I heard a friend tell a story once about a man at his church who struggled with mental illness. On his bad days, this man was known for leaving his house and arriving at church gatherings without his pants. I can imagine the stares on the sidewalk or on the public transit. I can imagine the hushed whispers and sideways glances and the clutching of small children that may occur in many church circles. But this particular church was invested in this man and created a space for him in their church family. This meant that one of his friends at church would kindly point out to him upon his arrival that he’d forgotten his trousers. Not only that—they came prepared with an extra pair to offer him so that he could be decently dressed.
These friends not only welcomed this man into their lives when he was vulnerable. They also thought about how they could creatively anticipate and provide for his needs. When we’re struggling, these are the types of people we need surrounding us. When we’re struggling with mental illness, they can be actual life savers.
I’ve spent time over the last few years researching people in church history who struggled with depression, but intertwined with their stories are those of their friends and family members who kept company with them in the dark. I cannot tell the story of Martin Luther without mentioning his wife Katie or his mentor Johann von Staupitz or his friends, like Philip Melanchthon. Hannah Allen was kept alive by coordinated efforts of family members, and Martin Luther King Jr. was kept company in many a sleepless night by friends and SCLC staff members.
The hymn writer William Cowper survived his own depression and suicide attempts because of a few key relationships in his life. Though we credit him with hymns like “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” or “There Is a Fountain” or with poems like “The Task,” in reality, these artistic and spiritual gifts to us would not exist without the encouragement of his friends and companions. Seeing the ebb and flow of his depression, John Newton invited Cowper to write a series of hymns with him to keep Cowper occupied and creative. Others did this as well. His friend Lady Austen told him the story of John Gilpin, which he then immortalized in a poem. His cousin, John Johnson, left copies of Homer out in plain view, in the hopes that Cowper would discover them and be inspired to begin his translation work again. Another friend requested letters of praise from clergymen to show Cowper the positive impact he’d had on the world. None of these things “fixed” William Cowper, but even when depression came in earnest, they stayed by this side, finding creative and sacrificial ways to support him.
Once, during an episode of depression, Cowper managed to get himself out of bed long enough to walk to John and Mary Newton’s house. He didn’t leave for sixteen months. What a house guest. Many would cripple under the sudden prolonged household addition or the effects of debilitating depression. But John said this about his friend: “The Lord has given us such a love for him … that I am not weary, though to be sure his deliverance would be to me one of the greatest blessings I can conceive.” Another time, when depression had him frozen, his lifelong companion, Mrs. Unwin, who herself was recovering from a stroke, requested his help to take a walk, since she knew the fresh air would do him good. And the stories only continue.
When I hear these stories of faithful, sacrificial, life-giving friendship, I think of the people who have kept company with me in my own darkness. Of the mentors whose door was always open for a home-cooked meal or the quiet peace of their prayer room. Of the friends who endured dreary and despairing emails and who did not flee from my tears. Of the ones who continued to check in and quietly listen when it felt like all I had to share was sorrow, and the ones who provided spaces to escape life’s heaviness through cups of tea and board games and outdoor adventures. I think of the pastor whose message of grace was like salve to my bleeding heart, and of those fellow sufferers who bravely shared their stories with me. I think of the ones who encouraged me to find a new counselor and who talked with me through my misgivings about medication, of those who let me sit in silence and those who prodded me out of it. They continued to welcome me into their lives when I was, as Hannah Allen phrased it, an “uncomfortable guest.”
I know many of us who struggle with things like depression and anxiety and other mental health ailments have plenty of stories to tell about people who were not helpful. Much harm has been done by those we should have been able to trust—or by those who had no business inserting themselves into a place of tender pain. There is a time and a place for these stories, so that we can all learn how to be a better support and encouragement to one another.
But we miss a beautiful part of our stories if we only tell the stories of the people we’ve had to endure instead of also telling the stories of the people who were key players in our survival. These are the people who surround us with unconditional love and support while we’re still in process. They know how to care for themselves so that they are positioned to care for us for the long haul. And they know that though this pain is part of our story, it is not all of our story, and they keep company with us in hope that even in the darkness God is present.
Do you know who these people are in your life, those people who help you to avoid crises if possible and to survive them when they come? Thank God for them—and maybe thank them too. Everybody needs someone who can come prepared with an extra set of trousers. Who has yours?
This excerpt is taken from the recently released title, Companions in the Darkness which looks back into church history and finds depression in the lives of some of our most beloved saints, including Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. Drawing on her own experience with depression, Gruver offers a wealth of practical wisdom both for those in the darkness and those who care for them.