This was first posted on the SPCK blog. See the post here.
Being the daughter of a clergyman is a challenging task at the best of times. You feel like you must always be on your best behaviour; that your life should be an exemplary model of goodness, holiness and being generally perfect. I know that – I am one and I have one 🙂 And then – well, you fail. I can only imagine that being the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury must be an even more daunting position, and not one from which it is easy to share the reality of what it is to struggle.
Yet, in Katharine Welby-Roberts’ book I Thought There Would Be Cake (SPCK, 2018), the author does just this. And does it with courage and authenticity. Katharine bares her very soul – reading the book is like taking a walk with her and listening to her share her very deepest being.
When Katharine was growing up, she thought being an adult looked pretty great. She thought life looked like a party with lots of cake, where you could do as you wish. She couldn’t wait to grow up and try it out. But instead of cakes, she found, as she puts it, ‘overcooked, mushy brussel sprouts’. Yum. Life didn’t look anything like she’d envisaged, because instead of an uncomplicated adulthood enjoying cake, Katharine found that she’d entered into a turmoil of crippling mental health issues, centred in and around her perception of who she was and her ideal of perfection being far beyond her grasp.
I was immediately pulled into this book, identifying with Katharine as she talked of how the worry of what people think about her had become a controlling force in her life which had an effect on all her actions and especially her interactions with others. She writes of how there is a kind of script in her mind which plays on repeat, telling her that she is not good enough, that she is not enough. Even writing her book, she says, has been a challenge, because she worries so much about other people’s opinions. I’ve shared in my own book (Catching Contentment, publishing November 15th, IVP) something of my own struggle as a young person with the perceptions of others and the feeling of great inadequacy I carried (and sometimes still carry even now.) I couldn’t help but empathise with Katharine; her raw and real words would strike a chord with anyone who knows what it is to feel that they are not quite as good as everyone else.
Some of the themes Katharine explores in the book are far-reaching and important. She’s written about affirmation – how there can be a desperate need to know you are loved, or even just liked a bit. Her chapter on comparison resonated with me. As a writer myself I can too easily slip into the trap of comparing myself to others and finding myself wanting. I read someone else’s material and think ‘they’re a real author. They can actually write.’ I look at their social media platform and their website and think ‘They have this thing sorted. Professional. Thousands of followers…’ Katharine talks of how comparison feeds into her inner narrative of that need for affirmation. She looks at the lives of others and believes that they are somehow better, more sorted, more perfect. She goes into some greater detail with this in a chapter entitled ‘Numbers’ which is all about how social media can lead us to make these unhealthy (and untrue) comparisons more than ever, and be ever seeking those numbers which tell us that we’re OK. We’re loved. We’re significant. I think this resonates with most of us – who hasn’t scrolled down that Instagram feed feeling despondent about our own lives, with all those beautifully filtered lives we see laid out before us?
Much of what Katharine said chimed with me out of a position of illness. Katharine struggles with her mental health and has also struggled with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which has meant that she has often been housebound and felt unable to join in with the world. From that standpoint it can be even more easy to look at social media and feel like we don’t measure up; that everyone else is out there being amazing and having an amazing time, while we are indoors under our blanket feeling anything but amazing. But what Katharine does throughout her book is offers little glimmers of light; parts of Scripture which tell the truth. She knows, she says, that God values and loves her, and knows that she is fearfully and wonderfully made, but it is a lifelong journey to come to a place of heart understanding of the depth of that love. Through the pages of this book it’s evident that sharing her life and her inner dialogue is helping her come closer to that understanding – but it is a journey. She doesn’t come to a destination, though she ends with hope and a clear comprehension of God’s truth.
I found that Katharine’s thoughts on value and purpose resonated, as well. She knows that she can’t base her value in what she does, but in her identity as a child of God. I’ve struggled many times over the years with a feeling that I don’t do enough to earn value – I had to give up my teaching job and haven’t been well enough to work in full time paid employment for a long time. I’ve come to understand that God values who I am – with lavish passion – so much more than what I do. It’s a daily decision to remember the truth of this – it’s so achingly clear that Katharine has lived in the depths of depression and anxiety, and dwelling in that kind of darkness makes it difficult to see light – yet she is always seeking it. Always speaking it over herself – even when she doesn’t quite believe it.
This is not a book of clear sections or easy answers. It’s not a self-help book or a manual on how to help people with depression. It’s a journey into a fragile soul, at times a harrowing insight into what it is to be so overwhelmed with what mental health issues can do to you. Katharine says near the end that it’s a process, that it will take a lifetime to change thinking habits. She also shares her passion that churches care better for those suffering under the great burden of these kinds of things:
'I want to see a healthy Church that is able to love and welcome those with mental health problems without fear or judgement.' My thoughts on @kwelbyroberts 'I thought there would be cake' - and some copies to give away!… Click To Tweet
‘I want to see a healthy Church that is able to love and welcome those with mental health problems without fear or judgement.’ (p130)
Because of this, she has been sharing her story at conferences and events, encouraging the Church to do this well. We must never forget the emphasis of Jesus on the poorest and weakest, and how he turned the tables of society to include and to love and to pour out his grace on every single person. How can we, as churches and as individuals, welcome those with mental health difficulties? How can we do it better?
I have 5 copies of I Thought There Would be Cake to give away 🙂 If you’d like to be entered for the giveaway, sign up below (you’ll get my newsletter, you can always unsubscribe if you get fed up) or if you’re already signed up leave a comment below. I’ll choose names out of the hat sometime next week.
Katharine Welby-Roberts speaks and writes about issues relating to mental and emotional health, and the wider context of how the church responds to those in suffering. She is married to Mike and they live in Reading with their baby son Elijah. Much of her time is taken up occupying Elijah and drinking tea with other mums, but outside of those things she loves a good steak, comic book films and wine.
Katharine’s website: katharinewelby.com