“All right kids, it’s break time.” These were some of my favorite words in outpatient treatment. It meant that we would keep discussing life, on life’s terms.
I met her near the end of February. I had cold called from the hospital down to a place in Wichita that was connected with the hospital system, loosely, and that promised to help people deal with their addictions and vices. It seemed to be a place of hope and came highly touted by the psychiatrists that I was working with at the psych ward. I called using the monitored phone, asked if they take my specific insurance, and then made an appointment to meet with the intake counselor within the week. The woman on the other end of the line made it very clear that if I didn’t show up, I would not have another chance to book an appointment, for intake. The week before this meeting with the counselor was difficult. There was much change and a lot of heartache. I walked in on a Friday morning to the waiting room several minutes before my scheduled time and sat down in a seat after checking in. I filled out the necessary paperwork that they had handed me with the usual questions such as “within the last week, how is your mental health?” and “on a scale from 1 to 10, how well have you slept?” During this season, I had a hard time ‘passing’ these tests.
I knew that I was a mess, but as I sat in that seat, waiting for the intake person to come holler my name, I became resolute to the fact that I would most definitely get into some treatment, get some help, and find reprieve from my own demons. I needed to do this for me, for my own sanity, for my own wellbeing, for my own life to be ‘normalized’ (whatever that means). A shorter woman with dyed red hair came to the top of the stairs and hollered out my name, and then told me we were headed down the stairs. I followed her through what seemed like a maze to a dimly lit room, that was her office. She had me sit in a seat next to her desk and she let me know that everything that she asked was to be put into my ‘intake assessment’ and that it would be used for insurance purposes as well as to determine a good treatment plan. She asked me a question, and I began to tell a long story of how I arrived at the spot that I was in. This little short lady, fire hair, and all interrupted me, and curtly said, “I have to get through all of the questions on this list, and I only have one hour to do it, so, keep things shorter and we can get through this.” I kept things as short as I possibly could, and tried to tell all of what was happening and had happened in my short time before. At one point, she looked at me, knowingly, and said, “Really? That’s the whole story?” And I knew that she was aware that I wasn’t telling her all that had happened. So I kept on going. And spilled my guts. At the end of our time, she declared that I was definitely a candidate for intensive outpatient treatment and that I could come back the next week. Whatever day I showed up, would be my first day, and from there it was an 9-12 week process. I left that day, and found hope in the fact that I was actively pursuing health in a tangible way. I wasn’t checking off the boxes for anyone else, I wasn’t having to fulfill an obligation, and I wasn’t trying to manipulate a system. I was self caring, and self working on something that I had to figure out, for me.
The next week was the first week of treatment. I jumped into the middle of a class, and tried to hold on for dear life, as I learned the ropes of the outpatient therapy. I began to get the rhythm of the class in week 2 and by week 3 was really enjoying my time. The instructor was raw, blunt, honest, and pushed each of her clients. She was aware of everyone’s story and very aware of what the room ‘felt’ like. I found out later that most of what she did in class was observe people’s response to her and to others. She was always finding ways to get under my skin, say things that would make me think, or make me smile, at the right times. In case you didn’t know, I can become a ‘class clown’ when put into a highly stressful situation. It’s my way of alleviating tension, awkwardness, and difficult circumstances. I found myself saying really funny things, or I thought that they were, early on in those classes. People seemed to enjoy it, and I felt like I was contributing, at least on a comedic relief level. Then one day, the instructor pulled out an article for us to read together. The article was about personalities and addiction. As we read through the article, one of the headings was the ‘joker.’ The paragraph that came after the heading was stunning to me. It described me in detail when circumstances became contentious. But it didn’t just describe my outward behavior, it described the things that I felt deeply in these moments. Shame, guilt, pain, and anger were behind the mask of the joker. Figuring out how to make others laugh would be the way that the joker would run from conflict, and if forced, the joker would simply vacate premises to avoid confrontation at the highest level. This was me to a ‘t’ and I found some solace in the fact that it described the common background that jokers had as it related to life experiences. I have always been fascinated with personality discernment, and even have done several different personality profile consultations with different teams, etc. This particular write up, with it’s particular nature, was rather in my face, using common language to describe the depths of my own heart and soul. It felt as if I was being read, from the page in front of me.
As the instructor finished the reading, I looked up and immediately blurted that I was a ‘joker.’ There was probably nothing further from the truth in that moment. I had not been truthful with my family, I had not been truthful with myself, and I found myself in a place that the only means of current escape was comedy. The instructor looked back at me with direct confrontation in her eyes and she said, “What are the strengths about the joker?” I had not heard the strengths, I was too busy focused on all of the areas of my weakness and failure. I had totally missed that section as she was reading. I looked back down at my paper and read through the ‘strengths’ bullet point list. There was much to absorb. The strengths that were there had and were present in my life. Hard working, caring and compassionate, able to work with others, finding and helping others that need it, and always willing to lend a hand, when necessary. This was definitely me. For years, I had been helping others as a Pastor, as an employee, and as a friend. I desperately wanted to help people succeed, to help organizations succeed, to help my friends succeed. The write up pointed out that when the joker experiences a lack of success, they become disillusioned with life and the issue at hand. I had. Years before this, I struggled with significant disillusionment with the local church. We were working so hard to lead a group of people toward something that seemed so tangible, and yet, there was very little followership. It felt as though we were grinding forward, only to see people sit in the peanut gallery to watch the show. I remember telling my then supervisor, that at some point, if this was going to be how ministry was, I would probably take my pink slip and ‘get out.’ Little did I know the future. Really does anyone know their future?
