My dad would have been eighty on Wednesday. Sadly, tragically, he died aged forty seven in 1985 (2nd October – the same day Rock Hudson went to meet his maker). So, this week has been a sad, poignant, week in some ways.
My dad (Barrie) was born into a working class family in Rishton, near Blackburn. He had a fierce intelligence and benefited from a grammar school education, in Accrington. He was particularly good at maths and science. After school he joined the army – well he had no choice really but to join army (national service) – and was commissioned. He played rugby to a high standard and was an excellent marksman. He was then sent to Cyprus where he witnessed, and was personally impacted by, some hideous acts of barbarity. Cyprus left its scars both physically and psychologically and, I would guess, spiritually. Dad found the concept of a loving God hard to accept.
Post Cyprus and the army dad began working for I.C.L. and studied Maths, in the evenings, at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. He was awarded a first class honors degree; pretty impressive for a working class lad from Rishton. He became a computer scientist. The 1960’s were heady times for the computer industry and I am proud that my dad was a pioneer. He oversaw the building and installation of a computer at the University of East Anglia in 1962. He met and fell in love with my mother, over her neighbours garden fence (he was a fellow rugby player) and, was married in 1964. He was then offered a plum job at Moor Hall, I.C.L.’s academy in Cookham, Berkshire, lecturing and undertaking research in applied computing. The family moved south in 1966. In the early 1970’s he set up his own business, Enquiry Systems Limited, which he sold in 1978 to RACAL Electronics.
It’s a good story. One of success, of triumph in the face of adversity, the self-made man and so forth, isn’t it? Except that my dad couldn’t live with himself. There is no doubt that he was seriously, and permanently, traumatized by Cyprus. He suffered from the most horrific nightmares. He was a deeply kind and compassionate man but he also suffered from the most extraordinary temper. I say, he suffered, because his outbursts of rage, which were incredibly frightening, led to periods of prolonged remorse. He had other identity issues as well (lets leave that one hanging) and, began to drink; heavily, very heavily. The drinking to its toll and he died in 1985. The death certificate provides a medical diagnosis and reason for death, but in my opinion, he died of a broken heart and mind. There is nothing pleasant, good, or calm about an alcoholics death. The last five years of his life was a living hell both for dad, and for the family. Life had no stability, no predictability. The five or so years after his death were also pretty cruel. I call them my wilderness years. I know that I could have gone the same way as dad, so insecure and fragile was I in my own identity.
So what ‘saved’ me? Or more precisely who ‘saved’ me? Well, I was fortunate to meet my Christian wife and I joined the church. I was ‘saved’ through my relationships. And, for this I will be forever grateful. It was through my marriage and through the church, working alongside each other, that I began the process of discovering my identity; ‘in Christ.’
Now, I don’t think my story is unique or even abnormal. Mental health problems and addiction are rife, the effects of them devastating. I often talk to a friend about the level of despondency and despair I witness in church. One of the most intimate pastoral encounters that a priest can have is during the distribution of the sacrament. The altar rail is, in many ways, the best place to pick up clues about what is really going on in people’s lives. It is a place of, if you will excuse the pun, instant feedback. I look for the tears in the corner of communicants eyes and, often wonder why the person who normally seeks to make eye contact has begun to keep their head bowed. Sometimes what I see in people’s eyes is a simple request for help, a plea for healing. And, then there is touch. Sometimes, often, people want something more than the bread to be simply placed in their hands. They want, for the briefest, of moments to be touched, for their hand to be held. For me the Eucharist has become a place, or do I mean occasion, for healing. Mind you this might be expected given the affirmations that ‘the Lord is here’ and that ‘his Spirit is with us?’
If the church is to take her healing ministry seriously, which she must, then she must position herself ‘a yard from the gates of hell,’ (C.T. Stubbs). This implies reaching out to those devastated by mental health and addiction. The church must offer a safe and healing place for both sufferers and survivors. Mental health and addiction are the two epidemics of our age. They are conditions which posses, torment, imprison, dominate and kill. Frequently, the route cause of mental health and addiction is a crisis of identity: ‘who am I’ followed by ‘what have I become’ are two questions frequently asked by sufferers.
The Church needs to find ways to reach out to all who are carrying the heaviest of burdens and play her part in rebuilding damaged lives. It needs to find ways of partnering with secular agencies, offering the use of its buildings and, through its life and worship, restoring damaged and tormented souls. It needs above all to make sure it never adds to or increases the weight of the burdens carried by many. For sure the church has, and can, add to already unbearable loads. Sadly doctrine, dogma, ‘orthodoxy’ can all be used as building blocks in the creation of an unbearable load. For the church this should be a sobering thought.
To live a life of torment, fueled through mental health problems,addiction and crises of identity, is to live life ‘a yard from the gate of hell,’ that is the grim reality. I am grateful that through my marriage, and through the church, I was able to begin the journey of finding the real me, that I was able to find a place where ‘deep calleth on deep,’ and where the storms raging within could be calmed and, where fears could be named, acknowledged, and overcome. The journey of recovery is seldom straightforward and linear. It requires patience, endurance, understanding, authenticity, solidarity, and friendship. My favorite verse, or mantra, also helps: ‘I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears,’ (Psalm,34, 4).
My hope and prayer is that the church will always be part of the solution in tackling questions of identity and in breaking the bonds of those held captive by those two most greedy and destructive of impostors: mental health problems and addiction.