Drip. Drip. Drip.
Each one a hint of something greater,
but too often not.
Drop by drop it rose,
obscuring the sources,
hiding the causes,
until all that remained was the storm.
Doing became difficult,
being meant bailing.
It was time to take a break from social media,
but for reasons no one seemed to guess.
I came to faith when all I wanted was death — God heard my cries and instead gave me hope. That was on 14th December 1998, my rebirth, my second birthday. That I came to God from despair was key to deciding embrace and explore the dark areas of life, my own and others, when I began to train for ordination. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t an easy path to take. The dysfunctional, toxic and unpleasant relationships in the past and the (then) present threatened to drag me beneath the waves. A wise and astute college lecturer recommended counselling. It helped then, and still does.
Of the lessons I learnt during my counselling, one was to focus on the things that I could control, and (try) not to worry about that outside of my control. Another was to identify trigger points, those things which could connect with the past to bring it, or the emotions associated with it, into the present. There have been plenty of occasions during the pandemic in which to apply those lessons, overcoming challenges to find peace, to be blessed.
Not all of the challenges of the past two years have been directly related to the pandemic, but that has in itself had negative impacts on the mental, emotional and physical health of many, mine included. Some have been political and the state of governance and institutions, leaving the unfavoured and unconnected in unprecedented fragility. Some have been social, with lies and hate not only unchallenged but promoted as alternative and valid truths. Whilst some hearts have hardened over this time, entering the priesthood meant I needed to keep my heart soft, to make sure I could care for those and that in need, to reach out and cry out for those and that abandoned, isolated or unnoticed.
As autumn began to take hold in 2021 I began to notice more and more warning signs that I was struggling more than I might be able to manage. Having begun the pandemic isolated on a Covid-ward in hospital, I and my family were anxious, cautious, and did all we could to avoid catching and/or spreading Covid. But in September 2021, with the UK government having removed most covid-protection measures and prevaricating about whether to give teenagers covid-vaccines, my wife and children began a vulnerable school year. With control over Covid-prevention taken away it was only a matter of time before Covid found its way in and through their schools, and it did just as the Government announced teenagers could get vaccinated a few weeks later. The clock was ticking and, unsurprisingly given the vulnerabilities of schools, Covid came home from school and one by one my family and I caught it.
The autumnal resumption of certain activities, at church and elsewhere, that hadn’t been possible because of the pandemic put a spotlight on some of what had been missing from my curacy so far. The arrival of opportunities I had been waiting for over a year was something to rejoice, yet it also played with my anxieties because of the ongoing pandemic — the danger was still there but too many for comfort were living as though the pandemic was over. And when Covid came finally came into my household, those resumed activities and possible opportunities were once more not open to me, enclosed in our mandated and elective periods of isolation.
It wasn’t just the places I went that seemed to drive up my anxiety, news seemed to as well — the cumulative impact of constant concerns locally, nationally and internationally began to drag me down. Yet it was the unintentional headlines of individuals on social media that were increasing my anxiety the most. Posts on social media, which in themselves were often things to be celebrated, acted like an inverse mirror — reflecting what was missing from my life.
Every curacy is different, including each context and circumstance, and the curates in my diocese (and elsewhere) were warned not to compare our curacies. It is hard enough to avoid comparisons in a small group, but on social media it is nigh on impossible. I had spent a year, like many other first year curates, seeing posts of curates celebrating their first baptism, wedding or funeral (amongst other normally expected curacy opportunities) — such posts were a reminder of what I had yet to have the chance to do. As I entered my second year of curacy, I began to see the new first year curates do things I still had not had the chance to do. As much as I celebrated with them, it was difficult to see. My anxiety about when or whether I would get to take a baptism, wedding or funeral (as opposed to observing or assisting at them) increased – the time and chances available to gain experience was decreasing.
In the stillness and quiet of the night, when there was nothing to occupy my eyes or ears, thoughts were given free reign until sleep silenced them. Prayer and Examen helped, for a time, but often only held the silence at bay for a short while. It was in these moments that the warning signs came: some were subtle, some were scary; some were logical and rational, some were illogical and irrational. They were enough for me to let those closest to me know I was struggling, but not enough for me to be certain about why. But when I attended a Mental Health First Aid course, I could see a lot of my symptoms listed as symptoms of depression and severe anxiety I knew I had to act. And the first was to speak with my training incumbent, a doctor and others (where upon I found that my experience was not unusual, even before the pandemic). The second act was to remove the presence of all of the trigger points and people that I could. And that meant coming off social media to avoid reminders of what I had yet to do in my curacy. During the first week or so away from social media I was tempted to pop back to it for a peak, but soon that temptation went. I found other ways of reading the news I needed to read, and avoiding being overloaded by it. Soon I realised that although I missed certain people, I didn’t miss social media.
As I began to settle, I was more able to attend to the most important matters: seeking help to reduce my anxiety and finding space for my unproductive mind to focus on what I needed to, my curacy and not other people’s. It has worked and the time to focus on fewer and controllable things has helped. Also, rather ironically, in my time away from social media I took not just my first baptism but my second as well. And in a few days I will take my first funeral. I have yet to do a wedding, but opportunities may be available to do some next year. As Christmas approached more and more people in my parishes and elsewhere began to decrease their social interactions in order to protect their chance of having Christmas with their loved ones. My activities began to increase (understandably, it is the busiest time of the year in the Church!), including ensuring people could connect with the online services my churches were producing — this meant publicising them on social media. This controlled dip in the water led to me returning to wish people a happy Christmas, and effectively ending my social media sabbatical. Yet returning has been difficult, not least because I have found I have nothing to say, or at least that I don’t know what to say.
Only time will tell if the words to say and the things to share will come, but equally I may find myself more of a passive and occasional observer. But I am not chasing the words or worrying about their absence — if my relationship with social media needs to be somewhat of a distanced one for longer so be it. For now I am concentrating on what matters in my curacy right now: my first funeral to lead. Once my anxiety has recovered from that and 2022 has settled into being, maybe the words to say and things to share will increase. Or maybe my relative silence will continue as I seek to determine how social media fits into my life, what I should share on it, what I should take from it, and who I share it with. Whatever it will be is not something I’m worrying about, instead my focus is on doing what I need to do to stay mentally healthy so I can be the husband, father and priest I am called to be.
I have no idea what lays ahead for 2022 but I am thankful to have weathered a storm and start it in a good place. Being self-aware enough to spot the warning signs that action needs to be taken to remain or become mentally healthy is an important skill, and perhaps one of the greatest blessings ordination training helped me strengthen.