When you've hit a dark, bleak point in your life, you become willing to try almost anything to overcome your feelings of hopelessness and despair. A few years ago, a painful divorce, a bad case of writer's block and an adverse reaction to an antidepressant medication hurled me into a major depression. For the next 10 months, I was assailed by out-of-control anxiety attacks that alternated with suicidal thoughts. Each day felt like a painful eternity.
My depression was deemed "treatment-resistant" (a condition that applies to 10% to 20% of those who suffer from a depressive disorder), and for good reason. Antidepressants, the mainstay of conventional depression treatment, simply did not work for me. Drugs, such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, made me agitated; others, such as lithium, made me even more depressed. Others did nothing at all. As the emotional pain became unbearable, I began to contemplate suicide as the only way to escape from my ongoing nightmare. In desperation, I agreed to be evaluated for ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), but was told that I was not a good candidate because of my high state of agitation. Having run out of options, I felt as if I was trapped in a dark tunnel in which both ends were labeled "No Exit."
It was then that I received a phone call from Eddy, the pastoral counselor at the church I was attending. "When a member of our congregation was dying of cancer," he explained, "we decided to bring all of her support—her family, friends, minister, physicians and social worker—together in one room. Their combined prayers created a powerful healing energy that allowed Carol to live far longer than anyone expected. I think that the same principle might work for you. Our senior minister, myself and members of the prayer ministry would like to schedule a prayer meeting with you in two weeks. We would like you to attend and bring members of your personal support team with you."
It may have sounded like a doubtful approach to treating depression. But in his book Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer (HarperCollins, 1997), physician and researcher Larry Dossey, M.D., maintains that praying for oneself or others can make a scientifically measurable difference in recovery from illness or trauma. Furthermore, I respected Eddy highly, and was so beaten down by my mental condition that I agreed to the meeting.
When I arrived, I described the history of my illness and my feelings of despair. Then, the 12-person group shifted the focus away from my symptoms and asked me to imagine what wellness would look like for me. Although I could not remember a time when I was not anxious or depressed, I described in as much detail as I could the thoughts, feelings and behaviors I might experience if I were healed of my affliction. The group then affirmed that my desire was already a reality and agreed to hold in their consciousness my vision of wellness over the next 30 days, until we met again (a total of six monthly support meetings were held). Seventy-two hours after this prayer support began, the black cloud of depression began to lift. Within 90 days, I was completely free of my symptoms.
If there is a moral to this story, it is that no matter how sophisticated brain science and technology become, there is no substitute for human love and caring. Scientific studies (such as David Siegel, Ph.D.'s work with breast cancer survivors at Stanford University) repeatedly reveal that strong social bonds strengthen the immune system and ward off the harmful effects of stress on the cardiovascular system. If social support can affect a physical organ like the heart, then it's not a far leap to believe that it could also treat the brain.
Every day, I am grateful that a committed group of loving people took a few hours from their busy schedules to give their love and support. Whether I recovered thanks to the power of prayer, or simply because of their unfailing encouragement, my struggles with depression are finally over.