Joe

“Joe. My name is Joe. I’ve been here 8 days, and they want to kick me out tomorrow. I have a condition that I can’t get medicine for, and before they know it, I’ll either be dead or back in here.”

I knew I wouldn’t mind if they kicked me out the next day. I was ready to move on, move forward from this nightmare. But Joe was fearful. His voice trembled as he described his life outside his walls of this confinement. He told stories of having it all, being a contractor making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, working construction and then owning a construction company; married with three kids, and living in a modest ½ million dollar home. “I’m 71 now.

That was a different life, 36 years ago.” Joe was 35 when he first started drinking regularly. He had hurt his arm in an accident and to ease the pain, he had found alcohol seemed to help the pain while also being socially acceptable. His wife of 12 years continued to scold him for drinking too much at times, and eventually she left him alone, in the house of his dreams.

He sold his construction business and moved to Florida. And then drank; for 36 years. His kids had graduated and gone, and this was a blur of a time for Joe. He couldn’t recall the times he had attended graduation ceremonies, weddings, or anything that was normally a landmark moment in a person’s life.

Joe had been admitted to the mental health psychiatric center because he had tried to commit suicide. Alone and in pain, he found solace in the fact that he could leave behind his pain, guilt, shame, remorse, and lonely existence. He swore that when he got out, he was going to figure out, this time for good. Clearly, Joe was not in good shape. He had long been on workman’s compensation and disability, and had been in and out of homeless shelters for years.

I’ll never forget watching midday television one afternoon with Joe. As we sat there, he gruffly asked if I was married. “Yes. I’m married.” I replied with some question in my voice, because at that particular moment I was married, but wasn’t sure how frail that reality was, moving forward. Joe leaned in, across the table with the most intense eyes an old man has given me, probably in my entire life, and said something that haunts me and motivates me all the same.

“When you get out, take advantage of a second chance. Don’t f*** this up and lose everything. You’ve only started to lose your future and you can turn that around.”

And with that, he sat back in the uncomfortable chair and took in the rest of “Judge Judy.” I was taken back. He had told me his story and it had eerily resonated with me. Similar ages, similar life situations, similar pains, and aches and emotional scarring. He had come to the crossroads and the intersection 36 years ago, and had chosen to go down the gravel road of selfishness, self-seeking, and what seemed to be an easier and softer way than living life on life’s terms. He had shut people out of his life, out of his pain, and out of his existence only to find at the end of the day, he had to live with himself. He didn’t like himself very much and so he had made it his goal to rid the world of himself.

The last day that I was at the mental health center, Joe gave me his phone number on a little piece of paper. He folded it up in a square and told me to call him, when I got out, and when I landed somewhere. I forgot about the little piece of paper until about a month after this exchange when I found it in a pocket, in the jeans that I was sporting at the hospital. Memories came flooding back to me, and I knew something had to be different. I didn’t want to end up a 71-year-old man, with a crazy story of living life in a blur, trying to end it all by any means possible. I didn’t want to look back on my life and tell a 35-year-old kid not to screw this up, like I had done. I wanted to choose a different road. One with twists and turns, bumps and valleys, mountains, and rivers. I didn’t want to live a flat life void of emotion, relationships, and joy. I could deal with the pain, as long as I could live life to its’ fullest potential.

I tried to call Joe, the day that I found his number. HIs number was disconnected and no longer in service. Joe was, and is, an angel of hope whom I encountered. I don’t know that I’ll ever see Joe again, but I think of him often. During the times when I descend into a difficult valley or peak a mountaintop, I remember him looking at me, with intensity, desire, and earnestness, and saying “Get it right the second time around, son.” And then we watched another episode of Judge Judy.

*Names in this post are not actual names of people represented to protect the anonymity of those that were involved. Joe, if you ever read this, please know that you saved one man’s life in that clinic.

What Do YOU want?

I have had to grow up, and will continue that growth process until I can’t any longer. I still want the same two things.

