The best kind of book enthralls you and widens your heart in worship to God at the same time. That happened to me this week, and I wasn’t reading Augustine or Tozer. I was reading the eminently edgy, manic-depressive writer of the 1950s, Sylvia Plath. Reading her book The Bell Jar led me to recognize all over again that my own mental health is an utter gift of grace. And that is cause for worship.
Plath writes so hard she captivates and bruises you at the same time. In the semi-autobiographical Bell Jar, Plath guides us through her own mental breakdown as an undergraduate on scholarship in New York City. We follow her through agony, numbness, suicide attempts, and mental hospitals before she leaves us at the last page. By the semi-happy ending of the book, she has achieved a new mental equilibrium. But she and her readers sit beneath a shadow. We know the horrific episode could repeat itself. And judging by Plath’s own suicide at the age of 30, it does.
I have no idea whether most Christians consider a book like The Bell Jar worth their time. But it was worth mine, because I have experienced a touch of Plath’s agony and thus have received the corresponding compassion.
Nothing will make you long for life like a brush with prolonged depression. Probably many of you know this. I learned it my last two years of college—along with many of my peers, I’m afraid. After two years of ceaseless non-physical labor in an unnatural one-generational setting with almost no sleep, depression becomes almost inevitable. At the time, we didn’t know we were sick. We just thought we weren’t working hard enough, and we wondered where our enthusiasms had disappeared.
Just after college, my almost-fiancé asked me which phase of life was my worst. I wanted to say, “Middle school.” But instead I said, “The last two years have been the worst. Because the best things in life happened to me, but I couldn’t feel them.”
So I value Plath’s book for its honest and eye-opening depiction of illness. It is by God’s mercy that my two-year narrative did not read like hers. Instead, it read like a Psalm of disorientation. I felt myself crashing against God, clinging to Him, and begging Him for another taste of life. I became a hound for every time the word life occurred in the Bible. I often thought to myself that I would rather have a broken leg, because someone on earth could fix it, and someone on earth would believe there was something wrong. My diary chronicles my wrestling match with God, in which I painstakingly told myself the truth:
“There is life in the end of my cross because there was death in the end of His.”
“Does it surprise you, Chelsea Lynn, that God is able to raise the dead?”
Now that I am healing, I recommend The Bell Jar for the sake of mercy. For many have a kind of sickness we cannot see.