Paul Taylor works part-time as a hospital chaplain since his retirement from his job as a priest in the Church of England. He reflects on his experience of mental illness working within the church …
Sitting in the corner of my study one Monday morning, crying for no reason, I knew something was wrong, just not what.
But a lot had happened before I got to this point. My name is Paul, I trained as a nurse, working in acute medicine, and then in the operating theatre. This took me from Preston to London to Derby. I am a priest in the Church of England, though not working for the Church of England. That will make sense, I promise. I am married to Jo who is a nurse. We have three children, and our golden retriever.
We can all find ourselves fitting into some type of descriptive box, or being a statistic. It took me nearly 30 years to discover mine.
Let’s look at some of the boxes and statistics that I find myself in, that contribute to making up this person ‘Paul’:
• 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Tick.
• 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination. Tick.
• Bipolar disorder is relatively common. Around 1 person in 100 is diagnosed with the condition. Tick.
• Bipolar disorder can occur at any age, although it often develops between the ages of 18 and 24 years. Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder. Tick.
• Coupled with the increase of stress and related illness in clergy, and clergy burnout.Tick.
As I sat in that corner, I did not realise I was joining a new group. Thankfully my GP was able to see me straight away, and signed me off with stress and depression. I had to make a hard call to my line manager.
A couple of months prior to this I had been off with a broken foot, while playing football for the local side in a fun match. That was no problem. Stress however was frightening, the fear that I would be seen as weak and a failure.
I could look back to another time of high stress, as a newly qualified staff nurse. I struggled, like a duck floating on the pond, with legs paddling like mad underneath. I felt isolated, not wanting to go to work. I had a great sense of panic, wanting to run away. This feeling had to end, so I took an overdose and ended up in A&E. I knew the treatment would not be sympathetic, with your stomach pumped almost as a punishment; then a brief chat with the psychiatrist the following day. I knew the answers to give, which meant that it was back to work as if nothing had happened. It is so different to how it is today. In those days there was no occupational health counselling. It was friends and a colleague who helped me through.
Moving forward to my 40s finds me as vicar of two rural parishes, which sounds great. We lived in a lovely vicarage. Trying to bring about change was not easy, and more than once I found myself in situations that could be described as being bullied. There were examples of little things to undermine, maybe a sly word or comment. Or there were more obvious examples, with letters of complaint, abusive telephone calls, constant criticism over any new initiative. Here in the institution of the church, I was being bullied – it was a shock. It took its toll, and I had my first breakdown.
My GP asked if I could be moved to a quiet country parish for a rest. I explained I was already in a rural parish, known in church circles as Dibley! On returning to work I was lucky to have a member of the clergy as a mentor. A retired clergyman, he was there as my support, and had vast experience. I had his phone number by my desk, ‘the hotline’ he called it. He gave me the confidence to carry on.
Life was a struggle, and we ended up moving parishes after five years. In the new church I worked in a team, and things were good. However, I had not taken into account the impact that the previous five years had taken on my health, living under almost constant stress. I had what some would describe as a breakdown. For me it was complete physical and mental collapse. I had been in hospital for a few days with a migraine; Jo came to bring me home. As we approached the vicarage, I had a choking sensation, and fear and panic. I physically could not enter the house. My head had racing thoughts that I could not stop. What followed over the next few weeks was a journey to a place I never want to go to again.
I had developed some very bad coping mechanisms, including self-harm. This was difficult to understand. I would cut myself on my arms using whatever I could find, not just knives, but broken plastic cups. It made no sense, except that this was something I was in control of. Trips to A&E would find my arms dressed. However, in 20 years the approach had changed to folk with mental illness. I felt I was treated no differently than when I broke my foot. Self-harm took me to a place where I could say I was ill; however, I needed to hide this shame. So it was amazing how much gardening I did that scratched my arms! At times you just want to block things out. I found myself misusing prescription drugs – I had strong painkillers and muscle relaxants for a back condition – combined with alcohol. However, Jo would lock the drink away, and then I would use the communion wine in my study. Things came to a head when the children went away for half-term. I agreed to spend three days in the psychiatric unit – which was like being on retreat.
