I am sitting in Hub 51 in Terminal 5 of Chicago’s O’Hare airport and I notice that tears are beginning to roll slowly down my cheeks. This is not something I am prone to and so, British as I am, I look around somewhat sheepishly and surreptitiously wipe them away. The reason is easy to pinpoint; I am reading the opening chapters of Mark Meynell’s recent book When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend. The passage which has caused my response is early in the book where he recounts his experience of taking the wrong tram in East Berlin, and when inexplicably he “felt overwhelmed by a sense of shame.” (page 10) It is as though these words find their way down somewhere deep inside and open the lid to a box I would rather remained closed, but am relieved has been opened.
It is now over a week since that time in Chicago; a week when I have finished reading Mark’s book. It is a lucidly written, passionately felt, and painfully honest account of one man’s journey in depression. Not “through” depression, but “in” depression. Here was someone who not only understood what depression is about, but someone who could articulate its depths and confusion in a way which I have found impossible.
This book is a gift in two ways to all those who experience depression. First, because of Mark’s ability to put into words what even he has known to be nigh on impossible to explain (page 21). This was important for me, but is also important for those who don’t know the unnerving and debilitating effects of depression. I gave the book to my wife to read, to help her understand what, in 34 years of marriage, I had never really been able to explain. Second, because through writing this book, he has implicitly given others, such as myself, the permission to seek to express their own experiences. I will return to this.
Mark explores his experience of depression, not just as a human being but as a Christian and a Christian minister at that; indeed he devotes a whole chapter to asking the question whether pastoral ministry is “possible for a cave dweller?” (Chapter 9, “The Gift” page 165) This chapter is possibly worth the price of the book on its own as he explores the meaning and purpose within the pain, taking us to the ultimate example of the cross, coming to the honest – and liberating – statement, “I have come to believe that my depression has made me a better pastor” (page 174).
Another chapter I found helpful in making sense of my own experiences was “The Weight” (Chapter 4, pages 48-70), where Mark discusses the relationship between guilt, shame and depression. As with all clear writing, I found myself saying, “of course”, “that’s exactly it” on many occasions and decrying my own inability to have thought this through myself. Mark deals with this issue through the experience of David. The book abounds with biblical references and exploration of biblical passages, from the Genesis to 2 Corinthians. However, Mark never descends into triteness or mere repetition of pseudo-religious platitudes. The use of the Psalms especially shows a depth of understanding of how Scripture not only allows for the expression of anger, hurt or confusion, but gives a vocabulary that can be used for such expression; it presents us with a narrative we can make our own.
Which brings me back to my point above, that Mark’s second gift to those who know depression is that his very act of expressing his struggles opens the door for others, such as myself, to do the same; it seems almost to give permission to others to explore their own experiences.
I see before me a narrow path on Mykines, the western-most island of the Faroes. To the left is a long, steep slope of grass leading eventually to a cliff. On the right, a sheer drop to the rocks and sea a hundred metres below. A place which seems almost the definition of vertiginous.
Now imagine that path stretching, not for 20 metres, but interminably into the distance.
On a good day, it is as though I walk this path in the sun, with a clear blue sky overhead. But with the ever-present fear of falling, the almost overwhelming sense of vertigo. The constant wind troubles my walk and makes my steps uncertain. The view I have is glorious but at all times the cliff threatens.
Imagine, though, that it is not a bright, sunny day, but a dark, windy, rainy, squally storm of a day. It is along this path that I walk, buffeted by the winds, hampered by the rain, blind in the gloom, knowing that one false step leads to a descent into blackness. Trying, not just to stand, but to move forward despite the raging storm around me that disturbs my balance. One gust of wind, even a slight change in direction or force, is enough to cause the fall.
That image is the one which, however imperfectly, best sums up my everyday experience of living with depression. Mark’s reference to the sense of shame he feels is the cause, for me, of my sense of instability, the vertigo, the fear of falling into the dark. And that sense is with me at all times, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, but ever-present.
Vertigo is the word I have found which explains my feelings most clearly. It comes from the Latin meaning dizziness, a feeling that your surroundings are whirling around you, causing you to be unstable and lose your balance. That is important for my understanding. It is not so much that I am dizzy, but that my whole surroundings seem to swirl around; even solid, horizontal ground can feel like a slope of dry sand or wet grass. I walk the narrow path between two steep drops. I grew up with no sense of fear of heights; this only came later in life, came at the same time as my first real fall into depression.
And this whirling around of circumstances is what has led me to the storm as a metaphor for my experience. The Faroese word for a gust of wind is “hvirla”, related to the English “whirl” it is descriptive of the small, tornado-like formations of strong wind which sweep across the sea and cliffs in a storm. These gusts, whirling around me, merely add to the sense of instability that I have, and threaten at any moment to sweep me off the path.
The image changes. Now it is Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
The darkness descends, or I descend into the darkness. No longer on the path, something has tipped me over the edge. In that darkness come all the voices, mine and others, reverberating around and echoing off the walls of the dark valley of fear, anxiety and shame in which I wander. My thoughts, the words, are like monsters haunting my every waking moment.
So here I wait.
Like Mark, I am a Christian, I have been a minister in two churches, and serve as a Principal of a Bible College as well as church elder. Like Mark, I have struggled to reconcile these facts with the reality of my depression. And I have wrestled with myself, and with God, over this. That image of wrestling has helped me towards some understanding of my situation. A story from the Old Testament is what comes to mind in my desire to reconcile my weaknesses with my faith; it is the story of Jacob on his way to meet his brother who, in the depth of night and in a river valley meets first with God and wrestles with him*.
It is not merely the fact of this wrestling match, however intriguing it may be, it is instead the result which I have found helpful. At the end of the encounter with God, Jacob is left with a limp. While it is not clear whether this limp is temporary or lasting, the implication appears to be that it was for the rest of his life. The astounding truth is, then, that Jacob met God and the encounter left him with a limp. In a sense that is a difficult lesson for us to hear. We always think of meeting God as bringing healing and wholeness. Here, meeting God has left Jacob – or Israel as he will now be called – in a situation where according to the levitical law he could not serve in the tabernacle, the place where God’s presence was. But God continued to use him. God uses us when we are broken, and sometimes has to break us in order to use us. As a friend of mine once said, “never follow a leader who doesn’t walk with a limp”.
It is perhaps fitting that in this response to Mark Meynell’s book, I should refer to a story which forms the backbone of a song by U2, one of his passions and areas of expertise. And so I end with some lines from “Bullet the Blue Sky”,
In the howlin’ wind
Comes a stingin’ rain
See it drivin’ nails
Into the souls on the tree of pain
From the firefly,
A red orange glow
See the face of fear
Running scared in the valley below
Bullet the blue sky.
* Gen 32:22-32. Mark himself uses this as an example in chapter 9, though my coming to this passage predates my reading of his book. The fact that he uses the same passage and imagery was encouraging and gratifying.
Mark Meynell’s book When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2018 is available from the GLO Bookshop.