Gillian Marchenko. Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2016. See here to buy the book.
In Still Life, Gillian Marchenko shares her journey with depression. Gillian is the wife of a pastor, and two of her children have special needs. She speaks to women’s groups about parenting. Yet, she feels like a hypocrite because she thinks that her depression hinders her from being an adequate parent.
When I read books like this, what usually runs through my head is whether I identify with what the author is saying. There is a reason, after all, that I would want to read a book about depression: because I often feel depressed, and I am curious about how somebody else copes with it. I also wonder how religious faith interacts with depression, positively or negatively.
I did identify with some of what Gillian Marchenko was saying. She talks about times when she has been needy for love. She mentions times when she has wanted friends, yet her depression has led her to pull back from the friends she has. She discusses the helpful and unhelpful things that therapists have said to her as she has shopped for a therapist, as well as unhelpful things that Christians have said to her.
But there were things that Gillian was saying that I did not identify with. My depression is usually sadness about something. But Gillian says on page 33: “People assume depression is about emotions: a person is sad; a person is down. But I’ve come to realize that depression is about disappearing. You become nothing. Feelings fly away. There is no future. No past. Your body becomes a shell with nothing inside.”
In reading Gillian’s book, I was hard pressed to find anything specific that she was sad about. She does wrestle with feelings of guilt because she thinks that her depression hinders her from being present and helpful to her family, but that is a consequence of her depression, not its cause. It seems that Gillian carries a heavy weight that incapacitates her. She does not say that the weight is a reaction to anything. It just is.
In terms of her practical attempts to cope with depression, she tries to do what is in front of her, breaking it down into manageable steps. As far as her faith goes, seeing God’s love and grace as a gift is helpful to her. Trying to have hope is difficult for her, since her depression goes in the opposite direction from hope. She also draws strength from those who support her. I like what she says on page 173: “My therapist, a thirty-something agnostic Jewish woman named Melanie, helps me heal.”
The book is about her own attempts to cope with depression, but also her family’s attempts to cope with her depression. She talks about how her husband preaches about unconditional love within marriage and even believes in it, yet he himself struggles within his own marriage. Her children want her to be present, but that is not always easy because depression can result in cancelled plans or put her in a position in which she does not even want to get out of bed.
Can this book help a person with friends or loved ones who have depression? It can perhaps make a person more sympathetic and empathetic. It can educate a person about what depression is. I do not personally think that I am qualified to help someone who has depression: I would want to make the person feel better, and that is not necessarily possible. But, if I know more about what a depressed person is going through, I can be more empathetic and interact with him or her better. I can be supportive and try to avoid comments that are unhelpful.
I would have liked the book better had it had more theology: wrestling with religion and trying to find peace with it. It just seems that the Bible commands people to be loving and joyful and to have inner peace, but there are people with conditions that run counter to that. (A depressed person may have love, yet feel constrained in his or her ability to show love or to do loving things.) Add to this that Christians supposedly have the Holy Spirit, who is supposed to make them more joyful, and yet so many sincere Christians struggle with a depression that they cannot control and that they did not ask for. I struggle with the Bible where I am, but I would feel even more condemned by the Bible were I to have a more serious form of clinical depression. Maybe I would have liked to see that sort of struggle in this book: Gillian’s brief discussion of hope came close to that. I wonder, though, how the Holy Spirit works in the midst of depression.
But I cannot fault people for not having the same questions that I have, since people are on their own journeys. Hopefully, this book sensitized me to somebody else’s struggle.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.