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‘I could see no future beyond the bars of that asylum’

27 April 2018

As a teenager, Mark Edwards spent four months in a mental-health institution. He talks to Madeleine Davies about why he is now open about his history


The Revd Mark Edwards at St Matthew’s, Dinnington

The Revd Mark Edwards at St Matthew’s, Dinnington

FROM Adrian Mole’s prodigious output to the extracts read by celebrities on Radio 4, teenage diaries have long been mined for comic potential. But when the Revd Mark Edwards began transcribing his, he quickly found he needed to pull back. “My mental health issues are under control — as long as I don’t start picking at the scab,” he explains.

The diaries were written during the four months he spent in the West Cheshire asylum in 1980. They reveal a depressed, angry, and frightened 18-year-old, reluctant to play “stupid games” in occupational therapy, terrified by threats of electro-convulsive therapy, and tormented by suicidal thoughts.

“Oh God, how can I change?” reads one entry. “How can I be different? The doctor is right. I am flawed, damaged, probably damaged beyond repair.”

Looking back, he struggles to comprehend a system that left a vulnerable teenager sharing a space with adults with complex disorders, some of whom were violent or predatory, “constantly feeling fearful and under threat from those around me”.

Today, the asylum has been demolished, but the diary survives, published in Life After Care, Fr Edwards’s second memoir. The first, Tears in the Dark: A journey of hope (Authentic Media), was published in 2004 and recounted life in the care of Lincolnshire Social Services (Books, 20 August 2004).

This account, published by Trigger, the publishing house of the Shaw Mind Foundation, marks Fr Edwards’s decision to stop “editing out” his struggles with mental health. “I felt that it might be perceived as a sign of weakness by the Church and church authorities,” he explains.

It was the increasing number of testimonies from celebrities, includ­­ing Prince William and Prince Harry, that gave him confidence, and the desire to tell others that “you can move on from being a victim to being a victor.” Had he read a book like this a teenager, he thinks, “that would have given me hope. At the time I could see no future beyond the bars of that asylum.”

MARK EDWARDSMark Edwards (back row, third from the left) at the children’s home, just before he left in 1978

AUTHENTICITY matters to Mr Edwards. “I have been in some very dark, scary places,” he writes. “I have experienced the dark night of the soul. And sometimes I haven’t felt worthy of being a priest.”

From his “bizarre and erratic” behaviour during a breakdown while training at Cranmer Hall, Durham, to bouts of depression after ordination which left him “curled up like a baby”, the book offers an unguarded look at the legacy of childhood neglect.

Much of the book is dedicated to a strikingly frank account of a teenage crush on “Aunty Lindsay”, one of his carers at a children’s home, which morphed into an obsession that continued to dog him well into his adult life (it “prevented normal adolescent development from taking place”, according to the asylum psychiatrist’s notes).

But it’s also a testimony to the Christians who saw his potential and championed his ministry, and to a life of dogged determination. He thinks of himself as “a bit like Humpty Dumpty — only God could put me back together”.

His earliest memory is of clinging to his mother in tears as a social worker pulled him away from her. He was three. For the rest of his child­hood, he and his brother were in and out of the care system.

He can remember being locked in a cupboard by one foster carer, and quantities of verbal abuse; and even today, he says, being asked to trust some­one causes him to “bristle”.

Although a children’s home brought stability and happier times, his obsession with Aunty Lindsay intensified to such an extent that he was asked to leave and move in with his sister. It was a suicide attempt there that prompted his sectioning and transfer to the asylum, where further attempts and near-attempts followed.

God remained a mystery, distant and remote (“someone who, if you stepped out of line, would squash you like a bug”), and was blamed for his “rotten childhood”. After one suicide attempt he can recall praying: “If I am truly worth something, please don’t let me die.”

Yet, looking back, he can see signs of God’s presence. He recalls how Spalding Baptist Church “took these two ruffians from the local children’s home to heart”, and still has the Bible that he received from the minister, the Revd John Hance.

