After a bit of a run-around with the post office, I was delighted to get my (grubby) hands on a (pristine, white, hence my concern with the grubby hands) on this beautiful little book. Learning to Breathe was commissioned boy a former colleague whilst I was working at SPCK, and I was really glad to finally start seeing pictures online whilst I was in the States – and excited to get stuck into the finished product. By way of introduction, Rachel Newham is a graduate of the London School of Theology (LST), and runs the charity Think Twice, providing training, consultancy and resources for responding to mental health issues from a Christian perspective. This book draws together these two key strands in her life, as she tells her story of grappling with serious depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Regular readers of this blog will know that these things have been a part of my story too – and that I’m passionate about signposting people to healthy and helpful resources. I’m delighted to say that this is definitely one of those books.
Given that Learning to Breathe is predominately a memoir, it is in someways slightly difficult to review. That said, there are a number of reasons why I would warmly recommend this book.
Firstly, this is immensely raw and real. Blending a beautiful writing skill – seriously, this is one of the best bits of writing I’ve read this year, in my opinion – with a bare-all attitude that had tears forming in my eyes (which has happened in very, very few books, and even fewer films) Rachel brings her whole self to the page. As she describes self harm, a suicide attempt, disconnection from friends, her parents separation, and recounts episodes from her life from early childhood to the early days at LST, the reader is invited in to some of her innermost thoughts. In someways, this might be too real for some folk who are in darker episodes – but that strength of writing makes this a superb book to give to someone seeking to understand mental illness – why it does hurt and is real.
Secondly, this book doesn’t just tell a story, it also weaves in both practical pointers for those who care for people in their lives with mental health struggles. Relatively early on, when talking about suicide, Rachel notes the language used around suicide and suicidal thoughts – the tension between former legal language linked to its previous criminalisation as we talk about ‘committing’ suicide, and also the potentially damaging effects of talking about it in terms of ‘don’t do something stupid/silly’. There is a helpful charge for us to ‘think twice’ about the language we use. Later on, Rachel beautifully describes the tension of living as a Christian with depression:
“Joy and depression aren’t mutually exclusive – it’s possible to hold fast to the promise of salvation and be sure of it in the midst of the deepest depression. Throughout the decade in which I was most unwell, I didn’t question the existence of God or the story of Scripture. At times I questioned his character, but for the most part I was as sure of my own salvation as anyone is“
Rachel’s experience echoes aspects of my own – and is a powerful riposte to the naive and unbiblical viewpoint that says that Christians cannot be depressed. This leads me on to the third reason I loved and would recommend this book.
Learning to Breathe is powerful in part because it contains so much of one person’s story. But the real power in this little white book comes from its engagement with the deeper stories of Scripture, church and theology. A couple of chapters read like warm adverts for LST – the description of certain friends and lecturers are beautiful. There is a lot of biblical reflection here – on the Psalms, and on key characters like Elijah and Abraham. There are also some profound theological reflections, echoing thinkers like John Swinton and Tim Keller. These are wrapped in with observations and reflections on key aspects of mental health care – from the jarring ‘ageing out’ of Rachel at 17, to the beautiful meditations on care and the wonderful testimony of the ways in which different people – her parents, friends at LST, clergy – have cared for her and shown her something of Jesus at her darkest. Perhaps the most profound thing, which resonates with other things I’ve been reading on a variety of topics including sexuality, is the pondering that the Church is perhaps above all called to love those grappling with their mental health through the medium of friendship. I may return to this in another blog post.
Overall, then, this is a deeply theologically, beautifully written and very helpful book about mental health and faith. I would warmly recommend it to church leaders looking for a way to think deeper about this, as well as to fellow-sufferers wanting to read about someone else’s experience. I hope Rachel gets the chance to write more books – extending her metaphor of breathing, writing more about friendship, and so on – and look forward to seeing what comes next from her.