Books: A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul
Author: Tim Farrington
Type of Book: Memoir, psychology, mental health, spiritual
Why Did I Read This Book: Not long ago, I reached a place of acceptance wherein I will no longer battle my darkness. It’s a choice that is so intensely personal and specific that no one who suffers from depression should look to my decision as any sort of guidance or advocacy. But because I have decided to simply be a person who is isolated, weird and dark rather than fight it with therapy or medication any longer, I find other people’s mental health voyages fascinating.
Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2009, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This was an erudite, elegant book and I am glad I read it. As I read it, I found myself questioning decisions I have made about my own brain chemistry, and after reevaluation, I decided my impulse to simply leave my brain alone and let it be, treatable illness though I may have, was the correct decision. Reading Farrington’s journey, his spiritual outlook on life and the chemicals in his brain, served for me, a decidedly non-spiritual person, as a fresh and very nearly inspiring look into how it is all people with depressive tendencies can interpret their disease and their lives without recrimination or guilt. Farrington recounted his life with phrases that all but hit me in the head with meaning, and I had “aha!” moments constantly in this book. There is very little in common between Farrington in me aside from wonky chemical reactions that affect our minds, so the ability of his words to affect me and touch me seem almost miraculous.
So this is an intensely personal reaction to a book, less a review than a discussion of how the book affected me. It would help to bear that in mind as you read, because I really did find myself overwhelmed at times at how eloquently Farrington put into sharp focus all the words I have bouncing in my skull but have been unable to express. This is one of those books I read and think, “I could have written this,” but that is untrue. I could not have written this. I’m not enlightened enough yet and my heart will never be this spiritual. Nevertheless, it was the right book for me to read at the right time.
Farrington conveyed very well not only how it is that we can never truly see mental illness coming, but that being smart enough even to have known it was coming for us would not have been enough and perhaps that is a good thing.
My cluelessness, I see in retrospect, conferred a certain advantage on me. If we were smart, we might never become wise.
And god help me, how many times did I justify myself, sanctify the worst of my tirades as if having brain chemistry problems excused it.
…I came to see depression as my shadow on the path; like the “black dog” of Churchill’s recurrent blues, it was an inescapable presence. My lows could be debilitating, but they also seemed intimately related to my creativity itself and so were slightly glamorous, like Hemingway’s alcoholism and Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy. But my art at this time was self-indulgent stuff at best, and I invoked it much too readily to justify failures of character.
I can’t even begin to explain how many times I have excused my poor behavior because I have an “artistic” temperament and how many times my husband clung to that mental raft every time my rages sent him out to sea. This, more than any other, is the area wherein I feel guilt about being a depressive, and it helps that Farrington explained my own foibles to me so well. Interestingly, about the time I began to reject such thinking is the time I stopped being able to write fiction. I lack the will to investigate this cause-effect very carefully but it does make it very hard to understand the link between what I perceive about myself and who I truly am. Surely my fiction cannot have just dried up because I rejected brain chemistry as a reason to continue acting poorly but you never know. All I know is that when I no longer saw magic in being as wretched as Baudelaire, my words dried up and I started writing about books instead of trying to write books.
But then again, what I had to write back then may not have been worth much. My first novel was a disaster, and Farrington seems to have had similar problems, because the seduction of being mad does not always imply genius, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.
…I ended up writing an incredibly pretentious novel, a sort of first-person anti-Gospel: “My name is Jesus. I am an old man now,” it began. Yikes.
The book was bad, but it was good in the sense of being better than suicide, and after a while the voices faded to a dim roar and I began to write merely puerile bad novels in a more standard fashion…
His description of a time in which he submerged himself into the darkness, searching for answers, will ring utterly true to those who have observed my own depressive antics.
I was living on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese, and I was pretty whacked-out. I didn’t talk to anyone for months and slept on my own eccentric schedule – approximately a twenty-five-hour day, cycling gradually through all manner of weird wake-up times. I had a half-serious theory that I was actually from another planet that had a longer day and that therefore my diurnal clock was unfitted to the Earth’s twenty-four-hour rotation..
