When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections On Life And Ministry With Depression

Testimonies can be powerful, which is why they are something of a Christian ‘thing’. Especially amongst we who call ourselves (charismatic) evangelicals. You know the sort of thing – in a worship service or conference, a person will tell his or her story about dramatic change in their their life, attributed to God in some way. These are true and genuine – be they physical healing, emotional healing, general life change as a result of an encounter with God, or the like. There’s good reason to find these helpful – they remind us that God is living and active and able to actually do stuff here and now; that prayers get answered and change is possible. There is a caveat; like a diet that entirely consists of steak (only for example, nothing against steak), it’s good for a few meals, but if that’s all we eat we’re going to get into trouble. I mean to say this: that if the only stories we tell are stories of total transformation, healing, overcoming and victory then we’re only telling part of the truth. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these testimonies are untrue; it’s just that they’re not the whole truth.

This applies in any area of ministry and life in general; healing ministry, social justice, finances. It could be anything. We need to tell other stories alongside the stories of victory and change. As is often the case, a self-confessed addict can be helpful here; he will speak of himself (if he’s wise) as ‘a recovering addict’, not ‘a recovered one’. Healing and freedom for the recovering addict is a daily, ongoing, repeated journey. We all need to tell stories like this – of the processes and journeys, the struggles and failures and repeat visits in our lives. I come to this as a minister and church leader; there is a pressure and expectation to be strong; to be healed and from my own healing to heal others. Don’t have needs, I’m subtly told – or if I do, don’t express them. It’s been fed back to me on previous occasions that I must never respond to a congregant who asks the ‘How are you?’ question with anything less positive than ‘Ok’ or ‘fine’ so that people won’t be put off from telling me their stuff.

My therapist, who’s not a Christian, helped me see the absurdity of this. Is the leader really expected to have no wounds or problems? People know I sin, right? The thing is, I never have a day where I’m OK or fine; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, which means that every single day for over 20 years I have had pain of a minimum of 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, along with other symptoms. I also live with ADD, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, dysgraphia and dyspraxia. I am never OK; essentially in being asked to say I’m OK when I never am is asking a minster to lie about how they’re doing in order to make things easier for the person they’re speaking to. We all know lying is sinful; so this represents a request to your minister to knowingly sin to make it easier on you.

Nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Not being OK doesn’t mean I can’t hear your stuff; in fact (unless it’s a really bad day, which means I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to see you in anyway), for the Christian my wounds and pain make me more able to understand your wounds; we are, after all, healed by, not in spite of, Christ’s wounds (as well as His perfection; His perfection means that your minister as well as you don’t have to be perfect). It’s what priest and author Henri Nouwen and others have called the ministry of the wounded healer.

 

black and white dark girl eye

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of this is a very long way round to talk about Mark Meynell’s book ‘When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend’. He’s a relatively conservative theologian and minister from England, who for a long time now has lived with depression and PTSD. This book is his story; it’s subtitled ‘Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression’. The Christian, and especially the evangelical, conversation about mental health has improved a great deal recently, but there is still a way to go. This book will be an important part of that, as much because of what it doesn’t do as well as because of what it does do. It tells the author’s own story, offering Biblical reflections along the way; it offers hints and tips and suggestions – but never solutions. It doesn’t suggest his experience is universal; quite the opposite. The author is wise enough to let his specific story be his and his alone – and to allow us to through that understand our own stories; to see where they connect and diverge from his. It’s not the story of victory; it’s the story of a still-ongoing night long wrestle with a being who may be an angel or may not – but God is there; it’s just that it’s hard to see in the dark cave of mental health pain (to use the author’s own image of the cave). When you’re in the cave you can’t tell if it’s night or day outside; let alone if the one you’re wrestling happens to be God. The author attaches no guilt to that; he simply gives some idea of what has helped him. Some sense of direction of where to look, which way to turn to find the light.

Mark Meynell is also a good theologian, with a teacher’s gift for making complex ideas accessible without ever simplifying them. His use of the Bible is nourishing, well-thought through and personal. His use of one psalm in particular bought me up short, in all the best and most healing ways. I rather think I share with him some taste in music (and films?); I reckon he’d be fascinating company over a beer.

