Stacy Oliver of Christian Book Previews spoke with Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dr. Laura Hendrickson about their newest book, Will Medicine Stop the Pain?
CBP: I wondered if we could start with your testimony, Laura, that you share so candidly in the book?
Laura: The reason why this book happened is because of my brother's death. He and I were both on psychiatric medicines, both of us as a result of difficult circumstances. In his case, a cancer diagnosis. In my case, being overwhelmed by the care of an autistic child. Both of were on antidepressants, both of us initially felt better. Indeed, I was instrumental in getting my brother to consider new medicines that might make him feel better. Then, over time, both of us started to slide back, which is just exactly what I found in my research as we attempted to understand what happens when medicines. People do feel better for a while, and then lose their edge very often, and either need more medicines or different medicines, side effects lead to new diagnosis, all of these things happen. Well, that's what happened to Bill and me.
In my case, I began thinking seriously about suicide and did not think that my autistic child could manage without me, so I was ready to take him with me. My husband brought me to our pastor, who explained to me that I just didn't have to live that way. He showed me how to begin struggling with the thoughts that seemed impossible to bear with. I walked out of his office that day, literally a new person, feeling empowered and believing that I could correct these thoughts that I felt so in the grip of. Within six months after that, by which time I was off of the medicines and still feeling well, I went to my brother. I suggested to him that he do the same thing. He went to talk to his spiritual advisor who said, "We don't do that in our church." A year later he was dead from suicide himself. He had told me that if he couldn't have a happy life, he would kill himself. He didn't appear to believe there was a way to walk our faith in Christ that would make a difference.
My passion is to get this word out to women, who may think this is as good as it gets. It's not as good as it gets. I do believe that medicine is so helpful, and really solves problems for people who are in crisis, but can produce many more problems in the long run than it solves. That's why not only are medicines alone not enough, but in many cases medicines aren't even needed if you start out with the biblical approach.
CBP: This doesn't affect just a few women -- there are a lot of Christian women who take some sort of medication for depression or anxiety. This isn't an obscure problem.
Elyse: Not at all. I would say in my counseling in the last five years, 98% of the women I see, and they are all professing Christians, are on these meds. Not usually just one, I can't remember a case where I saw a woman who was just on one. Like Laura said, once you've been on one for a while, the felt benefit of that medicine tends to wane, so other medicines are added. Then medicines are added to combat the side effects.
We're not saying, at all, that women should never take medicine. That's not our position. Our position is that we don't want women to close the door on the wonderful, spiritual benefits that are available to them in Scripture, in the Christian community -- not close the door on that by taking these meds and saying, "I just have a medical problem." For both of us in our counseling, I can't remember the last time I saw someone who wasn't on these meds. We just have a heart for women, particularly in our counseling, that they see that there is something better.
CBP: You've done a wonderful job of explaining the connection between our spiritual issues and the way our bodies respond, and then how medication affects our mind and spirit. Can you explain that?
Laura: I think that really crucial is to understand how we are made. We are spiritual and we are physical. As we look in the book at what constitutes a disease, what is a physical problem, and what is a spiritual problem, it really helps to tease apart which is which. When your husband leaves you, you haven't developed a physical problem. That doesn't mean you haven't developed physical symptoms, because we did talk about how the inner person affects the outer person, and vice versa. If there is something wrong with your appendix, you will get the physical symptom of pain, but that doesn't mean your pain is a disease. What your pain is, is a sign that something's wrong. In the same way that physical pain is something wrong in your physical body, emotional pain is a sign that there is something wrong in your inner person. Which doesn't mean you don't have difficulty sleeping, or problems with appetite, because of the interactions between body and spirit.
As we begin to understand the difference between a physical problem and spiritual problem, then that points us in the direction of where we want to get help. Now, it's muddied a little bit by the fact that there are real diseases of the brain, which is part of the physical body. Of course, because we're Western human beings we tend to think of ourselves as having our inner person centered on our brain, that our brain produces our feelings. But it doesn't. It mediates between our outer person and our inner person. So, you can have a sick brain, it does happen. But not anywhere near as often as the drug companies would have you believe.
Elyse: Just to add to that, we're very concerned that people understand the philosophy behind the belief that trouble with my emotions are chemical in origin. The philosophy behind that belief is that all I am is my body. It's a material philosophy. If I have a problem with anger, which is easier to point out than depression, if I'm a true materialist I would say, "It's not that you have a problem with anger, it's just that you have a problem with your brain chemicals." What happens when you set that up, is people are no longer responsible for their actions. We don't need a Savior. Christianity is just something that's nice, if it makes you feel better.
