It’s a busy Sunday morning at the end of a busy week, I’ve preached twice, tried to resolve some technical hitches and followed all that up with a pastoral conversation. Then I find myself sitting in the church lounge sobbing thinking “I can’t go on anymore.” A conversation with another elder who just happens to be an NHS consultant later and we’ve agreed I need to take some time out starting by “benching” myself from leading and speaking at a baptism service in the evening.
The next day I went to see my doctor. God is at work, I initially pick up a ticket to see a locum but the locum isn’t in and so I end up seeing one of the official practice GPs who has got to know us well over the past decade. “What’s the problem?” she asks as I promptly burst into tears and find myself unable to speak again. “This …” I managed to utter and then a little bit later say that one of our church leaders has suggested burnout. We go through some questions and then she diagnoses Mixed Anxiety and Depression. I am signed off for 2 weeks which is later extended to 3 and prescribed Sertraline. I try, though not whole-heartedly to negotiate some wiggle room around some things I think I should do including a funeral but she is firm.
“I know you, you are not your usual self and you are not in a good way. I know you want to look after others but who looks after you? And if they don’t then you won’t be able to help others.”
Then it’s three weeks on the sofa, my brain seems to have stopped working to the point where I am unable to read and at times string a few sentences together without long pauses. Mainly I just want to sleep and occasionally stick something mindless on the telly. I know that my experience is both unique to me and in many respects no-where near as deep, long and horrific as many have experienced but a conversation about mental well-being, particularly among Christians and especially among pastors is important. I’m grateful to others for talking about their experiences and lessons learnt through blogs and books and if this contributes a little to that conversation then that’s a good thing.
So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts and reflections on my experience.
Some people use the word “burnout” to describe the type of experience I had. Burnout is usually classified as emotional and physical exhaustion caused specifically by workplace stress. Many of the symptoms appear to be similar if not identical to depression except that
- Depression is classified as a medical condition whereas burnout is not, although burnout might be something that leads to or is related to depression.
- Depression is seen as something caused by global factors whereas burnout is seen as specifically related to workplace stress.
The language of burnout has become common currency in the church and indeed in professional circles. Christopher Ash’s book, “Zeal Without Burnout” is an extremely helpful read. However, I’m personally cautious of using the label. Why? Well first of all if there are medically diagnosable conditions, I think it is best to stick with them. Secondly, people tend colloquially associate the idea of burnout simply with the exhaustion which comes from busyness. That’s problematic for a few reasons. First of all, if we simply think it means someone has been working long hours then I would say that whilst pastors can be extremely busy, it’s no more so than plenty of professionals including medics and teachers (I think there are relational factors that do make the work different). Secondly, whilst most definitions include the emotional symptoms I’m not sure they are grasped colloquially. It’s not just a case of needing some sleep and shorter hours. Thirdly, the assumption is that the person has been busy seeking out things to do and can in fact look to escape reality by throwing themselves into things. Maybe that’s true but I was at the opposite end of the spectrum desperately trying to put the breaks on. Thirdly and for me most importantly, I think we hide behind this idea of burnout because it sounds heroic, manly, godly even. I’ve even heard people say that they want to burnout for Jesus. Burnout is what men get, burnout is what happens to pastors. And so it betrays the fact that we still don’t like to talk about things like depression.
Suicide and Self-harm?
I’ve never really struggled much with suicidal thoughts. I’ve had low points before that were probably warning signs and suspect looking back that I had a bout of depression in my first year of University but you didn’t talk about such things then so I ploughed on. One piece of good news is that I seem to have some kind of blocking switch that stops those conventional self-harm thoughts gaining traction. So for me, suicide does not seem to have been a risk. However, I’ve realised that there are other ways that we can be tempted to self-destruct. It might be the urge to quit the job or sometimes the sudden thought that I could start walking and keep walking to who knows where and no-one would miss me. It’s the knowledge that I have a loving wife that stops me from doing something like that.
On your own, passive and helpless?
There is I think a temptation to think that you are completely on your own with some health issues – that nobody understands what you are going through. This is not true and other people have real experience and insight On the other hand, there are some people who are a little quick to tell you what you are going through, how long it will last and what you should do. This leaves you feeling very passive. It also is frustrating when you are trying to describe what is happening and how you are and it feels as though you are not being heard, listened to or understood. From the perspective of people looking in on someone’s struggle I would encourage them to be very careful about taking over, making decisions and leaving the person passive -even if you have experienced depression or other mental health issues yourself. From the perspective of the person suffering I would say that it is actually good to be reminded that we are passive and helpless, cannot save ourselves and need to cling to Christ.
Tracing the rainbow with care
In my last reflection below, I will draw out how I experienced God’s goodness through out this. I believe in a God who is love, who is good and great, who is always there. So, theologically I believe that God words all things together for good (Romans 8:28).
I was blessed during this period to experience a very keen awareness of this. However, this will not be the experience of everyone or on every occasion. Sometimes the darkness not lifting will cause even the most faithful believer to feel as though God is distant and the suffering is senseless. This is not about spiritual weakness but about the real affects of an illness. The sufferer may need help to “trace the rainbow through the rain.” Even your pastor, even experienced mature believers will appreciate that help.
A word of caution. Don’t become Job’s comforters with the sufferer. It is easy for us to quickly spiritualise things, to speculate on what God is doing in the situation and to suffocate with easy platitudes. We need to allow the sufferer to give real voice to the suffering. We need to allow them to trace the rainbow for themselves, we cannot trace it for them.
The Goodness of God
What kept me going? The love and kindness of church members has played a big part. Indeed it has been a blessing to find myself in a place where others took responsibility for caring for and visiting me. Secondly, some beautiful songs and hymns, The Goodness of God, When we see your face, Oh Lord my Rock and My Redeemer, I remember. Thirdly, Scripture, especially the Psalms, at times all I could read was one or two Psalms. Fourthly prayer, not lengthy or complicated, just sitting and chatting to God through the day and knowing he was listening.
You may or may not recognise the phrase I have used for the title of this article (and which appears particularly in the penultimate reflection). “I trace the rainbow through the rain” is a wonderful image from the hymn “Oh Love that will not let me go.” George Matheson wrote it at a moment when he was keenly aware of his own isolation and helplessness. It is a reminder that God’s love will never let go of his people.
“Oh, joy, that seeks me through the pain
I cannot close my heart to thee
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not in vain
That morn shall tearless be”