A Priest’s Journey Through Manic Depression
By Philip Clements
Key Themes: Christianity, manic depression, bi-polar disorder, church, recovery
This book is the description of an Anglican priest’s experience of manic depression. His illness is powerful and debilitating yet, through his faith and with a lot of determination, Philip avoids becoming overwhelmed and manages to live and achieve against all odds and expectations. In this book, Philip Clements adds his own personal testimony, a record which is also an account of aspects of his ministry as an Anglican priest and the effects of the illness on his work. This well-written and uplifting account puts manic depression in a new light and reveals how the church deals with the mentally ill.
About the Author
Philip Clements was born in 1938 in Aldershot, Hampshire, he now lives near Sandwich, in Kent. Philip has devoted his life to his faith and following the completion of a degree in theology became an ordained Anglican priest. Now retired, Philip is a writer and broadcaster. He has had four books of poetry published and is currently writing his second novel. He is a regular features on BBC Radio 4 and local BBC radio where he is involved in programming discussing spirituality and mental health. He is Chaplain of St. Bart’s Hospital in Sandwich and works tirelessly for local churches and charitable organisations.
GATHERING STORM. 1961-1963.
Illness is almost a contradiction of God. From an early age I was involved with religion and felt devout, and as a boy, I enjoyed being in the church choir, found religious education interesting and never questioned God’s existence. In those early days when depression was beginning, I did not relate it to either religion or illness. They were separate worlds. I didn’t see a doctor about feeling low and never mentioned it to a priest, or indeed to anyone. It was a small problem, a mild irritant. True there were mood swings, but these were not considered unusual, especially for a teenager.
My post school days as a library assistant, then as a student at the school of librarianship and finally as a Senior Library Assistant at the college in St. Albans, were largely happy and undisturbed by gloom. Maybe any unhappiness I might have known I have long since forgotten, but at this time there was no serious indication of what was lurking within my brain. Emotionally I felt fairly happy though at times uneasy. After all, to have a girlfriend at this age was expected. In my early twenties and at St. Albans, I decided to respond to a strong conviction of vocation to the Anglican Ministry. I was selected by the Church at a conference at St .Albans, and in 1961 I went to King’s College, London, to its Theological Faculty, and to reside for the first two years at an inter-faculty Hall of Residence on Clapham Common. I enjoyed it all, and was even elected to the Hall committee because of my qualifications as a librarian. So I became Librarian of Halliday Hall and presided over a musty collection of drab looking books in a somewhat dingy and dark room.
My undoing or trigger was to stand for election as Hall Secretary or President as it was changed to. I was ambitious. I could not fail. I must be elected. I even had to learn a joke to relate at the hustings, as it was expected. But I had also heard that my rival for the post and a group of his friends had recently been a bit ‘yobbish’ at a Fair on the Common. I used this knowledge in my speech, accusing the other candidate of loutish behaviour. The vote was taken and I was elected by a large majority. I was elated but only temporarily. I was now top student, President Elect of a University Hall.
The next day at breakfast in college which followed the mid-week Communion, the Dean congratulated me. I felt awful. Grey fog seemed to dog every step. All joy disappeared. My appetite fled. There was darkness without limit. I couldn’t face the defeated candidate. I even felt as if I had ‘killed’ him. I went to his room to apologize and to one or two of his group of friends. They didn’t think much of me, but accepted what had happened with good grace.
The guilt was all pervading. At about that time my mother and one of my brothers visited me at the Hall and we went to the Science Museum. It was a dark November day, perfectly reflected by my mood. I was even more distressed when their visit ended. I stopped going to lectures. I didn’t want to go out at all. Close friends visited me in my room, but this was of little consolation. In the pit of my stomach was a dead weight. The tension in and around my head was relentless.
In was early in the morning of December the 8th the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I was with friends at a mass at a convent across the Common. I began to lose consciousness and fell to the floor. I was brought round and taken back to Hall. I suppose my mind could take no further anxiety and guilt. I saw the Dean who arranged for me to see a doctor, a psychiatrist I think. He prescribed anti-depressants and a period of rest at home. The Christmas holidays were very near. The Hall Matron and her deputy could not have been kinder, allowing me to weep which I did easily and frequently, and wanting to give comfort. I was desolate, the future looked uncertain, and the tablets would take time.
So I went home, believing that a time with my family and a change of scenery would help. I was seen off at Victoria Station by friends and met at the other end by my mother. But Christmas is a bad time for depressives. I remember accompanying my father shopping in Dover and one of his friends greeting us cheerily. Every cheerful face added to my unhappiness. The town was decorated, everything was festive and people looked happy. Christ was being born again, and I just wanted to die. I envied my great aunts for being old. I was also perplexed about my feelings. I was on unfamiliar territory and the future was a blank wall.
Yet I fought. I went for walks and drove myself hard on cycle rides. I tried to employ my mind which by now was not only full of guilt, but becoming increasingly apprehensive about going back to college and becoming President.
I don’t remember Christmas itself. I am sure that Mother, ever brave, tried her best for everyone’s sakes. I couldn’t have had a better mother throughout. My father was also supportive but I don’t think he understood, yet he did assure me that I would always have a home. Of course the condition is such that the more support and sympathy are given, the deeper the darkness seems, as if the mind will only feed on guilt and misery reluctant to be helped. On one level the support is of course important. I don’t remember how my brothers reacted at this time. Maybe they didn’t notice though Charles who was also at the university training in dentistry, would prove extremely helpful soon and again much later when another episode occurred.
Christmas passed. I remember little except my own gloom. The depressed are enclosed within themselves. As January approached, I became very distressed particularly the night before I was due to return to London. I wept as I packed. How could I face it? The answer was ‘I couldn’t’, so I contacted the Hall Warden. He wouldn’t accept my resignation as Hall President, but I knew I couldn’t return for some time. So I was given a ‘stay of execution’. I began to feel better.
A week or two later I returned to Hall and College and to being President. I bought a date a day calendar, and by just tearing a day off at a time, I felt I was making progress. I planned and gave small parties for the other students. I seemed to succeed in making the House a friendlier place. None of this was easy, but I knew that most of the students were sympathetic, so I managed. The depression lifted but the feelings of guilt went on. I was also on top of my studies again. Sitting next to the Warden at dinner was difficult because he was very shy with no small talk. I would make a list of topics, but would sometimes get completely through them before the soup course was finished! Only once did I succeed. His subject was Classics, and I asked him a classical question. He talked through all the courses and through coffee in another room until only the two of us were left.
So the earlier blackness had not impeded me for long. This was to be the pattern of things. Earlier I had been suicidal at times. Now I was enjoying life and responsibility.
Charles helped relieve the ‘Warden at dinner’ problem by meeting me every Friday evening when we would go to a West End theatre and meal. At weekends the Warden ate elsewhere. So my college days continued largely untroubled. In my penultimate year in London, I was given a place amongst a dozen other ordinands from all over the country, to go to the Holy Land, to study on an eight week course at the Anglican Theological College in Jerusalem. This was an exciting prospect, but sadly it was to be seriously marred by something which was to feed my mental condition, and overshadow much of my life for more than twenty five years. It would be an ingredient in two further episodes of my illness.