Medications never blunted my creativity like they did with Farrington, probably because I am largely unsuited to psycho-pharmacology. That which calms most minds will leave me hearing voices. If it makes a person drowsy, I will be climbing the walls. But his experience is a common one, I think.
Still, one cannot stray far from what passes for normal consciousness in our culture without encountering the guardian deities of medication. At that point in the late seventies, lithium was the state-of-the-art antidepressant, and the perverse simplicity of the notion that a minuscule failure of electrolytic salt lay at the root of my intricate suffering was almost dizzying. I tried it briefly and found what every artist fears from psychiatry to be true: the drug interfered with my writing. I felt blunted and dim on lithium, displaced about three feet from the center of myself, a gray bystander to my essential life.
And have I ever felt that disembodied feeling, a numbness that permits observation but no immersion. A chemical meant to save your life but leaves you separated from all that makes life worth living. My chemical alienation lay mainly in benzos and pams, but I sense the feelings are often similar – not a new self but a novel, wooden ability not to care about the old self.
But much of what Farrington has to say does apply to those with a creative spirit.
Some people go back to school at that point, get their MFA, and eventually teach; some go into business and promise themselves they will write someday when they are financially secure. But I felt my own bridges back to such reassuring normality had burned long since, and, being the melodramatic mystical sort that I am, I went into a monastery instead.
This passage meant a lot to me, grad school dropout that I am. And I am definitely a person for whom bridges to normality have been burned. Some depressives sleep all day. My early depression manifested itself in insomnia that I would dose myself endlessly with pills and booze to try to counteract. My life became centered on a lack of sleep and the side-effects that endlessly chasing sleep causes. This sort of thing does not lend itself well to a 9-5 life and when you fail at job, after job, after job, eventually you just know better than to try any more. I luckily have a partner who takes up the financial slack and I make our domestic lives as easy as I can, a life that makes my sleep issues less of an issue, so to speak. I know there are lots of others out there like me, but they have kids a and firm financial obligations and they cope somehow, but in my case, not even the pressure of needing money overcame the haze of ten Tylenol PMs washed down with some gin. That’s a method of suicide to most people but for me it was just self-medication burning my bridges to reassuring normality. And sadly, there are no convents for atheist girls like me.
It’s not actually such a stretch to consider depression as an involuntary form of postmodern mortification, a salutary humiliation akin to a hair shirt… What if some degree of pained and penitential consciousness, of realized inadequacy in the light of the sacred, is in fact necessary to the full human life? Our depressions, which we labor so to cure before they disrupt our self-enclosed routines, may be nefarious blessings, gestures by our stymied souls toward the conscious embrace of helplessness and suffering.
This, for me, is a key passage, because I know full well to the bottom of my blackened heart, hermit that this disease has made me, that if I do have a soul, depression has softened it. Depression has, beyond a doubt, made me a kinder person. I see a man who probably drinks, asking for money and I give it because I know. I know that but for two strikes of luck in my life – my husband and my capacity to detox and make it stick – I could be standing there because addiction and depression hold each others hands. They switch back and forth, one leading to the other. It is a nefarious blessing, to know that you really are able to say, “There but for the grace of god go I,” and mean it, without any bitterness or arrogance towards those for whom the battle has led them down a far more bridge-burning road.
There are things you simply cannot prepare for. This is not something anyone really wants to hear. We spend our lives preparing; we stake our pride on mastering the troublesome aspects of our world. We study, we practice, we polish and adjust; even our earnest efforts to “go with the flow” and humbly surrender to the processes of a life force larger than ourselves are invariably suffused with a hidden agenda. If we are good, bad things will not happen; if we are good enough, our suffering will end.
