Friday, January 9, 2009

Joanna Swinney: Through the Dark Woods

After reading a brief review of Swinney's book in World by Susan Olasky-- and having a wife who struggles with depression-- I picked it up for her. She thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was quite helpful. Perhaps it goes without saying that I decided to read through it as well, soon afterwards-- so we could talk about it! ;-)

In a nutshell, the book is a combination of her story-- as a Christian who has struggled (and still struggles on occasion) with depression. She offers counsel for those who struggle with depression as well as their friends/family.

Swinney makes clear from the outset that her background is nothing spectacular. In this, she underlines the truism that people can respond in all sorts of ways to their environment. As the old story goes: one child says she's messy because her parents were so neat; another child says she's neat because her parents were so neat. Outside of "thresholds" (really good or bad parenting), a lot of responsibility for character traits and habits lies with the individual.

On page 21, she compares depression to the flu-- as being (merely) sad is to having a cold. Once you've had either of the former pair, you know that it's different than the either of the latter.

On page 27, she notes the isolation that one feels when depressed-- along with the irony that so many people go through equivalent feelings. Likewise, I remember a good friend of mine who "struggled with suicide". He was surprised to learn that I had thought about it (fleetingly) as well. He was flummoxed by my assertion that everyone thinks about it sometime.

In her chapter on "Support", she opens with an anecdote of a depressed person staying with her and her husband. At first, I was surprised-- as was she-- by her lack of empathy. But perhaps that's the point of depression. And perhaps this takes us back to one of Wallace's themes-- the self-absorption and destruction of self-consciousness.

She has a number of recommendations for the depressed: primarily, to try to stay "spiritually nourished" through prayer (especially thanksgiving/gratitude), reading, memorization of verses and "truthful things", study, community, service to others, etc. In a word, she's talking about the practice of spiritual disciplines. She also recommends writing lists (helps to stay on task and create successes), "prepare for your black spots", exercise, "treat yourself", play board games like Settlers of Catan (!), and laugh.

And she has a number of recommendations for those close to the depressed: be there (vs. Job's friends!), acts of service (although she notes, humorously that this can get the server in trouble!), offer sounding boards and distractions, and avoid open-ended questions.

In that section, she has a poignant passage that made Tonia and I approach tears:

If you have a friend such as that in your life, thank God for them. If you are a friend like that, you are a greater blessing than you know...I am humbled by and grateful for...[those] who really were Christ in the flesh in the love they showed me. It is hard to love someone with depression. Depression does not make people very lovable and they do not hold up their end of the relationship very well.

In the chapter on relationships, she had two provocative/insightful lines on marriage:

Marriage is painful grace....Each marriage is its own country and no foreigner can understand its languages or customs.

On page 110, she gets into eschatology-- without identifying it as such. And there, she makes a key observation, especially for those who suffer. The Kingdom of God is portrayed Biblically as "now and not yet". Often Christians focus on one or the other, when the two are to be held in tension.

Finally, she wrestles off-and-on with the efficacy of therapy/counseling and medicine-- and concludes that they can be effective for some people and for some time frame. That said, she warns against wanting quick and easy solutions:

An instant result would be gratifying and easy, but maybe isn't always the best thing for the person.


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