Depressingly (dis)honest

Nik Wallenda walks over Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 2012, Photo by Frank Gunn

Walking the tightrope

Over recent years we have seen an increased awareness about mental health issues but how honest can we be when talking about them? How certain can we be that as well as more people talking about mental health issues more people understand them?

In a blog committed to being open and honest about what it can be like to discern whether I should be ordained it is perhaps strange to question the degree of honesty, but every disclosure brings with it a consequence. People disclosing their struggles with mental health can get sidelined and loose jobs.  I fear they might find routes towards ordination blocked too because of misunderstanding speaking louder than God’s will.

When completing my registration form for my first BAP (the time when the decision whether someone should train for ordination effectively occurs) I was told that what I disclosed was up to me, that if there was something I wasn’t prepared to discuss I shouldn’t even allude to it on the form. I decided that the undiluted truth was needed and that I should trust the BAP Advisors to understand the issues surrounding anything I wrote, and so I mentioned that at the time I came to faith I was severely depressed and suicidal.

My experience with the BAP Advisor who interviewed me on the pastoral collection of selection criteria left me thinking it had been a mistake to reveal my past mental illness in so much detail (see the Timeline of posts to read my BAP and post-BAP experiences). As the interview progressed the chain of questioning made me realise that my interviewer didn’t understand depression very well and I wasn’t helping to change that. And although my past mental health wasn’t the reason for not being recommended it contributed to the decision made. With the end of the discernment process almost in sight I find myself wondering how honest and open I can be about my struggle to avoid depression reclaiming its place as the controlling emotion in my life.

There are levels and degree to our honesty. However honest we claim to be we calculate what facts and emotions to communicate and what to hold back, and this blog is no exception. It is rare that we ever express everything that is on our mind without applying tact, diplomacy and sensitivity filters.

The motivation that lies behind our what we say and do not say are generally not ones of deception and dishonesty, although they can be. When a friend asks if they look good in an outfit we don’t say “no, you look awful”, we might lie and say yes or, hopefully, might find a tactful way of a expressing similar meaning but in a loving way. When we have bad news to deliver we don’t go in full-guns blaring or deliver it in a no-holds-barred manner, we select the words needed to convey the same facts in a sensitive manner.

Although I have talked about my experiences of depression, whether related to or caused by the discernment process I have had to think and calculate carefully about what I can disclose and how, even on this blog (I wrote about some of my experiences of depression in The Big D double-header blog post: It isn’t easy being green and I told you so!). Just as, thankfully, few humans are as interested as God is in our every thought and deed, too few exercise the constructive compassion that God does with that which we do share.

I would be irresponsible to my family if I exposed every feeling and fact (whether related to my discernment or not), I have to be sensitive to their right to privacy. Similarly with my church and diocese, to purposely identify people and places would bring unwanted focus on them and divert attention away from what is the key issue behind this blog series: that of highlighting the experiences and impact of the discernment experience, whether they be highs or lows, from beginning to an end of sorts.

Going through the Church of England’s discernment process requires being honest with yourself and, theoretically, with the church itself. As much as I cannot control the questions I get asked I can decide how I answer them. I can select the experiences I’m willing to talk about and those I’m not. I can decide to what level I will open myself up. The more I do the more the church gets to know me, the more they have to help them discern whether God is calling me to be ordained. But the flip side is that the more I open myself up, the more honest I am, the more vulnerable I am to any ignorance, insensitivity and tactlessness within those given the task to discern if I should train for ordination.

The discernment process is both an exercise of spiritual and mental introspection, and the lengthy nature of it makes it an experience of endurance. But it doesn’t happen in isolation, ‘normal’ life with all it’s own challenges and encouragements continues. Each thought, emotion and experience of everyday life mix with those borne out of contemplating ordination. Each one imperceptibly influences the other, adding to the challenge of maintaining a healthy balance between positivity that blinds us to the difficulties that must be faced and negativity that can drag us down into despair.

