I don’t suffer from depression, and never have. That’s not a boast or a superiority statement in any way, just a statement of fact.
Like everyone, I can have low days, meh days, or even the odd bleak week. But if depression is, in Churchill’s famous metaphor, the black dog that follows you, moves in and occupies you, then no.
I have an occasional greyish hamster as a house guest for a few days, that is all.
So it was eye-opening and necessary to read Mark Meynell’s latest book, When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: reflections on life and ministry with depression. If you don’t know of Mark, he is a talented preacher, teacher and writer, who for various reasons (including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) has known debilitating depression for years.
I know Mark a little, and it was awful hearing from him just what the mental blizzard can be like, how far inside and down it takes him, and the long hard roads back. It pains me to think what I could have done – and can still do – and frequently just forget, in a sunny, busy day.
This is an honest book, written by a sensitive Christian for a Christian readership, to help us to understand, embrace, sit with and pray for our sisters and brothers who face depression as a daily reality.
If you read it, you will find a clear-eyed appraisal of what depression is like, but also windows into the lived experience. Mark is an educated and cultured man, and it is no surprise to me that music is a frequent comfort him, both as an echo and an escape. He provides a playlist at the end, and he has certainly widened my horizons. And as you would expect, it is beautifully written.
Writing as a theologian and a pastor, Mark is inevitably biblical in his reflection and soul-searching (the title comes, of course, from Psalm 88), and any of us who is involved in any kind of counselling or support ministry would do well to spend a couple of weeks absorbing the deep lessons Mark has given us here.
Mark is also, it turns out, a poet. Now here I must tread carefully, because this is an area where I have views, many of which are not well-defined, and I have no expertise. I write, but I write prose. What’s more, I had a sharp, superb English teacher who taught us to sniff out ‘verse’ from ‘poetry.’ It may well be a prejudicial shorthand, but I still find it helpful. Most of what passes for Christian poetry falls for me into the box marked ‘verse.’ What’s the difference? Well, verse can rhyme and scan, and bounce along well enough, but it doesn’t make you stop, and wonder at what you’ve just read. Poetry – good poetry – doesn’t need to rhyme or scan, but it is so precise, the image so fresh, that moving just one idea or word would upset the balance of the whole. Shakespeare’s sonnets are poetry. Pam Ayres writes verse. Wordsworth did both, quite a lot.
At the back of this book, Mark has put some poems, which he calls Words from Inside the Cave. He doesn’t claim much for them, and I think it is a mark of his honesty and courage that he is willing to expose them to a wider readership. It is beyond generous to share something so private.
But let me say that two of them, ‘The Torment of Helios’, and – especially – ‘The Nature of Tears’, are in my judgment fine poems. They deserve a wide appreciation.
There’s a bibliography, there’s a list of helpful websites. There are bits I simply don’t get (sorry, but I’ve never got on the U2 train, and Mark is an avowed fan).
But this is a wonderful, terrifying, honest book. Yes, I’m blinkered because it’s by a mate. I’m blinkered by my tears.
When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, Mark Meynell (London, Inter-Varsity Press, 2018) is available from Amazon here.