In his book, Prayer is Good Medicine, physician and researcher Larry Dossey maintains that praying for one’s self or others can make a scientifically measurable difference in recovering from illness or trauma. It is one thing to understand such a healing intellectually; it is another to know it from experience.
Such an experience came to me in the fall of 1996 when a painful divorce, a bad case of writer’s block, and an adverse reaction to an antidepressant medication plummeted me into a major depressive episode. For the next ten months, I was assailed by out-of-control anxiety attacks which alternated with dark, suicidal depressions. Each day felt like an eternity as I struggled to stay alive in the face of overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair.
My depression was called “treatment resistant” (a condition that applies to 10-20% of those who suffer from a depressive disorder) and for good reason. Medication, the mainstay of conventional treatment, simply did not work. Drugs, such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, made me agitated; others such as Lithium made me even more depressed; and the rest 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 were trapped in a dark tunnel in which both ends were sealed off, and a sign on the door read, “No Exit.”
It was then that I received a phone call from the pastoral counselor at the spiritual center where I was attending services. “When one of our congregants was dying of cancer,” Eddy explained, “we decided to bring all of her support — her family, friends, minister, physicians, and social worker — together in one room. Their combined positive thoughts 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 meeting with you in two weeks. We would like you to attend and bring members of your personal support team with you.”
I arrived at the meeting two weeks later. Twelve people were present. After I described the history of my illness and my feelings of hopelessness and despair, the group shifted the focus away from my symptoms and asked me to create a picture of 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. I wrote this vision statement of wellness down on paper and made photocopies to give to the group members.
The group then affirmed that my desire for wellness was already a reality and agreed to hold in consciousness my vision of wellness over the next thirty days, until we met again (a total of six monthly support meetings were held). The plan was that every day (preferably at 9:00 a.m.) each group member would read my vision statement aloud while picturing me as whole and well.
I left the group feeling nurtured by the loving attention I had received, but without any sense that a healing had taken place. Nonetheless, seventy two hours after the members began to visualize my recovery, I awoke with a clarity and a peace that I had not experienced in five months. My normal feelings of agitation and hopelessness were absent. The black cloud of depression had begun to lift. Within ninety days, I was completely free of symptoms.
If there is there a moral to this story, it is that no matter how sophisticated our brain science and technology become, there is no substitute for human love and caring. Scientific studies such as those in Dean Ornish’s book, “Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis of the Healing Power of Intimacy,” repeatedly reveal that strong social bonds strengthen the immune system and ward off the harmful effects of stress on physical and mental health. It takes a whole village to shepherd a person through a dark night of the soul. And every day I give thanks that a committed group of loving people took a few hours from their busy schedules to give of their love and support.
More information about Douglas’ healing and his holistic approach to mental health recovery can be found at http://www.healingfromdepression.com.