My dad, an ophthalmologist, tells a joke on his own pe0ple: whatever the ailment and specialty, when diagnosis is more an art than a set of facts, he’ll reply, “Well, that’s a poorly understood branch of medicine.” Of course, they’re all poorly understood branches of medicine. We don’t use leeches to balance humors and bile these days, but who knows what future generations will say about the synthetics we inject into our bodies and the ways we cut people open. It’s the best knowledge available now, but it has little bearing on the deepest realities of our created bodies; the human body with all its intricacy is still largely a mystery to medicine and science.
We suffer the same sort of problem when it comes to Christian faith and mental illness. While I do not argue that the progress of Christian thought and understanding is linear or without reproach, we can probably mostly agree that the casting of demons into swine is no longer a popular or effective method of treatment — would that it was! — though neither is locking away or indefinitely drugging those who suffer an acceptable solution. Further, it’s clear in the medical field generally and with regard to mental illness in particular, that prayer and spirituality have some kind of powerful effect — the exact nature is a topic of much debate from all corners.
As diagnosed mental illness is on the rise in the United States and television shows and films are depicting its complicated reach with more courage and regularity (see Homeland, Girls, Silver Linings Playbook), the Church struggles to respond. Some corners eschew medical intervention all together, opting for prayer and good habits to keep symptoms in check — a sort of white-knuckling through the dark night of the soul. On the other hand, the field of psychiatry can be dismissive of spiritual and religious coping mechanisms, at worst, labeling them as part of the sufferer’s psychosis. Into this void, Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s book, Darkness Is My Only Companion (2015), bravely treads.
Part memoir, part devotional, Greene-McCreight draws together statistics, personal experience, medical knowledge, and spiritual and practical wisdom from sufferers past, including Charles Spurgeon, Christina Rossetti, the psalmist, and the prophets. Rather than prescribing a course of action or wallowing in the severity of her own long battle, her testimony works to give a window into the life and faith of someone suffering mental illness, interwoven with a chorus of voices supporting her witness. It’s not an airtight, clear-eyed photo of success, but an honest, complex, deeply thoughtful collection of material that provides both comfort and challenge to those in the boat with her, as well as those who seek to understand depression, mania, anxiety, and mental illness generally.
I came to this book over the summer while beginning to admit to my own bout with depression. For me, it felt a bit like C.S. Lewis’ famous line about friends, “You too?” What Greene-McCreight described of her battles was so familiar, I was struck by both the similarity and seriousness of her experience next to my own. I didn’t feel so different, but I’d put her in a “sick” box, while I, surely, had the mental-illness-sniffles. Upon reflection, I found her message freeing: realizing that there may have really been a reason for my struggle too, I wasn’t just weak and unable to cope with everyday ups and downs.
Just as she had found companions in Scripture, notably throughout the Psalms and Jeremiah, as well as Isaiah, I’d been clinging to the same forebears’ accounts, hoping the storm might let up before I lost my grip. She wondered — as I do — how people without religion navigate the hurricanes of mental illness. Without the mast of communal faith for stability, repeating the truth of God’s hope in Christ in one’s head (if not always in the heart), how could any suffering person be expected to weather the storm of evil and brokenness that tears away at humanity in both individual and corporate ways?
My sister in Christ, the Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, provided for me — and, I know, for others — a witness that allowed the Holy Spirit to move me out of suffering alone in the dark and into the light. Seeing her courage to share her story gave me just enough energy to point to her example and say, “Me too.” As we, the Church, search for ways to love those brothers and sisters stuck in the darkness (of any sort), may we have the courage to say out loud the ways that we’re struggling and stuck — being the witness of light that another may need to see.
Emily Hylden’s other posts may be found here. The featured image of votive candles (2007) was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP, and is licensed under Creative Commons.