It would be easy to wait until the garden was full of roses, until the stream was calm, and until the struggles of life were over, and a sense of victory, progress or achievement was gained, to write this kind of thing. The ‘salvation’ story of transformation, looking back and how I could chart all the moments, doing so from the point of view of being in a ‘final’ good place. Its like reading into the Easter Story, and forgetting what Holy Saturday might have felt like, in real time. And today, a glimpse of brighter days ahead is looming into view, but im not having in a picnic in the meadow yet.
I am in the middle. But then again, so, most likely are you.
In the past I have written here on the professional challenges I have faced, from thinking through redundancy, from management and also from funding issues. You will also have heard me talk and get angry about some of the structures and narratives that are used as the easy cop outs for a neo liberal ideology to place all the blame of personal reactions, on the individual. See for example, the resilience narrative, and even to some point, some stuff on mental health. And I could do the same again. Get angry.
This isnt the time though. This is the time to get real. With a glimpse of the future light in view, I want to use this space to share with you an number of things.
As one of my line managers said to me about a month ago ( i have 2 jobs, therefore, 2 line managers) ; ‘James, you have had the year from hell’ , lucky for me, it was in a phone call and i was sitting on Middlesbrough railway station at the time and so I held this, and held it together. And holding it together, has been part of the last 12 months. Just at times, clinging on at times.
So, turning up at churches, events, training groups or seeing people and they say to me ‘You’re looking well’ , could be a mixture of the increased fitness, being outside alot and getting a slight tan, or copious amounts of nivea cream to stop my face from drying out. Im sure a disclosure about using nivea creme moisturiser (for men) might be more shocking than anything else. But, guys, if you’re going through crisis and want to ‘look well’ i highly recommend it… But maybe I can look well. Maybe I can look well, because of a number of factors. Maybe I can look well, because I have been also able to feel quite well during some of the challenges. And I have been able to feel well because of a number of factors too. But as I say, I am acutely aware of being ‘in the middle’ of stuff. This isnt a boast, a ‘look what ive got through’ piece.
I was so hoping that I could write a piece about dealing with a significant amount of personal challenges in the last year without using what seem cliches. But I cant. I will write about a number of specifically other aspects of the last year over the next few weeks. What follows is a snippet of it all, and in Mental Health Awareness week, an attempt for me to share some of it. It wont be coherent.
I discovered 3 months ago, that I am more of an introvert that I had given myself acknowledgement for. Though one of my friends pointed it out to me 2 years ago, I hadnt given it much thought. Or wanted to deny it. This aspect of my learning and self awareness, I will explore another time. In her book ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain describes how the internet, and especially social media, has become a haven for the quiet creative, the introvert, the thinker, and I agree. It is funny, whilst social media at the moment is getting an absolute bashing for the offensive stuff. I counter this and say that it is only a tool. And if it is used by tools then it will reflect that. Social media for a good many number of people, including myself, is a safe space where friends gather. A space to start off being vulnerable. A space where like minded friends are, (also known as an echo chamber) who I, and others are able to share stuff with, like written pieces, but also share and request the need for prayer, for help, for advice. As a tool, social media can be as uplifting, as supportive, as positive. When you know that 100’s of people are praying for and with you, from all over the world. Yes, that. (thank you)
So, getting back to the personal bit, much of which I have still avoided to talk about, one of the first things that I did over a year ago, was realise and use social media, (specifically twitter) to express personal vulnerability, to ask for help, to ask for prayer, to also give me a space where i could ‘talk’ in text, could give me the first few experiences of being able to talk about what was starting to go on in my life, without speaking verbally. They say the hardest thing is to admit you need help. What i did, and trusted early, because I had prayed for the many others, was use that space to begin being real, to begin acknowledging need, and to begin the process. It gave a number of people, and they are heroes, the opportunity to hear me, and make the connection with me to not only pray, but also stand and stick with me through to where I am today, that wouldnt have happened without social media first. I thought it might mean that people would treat me weird, but they didnt at all. Metaphorically, they just held my hand.
As a youthworker I might encourage a young person to ring childline, as a youthworker, I needed to find similar avenues. I also needed to then find people who I could do the real vulnerable stuff and begin to talk through it all in detail. (and no thats not for here)
The second thing I want to say. Is that 6 months into trying to work out stuff, even, having the most supportive friends, pray (ers) and beginning to reflect on myself, my relationships, work situation, emotions, reactions and health. I referred myself to counselling. If nothing else, that having the year from hell in 2018/9, required some healing from and giving myself that opportunity would do me even more good. I know it may not be for everyone, and its not affordable to many, but I would highly suggest not making counselling a last resort. It has been an additional critical and reflective space, that has been really helpful, more than that, crucial, for me in this process. Its not a weakness to admit. It really isnt. And yes of course i would say that.
I didnt want to use cliches, like ‘dont struggle alone’. Talk to someone, talk to anyone. But I cannot avoid them. Where you find community, safety, and friends, and you need to do not be afraid of being or looking weak or vulnerable. I have found, and cried when realising this, that it gives other people the opportunity to help, to support, to give, and to create a place where you can feel strong, cared for and thought of. Even in the midst of the storms.
This week is Mental Health Awareness week. I was reminded of this when I saw Alistair Campbell interviewed on BBC breakfast this morning. Details of the programme, talking about his own personal journey (through mental health) is to be found here: This piece is not to try and work out what my personal challenges have been, though unemployment was certainly one of them, more to share something about how from the perspective of the middle point, I am able to look back a bit, and reflect on the ways i found strength, found community, and support, from the very beginning, or maybe the part of that process was an earlier middle. As I said, this is still the middle, and so do continue your prayers, and thank you.
I could end this piece about talking about self care. And it would be appropriate to talk about ‘how in ministry we need to look after ourselves’ (and i have written about that here ) but what I also needed to do was look after me, and realise that it was okay to look after me. And so might you.