It is inscribed with Proverbs 3.5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own under­standing. In all your ways acknow­ledge him, and he shall direct your paths.”

His asylum diary includes a psalm-like prayer, written after a visit from a Methodist minister (“I cry night and day, but my tears go unnoticed”). Some years later, while he was giving his testimony, someone came up to him and told him of having been in a prayer meeting where the minister, freshly returned from a visit, had asked them to pray for “a young man in psychiatric hospital called Mark Edwards”.

WHILE living with his sister after leaving the asylum, he was invited by a friend to volunteer at a soup kitchen run by Chester Gospel Hall Mission. It was here that he met the first in a series of Christians who became mentors.

Pastor Coombs was “the first father figure in my life”, he recalls. “I was not the easiest person, and he said: ‘You are the most strange, mixed-up young man I’ve ever come across, but God has told me to stick with you.’ And he did.”

For a short time, before a bedsit was found, he slept on the church floor. The soup kitchen was also where he met a young student, Lesley. When she brought him home to her parents, he had no qualifica­tions (he grew up believing that he was “thick”, only to be diagnosed with dyslexia later).

He had only recently been released from the asylum. He remembers arriving at her house, “with plush carpets and leather couches. I felt very aware of my frayed jeans and too-short jumper sleeves.” Yet “they never once judged me. They took me under their wing and welcomed me into the family and I have to thank God for that”.

Mark and Lesley have been mar­­ried for 34 years, and have four chil­dren. Life After Care is dedicated to his father-in-law, Elfed John, who died last year. “I used to joke that if my daughter brought someone like me, would I be so accommodating?” he says.

After studying at Moorlands Bible College, an Evangelical training centre founded by the Plymouth Brethren in the 1940s, and serving as a pastoral assistant at Kay Street Baptist Church in Lancashire, Mr Edwards went on to train for the priesthood at Cranmer Hall in 1991.

It was not an easy time. Conducting a self-assessment triggered terrible memories, and a visit with a social worker to the car park where a young girl, also a product of the care system, had taken her life was the catalyst for a breakdown.

“I walked around half the time picturing myself back in the chil­dren’s home in Spalding,” he recalls. “To the onlooker it must have been very weird. I don’t think people understood that I was having a breakdown.” Some of his acquaintances grew afraid and withdrew, which he can understand.

“Today there are safeguarding practices with vulnerable adults, as well there should be. But back then, losing more people [as friends] because of my mental state felt like another cruel blow.” Some people higher up wanted his “head on a platter”, he says.

ONE of the shining lights of the story is a former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, then Director of Pastoral Studies and Warden at Cranmer Hall, who, Mr Edwards says, put his reputation on the line by championing him. Without him, he thinks, he would never have got ordained.

Counselling helped, and, eventually, a psychiatric report confirmed that he could progress to ordination.

This took place in Carlisle Cathedral on 2 July 1995, a day when, he writes, “I no longer felt let down. I no longer felt rejected. Instead all I felt was the strong, unconditional love of a Father.”

Life since that day has not been simple. His first curacy didn’t work out, and he has battled depression and anger. He can remember writing: “God is dead and the Church sucks!” Even today, he can’t listen to adverts for foster care because of the memories it triggers.

But he has also found that, when he does meet those who have been brought up in care, “there is that empathy. I want to say: ‘Just because you were brought up in care doesn’t mean you can’t go on to live a productive life and give back to society.’”

His ministry has also been marked by candour — “I’m just a working-class lad in a dog collar” — and engagement with front-line services. His gift for listening, and talking, was noted by Bishop Pritchard in a report for Cranmer Hall, which described him as “a fascinating man, full of passion and self-doubt”.

Certainly, his message for the 72,000 children growing up in care today is an important one. They are four times more likely than their peers to have a mental-health problem; and, at GCSE level, three times less likely to achieve a 4 grade in English and Maths. Only six per cent go on to study at university, compared with 45 per cent of their peers.

