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.

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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.

Christmas (and cricket) for people who don’t like it

Cricket is a strange sport. Steeped in tradition and the nebulous ‘spirit of cricket’; decency, fair-play and public-spiritedness are all part of the sport’s rich history. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and despite what the defenders of the sport may seek to say, it’s much like any other sport. Don’t get me wrong; I love cricket, especially test match cricket, with a passion. But it can be a dark, aggressive, lonely sport.

I once heard a talk by someone who had worked closely with the England team over a good span of years (this is some time ago now – when the current players were still at school); the speaker was reflecting on the loneliness and boredom that can overtake players on foreign tours. He told us that he knew for a fact that on one tour not a single player was faithful to his partner whilst he was away. He was well placed to know that. Times have changed for the better in that regard – wives, girlfriends and children are actively encouraged to travel with the England team for parts of the tour. But darkness remains in cricket’s heart.

Whether it’s sledging – verbal on-field insults aimed to achieve the famed ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent  – or fast-bowling aiming a small, hard leather object in the vicinity of the opponent’s head at 90 miles per hour, intimidation with word and deed has been part of the game since well before England’s attempts to squeeze the all-time great Australian Don Bradman out of the game led to a full scale international diplomatic incident. Any individual or team who claims to be above this is simply one that hasn’t yet been caught at it.

This is all because cricket  – especially the long version of it – is a game played in the head. It’s a team sport that depends on individuals to excel as individuals within a team context; hours spent in a lonely fielding position; running in to bowl 120 times a day in sweltering heat whilst your colleagues stand stationary waiting for something to happen; long stretches in a dressing room watching others do brilliantly or terribly, all of which adds to the stress and strain when it comes to your turn.

All this and more has been bought into sharp relief when one of the world’s leading batsmen (England’s Jonathan Trott) left England’s scarcely begun tour of Australia with a ‘stress-related condition’ in the wake of the allegedly unrelated comments by an Australian cricketer that Trott was scared and weak.  Whatever the cause, he’s the latest in a line of cricketer’s to have his mental health thrust into the spotlight; despite claims that cricket and those who play it are no less prone to mental health issues than anyone else, it does appear to be a sport in which these things at the very least gain more publicity than they might otherwise. The same speaker who told me of English cricketers’ infidelity also told me of a high level of depression, suicidal tendencies and attempts amongst cricketers at all levels.

There is some good coming out of this – if mental health issues, especially those of prominent, admired men  – are being talked about openly that does give to the many who think they are alone some much-needed solace and maybe an encouragement to seek help. If cricket does something to people, so does the Christmas season. All the family issues, the excess of food and drink, financial pressures exacerbated by the pressure to spend, the insistence that we must be jolly whilst doing so, the round after round of socialising, the darker days and harsher weather (in the northern hemisphere). It’s a tough holiday season, especially if you add in the heightened reminders of recent bereavements and other loss whilst others celebrate their families. Depression, suicide and general misery seems to rocket in line with the enforced jollity.

Cricket and Christmas force us inside ourselves (imagine, then, for a moment what it’s like for a cricketer, struggling with his profession, away from home for months, over Christmas); they both force the participant into a space where mental frailties and fractures are likely to be pressured to breaking point. Duty or love or some combination of the 2 forces us into situations where we may not like what gets forced to the surface. How to survive? A few tips, whether you love cricket or hate it …

1) Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to some invitations if they’re not going to put you in a beneficial space. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to another drink or helping if it’s bad for you. It’s OK not to enjoy what others are enjoying. In short, it’s OK to be the person God has made you to be even if she or he doesn’t quite fit in with what’s going on around them.

2) Plan things you know you’ll enjoy. Whether it’s a book you love, a place you like to walk or a film that’s special to you or a favourite piece of music – if the season is full of hard things you know won’t energise you, make sure you actively plan stuff that you like.

3) Remember, when you’re feeling frail and weak, that Christmas is about God packing himself into the frail and weak skin and bones of a helpless baby. If you’re feeling frail and weak you are in good company. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15).

4) If you know you’re going to be in some situations you will find difficult, make a plan for what you’ll say and do when the things you expect to happen do happen. Write them down on your phone or tablet or diary – pull them out to look at them if you need to. You’ll have a safety net and will feel much more confident as a result.

5) January is often harder for people than Christmas. Make plans for positive things in January now.

6) Remember that the worst may not happen. As well as thinking about the bad things you expect to happen, think what the best case scenarios might be and what you might be able to do to help bring them about.

7) Keep reminding yourself that God rejoices over youThe Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Since I first wrote this article, David Warner has issued an apology for his comments about Jonathan Trott.

Silver Linings Playbook

Some movies just shouldn’t work. They should, if you strip them down to their constituent elements, be run of the mill stories which flow along predictable narrative lines. There are many movies which do that; only a few have a plot that’s entirely predictable but still manage to engage and move. We’ve had a few of those in recent times – take Zero Dark Thirty or Argoboth of which had entirely predictable narratives which still more than kept the attention. Silver Linings Playbook is another.

At its heart it’s a conventional romantic comedy based on a popular novel. Bradley Cooper is a teacher returning from a stint in a mental health facility having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; we find out early on this was precipitated by his violent assault on the man his wife was having an affair with. His marriage was on the rocks; he comes out and forms a friendship with Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow, a woman who on losing her husband had slept with every one of her co-workers. She agrees to help him reconnect with his wife if he’ll help her out by learning to dance and dance with her in a competition she’d always wanted to enter.

From a bare description you know where this is headed. There’s not a single plot-spolier there, but you can fill in the blanks. There’s so much to like here, though. You know already about the performances. Bradley Cooper is playing an awards-fodder role, but he still does it well. Jennifer Lawrence is simply superb – again. In her young career she’s showed star-power and variety in the roles she’ll take on. Her’s is a necessarily more still performance, low-key to Cooper’s major, but holds the film together.As a woman who dances to heal and express herself, it’s a role fraught with the danger of cliché or the dreaded ‘life-lessons’; her awards are richly deserved because you simply believe her. She’s going to have a special career if she keeps choosing roles with the wisdom she has done.

What I really liked, though, is the earthiness of the presentation of mental illness.When you’re suffering, when you’re in the depths of depression, when the black dog is barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth; when it’s like that, sometimes it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. The film revolves around the achievement of some things are desperately ordinary  – watching a game with the family; getting an average score, getting to have a conversation with someone you love. None of these are major, but for those under dark clouds they’re the defining thing, the summit to scale. In showing believable, ordinary people and families struggling just to get to normality, the film does a great service. To do so  – and lovingly, gently point out the irrational coping mechanisms of the so-called un-afflicted along the way – removes stigma, enhances understanding and does so with a smile and a knowing glance. All that in a conventional romantic comedy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to a simple thing well.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com