Death and Life.

Sitting on a railroad track, waiting for a train to fly by at 55 miles per hour, I called 1.800.273.8255. And then…life happened.

It wasn’t that I was mad at anyone in particular. In fact, I had no one to be angry with. Regardless, I was furious on the inside. Furious that I had let things go this far. Furious that I was going to lose it all. Furious that someone would find out about me. I was just irate. I drove, and drove, and drove. Until I decided that I couldn’t drive any longer.

On February 13th, 2018, my life would change forever. For the first time, ever, I was going to make an attempt on my own life. Selfish, stupid, but I believed that it was necessary. I needed to be relieved of pain, guilt, shame, doubt, and find some rest in what I believed would be best for all. To die. I drove around in the morning, contemplating life, family, and future. I knew that taking my life would have huge ramifications for my family. I knew that it would have future ramifications for the churches that I had served. My friends would be disappointed in me, but weren’t they already? My extended family would have no idea how to process this, except with disappointment and anger. But that is what I felt from most of the people that I considered ‘close.’ Anger, disappointment, irritation. There was nothing else left to live for if I couldn’t gain the approval of those around me. There was nothing more that I could do, to try and gain that approval, as I had done the best I could, with what I had to work with, and still failed, time and time again. The rage and anger inside of me could be felt in my face, my neck, my ears, my back and my brain. I thought and thought and thought about how I was going to navigate this season of my life that was turning into a supercell storm. I went back and forth between self effacing and self hating. “God, if you are there, save me from these things.”

These were the words that I remembered uttering before driving another half mile to the nearest set of train tracks. As I pulled up onto the two sets of tracks, on a dusty gravel road just a mile from where I lived, I knew that this would end the pain. I knew that this would be the last time that I would have to feel. And it would be the last time that I had to fail myself or someone else. Somehow, I had come to the place where I truly believed that it was better and best for me to simply not be on this earth.

My iphone was next to me in the seat, and I took it out, trying to preoccupy my mind with something other than the fearful and raging thoughts inside my head. I texted a couple people, letting them know that I loved them and that taking care of my family was a primary concern that they could have. I don’t know that I told anyone outright, “I’m going to kill myself.” but several of my friends got the hint. I then did something that I cannot explain. I called the suicide hotline. A nice lady on the other end of the line answered and asked me how I was doing. I decided, “What the hell do I have to lose?” so I told her everything that was going on. I told her about the fights, about the alcohol, about the lying, the covering up, the suicidal thoughts, and the fact that I was sitting on a train track, waiting for the next train to whisk by, going 55 miles per hour. She assured me that it was not worth it, to die. She started asking me about my family, friends, job, and home. She eventually got me to move off the tracks and toward the hospital to get some help. I started driving, eventually arriving there. When I hung up, I was walking into a place of refuge, a place that I would later attribute to saving my life.

I’ll never be able to quite put into words the things that I was thinking that day. It may be because I had been driving myself insane for about a year. It may have been that I was just so incredibly exhausted with life that it seemed as though this were the only option. It may have been the guilt, shame, and immorality doing the talking. Later, I learned, these were all ‘stinkin’ thinking’ techniques. I sat down to write what my thoughts were that day, over and over again. The only thing that makes any sense at all is that I didn’t die. I know that it makes more sense that I should have, but I didn’t. Days later, in the behavioral health unit, the nurse kept asking me if I wanted to hurt myself. I didn’t want to hurt myself, I wanted to stop hurting. Pain was the last thing that I wanted more of. Dying seemed like the ultimate way of escape. I had sat long hours with people that were suicidal and never before had understood the way of their thinking and the reality that they found themselves in. I never understood how death might be better than life, until those moments when reality seemed as though life would stop regardless.

After my experience at the hospital (which I talk about in the book), I went to the store, found my affair, which was whiskey if I remember right, and found a not so secluded area on the side of the road. I drank the bottle, and fell asleep. A deep sleep apparently.

Alcohol damn near killed me. But that day, it saved my life. Had I been left to my own vices, to my own thoughts, to my own hopelessness and despair, and had I continued on, day after day, I would not have had the opportunity to live the last several months. I would not have had the opportunity to experience life on life’s terms outside of the jail that I found myself in. I would not have been able to feel (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as it related to my marriage, my family, my job, and my friends. I would not have experienced recovery or found solace in the ‘God of my own understanding.’ I would not have been able to experience the joy of serving someone for ‘serving’ sake’ and I would not have experienced what it meant to walk through high levels of stress not relying on my own selfish vices to help navigate the tumultuous waters. I wouldn’t have celebrated my 9 year old daughter’s birthday nor would I have got to wake up next to my wife again. I wouldn’t have got to spend time with Kermit, a dear friend before and now a brother for eternity. I wouldn’t have learned how to use 76 calories (this is part of living with Kermit and Velda.)

