Rev. Pam Peterson always knew she wanted to be a minster… but life took her on treacherous journey through an abusive marriage and clinical depression before the opportunity was ripe. It wasn’t until the age of 47 that she was officially ordained to become a spiritual teacher and mentor.
Yesterday I interviewed Rev. Peterson about her experience healing from depression and becoming an “optimist with a capital O”. The picturesque Adirondack Mountains, where she now resides, provide a perfect metaphor for the peaks and troughs of her challenging life path.
“The earth is my church and nature my religion”, she says as she talks about her favorite prayer and meditation spot in the nearby landscape… and with those views in reach, it’s no surprise that her sense of spirituality extends beyond the chapel walls.
When did you decide to become a minister? Was there a particular catalyst or spiritual experience that called you in that direction?
I knew from the time I was confirmed in the Lutheran church in 1979, at the age of 17, that I was called to be a pastor. Life circumstances, though, took me on a different journey so I did not go into the seminary until 2008 at the age of 47!
There was no one “day” or moment where I experienced an “I am supposed to do this” … rather it was many years of confirming my call to ordained ministry. That in itself is a book worth writing, with new chapters to be added every Sunday! Because of my relationship with my ex-husband during my 19 year marriage, I chose not to purse ordained ministry.
After my divorce in 1999 I searched for almost 10 years to find the right denomination that was a fit for me theologically, spiritually, emotionally and in worship and fellowship. The Spirit, through the voice of my then 3 year old grandson Brady, led me to the United Church of Christ, and I could not be happier! Not only am I an ordained minister but I am also a Provisionally Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains (one more paper to write and I become fully board certified.)
I served for 3 years as the Trauma Chaplain for a large trauma hospital on the east coast and am now serving as the Interim Minister for a Presbyterian Church in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate NY. I chose to leave hospital chaplaincy for now so that I could develop a healing ministry for first responders and medical personnel whose focus is trauma – doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers, etc.
Can you tell me a bit about your experience of depression; what was it like and how you overcame it? Did you find your spiritual faith helped you get through those difficult times or was your faith tested? What other tools were helpful?
I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression in August of 1998. It seemed to be a sudden onset of depression- like symptoms and it was at the very beginning of the newest claims to cures using anti-depressants. While I do agree that my lifestyle was the main cause of the mental anguish that I was living in (my ex is psychologically abusive) I never understood why I got so sick so fast.
I suffered from extreme anxiety, waking in the morning with rapid heart beat, sweating, racing thoughts and nausea. I would walk for 5 miles just to calm myself down. Then the wringing hands, loss of appetite, and a morphed perception of my physical body all set in. I lost 25 pounds in 2 months, suffered from memory loss, suicidal ideation and would go between sleeping 12 hours a day to sleeping 2 hours a night. I would get on crying jags that would last for hours.
The doctor (psychiatrist) put me on Paxil, I got a divorce and found true freedom for the first time in my life, and the depression symptoms stopped within a month of my separation. I stopped walking because the symptoms stopped. I had to learn how to feed myself (my ex controlled my food) I gained 80 pounds in a year. I stayed on the Paxil for 6 years because the doctor said to, and whenever I tried to stop taking it the crying jags and suicidal ideation would kick in.
I finally stopped taking it in 2004 because I lost access to health insurance and I didn’t like the side affects of the tics and electrical brain impulses “brain farts” as I called them. I tapered off over a 2 month period, was living in Boulder CO where I got a lot of fresh air and exercise, was active in a great church that recognized my gifts for ministry, and all has been well since!
Faith… that’s a great question. I lived in a constant state of prayer… I still do. I pray all of the time. Everything from “Thank you God for this glorious day!” to “WHAT THE HECK, GOD???” I believe that our faith is tested every hour of every day. I had a great, and I mean REALLY GREAT support team. My 3 sisters, brother, mom, in-laws, out-laws, friends…you name it…they all rallied behind me 100%. Especially my sisters, and they still do.
My sons were teenagers at the time and we stuck it out together through the thick and thin of it. My older son is my rock, but I am still his mom so I am careful of taking care of my own needs rather than putting any expectation on him for that. He’ll have his hands full with me when the time comes for nursing home care in 30 years…I’ll be the one that’s always escaping and getting caught in the most precarious places!!
It took many years, but I finally found therapists/counselors and pastors that I could work with. Most of my depression and anxiety “symptoms” were a result of a lifetime of co-dependency and it took a fantastic therapist to help me get to the root of that. I also stay active in playing music (I’m a flutist), journaling, reading…and I’m an extrovert who is a 7 on the eneagram wheel so I know that I need to be around people! I’m also an Optimist…yes, with a big “O” and have belonged to the Optimist International organization where I learned how to always look on the sunny side of life.
Can you tell me a bit about your more recent experience with anxiety, what were the circumstances and how did you overcome it?
When I left the work of trauma chaplaincy in a huge city (3 years of 40-60 hours a week with at least one 24 hour shift/ 3-7 deaths a day, rarely a day that I did not witness CPR or an infant death) I moved to a rural mountain town in Upstate NY in January. No family, no friends, one acquaintance and my cat. Within 3 months I had finally caught up on my sleep, watched all of the reruns for my favorite shows, read 10 books by my favorite author and adopted my dog, Buddy B.
I also gained 25 pounds. Out of the blue I started waking up at 5 am with anxiety-like symptoms. Rapid heart beat, short of breath, weakness in my legs. The doctor wanted to put me on Welbutrin and I said, “Hell no.” I figured out on my own that my body was still pumping the adrenaline for the trauma work into a brain that was, well, on vacation! Within a week of figuring that out my son recommended I listen to the Joe Rogan show with Dr. Kelly Brogan and now here I am!
Changing my eating patterns and selections has been a tremendous help. I’ve lost all of the weight, meditate to relieve the anxiety symptoms and I am back on track. No pharmaceuticals either! I still wake up many days with the rapid heart beat and I’m trying to figure that out. It lets up with meditation, especially the Kundalini anxiety and adrenal healing meditations, so I’m thinking it’s still my body and brain trying to figure each other out.
I should also mention that I do have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and take levothyroxin. I’m pretty sure that my next blood tests will show that I need to cut way back on the meds as I am healing!
As a minister do you find yourself self called to help others recover from mental health challenges? What have you found helps people recover?
As a minister and a chaplain I am always dealing with what is perceived as mental health challenges for people. Now that I am learning about the VMR program and learning about Dr. Brogan’s theories and research, it’s a whole new ballgame in counseling for me. People are calling me out of the blue to talk to me. People are having prophetic dreams about me. I’m “popping” into people’s thoughts and they are calling me to thank me for who I am. There’s a lot of weirdness going on in my life right now and I am just taking it all in and laughing with the Spirit as we figure it all out.
One thing that I do know is that so far, some people don’t want to hear about how to get better without pills! They would rather medicate and eat whatever they want, rather than eat what their body needs and do the work of healing. Healing is A LOT OF WORK!