Monday, March 24, 2014

BookPastor >> "Darkness is My Only Companion" (Kathryn Greene-McCreight)

TITLE: Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness
AUTHOR: Kathryn Greene-McCreight
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006, (176 pages).

Mental illness is one of the biggest challenges facing societies today. While there has been huge advancement in medical sciences for medical research and breakthroughs in general, investment in the study and care of mental patients seems lacking. Resources are so scarce that the author of this book, a person with clinical depression, bi-polar disorders, and manic behaviours, had to write her own book. That was because she could not find any material that touches on mental illnesses from a religious perspective, in particular Christianity. How do we medicate mental illnesses? Where is God in all of these? How can we make sense of objectivity, subjectivity, and to know what is real and what is not?

This is made even more challenging as the author herself is a theologian, used to academic objectivity. At the same time, with her own mental and emotional condition, how is she able to consistently express her thoughts in a truthful and coherent way? Amazingly, she did. Written in three parts, Part One chronicles her journey through facing mental illness. It is a very personal one as she hangs on the the promises of Scripture such as Psalm 88 on the one hand, and stares at darkness in the face on the other. He hangs on to the three cords of sanity: "religious (worship and prayer); psychological (psychotherapy); and medical (medication, electroconvulsive therapy, and hospitalization)." In doing so, she invites readers, especially those with quite similar circumstances to walk with her. With deep understanding, she recognizes depression not as a problem to be eradicated but something to be understood first, treated second, and lived with during the process. She struggles with thoughts of death, symptoms of confusion, episodes of emotional swings. Acknowledging the difficult of cultivating friendship with the mentally ill, she says that one of the best things anyone can do is to pray. Not just praying for something, but prayer.

Greene-McCreight also shares with readers that mental illnesses are often combinations of "nature and nurture, of brain chemistry and life stress." There is also a temptation to suicide, and her theology of suicide as contradicting God's good work reins her from committing that. While depression hurts her every breath, thought, and consciousness, mania whacks her the other direction toward ecstasy, with the constant back and forth settling her back into a state of darkness once again. With hospitalization comes many different dosages of pills and medications, making it even more difficult to think about God in the light of drowsy medicine. Part Two comprises five chapters of well-considered theological perspective of mental illness. The author finds solace in the poetry of George Herbert, John Donne, and searches earnestly for the Word to become real in her life. She is careful not to let feelings dictate her path, especially in situations where the Word is a better guide. She studies the brain, mind, and soul to try to see them not as three distinct parts but one integrated whole. She concludes that

"For the Christian tradition, meaningful life is not based on our human desires or our consciousness but solely in our relationship to the God of Israel, the triune God who endows our lives with meaning." (100-101)

She dives into the riches of Scripture and attempts to swim the oceans of suffering and despair. Suffering is most felt when one feels abandoned. It is a journey in the dark toward an unknown destination.  It is a time of testing in which one believes in God but feels that God is hidden away. Yet not all is suffering. Scriptures is filled with examples of hope and grace. "Prayer will bring health - even for the bent and broken mind of the mentally ill."

Part Three offers some practical tips for clergy, caregivers, and people wanting to help. They can help by noticing the emotions and pace themselves accordingly. They need to watch for signs of suicide, make sense of hallucinations from reality, discern the facts from fiction, and to know when and who to seek for professional help. Therapy needs to be used when necessary. Several things the author had learned include:
  • Trials can strengthen marriage;
  • Love needs to be accepted as much as it is often given;
  • Faith becomes more real in the light of suffering and pain;
  • It is a blessing not to be forsaken by loved ones;
  • Learning to see others with greater compassion and understanding;
  • Prayer and hope.
"I also learned that sick people are not necessarily weak. Sick people are just afflicted. And they need the help of the Christian community. The mentally ill can shock people, and the stigma of mental illness can mean that people are often turned off to the sufferer. But it should be the Christian community of all places where such sufferers are welcomed and supported, prayer and comforted." (157)

This is a powerful book. Where can anyone find a book where there is a credible theologian, an honest mental patient, and a determined author who seeks to share her journey of faith through the valley of the shadow of mental illness? The book begins with quite a dark period of the author's life, but ends with a bright hope for the future. As one who has braved the waves of despair, Greene-McCreight has given us a testimony of what God can do with a person determined to be faithful to her calling. While every depression, mania, emotional trauma is different, God's way of dealing with each of us is the same. It is the way of the Word of God that is the anchor for our souls. The author shows that it is applicable for all times, even in times of mental illness. This is truly one of the most touching and powerful books I have ever read about faith and illness.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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