By DAVID CRUMM
Depression affects millions of men and women each year. While it is a psychiatric disorder that needs treatment, as Greg Garrett points out in Crossing Myself, depression also can be intertwined with spiritual crisis. In addition to therapy and medication, recovery can often draw on religious disciplines—and the embrace of religious communities—in restoring one’s balance.
Even if you have not been affected by depression, please read this interview with Garrett because you likely have a loved one who is affected—or you know a teacher, pastor or small-group leader who will want to read this book.
THE BASIC FACTS
- According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 16 million men and women are affected by depression in a given year. That means a huge portion of the population experiences the condition at some point in life.
- Know the risk factors: Women are more likely than men to be affected. Adults aged 18-25 are more likely to face depression than older people. A wide range of medical conditions—from auto-immune disorders to nutritional imbalances—are related to an increased risk for depression.
- Talk with your doctor: Health care organizations are trying to close critical gaps in medical care for depression. Studies show that the majority of people who move from depression to attempts at suicide have had contact with a primary care physician in the past year—yet effective prevention measures were not taken. One key reason is that people do not discuss the condition with their doctors.
- Call: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The 24/7 nationwide service was established in 2005 and now coordinates with more than 160 suicide-prevention programs by providing one number to call with referrals coast to coast.
‘CROSSING MYSELF’ THEN & NOW
When Greg Garrett’s memoir Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth first appeared a decade ago, it was eagerly welcomed as a story of spiritual renewal from a rising star in the literary world. He was professor of English at Baylor University and his 2002 novel Free Bird had caused a positive stir among literary lights. Crossing Myself told how Garrett found himself embracing the Christian tradition in his 40s.
But the book also honestly described his life-and-death struggle with chronic depression. It opened by describing a nearly successful suicide attempt. Now, after a decade of further reflection, Garrett updates the memoir in some important ways. One addition is a preface that clarifies what has emerged as the main theme of this book: Finding help in the depths of depression.
The book still is a story of spiritual renewal. But as Garrett writes in his new introduction, there’s more to this story than Christian conversion: “Depression ran in my family. Had for generations. It would take a miracle for me to recover. And I had given up believing in miracles a long time before.”
Garrett is also very clear that depression is a real disorder requiring professional treatment. “I was helped by therapy and stabilized by modern medicine. I know and would not dispute that.” Professional help is essential, he explains in these pages.
Finally, there is a stronger sense of urgency in this expanded edition. The past decade, since the first publication, has shown Garrett that this book can help to save lives. He has heard from readers who discovered his book—and were prompted to get help with their own depression because of his honest account.
‘A LIGHT AT THE FAR END’
“Since the first publication of Crossing Myself, I have been aware that faith communities often deal poorly with mental illness. When I first agreed to write the book, I thought that it could help people, if I wrote honestly about my experiences,” Garrett says today. “I wanted to show readers that there can be a light at the far end of the darkness.”
Unfortunately, the book fell out of print. The new version of this book comes from Morehouse, an imprint of the Episcopal Church’s publishing service. That’s the denomination through which Garrett attended seminary and, although not ordained as a priest, is now licensed to preach and help lead services.
“Why did I agree to do this new version? Well, the original book had helped a lot of people.” Greg says. “I knew that from hearing from readers. But, it was hard to find—available only from resellers. So, I agreed to work on a new version. And that was a challenge.”
In fact, the original memoir had been “the most difficult book I ever wrote.” Although several years had passed by the time he wrote Crossing Myself, the daily experience of revisiting that crisis “made me feel all of the emotions associated with that period. I felt all those horrible thoughts again. I felt I was going through depression again.”
‘BRING FORTH WHAT IS WITHIN YOU’
In the middle of this memoir, Garrett turns to the Gospel of James to describe the importance of honestly talking with others about the challenges of depression. That echoes the advice of veteran counselor Benjamin Pratt in his book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & James Bond’s Moral Compass.
“Yes, that’s a great book, too, and, yes, we both turn to James for this kind of very practical spiritual advice,” Garrett says. “It’s so important to talk about what we are experiencing—because we discover that so many other people are experiencing the same thing.
“For me, as a person who is a survivor of chronic depression, the physical and emotional parts of my cure were important. I could not have survived without medication to stabilize me—not a high level of medication, but some medication was essential to help me turn the corner. And talking to professionals was essential, too.
“But I’m also a big believer that this pathway toward seeing the world, again, through a filter of hope has spiritual elements to it. And part of that, I believe, involves finding a faith community. If I was part of the Jewish tradition, my journey might have included Jewish reading and spiritual disciplines and a welcome into an active Jewish community. I suppose I could have turned to Islam and become active in the community around a local mosque, if I had been drawn to that faith. But, for me, I don’t think I would have survived if I had not walked into the faith community I describe in this book, where I found people who, in their Christian love, were willing to walk with me. I needed men and women who would help me know that I was loved and I was part of a community.”
To this day, that powerful discovery moves Garrett to talk with others about depression and invite them to share their stories, as well. “That’s part of my approach as a teacher, preacher and speaker. I want to be up front about my own brokenness to help you, as you’re listening, to realize that you are not alone in your brokenness. As we tell our stories, we are welcoming the people around us to tell their stories.
“That’s so important. I’ve seen this again and again. I’ll talk about this in a class or at a diocesan convention and people will come up to me, afterward, and share their stories. Then, we have a chance to talk about this. And, that’s one of the most important steps in surviving depression—talking with others about what’s happening.
“When we are aware of what’s happening then we have a chance to give affirmation. I can say to you: ‘Do you know that, if you stepped off this planet today, that would not be OK with me. It’s important that you’re here with us.’ ”
Ultimately, that is the lasting message of Crossing Myself. As Garrett puts it: “I’m saying that it’s important to step away from the radical individualism that we’re taught is the aim in life. I’m saying, from the wisdom of the Christian tradition: Our salvation is with our brothers and sisters.”
Care to read more?
EARLIER COVERAGE—We’ve welcomed Greg into the pages of ReadTheSpirit many times since we were founded in 2007. Among his more popular appearances: Stretching way back to the origins of ReadTheSpirit, here is an early interview with Greg about his special interest in spiritual themes in comic books. More recently, we featured this interview about Greg’s book about angels, demons and popular culture’s fascination with the afterlife. Among Greg’s collaborations over the years was this intriguing project with the late Brennan Manning.