Depression, Mental Illness, and Suicidal Thoughts

You’re looking at a scan of my brain, taken several years ago. A normal brain is smooth. Those holes and crevices reveal improper blood flow and/or that my brain isn’t functioning properly. This “improper function” can cause a racing mind, depression, unwanted thoughts that spark out of nowhere, anxiety, or other problems. I’ve been living with this for the past 12 years. Maybe longer.

Suicide rates are climbing, as are the number of people who are reeling with the trauma, confusion, and torment that comes from malfunctioning brain chemistry. I watch the articles that have been written on suicide and depression, and have yet to read one that offers real world, practical answers for those who are suffering. Many could be summed up as “we need to talk about mental health issues in the church… go see a doctor.” You can tell they haven’t lived through that hell personally and are throwing our Scripture or counsel like it’s candy on Halloween.

Those who are living on the edge of insanity brought on by a misfiring brain face fear, the confusion that comes from doctors and counselors who give conflicting advice that may or may not help, the loneliness from feeling like a freak, and the vicious spiritual warfare from an enemy who is going all out to convince them there is no hope so they give up and end their life.

In January of 2007, I was burned out. I had been torching the candle at both ends and fallen into a deep depression. I saw my general practitioner (M.D.) about the depression; he put me on an antidepressant, but it had the effect of spinning my mind like a gyroscope. We tried several other antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications (anxiety can accompany depression) but made no progress.

Then I started making the rounds with psychiatrists. Their approach was to put me on cocktails of 3-4 medications that included every antidepressant, antipsychotic, and benzodiazepine (addictive tranquilizer) in the book, along with sleeping pills. After several months of this, my mind and emotional state started cracking; by early summer of 2007 I was having panic attacks. Anxiety and fear set in, accompanied by deep bouts of depression.

I saw 6 doctors that year, with the result that every new cocktail of pills accelerated my freefall into darkness. In October, I was referred to a psychiatrist I was told was “the best in Colorado Springs,” and put on a new cocktail… that continued my downward spiral.

In December of 2007, I started having crying fits. I was now in so deep that my mind and emotions were a swirling mess of fear, depression, anxiety, and torment; I was losing hope.

I had seen multiple counselors that year. One counselor said what I was going through was rooted completely in unresolved trauma, so we kept digging and scraping everything we could from the bottom of the barrel of my past. There was no peace or healing in his approach and the endless digging drained my emotional reserves further.

I went to several churches for help. One pastor listened for 5 minutes and then went on a 50 minute monologue on how I’d messed up by my choice of previous counselors. I couldn’t wait to get out of his office.

My faith was in pieces, to the point where I began questioning my salvation. The fear and panic attacks, some of which were juiced by the medication, played a part in the spiritual torment. What made it even more confusing was that in the previous years I had seen God do a lot of amazing work through me to provide healing and breakthroughs in the lives of others who were in bondage to sexual sin. I didn’t understand how I had gone from helping others to total collapse in a short period of time, and why the Lord wasn’t providing answers or helping me.

At the end of 2007, I turned Blazing Grace over to another ministry. There was no way I could help anyone in the state I was in; I was groping in the dark on my best day. I was also terrified of the future.

In January of 2008, I went to another doctor who prescribed one of the few antidepressants I still hadn’t tried, and it pushed me over the edge. You know those warnings on medication that say “if you start having suicidal thoughts, get help immediately?” Those pills broke my mind, and I started hearing screaming suicidal voices. I went to the ER, and they admitted me to the psychiatric ward for what would be an eight day stay.

The psych ward was a living nightmare. Men and women were walking around like zombies, having been medicated into a coma by the doctors. I received the same treatment, and was put on a new, high dose cocktail of 4 potent medications that transformed me into a zombie like the other residents. The panic attacks finally stopped, but so what; now I was shuffling my way through a living coma.

All through 2007, Satan had been hitting me hard with thoughts of fear, despair, and hopelessness. “God has left you! Look at you! You’ve lost your sanity! There’s no hope for you now… you might as well end it!” The spiritual warfare, the chemical, emotional and spiritual mess I was, and the new bottom I’d hit in the psych ward had me teetering on the cliff of ending my life. All the doctors, medication, pastors, counselors, and constant crying to God for answers or hope had gotten me nowhere. I didn’t see any light and was grasping for a shred of hope.

