Facing the Black Dog
For Christmas this past year, my wife gave me When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, by Mark Meynell. I devoured it like a New York size slice of sausage and pepperoni pizza after a 24-hour fast.
Kristy knew this book would speak to me in a very personal way. Over the years, she has walked with me through the deep valleys of the mental anguish physicians call “clinical depression.” We are not talking about the blues or bad days or circumstantial sadness.
Winston Churchill called his depression the Black Dog. Meynell describes his as having a brain blizzard in a cave — a mental whiteout in a lonely place from which there seems no escape. For me, it feels like a crushing physical weight or vice crushing my brain. It is not merely an emotional experience. It is acutely physical.
The title of Meynell’s book comes from the last line in Psalm 88, a ruthlessly honest declaration by Heman the Ezrahite, that his hope had been snuffed out like a candle. All was darkness. Another apt description of clinical depression.
Moral vs Medical Issues
You may need to know that disorders such as clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), manic-depressive disorder (bi-polar), anorexia, panic attacks, PTSD and the like are not moral issues. They are medical issues. Yes, they are medical issues that may or may not result in or contribute to moral problems. But in themselves, there is nothing inherently sinful about a brain under the pressure of a chemical vice that causes the mind to feel that everything is dark, hard, and heavy.
“You may need to know that disorders such as clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), manic-depressive disorder (bi-polar), anorexia, panic attacks, PTSD and the like are not moral issues. They are medical issues.”
For those of us who suffer from the Black Dog, Brain Blizzard, Vice Grip on the Brain, we pray for deliverance from those like Job’s counselors who have a shallow understanding of our plight and give simplistic remedies (because they don’t understand either the complexities of the brain or the purposes and ways of God).
An SSRI prescription may be as critical for our survival as heart mediation is for a cardiac patient. But meds are not our greatest need.
“An SSRI prescription may be as critical for our survival as heart mediation for a cardiac patient.”
From his own personal story, Meynell shares how “the counter-intuitive, other-worldly nature of grace” (87) is what those who struggle need most.
Meynell quotes John Forrester’s summary assessment of what grace looks like for several of the facets that are often woven into the fabric of clinical depression: guilt, shame, and anxiety (87).
“Grace for guilt is unmerited forgiveness. Grace for shame is unmerited acceptance. And grace for anxiety is unmerited security.”
- John Forrester, Grace for Shame, 152.
Granted, mere awareness of these concepts does not leash the Black Dog. But they do invite hope. They allow the clouds to part ever so slightly so that a few rays of light may penetrate into the darkness.
The way these rays of hope manifest themselves in practical ways is when friends, the hands and feet of Jesus as his body, demonstrate this “counter-intuitive, other-worldly” grace. When we are willing to forgive, accept, and make others feel secure, like God does for us, the environment of vulnerability and safety is established. It is that environment where that air of grace becomes an oxygen mask for the weary soul.
“When we are willing to forgive, accept, and make others feel secure, the environment of vulnerability and safety is established.”
Coping vs Curing
Notice that I did not say that the atmosphere is a cure. We may manage and cope with mental illness. But we don’t cure it.
This is why we need “friends, not fixers” (19).
Being this kind of friend is not easy. Refusing the kind of judgementalism and self-righteous condescension that comes naturally is a beast to shake. It really takes work to put one’s self in another’s shoes, especially when the shoes are such a different size than our own.
It is hard to sit in the unfixed and let God be God there.
“It is hard to sit in the unfixed and let God be God there.”
Sometimes, we simply will not understand. The same way I will not understand a combat survivor with PTSD (although there are experiences in my past that may resemble something akin to PTSD, at least in the way I feel when reminded of the former trauma).
A Friend for the Darkness
Walking with someone for a lifetime, down a very long, twisting road — more like a trail with roots and rocks, will test the most patient friend. But there is a friend who understands all of our issues. He is the one who not only walked a toe-stubbing path with us but traveled a nail-scarring one.
When I have trouble dealing with someone else’s mental challenges, may I remember my own affliction, my moral affliction, which is worse by far.
“Sometimes, we simply will not understand.”
Knowing that Jesus is with me as a friend (of a forgiven but largely unfixed sinner) and will not forsake me (though I continue to struggle) is not only hope for the darkness but also is the power for being the kind of friend needed for someone else in their darkness.
A friend, not a fixer.