I can't remember much of the conversation in that consulting room. Just two words lodged in my mind: manic depression.
Until I began to respond to a sense of call to Christian ministry my life had been directionless and mostly "gray," but it was not until I was a theological student that depression began to take a hold. I had a driving job, delivering photographic equipment to retailers. I would be driving from one delivery to another weeping. I was scared. I didn't know why I was crying. I wasn't consciously unhappy about anything (I had just gotten engaged to the woman who would become my wife). I wasn't consciously worried about anything. I was just weeping uncontrollably.
After seeing a number of general physicians, I was prescribed anti-depressants and referred to a psychiatrist. Once a month, I saw the psychiatrist to ensure that my moods were stabilizing. I am one of the fortunate people for whom lithium works. Lithium is not a "cure" but an effective means of limiting the extremes of mood swing. When the lithium "kicked in" and my mood stabilized, life became manageable. Imagine the horror of my physician when, after barely two years of continuous stability, I announced that I wanted to stop taking the tablets. They made me feel truncated.
A while ago, Stephen Fry presented a series of television programs on the subject of manic depression. One of his interviewees described being on lithium as being "letter-boxed." When some films shot in wide-screen format are shown on television, the top and the bottom of the television screen are blanked-out. That is precisely what it feels like to be on lithium: the extremes of mania and despair have gone, but so has a third of your personality. You feel temperamentally castrated.
All but one of those interviewed did not wish to be other than they were. I'm sure this is incomprehensible to those peering in from the outside: who would want the despair of depression; who would want the embarrassment of mania?
While I would do anything to be rid of the numbing desolation of despair, but I note in puzzlement that, while I can write rhymes at any time, I can only write poetry of any approximation to quality when I am depressed. And without the mania, I never feel enthusiastic or completely engaged. For all the pain of it, I would rather be as I am than live with the unremitting grayness that was life on lithium. As is true in so many aspects of life, that for which I am most grateful is inextricably bound up with that which I most regret and loathe. I would welcome healing if I could lose the despair without losing the insight and sensitivity, if I could lose the mania without losing the enthusiasm and passion.
But since I'm not convinced that these things can be so easily distinguished, I'm not sure I want to be "healed." I would rather, with the apostle Paul, cling on to the promise that God's grace is sufficient in my weakness, and even that God is glorified in and through my weakness rather than by its removal. The one who is risen remains the one who was crucified. The glorified Jesus still bears the wounds of his crucifixion.
Liturgies of lament
Of all the psalms of lament, Psalm 88 is the bleakest. It seems entirely devoid of hope. All that is left is despair and desolation. But even this psalm, for all its despair, is not entirely hopeless. It is, after all, a prayer. It is addressed to God even though it offers no assurance that God is listening. And what a strange and enigmatic way for the psalm to end: "The darkness is my closest friend." Can it really be that the darkness itself can become a friend?