This book will be a friend to many church leaders like me; it will be a challenge to many church members. Over the 8 plus years I’ve been at my current church, my congregation have grown more accustomed to my weaknesses and inadequacies; sometimes that has infuriated some people (including me); sometimes some of us have found it healing. That doesn’t mean I can’t be better or wiser at this, or that I don’t have anything to learn; it’s just that weakness seems to be something God works through, rather than in spite of. (That’s actually in the Bible, it turns out). As the prophet Michael Smith sang: “Wear your scars like medals”.

Will we tell better stories, then? As leaders, will we tell the stories of our struggles and pains? Will be OK with not being OK – and saying that; and through that allowing healing to come? Or will we play to the image of alpha male strength, people-pleasing by never walking with a limp despite the excruciating pain? Of course, if we try to not limp when the pain is too much, eventually we won’t be able to walk any more; and then people really will get hurt. But that doesn’t stop us defaulting to the presentation of health; to presenting the image of being the sort of fine that people think they need in us.

We’re not made to be idols of shiny OK-ness for the sake of the ease of conscience of people in our communities. We’re made to be fellow disciples; perhaps with a sense of where we’re going, trained and gifted and set aside to help point out some things that others may miss. Those things include our own inadequacies; as much for our own good as for the good of those we lead, let’s let go of pretence about ourselves towards God and others. It’s OK for a leader not to be OK, and to say that. Mark Meynell’s book will be a significant companion on that journey for church leaders and members alike.

Leave No Trace: Rural Beauty And Trauma’s Silent Screams

One of the insidious traps of depression and trauma is that just when you most need connection with others who understand at the deepest levels what you are going through, you find yourself all the more desperate to isolate yourself. It’s a cruel trap to be caught in, and the only hope for exit is to either ask for help or to stumble across someone who’s in the same position as you.

This is the territory occupied by Leave No Trace, the latest film from director Debra Granik, who in 2010 gave us the remarkable Winter’s Bone, a slow-burn mystery set amidst the trauma of inexorable rural poverty – a film most famous for effectively launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence. The seeds of Lawrence’s success were evident in Winter’s Bone; Leave No Trace features another remarkable central performance from a young woman in the shape of Thomasin McKenzie, and it would be no surprise if her career followed a similar trajectory to Lawrence after this.

It’s another film more concerned with suggestion than statement, with relationship rather than plot at the forefront. That’s not to say nothing happens in the film – in fact the film’s events are world-shaping for the protagonists. A teenage girl and her father live, by choice, off-grid in an Oregon urban park; they suddenly find their world disturbed by outside forces, setting in motion a series of events and decisions which will forever alter their lives and their relationship. The reasons for their decision are never made fully clear; we know the mother of the family has died, but we don’t know the details of how or when. It gradually becomes apparent that the father, Will, is an army veteran harbouring deep pain from his service – but this isn’t ever fully explained. Even before life is disrupted, there are hints that they are always besieged by the possibility of disturbance; early on a pack of dogs surrounds their tent at night, attempting to claw at them through the canvass. They have to hide from police at work in the park; a trip to the city for supplies is presented as akin to a trip to an alien planet, the angular, surfaces displayed with the sheen of futurism.

BELOW ARE SPOILERS FOR LEAVE NO TRACE

Events force father and daughter from place to place, never settling – leaving places under cover of dark or taking advantage of moments of isolation to move on. Animals and their homes are important throughout this – a beehive, a rabbit briefly escaped, returned to its owner, a spider’s web – a hint of what the central characters are looking for but seemingly unable to achieve. Finally, they seem to do so – a small, isolated community within which the daughter at least seems to find a place of understanding. She assumes her father has too; but she’s wrong. Where she seems to have found what her trauma had caused her to lose, he hasn’t. He needs to keep going, keep looking, keep hoping. His buried trauma seems to compel him to a final act of isolation, wilful and chosen, potentially keeping at bay the very relationship that was keeping him intact. Is his final choice selfish, necessary, an act of self-harm, or all three of those? We’re invited to make our own decision.

The gentle but unmistakeable power of Leave No Trace lies in its long silences, which communicate much about what the characters are unable to express and into which we are invited to project our own decisions and suggestions. Are our own traumas and fears as self-isolating as those of the central characters? Whilst the off-grid life initially seems idyllic, the fact that it is effectively a life on the run from being disturbed is not presented as a romantic or idyllic choice. It’s rather the choice of people unable or unwilling to communicate their deepest needs – perhaps even unable to articulate them for themselves, let alone anyone else. Thus, for all its rural beauty  – and the cinematography and sound-design really do foreground this beauty – Leave No Trace presents us with an eloquent parable of the isolation that trauma and mental health forces its victims into; the film gives voice to the silent pain of those needing gently healing community yet unable to fully embrace it.