  1. I want to be healthy.
  2. I want to know the God of my understanding.

It was the end of the “winter of hell.” The hell that had become my life, and current reality. Questions had been posed to me and I needed to answer them. For me. Not for others or how others would want me to answer them, for that would be how I arrived in this situation to begin with.

“What is it that YOU want?” Two of my closest friends asked me the question, within days of each other. It’s as if they had been talking. “It’s not enough for me to want something for you. It’s not enough for me to desire for you to be someone that you don’t want to be. It’s not enough for you to try and be someone for someone else anymore.” Both of my friends were honestly asking me, neither of them wanting something fake or manufactured. They honestly wanted me to figure it out for me instead of trying to figure it out for everyone else.

I heard these words.

I understood that I needed to determine who I wanted to be.

I needed to make a determination on desires, on abilities, on futures, and on the situation that I found myself in. What did I want? I wasn’t sure.

I knew that I didn’t want what I had found myself to be. I knew that I didn’t like me and I knew that the way I was living, a life of least resistance,  would end in a catastrophic moment.

I leaned into the question, and began asking questions of myself.

Did I want to be alone (This is an honest question that I believe most introverts wrestle with)? Did I want to be alive (This is probably a question that more people have then I ever realized)? Did I want the life of an addict, always going back to the same things that drove me insane in the first place? Did I want to be a person that focused on the things that inhibited me from being me? Or did I want to be me and be okay with that? What did that even mean?

So many questions posed and most them were posed within my own head. Some of them came out in conversation with a dear friend of mine, who had many years of experience ahead of me. Some of them came out in writing. Some of them came out in my own emotion, and inability to control the emotion.

So many questions have yet to be answered. And yet, in a stunning beautiful array of current and ongoing reality, I began and continue a journey of discovery.

I can remember in college people telling me that I was going to ‘find myself’ or that I would ‘own my own faith’ or that I would have a ‘spiritual awakening.’ Unfortunately mine didn’t come until well after college. I’m grateful. I’m thankful that it finally did come and is still coming. I am finding joy in the little things. Finding joy in the present moments is something that I have never really known. I have always focused on the future, trying to manipulate situations around me to achieve the success that I somehow craved. There were times when I didn’t really know who I was, in fact, there were very few times that I knew who I was. I understand that now to some degree. And each day is another day to understand that more and more. To understand who I am and to understand who I want to become are two very important things in my current reality. I am very focused. But not focused on the future realities that could exist, rather, I am trying to focus on the current reality that does exist. For if I am to focus on the future reality that could exist, I will rob myself of being me, in the present moment. I will never find comfort in my own skin, and I will lack the joy needed in life to sustain life, love, and relationships.

I went fishing with my son recently. We haven’t fished much the past couple of years, mostly because I have been too focused on myself to really find joy in the idea and act of sitting by a dirty midwest pond and catching smelly catfish. But that is me. It’s one of the things that I have loved doing since I was a young child. I can remember being excited about the next time that I got to go to the pond. There was freedom at the pond. The water was mysterious, and unpredictable, and yet, it was always there. It was always present. It was always waiting for me to step up beside it and find peace hearing the waves lap against the shore. I love catching fish. But even more than that, I love the focus that fishing brings. I have a singular focus when I cast my lure into the weeds, hoping that a ‘lunker’ as my son and I call them, will snatch the lure and run. Each cast provides a new hope. And then a new reality. Either there is a fish on the end of my line at the end of the cast, or there isn’t. Either way, I get to be at the pond. And I get to be at the pond with my son, alive, joyful, and in conversation with one of the brightest kids I know.

