Mental health

Much is talked and written today about mental health; it’s all over the TV as high (and not so high) profile names tell us about their mental health problems. It’s on the agenda in corporate board rooms; it’s big in social media. Hardly a day goes by when I’m encouraged to “share” something on social media telling others how much I understand and empathise with their mental and emotional turmoil. It’s yet another ribbon or wristband to wear, virtue-signalling, telling you how much I care.

I have been through a long period of admittedly slight, but nevertheless significant, mental ill-health. But I never so much as took a day off work. It is possible to continue leading a normal life whilst ill. Every day, people continue to go to work suffering from heavy colds, or in chronic and severe pains, or with serious disabilities, and they get by. There are others who do not bother; they don’t even try. I have worked with able-bodied, fit and healthy people a good deal younger than I, who were in the habit of taking 15-20 days a year off “sick”. I confess I have no patience with such people.

I did consider seeing the doctor, and in fact I would have done so much earlier. What prevented me from doing so was the fact that in modern England it takes three weeks to get an appointment to see a GP, unless you face a life-threatening emergency. For some, mental ill-health is of course a life-threatening emergency, but for me, it was merely life-changing. Eventually I did see the GP for anxiety. More of that later.

I don’t really know where it all started. At one point during 2016 my wife turned to me and said “it’s been a couple of years now” meaning the length of time I had seemed “down in the dumps” and not myself. I guess that sometime in 2015, things started to take a dive. What was the cause? Who knows? As engineers, as safety professionals, we are taught to look for causation: What happened? Why did it happen? What went wrong? And most importantly, how do we stop it from happening again?

Sometimes, in the complexity of the real world, these questions are unanswerable. It is fair to say that changes at work may have causal factors. A man might catch pneumonia and become gravely ill: the immediate cause, of course, is infection by bacteria or virus. But working too hard, or giving a long speech outside on a rainy November day, could easily act as the starting point or “causal factor” as the safety professionals say. Of such work-related causal factors we will write no more, as these matters have still to run their full course.

Certainly though, looking back, I wonder how I kept my job. I know, of course, full well. I kept it by the grace of God. Both through my prayers and through the skills he has given me. The worst time was from November 2016 through to June 2018. Changes in the workplace in the early summer of last year heralded a time of recovery. At the present time I consider myself convalescent, and would guard carefully against the risk of relapse.

These years have been studded with bereavement. In November 2015, after years of decline, my wife’s mother passed away. We were not close – but this was my wife’s mother, not just anyone, and obviously my wife was deeply affected. In March 2016, one of my Scouters died of cancer after years of heroic struggle – just a young man of only 27. The following winter, my wife’s beloved Aunt Josie went into hospital in early January, and we buried her in early April 2017. Last summer, my son’s girlfriend took her own life in the days before his graduation. That summer, on the day of the funeral, I learnt of the suicide on her 18th birthday of the only daughter of one of my former Scouters.

These years have been a time of growth and spreading of wings for our kids, as they all have “flown the coop” and found their way in the wide world. At least their welfare has not been a grave concern to us; all three of them proving to be healthy, upright citizens well able and willing to earn a living.

In this very difficult time, I have found strength in three very different activities. One of them, has been running. I’d started running earlier, back in 2012, and running continues to be a source of strength and comfort to me. In the very worst times at work, I sought for activity that did not involve deep thinking, activity which some might refer to as “right-brain”. Like running, neither were innovation: I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve played guitar off and on (perhaps mostly off) since childhood. I found great refreshment and renewal in playing guitar, and my journal-keeping or writing has taken what I would very much consider a high priority in my life. I have beside me as I write, paper diaries back to the end of 2016 with upwards of 160,000 words written: I could have written a novel in a six-month if I chose to do that rather than to journal. But, that journalism, if not saving my life (that would be inappropriate hyperbole and crass exaggeration, both of which I find deplorable), has certainly contributed to recovery of my mental health, and in any case – writing is never wasted.

