NEWTON’s cradle is a fun desk toy that consists of a row of ball bearings supported by thin wires. You lift and drop a ball at one end, and observe the ball at the other end of the row swinging out. Only the outer balls clang back and forth, disguising the real forces on the stationary balls at the centre of the exchange of energy. It demonstrates the conservation of energy, and imparts not only the therapeutic clicking rhythm, but perhaps the subconscious peace of a well-ordered universe.
I am writing anonymously about my mental-health breakdown as a clergy partner in a difficult parish system, where the forces of stress, poor supervision, and impossible expectations imposed on my husband travelled through me, much like the still balls at the centre of the Newton’s cradle. Such was the severity of the knocks, and the capriciousness of the systems set up to support him, that I eventually cracked under the strain, and my mental well-being was sent into chaos.
THIS is how it started. While pushing my child’s buggy along the road, on a bright spring morning, I suddenly became aware that I was deep in a dream about ending my life. I wasn’t scared or sad; I wasn’t making plans to do it; nor was I in an outward state that anyone might guess my thoughts. I simply realised that I was luxuriating in the possibility of death: a sweet and tempting release that felt good to revel in.
My husband had recently made it through the first Christmas in his new parish, and I was juggling three young children, far from our families. Each week in his new post revealed new disasters and problems, most of them intractable after years of parochial neglect. I smiled at church each Sunday, and joined in with suggestions, ideas, and practical help.
But the pressure rose, and, as the parish financial problems added to the building problems, when the lack of help in the parish was matched only by the dearth of support from the church hierarchy, we realised that the gulf between the parish profile and reality was becoming a pit in our lives which was infecting our home. Sadly, this is not as uncommon as one might think.
On one occasion, during a walk with the children, I found myself folded over with grief and loss. In embarrassment, I pretended that I was looking for something in the buggy, while instead I was hanging on to the frame, shaking with sobs and feeling unutterably lost in darkness. Each morning, I would wake with dread and heaviness, and would have to drag myself through what had to be done. In the evening, I would lie on the sofa facing into the cushions, waiting for longed-for unconsciousness and release.
I was seriously depressed, and only just gripping on to the edge of a black hole. I did online tests for “Am I depressed?” and each time my answers to their questions came back with the same advice: seek help immediately.
BUT I did not. Perhaps they would think me an unfit mother? Perhaps they would recommend drugs that I was more frightened to need than to take? But the chief fear was a simple one: I did not want it on my medical records. At the time, I knew that depression was an illness that needed treatment, and, if I went to the GP, I would be given help. But I did not go, such was the fear of future blacklisting in the Church. I just hung on, and hoped for the best.
istockDepression: walking close to the edgeI felt humiliated by the depression. It is a disease that shows no respect for dazzling CVs, knowledge of therapy, or higher education. It shows no deference to years of experience in pastoral care for those who are suffering. And it is particularly impervious to a Protestant work ethic; everyone has a breaking-point.
I reached the turning-point when, one evening, my husband and I were talking about the pressures of the day and life in the parish. And I simply, and perhaps for the first time, admitted that we were not OK. I accepted that the clerical life required sacrifice, but the sacrifice was too great. We were in a terrible situation, and it was causing me real harm.
By acknowledging the situation, I was able to start my recovery. I had some talking therapy, and I began to exercise and reconnect with my body, long numb with depression. After a few months, things didn’t feel awful all the time, and I began not to fear the mornings and each day that lay ahead.
I never doubted God’s love for me. On Easter Day, it was God who raised Christ out of his Holy Saturday of loss and darkness, and I had no doubt that God would raise me up. The question was whether I would be able to hang on to life for long enough to allow this to happen. But, although I never lost my faith in God, I did lose a little faith in the Church.
MY STORY is my own, but I know of many friends in the Church who have a similar story of mental-health problems and fear: people who have been bullied to the point of collapse by their parishioners; young clergy fearful to be open about their mental-health struggles for fear of blacklisting; clerical poverty causing stress and ill-health; stories of burnout and shame. These are the kind of stories that are sometimes not heard among those in the Church who are charged with clergy well-being, and those set in authority over them.
Mental health is complex, and illness can have multiple causes, but, in many instances, the problem for the clergy which I come across boils down to two key problems: insufficient support, and a theology of priesthood in need of revision.
There seems to me a disconnect between the story that the Church is telling about itself, and the reality for those on the front line of running churches. The vacuum that lies between these two points then creates an impossible atmosphere for the clergy; so it is no wonder that mental-health problems are the result.
Monica Furlong wrote in a paper, “The Parson’s Role Today”: “I am clear what I want of the clergy. I want them to be people who can by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, about success, about money, and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.
“I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare, to refuse to work flat out (since work is an even more subtle drug than status), to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness. I want them to be people who are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who can face the emptiness and possible depression which often attack people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.
“I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it was, as I want them to be people who have faced the problems of prayer. I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty, and from whom I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art.”
WHAT if this was the diocesan policy for clergy? This vision contains no mandate that involves growth, whether of money, congregations, or, indeed, any other measure of worldly success. There is nothing on the importance of administration, essential though this is. Nothing on committees, fund-raising, or community development. It is not that these aren’t important: it is just that I strongly believe that we need a focus on clergy health and support, and less on creating more work for overstretched clergy, if we are going to be able to create a resilient Church and healthy church communities.
My story of mental breakdown happened three years ago. Although my husband is still in the parish, my health has, thankfully, improved. I work outside of church, and some of the situations that caused the acute stress have been resolved. Things, at times, still get dark, but I have not had a recurrence of the depression of those days; so there is a little resurrection about my story. It leaves me wondering, however, about other clergy and their families who are managing parish life less well than they let on.
In R. S. Thomas’s poem “The Kingdom” he dreams of God’s Kingdom, where the industry is not about producing stuff, but rather for “mending The bent bones and the minds fractured By life”.
We are, as he notes, “a long way off”, but perhaps we might edge a little closer if we were bold in fighting mental-health taboo, and ensuring that, at the very least, the Church is not fracturing the bodies and minds of those who are called to serve her.