While it’s not unusual to hear of clergy who have fostered and adopted children, it is less common to hear from a priest who has direct experience of growing up in care.

Fr Edwards’s conclusion, on the final page of his book, is: “Things may have started badly, but they can finish well.” He has served both as a volunteer with the lifeboat service, and as a first responder with the police, and was made an MBE for his “services to the voluntary sector in the North East” in 2010, and awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2014 for services rendered as an emergency-service volunteer.

MARK EDWARDSMark Edwards collecting his MBE

WHILE much has changed since the 1980s — the first asylum closure in Britain didn’t take place until 1986 — Mr Edwards believes that mental ill-health still has a stigma, and that the Church has “a lot of catching up to do with society”. There is still, he believes, a tendency to see it as “a sign of weakness”.

The latest research from the Ministry Division found no indication that clergy experienced anxiety and depression more commonly than the wider population (News, 15 Septem­ber); but at a recent General Synod debate on clergy well-being, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that being a parish priest was the “most stressful” work he had ever done (News, 7 July). A survey of dioceses conduced by the Clergy Well-being group found that provision for those in difficulties “varies widely” across the Church.

“Many clergy I have met did not feel supported in their diocese,” Mr Edwards reports. “It may be down to them not using the resources available to them; but I do think it can be perceived as sign of weakness. We are supposed to be ones that have all the answers.”

He is conscious that “people are still wary of me now, a vicar who has been in a mental institution.” But he emphasises that his own congregation has been “wonderful: very supportive and understanding”. The book contains fulsome praise of those who have stood by him, including the Revd Ian Davies, a former incumbent at St John the Evangelist, Barrow-in-Furness, who took him on as a curate.

“He told me that the first time he met me and saw my wife, he saw two very hurt people, and that there was ‘no way I was going to get rid of you: I was going to nurture you and move you on in the faith.’”

He is also conscious that, while “it seems that things have improved massively”, the closure of the asylums and the creation of the Care in the Community programme has produced a complicated state of affairs. “You had people who were previously institutionalised suddenly thrust back into the community . . . It’s certainly a lot of empty rhetoric when there’s no funding to back up the ideas.”

When it comes to class, he suspects that the C of E does contain elitism, considering it “nothing short of a miracle” that he was accepted for training in the early 1990s. “They are a bit more open now, but they still favour those who have got degrees, from middle-class backgrounds. And when it comes to appointing various bishops and archdeacons and things like that, those positions seem to be more filled by people who have the right pedigree.”

Someone stopped him in the street recently and expressed surprise that he sounded the same in the street as he did in the pulpit. He “never got the hang” of “that ecclesiastical voice”. He hopes for more leaders like Bishop Pritchard, “who could support those students from non-academic backgrounds, and those who came with various mental-health issues”.

Today, as Team Vicar of Christ the King, comprising Brunswick, Brunton Park, Dinnington, and North Gosforth, in the diocese of Newcastle, he considers himself to be in recovery, and determined to live in the present.

This is central to his prescription, as is taking responsibility for one’s actions. “I played the victim so long, I didn’t know how to be anything else,” he reflects. “There came a point when I had to stop blaming my past for bad decisions I was making in the present.”

Life After Care ends with practical advice on counselling, relationships, and support for carers. It is his wife, Lesley, who emerges as the heroine of the tale. “She needs to be a saint!” he says. “A lot of healing has come through my wife’s love; she is the embodiment of unconditional love . . . the greatest sermon I have ever read on love, the closest I could get to God with skin on.”

A Doctor Who fan who once volunteered to replace the Time Lord (Features, 2 November, 2006), Mr Edwards continues to draw hope from the TARDIS. “Even when [it] almost died completely, there was just the tiniest flicker of power that saved it.”

Life After Care: From lost cause to MBE, part of the Inspirational series, is published by Trigger (£11.99).

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