There are many past conversations that I remember vividly, that I can recount with complete accuracy, as I have the ability to recall conversations with clarity (Which is also a curse because I often play them back, assign motives to what people say, and concoct a reality in my own head that may not actually exist). There are so many meetings, discussions, dialogues, monologues, and emotive statements that I dare say I would not care to forget. Pain is something that I choose to entertain, but some of these discussions happened to me, not because of me, and for those I am now grateful because they have made me into the person that I am becoming. All of the experiences, whether good, bad, ugly or otherwise, mold us and shape us into who we are, what we believe, and why we exist. The discussions, conversations, pain, sorrow, victories, and accomplishments, all play into the current moment. This is one of the reasons I choose joy, in my current moment, rather than find all of the reasons that I should be angry, confused, mad, or otherwise blaming.

I discuss many of these conversations elsewhere, but for the purposes of this particular journal, I remember a conversation with a friend of mine in early March. I was still angry, broken, confused, and trying to figure out which way was up. I knew which way was down because I had been to the edge and back of the bottom of the barrel. I had experienced a depth of life that I never, ever want to go back to. I asked this friend of mine what I needed to be doing to figure out how to climb out of the darkness that had surrounded me.

He said to me, “You are going to grow up in the next few months and years. And you are going to discover life that you have never known. Life that will find you, that you don’t have to manufacture, and a life that will bring immense joy.” At the time, I scoffed. I didn’t let on that I was somewhat irritated with his implication that I somehow was a child. I should have probably at least let on that I was mildly irritated but at the time, I wasn’t sharing emotion with anyone, except to show anger to the world.

Who was he to say I was a child? I was grown up. I was an adult. I made my own decisions and I would continue to do so. As I journeyed along over the next few months, I did find myself growing up. In my core, I have been a small child for so long. I made the choice to live life a certain way, always reliant on others for direction, as a child is reliant on their parents for food, clothing, and shelter. I have always relied on the accolades of those around me to continue to motivate me. I have always relied upon my personality to get me out of difficult situations. But I found myself growing up. I began to limit my ‘approval rating’ from others, and began to see myself as autonomous. I began to understand what it meant to take care of myself, not just in the feeding and clothing of myself, although those things are very important, but in the area of self care and management. I began to sort through the things in my head and could make determinations on whether they were based in reality, facts, or emotion. I began to become level headed enough that I could make rational decisions without fear of reprisal, anger, irritation, disappointment, or approval of those that were around me. I began to see myself as independent from others, where I had always been dependent.


Growing up has downsides as Peter Pan pointed out years ago in the book, movie, and retelling of the fable. Growing up means that you have responsibility. Growing up means that you have obligations. Growing up means that you get to work for the things that you want. Growing up means that you have to determine what you actually want. And I have been in that mode of operation for a few months now. I know these things to be true, and have begun to experience the benefits of growing up as well as the downsides.

The benefits outweigh the downsides easily. There is an ease to my mind that I have not known before. I am able to sleep well at night, and wake up refreshed in the morning, and at a normal hour.. I’m able to be both physically and emotionally present with my kids, family, and people around me. I am able to find joy in the small things and look at each day, with a newness and gratefulness. Growing up is a challenge, but as it is happening, is a joy to behold and experience. I see life through my kids eyes again, but with the lens of an adult. I am one that has determined who he is, and who he will become.  

So, what do I want? There are just a couple things that I decided upon, way back at the end of the ‘winter of hell.’ I determined that I wanted just two things.

  1. I wanted to get healthy.
  2. I wanted to know the God of my understanding.

These two statement are packed full of all sorts of growing pains–pains that I have only begun to experience, but necessary, nonetheless. They are packed full of joy, excitement, and impatience. I want these things to be true today. Right now. It’s probably human nature, but certainly my nature to want things quickly. I wanted things well before I was ready to have them, and the same is true in the ‘growing up’ sense. It takes time for maturity to become a reality. It takes time for a child to become a man. It takes time for those that are around that man to understand who he is and what makes him tick, especially when that person has been unsure of himself for so long. “Patience is a virtue” they say. My impatience with life has led me to a place where I have had to develop virtue. I had to develop patience at some level (and that will be an ongoing thing until I die!). I had to experience an independence from those vices that kept me from experiencing who I needed to be, who I wanted to be, and really who I had always been. I have had to find me and be ‘okay in my own skin.’

