Finding faith when all is stripped away

by
04 August 2017

A breakdown led Chief Superintendent John Sutherland to lose his religion but find his faith. He talks to Sarah Meyrick

Zac Crawley

Backwardly leaning: John Sutherland

Backwardly leaning: John Sutherland

CHIEF Superintendent John Sutherland was at the top of his game when it all went horribly wrong.

He had served in the Metropolitan Police for more than 20 years, rising quickly through the ranks and winning numerous commendations along the way. He grabbed every extra responsibility going, such as match commander at big football matches, and hostage negotiator with the armed and the suicidal. There were career-defining moments: commanding armed sieges; dealing with teenage knife-crime; rescuing victims of domestic violence; catching dangerous criminals.

By 2013, he was Borough Commander for Southwark, and had oversight of 1000 people. It was “the best and most fulfilling job of my career”.

Then he suffered a catastrophic breakdown. He was crippled by depression and anxiety. He went “from running a borough to barely able to run a bath”. After a career spent racing to be the first to arrive at the scene of a catastrophe, he struggled to put one foot in front of the other. A lifelong Christian, he found that his religion failed him. The illness seemed to come out of the blue — his colleagues said that he was the last person they expected to crack.

 

NOW he has written a memoir, Blue: Keeping the peace and falling to pieces. The book is both a love letter to policing and a very human account of his collapse and recovery. It includes one of the best descriptions of living with depression which I have ever come across. It also asks some pertinent questions about what society expects of its police, and the human toll that that takes.

The roots of his illness lie partly in the “simple wear and tear” of policing, such as working long hours and difficult shift patterns. Much worse is the traumatic effect of sustained exposure to violence and horror.

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“As a society, I don’t think we’ve begun to understand the cumulative impact,” he says. “We’re behind the curve and playing catch-up. The Police Dependants’ Trust recently hosted a conference where an expert from the military talked about post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone asked him how far behind the military the police were. He said ‘Twenty years’.

“More police officers are struggling than people are aware of. If you think about being first on the scene at London Bridge, it would be impossible to be unaffected. How could you enter Manchester Arena after the bombing and not be affected? People say, ‘It’s just the job,’ and you finish your shift and take a deep breath and go home, and come in again the next day.

“The effects are cumulative and compound: multiplication, not addition. If you’re a soldier, even in the worst circumstances, your tour of duty comes to an end. There’s decompression, and then they send you home, and for training. There’s no equivalent for the police. The calls keep coming, and that’s part of what’s inspiring: the sense of duty, and the adrenalin.”

 

HE IS not complaining. “I loved the job, and I still love it. We’re incredibly privileged to do what we do. And let’s not pretend that sitting in a police car going at 80 miles an hour on the wrong side of the road isn’t anything other than fun, especially when there’s a noble cause at the end of it. But we know how bad all that adrenalin is for you.”

He welcomes the increasingly open public discussion about mental illness. “I’d grown up with depression in the family, but I didn’t properly understand it until I had my own experience. I knew what it was, but not how it was. That was ignorance mixed with stigma. When I first fell ill, I absolutely felt the shame of mental ill health. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re beginning to move towards a more open and healthy discussion.”

There were personal elements to his breakdown, too. Now happily married with three daughters, Mr Sutherland’s upbringing was not easy. His father, a priest, was bipolar, and difficult to live with. His parents divorced, although they were reconciled shortly before his father’s death. He believes that the faith he grew up with did him more harm than good.

“I was a vicarage kid. I knew the answers in Sunday school. As I regularly tell my therapist, I was a good boy all my life. What I grew up with was rules and regulations. My worth was about how regularly I read the Bible, how often I prayed, how much of my income I gave away. They were man-made rules that didn’t do me much good. It was religion, not faith.”

His illness stripped all that away. “For six months, I no longer had the energy or capability to open the Bible or go to church. And it was an incredible relief. By this stage, I’d been a believing Christian for 44 years. Only after 44 years did I begin to take my first baby steps in understanding that my worth before God is not measured by my achievements, but by his love. I began to understand he loves me just as I am.”

 

EVEN before his illness, he believed that there was an important story to tell about policing, and he began blogging. “I’d got to the point where I was so full of everything I had seen and experienced that I had a compulsion to write it down,” he says. “In fact, I wondered if it was my duty to tell people what it was I was seeing in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London.”

Part of this is about standing up for the police. He is not, he insists, a blind apologist for the police, but wants to change the public conversation, which he thinks is unfairly negative.

The writing, along with everything else, went by the wayside when he was ill. “But as I was beginning to recover, I realised I wanted to get back to policing. I sat at the kitchen table — for only ten or 15 minutes to begin with — as a way to get the brain going again; almost a mechanical thing. And I found it really cathartic.”

The response to the book has been extraordinary. “It is beyond anything I might have thought. Inside policing, people have said, ‘Your story could have been my story,’ and ‘Thank you for telling our story.’ Someone even said it was the only book on policing they’ve ever read that is 100 per cent true. That’s incredibly moving.

“Outside policing, it’s been more, ‘I just never knew. We see the headlines, but it never occurred to me to think about the human cost.’ The overwhelming feedback has been wonderful and affirming.”

 

FOUR years on, he is back at work, but not in front-line policing, and considering taking early retirement at 47 through ill health. “I’m massively better, though there are days that are far from straightforward, and there’s some permanent damage. I can’t cope with trauma any more, which is strange, because for 20 years I didn’t hesitate. I jumped off every high board going, but now I can’t even climb the steps up to the high board. So I know I could never get back to an operational police role, much as I’d love to.”

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He still wants to make a difference. He is not yet sure where this will lead him, but he is in demand to tell his story, and run workshops for the police and the Home Office.

Meanwhile, through his discovery of grace, he has found his way back to his church: Holy Trinity, Clapham Common. “It’s home to Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, and l love sitting in their seats. I’m there, quietly and reflectively, and my faith is more important [to me] now than my religion was back then. It’s the absolute essence of who I am. I read the Bible most days, I pray every day, and I try to strive less.”

His name means he identifies with the “Johns” in the Bible. “I identify with [the disciple] John who leaned back against Jesus at the Last Supper. These days I try to do less striving, and more leaning.”

 

Blue: Keeping the peace and falling to pieces by John Sutherland is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £16.99 (CT Bookshop, £15.30).

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