God, Drugs, and the Salvation of the Human Spirit

By Anne C. Woodlen

I called two of my doctors to have breakfast with me in the hospital. I told them that I was taking doctors out of the middle of my treatment. There would be no more physicians prescribing pharmaceuticals. Henceforth, the decisions would be made directly between God and me. If God wanted me to live, he would find a way to make it happen. If he wanted me dead, I was prepared to meet him on his terms.

I was locked on the inpatient psychiatric unit, and the doctors with whom I was speaking were Nasri Ghaly and Paul Cohen. Dr. Ghaly was a Coptic Christian who carried his keys in his left pocket and a rosary in his right pocket. Dr. Cohen had been an active Unitarian for a quarter of a century; he was profoundly committed to the spiritual search. I told them that it was their job to affirm that I was of sound mind when making the decision to stop taking drugs. They so affirmed, and that day I started to refuse medications.

I was being treated for depression, as I had been since the age of fourteen. In the beginning, my episodes of depression were treated with psychotherapy and occasional hospitalizations. Then, when I was twenty-seven, Lt. Bob Dobrow died. He was the love of my life and a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps; his plane crashed and his parachute didn’t open.

My religious upbringing as a child had been heavily church-based, that is, I was in Methodist Sunday School and worship service almost every Sunday. For thirteen years, I had perfect attendance in the church choir. My sisters and I were officers in the Methodist Youth Fellowship. Our church activities were not matched by faith-based activities at home. We did not read the Bible or pray. My father was a college professor, and when I was fourteen, I asked him what he believed. He replied, “I believe along with Jean Paul Sartre.” I had no idea what that meant.

My mother was a moral woman who was engaged in good works, but she was largely silent on the subject of religion. (When she was middle-aged, she declared herself to be an atheist.) It was her mother, my Grandma Mary Copeland, who demonstrated to my sisters and me what it meant to be a Christian. It was at Grandma’s house that our prayers were heard—if not by God then certainly by Grandma.

As a young adult, I rebelled against what I had been taught and left the church. Consequently, when Bob died, I had no avenue open to talk to God about life, death and the meaning of it all. I had no church, and Bob was Jewish. I tried to find a rabbi with whom to talk about Bob’s death but I was unsuccessful. Profoundly depressed and lacking spiritual guidance, I turned to drugs—not street drugs but physician-prescribed antidepressants. I took antidepressants every day for the next twenty-eight years.

During most of that time, I also was a very active member of a Congregational church. The church had many social action groups, but no prayer or Bible study groups. After nearly twenty-five years of service, the pastor was removed from the pulpit and defrocked in a battle that deeply divided the congregation. We never were told the facts of what the pastor had done to warrant his dismissal.

My depression was excruciating throughout. I became unable to work. My mother was the only family member who stood by me. I took antidepressants every day but they provided little relief, and then only temporarily. I was hospitalized about fifty times for periods ranging from three days to six months. I attempted suicide about ten times. In 1999, while on the inpatient psychiatric unit, I took such a massive overdose that I was on life support for a month. The doctors had no expectation that I would survive. When I regained consciousness, I asked Dr. Ghaly what the doctors had done differently that finally brought me back.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Then why am I here?” I asked.

“God,” he said, with an eloquent shrug.

I was not pleased to be alive. My church had gotten a new young pastor who had kept vigil by my bedside every day that I was in the ICU. When I was returned to inpatient psychiatry, he told me, “It’s okay to be angry at God. He’s big enough; he can handle it.”

All the antidepressants that I had taken had led to various medical problems, including heart trouble and chronic renal failure. I also had diabetes, celiac disease, arthritis, hypertension, severe obstructive sleep apnea, unstable adrenal glands, an intestinal yeast infection and many other problems. And I was having bad reactions to all the medications I was given.

At the age of 54, I moved into a geriatric assisted living residence. My life was an unlivable sequence of ambulances, IV’s, catheters, tests, treatments, hospitalizations and more medications. Thus it was that in April 2001 I told my doctors that I wasn’t going to take any more drugs. I was discharged home, expecting to die. On more than one occasion I came pretty close to it.