The issue of my mental health has been tested by the church to their satisfaction: I have been found to be healthy enough to continue to a BAP which means deciding what I disclose to the BAP Advisors. It would be nice to think that BAP Advisors, and the Church of England in general, understand and treats mental health with pastoral sensitivity, but my past experience suggests otherwise. And whilst seeing ordained ministers being open about their own struggles with depression is a source of encouragement, my past experience makes me question how open and honest I should be on the form that will tell my story to those who will discern and decide my fate.

It is not a question of whether to disclose my experiences of depression or not, for it has played a significant part in my life; the absence of any indication of having wrestled with it after my first BAP would also ring alarm bells at my second. Nor is it a barrier to God ministering through me, it is a weakness that He has turned into a strength: my experience of depression helps me to understand and reach out to those experiencing similar struggles, signposting them to the hope that Jesus gave me. It is more a question of how much detail I go into on the form and with my DDO who will write my sponsoring papers, a report collecting together the thoughts of my Bishop and Examining Chaplains with hers.   If I am as honest and open about my depression in the same detail as before I risk facing the same misunderstanding and ending this particular journey prematurely. Yet to withhold information and not expose my darkest moments to scrutiny feels dishonest, depressingly so.

I will continue to walk along the mental health tightrope and cry out to God when I feel myself slipping off it. God knows that I need to see this through and complete the process of testing my calling with others. He knows that I won’t find peace and fulfilment with not being ordained if I leave the path before the end, and He knows that I won’t feel peace and fulfilment with being ordained if I I have engaged in a calculated deception.

4 thoughts on “Depressingly (dis)honest

  1. I had this issue hanging over me the whole time I was being looked at for vocation. I was completely open with the local vocations team about postnatal depression, from which I was recovered, but with hindsight it was not handled well. I was treated as if I was likely to crack up at any time and it’s terribly difficult to overcome that impression.

    Shortly before my conference, I was rung up by a medical advisor to MinDiv to ask me about my mental health. He questioned me about my history and I told him what had happened. He sounded quite impatient – not with me – but his attitude was very much ‘I don’t know why I’ve been asked to check you out’.

    Trouble is, burnout is such a problem among clergy, and I think they are trying to avoid putting people into situations they can’t cope with by screening out those with prior conditions which might lead to break down. I don’t think there’s anything in the criteria for selection for ordination training which need you to disclose your history. If it should appear relevant at the conference, you will be able to mention it then.

    • Thank you for that, it’s appreciated and helpful.

      I probably worry about whether I should be, am right for and can cope with ordination as much if not more than the people and apparatus that is questioning, testing and discerning (with) me – life is a struggle for many people and I’m coping with the struggles of my everyday life, just about, so I should be okay!

      I’m focusing on trying to get to and through a BAP having properly prepared, then I know/hope I can find peace with whatever the decision will be (frankly the current known life is easier to find peace with than the possible unknown life of ordination!). To quit or have my journey ended before that point feels like I would be consigned to a deep, dark and depressing pit where peace won’t even peak over the sides – hence why my dilemma and struggle about what to disclose and to what detail, coupled with doubts/lack of confidence an ability to read what the DDO, etc is thinking, is making it a particularly challenging time.

  2. I have no idea and could only make a guess But that guess would be that an interviewer might be wanting to find out what insight you have into your past experiences. They might also be interested in the type of depression you had. I assume they are trying to discern what is right for you as well as the Church.

    • That is true. The difficulty comes in discerning the right amount of detail to disclose by the discloser and also in the interviewer’s understanding of the issue being disclosed. If they don’t understand the issue even disclosing vague information can result in a damaging ordeal for the discloser. It’s a balancing act, and a risky one: I wasn’t able to articulate my healing sufficiently to overcome the lack of understanding of depression by my Pastoral Advisor at my first BAP. Hopefully both sides will be better next time.

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