When I was in high school, I knew depression intimately but no one really called it that back then. I knew it even if I didn’t have a name for it, the sinking sense that if I did not fight and flail I would sink down into the mud and no one would ever be able to save me. I joined every extracurricular activity I could. I was an honors student. I had a part-time job. I matched my shoes to my outfits and ironed my underwear. I internalized good as “middle class and going places” and I worked so hard to be good. To look good in my own way. To disavow the blackness around my lungs where I sensed my soul should be but wasn’t. I burned myself out being good, and it began to show in college. It really began to show in my 30s. There is no good enough for depression. There is no closet large enough, no shoes that gleam enough, no resume that wows enough. There is no way to prepare. Even as I gave up and went with the flow, the tiny goodnesses I managed to achieve – saving a cat or two, helping a neighbor’s child – were not enough to hold the badness at bay. This, I think, is the hardest lesson depression taught me: there is no way to prepare well enough to prevent the dark days from coming.
My life had always been peppered with black days, days in which taking a shower seemed far beyond my means, days in which I just hunkered down like a wounded beast and endured; I’d had black weeks and even the occasional black month. During a particularly trying time in the early nineties, I’d spent an entire summer staring at the blank cursor on my computer screen, as if at a receding satellite; unable to write a word.
My equivalent of this is spending all day long in bed reading Encyclopedia Dramatica. This is more or less how I spent the summer of 2009. And that is a measuring stick to me. When showering begins to seem like it is too much, too hard and too pointless, I know the depression is wrapping its hands around my neck.
“It is one of the paradoxes of transformation that the closer we get to new possibility, the worse things seem to seem,” Richard Moss writes in The Black Butterfly. In another of the paradoxes of transformation, however, I found no comfort at all in this notion. I was haunting the bookstores, looking desperately for some help, but the spiritual books all seemed like chatter now. The universe had simplified itself into a desert of meaningless suffering, and the wisest words were just marks on the bleached expanse. Joy, compassion, peace and the divine: yadda-yadda-yadda.
I think this sort of depressive nihilism is why I read so precisely the details of the saints, the ones who suffered and starved and found enlightenment through pain because I still am a nihilist myself. I cannot meditate. I know no god. This is not entirely depression’s fault. I never believed in the fantastic, the mystical. Santa Claus was always a man in a beard to me though I put on a good act as a child. I am not entirely sure I have a soul, though I know my dead cat did, and that my dead grandparents did. If nothing else, depression has separated me from any comfort or sense of salvation. But being a person shaped by depression, this bothers me a lot less than it probably should.
Nothing will screw you up more than a team of professionals determined to help you.
Except, perhaps, believing that therapy and medicine can offer us no help at all. The fact that you’re depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going through a dark night, but it is just as true, and as crucial to know, that seeking therapy, or taking medication for a biochemical affliction, doesn’t necessarily mean you have subverted your spiritual process or numbed your reality sense with muffling anesthetics.
I sometimes wonder if I will ever return to psychotropics for cures. I let myself have a tiny dose of a relatively inoffensive substance (well, it is inoffensive to me) daily to keep the worst of the anxiety that the darkness causes me tamped down. But it is good to know that I am not the only person left who embraces an approach wherein we manage to keep ourselves whole however we can. Too many shun medications as weak and too many embrace them as all-encompassing panaceas. I hit a point wherein I believed continuing to seek medical answers to my brain problems would probably kill me as I am not that well suited to the trials and physical misery that comes from getting the biochemical solutions right. But even at the worst of it, I think my disappointment stemmed from knowing so many people find the right drug and that after years of experimenting with my brain, it was time to stop. There would be no cure, at least not then or now.
“At the first-order of experiential description,” Denys Turner notes in The Darkness of God, “John of the Cross’s accounts of the sufferings of the ‘dark nights of the soul’ are uncannily similar to what a person will give from the inside of depression.”
As alienated as I am from any spiritual leanings, I still hope that this darkness is but a journey toward salvation but at the same time, I don’t think it is. It has gone on too long, though St. Paul’s dark night of the soul lasted 45 years. Rather, I think that instead of preparing to stave it off, I simply know that it comes and that I need to understand it will come and go when it wants. I don’t think, as much as narratives like this stoke my heart, that this suffering of mine will lead me to god. And this lack of faith is why I read books like this.