This is a beautiful, gentle film; but one that is no less significant for its understated nature. Will we allow the voiceless to speak, and be comfortable enough to allow their silence to speak interrupt our ham-fisted attempts to fill the void? And what are our trauma and fears, which push us into isolation at the very moment we most need relationship? It’s a film with more questions than answers, and all the better for it.

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

pexels-photo-1003685.jpegThere are many losses associated with chronic illnesses. I’ve written about this before, so it’s really nothing new. One of them, for me, has been taking part in sport that I love. First is was football – which at one stage I was playing twice a week. When you have a disease like Ankylosing Spondylitis, a contact sport like football really isn’t a great idea; before I was diagnosed I would end every game with what I thought were excruciating shin-splints. I haven’t played any sort of football since then; even kicking a ball too and fro for 10 minutes with my foster son will now leave me in significant pain later in the day and into the next. Then there’s a running. I was never the sort of runner who would take part in races or even run that far in the scheme of things. But I did do it, and I did enjoy it. However eventually the resultant leg and ankle pain became too much and I had to take a pass. Then there’s the gym; which I also quite enjoyed – but the advent of foster children meant we could no longer afford that.

So what to do about exercise? As it turns out, not much. Apart from walking a bit, nothing really. It turns out (who knew?) that a lack of exercise, especially when combined with combatting depression with food, isn’t great for me. You’d have thought I’d have noticed my ballooning waistline, and I kind of did, but I’d been too preoccupied with becoming a parent, dealing with stress at work and in other places to notice. Now that one or two (but by no means all) of those stresses have lessened, the issue has been forced to my attention by a confluence of factors which I can’t really talk about here. When I asked my therapist why I suddenly found myself dealing with this now when it seems like it’s been an issue for a long while, the response was simple; it’s the next thing on your list, and now you can get to it.

As a result, on Saturday morning I found myself awake much earlier than I would otherwise have chosen to be, on the path around a local park with about 900 people, the self-penned refrain of ‘You’re fat, ugly and disgusting and everyone will be laughing at you’ careering round my head. It was my local Park Run. There are 1000s of these round the world and they are, it seems, undeniably a Good Thing in the democratisation of a sport which can seem reserved for Other People. Park Runs are free, community organised 5km runs for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds; there’s probably one not too far from you. For me it was more a Park Waddle – like many, I walked the whole way. I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but neither did I hate it and there was a pleasing variety of dogs along for the ride with their owners.  Sadly, there was none of the post-exercise adrenaline high and mental stimulation that I used to get. What it was, was a welcoming, non-judgemental, relaxed environment – which for at least a morning got the recurring litany in my head to shut up. Maybe that should be enough of a high for now.

I need to go back, to make this regular – and more than once a week. The day I’m writing this is the Wednesday after the Saturday, and I haven’t done much since. I won’t be able to go this Saturday as I have a pre-booked meeting I can’t (and shouldn’t) get out of; but I should be back the week after.

Having lived, and preached, and prayed for many years now I know experientially as well as intellectually that I’m not accepted because of my bank balance or preaching ability or ministry amongst the poor or my health or my looks or my weight or anything else, but simply because of what Jesus has done and says about me. Every time I think I’ve grasped it properly, another layer is peeled off to help me realise I haven’t and I like everyone else am addicted to earning approval and love instead of receiving grace. Here I go again, battling to receive what’s free and desperate to earn what I’ll never properly get.

One of the supposedly little things that makes it harder is that it feels like so many people I know run, and run effortlessly. At least 2 people I know have just completed an Ironman Triathlon. It feels like I can’t move in my social feed without details of someone’s run: a map, distance, time, calories burned etc. You know the drill. If they can, the lie goes, I can. And should.

Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. I want to stick at it; I hope I will. I don’t know if my AS will allow me to run, or if my park run will forever be a park walk. Hopefully it won’t be a waddle for too long. If I lose a little weight, and allow myself to receive grace a little more and strive after acceptance a little less, then it will be worth it.

On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.