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’s far from the whole truth.
In the kind of work I’ve done, that attitude gets mixed in with faith. If you’re employed in church work, or even if you’re just in church on a Sunday, that part of us that says: “Be tough,” gets tangled up in a sense of calling, provision and a drive to “have faith”. When things get difficult, that is an incredibly dangerous mix. Our mental health begins to suffer. And if recent events have taught me one thing, it’s that I’m not the kind of ‘tough’ I thought I was.
Last week, I opened up Twitter and saw the hashtag #timetotalk, which encourages people to talk about mental health. I’ve been thinking about this ever since.
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’s now February 2017, and I have resigned due to ill-health. It’s all over. I’ve not written this down before, but with no blame on anyone, and with all the complexities that are involved in 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 every day I was throwing up. In October, I would find myself in a bathroom before certain meetings, none of which were especially stressful, throwing up or dry-retching. I had two particularly bad moments of panic and got worried enough to go to the doctor.
We talked for five 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 the words: “I’m signing you off with severe stress and anxiety.” I had known and denied the truth of my mental state for a long time, so I actually felt relieved that a professional could see it, too.
I was signed off for four weeks. I haven’t returned. Now, I’ve resigned from a position that was a genuine privilege to hold.
But 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’s shameful, but because I’ve bought into the culture I described earlier: that is, that being tough is a virtue and that those who deserve to be called faithful and Godly keep going no matter what.
But this shame is a lie and exposing it in me may help someone else recognise that.
I have learned a lot of things since my diagnosis. I’ve learned that I can’t do everything. I was trying to plug every hole I could see, in the fear that leaving them unplugged would bring the whole thing crashing down. This led to long working weeks and increasing levels of stress.
I now see rest as vital. We cancelled holidays to fill some of those holes. I worked on days off to keep things moving; things that in retrospect might not have been as vital as they felt. I worked once my wife and son were asleep. I thought I was strong enough. I wasn’t.
Talking to someone early is a lifeline, and 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 about what I was going through, 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’s a good decision. I’m struggling to fully accept this one. When I tell people I’ve resigned and the reason why, I feel ashamed and embarrassed. I project questions in their minds in which I’m made to look small: questions they are likely not thinking.
But it isn’t a failure to stop. For the sake of your health and for those you love, it’s 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’m 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 the others looked at their feet.
I’m 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 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’m afraid now, as I edge towards clicking the “publish post” button, but I want to talk because it helps. I’m afraid, but I hope that doing this in spite of my fear might help someone else who is afraid to talk. I’m hoping that it might begin the process of recovery for someone.
I resigned in December and I’m 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.