It really doesn’t feel like another decade is coming to an end, but the fact is it is.
Here are some of the ups and downs of my 2010-2019 period:
The first month of the decade I was inundated with what I call prophetic anxiety—I could feel conflict and change coming. After two very solid years professionally in 2008 and 2009, 2010 was signalling the end of that season. Indeed, as I look back, that solid season stretched back to 1991—a period of nearly 20 years. After 2010 I faced a sustained period of conflict and challenge in my work.
But in 2010 at least, I was still managing safety and health for the Safety and Health Steering Group at Fremantle Port Authority. Personally, having moved house and area, 2010 was a good year maritally. We had done significant work on our marriage and at last it was bearing fruit. There was certainly less time spent in the car getting back and forth for my two younger daughters. 2010 for the most part was a good (7/10) year.
Enormous change happened this year. Suddenly I was working for my first narcissistic boss. Never before had I encountered anything like it. Professionally I hit crisis point when, before he started, I was given a five-figure pay rise and had 75 percent of my role stripped from me. I felt overpaid, bored, and constantly anxious.
Soon I slipped into a dark depression, because what I had loved (keeping people safe), now had no life to it, and I just didn’t know how to interact with an evasive, aggressive, provocational, ridiculing boss. And I felt trapped. I was still the “face” of safety at the Port, and still very much believed in the vision, but I was out of my depth in the key interpersonal relationship that had most influence over me. This caused me to plan ahead.
A postgraduate counselling program captured both my interest and passion. It was a year of undulating mental health. It was the first time I ever experienced the exhilaration of KNOWING beyond doubt that I was depressed. It was like the light went on. I was well accepted and liked within the counselling program, and yet it was still a year of great challenge and change.
God led me to go to a secular university; a secular counselling scholar led me to acknowledge a key truth about myself, which led me to a program of sessions with a secular psychoanalyst, who ultimately referred me to a secular sociological book—and a God-appointed epiphany came! Which led me back into ministry. Hope emerged on the horizon.
The year we gained a ministry, a house and our son. It was a dynamic and expansive year for the most part. Mental health was steady, we were busy in ministry, but it didn’t last long. Taking on the role of being peacemakers within church conflict was a learning experience. For a six-month period, my wife and I felt settled for the first and only time (even now) of our married lives.
Storms come into all our lives, and at the beginning of the year we had no idea of what would be coming. We never expected to face the tumult of ambiguous grief in experiencing the loss of our son before actually losing him. But that was just the foreground. God demanded so much of us in the second six months of this year, including changing churches, because my employment had become untenable.
What impacted my mental health most was not simply grief. It was also more relational stress (and relational grief) than I’d ever experienced. I had never before experienced such a strong sense of betrayal.
A year that could only be described as a rebound year. Where the ghosts of the previous year continued to haunt. Where we had to continue to grapple with change we wouldn’t have chosen if it hadn’t been forced on us. Where we moved to a new neighbourhood. Where we continued to mourn the loss of Nathanael.
I remember several nights going to the church office late to pray and sob. I needed to be alone. One thing I have learned about this year as I look back; I felt stronger at the time than I was. I’ll never forget pastor Craig Vernall saying it takes a full three years to recover from grief. I thought I was okay, but I was not okay, and I didn’t respond well to an environment that wasn’t conducive to where I was at. The worst year of my life beckoned.
2014, or even 2003 or 2004, should have been the worst year of my life. But these years don’t compare even in the shade of 2016. February was traumatising and humiliating. June 2016 was a month of intense attack. I felt the force of isolation. The prophetic nature of my call as pastor was not appreciated in places where I felt God compelled me to use my voice to speak. Certainly, amid entrenched conflict. I sensed that I needed to be strong, and God proved faithful yet again!
This is not to say that there weren’t frequently days where I was driven down in the brutality of attack for yet more situations where I was cast into roles I really did not want to have. For the first time since 1989, I truly detested the vocations that had found me. But, even though I was working so hard, and felt so frustrated, I found surprising resilience.
A year of more change, and a real mix of fortunes. I think I continued to resent what had happened in the previous few years, which tarnished the memory of our grief, which continued as a journey to emerge in God’s timing. We always want our grief to be done with; but, at least in my experience, it works slower than we anticipate. When the grief lingered, and especially for a man-as-breadwinner who was in work he loathed, that mix of grief and resentment came finally to be understood as true complicated grief. I attribute the complicated nature of my grief to the entrenched stress of relational conflicts I had at the time. My grief was misshapen by despair.
A year full of hope, even if we were still in a liminal period. As the world began to experience #MeToo and then subsequently #ChurchToo, I began to learn more about the impact of trauma in my life, the impact of trauma in a loved one’s life, and the likely impact of trauma on all of us. It informed not only my own journey, but also the way I practised as a counsellor. I began to understand at a fresh depth some of my triggers. It transformed my empathy and that improved my theology and practice.
This year has seen many doors swing open; more than I could say yes to, but most of those doors I have said yes to, because I don’t know what God is doing if I don’t say yes. And the most significant mental health issue I faced was when I nudged burnout. For me, burnout begins to occur when I feel depressed for not being able to keep up. Quickly, if I’m not careful, it can turn into a crisis. I’m glad that when I began to rub up against burnout I quickly saw my GP and got onto a mental health care plan. I arranged some additional supervision, had some great pastoral care from my manager, and recommenced a process with my psychologist who had helped me so much in 2016.
Over the decade that was, I suffered depression at least twice, battled seasons of anxiety, experienced complicated grief, and rubbed up against burnout.
Over the years, as we reflect, we can chart the trajectory of our mental health. This is all part of knowing and accepting ourselves at deeper and more intimate levels.