I have had to grow up, and will continue that growth process until I can’t any longer. I still want the same two things.

  1. I want to be healthy.
  2. I want to know the God of my understanding.

Neither is completed, and I know that these things take a lifetime to experience. But I know that I have clear direction and clear marks of who I am, who I want to become, and how I want to get to these places. People are always going to be part of the equation, but people don’t dictate my growing up. They don’t dictate me being a child. The “approval rating” of others means less to me today than it did yesterday, because I know that I am loved by God. And I know that I am loved by my family, friends, and others. Love is alot of things (and I write about that elsewhere) but one of the things that I have learned as I journey through adolescence, is that ‘love is something that cannot be earned, kept, or lost. When one loves another, that continues, regardless of the circumstances.

As C.S. Lewis says To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.”

Thanks to my friends, who asked me the same question…Just a few days apart.

Psych Ward

Terrified, I found myself being wheeled to the psych ward. What was I doing? Did they think I was crazy? Maybe I was crazy! Maybe I should be admitted here. Maybe I should remain here. So many thoughts and a thousand question rattled around inside of me, driving me more and more insane, on the edge.

I sat there, in a wheelchair, looking at the sign in front of me, waiting for the security clearance to pass from the outside, to the inside. I wasn’t going to jail, yet, but was about to experience something that was radically different in nature than anything I had ever encountered. All because I was going to the “psych ward.”

I quickly realized once I was inside the psych ward that this is not the correct term for the place that I would call residence for 5 days. I quickly realized that there were more politically correct terms than this, and so using the term ‘behavioral health center’ seemed to be the more acceptable way to describe what was happening inside these four walls. The place was bustling with activity and what I later found out, was always that way. I walked through the front door and had to strip down to nothing so that the security folks could take everything that I had on me at the time, put it into a bag, and lock it away, for safekeeping. I was given a hospital gown, which is a sorry excuse for the front part of a shirt, and then ushered to my abode that I would be inhabiting for the next few days. The nurse met me at the room and let me know that they were doing what she called ‘intake’ and that it would be a few minutes until they came in to let me have access to some clothes, and some of my showering possessions. I had been in the hospital for a full day at this point, and thought maybe a shower would be in order. The nurse left and I was left to sit on the bed, pondering how I made it to this point in my life. As I studied the room, I realized that I was here for a very specific reason. The hospital staff had good reason to believe that I was a threat to myself and so they admitted me on the basis of ‘suicidal tendency’ and then ushered me to the “Behavioral Health Center” for safekeeping. I knew this because all of the vents were covered with a small wire mesh. The outlets were glued shut, and there were no metal sharp edges anywhere. I don’t think I was looking for any, but these things caught my attention, and for the first time in a few days, I really did want to die. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be in this situation. I didn’t want to be locked in the hospital for any longer than I had to be. And now I was stuck. The night before, when I was recovering from my experience with the Emergency Room I had asked the nurse if I could leave. I’m not sure what I was thinking (I wasn’t) and thought that if I could leave, things would simply be all better. They knew better than to let a guy who had just showed up in the position that I was in go back out into the streets. I don’t remember what they told me, but I remember thinking that it was a good reason as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to leave. Now, in the Behavioral Health Unit, all I wanted was to get home to my wife and kids, for things to return to normal, and for me to figure out how to cope with life again.