In those dark years I sought the face of God – most often in one or two places in London – and I have been found by Him. I sought the face of God through prayer and fasting , and enjoyed a period of tremendous personal renewal and spiritual growth, at perhaps the lowest point on my journey.

I have become a District Commissioner for Scouts and at the same time, have largely lost interest in Scouting. What took up 20-25 hours a week of my time before October 2016, I will not permit to take half that time now. I continue as DC out of a sense of duty, an awareness that there is no-one to replace me, and an unwillingness to be known as a quitter.

What were the symptoms?

  • A sense of feeling “What’s the point?
  • A lack of interest, ambition and motivation – as the other ranks say in the Navy – “NAAFI – no ambition and fuck-all interest”
  • A lack of concern for my long-term welfare in my work and home life;
  • Easily irritated and angered – irrascible at times;
  • At times tired to the point of tears – not metaphorically, but literally;
  • An inability to concentrate or focus;
  • An inability to see things through to completion;
  • Anxiety attacks at all times of day but especially in the small hours
  • Insomnia – lying awake transfixed by fear and worry, at random times
  • Panic attacks and dread at what should be undaunting and straightforward tasks or decisions e.g. what shall we have for supper, what shall I buy my wife for her birthday?
  • Weight loss: this symptom alone has been to my advantage. The reasons for it are complex and not just related to mental health. In 2015 I was 17st 11lb; today (May 2019) I am 16st.

There’s hope for Merrie England

In posh frocks and best suits, we took train in the rainy morning up to London Bridge. It was that kind of fine rain that gets you wet. The event we were invited to was not a wedding, but it proved to be more like a wedding than anything else. We were going to Southwark Cathedral for the Ordination and Consecration to Bishop of our friend and former rector, the Reverend Doctor Andrew Rumsey.

At the cathedral we took coffee with a lady we know who must use crutches to get about. She bears considerable pain and disability in her life with a very English stoicism and understatement, and she often looks rather tired and drawn. But today she had battled through on her crutches and was looking very well, pushing the boat out to join in this important celebration.

And then we were all seated. There was a short warm-up act, a deacon or dean or some such, who made everyone laugh while explaining how things would go during the service. In a more secular gathering, he would have been the person who had to start his short speech by saying “There are no planned fire drills today”.

Then there was a procession. There were dozens of richly robed prelates and lords spiritual. Bishops, deans, deacons, priests, acolytes and singers. A number of people carrying shiny sticks, or candles, or holding up Bibles. And amongst this procession, all our clergy friends. In all this colour, pomp and pagaentry, a connection to people we knew. A young priest I know touched my shoulder as he walked past. Hey Nick!!

The final person in the procession was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who took the service. Our former vicar was presented to Canterbury by two mentors, one on either side: the Bishops of Salisbury and Southwark. Questions were asked, “Do you believe him to be of Godly life and sound learning?“, using a form of words that must be centuries old.

Canterbury went on to cause a clerk – “the Provincial Registrar” – to read out the whole of the letter of authorisation for the ordination of a Bishop – the letter patent. Here was language linking the everyday of the here and now, to the sweeping arc of history; here were words from the seat of power, from the Queen herself, relating to someone I’ve sat and had a pint and peanuts with. Just remarkable. One might feel part of a nation, tribe or group as it exists across the land today, but less often, perhaps, might we feel that sense of belonging across time, stretching back through the generations. And listening to this letter being read out, we were all part of Merrie England. Someone else deserves the credit for saying this, but there is hope for Merrie England when people like Andrew Rumsey are appointed to posts like this.

The sermon was given by the Reverend Canon Chris Russell, the Archbishop’s Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, and parish priest in Reading. And what a sermon! Of the art and craft of sermons, my old vicar used to say, “always start with personal stories”. Chris Russell did just that and took us from the inessential (in his family’s case, a shower head that lit up) to what we really need. What do we really need? What do we really want? What MUST we have? God’s call on our lives: all of us are called by God personally, and by name. We are called by name because we all matter, each and every one of us. God has questions for us, which must be answered – again, because we all matter to God.

