delight to me – but I will not say “never again” to it. I don’t see it as an issue that our illnesses are not described in the Bible, because I think we need to see it in the context of its time and place. I would like to look to Christ – in the hope of a cure but in the knowledge of healing, in whatever way that happens. I recall that the Holy Spirit is described, as indeed was Jesus, as a Comforter. There is nothing like my illness to make me want comfort more – and how wonderful that God is described as wanting to comfort us.
- It’s hard to hear… (whereistandblog.wordpress.com)
- Mental Health: from Shame to Seeking Health – part one: learning shame in childhood (lanahobbs.wordpress.com)
- mental health: from shame to seeking help – intro – bipolar (lanahobbs.wordpress.com)
- Mental illness, like cancer, is not a lifestyle choice (itv.com)
- Think twice. Words damage … (jillsmentalhealthresources.wordpress.com)
- My Experiences With Untreated Depression (gardenvarietyneurosisredux.wordpress.com)