On 18 June 2018 my wife Anne died of cancer. This blog is not about her life and her courage. I know I could never begin to do justice to her extraordinary faith and witness, especially in those final days. This is not even about how I felt at the time. Rather, it concerns what happened to me six months later. It’s offered here in the hope the story might help someone else, especially at this time of Covid 19 and lockdown. I’m writing it because the church – in common with wider society – still finds it hard to talk about depression. And I’m writing it because times of deep darkness – what John of the Cross called ‘dark nights of the soul’ – are part of Christian discipleship for many.
I knew I was in difficulties at the beginning of 2019. Christmas had been really tough, new year worse. I was invariably tired and flat. I was well supported and couldn’t understand why I was struggling so badly. Darkness is definitely the best image I can find to describe how I was feeling. Surely, as the days passed I would shake this off. But I didn’t.
And then one morning I found I simply couldn’t get up. I really couldn’t move; it was as if I was glued to the bed. I’ve experienced low mood at different times in my life, not least when Anne was going through her first cancer in 2012. But this was different. I was just stuck. Thinking back to that day is still very difficult.
Eventually, somehow, I rolled out of bed, and crawled across the floor. By about 11.30 a.m. I found that I could function – just. So began a daily pattern: the mornings were awful, the afternoons slightly better, the evenings tolerable. Then the daily cycle began again. Still, I led meetings, led our staff team, preached and pastored the church.
To my amazement and embarrassment I found spoken prayer almost impossible. I simply couldn’t find the words. With other people I just about managed, but on my own I couldn’t. I felt like a hypocrite.
A few things helped me. One was the so-called Jesus Prayer, rooted in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. This had been part of my prayer life for many years, ever since I discovered it in the early days of my teaching at Spurgeon’s College. I found it brought me back to the simplicity of the gospel, anchoring me as a disciple of Jesus, one whose specific calling meant that words – often quite complicated words – were his stock in trade. But now I was praying the Jesus Prayer for a very different reason: it was all I could manage. The phrases I knew so well were a lifeline. But sometimes even this was too much. All I could say was, ‘Lord, help.’ Other times it was just a sigh. I thought I wasn’t really praying. Perhaps the truth is that I was praying like never before.
I knew I needed help but I’m stubborn! The breakthrough came when I went to the doctors for something quite minor. In the surgery waiting room there was a magazine containing an article with extensive quotes from the actress, Emma Thompson, about her own battle with depression. I have the article in front of me now as I type. She spoke of the ‘mild depression’ she periodically experiences, depression that became overwhelming following the breakup of her marriage to Kenneth Branagh. Everyone’s experience is unique, but to my astonishment she basically described how I was feeling. The struggle to get up, the tears, the forced cheerfulness, the reluctance to seek help: it was all there. The description ‘mild depression’ is important. There are many who suffer far worse. But she had needed help, and so did I. I decided not to bother the doctor with the minor ailment. Instead I would talk about the real problem.
By God’s extraordinary grace, for me, slowly the darkness began to lift. Here’s a few of the things that helped.
Realising I was not alone
We know this from the Bible. Psalm 88 is an example of a lament from someone exhibiting the symptoms of clinical depression. A quick glance through Christian history also shows us we’re not alone. C.H. Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, is just one who fought this battle with depression. And in this time of lockdown many are facing struggles with mental health, whilst others have had to deal with this for many years. One of the things about depression is that it often isolates. We feel everyone else is coping, that we are the only ones who are not. Yet when we turn again to Psalm 88 we see how utterly cut off the Psalmist felt. But we are not alone. This realisation in itself was helpful.
Be open with God first of all. Once again, Psalm 88 gives us this encouragement. Often I realise I pray ‘nice’ middle-class English prayers, very polite and with lots of finely phrased sentences. God is not impressed! He knows what’s in my heart before I speak it out, so why not be open with him? Be open with others too. When I did share what was happening – doing so with a degree of fear and trembling – I found love, understanding, and people who would journey with me. Church was great. I hope you have people around you who can help you too.
For me this meant being honest with our staff team, elders, in appropriate ways, the wider church. It also meant bereavement counselling, medication and, for a time, a revised pattern of working. If you’re a Baptist Minister you can access a Ministerial Counselling service and receive subsidised help. My experience of counselling was interesting. The counsellor expected me to do most of the talking and sometimes we sat in silence. I remember thinking, ‘you get paid for this…?’ But step by step I found that it was really helping. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is say to someone else, ‘I need help’.
Trust in Jesus
My own story is of God leading me out of depression (I’m acutely aware this is not everyone’s experience). It’s not easy though, especially now. I’m living on my own, unable to physically meet up with the amazing woman I’m now in a relationship with (who works for the NHS – more anxiety!). I’m seeking to help navigate our wonderful church through lockdown. Writing this blog has also come at a cost, if I’m honest.
Yet I know that even when it seems there’s no light penetrating the gloom, and any positive feelings have gone AWOL, God is to be trusted. In Psalm 88 the writer never stops coming to God, never stops hammering on the gates of heaven. The Psalm ends – in the Hebrew text – with the word ‘darkness’. Yet its very existence in the Psalter sets it in a wider context, just as the inclusion of the Psalter in the whole Bible gives a wider context still. God reaches out to his people, sending Jesus to die for us and offering love and hope through faith in him. These things are true however we feel. Don’t stop trusting, for God will lead us through.