ACW

ACW

Monday, 28 September 2015

by Vivienne Tuffnell



There are those who would declare that a Christian should not (or even cannot) suffer with depression. They would maintain that a prayerful relationship with God and a well-disciplined life make depression either impossible or else, evidence of hidden sins.

In answer to that I would disagree, as would many of the well-honoured mystics throughout the long history of the Christian faith. St John of the Cross would answer that not only is the deep, dark depression he dubbed the dark night of the soul, an inevitable consequence of a deepening and maturing faith, it may also be one of the most profound and difficult gifts that God can give us. It doesn't come with bright wrapping paper, ribbons, bows or glitter, and you can't take it back to John Lewis for a refund if you don't like it. But it's still a pearl beyond price, even if it didn't arrive in a Tiffany box.

The dark night of the soul is hard to explain. I believe that many forms of clinical depression are versions of this spiritual experience. There are both degrees and shades of the darkness that comes and perhaps the hardest thing for a person of faith to understand is that the darkness itself is not evil. It's neutral. It's simply the absence of the light and the warmth we are used to. Nor is the dark night an absence of God. God does not turn his face from you, or stop loving you, any more than my mother stopped loving me when she left me at the school gates on my first day of infants' school. It was an essential part of my development as a child – to be able to move forward in life without a parent holding my hand the whole time. Becoming independent of your parents never means you no longer need them. It means you are an adult in your own right.

The process of the dark night can be short and hideously intense, or it can go on for years. While not all depressive episodes fall into this category, I believe that for me, they are related. God never withdraws entirely, but He does stand back out of sight. It feels like a complete loss of faith, yet in some ways, the process is potentially the most strengthening one. Just as I, as a five year old, knew my mother would return for me at half past three, I have learned that my awareness of the divine presence will also return. Until it does, I know that I must continue to act “as if” that awareness were fully intact. This does not preclude doing a good deal of thinking and exploring during that dark time, and what we discover about ourselves and the world beyond this known one, are a vital part of the process. At the end, you go back to exactly how you were before, and yet it has radically changed you at some level. You will never be the same, and this is a good thing. Whatever some mothers may feel, trying to keep your children as helpless babies their whole lives is a dreadful, damaging thing.

About the Author

Vivienne Tuffnell is a writer, a poet and a seeker who jokingly describes herself as an explorer and mystic. She currently lives in darkest Norfolk. Her most recent book is a collection of essays from her blog, exploring depression and mental health and is entitled Depression and The Art of Tightrope Walking.

Her blog can be found at: http://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com

She tweets as @guineapig66

Her books are available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vivienne-Tuffnell/e/B00766135C/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1





6 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post, Vivienne. I agree with you about the Darkness. I think there can be a misunderstanding among Christians equating light with God and darkness with God's absence. God can be and is in the Darkness too. I worked for a few years with our local community mental health teams and spoke to clients who suffered from, among other things, bipolar disorder / "manic depression" and often these people expressed an intense spirituality in the midst of their suffering.

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  2. A well written and honest insight into something we don't talk about. Although, from what I can tell, I think (I hope) the taboo is lifting a little. Thanks Vivienne.

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  3. An honest reflection and sadly something that affects so many people

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  4. An interesting view of depression - it is something I suffer with but do not find within in an absence of God. I think you can suffer dark nights of the soul without depression and I have certainly been in times of deep depression and also super close to God. This shows the diversity of both God and depression and an encouragement to those who suffer that just because yours is different it is bless valid or reflective of your spiritual maturity - a great post :)

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  5. Very very interesting. Thank you very much for writing this, and I think it is beautiful that through this you have found your relationship with God has deepened. That is a sign that it is a true spiritual experience. I think that at the heart of our relationship with God there must be truth, and what you say about existing through faith is very mature and does sound like the dark night of the soul described by, amongst others, Thomas Merton.

    However, from my own experience I do think there are times when at the root of our depression is self-hate or anger or sheer exhaustion. I think in that case that depression is NOT based on truth but on a distortion that does hamper our relationship with God. The experience of depression then is that of an illness we can legitimately ask God to take from us, and help us through medication or therapy or a combination. God is still with us in that experience, as God is in all experiences, but in the way that God is with us if we ask God to heal a leg that is broken. I found Thomas Merton writing on the dark night of the soul very helpful - it is a profoundly mystical experience of aridity and abandonment which brings us closer to God and is rare and valuable - but I think that for many of us depression is not the dark night of the soul and is a sign something is wrong and we need to change something - maybe as simple as having more sleep or changing jobs or relationships - or as a sign we are physically ill. Thank you for this excellent post - as you are right - not enough is written about the experience of depression by Christians - and we need to talk about it and understand it. Thank you for sharing your own spiritual journey too and witnessing to God's presence with us in the darkest moments.

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    1. The trouble is, I had 500 words to work with, so it's almost impossible to cover everything.
      "Simple" uni-polar depression comes in two broad types- reactive depression (where the depression is in direct or perhaps indirect response to external circumstances, such as job loss, children flying the nest, etc etc) and non-reactive depression that is usually considered to be a very different matter, ascribed for some years to "chemical imbalances in the brain" a theory that is much disputed now. Whatever, it's the kind that basically is without obvious cause of trigger in current life circumstances. The research going on at this time suggests that this type of depression may well be the long term results of trauma, often in childhood, and pre-verbal at that. Sometimes a form of depression is the result of an illness that produces depressive-type effects as symptoms. My parathyroid tumour did this, and there are quite a number of diseases that have depression as a symptom.
      In some ways, we need to use different words for the different types of depression, because unfortunately people end up conflating their own experience of low-mood because of a break-up (for example) with a full-on attack of clinical depression, and then start to imagine that the other person is failing to do the self-help measures that helped them. This is why I have seen an INCREASE in stigma and marginalisation rather than the decrease that Deborah mentioned; the celebrity involvement raises the profile but it does not reduce stigma. The reason for this is that celebs who appear to be coping with serious mental health crises up the ante for ordinary people.
      Anyway, I've written extensively about this in the book, which obviously won't fit into a blog post.
      One more thing: depression can also blast away faith. It's my experience on numerous occasions that I suffer loss of faith during the darkest times. During those times, I do not know if it will return, or whether it was never there, and faith had been just a story I told myself to keep going.

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