Many people…find it hard to analyse, and even more difficult to express in words, what appears to be destroying them from inside.
~ J.B. Phillips
It’s awkward to be a depressed Christian. Awkward and discomfiting.
You love Jesus, pray and read your Bible, and get to Mass and Sunday services. You dedicate yourself to service, strive to live a virtuous life, and keep your eyes fixed on heaven best you can. You may even have a decent handle on the marginal value of transient emotional satisfaction in the life of faith — and yet you’re suddenly afflicted with oppressive despondency anyway. It’s utterly out of kilter, a wrenching interior disruption, but you can’t shake it. It’s not just a spiritual dry spell, not simply a devotional dip, but a full-on collapse, and you’re frightened by the dark direction of your thoughts.
What to do?
I’ll tell you what I did. I called a shrink.
But it wasn’t just any shrink. I decided that my particular depression (and, if I’m not mistaken, I probably wasn’t the first to think his own case of depressive illness was somehow extraordinarily, uniquely severe) required the best that pastoral psychology could come up with. Yet, at the time, I was still a pretty new Catholic, so my frame of reference was limited to my prior exposure to evangelical authors and leaders. I think I turned to Minirth and Meier’s Happiness is a Choice (1978), and I know I gobbled up The Price of Success (1984), by Bible translator J.B. Phillips, a hero of mine who himself suffered a debilitating depression.
But the text that gave me the most solace, the most hope was Dr. John White’s The Masks of Melancholy (1982). It was the right book at the right time.
White was not only a practicing psychiatrist and professor, but also a prolific evangelical author and popular speaker. His many books published by InterVarsity Press had come to my attention during the years in the Christian bookstore business, but I’d never gotten around to reading Masks — why should I? It was about mental illness, suicide, and depression, and I surely wasn’t going to be subject to those kinds of problems.
When my own depression hit like a Looney Tunes anvil, I flailed and faltered and grasped at anything that might give me relief. I went to co-dependency workshops and group therapy. I started using tobacco again and probably drank a bit more than usual. I prayed extra novenas and rosaries, and went to movies, by myself, a lot. And I read books — books about depression, mainly, especially from a Christian angle — and there was something about Dr. White’s kindly prose, medical realism, and illuminating narratives that really hit home.
He explained the science and physiology of depressive illness in a way I could understand, and he wasn’t afraid to tackle the tough questions – particularly the delicate, at times tense relationship between religion and mental health. White’s approach was both rational and eminently pastoral, and I recall reading through Masks twice — like back-to-back twice, as in finishing the last page (sitting in a study carrel in DePaul University’s library, I remember it well) and then immediately turning back to page one to start again.
But I didn’t stop there. In the fog of my depressive state, I made a snap decision to track down Dr. White himself to give me a leg up. It seemed reasonable at the time, so when I got home, I grabbed the phone and called directory assistance. The operator gave me the number for InterVarsity Press, and, if memory serves, when I asked the secretary there for Dr. White’s number, she…just gave it to me.
In any case, I got the number somehow and dialed. There I was, pacing in my flat in Chicago, frantic, phone in hand (ringing, ringing), and then, *click* “Hello?” It was Dr. John White himself on the other end!
I can’t remember if I even identified myself before I poured out my story and my travails. I assured him that I would do anything and everything to regain some equilibrium in my mental state, that I’d try medication, whatever it took. His response after a short pause was — not unreasonably — a simple, “How did you get my number?”
Like a flash, my depression evaporated in favor of a wave of embarrassment and chagrin. The impropriety of my impetuous phone call, however innocent, swamped my sensibilities, and I hemmed and hawed through the rest of the conversation. White was more than generous (probably more generous with me than he would be with that secretary), and he offered some gentle encouragement (at least I assume he did — I don’t remember that part of our chat), but it was all over pretty quick. After hanging up, and before the crushing weight of my depressive illness settled in again, I had an epiphany that I can only attribute to God’s grace: I really was a mess, and, my faith notwithstanding, I needed to do something more than dabble in group therapy and books — or phone calls for that matter.
It took yet another crisis before I made the radical changes necessary to begin climbing out of my depressive sinkhole, but that phone call with Dr. White was a marker of sorts. I’m still embarrassed about it, I suppose, but I’m so grateful he was home and took the call, for it helped me recognize that my recovery would require allowing living, breathing people to care for me. Depression might be something we suffer in intense loneliness, but it is only shed when we share it with others.
Months later, after moving back home to my family in Colorado and beginning therapy, I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978), and it, too, had a profound impact on me. By then, however, I’d found enough human support — from my parents, my friends, others with depression, my shrink in Boulder — that I didn’t even consider reaching out to Dr. Peck.
Good thing. I imagine he’d have been tougher to track down.
Dr. John White died in 2002. Rest in peace, and thanks.