Mark Meynell is one of those amazing people who always seems to have space for others’ stories, no matter how widely they vary from his own, because he has a rare depth of compassion. He is a thoughtful and pastoral theologian, an accomplished writer, an astute cultural commenter, and an all-round top guy. I’m delighted to be hosting his story today:
I’ve recently notched up my 10th anniversary – but forget the champagne corks. There was nothing whatsoever to celebrate, either by me or those closest to me. That’s because this summer saw ten years of living with what Churchill called the black dog. I can identify intimations of it in the past – but the triggers were some traumatic experiences during our time in Uganda. I talk about them in my recent book (A Wilderness of Mirrors) and on my blog, so I won’t go over them again. All I need mention is that long-standing vulnerabilities were exposed, making me much less resilient or confident in difficult situations.
What began as a clear case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seemed to slide into full-blown depression. But the complicating factor (almost certainly the result of boarding school from the age of 8) is I’d become rather accomplished at masking it. In fact, when I first mentioned it publicly in a seminar, a friend said that if she’d been told there was someone on the church staff with depression, I was the last person they’d have suspected. And she herself is married to someone with his own black dog.
At times it felt a little like a kind of psychological “locked-in syndrome”. Externally, I was the competent team-member, preacher and pastor in a crazy-busy central London church. Smiles and gags, perhaps a tendency to puncture the seriousness in meetings that were getting too heavy, someone who gets emotional but not unduly. In other words, still quite ‘english’. I’m guessing – but I think that’s what others might have said of me.
Meanwhile, inside, I’d be screaming. Why can’t they tell? Why can’t they see the deadweight of confusion and pain? It was especially incomprehensible because I often have quite an instinctive sense of others’ pain – sometimes it’s almost like being a pain magnet to which others’ pain is propelled like iron filings. But where were the friends who could sense mine?
So I should just tell them I needed help, right? The catch was that trying to vocalise or articulate it always seemed to trivialise it. Especially because of the way the word ‘depression’ is bandied about so casually. I just had no words. Which was deeply scary for someone whose entire life revolves around words. It was a perverse logic perhaps, but it seemed better to zip it until someone caught on. As an amateur musician, I’d found playing and listening to music quite an outlet for the wordless – but then I seemed to lose that too. It just couldn’t quite cut it.
Then there was the God-dimension. Because he could tell what was going on… presumably. His Spirit has quite a lot of experience with human wordlessness, so we’re told. But the sense of his presence, let alone expectation of his intervention, had evaporated as inexplicably as my music.
Hardly anything seemed to helped – so the resulting isolation from those I love the most was crippling. I’ve been on a succession of medications – with varying degrees of usefulness. I panicked at one stage about what the effect of manufactured chemicals on my mood said about where my identity and sense of self lay. But fortunately that passed – and what’s more, I’ve had very few side-effects (unlike some friends). They will never cure, but they do provide an equilibrium to keep me going (both for work and family life).
I’ve sat through more hours of talking therapies over the last decade than hot dinners. But a counsellor and a psychologist, in their different ways, have been most constructive – they have helped me find a vocabulary for the inexpressible. (By the way, I’m even more excited about the prospect of meeting “the creator of the rolling spheres” who is “ineffably sublime” now that I know something of feeling wordless. Except, then, it will be glory, not pain, that defies language! Hurrah!) That’s made all the difference. That and finding others ‘in the cave’ (another analogy I often resort to), while being able to depend on the love of family around me who perhaps are confused and scared by the inexplicable.
But I’ve not really had a restored sense of God’s purpose or presence. Pretty awkward for a minister, really. Am I now disqualified? Am I a hypocrite? Am I a fraud? My black dog constantly insists I am all these things. It loves nothing more than to suffocate people with guilt and shame.
What I’ve realised, though, in contrast to the way some talk (including other Christians), is that it’s not impossible to trust God in this, nor is it incompatible with being a Christian. After all, plenty of people in the Bible have had it. I’m intellectually sure (most of the time) about the bedrock truths of Christ’s cross and resurrection. I’m just unable to sense or personalise that assurance. At all. I must just take it on trust. Which actually is kind of the point of the Christian life.
As Paul explained to the Corinthians, we are to “live by faith not sight” (2 Cor 5:6). And by sight, I have come to realise that he might as well have added, “nor by any sensory perception whatsoever.” There are better days; there are really tough days. And I long for a breakthrough of some sort. I long to be able to shoot the black dog dead.
But so far, it’s not really happened. I simply put one foot in front of the other and trust God knows what he’s doing. That is perseverance without perception; it is trusting God to keep his promises. And, in a funny way, that probably gives me more opportunities for pastoral ministry than I would have had without the bullying canine. What’s more, the one thing that seems to give it any meaning at all is when I talk to someone about these battles and for them to say, “I’m so glad I’m not the only one.” That changes everything for us both.
Mark Meynell is Associate Director (Europe), for Langham Preaching, one of the 3 programmes of Langham Partnership. Previously, he spent 9 years as Senior Associate Minister at All Souls, Langham Place, and 4 years on the faculty and leadership of Kampala Evangelical School of Theology in Uganda.
He lives in NW London with Rachel, and their 2 teenage children. He has written a number of books, including most recently A Wilderness of Mirrors (Zondervan, 2015) and What Makes Us Human (Good Book Co, 2015)
[NB I read A Wilderness of Mirrors, and it’s brilliant! See my endorsement here]
Check out Mark Meynell’s excellent blog series on depression here – 10 years of the Black Dog.
“This summer saw 10 years of living with what Churchill called the black dog.” – @Quaerentia for @Tanya_Marlow
“The sense of [God’s] presence…had evaporated” – @Quaerentia talks about his journey with the ‘black dog’ of depression:
“Am I a hypocrite? Am I a fraud? My black dog constantly insists I am all these things.” @Quaerentia for @Tanya_Marlow:
“I just had no words.” Mark Meynell @Quaerentia talks about his journey with depression for @Tanya_Marlow:
“I long to be able to shoot the black dog dead.” Mark Meynell @Quaerentia talks about his journey with depression
“We are to ‘live by faith not sight’.” Mark Meynell @Quaerentia for @Tanya_Marlow, on his journey with depression
“I simply put one foot in front of the other and trust God knows what he’s doing.” @Quaerentia’s journey with depression:
Over to you:
- Have you experienced the black dog of depression? What has helped you?
- “We are to ‘live by faith not sight’.” Can you relate to this experience of losing your spiritual ‘senses’ – speech, hearing, sight?
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