All the drugs had been raising my glucose level. Without the drugs, my glucose was dropping dangerously low every day, but it was months before the problem was identified. When I stopped taking Ativan for insomnia, it turned out that I was addicted to it. I had not known that it was a narcotic. I went through cold turkey drug withdrawal because the doctors did not correctly diagnose the problem. There were many other crises.

Although my pastor was a good and faithful man, the rest of my church family ignored me. When I started using a wheelchair, they could not be troubled to bring me to worship. When the pastor asked me to preach one Sunday, my case manager had to hire a taxi to get me to church. Consequently, I left the church where I had been a member, a deacon, and a chorister for a quarter of a century. It broke my heart.

Because I was too sick to get up for service in the morning, a friend directed me to the Syracuse Alliance Church, which had prayer meetings on Wednesday nights. Several of the members volunteered to bring me to church. There were about forty members of the prayer group and, as I was introduced to them, I would ask each individual how long he or she had been a member. They answered with numbers like “twenty-two years,” “twenty-seven years,” and “thirty-one years.” I figured they must be doing something right, so I sat in the back and simply listened as these good people raised their voices in prayer. That’s how I learned to pray.

One day in conversation with the assistant pastor, he said, “It’s all laid out in Genesis. God’s whole plan is there, and the rest of the Bible tells how it’s played out.” So I started to read the Bible. I slept little and badly, so when I would wake in the middle of the night I would pull out the Bible and read a chapter. This went well for a while, then I sorely felt something lacking and made a basic realization: I am a Christian, and the Old Testament is Jewish. After that, I read one chapter of the Old Testament and one chapter of the New Testament every day.

I had been churched all my life but I had never read the Bible. Now, I was getting the whole story, not just the weekly lectionary readings from the pulpit. It was a major awakening! I was amazed at the verses that came before and after what I was accustomed to hearing, not to mention all the stuff in between. And as I read, I was brought into wonderment at what God’s plan actually was. What I saw most clearly was that God had made a straight path for me, and I had wandered far off it. I was walking beside the path in the weeds where lay the cigarette butts, drug paraphernalia, empty beer bottles and used condoms. I thought a lot about the crooks and curves my life had taken and the significant points where I had made decisions that took me off track.

During that time, a Pentecostal pastor, Valerie Goss, moved into an apartment two floors below mine. She became my friend, my teacher and, often, my angel. When things got particularly bad for me, she would sit by my bed and pray. I received several other gifts from God during that time. What Doctors Cohen, Ghaly and I had discovered was that I could no longer take any medication for anything. Apparently three decades of drugging had so severely damaged my immune system that everything—even aspirin—made me sick.

Dr. Ghaly had a subspecialty in acupuncture and Dr. Cohen learned hypnotherapy; these were frequently used in my treatment. And one day I got a mailing from a chiropractor whom I’d seen years earlier. Dr. Steve Wechsler refuses to prescribe drugs for anything, so he became another member of my health care team. Dr. Wechsler is a nice Jewish boy from Long Island—a nice Jewish boy who celebrated Christmas in an ashram in India!

When I went to other doctors, they demanded that I take drugs. When I said I couldn’t, they said, “You choose not to.” Some doctors became surprisingly abusive when I resisted medications. I came to understand a profound difference between creating health and treating sickness, and I learned that most doctors are entirely dependent on their prescription pads. If I refused pharmaceuticals, I was invalidating their professional existence and they got mad.

I learned to treat the seasonal affective disorder with light, the obstructive sleep apnea with pressurized air, the kidney disease with liquids, and the diabetes and celiac disease and hypertension with careful diet. Dr. Ghaly treated my disordered immune system, muscle spasms and pneumonia with acupuncture. Dr. Cohen treated my menopausal bleeding with hypnotherapy. Likewise, when I needed a root canal, we used hypnosis as the anesthesia. Dr. Wechsler did chiropractic adjustments that got my spine back in alignment and allowed all the nerves that ran off the spinal cord to do their job.

And I studied the Bible and prayed. Every morning would start with the Old Testament reading followed by the New Testament. Then I would sing “How Great Thou Art,” and pray. My prayers began with gratitude for all the good things that had happened to me in the previous day, then apologies for all the wrong things I’d done, followed by prayers of intercession for other people, and ending with questions asking God for guidance.

