When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend is the latest book by British minister Mark Meynell. He writes about his personal struggle with depression and the impact it has had on his life and ministry. As a fellow depression sufferer, I believe this book is a gift to the church, wayfarers, and those who seek to love and care for us sufferers.
I shared an excerpt about why you should share your story in the midst of the struggle from the book last week. And previously I included a beautiful description of the encounter between Jesus and Peter on the night of Jesus’ trial. Both are well worth reading.
A Conversation with Mark Meynell
When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend isn’t about a finding a solution, nor is it a medical journal, nor just a memoir. Instead it feels much more like your personal journey through depression in which you strive to hold on to Christ, and invite fellow sufferers along. How do you describe your book?
‘The last chapter of the book I call ‘The Gift’, and I’m very, very wary of using that kind of language because at no point would I say I’m thankful to have had depression, or to still have it, and after 12 or 13 years, I suspect it’s an ongoing thing for the rest of my life. I’m realistic about that. But I can say the fact of having it has made me at some points a better minister because, it’s one thing to try and understand somebody with their own brokenness. It’s another to be very, very explicit and clear, and say ‘My brokenness may not be identical but I am broken and so I know the shame of that, the guilt of that, the limitations of that, and therefore we’re in the same boat.’ So, I avoid that wretched phrase ‘I know how you feel’ but I do say I think I’ve got something on the same page, we can speak the same language.
‘I’ll never forget this being brought home by a couple coming to see us for supper in our flat in London. And we had been involved in their marriage prep, and then since, and they’ve now got kids, but the wife had all kinds of very difficult things from her background that would rock even the most stable. We were having pudding, I think, and I just said I’d been on happy pills for 7 or 8 years whatever it was by then. And basically it was hilarious because she was lifting the spoon up to her mouth, and it didn’t quite make it. She was aghast. The pudding was just hovering mid-air. And she looked at me, it was like, Really. But then it was like, Thank God for that. It’s the C.S. Lewis thing of true friendship is born of the moment where someone says you too. I thought I was the only one.’
One of the things I loved about When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend is that it helped me put words to some of my own experiences. How important a factor was this in your writing?
‘The prompting for doing it was more therapeutic, and the need to find my own language to describe stuff. And just because of the way I operate for whatever reason I find it easier to put stuff down on paper.
‘I think it was reading William Styron’s book Darkness Visible that was a turning point. The importance of language and vocabulary is important. I knew that the depression word didn’t do it: it was too dilute and didn’t meet my need.
‘I was looking for vocabulary and it took a brilliant novelist to begin to do that because that’s what they do. That’s the tools of their trade. That’s what they do. They find the mot juste – the right word. What I think I took from that in the end was the most significant way to help somebody with mental health problems, out of my own experience, and it’s obviously not going to suit everybody, but the most import thing for me is to try and explore metaphors. To be able to say ‘Okay, here’s a bunch of metaphors, let’s chew on one. Let’s play around with one and see where we get.’ And that’s when you begin to show you’re not alone because somebody can say, ‘Ah. That fits exactly what talking about.’
‘I spent 8 years trying to find these words and I’m not there yet. There are days, even just last week, there was a day when I had no words at all and it was difficult for the rest of the family because it was clear that I was mono-syllabic if that, and I can understand, but they thought, I thought we had got the words now, but we hadn’t.’
I know from the book that the Psalms have played a vital role in how you’ve negotiated your journey with depression. Can you flesh that out a bit? How have the Psalms helped shape your struggles?
‘One of the things that the psalms has done is to tell me that 3,000 years before I have been having this thing someone was having something uncannily similar. Psalm 88 is a classic example and you can’t quite believe it is in the Bible because there is no resolution in it whatsoever. The book’s title is taken from the last line, it is categorical.
‘I know that this is perception, but in the pit of the cave it does seem that darkness is my closest friend. The darkness screws up your perceptions. With it in the Bible I feel I can grin and bear it because I know I have not been the first.’
What keeps you going during the darkest times, particularly when there is no answer to why you are suffering?
‘I don’t know. There is an old Sunday school definition of faith, which is that ‘faith is trust in God to keep his promises.’ Which is, actually, a far richer statement than it sounds. And the reason that’s important is because there are many times in life when it looks as though God is not coming through on his promises. But it’s not wishful thinking, it’s not groping in the dark and latching on to the nearest thing; it’s saying: well, he’s made some promises so the issue is, will he come through? The answer to that depends on his character. And so one is always being thrust back onto his character. But it is on the basis of that that the psalmist’s frequent refrain is, “How long?” You only ask how long, if you have a sense that it should be other than it is.
‘You know, if there is no God and we live in a closed and silent universe, then it’s horrible but you have no right or means to ask questions or to complain. Actually, the fact that we have questions about God’s character, is precisely what makes it difficult, because you think, you’re like this and life is like this and it shouldn’t be like that.
‘But the wonder of the Psalms is they say, “You’re right, it shouldn’t be like this.” The book of Job says “You’re right, it shouldn’t be like this.” But in the midst of that gloom is the question, Is God trustworthy?
‘Now, sometimes, it is as simple and mundane as going back in my head rehearsing, well can I really trust Jesus? Did he really die? And the crucifixion, and what that means, that is the bedrock. So it is a question of clinging to that. But sometimes in my darkest moments I can’t cling to anything, and I probably just need to go to bed, and not try and push it.’
What are the positive and negative ways depression has affected your ministry?
‘I would definitely say that the struggles and battles I’ve faced have both challenged but also deepened my ministry. They’ve made some things harder but also at other points, meant that is easier to connect with people and they find it easier to connect with me because actually I’m not sorted, I’m not perfect.