Later on, the college of Bishops laid hands on their new colleague Andrew at the actual moment of his ordination. There were dozens of them; not all could get near him. The further away Bishops laid hands on nearer Bishops who in turn laid hands on Andrew. To see this very physical act, this laying on of hands, right at the pinnacle of the Anglican establishment, was a remarkable sight. History, tradition and the teaching of Scripture brought right into the present. The laying on of hands is a common enough practice in house churches and in Charismatic churchmanship, but perhaps less common in the grass-roots Church of England.

There was a giving of appropriate and symbolic gifts. A Bible, a ring; a cross, a crozier – all the “stuff” a Bishop might traditionally use to exercise their office. A word on the crozier. My wife organised that. It was again, a moment of connection. We’d driven across all England, all the way to a former mining village near Durham to collect this fine piece of work, which was now in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A craftsman by the name of Tom Keers made the Cleek (that is, the curved part made of horn at the top) and another, named Roger Marwood, made the shaft of oak- from Acstede – “the Place of the Oaks.” Both will be proud to see their work in such hands.

And then it was over: the rector was become a Bishop. The gathered prelates and lords of the church started to process down the aisle with their newest colleague among them. As they did so, there was a spontaneous round of applause and cheering for Andrew Rumsey, which he acknowledged with a smile. It was another human moment in a big, portentous, important occasion when powerful forces for good were at work.

As the procession of lords spiritual, prelates, clerks, singers, acolytes and men carrying shiny sticks made its way out, I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury stop, greet and touch fists with a ten year old boy, who like me, had an aisle seat. Canterbury didn’t need to do that. In doing so, in stopping to greet that lad, he made his day. And mine too.

To the rescue

Rescuer,
We try to be like You
We try to be like You
The boy scoots past and sings,
“To the rescue”
We try to be like You.

Teacher,
We want to learn from You
We want to learn from You
The youth climbs hills and shouts
For joy.
We want to learn from You.

Lord,
We long to follow You
We long to follow You
The man lives life and whispers,
“Show me
How to follow You.”

Moral ground zero

In significant moments
At times of great growth
Life on the anvil
Is really no joke

Change swirls around us
Upending our lives
Help us to cope, Lord
And do what is right

The kids are all gone now
They have faraway beds
Out in the wide world
Earning their bread

Our elders are passing
Who shaped us in love
We walk in their shoes now,
We are those we loved

We must move on now
Press on to the goal
Run that long race, Lord
And in time, become whole

Holy silence

How long can you be alone, and remain happy? A few days? Weeks? or maybe only hours.  I’ve known people who were uncomfortable with their own company for only hours.  Yet, the great hunters and explorers of North America must have spent months alone – think of John Muir, who was a six month in the Yosemite Valley with only a new testament for company.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.

An Anglican temperament?

A faint disdain for enthusiasm is the mark of a decayed and effete culture

Paul Goodman posts today in Conservative Home on “What Cameron can do next for the churches”. I’m not a natural Tory, I’m too right-wing – but the title caught my eye and so I opened it and started to read. I didn’t finish it; I’ve no slight interest in the details of what the Prime Minister can do for the churches. Some way into the article there was a wonderful statement of what Mr Goodman calls the “Anglican temperament”, which was of interest because it defines almost everything that I am NOT – member of an Anglican church though I am.

He writes of David Cameron that he “brings to politics what might be called an Anglican temperament: a certain moderation of tone, a reluctance to get hung up about doctrinal differences, an attraction to consensus, an aversion to “enthusiasm”, a sense of establishment and his own place in it, and good manners (most of the time).”

It’s worth going through clause by clause!

A certain moderation of tone – I’ve never been accused of moderation of any kind, much less of tone.  I have been accused of being “abrasive”, “alienating”, and “undiplomatic”.  As an older man I acknowledge the importance of moderation of tone, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me – I have to work at it.