As my brain slowly began to heal from decades of drugs, and as I began to follow God’s way, I discovered self-respect. It was a new concept to me. I had been drugged into meekness and passivity for so long that I thought my lot in life was to beg others for crumbs from their tables. This included my sisters. I spent three years trying to introduce them to the new me, but they were either unwilling or unable to accept my changed self. I had to estrange myself from them. If leaving my church had been hard then leaving my sisters was so far off the scale that it was indescribable, but God had work for me to do and I couldn’t do it if I was going to go around begging people to notice me.

One of the things I was guided to was a discovery about antidepressants and depression. Much public notice was being given to how some adolescents become suicidal when taking antidepressants, and I realized that the same thing is happening to adults but nobody’s paying any attention. Adolescents live in situations where they are monitored every day and someone notices when they get worse and when they get better. Depressed adults usually live alone, frequently have few friends, and often become estranged from their families. The doctor sees them once a month for ten minutes, notes substantial depression and increases the antidepressant. Adults are being driven to suicide by antidepressants even more often than are adolescents. I was.

Additionally, I learned that the trigger for depression is the perception of powerlessness. What depresses people? Death, divorce, getting fired—people get depressed when bad things happen and they feel like there’s nothing they can do about it. Therefore, the proper treatment for depression is to learn to act with power. All antidepressants made me more depressed but I still had episodes of depression, so I had to learn to act with power in order to remove myself from suicidal depression. The first time I used this philosophy to help myself was with Medicaid transportation.

In my county, Medicaid transportation not only failed to meet the minimum standards set by the state and federal governments, it was also personally abusive. Several times a week, I would have to order rides to the doctor and I would be subjected to the hostility of a young woman who would do things like put my call on hold for up to twenty minutes. I felt powerless, which drove me into depression. In order to save myself from suicidal thoughts, I had to figure out how to act powerfully.

I spoke to her supervisor, which did no good. I spoke to the supervisor’s supervisor, which also did no good. Finally, I dared to call the director of the agency. I told her what the call-taker was doing and asked what she was going to do about it. The director said she was going to fire the girl! I laid in bed with my mouth hanging open, astounded by what had just happened—and the knowledge that I would never again be subjected to that young woman’s rudeness!

Eventually, I was well enough to move out of the geriatric center and into an apartment in the suburbs. I was no longer within reach of the Syracuse Alliance Church, so I began to search for another faith community. I tried eight different churches but no one would bring me to worship in a wheelchair. One church was taking in used wheelchairs, rehabilitating them and sending them to Africa, but they would not come across town to bring me, a willing Christian, to worship.

There was a strange occurrence at this time. My chronic renal failure—and probably many of my other ills—had been caused by a doctor who had kept me on lithium for seven years without properly monitoring it. I had trusted her; I had not known that she should have been checking kidney function every six months. In seven years, she had never done any kidney tests. After my kidney disease was diagnosed, I met with her three times. Three times she denied causing my illness. After the third time, she died unexpectedly—on my birthday. With 365 days in the year, why did she die on that day? I believe that God was letting me know that he had my back.

I continued to increase in health, albeit with great difficulty. The time finally came when I was healthy enough to start physical therapy, and I came into the hands of John Jablonka, a physical therapist and devout Catholic. Dr. Ghaly, Paul, Steve, Val, and John were all people of strong spirituality. Each one was on a different faith path—Coptic, Unitarian, Jewish, Pentecostal, Catholic—but they had two things in common: a deep sense of spirituality, and me. God was working through his people to help me. I, in turn, was working for God.

Medicaid wasn’t the only transportation that was substandard where I lived. Paratransit, that is, public transportation for people with disabilities, also failed to meet the standards set by the American’s with Disabilities Act. I went to work on both fronts. I joined a public transportation advisory committee at a local independent living center. I went to many meetings, worked hard, and got frustrated, exhausted and—too often—tearful. Finally I formed my own committee and called up the executive director of the bus company and asked to meet with him. The man runs a bus company with a $41 million budget and I asked to meet him! How in heaven’s name did I dare?