It sounds bizarre, but I think the key point in the dark night is basically everything but this death being hell. I was still, silent, perfectly accepting at last, inwardly, only because it hurt so much to move. It didn’t feel good or holy or anything much, but it didn’t hurt. It was not peace, in any positive sense, at least not for a very long time, but it was quiet and painless, and for me at that point, after years of every spiritual effort causing only pain, frustration, dryness and inner noise, that quiet–not Quiet, just quiet–would do just fine.
And that is where I am now. In a place of quiet. I don’t go out of the house much. People set my teeth on edge, which is not a good thing since I have given myself a TMJ disorder grinding my teeth at night. I never talk much, even on the phone, and recently discovered I had gone so long between uses on my pay-as-you-go phone that I lost my number due to inactivity. I am shut off from the world and for the first time in a long while I don’t mind. This quiet for me is not Quiet, but it is peace and I will take what I can get.
It’s been a while since a book spoke to me this profoundly, wherein I could not analyze it in terms of information or literary quality but could only sit and read with awe and understanding. This is an excellent book, through and through.
One thought on “A Hell of Mercy by Tim Farrington”
Dear Anita Dalton,
I hope this is not presumptuous or intrusive of me, and especially in the light of the fact that the post is ten years old (lol). But as the author of A Hell of Mercy, I only saw it yesterday, when I was searching the internet to see if I had ever made a free PDF of the book available (I hadn’t, and I remember that at the time my publisher was pissed that I would consider it.) I wish I had, but I didn’t, and now, after various computers have died under me, the files are long lost and I have to buy a copy of the book if I want to give it to someone, just like everyone else. I’m a fucking idiot, but you read the book, so that is not news.
Anyway, reading your take on the book sort of made me grateful that I had written the damn thing in the first place (I am generally vaguely embarrassed by it), even if you were the only person who ever read it. I always felt like it was something that might save a life or two, literally introduce a gap at a critical moment in some suicidally black loop, or spare someone some unnecessary misery, or just make the special kind of person who would even read such a book feel less alone and absurd and whatever, give them the warmth of recognition of a fellow traveler in the wilderness. (You define #3.)
Here’s the presumption: in my meditation this morning I thought of you, and I happen to also be in a particularly “nihilistic” stage of simply scanning my body and following my breath through the dissolving of the scan’s image-feedback, like watching a radar screen’s blip light up and fade. Blip, watch dissolve, repeat. And I thought, well, this is a very good atheist’s meditation! It is an experimental procedure, a protocol, a method of investigation, replicable and repeatable, and it gives replicable and repeatable experimental results. I have been aware of one of the more interesting consequences of meditation’s cultural resonance, an increasingly perceptible secularization of the methodologies (think “stree relief,” etc.). I recently read Sam Harris’s, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, both by well-established impeccable atheist-materialists, each making a case for atheist meditation as a simple development of the human brain-mind complex.
I don’t mean to come across as evangelistic here, but it is probably inevitable, and therein lies the presumption, and my hope that you will take it in the right spirit. I was just so delighted that you could relate to the hell stuff, and you seem (even ten years ago) to recognize the kind of equanimity that comes with accepting hell in all its varieties and conditions. I’ve been thinking of my meditation practice lately as a sort of algorithm, producing a sort of fractal: a procedure with a result, a formula drawing a curve. I just find the mathematics of it interesting, honestly, and as someone who knows the black territories you know how precious interest in anything is.
For what it’s worth. (rueful self-deprecating lol)
Thank you again for sharing your beautiful reading of A Hell of Mercy. You have heartened me immeasurably, and I am deeply grateful.
(I was going to close with “God bless you,” which I thought was kind of hilarious, all things considered, but I hated to think you might not realize the humor in it.)
God bless you,