Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. By Kathryn Greene-McCreight. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006. 176 pp. Paper, $18.99.
My interest in Darkness Is My Only Companion was piqued both by the title (from the Good News translation of the final verse of the “darkest” Psalm, number 88), and by the subtitle, which seemed to hint at a biblical response to the concept of mental illness. As for the subtitle, I should have read more carefully; the author does not really subject mental illness to biblical scrutiny: she assumes the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and details her own descent into its madness: depression, mania, suicidal thinking, with its repeated hospitalizations, electroconvulsive (shock) therapy, and the gamut of psychotropic medication. She does write as a Christian minister and professor (hence the subtitle) responding to her own experience, certainly a valid approach.
As for the title, the reader should not expect an exegetical treatment of the lament psalms. While translations of Ps 88:18 divide over whether darkness is itself the companion, or is instead the sphere where the companion flees to escape the painful laments of the psalmist, the verse does make a fitting title for the horror the author describes. Still, she does not exactly equate the sufferings of the psalmist with the agony of mental illness. In other words, this is not so much a book about mental illness in the Scriptures, as to how the Psalms and other biblical and practical resources can serve the Christian afflicted with mental illness. Broadly speaking (as detailed below), she has produced a resource helpful both for pastoral and personal use. Weighted with much challenging perception, the book plunges deeply into theological, philosophical, and practical territory, and so can serve in bringing Scripture to bear on the psychological and psychiatric realities encountered in North American pastoral ministry.
In reading the description of her own agonies, I was reminded of Qohelet’s scruple to experience folly with eyes wide open (Eccl 2:3). Drawing from her journals, Greene-McCreight convincingly leads the reader into the darkness she experienced. Some creative application of Scripture marks the way, including of Ps 41:9: “Even my best friend, whom I trusted, who broke bread with me, has lifted up her heel and turned against me” (emphasis added). The author suggests that in her madness she turns away from her Savior. In addition to psalms, she notes hymns and songs that offered encouragement (e.g., “In the Deep Midwinter”), many of whose authors suffered similar psychiatric disturbances. She pauses to illumine the current terminology and pharmacology of treatment, a helpful “crash course” for the pastor or other reader interested in helping the mentally ill. (Note: the author writes from a later perspective of having gained a measure of mental stability through improved medication.)
The book takes a theological approach, but is not primarily biblical. The author shows a broad orthodoxy: she hopes for an eschatological resolution to unanswered questions, she believes in the physical resurrection of the body, she does cite Rom 5:8 (“God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”) as an indicator that mental illness does not separate the believer from God. On themes familiar to grace-oriented readers, she tiptoes to the edge of rewards theology, and raises briefly—but does not answer—the question of whether eternal life is experienced in the present. She questions “the religious significance of feelings, especially for the Christian religion, in the economy of salvation” (p. 93), an objective view of faith shared by many Free Grace people. Still, this is not an Evangelical book. Suicide may raise the question of the “final call about the woman’s soul” (p. 99). This despite a kind of security: “a baptized Christian is still a Christian” (p. 98). This sacerdotal perspective (“I have been grafted into Christ’s identity by my baptism,” p. 115) is really no surprise, given the author’s vocation (an Episcopal priest).
Even though not expositional, her wrestling with theological and philosophical topics poses a good challenge for a biblically-oriented reader. She believes the patient should be allowed to view her mental illness as punishment for sin; otherwise the mentally ill may despair that there is no point to the suffering—God indeed has abandoned her to the darkness (p. 111; see also the very telling internal dispute with her doctors, page 108). Mental illnesses are not to be “equated with demon possession [or] vice versa. But they do have spiritual fallout” (p. 107). Her own turning point came after she sought healing, at first somewhat skeptically, through prayer (p. 130, 133). She believes the soul can be perfectly secure while the brain and mind rage in unbelief and deadness toward God (p. 97, 101). The distinctions between soul, mind, brain, spirit, and body (chap. 8) are best viewed from a Christian, and not a psychiatric, perspective.
In summary, Darkness Is My Only Companion is a challenging book worth the price, if only for the practical sections on helping the mentally ill. This is an articulate guidebook to one person’s descent into mental illness and her eventual hope of stability. For my part, however, I must admit to the gnawing question whether the message of Free Grace could have made any difference in her experience. Could truths such as the absolute certainty of the gift of eternal life or the rich eternal rewards promised the believer who faithfully endures the onslaughts of life have been additional encouragement to a soul so tormented? While the current writer has not wandered so deeply as she into the darkness, I have personally found the light of Christ’s eternal promises a deep comfort in all the dim regions I have visited. I continue to believe that grace has something to say even to those who suffer the pangs of debilitating mental illness. May our message continue to prosper!
Denver Rescue Mission