“The real me is something bad, something that has to be controlled with drugs,” said the teen.
My heart sank to hear these words from the teenager I was speaking with. In previous conversations, he and his family had shared with me his years of struggle with depression which resulted in behavior ranging from extreme anxiety to anger and rage. For his parents, finding the right medication after a long roller coaster of emotional pain was a godsend. Their family had at times nearly fallen apart as they wrestled with what to do about their son. Yet, for the son, medication was a source of shame, a sign that he couldn’t control himself and an abiding sense that deep down he was a monster.
As I wondered what to say to this anguished teen, one of those Holy Spirit moments occurred and the words just came out of my mouth. “You are not your depression,” I said to him. “That’s just chemicals your brain has produced in the wrong amount. The medication gets rid of that interference, so the real you can come out.”
I went on to tell him about my own battles with depression. I had experienced episodes where everything seemed so bad and nothing seemed worth living for, but despite how “real” that view of the universe felt, it was all the chemicals talking—either too little or too much of various combinations in the brain. For me, medication was a gift from God which let the real me inside be revealed.
Sometimes theologians speak of the “true self,” “inner light,” or “divine spark” inside of us to describe that piece of us made in the image of God. That “real” self, as opposed to the false selves we show the world or mistakenly believe are legitimate, is our identity given by God.
To be human is to have trouble discovering that “true self,” but some of us have an additional complication in our search for who we really are, because we struggle with mental illness of one degree or another. That warped view of reality which is filtered through depression or another type of mental illness sure seems real enough, but God works though medication, therapy and relationships to help us discern who we really are and how good the world can be.
As our conversation ended, my teenage friend seemed to perk up with hope, “You mean I’m really not a bad person? The real me isn’t something bad?” I nodded and said, “Yeah, that’s just the chemicals; that’s not the real you.” He smiled tentatively, as if he was daring to believe, maybe for the first time, in his own worth.
Chase Peeples is pastor of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ along with a bunch of other things including a father, a husband and a friend.