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Interview: Annie Borthwick,hospital lay chaplain

08 January 2009

by Terence Handley MacMath

I’m the lay chaplain at The Retreat, which is an independent, Quaker-run, specialist psychiatric hospital in York. There are lots of things that I do, like representing the hospital to visitors, or helping with staff induc­tions, but for me the most important thing is my contact with the patients and trying to explore their spiritual needs.

We specialise in helping people with self-defeating behaviour, such as self-harming or eating disorders — or people with a dual diagnosis: who have psychotic experiences and are on drugs, for example. We have a unit for the elderly, who tend to have de­mentia with troubling behaviour. Ninety per cent of our people are funded by the NHS. They’ve been in and out of the system for a long time, and not had their needs adequately met.

People tend to be with us for much longer periods than in the conven­tional NHS units — months or even years. We have specially trained staff, and we work with a model of com­munity. The different units are com­munities in themselves, as well as the whole hospital being a commu­nity.

The original founding principle in 1796 was that people need to live in a supportive group, and that their environment, both social and physi­cal, should be conducive to inner peace. So we pay great attention to the importance of the total environ­ment, and personal relationships, and there is a genuine attitude of equality.

Quakers believe there is that of God in each of us, and therefore every­body should be accepted with respect and dignity. This is a genuine part of our ethos and attitude.

Many people in psychosis talk about their experience in spiritual and religious terms.

What is the difference between mystical and psychological experi­ences? Different cultures construe reality in very different ways. Ours seems to be fixed on logic, but other cultures can be more flexible and place more weight on trances, prayer, meditation, and dreams.

I’m a Quanglican. When this job came up as “Resident Friend” here, I applied for it, representing Quaker­ism; but in the past six years I’ve also joined the Church of England, and I’m now training for the ordained ministry. It’s a strange thing, and people aren’t always comfortable with it, but some have managed it — like Paul Oestreicher. So hopefully I can do it, too.

It’s ironic, but I moved over to Anglicanism because of my work with people. Whether I liked it or not, people were asking for help in spoken prayer, and wanted access to forms of rituals or inner healing. People are very often helped by a particular ritual. I couldn’t just come and sit in silence with a patient: I had to let go of my attachment in order to be flexible and creative with patients. They have loss issues, worries about sinfulness, shame; and there are spir­itual and theological responses to these. I had to learn to develop these in myself, and to pray.

I recognised the healing value of the sacraments and other creative forms of healing working alongside an Anglican chaplain who came in one day a week. I saw how much patients wanted that. Then I had a period of mental ill-health, and I needed it, too.

About seven years ago, my husband left me and I contracted cancer. My world fell apart. I went from being in a place of empathy with other people to my own place of despair. I was off work for six months with depression.

I was helped by Christian people and friends who gave me permis­sion to grieve — listening, being there when I needed them, but not overpowering me with advice. And The Retreat paid for me to have counselling. There’s no stigma here, and staff who have mental illness are supported.

There’s a lot of confusion and ignorance about mental illness in the Church of England — as there is in all parts of society. The Church wants to respond, but doesn’t always know how.

People don’t understand that when people are seriously mentally ill, they don’t just need psychiatric or social help. They’re not just a diag­nosis. They suffer from loss of identity and alienation, and desper­ately need a new set of meanings and hope. They have spiritual needs: they’re asking big questions.

I was a bit of a strange child. I had a powerful religious experience when I was about six, and always wanted to get back into it and understand it. There were no adults around me to help; so I took myself to church inde­pendently because I needed some answers.

I was also a feminist, in embryonic form. In the ’50s it seemed to me that men had all the chances. I kind of wanted to be an explorer, and I suppose that’s what I’ve become — but in a spiritual sense. I explore things and people that are on the edge.

I’m quite adventurous. I’m not fright­ened by madness and strange experiences: I’m intrigued by them.

Thomas Merton has had a massive influence on me, spiritually — but I also really like books that look at the minutiae of people’s lives: Barbara Pym — and Marilynne Robinson. She writes with the most tender and delicate observation of what it is to be human.

I have two grown-up daughters, both very different — and I’m very proud of them. They are very precious to me. One is a teacher and one is training to be one. And I have two equally different granddaughters whom I love very much.

A very big influence on my life has been my father, who died in June this year. He was a lay Baptist preacher in his youth, but renounced it and became a humanist as a result of the horrors he saw in the war. But he had a terrific social conscience, and was an incredibly loving, ex­tremely moral, delightful, non-judgemental man. I’m incredibly grateful to him.

The most important choice I have made was to give up worrying about trying to look cool — I gave up my fear. I was so worried about trying to conform to ideas of Christianity, and worried it wouldn’t be me. But God broke through, and belief became a relationship. I realised that he doesn’t want me to be anything other than what I am. There’s a lot to be learned when you let go.

I regret that I talk too much: I’m an extrovert: I don’t listen enough. And I have moments when I go off on one. . . I feel so passionate about some­thing that I have a rant — what a friend calls one of my “Annieur­isms”. I regret that.

I do not care how people will remember me, as long as Jesus does. It would be nice, of course, if people remembered me for bringing joy and fun. . . The children will remember me for shouting at the telly — especially at the anti-wrinkle-cream adverts.

I really love the paintings of Albert Herbert — beautiful childlike paint­ings on spiritual and religious sub­jects. And I really admire Barbara Glasson — the Methodist minister who founded the Bread Church in Liverpool. She rented a flat above a shop, and got to know people in the street who would never go to church. They go up and bake bread together. She wrote about it in I am Somewhere Else. She’s a fantastic example.

I love Psalm 139 and use it a lot in my work. It speaks of there being no place where we’re not known and loved. And the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel. That’s my experience.

I like to have fun with friends, share a meal, read. . . I love art and get a massive amount of pleasure from going to exhibitions.

I get very angry when I hear some of the life-denying and cruel lies that abusers tell children. I hear about them when those children grow up and become patients.

I feel happiest when I’m singing the Gloria in church on Sunday. Or when I’m immersed in the silence of a Quaker meeting. They’re two sides of the same coin, really.

Most embarrassing moment? When I totally lost my concentration in saying the Lord’s Prayer, of all things. It was in the dementia unit. The patients would have forgotten it at once, but unfortunately there were two students sitting in. (It was truly humbling. I was probably showing off and tripped up.)

Yes, I try to support fair trade. I just love to eat chocolate, really.

I went to Palma with my grand­daughter this summer, and it was great to see a bit of sun; but for most holidays, I stay with a friend, William, who has a little house in the middle of a field, surrounded by sheep, in Normandy. I love the French food and the peace. I don’t really have a special place for spiritual retreat, but William has a decrepit Citroën van parked in the field, called his “Holymobile”, and it’s lovely saying the office in there.

Prayer is the basis of everything. There’s so much I can’t do and so much that God can do. When I go to see patients I pray to be empty, open — to surrender. God knows what that person needs. William once sent me a badge saying: “Blessed are the cracked because they let in the light.” When the outer persona gets broken, we let God in.

I’d liked to be locked in a church with Thomas Merton — he was such a full human being — such a remarkable influence on my life. But also with Bruce Parry: he’s the most humble, open man. He has a series called Tribe on television, and it shows him living with indigenous people for months on end. He respects people of other cultures in a totally impressive way.

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