Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical

Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Kathryn Greene-McCreight)

I'm not a big fan of this book (the author purposely uses masculine language for God and generally feels more theologically conservative than I am; and it didn't teach me much I didn't already know about dealing with mental illness) but I do really appreciate the bits about stigma (because my mentally ill best friend and I have had conversations recently about how we live in a culture of shame).

That's the GoodReads review I wrote last night after I finished reading the book.

Longer addendum written today:

[warnings for problematic theology, discussions of suicide, self-injury, mental illness, and stigma there-around]

In the Preface, the author explains why she uses the language she does for God, and yes, as Ari points out, "inclusive language" is a problematic terminology to use when we are discussing not using male-default language for God, but there are so many other arguments for not using male-default language that the author doesn't deal with at all.

In her Introduction, she explains that what she wants to do with this book "is to offer theological resources for interpreting and surviving mental illness" (12).

Probably my biggest problem with this book is that I don't agree with her theology.

It made me want to reread Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (though I did also go onto Amazon and add to my GR To Read list some of the "Customers Who Bought This Item [Darkness Is My Only Companion] Also Bought" books).

Yes, pain and suffering can make us appreciate the good so much more, and I recognize that she is trying to balance "God uses all things to work toward the good" without wholly saying that all suffering is caused/willed by God or your own fault, but I felt like there wasn't any space for, "God doesn't want you to suffer."

One page 111, for example, she writes:
      Sin, suffering, and despair are thus linked in mental illness, yet not in a straightforward one-to-one correspondence. The mentally ill, just like anyone else, may be suffering on account of the power of sin in the world; indeed all suffering can be seen in this way. When I was sick I needed to see God's presence even in this way, even in my suffering, even because of the power of sin. If I hadn't seen God in this way, as punishing my sin, as eradicating the force of sin in the world, then my suspicions would have been confirmed: that darkness was in fact my only companion and that God had indeed abandoned me.
If that gets you through, okay (I am reminded of the fact that self-injury, for example, is a coping mechanism, and sometimes the mere fact of coping is what's most important) but why is God zero-sum? Why is the only option that God has abandoned you (which the author recognizes as a non-option) or that God is punishing you? What if God is weeping alongside you? What if God cannot relieve your suffering? What if your suffering is not the result of God's will at all?

(Also, if suffering is so awesome for all the good it works in us and for the glory of God what's the deal with Heaven where there will be no more weeping and etc.?

Which brings up another issue I have, though this is arguably a more minor one in relation to the book -- that I don't think our purpose is to praise God; I don't think God is a petty human like that; I love my best friend's analogy that all we offer to God is like small children offering macaroni necklaces to beloved adults -- we adults appreciate those gifts because we recognize the love out of which they are borne, but we don't "need" them in any sense, and neither does God; God rejoices when we love [ourselves, each other, God, any and all of God's Creation], when we demonstrate that love.)

I'm glad that the author is a proponent of both psychotherapy and psychiatry (I don't know enough about ECT to have a stance on her support of that), but I was uncomfortable with her repeated talk about how therapists and other secular members of her care team were uncomfortable with her religiosity and often saw it as either symptomatic of her mental illness or not conducive to her recovery. Admittedly, there are parts of her theology that I would vehemently NOT recommend to a friend (one who is suffering with mental illness or not), but I was primarily uncomfortable because I don't think all mental health professionals are that way and I don't think that's something you should have to put up with in your mental health professionals, especially since it's gonna be detrimental to the process in many ways. It isn't until the end of the book that she even mentions that Christian therapists etc. even exist, and then she says that's not even necessarily what you want, that secular folk can give really good care (including being respectful of your religious faith) and just because someone's Christian doesn't mean their theology is gonna match yours anyway. I don't disagree with any of that, but the vibe I got throughout the book would have made me really resistant to therapy (even though I agreed with a lot of the secular resistance to the author's theology), so placing that at the end is really problematic (she does state repeatedly throughout the book that psychotherapy and psychiatry are good and useful and important tools and that the mentally ill should utilize them).

I'm also uncomfortable with the way the author talks about feeling suicidal. On pages 48-49, for example, she writes:
      I do think a Christian's suicide, especially that of a Christian teacher or pastor, is the final act of disobedience, of betrayal of the Creator. Of course, I know this is often not consciously chosen, or when it is conscious, it is a choice born of tremendous unbearable pain. A friend's pastor [committed suicide...]. This was a man who had offered the gospel, who had preached words of hope. Yet he committed the ultimate act of hopelessness.
      It does seem that the stakes are very high: the Christian's suicide in effect contradicts every good work about God one could ever have preached, undoes every good work dedicated to God and neighbor that one could ever have accomplished.
Nowhere else does she say anything THAT egregious, though throughout the book I worried that suicidal people reading the book would get the sense of "God would be upset with me if I killed myself" in a way that wouldn't be life-giving for them -- that it would strengthen their feeling of guilt and distress over feeling suicidal in the first place in a way that would be detrimental to the healing process.

