This is my sixth attempt to write this post. The first three times I (Ben) stopped because I thought, “The people who won’t be freaked out by depression will be freaked out by faith/Christianity. And the very few who may not be freaked out by either will likely be freaked out by both together.” I don’t mean that as underestimating my audience, only as an illustration of the mental roadblocks I had to navigate getting this out on paper.
I stopped during times #4 and #5 because I tried writing something about depression without addressing spirituality. Those detours dead-ended quickly and disastrously. I knew what I wanted to write about even if I didn’t know how to write it. I was in denial.
Here goes draft #6:
The most troubling question I have had to reconcile about being a Christian who suffers from depression isn’t why God allows it. It’s why God is silent.
John Updike said that God saves his deepest silence for the saints. This is, on one hand, perverse. But it is also, as one reads the Bible, true. Some of God’s most beloved were also seemingly the most cursed: Jacob, Jeremiah, Elijah, Paul, David, Moses, Job, to say nothing of Jesus himself. In crucial moments of their stories, God disappears, none more so than when Jesus feels forsaken on the cross. Why?
I want to be very clear before we go any farther: Depression — any mental illness, for that matter — does not make one a saint. Nor am I saint for feeling as though I have been intimate with God’s absence. Many, many people can attest to my failings, the co-writer of this blog being tops on the list.
I have known from a young age that my depression was tied up in my faith. Over time I have come to understand chemical imbalances and serotonin levels and hereditary defects; I acknowledge that these too are vital components. My frame of reference, however, has first and foremost been a spiritual one. (And I acknowledge, certainly, that there are those who believe that religious belief is its own mental illness.) This could be a tremendously harmful thing, as I often concluded that a bout of depression was something I deserved — punishment from God. I have matured enough by now to realize this is bad theology. The Christian God is not one of retribution. But this is another post for another time.
I am one of those kids who grew up in the church and would answer, when asked, that I had been a Christian all my life. But when pressed, I can trace my one conversion moment to my sophomore year at college, when I walked to the Church of the Holy Spirit on Kenyon’s campus at three in the morning, unable to sleep or get out of my own head. (Hell! I tell you.) In exquisite mental anguish, I sat in the stillness of an empty sanctuary and heard, for the first time in my life, God’s silence. I walked out of the church that night utterly defeated — what Frederick Buechner called “the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”
The following summer was my first at Summer’s Best Two Weeks, where I’d meet Erin five years later. (Fun fact: We were actually both there for two weeks that summer, me as a 19-year-old counselor and she as a 17-year-old kitchen crew member. We never met.) That summer was the first time everything clicked for me spiritually. I realized Christianity was not about being right or moral but about being alive, and I had never felt more alive than I did those three months. Not coincidentally, my mental health was almost spotless. This only confirmed to me that there was a spiritual component that couldn’t be ignored. Also, that healing was possible.
When I began seeing a counselor the fall after I graduated college, I was so desperate that I picked one out of the phonebook at random. It didn’t matter who or where. (The one I picked was a 45-minute drive from my apartment.) As we met and I began talking about depression and my spiritual beliefs, it was obvious my counselor didn’t see the same connections I did, or feel as though she was able to address them in a satisfactory way. She did what any good counselor should — she recommended me to someone else.
This man was a Christian, and over the three years I met with him he treated me both mentally and spiritually. Much of what I needed to learn then (and still do) are simple cognitive habits that discourage, rather than invite, spells of sadness. He taught me these things. But other days he saw, as no one else had, that what troubled my spirit was, in fact, a spiritual affliction. Some sessions he prayed with me. Other times he told me what his experience of God had been. At no point did he ever preach, judge or condemn. I may not be alive today if not for this man.
Faith and mental illness is the subject of a new book called Wrestling With Our Inner Angels; Faith, Mental Illness, and The Journey to Wholeness by Nancy Kehoe. It has, like virtually every “Christian” book on depression, a terrible title (though the Biblical moment it alludes to — Jacob wrestling the angel — is one of the most accurate pictures of depression in scripture). It is, however, smart and sharply written, a humane account from a woman who is both a clinical instructor in psychology and a nun. Back in 1981, when Kehoe agreed to a consultation with a psychiatric director at one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals, she made a startling discovery:
When I met with the staff to debrief the session, to my bewilderment, they said that many clients referred to religion, but the therapists simply ignored it, not knowing how to handle the topic. This was an amazing admission for mental health professionals, who are trained to explore every aspect of a person’s life, from the most intimate areas, such as sexuality, finances, and abuse histories, to the most public, such as work histories. Listening to, making sense of, and helping a person reframe the narrative of his or her life is the essence of therapy.
This conversation, however, suggested that the chapter that concerned religion was being omitted: that the whole story could never be told because no one wanted to listen. The image that came to mind was that of archaeologists on a dig, unearthing sacred artifacts and tossing them aside because they were focused solely on certain aspects of a culture.
Kehoe’s book is an account of her experiences reconciling faith and mental illness, and it is rich with wisdom and, for those of us standing at those crossroads, encouragement. One patient articulates exactly what I have felt too many times to count: “I pray, but I don’t know if God hears my prayers, because I have a mental illness.”
The path I am very carefully walking right now is one that acknowledges two contradictions: 1) mental illness is an affliction, but 2) it can, in fact, be a gift. I am not saying it is a blessing to have it. I am saying that having it has taught me things about faith that I would otherwise never have learned. People with depression can be quite attuned to the needs of those around them. They can be quicker to, as one of my fellow inmates in the psych hospital put it every night, “let go and let God.” They can be slower to judge and quicker to forgive. They can, for reasons that still mystify me, sometimes be saints. When Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light was published, many were startled at just how bleak and despairing her journals were. “I am told God lives in me,” she wrote, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” And yet she still did what she did.
The night I admitted myself to the hospital, I walked to the church where I worked and sat in an empty chapel. I couldn’t pray. I could hear only God’s silence. I cursed and cried. Then I called my counselor and told him I needed to go to the hospital. Waiting outside the church for him to arrive, I heard sirens in the distance. I wondered if those were the ones on the ambulance that would be coming to take me away. What a screwed up life I’ve got, I thought. I feel like I’m watching someone else’s. Then I looked up at the stars and thought of all the Psalms that were inspired by the same view. So many routes to the foot of the cross, I thought, and this is the one I chose, or the one that chose me.