I dared exactly because of heaven’s name. I talked to God about it all the time and he talked back to me. I called the CEO because I knew it was what God wanted me to do, and that he had my back. I’m nobody—just a poor middle-aged fat lady in a wheelchair—but when I am walking in God’s path, I know that I will be successful. It was dreadful in the beginning because my unhealthy adrenal glands would flood my body with adrenalin whenever I entered a stressful situation. I would be flushed, breathing rapidly and totally freaked out, but when I was doing God’s work, everything would turn out all right. If I was pushing ahead on my own, things would go awry. I learned to listen and distinguish between God’s will and my own.

I took on the entire bus company with no regular support—except God! The CEO and I worked well together for a while. We got some things changed; we made some improvements, but in the end, he wouldn’t spend the money that was needed to buy new buses and hire more drivers, not to mention bring his out-of-control employees back into service. Based on my information, he had created an accessible transportation advisory council but it was window dressing, not substance, so one day I wheeled out of the boardroom and went public in the newspaper. Neither the CEO nor anyone else in management has voluntarily spoken to me since that day. I filed a federal complaint. It took me several years to get that pushed through the system. The new buses are on order for delivery this summer.

At the same time (having no more sense than a common toad) I took on Medicaid transportation, which every week provided terrible service to fifteen hundred poor, sick, mostly old citizens. I went from the Medicaid director to the Commissioner of Social Services to two county legislators, the District Attorney’s Office and, finally, I filed a complaint with the state department of health. They sent my complaint back to the county and the next day I was told I had to take the bus—I could no longer use Medicaid transportation. Then the county had me followed, taped my phone conversations without my knowledge, and beguiled a transportation vendor into betraying me. There was a fair hearing, for which I could not get legal representation.

By this time, I had so longed for a community of faith that when I got a power wheelchair, I began to wheel to services at the church closest to where I lived. It was a Methodist/Presbyterian United Church and it took me a long time to develop any trust there. The best thing was that it had a Bible study group that was led by the president of the congregation, who was a deeply faithful man and the son of a preacher. Not only had the man attended a Bible college, but he also had a handheld computer that contained five versions of the Bible, so he brought great knowledge to our discussions. Finally—someone to answer the questions I had been hoarding for years! We studied the 365-Day Bible and I got a good basic education.

My soul reveled in worship in that church. Disabled as I was, when the singing started, I was always drawn to my feet by a proud need to declare my faith and shout for joy. After so many years of absence, I received communion again. I joined the choir. Unsteady on my feet and walking with a cane, I began to forego the use of my wheelchair and process with the choir. I secretly thought of that walk down the aisle to the altar as my victory lap.

When I was confronted by the Medicaid fair hearing for which I had no representation, my pastor decided to represent me. He refused to let me assist in my own defense or be present at the hearing; he kept saying, “Trust me, trust me.” After the hearing, he would not tell me what had taken place. Unbeknownst to him, I got copies of the CD recordings of the hearing and heard him say things about me that were both shocking and sickening. Among other things, the hearing had proceeded despite his inability to produce a letter from me authorizing him as my representative. In a phone call, he howled at me that he would be charged with fraud: he said it, not me.

I lost the hearing and could no longer use Medicaid transportation to get to the doctors. The pastor had surgery and was out on sick leave for months. When he returned, we met with the congregational president. It was a hostile meeting until I withdrew in prayer, then returned to ask him how he felt about being a pastor. During the ensuing conversation, I learned that new members were to be joined in. When the pastor asked if I wanted to be included, I grinned and said, “On condition that I can preach the sermon.”

I did preach to the congregation. For twenty-five minutes, I testified about my faith journey and God’s goodness in my life. When I ended, the congregation gave me a standing ovation. In all my fifty years in churches, I had never seen such a thing. I was humbled and awed—and touched by the realization that I had told them a story that they needed and wanted to hear. The pastor and I continued to have a very uncomfortable relationship.

The following year, when I lobbied for more rehearsal time for the choir, the president told me that newcomers should be seen and not heard for the first couple of years. I gained his enmity by replying that I was sure that was what the high priests had told Jesus, too. It was a small church, and the pastor, the president, and their wives were all angry at me. After that, I rarely worshipped there. When the pastor moved out of state, his final words to me via email were, “You are full of bitterness. You are full of self-righteousness. You are full of it. . . . You are vicious and vindictive . . .” I have come to the conclusion that God is about service and humility and the church is about men and power.