The nurse interrupted my thought process as she wheeled in the large machine that would take my blood pressure. For the next few weeks and months, I would battle significant heart issues, such as high blood pressure and an enlargement of the heart. When one doesn’t care for themselves well, the body tends to respond poorly. She pumped up my arm and then exclaimed how high my blood pressure was. She asked if I was nervous. I told her that I was a little nervous and asked what was going to happen to me. She told me that the unit would figure out the best move forward, to keep me safe and sound, in the next 24 hours. 24 hours!! I let that sink in. I wanted to be gone in the next 24 minutes. She walked me through the ‘rules’ and the schedule and let me know that I could walk around the unit and be anywhere except other patients’ bedrooms. There were books, a television, and some coloring books out in the lobby outside of my room. I sat on my bed as she brought in my clothes so that I could get into something a little more ‘comfortable.’ All I had with me were the same clothes I had arrived at the hospital with, so I put them on. They didn’t smell great, but they were a heck of a lot more comfortable than the half shirt I was wearing, moments earlier. I laid back on the bed, for the first time in several hours, disconnected from any sort of medical device or monitoring system. I did what any manipulative individual would do in this situation. I schemed on how to fool people to think that I was fine, that I would move forward with little to no consequence. And I fell asleep. Not deeply asleep but enough that an hour passed and then I heard the nurse come around and ask if I was ready for dinner. I got up out of my bed, and went out to the lobby to meet ‘the other crazy people.’ I sat at a table by myself (even in a mental health facility I was a loner) and ate my dry, chewy chicken and drank my carton of milk. I wasn’t hungry and hadn’t been for quite some time. My appetite and everything that had been enjoyable was now gone. The only thing that I wanted in this moment, was to be away from this place. I met several folks that evening as we gathered around the 6 pm scheduled TV watching. We sat in the chairs in the lobby and talked and discussed amongst ourselves why we were there. For the first time, in a very, very long time, I told someone how I felt. I told a cocaine addict and alcoholic why I was in there with them. They couldn’t get past the fact that I was an alcoholic and a Pastor. I told them that it shouldn’t be that weird, I was still human. We had many discussions the next few days about my occupation and my drug of choice. We had many discussions about their escapades of doing drugs, overdosing, and the kinds of things that they were going to do, when they ‘got out.’ You see, all of us were in the center because we really were crazy. We thought that death would be a better alternative than life itself. And because we believed that, others believed the opposite for us and thought that this was the best place we could be. There were two more intakes that evening. One was a young gentlemen that I recognized and he recognized me. He had gone to the church that I had been pastoring at and knew that I was from there. He had tried to commit suicide and was unsuccessful. The other was a man who was about six foot seven and weighed 120 pounds. He was clearly not doing well, when he came in, and was babbling nonsense and yelling obscenities. The nurses were doing their best to get him to his room and give him a tranquilizer. The little band of alcoholics and drug addicts sat in the lobby, and looked upon this sight with wide eyes. This is what we all expected, when we came into the Psych Ward, I mean, the Mental Health Center…We expected to be placed with other folks who were insane. We all knew we were insane and our minds weren’t working correctly and that was the only difference between us and the gentlemen that put up a fight. We found out later that he really didn’t function well mentally and that he had a several mental illness that cost him memory, personality, and function.

As I laid down that night to go to bed, I was given ambien to sleep. It knocked me out cold, and I woke up to some visitors. I was groggy and don’t remember much of anything of this encounter but know that all I wanted to do was sleep. About an hour after my visitors, the nurses came back in, turned on the lights, hooked me up to the blood pressure machine and again remarked how high my blood pressure was. One of them started down a list of questions, one of which was, “Do you want to hurt anyone right now?” I thought to myself, and wish I had only thought to myself, but ended up saying out loud, “I want to hurt all of you, you keep waking me up!” I was joking, or trying to, but in the center, you don’t joke about these things. The room came alive and the next thing I knew I was talking to a therapist who was also the psychiatrist, in the middle of the night, and talking about anger and emotion. He finally left and I was able to sleep just a bit. I fell asleep convincing myself that this was all just a bad dream and that things would come to a close soon.