I have counseled with a woman who was on antidepressant medicine, she was going back to her psychiatrist who was prescribing this for her, and she was telling him she was doing better. He told her, "I don't care at all what you talk about. You have a problem, and talk doesn't mean anything." I don't know that that's a typical response, but that's the perspective that all I am is a physical body. There isn't an inner-me that is a soul or spirit or heart. We as Christians would militate strongly against that. We have a soul.
What we want to say is that if you buy into this philosophy, this is what it means. You're not responsible for your sins. Not that all emotions are sin, but you're not responsible for the actions you take, because they are all chemical reactions of your brain.
Laura: We want to bring the soul back into addressing these problems. The pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction. We Christians had a problem with secular psychology in the years of Freudian psychiatrists, when they were trying to help you resolve all your unconscious conflicts. We couldn't accept that worldview. But, the pendulum swinging in the other direction now says we don't have to talk about this alternative worldview, instead, we'll act out of the alternate worldview of materialism. That's no improvement.
CBP: Unfortunately, there are a lot of counselors under the Christian label that promote this type of thinking. So it is confusing for Christians women experiencing trouble, thinking they're getting Christian advice.
Elyse: That's why we've stressed biblical counseling. That would be a different perspective than Christian psychotherapy, Christian counseling. Biblical counseling is counseling based on the truth found in Scripture, which is sufficient to solve the problems in the soul of man.
CBP: Don't people ask you, "How can you say that the Bible solves all of our problems?"
Elyse: The Bible does not tell us how to build a carburetor. It doesn't tell us how to perform brain surgery. But the Bible does tell us how to love God, and how to love our neighbor, and it does a really good job of diagnosing what's wrong with our soul. If the question is, "Does it tell me how to be a good mechanic?" then in one sense, yes, because the Bible tells me how to have a good work ethic. But it wasn't written to tell me how to rebuild carburetors.
If I want to know about life and godliness, which is what 2 Peter 1:3-4 talks about, we have been given everything we need by His precious promises. Whether it is the passe view of being a victim and I need to go back into my past, or the modern view that all I am is a biological entity and I need to address my brain chemicals, both of those views are insufficient. Not that we don't want to look at your past, or check the body. The Bible itself is its own testimony, and it says that it's sufficient for everything we need for life and godliness.
Laura: In the same way that the Bible doesn't tell us about carburetors, it also doesn't tell us how to solve all our problems in our marriage. That is one of the reasons why people who want to integrate psychology with the Bible will say, "This is God's common grace. He has offered psychotherapy as well to us." What I have found as I have learned from skillful biblical counselors, particularly pastors, is that the Bible contains many, many principles. Some are imbedded in the historical narrative, some of them are imbedded in the wisdom literature, some of them are imbedded in the actual commands of Scripture that say what to do. But what we want to be looking for is principles. In the same way that scientific principles guide an engineer's design, biblical principles are those things which guide a biblical counselor's counseling.
The problem is if you trace far enough back in any Christian psychology, you end up with people who weren't Christians who started with the presupposition that there is no God, and therefore, human problems are radically different than what the Bible says. That's a problem we can't solve, which is why we have to go to the source, the Bible, which does not mean that we're going to yank a verse out of context and beat someone over the head with it. Unfortunately, that's often done, too. But biblical principles really will help us to understand the full spectrum of what God's will on a given problem will be. It's not as simple.
Elyse: Another thing about Christian psychotherapy, it does not have the power of the Holy Spirit.
Laura: Very important point.
Elyse: In our counseling, the only hope we have is that the Holy Spirit is going to act upon the heart of our counselee. I cannot change someone by my words. The Holy Spirit has to accomplish that work. But you see, the Holy Spirit blesses the work that He has written. The Holy Spirit wouldn't necessarily bless the work of Freud, or Maslow, but He will bless the Word as people seek to incorporate the Word into their lives.
CBP: Because His Word is never returned void.
CBP: You mention a little bit about chemical issues, recommending that women first go to their doctors to see ifit indeed is an organic problem. Once that is eliminated as a problem, what should a woman suffering from, say, depression do?
Laura: We recommend them seeing a biblical counselor sooner rather than later. In other words, rather than saying, "I have a physical problem that is making me depressed," since you've ruled out the physical, the view needs to be, "What is God trying to teach me in this problem? How is He working in my life?" This was the viewpoint of the heroes of the faith in the Bible, as well as the great saints throughout the centuries who struggled through depression before antidepressants. They learned about themselves, learned about God's purposes in our suffering, and all of that. A biblical counselor can be tremendously helpful in that.
