That’s the choice that thousands feel they are forced into every day.
I know, because I hear their stories, and I’m the one they are trusting as their guide, as their physician.
Susan (not her real name) was in last week. She had been stable for eight years on clonazepam, which had helped lessen her daily battle with anxiety. However, she was concerned that being on an “addictive nerve pill” was not honoring to God. And so I was asked again the question that I had been asked so many times before, “What should I do, doctor?”
I understand where she and so many other of my East Tennessee patients are coming from, for I too grew up in rural Appalachia in a “Bible Belt” culture where to emotionally or spiritually struggle in any way meant something was wrong with you and your relationship with God. I’ve also seen the flip side within the halls of academia, where fragile hurting souls were shattered by a psychiatrist who had the audacity to tell them they could not even speak the word “God” while they were on “his” hospital floor since “he” was their god while they were under his care.
So, what did I tell Susan in the brief time I had with her? Did I tell her that if she just prayed a little bit harder, memorized just a few more Bible verses, trusted God just a little bit more, she wouldn’t need drugs? Or did I tell her to forget her religion and her God, and realize that she was a complex mesh of chemicals, and she needed a drug to help regulate her faulty brain chemistry?
I told her neither, because both of those answers represent a cruel false dichotomy which influences many people’s minds regarding the care of souls. The reality is that we are both body and spirit, material and immaterial, incredibly complex meshes of chemicals and yet something that can’t be reduced to mere chemicals. We don’t have to give up our spirituality to acknowledge the reality that medical science has something to offer hurting souls, and we don’t have to give up our medical science to acknowledge that our hurting souls need more than the latest drug.
Here is the essence of what I told her: We are here to love God and walk with Him. From the earliest teachings of Christ and the church fathers that has been clear. It’s also been clear that loving God and walking with Him is hard, sometimes very hard. In theological terms, we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies with fallen souls. Or put another way, every one of us live with a body that has imperfect brain chemistry, living with people who don’t always treat us as we need to be treated, and with a spirit which still doesn’t understand, love, and obey God as we ought.
In light of this reality, the question of whether to take any type of psychotropic drug is simply, “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” In essence it is no different than the question to take a diabetes drug or say a prayer or change jobs or forgive someone— any decision should come down to “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” For some people, a drug like clonazepam just dulls soul pain that needs to be dealt with instead of masked, and actually would draw them away from God. For Susan, the drug helped clear her mind and allowed her to focus on her work, her family, and her God with more freedom.
Yes, I know it’s a simple question, but sometimes simple questions still are the best ones. “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” sidesteps all the science vs. faith debates and replaces them with a simple question that can guide any person of faith who is also seeking help from medicine. In the end, that’s what it’s all about for me, and for you: to learn to live wisely in our journey to love Him and walk with Him.