A reluctance to get hung up about doctrinal differences – here is the heart of modern Anglicanism and one of the core identifying features of Englishness. The English, Anglicans or otherwise, don’t really think that what they believe matters. But doctrinal differences do matter. What we believe is a matter of life and death – in fact, as Mr Bill Shankly famously said of football, it is much more important than life and death. For me, both as a Christian and as a political animal, I do embrace doctrinal differences – I am partisan. The challenge for me and others like me is to be partisan without being tribal, to allow doctrinal differences without violent disagreement – in other words, agreeing to disagree.

An attraction to consensus – Mrs Thatcher infamously had a low view of consensus. I recall that the vicar that married my wife and I telling us that he required his PCC to be unanimous in their decisions. While consensus has it’s uses in places, at the point of crisis, it is a way to avoid making a decision. Colin Powell says that the true leader will have to annoy all of the people some of the time. At the end of the day, someone has to decide – and “consensus” may have to be over-ridden for the greater good.

An aversion to “enthusiasm” – Having spent 25 years in churches where there is a drum kit and people wave their hands in the air, I am not averse to enthusiasm. Bring it on: in fact, a faint disdain for enthusiasm is the mark of a decayed and effete culture.

A sense of establishment and his own place in it – I owe nothing to the “establishment”; I came from nothing. I am the first person on either side of my family in all of the twentieth century, to attain to higher education. I’m not part of the “establishment” – I went to a comprehensive school and a polytechnic, and many people in the “establishment” would likely cross the street to avoid a meritocrat like me. If I could say anything to the “establishment” it would be this: the status quo is never acceptable.

Good manners (most of the time) – As my kids would say: weeeell. Mr Cameron is well known as someone who can be quite breathtakingly rude to people below his station – yet without once being guilty of what he would call “bad manners”. Being decent and courteous to others and “good manners” are not the same thing.

The creeping secularism that permits no dissent

“Nyarlothotep…the crawling chaos…I will tell the audient void” – H.P Lovecraft

Today the Scout Association has published a new Scout Promise that permits atheists, or those of no faith at all (although it seems to me they are two different kinds of people) to be Scouts without having to lie about what they believe. It all sounds rather fine. On the surface this looks like rather a grand gesture to make, all about inclusivity, all about ensuring that everyone who wants to can have the chance to be a Scout.

Surely, anyone who opposes this, is opposing inclusivity? You might think that to oppose this development would be reactionary and inappropriate in the modern world. It is rather like that classic old question with no right answer: “When did you stop beating your wife?”

In today’s Metro, the Chief Scout has published an article with rather interesting wording.

He says: I see this as a positive and inclusive way of allowing young people who do not have faith in their lives still to enjoy the Scouting adventure…

As regards young people who have “no faith” – do we not think that we as adults should be teaching young people to have faith? Do we not think that it is our duty? Oh…just me then.

And you can see in here the real issue underneath – it’s not about “inclusivity” or anything like that. It’s about creating a secular society – it is about actually stamping out faith and removing it from the public arena.

I’ll steer clear of any discussion of Scouts as such, as it is not really the issue here, except to say that to be fair, Scouts is not faith-based or church-based youth work. It never has been and nor should it be: at Scouts we have never really required young people to have faith – not really. It’s always been secular, right from the start. All very relaxed and anglican and it doesn’t really matter what you believe – until you make an issue of it. And then, of course, you are in trouble. We English have never really got on with people that “make an issue” of faith matters.

The real issue is creeping and insidious secularism. Writing very much as a Christian now, I think secularism has a spiritual origin and needs opposition. It is evil. This is why I opened the article with a quote from a H.P Lovecraft horror story.

Alice Bailey (1880-1949) was a 20th century “new age” guru who proposed a ten point plan to destroy Christianity. Some promoters of secularism remind me of the the expression Stalin used – “useful idiots”. They are going unwittingly about the work of the likes of Alice Bailey. If they are not careful they will place themselves and others in our society into the hands of one who is very much more dangerous than Josef Stalin. But then, secular liberals don’t believe in the devil any more than they believe in God.