We recently had the chance to talk with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, about her book, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.
Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD., Yale University) is Priest Associate at The Episcopal Church at Yale. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1–3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: A Narrative Analysis and Appraisal. She also serves on the board of the Elm City Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and on the Patient and Advisory Council of Yale Psychiatric Hospital.
Part 1 of this interview is available here.
3. You suggest that friendship is important for the mentally ill. Don’t we all need friendship?
Yes, we all need friendship. Ill people in general need friendship and companionship more than healthy people do. But mentally ill people especially need friends. The symptoms of mental illnesses themselves can be so isolating, both subjectively and objectively. The pain of mental illness is compounded by the isolation and stigma fueled by people’s fears of the symptoms.
4. You mention that feelings are relatively unimportant in our life before God. How can you say this when psychotherapy itself focuses mainly on feelings? Isn’t the exploration of feelings important in the healing process?
This is a good question. It is true that psychotherapy focuses in part on feelings. And that is important for healing, to learn how you feel and why. But you can’t leave it there. I think there is a misunderstanding of psychotherapy, or of good psychotherapy anyway. And I think this misunderstanding keeps many from seeking out psychotherapy. I actually had one person tell me that he did not need psychotherapy (although he clearly did) because he wasn’t a “feelings person.” As though feelings were the only thing psychotherapy would affect.
It is true that psychotherapy makes you face your feelings, learn to accept them, and learn how to act or not act on them. Most importantly, psychotherapy seeks to help the patient learn how to handle feelings so they don’t cause further pain, either to the patient or to those whom the patient loves or has to live with. Part of this goal is to keep the feelings from coming out in maladaptive actions rather than in healthy ways of relating.
To a certain extant, psychotherapy seeks to train the patient in proper communication. This can take the form of many kinds of therapy. Talk therapy and art therapy may be some of the most profound I have experienced. Art therapy, I must quickly add, is often mistaken for helping patients paste bits of construction paper and string and beads. Another caricature. The creative arts used in therapy can include painting, photography, writing, gardening, cooking, dance, etc. The goal is in part to bring the often denied or repressed negative feelings to the surface in a healthy way in order to short-circuit patterns of thinking and acting that might aggravate the symptoms of the mental illness.
But I think what I meant by saying that I mistrust feelings is in part this: feelings change so often and so dramatically. This is especially true for someone with poor mental health. Also, while you are of course right that psychotherapy deals (in part) with feelings, the Christian faith has to do with an action. That is, God’s action of healing the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Granted, much of Protestant Christianity rides on a tradition that would focus on feelings, whether the feeling of ultimate dependence on God, feeling of joy, feeling of love toward neighbor. These may make us feel good. They may not. But even if they don’t make us feel good, that doesn’t falsify the gospel. It doesn’t negate the faithfulness of our witness.
Evangelical Christianity can sometimes fall into a distortion of Christian confession by telling us that if we don’t feel the joy of the Lord, we somehow have missed the mark, we are not saved, we don’t believe aright, we don’t pray enough. But this all locates the truth of the gospel in our interiority and subjectivity. This is dangerous. People struggling with poor mental health sometimes simply cannot feel pleasure. The technical term for this is anhedonia. But the fact that we may not be able to feel joy doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us or that we are lost. I think it is especially important for Christians who live with mental illnesses to be reminded that God is “objective.” Being a Christian is not a matter of subjective experience of God but of God’s objective reality. God is objectively real, whether we feel His presence or not. We all need to be reminded of that, ill or healthy. We all need to remind each other of that.