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By MELISSA WICKHAM
This isn’t the confession of a back-slidden Christian or heathen, but of a respected and seasoned Christian minister, who founded one of Barbados’ most popular churches.
Reverend William Cuke was speaking candidly to the SUNDAY SUN last week about one of the darkest periods in his life – when for eight years he lived in a terrifying cavern of clinical depression.
When the 65-year-old founder of Abundant Life Assembly (ALA), one of the biggest churches on the island, hit rock-bottom mentally and spiritually, people wondered how a devoted man of God falls into depression?
Today, Cuke, back to his sprightly self, offers an explanation:
“We’re human and God doesn’t promise that we wouldn’t go through these things. I think we have the wrong concept that because you’re a pastor or a Christian serving God, certain things shouldn’t happen to you; but we’re all human,” he said from his office at the Bank Hall, St Michael church where he has relinquished his role as senior pastor.
The once out-going, persuasive and even-tempered pastor – most well known for his controversial ‘foolish-man-built-his-house-upon-the-sand sermon’ at the funeral service of the late calypsonian De Great Carew back in August, 1995 – slipped into a dark, lonely world where he would be set on edge by the incessant ringing of a phone.
As far as he can recall, he realised a change in his behaviour from November 1997.
His zeal for his church and flock waned to the point where he thought church had become too crowded and he lost most, if not all interest in church-related activities.
He also found some of his pastoral duties like counselling “a nuisance”. To compound matters, Cuke felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for feeling this way. But no matter how hard he tried to reverse these feelings, he just could not. In addition, he realised he was constantly tired and lacked concentration.
“I would read a book and at the end of the day couldn’t even remember what I read,” he said.
“It really came to a head when I was unable to sleep and stayed awake at night worrying about all sorts of unnecessary things. I wondered if I would lose my mind. I even pictured myself looking through the railings at the Psychiatric Hospital at Black Rock watching the world go by,” he added.
Out of frustration, he paid a visit to his family doctor who ran a series of tests and X-rays but found nothing physically wrong with him. The only conclusion he reached was that the goodly reverend was suffering from depression.
On his doctor’s advice, Cuke decided to take a three-month sabbatical. He made the announcement to the church board and they agreed a break would probably do him some good.
He and his wife Joy headed to England hoping some rest and relaxation would be the answer to his problems.
However, instead of getting better, he got worse.
Cuke returned home and got a second opinion from another doctor who ran more tests. Again, they found nothing physically wrong with the pastor.
This time, however, the doctor found out he was suffering from clinical depression – a more serious form of depression. He travelled to Philadelphia in the United States to see a Christian psychologist for counselling and therapy. They did some tests and concluded that he had a chemical imbalance in his brain which was the cause of his depression.
“I was put on a well known medication for such conditions which I believe has since been withdrawn from the American market because of some negative results. The doctor said the medication would ‘kick in’ in two weeks but each day I got worse.”
Soon paranoia started to manifest. The first incident occurred one Sunday morning whilst attending a church service in Philadelphia.
I was sitting [in the pews] and I looked up as the choir was about to sing and saw some of the choir members looking at me as if they were saying to themselves: ‘There he is’. I was paranoid and I didn’t know what to do about it.
“On a different occasion, my wife Joy and I were on the front lawn outside of the house where we were staying. She went around to the side to check on something, and when I looked around for her it seemed she had vanished. I panicked and cried out for her. She came running and asked me what happened and I told her I didn’t know, I just thought she disappeared. It was weird and frightening. I felt helpless and was sure I was going out of my mind.
“A couple days later, I was due to see the psychiatrist for my usual weekly appointment but didn’t want to go. I sat in a chair and wouldn’t budge. I said to myself: ‘I will sit here ’til I die,'” he recounted.
Not long after that episode, Cuke was admitted to the Philadelphia Psychiatric Hospital – his worst fear had come true. He ended up spending 10 to 12 days there.
“Those days in the [psychiatric] hospital were a bit hazy in my mind. It wasn’t until the seventh or eighth day that I asked myself: ‘What am I doing in this place?’ That was the beginning of my recovery. I was even able to sign myself out of hospital,” he said.
Praying for Cuke
Little did Cuke know that around that time, thousands of miles back in Barbados, an entire congregation was praying for his recovery. However, others were convinced that he had “demons” which needed exorcising, and they didn’t hesitate to let Cuke or his wife know this.
After a few weeks of observation he and Joy returned to Barbados on November 30, 1998. He was far from out of the woods, but he did feel much better, and for a while, things started to return to normal; he started feeling like his old self again and even decided to gradually resumed his pastoral duties. But it was short lived.
In late March 1999, he started slipping back into that familiar black hole and “my life became an emotional ‘yo-yo’ until November 2005” when he eventually came out of it.
The healing process didn’t happen overnight, it was more of a gradual process and today – a year and six months down the road – Cuke believes he is completely healed.
The entire ordeal was all a bit too much for even a pastor and at one point, he wondered what unpardonable sin he could have committed to warrant such a tribulation.
“I knew I hadn’t [committed such a sin] but that is how I felt. I wondered, where is God in all of this? It was like a lonely dark tunnel. I didn’t even want to read my Bible, I couldn’t pray. My wife and friends did it for me.
“If you ask me what was responsible for my recovery, I can’t say it was any one particular thing. I can’t say it was my faith or my spiritual strength. It certainly wasn’t the medication because that didn’t work and after a while I stopped taking it. But there are three things I’ve always said had a lot to do with it: God’s grace, people praying for me and a faithful and godly wife,” said Cuke who has been an ordained minister for the past 40 years and has always been with the ALA, now in its 27th year.
Although he is back at work, he’s only there to offer any assistance he can provide. His first time back at the pulpit was Father’s Day last year when he shared his testimony with the entire congregation.
“I never thought I would be back on the platform preaching again. It is just like eight years have passed me by. I know God deeper now; the scriptures have come alive in a way I had not known in the past. I believe my greatest years are ahead of me,” said Cuke.
WHAT IS CLINICAL DEPRESSION?
Clinical depression (also called major depressive disorder, or unipolar depression when compared to bipolar disorder) is a state of intense sadness, melancholia or despair that has advanced to the point of being disruptive to an individual’s social functioning and or activities of daily living.
Although a low mood or state of dejection that does not affect functioning is often colloquially referred to as depression, clinical depression is a clinical diagnosis and may be different from the everyday meaning of “being depressed”.
Clinical depression is generally acknowledged to be more serious than normal depressed feelings. It often leads to constant negative thinking and sometimes substance abuse. Extreme depression can culminate in its sufferers attempting or committing suicide.
Clinical depression affects about seven per cent to 18 per cent of the population on at least one occasion in their lives, before the age of 40.
About twice as many females as males report or receive treatment for clinical depression, due to stress and adversity, though this imbalance is shrinking over the course of recent history; this difference seems to completely disappear after the age of 50–55.