I first suffered clinical depression in the form of two fairly dramatic breakdowns that occurred in 2009-10, when I was in my late thirties. From Over the Edge: A Christian’s guide to surviving breakdown and depression is my attempt to share some of the insights that God seemed to be drawing to my attention at that time. The book is also a tying together of numerous threads from the journals I was keeping, which will, I hope, help other Christian sufferers to navigate their way through recovery, including treatments in the fields of psychiatry and therapy.
Christians can get a bit hamstrung when it comes to coping with mental illness. They have an understandable tendency to interpret mental suffering as primarily a spiritual rather than a medical issue. I’m not saying that the two are always totally divorced, but it can be a double whammy to believe that the condition is in some way a reflection on your spiritual life. I came across a recent quote from Ruby Wax about her frustration with the term “mental health”, as it implies that the issues are less than physical. She suggested that a better term might be “brain health”, and I can understand the point she is making.
In the context of what a personal crisis might feel like, we normally talk about “the edge” as something we are reaching, or perhaps peering over. In the book, I wanted to emphasise that what I was talking about was not just from the edge, but from the other side of falling over it. The book is an honest attempt to collate some of the wisdom which an experience of falling over the edge uniquely offers the sufferer.
You hear different statistics all the time, but the consensus seems to be that clinical depression is relatively common, and it’s on the increase. I can only go by anecdotal evidence, really, but I also believe that there might be a higher rate of those suffering depression among Christians than the public as a whole; so this is a really important issue for the Church.
One of the problems is that the word “depression” is hopelessly inadequate to describe the condition, because it’s confused in common language with merely sad or negative feelings. Even as a medical term, it’s often used as an umbrella term for various forms of the illness.
I was brought up going to church, but Christianity had never really caught my imagination as a kid. I can identify a conversion experience, though: a specific time when I was aged 20, and a place when I knew that there was something, someone, I had to respond to. I remember experiencing a supernatural form of peace that lasted for some time, which felt like a sort of assurance that I was coming home, and that everything was going to be OK.
It was depression that really ended up being the game-changer in my faith story. Walking with God through depression has brought about a new authenticity to my faith, and has helped me to realise that there have been spiritual practices that have never really helped me, while discovering new traditions (mainly outside my Evangelical stable) that help me connect more with God — and myself — and which are truer to my personality type.
I think the reality is that a major depressive episode is likely to make God feel distant from our experience for much of the time. Depression can seriously reduce our own ability to relate to ourselves, and we need to be able to connect with our own personality to connect with God. But such desolation needn’t be a permanent feature of the illness. Especially during recovery, I believe it can be possible to reconnect with God at a deeper level, if we are prepared to trust him and be open to the spiritual insights.
My family moved to the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth from Liverpool when I was quite young. Kenilworth was a great place to grow up, but, on balance, I think I enjoy a more cosmopolitan way of life, which living in a vibrant city like Newcastle provides. Newcastle has a unique culture and a strong sense of identity, but it’s also a very welcoming, friendly place. And the beauty of Newcastle is that you don’t have to travel far from the city centre before you reach stunning countryside, particularly the wilds of Northumberland. We’ve certainly put down our roots here, and our two daughters — they’re 13 and 15 — are proud to call themselves Geordies.
In my legal practice, I specialise in dealing with disputes over people’s inheritance. This mainly involves families’ contesting the contents of wills or trusts — sometimes with the involvement of a charity that may stand to benefit, and which the family aren’t happy about. I once met someone who, on being told what I did for a living, thought that this was an amazing position in which a Christian could have influence.
My experience of benefiting from silence and solitude while recovering from depression helped lead me towards a more contemplative approach to prayer. It was through digging into resources on Ignatian spirituality, as well as researching websites such as the World Community for Christian Meditation, that I managed to plug into something that fed my soul in a new, richer way.
My depression is largely stress-related, and so managing stress levels is an important way of preventing the onset of symptoms. Building periods of stillness into everyday life, and finding ways of punctuating the busyness that surrounds us, are useful ways of “checking in” with ourselves. Exercise is also a good de-stresser.
Drugs and psychotherapy are useful, especially in more serious cases, where medication can play an important role. Remember, we’re talking about brain health, and medication helps to restore the neurochemical imbalance that is present in depression. Psychological intervention is also important: CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] is useful first aid, although I know some people also benefit from more dynamic forms of talking therapies aimed at tracing things back in the their life, in order to better understand any triggers for their illness.
Keeping talking, and just being there, are probably the most important things for family and friends to do. People need to understand that the sufferer will often need space, but will also sometimes need to be reminded of all the relationships that contribute towards their identity, and that those relationships still exist, unconditionally.
I suppose the key for churches is to be mindful that members of congregations will be suffering mental-health issues, whether or not they have chosen to disclose this to others. Even getting along to church may, therefore, have been something of an effort for these people, and what they may be hoping to receive is some solace, and potentially a quieter and deeper experience of meeting God.
My wife and I were interviewed by the Office of National Statistics recently. We were asked to comment on our happiness levels. Though we did try to explain that we thought the question was too superficial to be capable of being answered properly, the computer said “No” to anything other than giving a score between one and ten. That was the last thing that made me angry.
I’m happiest being lost in music. Kate Bush is a favourite. Also being lost in remote parts of Northumberland. I have a special fondness for Holy Island, and enjoy any experience of pilgrimage: an ambition of mine is to walk the camino to Santiago de Compostela.
Spiritually, I think my soul was particularly well-fed during the period I attended St Mary’s, Islington, when studying and training in London, and while Graham Claydon was Vicar there. I loved his gentle but deeply thought-provoking style of preaching.
Sometimes, the Church of England often seems to be over-represented by middle-class members, but it fills me with hope that the Church still can act as the true great leveller. The way in which people from all sorts of different cultures and backgrounds come together to worship God remains a powerful statement, and evidence of something transformative going on.
I talk a bit in my book about being a worried parent, and I have always warmed to the character of Jairus in the Gospels. His daughter is gravely ill, time is running out, and he desperately wants Jesus to come and heal her; but Jesus ends up being distracted by healing another person on the way to his house. I would like to hear more about this story from the horse’s mouth, if I could be locked in a church with Jesus as my chosen companion.
Jon Grogan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
From Over the Edge: A Christian’s guide to surviving breakdown and depression is published by Sacristy Press, £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop, £8.09).