During the winter of 2006-07 several things happened. First, I got a little part-time job at the local library. Since I had not worked since 1991, I was incredibly thrilled that I was healthy enough to work again. Second, in conjunction with a state senator, I got my complaint against Medicaid moved into the state inspector general’s office for investigation. By now, it appeared that there was major corruption involved in the contract between the county and the Medicaid transportation dispatch center. Third, my health began to fail, as it does every winter.

My doctor again applied for Medicaid transportation for me. I got it for two weeks, then the county attorney canceled it again. Denied access to medical treatment, I became so sick that I needed to be hospitalized and I lost my job. I filed for another fair hearing. This time, I was prepared. Again I had no lawyer, but I walked in carrying my Bible. I put it on the table. The county attorney put his law books on the table. When the decision was issued, I had won on all counts. The inspector general’s office finished their investigation six months ago; as I write this, I am waiting for the phone call telling me what the action outcomes will be.

In 2004, I moved into an apartment building that is exclusively independent living for people with disabilities. It is owned and managed by the Catholic Church under regulations imposed by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. At first, it seemed a shelter from the storm but in time I have come to see it as a new prison. Healthy people are not allowed to live with us; it is segregated housing. We do not celebrate births or marriages here, only deaths. I am filing a federal complaint against HUD to require them to discontinue their nationwide policy of segregating people with disabilities.

Additionally, discrimination is our daily burden. The management personnel have no training in disabilities, nor do they think they have anything to learn. They believe that by treating us the way they treat tenants of their other buildings, they are treating us equally. In fact, being treated identically is not the same as being treated equally. We need special accommodations in order to have an equal quality of life, and we do not get those accommodations. I am not allowed to plant flowers. I am filing a state complaint against the management to require them to accommodate people with disabilities.

A few months ago I started attending a storefront church. We would sing for half an hour, listen to preaching for an hour, and pray intermittently throughout. It was a great joy to worship God! But the music was loud—electric guitars and keyboard, drums and cymbals. One Sunday the amplifying system was too loud and couldn’t be turned down. It was so loud that I was in tears and had to leave. Afterwards, I wondered about a church where they let people leave instead of turning off the amplification. What would they have heard without the electricity? Would they have heard how small and weak their voices were? Would the pumped-up shout of joy have turned into a humbling experience?

It has been seven years since I took my life out of the hands of physicians and put it in God’s hands. In that time, I have read the whole Bible three times (Revelations only once!) My faith ebbs and flows. I am not always sure there is a God but I am always sure that Jesus is the son of God, and the passing ambiguity is tolerable.

When I opened my hands to God and told him to use me, I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect that he would put me in conference rooms and boardrooms with CEO’s and government officials. I was a “psychiatric patient”—the lowest of the low, the weakest of the weak, the most miserable and denigrated person in society.

And David was only a shepherd with a slingshot. In God, all things are possible.

I have no family. I understand, now, that it had to be that way. If I had the comfort and care of family then I would not have been dependent on the government for housing and transportation, and I wouldn’t have done anything to bring them into compliance with standards. Likewise, I have no church. I’ve wondered what was wrong with me that I either found fault or “caused trouble” at every church I tried to join, but it makes sense now. If I had a church family, I would have rested in them and not worked for God. This work that I’ve done has been very hard and no fun at all. I wouldn’t have done it if (a) I hadn’t needed the services, and (b) God hadn’t been behind me all the way. Believe me, I would rather have sat this one out!

But God gave me brains. I ignored God and therefore got a disabling condition. When I turned to God, he put me to work for his other poor, sick, people. Six thousand disabled people will have the bus service they are supposed to because of the work I’ve done. Seventy thousand poor, sick people will have the safe, useful transportation to the doctor’s that they are supposed to have. Perhaps a hundred thousand poor, disabled people will be able to live in community with able-bodied people. Not bad for seven year’s work, huh?

I have virtually no family, friends or church. I have no house, car or job. What I do have is a cross, a Bible and God.

It is enough.

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