What depression has taught me

As regular readers may remember, I have been suffering with depression since the summer. My last blog on the topic, I’m told, came across more “worryingly bleak” than “winningly chipper in the face of adversity”. That wasn’t really the intention at all. But hey, I’m mentally ill – so what do I know?

As I start to emerge, slowly and falteringly, from it all, now seems like a good time for a hopefully more hopeful update. Let’s call it getting into the Advent spirit. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight and all that.

So here’s a few more-or-less spiritual things – alongside a good deal of other stuff too – I’ve learnt or am learning.

The first is that, however well-meant, interpreting clinical depression in the theologised language of “the dark night of the soul” or “the desert” isn’t actually very helpful. I’m not saying that it never is.

But for me, St John of the Cross’s account of “when this purgative contemplation oppresses a man” has much too romantic an air to feel like a helpful interpretation of spending five months eating a lot, an awful lot, of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

That’s not to say that I’ve gleaned nothing significant from my illness. Far from it. Mental illness has been a hard lesson in humility. However steadfast a disciple I might like to be, I know that I am only ever a tiny amount of serotonin away from being too “lukewarm” even to pray, for weeks on end.

With few prayerful thoughts to call my own, I have been forced to rely on the piety of others. I am lucky enough to have many willing intercessors, adding their prayers, rosaries, Mass intentions in aid of my recovery. Simply knowing that has been a genuine consolation.

Truly, at times it has felt like the opening scene of It’s a Wonderful Life. It has also brought home to me, in vividly relatable terms, the communion of the saints, and the ancient practice of praying for the living and dead as a supremely practical “work of mercy”. Continue reading

  • Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham
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