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’Tis the season to feel desperate

by
20 December 2010

Sometimes, Christmas in the parish can get too much. Here are the accounts of four clerics who sought professional help

WE ALL hoped I’d be back for Christmas. I mean, it’s the highlight of the year, and I didn’t want to put an extra burden on to colleagues by not being there.

But having a full blown panic attack when you’re in the middle of taking a service doesn’t half knock your confidence. I’d never had one before, so I didn’t know what was happening — just thought I was going to die.

Looking back, I can see that there had been quite a build up, with Dad’s illness, Mum’s death, my youngest having to move schools because of bullying, my brother’s divorce. All normal family stuff, I know — I’m not making special pleadings — but it was just so relentless.

We didn’t manage to get away for a holiday in the summer, and every day off seemed to be taken up with travel, hospitals, sorting things out. I was quite tired anyway, and then picked up a virus that I couldn’t seem to shake off. And then a couple of really big funerals, and afterwards I missed a meeting, and made a mistake in a service. Silly of me. Shouldn’t have happened, and then a formal complaint had been made against me. Next thing, there I was in the middle of the service thinking I was going to die.

Fortunately I’d been to Sheldon once before, so I just picked up the phone and there was space to go pretty quickly. I didn’t do much else, other than sleep, eat, watch a bit of TV, and take a potter round the woods for a few days. But once I understood what had happened, had a chance to take stock of the last few months, started to feel human again, I was ready to start planning a return to work.

We talked through the in­cremental confidence-building steps I might take before getting back in front of a large congregation, did the breathing exercises, rehearsed scenarios in my imagination.

I won’t pretend everything went according to plan every time, but my confidence did come back steadily, and eventually I could put the com­plaint into perspective, too. That sort of thing can really hit you when you’re already down. Colleagues were brilliant, and they gave me enough space and encouragement to help me get back on my feet. It was really good to be back in time for Christ­mas.

‘I’m a bit wary of Christmas now’

IT SOUNDS pathetic really, to say: “Oh, I didn’t get my post-Christmas break, and that’s why I fell apart;” but I keep coming back to it. The run-up to Christmas had been really busy. It always is in a big liturgical setting — so much music, so many services, concerts, people. I love it, really love it, but of course it’s hard work and busy.

We use that word “manic” a bit too lightly, don’t we? I didn’t see the signs. Or at least, didn’t understand them for what they were. After four nights of not sleeping, up all night buzzing, I should have realised it was a warning sign, but it felt so good!

And then, after Christmas, it’s colleagues with children who have the priority for a break in school holidays. Rightly so, but us single­tons get left holding the baby. So the high turned into exhaustion. I kept soldiering on until the following week it all crumbled. I just sat on the floor and couldn’t stop crying.

Eventually I was persuaded to go to the doctor. He signed me off and started me on medication, and I thought I’d be back on my feet in a day or two. It turned out to be a longer journey than that. For weeks, I couldn’t leave the house. Clergy life is a bit of a goldfish bowl at the best of times, but when you’re feeling completely rubbish and everyone you see stops and asks, with that concerned look, how you are, you end up like a prisoner in the house. I was so grateful for the discreet food parcel on the doorstep, the “thinking of you” card that didn’t need a reply, knowing that people were praying for me.

Slowly I started to feel stronger, but venturing out was still really difficult. I’d heard of Sheldon, but how was I supposed to get on a train half-way across the country when I could barely step outside the door? In the end I just thought I’d give it a try.

I don’t remember much about the journey, just the sense of having arrived home when I got there. Practical care and a matter-of-fact approach. No fussing. Comfortable space and decent food. Being allowed to find my own way in my own time. Feeling ordinary rather odd.

After so many medical trips, it was reassuring to be treated like a normal human being. To have people who understood the craziness of the clerical life, and why it might occasionally drive some of us really crazy. There were dark days when I couldn’t imagine I would ever be able to get back to work, but I did, and I love it as much as ever.

But I’m a bit wary of Christmas now. I don’t let it gobble me up. Pace myself. Keep an eye open for warn­ing signs. Take action if I see any. And don’t feel guilty about needing a post-Christmas break.

The nakedness of Jesus

THEY told me it was the best Christmas sermon they’d ever heard, but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time.

I had no idea what to say, and couldn’t even face getting into the pulpit. I just drew up a chair and explained that I had no sermon, I felt helpless and empty with nothing to say. I don’t know if I said any more than that — I can’t remember.

But afterwards people were making so many connections with the vulnerability and nakedness of Jesus, of God coming empty-handed with just himself, of stripping away the trappings of Christmas.

It was tempting to wheel it out again the following year, but I couldn’t turn it as a trick. It was only for that once, because it was true for that time and place.

‘It feels like the well is empty’

I’VE BEEN dreading Christmas since I heard I was going back for another tour of duty. It’s been okay before, but this time I don’t know if I can do it. It just feels like the well is empty and I don’t know how to refill it.

I’ve done all the usual things. Gone on retreat, spent time in reading and prayer, been on holiday with the family, but I’m still dreading it. I’ve seen colleagues lose it, just stop being able to function, and I’m frightened of that happening to me.

The trouble is you don’t really know how near the edge you are, do you? Perhaps I’m worrying about not very much. Perhaps all I need to do is just keeping putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that I can rise to the challenges when they come.

And if I don’t? Then trusting that I’ll be scooped up and given the necessary help if I need it. I really don’t want to turn into a gibbering wreck. Everyone else is looking to you to be able to cope and make sense of things even when they are struggling, and sometimes it’s just overwhelming. So many people, so much distress, and it feels like so little backup for us. We have to process it for other people as well as our own stuff.

I could do without being away from the family again this Christmas. But it helps just to acknowledge all this. To have a safe space to say it out loud and leave it. To be reminded of where my strengths are. To know that there are people who are there for us as chaplains so we can go on being there for others. To know that you are praying for us.”

The Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon, in Devon, offers specialist resources for people in ministry, especially at times of stress, crisis, burnout, or break­down. It offers a safe space where people can address, in private, the challenges of public ministry, especially at important festivals. Confidentiality is para­mount: these are stories from real guests, with identifying details with­held, voiced by Sarah Horsman, a mem­ber of the Sheldon Community.

The Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon, in Devon, offers specialist resources for people in ministry, especially at times of stress, crisis, burnout, or break­down. It offers a safe space where people can address, in private, the challenges of public ministry, especially at important festivals. Confidentiality is para­mount: these are stories from real guests, with identifying details with­held, voiced by Sarah Horsman, a mem­ber of the Sheldon Community.

Phone 01647 252752 www.sheldon.uk.com

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