And yet… right before I went into the psych ward, Jesus gave me a picture. In it, I was sliding down a rope over a deep, dark hole, trying desperately to maintain my grip and keep from falling. I slid to the last inch, lost my grip, and fell, but then Jesus caught me. I knew I was falling and hoped at some point He would catch me.

After I left the psych ward, I was on the zombie cocktail for another year. I was still seeing the doc who was “the best in Colorado Springs” and not getting anywhere. The only silver lining was that I was stable. I slept a lot and still struggled with fear, depression, and hopelessness.

I don’t remember who told me about him, but someone recommended I get a second opinion from a doctor named Earl Henslin in California, who I set up a call with. Dr. Henslin told me that the practice of overmedicating patients is a big problem in the medical field, and he sees it often with his clients. He encouraged me to ween off the zombie cocktail until I was only taking a small dosage of one medication.

Under my doctor’s supervision, I started weening off, then changed doctors. It was time for a change of scenery. This next Doc kept me at the status quo and went back to experimenting with the few remaining meds I still hadn’t tried, none which helped. (I’d now been on just about every antidepressant, antipsychotic, and benzodiazepine there was up to that point).

Then he retired, and I saw another doctor, who was a breath of fresh air. His approach wasn’t to force me into a diagnosis and prescribe away as the others did, but to find what would be best for my brain chemistry. As he said, “your brain doesn’t go by the book.” All the other doctors had been treating me “by the book,” with disastrous results.

I continued to make progress, one small baby step at a time, and by 2011, I was growing and healing spiritually and emotionally. One man who helped from 2008-2010 was a Biblical counselor named Tim Peterson. Tim walked with me through those years when my faith was little more than broken glass by showing compassion and cooperating with God’s process of rebuilding my faith. He didn’t preach, throw out cheap advice, or judge. Tim is gifted by the Holy Spirit as a counselor; his approach is to keep his ear to the ground with what God is doing in his counselee’s life, and then act as a conduit to facilitate healing with God’s help, which had been my own approach to counseling.

Then Tim left for Uganda to serve as missionary. After Tim left I stopped seeing counselors, and went after God hard. It’s not that I hadn’t been doing so before, but now I was having long periods of silence with Him; the Lord was now my only counselor. It was in those hours of silence with the Lord that He bound up my wounds, restored me, and rebuilt my faith muscles until they were bulging. I was hearing His voice daily; it got to the point that to doubt that He was with me took more work than to give the lies Satan had hammered me with any credence.

By the end of 2011, the fear and anxiety attacks were long gone; I had changed and grown. Today I see that the Lord threw me into a red-hot furnace for 4 years to burn off a lot of fear, pride, arrogance, and self-will; teach me about humility and obedience, and reveal His faithfulness and love to me in deep and profound ways. I also learned that the only way I could get to a place where there’s less of me and more of God is with prolonged suffering and pain. We can listen to all the sermons about suffering we want, but it’s not until we’ve been blow-torched with pain over an extended period of time that our hearts are purified at a deep level.

I also saw that God used those 4 years to prepare me for the next phase of ministry. I started getting the burn to get in the game again, then the Lord opened the door wide for me to take back Blazing Grace.

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It’s critical to understand the chemical, emotional, and spiritual sides of the battle, which I will get into now. I won’t go in depth on everything for brevity’s sake; you can do more research online if you like. A lot of what I learned came from making mistakes, groping for answers, and raw perseverance.

Even if you aren’t struggling, much of what follows applies to every Christian.

Doctors:
Every psychiatrist or M.D. is limited by their education and knowledge, and the way they apply that education and knowledge is different. Here’s the big one – when it comes to brain chemistry, unless they’re having you get a brain scan – the best they can do is guess. It’s great when they guess right, but when their guess is off it can be dangerous and even life threatening, which is what happened to me. As you saw with my story, some may overmedicate you into a coma.

Several doctors diagnosed me as bipolar (that “force you into a box and prescribe away” thing), but I never believed them completely as I wasn’t having the manic episodes that accompany bipolar disorder. (The medication-induced panic attacks, coupled with the fear and anxiety from the freefall into darkness contributed to what may have looked like manic episodes).

In 2014 I flew to California and went to Amen Clinics to have the brain scan done that you see at the top of this article. From the scan, they told me my brain showed signs of physical trauma, and was not a typical “bipolar brain.” This made sense as I’d been in a car accident in my teens where my head had slammed into the windshield, and I’d also been in a bicycle accident where I went head first into the concrete. I’d also done plenty of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and LSD in my teens and early twenties, which didn’t help.

