My Scarlet A

the-scarlet-letter

A is for anxiety.

‘The Bible contradicts almost everything I say about myself. It says I am worthy of love; it says I am unique and valuable. It says I am of incomparable value to God.’ Katharine Welby-Roberts.

It’s World Mental Health Day today and I’m going to let you all in on a secret: I struggle with anxiety. It began when I was reasonably young, but by the time I became a student, it stopped being manageable and being able to be passed off as run-of-the-mill nerves or shyness, and became this secret shame, the damning scarlet A I thought everyone else could see when they looked at me. When anxiety made it difficult to leave the house, I felt it would be better to have my friends view me as flaky, as a last-minute bailer on plans, than actually admit the truth: I have anxiety, I’ve been ploughing on through the day, and right now, I just need the safety and security of staying home this evening because I’ve done a great job of being Hannah Barr today so I would like to reward myself by putting on Netflix and pretending to be CJ Cregg. It’s difficult to admit to having anxiety. I feel the embarrassed urge to tell you that it’s not as bad as it used to be, that I’m pretty fine now. As I write this, I’m still not sure if I’ll have the guts to post this. And it currently feels pretty crazy that a version of this has landed in the inbox of my work’s Head of Comms for posting on our website.

There are two reasons for this: first, there is the fear that if people know I have anxiety, they will take responsibilities away from me, not trust me to do things well, not give me the opportunities to be pushed and allow me to push myself. Second, it is the fear that people won’t believe me and they’ll tell me to get a grip. In the six years since my formal diagnosis of anxiety, I have achieved three degrees, lived and studied abroad, won some awards, been consistently employed, taken lots of risks, made friendships, sustained friendships, done lots of public speaking (which is one of my favourite things to do), and a whole host of other things. This isn’t to brag – although this week I was shortlisted for Tweeter of the Year and I am way more proud of that than I should be! It’s just that sometimes, those things have been bookended by anxiety attacks and of course I would far rather you see my public achievements than the treading water in the background.

But there is also a third reason I’m often reticent to admit all this and it’s to do with being a Christian. Word of advice: quoting Philippians 4:6 to someone with anxiety has the same effect as telling someone who isn’t calm to calm down, it doesn’t work and it just makes them more annoyed!

The overarching narrative of gospel is wholeness. We begin with one God who is perichoretic in character, this means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony and communication with each other, mutually indwelling. This God makes the world and human beings in it and God and humankind are in a perichoretic embrace. A fracture happens. God and humankind are separated. This breaks God’s heart so he does the extraordinary: he sends his son to make a way for that fracture to be healed, for God and his children to be reunited forever. And now we wait for the fullness of that, for that day where there will be no more tears and no more pain.

But that day might not be today. A lot of damage has been done by Christians, however well-meaning, suggesting to those who struggle with their mental health that they are being tested by God, or they are not praying hard enough, or telling people that they are broken. We are all broken; but it’s because of our sin, not because of our health, mental or physical.

As Christians, we have the best thing you can say to anyone who is struggling whether it’s due to a formal or severe mental health diagnosis or whether it’s in the day-to-day struggles and triumphs which impact on all our mental health. Because as Christians we can say ‘God is with you.’

Let me tell you a tale of two Psalms.

I have prayed these two Psalms throughout my struggles with anxiety; I’ve prayed them when it’s just been that horrible heavy feeling of tar wrapping itself around by chest, I’ve prayed them when it’s felt like I just can’t breathe.

The first is Psalm 50 which features the great verse ‘weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’ This Psalm has brought great comfort to me because it points me towards hope, that this anxiety is ultimately temporary, a scarlet A which I put there myself and which God will take from me on that amazing day.

The second is Psalm 88. It is the only Psalm to not finish on a message of hope. Rather, it ends ‘darkness is my closest friend.’ And sometimes I have just stayed in that Psalm, in the darkness, not seeing a way out. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t there with me, quite the opposite.

If you are struggling with mental health, God is there with you, in the dark and in the flickers of hope. If you are journeying with someone through this, be patient with them. The cross event was over three days: a day of visible agony, a day of hidden anguish, a day of joy. God is with you in whichever of those days you find yourself in. He is with you even if it feels like it has been a lifetime of unrelenting agony or anguish and tasting joy before being plunged back into despair doesn’t make you a failure. God is with you. He’s got you. He’s not letting you go. He loves you and he is proud of you. God is with you.

Advertisements

Formidable

granny.jpg

Colour co-ordinating since 1992.

‘Tell me, what was your granny like?’

I paused, sniffed, and smiled.

‘Formidable.’

My granny was brilliant. And terrifying. Extremely loving, but formidable. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril! Partly it was the matron in her; this was a woman who had nursed prisoners of war, seen unimaginable horrors, and yet, had never let despair get the better of her. People adored my granny (but they still didn’t mess with her!) In her time at St Paul’s Cathedral, she’d unceremoniously told all sorts of people to get over themselves when it came to women priests or gay clergy, but heaven for-fend an unsuspecting minor canon rock up thirty seconds late. My motto growing up was ‘if mummy says no, ask granny.’ It was a winning strategy! My granny was brilliant, my granny was formidable.

My granny would have had no time, and I mean no time, for my conduct in the service of remembrance my church had on that cold, November afternoon. She’s have been mightily unimpressed by the way I sobbed throughout, trying to sing ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ as a film of phlegm formed across my throat, popping at ‘unbounded love thou art.’ And she’d have told me to get it together as I tearfully hugged the vicar, painfully twisting my neck as I suddenly panicked that I would get mascara on her on her brilliantly white surplice.

My granny would have had a lot of time for another service where she was remembered a few months earlier: her funeral.

My granny had a very dark sense of humour. That, and she was incredibly pragmatic about death. While other people’s Christmas traditions include playing board games or going for wintry walks, my granny used to take Christmas lunch as an opportunity to reel off a list of people who had died that year and then explain that she didn’t have much longer left. Once she told me that I didn’t have much longer. I was twelve…

As part of that, she was pretty open to jokes being made about her death; she was especially taken with my suggestion that I would put her ashes in a Super Soaker to make it easier to scatter them along the Thames riverbank. (This was vetoed by my mother who, when I accidentally knocked the bag containing the ashes against a railing said ‘Will you stop hitting your grandmother?!). I also used to joke that I would take her funeral, but I’d do it in my charismatic evangelical style with drum kits and smoke machines, rather than her diligent and longstanding open catholic Anglicanism. She told me I could do that over her dead body to which I said that I actually could do it over her dead body.

Does anybody else have a family dynamic like this, or is mine just weird?

And so, on a beautiful August day, I stood at the front of a crematorium, room full of family and friends, and took my granny’s funeral. In what I know was the Holy Spirit, my inner core that day was the same formidable spirit by granny wonderfully embodied. My voice never cracked, my resolve never waived, the words of the Church of England funeral service were never clouded by tears. I sang ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ one hundred per cent phlegm free. In preparing for and taking that service, God spoke to me gently, yet profoundly. And I think my brilliant, formidably granny would have been proud.

One of her favourite prayers that I included in the service was this:

God be in my head,
and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes,
and in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
and in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
and in my thinking;
God be at my end,
and at my departing.
Amen.

My granny was understated in many ways. She wanted to eschew a funeral service altogether because she didn’t ‘want to cause a fuss.’ She embodied this prayer. In her understanding, in her looking, in her speaking, in her thinking, God was there. At her end, at her departing, God was there, and it was my privilege to be there too.

One year ago today, she departed. My brilliant, formidable granny.