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.
I am a retired chaplain who was trained in clinical pastoral education in both medical and psychiatric hospitals. I can attest to the validity of what you have shared here with us. This is one of the crucial reasons why chaplains were introduced into hospital settings in the first place. People get well faster and leave the hospital sooner with the attention of chaplains and a caring faith community. Hospitals obviously love this because it saves money. I can’t explain any of it I just know that it happens for lots of people. This was one of the things that drew me to become a hospital chaplain in the first place.
Try getting spirituality into treatment plans for people in mental hospitals and see what happens!
I know of an incident where a patient on one of the units of the state hospital where I work held a prayer group for anyone who wanted to participate. They read scripture and the patient leading the group gave a little sermon and they prayerd together. It was a fairly large crowd and they enjoyed themselves and they were attentive and well behaved.
This “prayer group” caused an explosion among the staff and there were conversations about people sharing in a mass delusion and how this needed to be nipped in the bud before “problems” resulted from it. The end result was that the patient was forbidden to do it again. Didn’t seem like any problem to me but go figure; I’m only a peer worker. The psychiatrist pronounced the dreaded word “delusion” and there were no more spontaneous prayer groups. And this took place on a unit where the so-called groups provided by the staff were an absolute joke.
Yeah, you’ve gotta watch out for all that “spontaneous” prayer.
It can lead to an awareness of unconditional love, followed by random acts of *kindness*.
Thanks for being part of this group.
Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story on this site. I was deeply touched by your message of hope.
“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” – Mother Teresa
Thanks Duane. I always appreciate Mother Theresa’s quotations.
I’m not dismissing your experience in asking the following questions. I do believe in the power of prayer. Had you been off of all psychotropic medication at the time of your meeting at the spiritual center? If so, how long since the last time you used any of the medication(s)? Medication withdrawal would contribute to the symptoms you reported. There is also an expectancy or placebo effect that could also be working within your recovery.
I was taking the antidepressant Elavil at the time to help me sleep. That was it. Sixteen years after the event, the nature of my healing still remains a mystery to me. Yet, I firmly believe that the group support had something to do with it.
What a wonderful thing.
It reminds me of something discussed in Dialogical Meetings in Social Networks, by Jaakko Seikkula and Tom Erik Arnkil. This book is mostly about Open Dialogue ( ow which Seikkula was a founder), but it also describes “anticipation dialogues” in which clients, their families and support networks and their professional helping team meet. The client is asked to “recall the future”: “A year has passed and things are quite well in your family; what are you particularly delighted about?” The facilitator also asks the client to answer from the standpoint of the future, “What were you worried about a yeqr ago and what made your worries lessen?”
Hope, love and community.
I like this exercise. Thanks for sharing it.