I received good care from a priest who had worked in mental health as a chaplain. I was told that while I was off sick, I could not attend church within the team. My children attended various church groups, so my wife would take them, and I would have to find somewhere else. The congregation had been told they could not make contact. I had been, and was, their pastor, and had journeyed with some of them through their difficult times. They wanted to care for us as a family, but were being denied. It felt like I was suddenly the outcast from this community. I would hide if I saw someone when I was walking the dog. Walking around Tesco, I nearly fell into the freezer as a member of the congregation came up the aisle.
To move forward, we had a formal visit from the church leadership with a message. The bishop would like me to go on ‘gardening leave’ (I had not heard the term before, and we had only a small garden!), then to take early retirement due to ill health. I was just 45 years old.
At this stage it was hard to take in, for I was still not well. After five years of training, and working in various parishes, this was it, the end. I really felt not wanted, an embarrassment to the church. Then things hit me. Where will we live? How will we manage? Depression was to hit again. There was a move backwards for a while, and some old coping mechanisms reappeared. Try explaining to health care professionals how the church works! There are no human resources personnel for clergy. We were under pressure to move out of the vicarage, bringing more stress and more pressure. We had identified stress as one of the triggers to my depression.
All I could see was everything ending; I could not see the future. My registration as a nurse had expired years ago. I felt that decisions were out of my control. It felt like I had to fight. Yes, I had a mental illness, stress and depression, although as yet I had no formal diagnosis. When I broke my foot playing football, folk in the parish accepted it, and thought it quite fun! Mental illness is quite different. I had been asked if I could guarantee I would not be ill again. Which is like asking if you will have flu again. No one knows.
In the past I had been involved in some creative projects. The church had no problem with me then, I had lots of creative energy. Looking back I realise that these and other situations have been while I was in a manic state. It was 18 months after I retired that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder was made.
In preparation for retirement I drew together my farewell service; it was the saddest liturgy I had ever compiled. We moved into a new property rented from the church. I struggled to find purpose; I had lost my identity in the community and my sense of vocation. Practical issues became a concern, for example, what to do with my time? My wife went to work, the children were at sixth form and school, which left me on my own. I found myself asking if this was it, was this my life? I looked for opportunities to fill my time and found the voluntary sector very welcoming. I was open about my illness from the start, so that folk would understand. I worked in a charity shop for half a day each week. I attended an art therapy group, and volunteered half a day with the hospital chaplaincy. On retiring I wanted to have permission from the bishop to help in the church we attended. When it came, it was very restrictive, with conversations between the vicar of the church where we worshipped and the hospital chaplaincy. The decision was made, but without contact with my health care professionals for their input.
As someone with a mental health illness, you get the feeling that somehow you are more difficult to deal with within the institution of the ‘church’. Christians with depression need an atmosphere of acceptance to deal healthily with mental health issues.
This is just a brief whistle-stop tour of my story, which I hope gives you a flavour of the journey. In a naive way I believed the church would be open to all. However, my experience makes me feel that I am on the outside of the institution and an embarrassment.
When I retired, I was encouraged that by moving from the stress of a parish I could develop a new and creative ministry within the diocese. I did not really grasp that at the time. It has taken me five years to make sense of it. I enjoyed parish ministry, and having it removed from me hurt deeply. I truly believed that was what I was called to do.
I have recently moved to a new post, two and a half days a week as Anglican chaplain at a local hospital. With my background in nursing and health care, as well as pastoral care, I bring something to the table. My ministry is of the interrupted journey, be that in hospital, or my work as a safety steward at a football club, or within the Red Cross. This is my new and creative ministry, free from the stress of a parish.
So why as a priest in the C of E do I still feel an outcast because I suffer with a mental illness?