Finding “Companions in the Darkness” of Depression

Source: Diana Gruver, used with permission Depression can often be accompanied by feelings of guilt,…

Finding “Companions in the Darkness” of Depression
Diana Gruver, used with permission

Source: Diana Gruver, used with permission

Depression can often be accompanied by feelings of guilt, personal failure, or isolation. Diana Gruver understands this well, which is why she wrote a book detailing the lives of historical and religious heroes of the past who all struggled with depression.

Diana Gruver (MA, Gordon-Conwell) writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She previously worked as a writer and editor for Culture and Youth Studies, and lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter.

Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?

Diana Gruver: Companions in the Darkness started, some might say, out of more selfish reasons. It was the book I wish I’d had during my own struggles with depression, and one I know I may need again in the future if or when that darkness returns.

When I first struggled with depression, I had never heard the stories I share in Companions. They are the stories of some of our historical and religious “heroes,” like Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr., who struggled with depression and a sense of spiritual isolation much like we do today. When I first learned of the struggle of depression in the lives of people throughout church history, my interest was piqued, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my experience with depression—particularly the feelings of guilt and personal failure that accompanied it—would have been different if I had known them.

I wanted to share these stories with others not only for the wisdom, camaraderie, and mentor-like advice they offer, but also because these stories speak to the stigma that so often comes with depression, particularly within a faith context.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

DG: I hope readers who struggle with depression know that they aren’t alone. Depression brings with it a sense of isolation, and it can be easy to imagine that no one is suffering like you are. This, in my experience, adds to the pain of it. In that place of isolation, there is a great deal of comfort and hope that come when you find someone who can compassionately and knowingly say, “I have been where you are. I know what this pain is like.” While I hope my readers can find people alive today who can provide this companionship, I believe they can also find companions who can speak across history to them today.

On a related note, mental illness often comes with stigma and a sense of shame. I want readers to know that suffering from depression does not mean they have failed and does not indicate a lack of faith. It also does not mean they have nothing to offer the world. The stories in this book are ones we are telling, in some cases, centuries after the person’s death, and depression did not completely and finally stop their ability to leave a lasting mark on the world for good. They remind us that there is a way to survive depression, and there is a way to continue to grow in spite of depression. As Charles Spurgeon once said to those in the midst of depression, “Your usefulness is not over.”

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently during COVID-19?

DG: The seven individuals in my book have taught me a lot about resilience. Not only did they struggle with depression, but many of them also struggled with chronic physical illnesses, the loss of a loved one, and other painful circumstances. Although they lived in a variety of times and places, I’ve noticed patterns of what resilience looks like lived out. 

Humor was an important element, which I know sounds ironic when talking about depression. The ability to find something to laugh about, or some way to mock the pain, was helpful for many of them.

Faith was another important factor for all of the people I studied. Their feelings about God might have been different than when they weren’t depressed, but they all found a steady anchor of hope in something much bigger than themselves.

Then, there were also practices that were common. Music was helpful for many of them, as were other artistic endeavors like writing. Exercise and fresh air were a critical self-care element and explicitly recommended by many of them to combat something like depression. Many of them were engaged in some type of service for others, and this was helpful to keep moving them forward.

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one amidst this pandemic?

DG: It should come as no surprise that reports of mental and emotional struggles, such as depression and anxiety, are on the rise in this season. Even if you aren’t struggling yourself, chances are someone close to you is. It’s worth knowing the warning signs of depression, so you can be aware of it in the life of someone close to you.

My book tells the stories of those who were depressed, but intertwined with their stories are those of their caregivers. These men and women were able to help not through focusing on “fixing” the person, offering pithy advice, suggesting silver-bullet cures, or assigning blame, but by consistently showing up with love, even as depression lingered. They knew when to call in reinforcements, and many of them worked as a team, instead of thinking they could care for the problem alone. They encouraged their loved one to seek professional medical help. As much as they were able, they did practical things to pull the person out of their tendency to isolate and dwell on morbid thought patterns, like getting them outside, engaging in an activity together, changing their scenery, providing opportunities for work or hobbies they once enjoyed, or just quietly keeping them company. Admittedly, in the face of coronavirus restrictions, some of these practices may require a bit of creativity and/or technology, but I think these principles still apply as we seek to be empathetic and helpful to those around us who are struggling.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

DG: I have a toddler at home, and she keeps me busy. In addition to being a mom, I am preparing for my book to launch in November, and I continue to write on my blog, usually with stories and resources related to how our spiritual lives intersect with everyday life.

In the midst of the pandemic, I also found myself with a new part-time job writing for a nonprofit, Vere Institute. I’m working on a new series with them, which will launch in the fall, about how a life of faith intersects with the challenging and painful parts of life.

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

DG: Most of the people in my book were leaders, and struggling with depression as a leader brings its own unique challenges. In the context of the pandemic, the leaders in my life are facing even more mental and emotional pressure, as they make difficult decisions and bear the brunt of the reactions and behaviors stemming from the mental and emotional state of those under their care. There is no shame in feeling the weight of depression during this time, and there is no shame in seeking the help you need to be well.

Also, if you have personal experience with depression, I encourage you to share your story. It may require bravery, but you may be the voice of hope someone else needs to hear.