Shaun had been ill before. When he was twenty-one, just before I knew him, he’d had what was then diagnosed as glandular fever.
And as a vicar in the ’90s, after a very difficult first few years in an initially very tricky parish, after the trouble-makers had left and the church was beginning to become the happy and united family it soon was, he suffered from possibly the same stress-related ailment: two six-month bouts of ME.
Members of the congregation at that time kept asking me if I was all right; telling me it must be hard; asking how they could help. It wasn’t hard at all. (Not for me!) Shaun slept most of the time and emerged in the evenings, fully himself. The church ran itself.
Nothing like this.
Now he was gone. The most striking thing about Shaun has always been his incisive intelligence. He couldn’t do a crossword. Read a book. Grasp the simplest things.
And of course, life was a lot more difficult now than it had been in the parish we were beginning to love so much.
I never cancel speaking engagements.
And yet I did: speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in early October. I can’t even remember exactly why... It must have been shortly after his breakdown. A simple, unimportant decision which was to have a devastating impact, indirectly, a year later.
I even missed a talk I was supposed to give: again, a first (and last) for me. I was due in Durham at three o’clock to give a lecture at four, and somehow remembered this as having to catch a train from Oxford at three. By the time I realised my mistake, at around lunchtime, I couldn’t find any way of getting there on time. I even rang my brother to see if he could fly me up there. I was mortified. How could I have been so irresponsible?
I then forgot the Today Programme 50th birthday party, which even my producer hadn’t been invited to, for which I’d long procured an invitation for Shaun as well and had been looking forward to for some time.
None of this was like me, at all.
(There was one more engagement I nearly cancelled: to speak for a group of churches in Bedford, a place I’d never visited. Although I’d been scrupulously discreet about Shaun’s breakdown with anyone who might be interested in employing him – terrified that it might affect his prospects, and therefore ours of leaving – I thought it right to tell the organisers, in case I didn’t make it. None of these people would be Shaun’s prospective future employers, after all. But I did go, and when I arrived they told me they’d all been praying for us. Including the new head master of Bedford School, one of the elders, whom I was then introduced to… An amusing little irony of God’s which I enjoyed very much, when the time came.)
At Shaun’s next consultation a fortnight later, our new GP put him on anti-depressants.
Regular readers of this blog may have picked up on my passionately-held belief that pill-happy doctors and shrinks have blighted Bink’s life.
By contrast, our wonderful Oxfordshire GP didn’t put Shaun on pills straight away: she had wanted to see how he got on without them first. She was also honest about possible negative side-effects, explaining them to both of us and telling us how we might manage these.
And when she saw me about my own depression, she didn’t even suggest pills – unless, she said, I wanted to try St John’s Wort, available over the counter. When I asked why, she said, “We have instructions not to waste prescriptions. I’m not going to give you a piece of paper you’ll just drop in the bin on the way out.”
I was beginning to like this doctor, very much. She had recently been working in Botswana and seemed to have about fifteen children, half of them adopted. No wonder she had sense.
And she was right about Shaun. He was only on the medication for two or three months. And he tried coming off it too early, and snapped at everybody for a week.
It helped him. Happy pills used for happy purpose.
How different from Bink’s experience!
I believe it was in the first twenty-four hours of his breakdown that Shaun told me he he might never be able to return to his employing church.
We had no other income. No alternative source of housing. No other future or prospects. For ourselves or our dependent children. Which was all of them. Except Shaun’s employment in that church.
And yet my heart sang.
I had no idea how we would live.
But we were in it together at last.
Given what was about to happen, this was just as well…