The idea of beginning difficult conversations is being promoted daily by the BBC. The phase can be seen regularly between programmes and follows documentaries where celebrities such as Freddie Flintoff and Nadiya Hussain, who both feature in the advert, have opened up frankly and honestly about their own mental health struggles.
For years, mental health problems were a taboo subject, with sufferers encouraged to stifle their problems or even to keep them secret. This, I know all too well; before going forward for my panel interviews before Ordination training, it was suggested to me that I keep any stress related or anxiety issues I had suffered to myself. I know it seems incredible now, but this was honestly my experience in the early 2000s. Thank goodness we have moved on from there!
Last year I had little choice but to engage in a difficult conversation with my Archdeacon following a breakdown in a meeting of clergy. Things had just come to a head for me and I realised that I had to share the burden of my darkest secrets; the issues that had burned within me for decades. This is what my ‘Secrets behind the Collar’ story is all about. I had hidden my stress related and anxiety issues because I had hidden the fact that I had been sexually assaulted and abused as a child and that I had been the subject of emotional abused for years. The initial difficult conversation with the Archdeacon led to my being able to start dealing with these issues with the help and support of a skilled and wonderful counsellor.
And then, two months ago, our 32 year old son decided he needed to begin a difficult conversation with his parents and sister. He had been drinking, he had been self-harming and he was at his wits end, struggling with severe OCD. Covid-19 restrictions and isolation had finally taken its toll on this healthly young man. We are so proud of the fact that he felt he could begin the conversation with us. He was living in Devon at the time, miles away from his family: his number one emergency service and his best support network. Thankfully we were able to bring him home and help him as he began the process of healing. He is now on a road, admittedly a long road, to recovery, with his family, his GP and a counsellor constantly on hand to help him.
Difficult conversations are just what they say they are: difficult. But as we move forward week on week, month on month through and beyond this pandemic, we must not only be more willing as a society to have them, but we must also be willing to listen and to take seriously those who open up in those conversations. And then we must be willing to gently walk alongside them.
I am so enormously grateful to Bishop Robert, Diocesan Bishop of Exeter, who took the time to listen and then to walk alongside me, with all his busy schedule, in my darkest struggles last year, never judging, just always gently supporting.
The thing is, we are not all trained counsellors, but regardless, we can all be there for somebody who is struggling, we can encourage them in that conversation, we can listen to their story, we can support them, we can uphold them, we can pray for them and we most importantly, we can walk gently alongside them for as long as they need us.