IN SPITE of its title, When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, and subject-matter, depression, parts of this book (extract, Faith, 11 May) made my heart sing for joy. Why? Because at last there is an intelligent book involving good theology about mental illness where the author is wise enough to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. It is a book written with integrity, honesty, courage, and out of continuing pain.
Too much writing on this subject in the past has attempted to provide the solution, and, though somewhat a parody of the real situation, can be described as, in my words, “Turn to God and it will all be OK.” Ultimately, it will, but how does one survive and remain faithful till then? That is partly what this book is wrestling with.
Mark Meynell, its author, is an ordained Anglican from the Evangelical tradition. He also has an ongoing journey of living with depression. But what is important is that, though his eloquence speaks volumes, he does not allow his illness to become what defines him as a human being; nor is it what gives him his identity, though he recognises that “depression is my chronic reality.”
In the introduction to the book, Meynell makes an important point that, when it comes to mental health and depression, generalisations are rarely helpful; that is perhaps where much writing on this subject has fallen down, as sufferers try to make their own experiences the general rule. He rightly explains how language is limited, and how one of the symptoms of depression is the way in which it can make articulate people unable to express themselves. In this he finds a friend in the American novelist William Styron, a wordsmith whose attempts to describe the indescribable Meynell labels a “life-saver”.
Meynell takes Styron’s phrase “brainstorm” and turns it into “brain blizzard” as a way of describing his own experiences. He uses the symbolism of being alone in a cave, a dark and intimidating place, where the only voice that we hear is our own, as negativity reverberates around the walls.
Interestingly, neither of those images resonated with my own experiences of depression, and yet, as I read, that didn’t really matter, because Meynell is reflecting on his life and the pictures that make sense to him. It is different language to describe similar experiences.
Looking at the darkness that depression brings, he writes in detail about guilt and shame. I was encouraged, too, to find a chapter on suicide, so often a taboo subject for Christians, but one that needs to be brought into the open. For those who have never experienced suicidal thoughts, it is hard to understand how anyone, let alone a person of faith, might contemplate ending his or her God-given life — a good reason that they, too, should read this book.
That may all sound as if this book is only about darkness and negativity. It isn’t, because throughout there is the underlying touchstone of the love and compassion of God, the God who can live with our darkness. The Psalms are quoted extensively, and the later chapters offer real hope in the character of God — compassionate, loving, and responsive to those who admit that they haven’t got it all sorted.
Here is a Christian leader honest enough to say that God does not always seem present, even though we cling on through faith. A chapter on relationships with other people is helpful, both those who are also “cave-dwellers” and those who have never experienced the isolation and darkness of depression, including a wonderful list of things not to say, all of which have been said to me over the years.
A final chapter addresses the thorny issue of someone living with depression can also be a pastoral minister. Meynell did give up one paid position because of his health, but not his ministry. Though he would not wish his experiences on anyone, he can also see God’s hand at work in using them to help others, and in this way they have become a gift.
The Revd Sarah Hillman is Vicar of Puddletown, Tolpuddle, and Milborne with Dewlish, in Dorset.
Hear more from Mark Meynell on the Church Times Podcast.
When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections on life and ministry with depression
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