Depressed and Desperate: The Day I Called Dr. White

Many people…find it hard to analyse, and even more difficult to express in words, what appears to be destroying them from inside.
~ J.B. Phillips

It’s awkward to be a depressed Christian. Awkward and discomfiting.

You love Jesus, pray and read your Bible, and get to Mass and Sunday services. You dedicate yourself to service, strive to live a virtuous life, and keep your eyes fixed on heaven best you can. You may even have a decent handle on the marginal value of transient emotional satisfaction in the life of faith – and yet you’re suddenly afflicted with oppressive despondency anyway. It’s utterly out of kilter, a wrenching interior disruption, but you can’t shake it. It’s not just a spiritual dry spell, not simply a devotional dip, but a full-on collapse, and you’re frightened by the dark direction of your thoughts.

What to do?

I’ll tell you what I did. I called a shrink.

But it wasn’t just any shrink. I decided that my particular depression (and, if I’m not mistaken, I probably wasn’t the first to think his own case of depressive illness was somehow extraordinarily, uniquely severe) required the best that pastoral psychology could come up with. Yet, at the time, I was still a pretty new Catholic, so my frame of reference was limited to my prior exposure to evangelical authors and leaders. I think I turned to Minirth and Meier’s Happiness is a Choice (1978), and I know I gobbled up The Price of Success (1984), by Bible translator J.B. Phillips, a hero of mine who himself suffered a debilitating depression.

But the text that gave me the most solace, the most hope was Dr. John White’s The Masks of Melancholy (1982). It was the right book at the right time.

White was not only a practicing psychiatrist and professor, but also a prolific evangelical author and popular speaker. His many books published by InterVarsity Press had come to my attention during the years in the Christian bookstore business, but I’d never gotten around to reading Masks – why should I? It was about mental illness, suicide, and depression, and I surely wasn’t going to be subject to those kinds of problems.

When my own depression hit like a Looney Tunes anvil, I flailed and faltered and grasped at anything that might give me relief. I went to co-dependency workshops and group therapy. I started using tobacco again and probably drank a bit more than usual. I prayed extra novenas and rosaries, and went to movies, by myself, a lot. And I read books – books about depression, mainly, especially from a Christian angle – and there was something about Dr. White’s kindly prose, medical realism, and illuminating narratives that really hit home.

He explained the science and physiology of depressive illness in a way I could understand, and he wasn’t afraid to tackle the tough questions – particularly the delicate, at times tense relationship between religion and mental health. White’s approach was both rational and eminently pastoral, and I recall reading through Masks twice – like back-to-back twice, as in finishing the last page (sitting in a study carrel in DePaul University’s library, I remember it well) and then immediately turning back to page one to start again.

But I didn’t stop there. In the fog of my depressive state, I made a snap decision to track down Dr. White himself to give me a leg up. It seemed reasonable at the time, so when I got home, I grabbed the phone and called directory assistance. The operator gave me the number for InterVarsity Press, and, if memory serves, when I asked the secretary there for Dr. White’s number, she…just gave it to me.

In any case, I got the number somehow and dialed. There I was, pacing in my flat in Chicago, frantic, phone in hand (ringing, ringing), and then, *click* “Hello?” It was Dr. John White himself on the other end!

I can’t remember if I even identified myself before I poured out my story and my travails. I assured him that I would do anything and everything to regain some equilibrium in my mental state, that I’d try medication, whatever it took. His response after a short pause was – not unreasonably by any means – a simple, “How did you get my number?”

Like a flash, my depression evaporated in favor of a wave of embarrassment and chagrin. The impropriety of my impetuous phone call, however innocent, swamped my sensibilities, and I hemmed and hawed through the rest of the conversation. White was more than generous (probably more generous with me than he would be with that secretary), and he offered some gentle encouragement (at least I assume he did – I don’t remember that part of our chat), but it was all over pretty quick. After hanging up, and before the crushing weight of my depressive illness settled in again, I had an epiphany that I can only attribute to God’s grace: I really was a mess, and, my faith notwithstanding, I needed to do something more than dabble in group therapy and books – or phone calls for that matter.

It took yet another crisis before I made the radical changes necessary to begin climbing out of my depressive sinkhole, but that phone call with Dr. White was a marker of sorts. I’m still embarrassed about it, I suppose, but I’m so grateful he was home and took the call, for it helped me recognize that my recovery would require allowing living, breathing people to care for me. Depression might be something we suffer in intense loneliness, but it is only shed when we share it with others.

Months later, after moving back home to my family in Colorado and beginning therapy, I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978), and it, too, had a profound impact on me. By then, however, I’d found enough human support – from my parents, my friends, others with depression, my shrink in Boulder – that I didn’t even consider reaching out to Dr. Peck.

Good thing. I imagine he’d have been tougher to track down.
_________________________________

Dr. John White died in 2002. Rest in peace, and thanks. 

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An Archaeological Thriller

jonesMy guess is that “archaeological” and “thriller” are two words that were rarely linked prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Generations of moviegoers have grown up on Indiana Jones’ exploits, spellbound by his death-defying feats, and enthralled by his (usually) noble sacrifices on behalf of his museum, his profession, and, more broadly, the entire civilized world.

