This week I have the honor of interviewing Tim Farrington, the acclaimed novelist of Lizzie’s War, “The California Book of the Dead,” “Blues for Hannah,” as well as the New York Times Notable Book of 2002, “The Monk Downstairs.”
Guess what? He’s one of us! And he articulates his journey through the hell of depression in a beautifully crafted memoir of sorts called “A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul.” Since that topic surfaces often on Beyond Blue, I thought I’d ask Tim to share his thoughts on both (depression and the dark night) with us.
Hi Tim, and welcome!
1. Let me skip to the end (sorry, I like to eat dessert first), when you write “It is in surrender, in the embrace of our own perceived futility, paradoxically, that real freedom comes.” I wholeheartedly agree with you there. I like to call those periods my “Exodus Moments” — when I am somehow able to cross the Red Sea from anxiety to freedom. But for those readers not familiar with your journey, can you them the Reader’s Digest version of your story?
Tim: I was raised Catholic, the oldest of four children. My father was a Marine Corps officer who served in Korea and Vietnam, and my mother was an actress and drama teacher, so I had plenty to reconcile right from the start. I had several years of Catholic school in the classic Catholic experience, including a good dose of the terror of hell and sin, and nuns with sticks, but I was also blessed in having an aunt who was a nun, and I spent a lot of happy hours at her convent and got to know the human and fun-loving side of religious vocation as well.
I was an altar boy right around the time the mass switched from Latin to English after Vatican II, and thought about being a priest for a while when I was a kid. In my teens, though, I got into Buddhism, philosophy, and literature, and went through a long period of alienation from Christianity. But I was definitely looking hard for meaning.
In my twenties, I entered an ashram in Oakland, CA, where the prevailing philosophy was Hindu, Kashmir Shaivism. Strangely enough, it was during my two years there, while I was chanting to Kali and Krishna, meditating to an Om Namah Shivaya mantra, and chopping tons of vegetables in the ashram kitchen, that I discovered the profundity of the classic Christian mystics, beginning with The Cloud of Unknowing, and began to heal my alienation from that tradition. By the early ’90s I had come full circle, had discovered the bottomless wisdom of John of the Cross, and had embraced a centering prayer practice after meeting Fr. Thomas Keating.
Throughout all this, from late adolescence on, I was dealing with varying degrees of depression, often severe and occasionally debilitating. I was hospitalized once, for a week, but I was resistant to medication and even to therapy. I think I basically took it as the human condition; and I think too that there was more than a touch of superiority in it for me, like, if you’re not suffering, you’re not deep, the classic cliché of the tormented artist.
The crisis came when my mother died in 1997. It was a terrible death, stomach cancer, and the horror of it was more than I could handle. I just basically broke down, and was brutally depressed for two years afterward, mired in helpless blackness, and no amount of art or prayer helped in the least. The best I could do was to get quiet for about fifteen seconds a day at the bottom of my deepest prayer of surrender.
At some point, a painter friend of mine told me about her own good experience with antidepressants. I was finally ready to try that, and within a few weeks of going on Effexor the worst of the depression lifted and my brain started working again. It was a humbling experience of biochemical grace. And so my testimony at this point has a certain complexity: pray to God, but take your meds and see your therapist, basically.
2. Am I wrong in saying that you never really clarify the difference between depression and a dark night of the soul because so many times they are intertwined? You turn to Denis Turner’s theory that you can only tell the two apart by their fruits. But Carmelite Kevin Culligan helped me to distinguish the two–a spiritual dryness versus an illness needing treatment–when he lists some specific differences between depression and the dark night in his essay for the book “Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century.” For example, he writes:
In the dark night of spirit, there is a painful awareness of one’s own incompleteness and imperfection in relation to God, however, one seldom utters morbid statements of abnormal guilt, self-loathing, worthlessness, and suicidal ideation that accompany serious depressive episodes. Thoughts of death do indeed occur in the dark night of spirit, such as “death alone will free me from the pain of what I now see in myself” or “I long to die and be finished with life in this world so that I can be with God,” but there is not the obsession with suicide or the intention to destroy oneself that is typical of depression.
As a rule, the dark nights of sense and spirit do not, in themselves, involve eating and sleeping disturbances, weight fluctuations, and other physical symptoms (such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain).
Do you not agree that there can be telltale signs of each even if the two happen together?