I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonably tough person. I’ve experienced my fair share of difficulties in life and am still standing. Of course, hidden in those first two sentences is a belief that being tough is a virtue; that being stoic and struggling on no matter what is something to celebrated. I guess that is true in part but it is far from the whole truth.
In the kind of work I’ve done that attitude gets mixed in with faith. If you’re in employed church work, or actually for many Christians, that part of us that says be tough gets tangled up in a sense of calling, provision and drive to ‘have faith.’ When things get difficult that is an incredibly dangerous mix. Our mental health begins to suffer.
I woke up this morning to discover a hashtag on twitter, #timetotalk. Today is a day to encourage conversations about mental health. I thought I’d start one of those conversations because recent events have taught me one thing, I’m not the kind of ‘tough’ I thought I was.
I came to Bath to lead a church- a wonderful group of people, worshipping God together and looking for ways to share what they have with those around them. We came here with a deep sense of calling and excitement; God had plans for us here. That was July 2015. It is now January 2017 and I have resigned due to ill health and it’s all over. I’ve not written this down before; with no blame on anyone, and with all the complexities that are involved with these things, being a minister made me mentally ill.
In November I went to my GP. I’d had symptoms of something being wrong for almost a year; initially it was tension, then sleeplessness, then headaches, then anxiety dreams. By September I was having chest pains and starting everyday throwing up. In October I would find myself in bathrooms before certain meetings, none of which were especially stressful, throwing up or at least dry retching. I had two particularly bad moments of panic and got worried enough to go to the doctor.
We talked for 5 minutes. When he asked me if I was considering harming myself, I knew what was coming next. That didn’t make it easier to hear, ‘I am signing you off with severe stress and anxiety.’ I had known and denied that for a long time. I felt relieved that a professional could see it too. I was signed off for four weeks. I haven’t returned and have now resigned from a position that was genuine privilege to hold.
Here is the reason I wanted to write this. I’m ashamed of my diagnosis. I shouldn’t be, and if you told me you had that very same diagnosis and that you were ashamed, I’d do all I could to help you lose the shame. Yet, in the twist of hypocrisy that sometimes happens, I’m ashamed to have been mentally ill, not because it is shameful, but because I’ve bought into the culture I described earlier, that is, being tough is a virtue and those who are called, faithful and Godly keep going no matter what. This shame is a lie and exposing it in me may help someone else recognise that.
I have learned a lot of things since stopping. I’ve learned that I can’t do everything. I was trying to plug every hole I could see in a fear that leaving them unplugged would bring the whole thing crashing down. That led to long working weeks and increasing levels of stress.
Rest is vital. We cancelled holidays to fill some holes. I worked on days off to keep things moving that in retrospect might not have been as vital as they felt. I worked once my wife and son were asleep. Rest is vital and I didn’t rest. I thought I was strong enough. I wasn’t.
Talking to someone early is a lifeline. It’s a lifeline I didn’t take. I hid my symptoms even from those I trust the most. I bought into the be tough, man-up, don’t tell a soul, be faithful to your calling lie and it ruined me. I didn’t tell a soul and it made me feel lonely and lost as well as stressed and anxious.
Stopping for the sake of yourself and your family isn’t failure, it is a good decision. I am struggling to fully accept this one. When I tell people I’ve resigned and the reason why, I feel ashamed and embarrassed. I put questions in their minds in which I am made to look small – questions they are likely not thinking. It isn’t a failure to stop though. For the sake of your health and for those you love it is vitally important. I was disappearing, my wife and son were not getting half of what they deserve. Stopping has allowed me to come back. I’m remembering who I am and who they are.
I am writing this because I sat in a meeting with some church leaders in August and every one of them looked exhausted and one said they were stressed as others looked at their feet. I am writing this because I know there are men who are hiding in bathrooms and telling nobody because they’ve bought the man-up, be tough culture and are afraid of looking weak. I’m writing this because mental illness is rampant in our society and that a high proportion of people don’t tell a soul and the loneliness vastly amplifies their symptoms.
If you resonate with what I’ve written please talk to someone today. Tell a friend, your partner, your doctor a colleague, your mum or dad. Talk to someone. Posting this is scary. Talking to someone was scary. I am afraid now as I edge towards clicking the ‘publish post’ button, but I want to talk because it helps. I am afraid but I hope that doing this in spite of that might help someone else who is afraid to talk to begin the process of recovery.
I resigned in December and am not sure what happens next, but I’m getting better – I’m so much better already.
If you recognise yourself in this. If you know you need to talk. I’ll listen.