When the Black Dog Comes Calling

It was late 2015, a couple of years after my sabbatical. I had taken the strange (and, to some minds, reckless) decision to leave my amazing job after nine years on the staff of All Souls, Langham Place.

There were several reasons, but the most pressing was the need for work that offered greater flexibility for managing my health. I had always longed for more time to write, and there was more than enough work to keep me occupied, even part-time, with my responsibilities for developing pastoral training in Europe for Langham Partnership. It did make sense.

LOTS OF CHANGES, ALL AT ONCE

What I hadn’t anticipated was the accumulative effect of all this sudden change. We had to move out of our wonderful church flat in central London, to a new neighborhood in which we knew nobody. I no longer had fixed points in my week, no longer had a clear role within a community, and was no longer on a team that met regularly.

The problem with our Langham team is that we’re spread out all over the globe, and so are never actually all awake at the same time! To complicate matters still further, writing by its very nature is a solitary exercise, which, as one writer friend with similar battles has observed, is not exactly conducive to well-being when battling depression.

So I found myself spiraling out of control as my world seemed to shrink. It was as if so much of the scaffolding that made life livable had been stripped back—and I had only myself to blame. I was the one who had decided to go freelance, after all. Nobody forced me into it.

But I made mistakes with others, not least in unrealistic, and even unfair, expectations of what friendship might look like. I naturally gravitated towards the few I knew who had similar battles, because they at least could understand. Nobody else did. I was desperate for connection with others, longing for companionship in what I was going through.

I didn’t have the words. I just had the pain unmasked, with the nerve endings too close to the surface. It was raw.

A problem was that one of my sabbatical resolutions had been to ditch the mask, or at least try to. I’d begun to recognize its symptoms. I had spent years unwittingly giving the impression that all was well, despite needing help. So it had probably come as something of a shock to colleagues hoping I would return refreshed and renewed.

SPIRALING DOWNWARD

Instead, I undoubtedly showed less confidence or stability. I was even asked by one well-meaning congregation member why I ‘wasn’t feeling better after my sabbatical’! The irony was that I had taken positive steps by ditching the mask. I just appeared worse than before. It must have been very confusing to those around me. And, to be fair, I didn’t tell anyone that this was what I’d resolved!

So that autumn, I found myself alone for much of the time in our rented north London house, with the children at school most of the day and Rachel continuing her pioneering All Souls ministry to carers and toddlers.

I just sat at my desk, either staring into the middle distance or idly surfing through inane YouTube clips.

Meanwhile, I was isolated, and thus isolating myself, in a spiral of negativity. I had all this time now when I wasn’t travelling for Langham, and I was supposed to be making the most of it for writing. That was what I’d always wanted, wasn’t it? But I couldn’t even do that. I just sat at my desk, either staring into the middle distance or idly surfing through inane YouTube clips. It felt pathetic . . . and selfish (generous friends were now funding our new life).

But this perfect storm left me feeling bereft of every single one of my moorings. Even the few friends I hoped might be sympathetic or understanding seemed too preoccupied or fearful. I don’t blame them at all—none of us really anticipated this. But I found it bewildering and terrifying.

Because the worst thing of all was the total absence of God.

THE BLACK DOG COMES CALLING

One moment sums it up. I was alone in the house, early one evening. For whatever reason, I decided to have a shower. Sudden waves of sorrow, fear and even anger overwhelmed me. They began without the slightest warning. This time I wasn’t just weeping, but convulsed by tears, crying out. To family. To friends. To God.

Of course, nobody could hear me. And nor, it seemed, could God. I was pounding the bathroom walls with my fists and crying out for God to do something. Anything. And then I just slumped in the shower, exhausted and depleted. It had been a rare moment of intense energy amidst hours and days of the cruel tedium of what Winston Churchill had called his ‘black dog’.

It is bizarre perhaps that I never cried ‘why me?’ Many do, of course, and I certainly don’t blame them for that. Yet it’s never been a question I have struggled with. Perhaps it is because there are just too many inexplicable horrors in this world; perhaps it is because of what we had witnessed in Africa; perhaps it is because I well appreciate how genuinely privileged my life has been. I could equally ask the same question for my many blessings.

WHY?

The question that I cannot get out of my head, however, is simpler. Just ‘why?’ So much of mental illness, with its associated disorientating perspectives, paranoias and pains, makes no sense. It is irrational and without obvious cause. But its effects are obvious enough, if only to the sufferer.

Then, there is the salt that gets poured on open wounds. Why do others seem to get it wrong so often? Why does mental illness fill some with such fear or stigma? Why does it bring out the worst do-gooding or meddling instincts in others? Why do so many with mental illness end up so alone and isolated? Why? I pounded the shower walls with that question over and over until I was spent.

Some answers can be found, of course. But they only go so far, until we come up against the limits of human understanding and divine revelation.

SONGS OF HOPE

But, at the darkest moments, the sole reason why I felt I could still do business with God in my bewilderment was what he allowed to be included in the Bible. To be more precise, it was the Psalms. A God who could handle a psalmist praying these things was one that I had no right altogether to dismiss:

My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
‘Where is your God?’
(Psalm 42:3)

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
(Psalm 130:1–2)

And most extraordinary of all:

. . . your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
(Psalm 88:16–18)

That is why I am still here, feeble sometimes, flawed always, clinging on to that Jesus of Gethsemane and Golgotha.


Adapted from When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend by Mark Meynell. Copyright (c) 2018 by Tim Chester. Published by Inter-Varsity Press, London, England. www.ivpbooks.com.

Mark Meynell is a director for Langham Preaching (part of Langham Partnership) and travels widely. He is a speaker, trainer and blogger. His books include Cross-Examined (IVP) and A Wilderness of Mirrors (Zondervan). He lives in Maidenhead, UK.