Disillusionment with a job, family, life, or relationship leads people down strange paths. As I became more and more blinded by what I was seeing in the churches that I was serving at, I became more and more self focused. It was ironic because I was always asking people to think outside of themselves, for those that didn’t yet know Jesus, and yet I was becoming more and more focused on self preservation and protection. For sure I wasn’t going to let people into my world of dark clouds. I needed to lead, be faithful to the message that I was carrying, and be bold like any ‘preacher’ is supposed to be. But you can only do that for so long before it wears a person out. And it wore me out. I had seen things in the local church that were painful, mind boggling, and scary. I had seen the backside of what it means to lead in the church and it wasn’t a pretty backside. I had seen what church politics, broken relationships, and mission driven prodding was doing to me and others and I hated it. There were times where I desperately searched for a job online that I could apply for that would ‘get me out.’ I never found it, or it never found me. My resume certainly doesn’t scream business. It screams church and clergy.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved each and every church that I served. I love the church as detailed other places. I told people as we hired them at churches that if they could find any other place to work other than working for a church they should do that. It was always tongue in cheek and it was always in my joking, comedic tone, but I began to believe that and still do today. Church work isn’t for wimps and I respect the hell out of the men and women that toil day in and day out for the sake of their faith and the cause of their savior and take a paycheck for it. It’s so much easier to ‘toil’ when you are simply attending. It is so much easier to be removed from the muck and the mire of knowledge when you simply show up and drop your kids off, attend church, and then leave. It’s so much easier to simply pray every night, and then go to sleep rather than stay up all night wondering if there is going to be another dollar in the offering plate to be able to pay bills, or wondering whether your job is secure because the church is taking a dive in attendance, or wondering if you are really doing what “God” called you to do. For the last couple of weeks of my life, I have simply prayed, thanked God for the things I am grateful for, kissed my wife on the forehead, and fallen into the deep sleep that I have lacked for years. Maybe it’s my body making up for the lost time, or maybe it’s just what is normal, for people that don’t have to deal with church demons. Disillusionment almost got me. It almost killed me. I almost killed me. I chose to live in the disillusionment far too long. And I chose to stay and battle when the fight became impossible. And, I chose my response to that fight, which was damaging at times, and caused a lot of heartache that has yet to be addressed.
As my instructor pulled me out of my own thoughts, I knew that she had asked me a question. But I had no idea what the question was. So, trying to provide comic relief, I simply said, “Yes.” She looked at me with a smile cracking through and said, “you don’t even know what the ….I’m asking do you?” I told her I didn’t and she smiled. In that moment, I knew that I was in the right spot. I was allowed, and expected to process through some of these experiences. I was allowed and expected to come to some sort of conclusion. I was allowed and expected to dive into the material in front of me. Not to accomplish it, but to absorb it, grapple with it, find life again, and fight the temptation of disillusionment. It wasn’t five steps to being a better leader/pastor or the five temptations of those in charge, but it was life training. It was skills training, and it was raw.
The instructor has been an incredible influence on my life. For a lot of reasons. She has overcome her own addiction to substances and has been sober for many years. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t struggle. And it certainly doesn’t mean that she keeps quiet about the ‘crap on the plate.’ Instead, she is honest with people about where she is from day to day, from week to week, and knows the right people to tell, when she is really struggling. She has overcome so much in her life, overcome some of her own tendencies that cause pain, and has leaned into her strengths to be the best mom, grandma, and instructor that she can be. She’s the only instructor that I have ever had, in this area of study, but I believe she may be one of the best.
Intensive outpatient treatment has since ended and I received a certificate. But the certificate is fairly meaningless without the experiences, the conversations, the learning and growing that was done, the memories that were jogged, the laughter that was had, and the break times where the class would just get to ‘be’ together. Many of the folks that started treatment with me, sadly, didn’t end treatment with me. But then there was a new group, and I saw an instructor full of grace, hope, and forcefulness deal with each and every one of the clients that walked through her door. I also experienced and heard about what it meant to simply leave the work at work, a concept I knew nothing about.
My instructor cared deeply for her clients. But each and every night, she had to say to herself, “I don’t make their choices for them. They do.” And when someone messed up, she moved on from it. She hated that they didn’t succeed, but also knew that trying to hold on to the pain and the anger that came out of the situation wasn’t worth the heartache and bitterness that could develop.
She would often tell a story of the first person that relapsed and died in her program during Intensive Outpatient Treatment. My instructor would tell her co-worker, “If this is what it is like in this job, I don’t think I can make it.” But my instructor did. She did it with self care, self esteem, and by working with the strengths that she had. When I grow up, maybe I will have some of these same traits.