When I awoke the next morning, I had no idea what time it was. I didn’t have a watch, phone, clock or any way of knowing what the hour hand said. I sat up and realized that it was sunny outside. I got up, walked out the door, and found the clock to say 5:40 am. I went back in and laid down for awhile, then got up and found a book in the lobby. It was a bible, but it was the recovery bible. I opened it and read just a few of the entries that were focused on the 12 steps to recovery. I began to resonate with what the authors had written and found myself writing furiously on my notepad. As I wrote faster, my mind raced. I was here because…and my mind went all kinds of places. I played the ‘blame game’ for awhile. I went down the path of self effacing and self beating. Then I decided I would be emotionally dulled to the point of not feeling anything. I would stuff this, and I would move on. The last entry I read in the bible was regarding step 3. The writing became blurry as my eyes filled with tears.

“Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

I had tried this. In fact, my entire life, I had tried to turn my will over to the care of God, and look where it got me? It put me in the mental institution and cast away by most of the community that I had tried to serve for the majority of my adult life. I was done with God and decided in that moment that I would not read this jargon anymore. I’m out, I declared internally. My will didn’t get me here, God did. And in that moment, I had blamed the creator God, the God of the universe for my own perverse nature, sin, and demise. And he took it. I’m glad he did, and I’m glad he gave me a second, no, a millionth chance. Later, I would learn that this step was crucial to recover, but that is written about extensively in the book. God was there with me, and yet I felt further from him than ever.

The next several days were filled with classes about drug use, suicide and anxiety, and seeing psychiatrists to determine the readiness of the patients to get out of the center. I tried my hardest the first day to convince all that I was doing fine, that I was strong enough to leave and be in control of my emotions, etc. I wasn’t but I sure tried to show that way. At the end of my second day in the center, my wife and I had a conversation that would change the course of my recovery. It was simple and it was icy. She told me that she didn’t think it to be a good idea, or even option, to come home. For the sake of our kids, for my sake, for her sake, it would be best if I got the help that I needed. I got off the phone a much more broken man than when I started the conversation. I went into my room, sat on the bed and cried. I cried like a baby, more than I ever had in my adult life. The people that I loved so deeply, the people that I had hurt the most, were now not accessible for the time being, in my life. And I was breaking apart in these moments. A nurse walked in and sat down in the chair next to my bed. She was my favorite nurse as she had a sense of humor and was a bit motherlike. She was a tough cookie, and allowed for people to be honest, even demanded it. She looked at me, and I looked at her through blurry eyes and she asked me, “What happened on the phone?” I recounted the conversation through whimpers, tears, and sobbing and at the end of it, when I was done talking, she asked me a question. She said, “Do you love your wife and kids?” What was she asking me? Of course I did, wasn’t that obvious? I answered swiftly, absolutely. She then said something that I remember as vividly as if it were five minutes ago. She said, “If you want any part of their lives moving forward, you have to be brutally honest with yourself, with your wife, and with your alcohol problem.” Up until that point, alcohol had only been addressed by doctors and psychiatrists as a question. “How much do you drink?” or “How frequent do you drink?” She had made a statement and told me that I had a problem. But the part that I remember most vividly is that I needed to be honest with myself and with others. I assured her that I would try and she walked out. She and I would have a few more discussions related to this same statement, but they are recounted other places. She saved my life. Had I not declared myself to need honesty in all areas, I think I would probably be dead. I don’t think I would have made it to today, let alone through that day.

As I drove to my new home for the next few months, riding silently in the cab of the truck of a good friend, being released from the Behavioral Health Center and leaving my drug friends behind, I pondered what was next for me. How would I live out the honesty that I had been so quick to agree to? How was I going to rebuild my life, with or without my family involved? How was I going to engage my problem with alcohol. How would I live life, when life seemed so chaotic? The answer for me was complex and to a degree, difficult to explain, which is why I am writing. There was no answer that I could come up with, and that proved to be the answer. I needed others. I needed God. I needed honesty and a belief in myself again. I needed to dream again, to be excited about life again, and to find joy in the present moment. And through these things, I lived to see another day, another week, and another month. And by God’s grace, I’ll make it through today.