‘I have found that when I opened up to other people then it has been liberating: perhaps we are all abnormal together.
‘It is only because I know myself and my weakness and sins. In the Gospel there are many more salves for this than we credit. I am loath to use the word ‘answers’ but the Bible provides balm, it is healing.
‘Grace means patient accompaniment. It means unshockability and walking along the road and accepting people even when they are not sorted yet. That in the end is why I am a Christian, it is the Gospel and it applies profoundly to all of this stuff.
‘If there wasn’t grace I could do it and I wouldn’t be a Christian. A legalistic mindset, the opposite of grace, has no room for brokenness it just cracks the whip. And where you find legalism expressed in a church it will be a church that has no room for brokenness.
‘Grace is fundamental.’
How has your struggle with mental health affected your understanding of ministry and the church?
‘If a person in ministry isn’t prepared to be openly broken, not necessary spilling guts, not necessarily showing all the inner workings of that, but if there is never a sense of limp, then I want to run a mile. Those are the kind of people that terrify me, and they have done, and I see it a lot in our church circles because it’s middle-class culture more than Christianity. Well, it’s not Christianity.
Basically I come down to the simple fact, it’s difficult to trust a leader who won’t admit a limp. We all have our frailties, so why hide the fact? To do so suggests delusion or hypocrisy, or perhaps (what is perhaps more likely) it’s a question of church culture. It is such that people need/want their pastor to be superhuman, making it extremely hard to admit a limp.
‘But whatever the reason, it will actually make it hard for me to trust you with my brokenness then. That is probably the most significant thing that makes me sometimes wary of church now, and I’m a minister. I’m ordained, and I train pastors, I travel all over the place and I’ve been to lots and lots of different churches but it can still be hard.
‘Churches are refuges, not threats. But most of the time for those who are – well, paranoid is a strong to way of describing people who are alert to being crushed, or abused, or hurt. It’s the once bitten, twice shy thing. Basically church environments can be terrifying for that, and they have been for me. I think there are a number of things. I think one is it has to start with the leadership. There’s no alternative. You can’t foster a culture of refuge and safety for brokenness if the leader is not doing it, or leaders.’
I’ve noticed some real positives in churches regarding the way they approach and want to care for people struggling with depression, and mental ill-health in general, but surely we can still do better. As a minister, what guidance can offer us about how we can make our churches refuges?
‘It’s important just to highlight some alarm bells here because the relationship between sin and mental ill-health is very very difficult, and I’ve got a whole chapter in the book about guilt and mental health. One of the ways depression manifests itself most strongly is in a prevailing sense of guilt.
‘There may be symptoms that they might not have articulated or linked together as being classic expressions of depression. This can be a sense of one’s worthlessness, awfulness and evil, and that gets exacerbated by a thoughtless preaching about sin.
‘There is always a degree of guilt because we are human, but a depressed mind will explode that — exaggerate that — into a total sense of identity and that is very unhelpful and not right and it is not how God sees us.
‘I think that needs a lot of care because, particularly how it’s talked about from the pulpit but also pastorally, unwittingly people in ministry will crucify people with depression rather than help them. And so, when it comes down to it, I think we should talk about sin much less then we’re inclined to do so when it comes to issues of mental health. I think there’s the twin syndromes of guilt and shame that depression seems particularly designed to exacerbate. Some of that comes from our sinfulness, I don’t want to deny that, but I would say the majority of it does not and yet the way we talk sin and guilt and shame (well, we don’t ever talk about shame, that’s a whole other thing) actually just makes the depressed person go deeper with potentially lasting if not fatal consequences – and I use that word advisedly.
‘How we talk about those things needs a lot of nuance and care. I’m definitely not saying that we don’t talk about those things but we need to be doing it carefully.
‘It’s forced me to think about how we talk about sin with anybody regardless of their mental health. We’re so mechanistic and reductionistic about how we talk about sin from the pulpit and even indeed the cross.
Finally, is there a message you have for followers of Jesus who are struggling with depression?
‘First, very obviously, you’re not alone. You’re really not. It’s common, I don’t know what the stats are, people trot out 25%, I just don’t know. I don’t know how you work those out, but the point is, it’s common. And you’re not alone. And it’s not always obvious who the safe people are that you can turn to and that can be very difficult and isolating, and I know of people who have taken a while to figure out the trusted friend cause it’s not immediately obvious.
‘I think if you’re in ministry it’s all the more necessary to find one or two people, probably not necessary in your church, because there are all kinds of dynamics that are tricky. But I do think, particularly these days even more than 15 or 20 years ago, to face up to this kind of stuff with others is easier. And I’ve found, as I started preaching about it (6 years ago I did a sermon about it at All Souls, we had a whole service about mental health, and I preached about it and talked about it.)and that’s led to one or two people coming to me and I’ve talked to people in ministry.
‘Now, I cannot take on people. I’m not a counsellor and I can’t become a sort of virtual counsellor to lots of people but I can point to directions and websites, and what-have-you. But I think the crucial thing is, there are more people out there who are going through similar thing than you think. So it’s just a question of getting to the end of yourself, and maybe that’s what it needs. Sometimes that takes a long time.
‘I sometimes say there are no timetables in the Christian life. You can’t say, ‘Well you’ve been a Christian now for 6 months, you should have sorted that out.’ We’re all different. So we take it as it comes, for some people it might be a matter of years, but in the end you’re not alone.’
Watch a promo for When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend.
You can purchase When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend by clicking here.
Mark has also featured in several Single Question Interviews. Click here to see them.