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I don’t like myself very much – but I’m trying hard to learn to

Katharine Welby-Roberts tells Claire Brine about her struggles with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem

Success is celebrated and failure is not

LIFE hasn’t turned out as Katharine Welby-Roberts hoped. In her book, I Thought There Would Be Cake, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter explains that when she was a child, she longed to be a grown-up. As far as she could tell, grown-ups had their own money, could stay up late and watch as much TV as they liked. But then she grew up. And she was, she writes, ‘very disappointed’. Life wasn’t perfect – far from it. Katharine, who had always had low self-esteem, developed depression and anxiety and suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome. ‘I was 19 when my depression first took hold,’ she says when we meet in a coffee shop in Reading. ‘I became ill and withdrew into my own world inside my head. That’s how I coped. I didn’t engage with anyone or anything. I became distant from people in order to survive. ‘On the surface, no one knew anything was wrong. I looked as though I was coping. But I coped by not being present, so I didn’t have to think about how I was doing. I suppose it enabled me to ignore my diagnosis for a while.’ Katharine continued to struggle with depression throughout her twenties. In 2012, when she was 26, she suffered a serious breakdown. ‘I was suicidal,’ she reveals. ‘And I experienced anxiety attacks. I couldn’t function at all. I was signed off sick from my work in the police force. I was very depressed and couldn’t ignore it any more. ‘In my head, all I could hear were voices saying: “You’re useless. You’re hopeless. No one loves you. There’s no point to you. It would be better if you were dead.” I hated being alive.’ It was during her worst days that Katharine – who had been brought up as a Christian – clung to her faith for comfort. ‘Somehow I felt incredibly close to God, which a lot of people with depression don’t experience,’ she says. ‘I learnt so much about him during that time. I turned to God out of sheer desperation, because I had nowhere else to go. And he responded to me. So what was my worst year turned out to be one of the best.’ Five years ago, Katharine started dating Mike and in 2014 they married in Canterbury Cathedral. Last year, the couple welcomed their baby son, Elijah, into the world. It has been a happy time for the family, but Katharine explains that depression is never far away. ‘After my breakdown, I left the police force and took a regular 9 to 5 job, which helped me to cope better with my mental health,’ she says. ‘Shift work hadn’t suited me well. I established a more regular routine and tried to get my life back on track. ‘But then I developed chronic fatigue syndrome and so had to quit my job. I took work as a freelance writer and speaker whenever I could. When I became pregnant9with Elijah, I became really ill. My chronic fatigue was bad and I was housebound. I needed to use a wheelchair to go out. I’ve never been more tired in my life. ‘I’m still struggling. This past year, I’ve moved house, had a baby and written a book – so it’s been hard. I’m not working at the moment as I’m a full-time mum, and I am enjoying that. Generally, I’m at my best in the mornings, but most of the time I have an overwhelming mental and physical exhaustion. Long conversations tire me out because I have to think. And my mental health is still quite bad.’ In her book, Katharine writes with honesty about what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety. She reveals that one of the biggest difficulties facing people with mental healthproblems is the fear of failure. I ask her where such a fear tends to come from. ‘Success is celebrated and failure is not,’ she says. ‘We have a subconscious expectation that we will achieve something in life. And when we try to do so, we compare ourselves with others. We see them succeed at whatever they are doing, but we don’t often see their failings, because people are quite good at hiding them. ‘I also think we carry negative experiences from our childhood into adulthood. If you get something wrong as a child and people laugh at you, it’s easy to start thinking: “I can’t show any imperfection, because people won’t like me any more.”

‘We live in a world where successful people are put on a pedestal, and if they ever fail, people jump on them and give them a kicking. No one wants to experience that.’ Another problem that Katharine faces is the habit of overanalysing. She replays conversations over and over in her mind, reprimanding herself for the things she should have said (but didn’t) or things she did say (but shouldn’t have). She rejects any positive words that people may say about her, choosing instead to cling to the negative. Why? ‘I think it’s a character thing,’ she says. ‘Some people are more sensitive than others. Some people have enough self-confidence to trust that they are enough, just as they are. I’m not like that. ‘I have a desperate longing to be liked and loved. I’m massively sensitive and empathetic. And when those things are combined with depression and a low self-esteem, it means that I hear the negative stuff a lot more than the positive.’ Being the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, has meant that Katharine has attracted a lot of media attention with her book. As someone desperate to be liked, how has opening herself to criticism from the press affected her? ‘In my head I’ve been replaying a lot of the interviews I’ve given, which has been hard,’ she says. ‘Some people have written negative comments about me online, and then I feel misunderstood and I want to correct them. But at the same time, I can see that I’ve put myself out there – so what do I expect? ‘No one wants to be disliked. Some people can deal with it better than others. My problem is that I’m a perfectionist. I want someone to like the whole of me. And if they don’t, then – in my head – it must mean I’m completely unlikeable.’ Katharine says that one of the questions she is often asked by journalists is how much her father’s position has had an impact on her mental health. The answer is: she doesn’t know. ‘They ask me if he has been good to talk to when I’ve been depressed, and it’s difficultto answer because my mum is the one I tend to phone when I’m feeling rubbish. She’s my mum! Most of my friends say they go to their mums first when things go wrong, so I find it weird that people seem to expect something different or something more from my dad simply because of his job. ‘The truth is I get on incredibly well with my dad. I have good conversations with him. But I just talk to my mum more. I think that’s normal.’ While Katharine is thankful for the support she receives from her parents and husband in the face of her mental health problems, she realises that affirmation from others goes only so far in addressing her low self-esteem. She is working on challenging her negative thinking and finds that faith is helping. ‘Until I learn to accept myself as I am, no affirmation will ever be enough,’ she says. ‘People may say lovely things about me, but their words have little impact if I don’t believe in myself. ‘My faith is helping me to find moreself-acceptance because God is my only constant in life. He has promised me unconditional love. The beauty of God is that when I’m in the bottom of the pit, he comes and sits there with me. He waits with me and chats with me and is patient with me. He doesn’t get frustrated or tell me to pull myself together – which is what people tend to do. He thinks I’m loveable as I am. ‘I do believe that God loves me. I don’t always feel it. But I take hope from it. I trust him.’ Despite her trust, Katharine confesses that sometimes she feels angry towards God for not healing her. In her early twenties, she walked away from her faith, claiming she didn’t want to be a Christian any more. ‘But after a time I felt that something was missing,’ she says. ‘I felt I’d lost something. So I came back to God. ‘Today, after years of endless questioning, I’ve chosen to say that I believe. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That Jesus is my salvation. That he opened up the possibility of a relationship with God. Because of Jesus, I can go directly to God with my anger and frustrations. ‘God is so far beyond my understanding or imagination. But I think that’s the point of God. Mystery is why we need faith. The magnitude of God and the insignificance of me is what makes him so believable. The truth that God loves me and wants to talk to me is incomprehensible but so extraordinarily encouraging that I’m going to believe it. Some days having faith is a battle, but I’ve decided it’s a battle I’m happy to fight.’ Katharine is constantly learning how to live with her depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue. She knows that self-acceptance will take time. ‘My book explains that I don’t like myself very much – but I’m trying hard to learn to,’ she says. ‘I want to embrace who God made me to be. And I want to encourage others to do the same. ‘I want to help people who struggle with poor mental or emotional health to feel slightly more positive about themselves. The main point I’m trying to make is that we don’t need to improve ourselves to be loveable, acceptable or valuable. We are loved, as we are, right now.’

  •  I Thought There Would Be Cake is published by SPCK

 

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