My doctors had been “guessing wrong” for years and misdiagnosing me. If you’re in medication hell as I was, I would urge you to get a brain scan done. Or at least get a second opinion.

We need doctors, but you should be aware of their limitations and that they don’t always have the answers.  You should also understand that no pill will fix everything, and that the chemical, emotional and spiritual are tied together; all 3 need attention.

You need other Christians.
This part is vital. All through my ordeal, I met with other men for support on a weekly basis. I met with several other guys for breakfast Tuesday mornings, and talked to another brother on the phone during the week. All these were praying for me. None of them had the answer, nor did they try to fix me. (Who could?) One of the wisest things one of them said was that “everything you’ve tried with man has backfired, maybe it’s God who will pull you through.” Which, was right on.

Do not try to walk this road alone. Get one or two friends, preferably not family members, that you can meet with consistently who will support and pray you through the darkness.

The church isn’t always a safe place to get help. I had my share of Christians who said stupid things about what I was going through, and learned the hard way to be careful who I shared with. One told me that because Jesus didn’t take the wine when He was on the cross that we shouldn’t take medication. Another accused me of “being in sin,” because of the thoughts my misfiring brain was throwing out. Another brought up demon possession. Many Christians have no idea what they’re talking about or how traumatic something like this is and don’t have the humility to keep their mouth shut. If you encounter someone like this, keep going and don’t allow them the space to speak into your life.

Many churches have a messed up culture when it comes to how they treat their pastors. There has been a rash of suicides by pastors lately, and we will probably see more. When we expect our pastors to walk on water and put them up on a pedestal, we make it extremely difficult for them to reach out for help due to the risk they will be judged, ostracized, or fired. This is religious hypocrisy, pride, and arrogance on the part of church leadership and those in the flock; every one of us is broken and flawed, including pastors, and they are as vulnerable to fighting the battles as I did as anyone else.

If you’re a pastor and need help, feel free to contact us. We get it, and can walk with you.

One of your most powerful medications is exercise.
Exercise has a powerful, positive effect on brain chemistry and mood. I hit the weights four times a week, every week, and mix cardio in too. You need to exercise consistently every week.

The foods you eat make a big difference.
Get off of, or greatly reduce, sugar, processed foods, and bread. Sugar is toxic to brain chemistry and is linked to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and a host of other brain and health problems. Sugar can also cause depression. Many of the foods Americans eat are loaded with chemicals and/or sugar that are detrimental to mental and physical health. If you’re going through depression, avoid the foods above, including fast food restaurants, at least until you’re stable. Build your diet on low fat proteins like chicken, vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and nuts. Eggs are packed with nutrients too.

I travel to Europe multiple times a year, and always feel better mentally and physically after I’ve been there a week. The Europeans don’t jack their food up with chemicals like we do, and it makes a big difference. They also don’t have the calorie heavy, sugar-laden desserts like we do in the States that can put you in a diabetic coma.

If your diet is poor, you might feel better just from changing your diet alone. One doctor told me that 80% of the health problems in the U.S. are due to improper diet and lack of exercise; the remaining 20% come from genetics. This gives you an idea of how powerful the right foods and exercise are.

The human brain is 60 percent fat; you need healthy fats and other foods that help brain chemistry such as coconut oil, avocadoes, seeds, nuts (especially walnuts), and blueberries (AKA brainberries). Omega-three fish oils help too.

The culture of sugar and junk food is deeply ingrained in the church; you can expect to receive looks and comments from friends and family if you clean up your eating. I’ve received my share of comments when I’ve turned desserts down such as “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you eating our donuts/cake/cookies, etc.?” It may be okay for others to treat their temple like a garbage dump, but those of us with brain chemistry issues have to be careful. Set it in your mind ahead of time that you will take care of yourself, regardless of what others say.

Stay away from caffeine and alcohol.
Alcohol depresses the nervous system and can increase anxiety; it can also interact in negative ways with psych meds and antidepressants. Caffeine is a stimulant and psycho active drug which can, among other side effects, send your nervous system into orbit and along with your brain chemistry, in addition to messing with your sleep, which is the last thing you need. (Getting enough rest is critical when you’re striving to heal). I drink decaf coffee and rarely drink alcohol, with the exception of an occasional glass of wine.

