Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: The falling leaves

There is a psychiatric hospital in my parish, and mental illness has shaped my life in the church and outside it
September 8, 2022

When I was a chaplain in Cambridge, there was one student—gorgeous, witty, kind-hearted, clever—who used to visit me every so often, usually after lunch, and sit sideways on one of my armchairs and we would drink tea and think of reasons to postpone suicide. We always found at least a couple. Trees, I remember, were one. The harm to the person who found your body was another. “Is there a support group?” I remember asking tentatively at one point. “Yes. I run it,” he replied. Like many members of the university, he’d been in and out of the hospital too.

There were others. I remember carrying a container of holy water and a branch of rosemary to Nevile’s Court in Trinity College, at the request of a young Fellow to bless the rooms whose previous occupant had taken his own life a few months previously. If you said the name “Fulbourn” at High Table a momentary silence would chill the air. “Fulbourn” was short for “Fulbourn Hospital,” or, as it had been formerly, “Fulbourn Asylum.”

My time as a chaplain ended 11 years ago. The epidemic of mental ill-health at the university has only got worse since then, and especially over the last two years.

In Fulbourn, the parish where I live, the name means the village. The hospital was built on the village edge in the middle of the 19th century. As years went by, houses were built for the staff on Fulbourn’s west side. There was even a pub called “The Asylum Inn.” People from the village became handymen and cleaners and ward attendants. After many years patients began to move into the community. There was a halfway house on Cambridge Road with a big garden tended by a big man named John, who had studied horticulture until his first psychotic episode when he was 19. More recently, flats and sheltered bungalows were built. Former inpatients lived alone with a social worker at the end of the phone and scheduled visits.

These are the margins of Cambridge life, the frayed edges. It is probable that the edges are no more nor less frayed in the twenty-first century than they were forty years ago, when strays from the hospital would occasionally attempt to batter our back door down in a haze of terror and alienation, looking for home, no doubt.

That’s Fulbourn Nick Coleman is writing about in The Train in the Night, his terrifying and lovely memoir of music and deafness. He remembers from the 1980s that Fulbourn is one of the few places where there is no stigma attached to mental illness, and for that reason it is blessed. Hardly idyllic, but blessed in a unique way. People suffer unspeakable mental pain and confusion here. Lives are shortened by taking or not taking their prescribed medications, and by self-medicating. There are fresh flowers by the railway crossing near the supermarket again. There is no stigma. Only recognition and fellow feeling. It’s part of my job to make sure that we keep it that way.

My job has its own risks. You want your parish priest to be completely sane, and we so rarely are. I came to my vocation with a history of clinical depression. In those days, the Church wanted people to demonstrate self-awareness, so that you could see the black dog coming along the road before it jumped on you. I demonstrated this to everyone’s satisfaction on multiple occasions and so, to the amusement of my family and friends, was given papers certifying my sanity.

The problem comes when, as a priest, you feel the overwhelming responsibility to make things better. Then you find yourself in the situation of Miss Lonely-hearts in Nathanael West’s novella. There is so much pain. Right in front of you, ringing your doorbell, on the phone, at the parish office, coming into church every day. So many true stories of terrible suffering, as well as the confused stories that open windows into the suffering of those who confide them. Priests burn out and go off the rails. The most recent response from the diocese has been to encourage courses in “resilience.” If you crack up, it’s your own damn fault. You weren’t resilient enough.

We cannot bear this in our own strength. The day I moved to the rectory in Fulbourn, that student (the one who loved trees) phoned and asked to talk. “Can I call you tomorrow?” I asked. “The movers are here, and things are absolutely crazy.” “Of course,” he said. He died that day, and I go on, carrying his memory and my guilt, understanding the intractable pain of where we are now.