But that blockquote just sticks in my craw so much. I'm willing to grant that it's really difficult to believe a message of hope if the deliverer of that message commits an act of such hopelessness, but it certainly doesn't UNDO all the other good words and good works that person preached. I am forever making claims about how God calls us to be in the world and in the same breath caveating that I am not at all good about living into that Call. That is the human condition.

The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.

(I have now started rereading Proverbs of Ashes, and it occurs to me that in many theologies of the Crucifixion, Jesus was suicidal -- okay, okay, proponents of those theologies would probably use the term "martyr" instead, but that's a blurry line isn't it?)

I said in my mini-review that I appreciated the stuff the author said about stigma, so I'm quoting that here:
Last night someone made a crack at karate class that the brown belts doing their pinyans looked like medication time at the state hospital. They were making a joke at the expense of people not unlike me. There but for the face of God go I. No, even despite the grace of God go I. And, of course, all of us, but those blokes with their sanity somewhat intact can pretend that it has nothing to do with the grace of God, that fundamentally they are better than the sedated stooges at the state hospital.
(p. 53)

      The very worst thing about mental illness, besides the pain, is this very stigma. The taking pleasure from others' pain. The jokes. Stigma creates a fear on the part of the mentally ill and cycles the fear of those who are healthy against those who are ill. I was so ill that at times I couldn't move and yet didn't want to tell my boss why I couldn't come in to work. I had supervisors and colleagues, then, whom I never told. I realize now that I should have done so, but at the time I didn't trust them with the news that I had a mental illness---one that would plague me for life. How could I go back to work after revealing that news?
(p. 62)
And there are other things she said that I liked. Among them:
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger . . .
Ephesians 4:26
Angry, yes, that is my life's song these days. To know that scripture recognizes the expression of anger is a great comfort. And how psychologically healing that it would say to express anger but not to let it spend the night with us.
(pp. 60-61)

When one is depressed, memory fills in the gaps that feeling has left vacant. One can't feel God's grace, but one can remember it. There is profound wisdom in the biblical injunction to write the narrative of God's redemption on the doorposts, to talk of it when you sit and when you walk and when you lie down and when your rise; in other words, remind yourself always (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; cf. 11:18-21). In all of the details of life remind yourself of God's redemption, and that memory will be so strong that it will carry you through the times when you can't feel.
      This is why it it so important to worship in community, to ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you, and to pray with them. Sometimes you literally cannot make it on your own, and you need to borrow from the faith of those around you. [...]
      It is like in the story of the paralytic in Mark 2: His friends are determined to have Jesus heal him, so they rip apart the roof and let him in on his pallet down to Jesus. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'" The faith of the friends is crucial for the paralytic's healing. I have borrowed from the faithfulness of the community, the body of Christ, and I believe that the faith of my own community has been crucial for my own healing. One blessing that we can hope to wrestle out of God in this Jacob-like struggle is that we may at daybreak finally learn what grace really is.
(p. 88)

To the depressed, the disease seems to take over; until one is entirely an illness. Jesus knows this is not true, and he can cast out the demons without destroying us. Only he can cast out of us our impurity, our uncleanness. Demons from the host among the tombs into the pigs, then into the sea. Impurity dwelling among the impure is case into the impure and then herded into the chaos.
      The thing is that the man's demons don't want to go away, don't want to be cast out. It is easier to dwell where you are than to allow Jesus to rout you out, even if where you are is the cemetery, living among the walking dead.
I've articulated my discomfort with her discussion of suffering as a result of sin, but I'm not entirely opposed to everything she says on the matter. For example: "Maybe my doctors would look at the question this way: to what extent do your desires and fears and activities trip you up so as to let mental illness gain a foothold?" (p. 108). I like the framing of seeking understanding of that which helps strengthen your illness' hold over you (and I would add as a corollary -- converse? inverse? -- seeking that which gives you life, that which gives you freedom from your illness).

I appreciate that she acknowledges that the journey is difficult -- I love the evocativeness of, "At times the medicine felt less like weapons against depression and mania and more like Saul's heavy armor on the young David" (p. 69).

I don't have a closing thought, so I leave you with: "The soul is loved into existence by God" (p. 100).
Tags: books: read, issues: mental illness, religion: christianity

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