A deficiency of vitamin D can cause depression.
More than half of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency; get your Vitamin D level checked. Mine was low; when I started taking vitamin D supplements it gave my mood an upward bump.

Look into hyperbaric oxygen treatment
There is growing evidence that hyperbaric oxygen can help for brain chemistry issues such as PTSD, concussions, dementia, and others. Joe Namath recently said that after having 5 concussions, his brain scan showed significant damage. After a battery of hyperbaric oxygen treatments, Namath saw marked improvement. I’m looking into getting hyperbaric treatment myself in the near future.

Get out of ministry!
If you’re in a dark place and are low on emotional reserves, take a sabbatical, or quit ministry. Ministry comes with a high emotional cost; if you’re running on fumes and freefalling in depression, ministry will keep you drained and make healing and recovery impossible. Don’t let anyone guilt trip you; I don’t care who it is. It’s critical that you enter a time of rest so you can find your bearings, recover, and heal. This doesn’t mean you’re getting out of ministry permanently, but that you’re giving yourself the time you need to heal.

Your emotions are tied to your mental health
Unresolved trauma, bitterness, and fear all have a profound effect on brain chemistry and emotions. Those who’ve stuffed their feelings over the years may wake up to find they’re inflicted with panic attacks. This is pain and trauma of the heart leaking out, and is evidence that healing is needed. Some who suffered for years with depression, anxiety or panic attacks saw those problems fade away after experiencing emotional healing in an area they’d avoided. Bitterness and unforgiveness can also throw your emotions and brain chemistry out. Ask the Lord to bring any issues that need healing to the light, and cooperate with His healing process.

The safest place for your mind is God’s word.

If you’re freefalling in a dark hole of depression or torment, it’s not safe for you to trust your all of your thoughts and feelings, especially if your mind is being flooded with despair, discouragement, or hopelessness. It can be dangerous and life-threatening if you allow distorted thoughts to take hold. It’s critical that you immerse yourself in God’s word every day, especially while you’re in the pit. You need His thoughts to become your thoughts, and reading His word can bring peace and comfort. I lived in the Psalms and found comfort and encouragement from other books like the book of Job, who suffered traumatic loss while enduring intense spiritual warfare.

Don’t allow any lies to flutter in your mind unchallenged by the truth found in God’s word.
During the years when my brain chemistry was thrown off, Satan pounded me constantly with lies such as “God has left you!”, “you’ve sinned too much!”, “you’re a freak, no one can help you!”, and other thoughts meant to drive me to despair and hopelessness. I spent many months trapped in depression and fear because I allowed those lies to stick. As I began to grab on to God’s promises such as “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6) and all those “don’t fear for I am with you” verses that are seeded throughout God’s word (Isaiah 41:10, among others), I started to climb out of the pit and get stronger. You must keep your mind saturated in Scripture.

Grab onto the lifelines of truth God gives you personally.
The Lord gave me Psalms 103:14 (“For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust”) to show me He didn’t condemn me for my faulty brain chemistry. Psalms 103:14 also countered Satan’s lie that I was a freak beyond help. God then gave me Isaiah 54, which is packed with promises of future growth and restoration. Here are verses 2-4 from Isaiah 54; I encourage you to read the entire chapter:

“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. 

During the days when I was tormented chemically and running the gauntlet of spiritual battle, I held onto a sliver of hope that Isaiah 54 might be God’s message for me. Today, the promises He gave me about “enlarging my tent” have been fulfilled as Blazing Grace has grown like never before.

You must accept the fact that you are at war, and fight.
When you’re weighed under with depression or other mental and emotional difficulties, mustering up the will to fight the spiritual battle can feel next to impossible. You must accept the fact that the enemy is trying to destroy you. There’s a lot at stake; you must not allow the enemy to beat you up unchallenged and allow his lies to stick.

But here’s the good news. You don’t need to have the strength to fight. There were many times I felt like crawling into a hole and wishing everyone would go away and that the raging battles would cease, but the enemy doesn’t retreat until he’s resisted (James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:9). During those moments when my tank was bone dry, I learned that all I needed was to ask God for the strength to fight, and what approach to take for victory.

