Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness Paperback – Apr 1 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Shortly after the birth of her second child, Greene-McCreight fell into a deep depression that lasted on and off for several years. Five years later she was diagnosed as bipolar, "a disease that scuttles between depression and mania." With mental illness so severe that she was hospitalized five times, she nevertheless continued to work as an Episcopal priest and theologian, wrestling with questions that therapists rarely broach but that Christian sufferers can't help asking: If all of God's intentions for us are good, why do we suffer? What is the relationship between mental illness and sin? Is the "dark night of the soul" different from depression? Will God forgive suicide? By means of personal story, theological reflection and practical suggestions for caregivers, Greene-McCreight takes readers into her mind as she plunges from frantic ecstasy ("Gorgeous exotic turbulent swirls of snow. Magic. The world tingles. My brain sparkles, all things connect") to profound despair ("the absence—so present you can feel it, taste it, sometimes even heaven forbid, see it and hear it—of the good"). With firm but never facile faith, she offers hope to Christians with mental illness and understanding to those who live and work with them. (Apr.)
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About the Author
Kathryn Greene-McCreight (Ph.D., Yale University) is an advising pastor in the seminarian intern program at Yale Divinity School and assistant rector at St. John's Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1-3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine.
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The reflections presented here stand firmly within the great historic Christian tradition and thus the work is positioned to have broad and lasting appeal. It is a thoroughly hopeful book, yet unflinchingly realistic about the struggles the mentally ill face and the impact it has on those around them. The book may have been improved still further by occasional light editing for clarity - for example, there is a sentence on p. 113 that I think says the opposite of what was really intended. Also it would have been helpful to mention somewhere that those who suffer from schizophrenia are less often helped by traditional psychotherapy (see, for example, the works of E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.). But this is nitpicking. I am so happy to have found this book!
The title for her book comes from the last verse of Psalm 88: "My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion" (KJV). Greene-McCreight addresses most of the questions you might expect. Why does God allow such suffering? Why does He seem to abandon someone who is in such pain, and not answer prayer? Is there a connection between sin and suffering? Just what is personality? What is the relationship between the brain, the mind, and the soul? These are not academic questions, but intensely practical ones for somebody trying to make some sense of profound darkness and disorientation in the light of the Gospel.
I found her chapters on mania, what it is like to stay in the hospital, and how she did and did not "connect" with her various therapists and doctors especially moving. In keeping with her Christian tradition as an Episcopal priest, Greene-McCreight does a fine job at incorporating Scripture, tradition (especially a wonderful selection of hymns, poems and prayers), reason (in this case scientific or medical knowledge), and human experience. She concludes that major mental illness results from a combination of both nature and nurture. As for treatment, she does an excellent job of commending the wisdom of the secular medical community, but also cautioning about times and places "where the chasm between the religious patient and the non-religious therapist simply cannot be bridged." A chapter at the end of the book offers practical advice on how clergy, friends, and family can help a person who struggles with major mental illness. I recommended this book to a friend and also a family member before I had even finished it.
The author's experience made my own struggle with depression look like a picnic but I was very encouraged to find some strong similarities in the way each of us found help and strength in times of great need. I could relate very well to her struggles in prayer and use of Scripture (especially the Psalms) and their vital importance in the process. Greene-McCreight's reflections upon relevant portions of Scripture and the prayers of others throughout the book are of tremendous value. She takes a holistic view of God's provision for those who suffer from mental illness. Her faith is the foundation, but psychotherapy, counseling, medication and the love of friends and family are all part of the help God gives us.
It's hard to know if faith is genuine until it is tested in some way. Does it hold up when stressed beyond our own ability to sustain or comprehend it? Too often among Christians is a sound faith equated with happy feelings. Real joy is an altogether different thing. For Greene-McCreight, the most important lesson learned is that "despair can live with Christian faith. Indeed, having despair while knowing in your heart that God has conquered even that is a great form of faith, for it is tried by fire." She seems to find herself a better stronger person for having been through such a trial, less fearful of any future recurrence of symptoms and more imbued with God's grace. I'm glad she chose not to keep quiet about her sufferings since this book will be a great help to others who either need the help for themselves or want to help others who do.
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