One of the things I have found consistently helpful with people who are depressed, who feel like they don't want to do anything so they don't, (I have found in my own life when I had severe depression and suicidality in the past), my pastor said, "Think these different thoughts and struggle against the wrong thoughts." He also told me to do things. He told me to pray, he told me to play praise songs, and he told me to get busy. Not to sit around thinking about the things that were depressing me. To take very specific action, which is what a biblical counselor can help with. Is a women depressed because she's absolutely wrung out and exhausted because she has too many demands and too much stress? That needs to be addressed. Is she depressed because her children are disobedient and rebellious? Well, taking medicines may make her feel a little better for a while, but the problem with the kids needs to be addressed. As we take action, that begins to break the spiral downward and you start to move in an upward direction.
CBP: So it's about small steps to start with?
Elsye: Emotions are given to us to help us learn, experience life of course, it adds color to a black-and-white world, but also painful emotions are given to us to tell us something. If I simply dull the painful emotion, then I am not understanding the very thing that that emotion is telling me. So many times we'll talk to women who are depressed, and they'll say, "I don't know why I'm depressed, I just feel so badly." And then we start unpacking their lives, and they've got all of these really difficult circumstances. There is a feeling in Christianity that if you're a Christian, it doesn't matter what you face, you should be able to handle everything. Be happy all the time. Well, I don't think that's a biblical perspective. We frequently say, "Boy, if I had that going on in my life I'd be depressed, too."
Use that pain to give you the impetus, the desire, to address what's really going on. If what I do with that pain is dull it, then I'm not helping myself nor the people in my life that I may need to be helping.
CBP: You also mention ADHD. It's so prevalent. It's not just women being put on drugs, but our kids, too. Does ADHD really exist?
Laura: I actually have a couple of chapters in another book Elyse and I did together with Harvest House last year called, When Good Kids Make Bad Choices, that unpacks that whole issue. How do the physical and the spiritual man intersect in a disobedient child. I do believe that some children are more predisposed by their nature to be inattentive than others. My son, as a child with autism, was the uber-inattentive child. You just can't even imagine. But I never considered giving him medicines because of the side effects. He was very non-verbal, so to give him medicines when he didn't have the words to tell me if it was making him sick, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.
As a result of working very hard on training his attention, I found that even in far more serious cases of inattention, the attention can be trained. So, does a disorder which is chemical called ADHD exist? Probably not. Are there children who are more predisposed by nature to be young men of action, to act without thinking it through? I think these are the guys who ultimately will be the leaders in our society, they're born to rule. But they need to subordinate their nature to the Holy Spirit's leading, and it's going to be much, much more difficult to disciple a child like that. The problem is that nobody cares as much about discipling a child like that as much as his parents. Teachers in the school want a group of children who are compliant and cooperative so they can run their class and teach. So you can see why what the teachers want, and what a parent should want-- which is a child who hasn't just been quieted down so he can learn, but who has been taught how to quiet himself down so he can learn -- those goals are in conflict. I think that's a lot of the reason so many drugs get prescribed for kids.
I think that moms need a better toolbox. To explain exactly what our goals are in discipline, you have to explain what a child's nature is and isn't. In the last 100 years, the belief that man is essentially good and that environmental experiences make him bad, has gotten into the classroom. To the extent that they think there must be something wrong with his body if he's not behaving good. So rather than understanding that we're born sinful, that we have to be trained to do the right thing, and that some kids are far more compliant than others by nature, these are truths that have been lost.
Elyse: Again, that's part of the belief that if I'm a Christian and I am taking Johnny to church every Sunday, then Johnny should be obedient. And that's enough. But that's not enough. That basic view that our lives should flow along nicely because we're Christians, is a false view.
CBP: It's not about being a happy Christian, but you say being hopeful.
Laura: Yes. That God is doing something, even in our afflictions. If our affliction is something wrong, it isn't supposed to be, then I must be doing something wrong. But I've done everything I know, it must be my body. You can see how the beliefs logically end up there. Even women who would have told you, before they themselves became depressed, that depression is a spiritual issue, find themselves tempted to turn to medicine.
Of course, I don't want to suggest that turning to medicines is a sin. We do the best we can, we all do. If a woman has concluded it must be her body, and her life stabilizes and settles down, great! Then they come into me in the counseling room, and we talk about how to make the life work so that when the medicines are taken away, the problem doesn't recur. It's a win-win. We don't want anyone to hear the message, "You're a second-class Christian because you took medicines." No, no, no. You have not heard the whole message. As you come to understand better the hope of the gospel, and what God wants to do with you in your adversity, you're going to come through this and be better than ever.
That's certainly my message. I didn't stay with, "Oh, I almost killed my child." No, I've taken that adversity that I came through and turned it into a book to help others. Other women can do the same thing.