Book review: When darkness seems my closest friend, Mark Meynell

If you are looking for a book that will offer simple, straightforward answers to the problem of depression then Mark Meynell’s will sorely disappoint. If you are looking for such a book, you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist (and anyone that claims to have written it is, to put it as charitably as possible, a charlatan!) Helpfully, Mark doesn’t set out to solve depression and it is precisely this honest approach that makes it worth reading.

The book is broken down into two parts. The first, and longer, section tries to put words to a problem that is notoriously difficult to define. The second, much shorter, section presses towards some suggestions that may help. In my view, the first section is by far and away the stronger of the two. That is not to say the second is poor, or has no value, but I think something of the nature of depression makes it inevitably so.

Mark manages to find words to describe a problem that is woefully labelled ‘depression’ and, like him, I can’t think of a less helpful term to describe the condition (Mark prefers ‘Brain Blizzard’). But he manages to outline a complex problem in a way that those who haven’t suffered might begin to grasp and those who have suffered will find resonate in all sorts of ways. As I read it, he so often described – in eloquent ways – the words I wished I could have grasped when my depression was at its worst.

The only chapter in the first section that I wouldn’t describe as excellent (as I would all the others) is the one dealing with suicide. I suspect the brilliant writing and clarity with which Mark nails his target in the first five chapters stems from his personal acquaintance with all that he writes. In the sixth chapter, however, he admits (entirely rightly and honestly) ‘I have not done anything alarming. Thoughts have never yet become deeds.’

As one who has been there (more than once but obviously not successfully), this chapter didn’t quite hit the mark in the same way as those that preceded it. That said, the chapter still contained much that was helpful and, though I wouldn’t describe it as excellent, don’t read that as implying it was a bad chapter (it wasn’t), it just landed less well, which I suspect was a product of not having such direct experience of it as was the case up to that point.

Whilst many will find ‘the interlude’ helpful (the lyrics of a song), I appreciated even more that Mark recognised this sort of thing wouldn’t be everyone’s bag. He shoved a load of suggested poems, books, music that he found helpful in some appendices at the end. This will inevitably be valuable to some. Personally, it didn’t do much for me (I loathe U2, so that was never going to be a winner. But, were I writing a similar book, I can see that I might do something similar with stuff I prefer). The acknowledgement that some would like it and some wouldn’t meant I took it for what it was, and no doubt some will value it (even the U2 stuff!)

As I mentioned, I felt the second section was less strong. I think this inevitable because here Mark begins to push toward some means of helping. The danger when doing this is that depression is so variable (a point Mark acknowledges very early on) that pushing toward stuff that might help is unavoidably going mean suggesting things that may work for some and yet be of minimal, if any, value for others.

Interestingly, I was at the small conference for pastors that Mark refers to at the beginning of chapter 7. I should add I was not friend who made the ‘striking comment’. Certainly, the only conversation I had with him – which was no more than a few minutes long – resonated with his comments about meeting someone else ‘in the cave’. It is usually helpful to meet others in the same boat. I say ‘usually’ because I did make a joke at the end of our discussion which, as depressives tend to do, I have replayed in my mind hundreds of times since and I imagine (I hope) Mark has long forgotten.

Nonetheless, there was much to commend this second section. Mark’s handles the issue of simultaneously wanting, and not wanting, people around when in the midst of depression. He offers some helpful pointers on how to best support someone who appears to want to withdraw (NB: they both do and don’t want that). Much of it was stuff I wish people who had tried to help me had read before they came over. Many were people trying their best, and with hindsight I can see how kind-hearted they were trying to be, but at the time it could be excruciating (for them and me!) Mark addresses this common issue superbly.

Whilst I think this book may prove valuable to those suffering with depression, giving words to a problem they are struggling to explain and knowledge that they aren’t the only one ‘in the cave’, I think it is a book that best serves those who have never had depression. Depressives will often make themselves known to others who admit to it and, as Mark points out in his book, there is a relieving camaraderie that often ensues. Depressives often (though not always) get the essential issue despite the lack of words. It is those who have never experienced it who often (understandably) struggle to understand it and feel they can’t do right for doing wrong. I remember Mark saying to me and my wife that spouses who live with a depressive get the worst of it (and I think he is dead right!) This book may just help to explain some of what is going on and give them a sense of how to be most helpful and how to persist during the darkest of days.

Anybody who wants to understand the experience of depression really would do well to read this book. I think Mark absolutely nails the experience and finds words that many struggle to articulate. He is particularly helpful for those who do not know, or understand, all the issues at play but really want to support someone going through depression. If you have depression, you might find this a help. If you know someone with depression, want to understand and be more supportive, you will certainly find this an invaluable resources. I would highly recommend it.