As the wins started piling up, I learned that God was quite willing and faithful to fill in the gaps of my weakness with His strength and give me what I needed for every battle. Part of why He allowed me to go through those 4 years of torment was to strip me of the idea that my strength, gifts, or knowledge had any value or power. (Many Christians are doing ministry in their flesh; you can usually tell because they leak pride and have put a lot of effort into polishing their act).  It was only until I was nothing and had nothing and made Him my only hope that I learned through experience that He comes through for us when we’re in the pit. The Bible calls that faith.

I learned more about spiritual warfare in those four years by being in the fight for my life than I ever did at church or listening to sermons. You will to. You must learn the power of prayer and God’s word, step into your authority in Christ (Ephesians 1-2), and learn to walk with Him in every battle.  You must learn to listen for His quiet voice and do what He tells you, even if it sounds crazy.

If you find yourself in a dark place and are feeling overwhelmed, text, call or email one of your friends and ask for prayer. There will be battles when you need others to back you up with prayer; don’t let pride or shame keep you from asking for help. This is another reason why you need a band of brothers and/or sisters who are there with you.

You must decide you will persevere, no matter what anyone says or how bad you feel.
I had doctors and counselors tell me “this is as good as it gets, you’ve tried everything and we don’t have anything else for you.”  Never give up, and don’t stop looking for answers. Keep seeking and asking for God’s leading, no matter how long it takes. There will be days when you get by on raw perseverance alone. My willingness to look outside the medical community and get second opinions was key.

Learn to discern between the chemical and the spiritual.
This will take time. If your brain is misfiring, you don’t want to go into spiritual battle mode. If the enemy is attacking you, you don’t want to ignore it as a chemical problem. Ask God for the wisdom and discernment to cope with every situation. If I’m struggling and am unsure what the root cause is, I’ll ask the Lord to show me if what I’m going through is chemical, or spiritual warfare, or just ask  what I should do. The enemy is skilled at planting dark thoughts in the mind and then viciously attacking the person with condemnation for having them. Refuse to take ownership of those thoughts. You should never claim responsibility for the distorted thoughts that a misfiring brain can produce. If the thoughts don’t reflect your heart, reject them and move on. Don’t condemn yourself or allow the enemy to.

After you’ve healed, take care of your family.
During the first several years when I was fighting for my life, I wasn’t the father my kids needed me to be, nor was I able to love my wife. Those relationships suffered tremendously and there was significant damage done. Once I started to gain traction, I knew I needed to make amends for my neglect and then do my part to help with my family’s healing. You may need to do the same.

Understand that God will take you through your trials, but He may not take you out of them.
Some of you may suffer for years, or even the rest of your life with depression or other issues. My brain chemistry still causes problems, but I have the tools to cope with it. I’ve learned that my cracks and flaws are a blessing and can even be my secret weapon. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m fatally flawed, and have no interest in leaning on my wisdom, strength, or power, not only for ministry, but for all of life. Many Christians rely on their training, knowledge, and skills, but not the Holy Spirit, which is where the power to live the Christian life comes from.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

Just as Paul’s torment at the hand of a demon brought about the weakness that fueled the power of Christ in his life, so the size of your suffering determines the opening of the conduit through which Christ can shine through you. It has nothing to do with knowledge or training.

When I speaking publicly, the only way I can describe it is that I light up, like I’m on fire. People who know me tell me that I “transform.” That didn’t happen before my years in darkness.

God shines the brightest through the cracks of our lives; the deeper or wider the fault line, the brighter the light that shines through. If you allow Him, He can use your time in the darkness to purify and strength you in ways most Christians know little about. Your heart will reflect Christ more than the status quo believer because there will be less of you and more of Jesus shining through your cracks. This will intimidate some church-goers, especially those who love to put stock in training, degrees, and knowledge, but God will use it with an irresistible pull that draws suffering people to you.

If I were to sum up the keys to survival, they would be my relationship with the Lord, prayer, God’s word, looking outside of the medical community for answers, perseverance, understanding how to fight the spiritual battle, and the support of others.

In the days leading up to the time I finished this article, I experienced increasing spiritual warfare that got intense to the point where I needed to ask others for prayer. Suicide, mental illness, and depression have become a stronghold for the enemy where he is free to “steal, kill and destroy”, with little resistance offered by a church that doesn’t know what to do with the problem. If you’re a pastor or ministry leader, this article will give you plenty of information to provide your flock that can get them started on a path to healing.

I believe there are many of you who are reading this article who know someone who needs it. Please share it with them.