Yet, even with three sequels, a TV spinoff, and constant exposure via DVD, Netflix, and cable reruns, Jones’ fictional output is still shy of overcoming the assumption that actual archaeology is basically dull.

Maybe so, but I know of at least one exception.

Right around the time that Harrison Ford was supposedly liberating the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, a real-life adventure took place that also featured relics, intrigue, and ancient tombs: The hunt for the final resting place of the Fisherman, the first pope. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book about it, The Bones of St. Peter (1985), and recently my wife presented me with a reprint as a gift. “I remember you talking about this once,” she remarked, “and I thought you’d enjoy reading it again.” She was right.

Many years ago, my pastor gave me a copy with the suggestion that every Catholic convert should know the story. “It’s all true,” Fr. Simon murmured mysteriously. “We have his bones.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he got my attention, and I dived in.

The story sounds plain enough, but it reads like a cliffhanger. Longstanding Catholic tradition had always placed the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom and burial on the grounds of the Vatican, with the final resting place of his bones somewhere beneath the Basilica’s high altar—a fitting testament to Jesus’ declaration that He would build His church “on this rock (petros).” During renovations to the basilica’s crypt in 1939, a series of ancient tombs and grave markings were discovered, and Pope Pius XII authorized further investigation.

No doubt, the Holy Father would’ve been cautiously optimistic that the experts would discover Peter’s remains where tradition had always located them, and that there would be enough empirical evidence to make a solid case that went beyond faith and piety. Still, he was willing to take a risk that the science might prove tradition wrong—itself surely an act of heroism and fortitude perhaps rivaling anything Indiana Jones attempted.

As the diggers made their way through the underground pagan necropolis, they encountered more and more Christian imagery and graffiti, but they encountered obstacles as well. One big problem was water, seeping into their excavations from leaky conduits deep in the walls. Plus there were personality conflicts, rivalry among the researchers, minor mishaps, major blunders—not to mention the commencement of a world war.

In time, the Apostle’s remains were indeed discovered, and in the very spot tradition led the team to believe they would be—directly beneath the high altar. In 1968, Pope Paul VI joyfully announced to the world that the Apostle’s remains had been found.

Of course they were found under the high altar,” the skeptics cry. “Where else would Catholic archaeologists working at the behest of the pope find St. Peter’s bones? How convenient!” What’s more, unlike the opening of the Ark in Raiders, there were no meteorological theatrics, no apparitions or ghostly terrors accompanying the tomb’s discovery—so no supernatural verification, you might say. In terms of human second opinion, there were plenty of naysayers, and scholars continue to squabble over the authenticity of the grave and its contents to this day.

So. Does it matter?

Let me shift gears a bit—to a children’s book, the Newberry classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It’s a story of runaway siblings that uncover what they think is a secret regarding a controversial Michelangelo statue. Is it a fake? Is it real? Claudia and Jamie think they know, and they seek out Mrs. Frankweiler, the original owner, to confer with her.

In the end, their definitive evidence isn’t so definitive, and even Mrs. Frankweiler’s more solid proof is open to doubt, as she tells them:

What they’ll do is start investigating the authenticity of the sketch…. They’ll analyze the ink. And the paper. They’ll research all his illustrated notes and compare, compare, compare, compare. In short, they’ll make a science of it…. They’ll poll all the authorities, and probably the majority will agree that the note and the statue are really the work of Michelangelo…. But some stubborn ones won’t agree, and thereafter the statue and the sketch will appear in books with a big question mark.

basil-e-frankweiler-cover_thumb

After digesting this, and sensing Frankweiler’s resignation, Claudia probes further and asks why she doesn’t want “the last little bit of doubt cleared up.” You can almost hear the art patron’s heavy sigh as you read her negative reply and simple justification: “Because I’m eighty-two years old. That’s why.”

Now, back to Peter’s bones: Are they genuine? Is it really his tomb? The evidence is compelling, the Pope confirmed it, and I believe it—I have no reason not to.

But would my faith be shaken should new discoveries shift the weight of evidence in the other direction? Would we have to doubt the Pope’s authority? Doubt the Church Herself? Don’t we need to know for sure—that is, in Claudia’s words, to have the last little bit of doubt cleared up?

No. Why? Because the Gospel is not about extinguishing doubt. New Testament translator J.B. Phillips wrote of this in his comments on historical Christianity:

I am not in the least concerned with what may or may not be proved by the dexterous manipulation of texts. Indeed, I think we are all of us indoctrinated more than we know by being led tendentiously from one text to another in our impressionable years. But I am concerned with this new quality of living which has as its spearhead the personal visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the Church has another agenda—an agenda of faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove those are Peter’s bones or that Peter was the first Pope; we can’t prove Apostolic succession or Transubstantiation; we can’t prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection. But why would we Luca Giordano, The Crucifixion of St. Peter (c. 1660)want to? A faith of mere proof isn’t really faith, and, besides, the Gospel is primarily about love—and you can’t prove love.

You can show it, though, and that’s Peter’s true legacy. After screwing up royally over and over, Peter finally met up with his risen Lord at the seashore. Three times Jesus asked him to confirm his love, and three times the Apostle did so, but words were not enough—action was required, ultimate action.

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19).

As Peter tells Jesus elsewhere, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Love invites us to follow as well, bones or no bones. Our own thrilling tale awaits.

________________________

A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

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