Life won that day, because I chose it. 

It is said often in recovery. “Life didn’t get easier when I stopped coping with alcohol. It got harder.” And it has. And at the same time, I am freer than ever before. I am living life and experiencing the new reality of God, my family, my career, friendships, good food, and conversation. I am free to live, and not bound to die. Certainly I will die someday (hopefully it’s the day before taxes are due so I can avoid that, at least once) and when I do, I will meet my creator, and thank him for that day, February 13. There is so much to say about the grateful place that I find myself in, but maybe another time. If you are in a place where life seems bleaker than life, give the suicide hotline a try. They care. Or they wouldn’t be there. 1-800-273-8255. When you call, tell the good folks there, “thank you, for the opportunity to live.”

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.

Identity and Argument

The latin phrase “Know Thyself” is a catchy phrase. But how many of us identify with other human beings in a way that builds relationship? How many of us wrap our identity in one sole area of our lives, instead of recognizing we are multifaceted? I know I am one of them.

Being separated from the people that you care most about sucks. I know, I have been separated from my wife and kids for the past several months. After February 13th, I left the behavioral health unit and headed to a different city, away from the church that I was at, to begin to pick up the pieces of life. Looking for friends, I began to contact some of the people from my past church experience to see if I could find a place to stay. I ended up staying with a dear friend and now brother, who is a 22 year old stuck in an 84 year old man’s body. The story of how I got there is written elsewhere, but what happened at his and his wife’s house was nothing short of a miracle. I wish that I could capture the moments in his living room, learning and being challenged by a man that was learning humility right along with me. I was challenged, irritated, held accountable, and ribbed. I was a wreckup and down like a kite. My emotional barometer was all over the place and the folks that I was staying with never knew what to expect emotionally as I walked through their front door. They were so gracious to me in those early weeks. After the first night living in their home, they should have kicked me out, but they believed in me, believed for me, at some level.

My friend and brother likes to argue. It’s how he learns. Honestly, he drives me nuts when he argues because I am a people pleaser and don’t want to engage in conflict. Conflict, at any level, causes deep anxiety and pain to spring up within me. So the first time that he challenged something I said by muttering, “I don’t know about that….” I was taken back. I didn’t want to argue with the man that I was living with. I didn’t want to have to ‘know things’ to win an argument like I have done all my life. I just wanted to focus on the things that I knew would help me recover and not have to deal with the pain of argumentation or irritation. I didn’t want to have to draw on my understanding of scripture or experience to argue my point. But I couldn’t help myself. I decided I was going to ‘win’ the argument. I later learned that winning an argument with him was simply to say that we had one, and he would call it a ‘good discussion.’

He asked me a question“Why do you identify yourself as an alcoholic at the meeting? Why do you call yourself that, when you are a child of God?” The question itself was irritating to me. So, I decided to engage it. Listen you….

First of all, I call myself an alcoholic at the meeting because I am an alcoholic and I’m introducing myself as one, just like the other 24 people in the room. I also call myself an alcoholic because I am reminding myself of who I am and why I am here, living with you! My crisis statement was one that I need to remember, and I remember it every time that I identify myself as an alcoholic. And finally, it’s the first time in my recent memory that I can be honest with a room and not experience judgement for not being perfect (more from myself than others, if I am honest). The second part of his question, about being a child of God, in the moment seemed like a needle below the skin. I was in the middle of a faith crisis and he was calling me a child of God. It was all that I could do to not show irritated (although he would later tell me that I was very emotive and he could tell when something was wrong). In my best pastoral voice, I said, “Because I am not sure what to think of God quite yet. I don’t know that I am his child.” I thought that would quiet my dear friend and brother and we could continue our car ride in silence. But he kept pushing. “So, why don’t you say you are both?” Inside, I was furious. Not at my beloved friend. Not at God. But with me. At who I had become. At what choices I had made. Inside, I became indignant. Why do I need to tell people that I am an alcoholic? Why do I need to do this recovery thing? Why do I need to not drink? It all became overwhelming in that moment.

Looking back, identity is something that we talked regularly about. When it comes down to it, I am both an alcoholic and a child of God. I’m a lot of other things as well. For instance, I’m a dad and a husband. I’m a blogger and an artist. I’m a musician and friend. I’m lazy and hardworking, all at the same time. I’m messed up, screwed up, and insane at times. You see, identity really becomes identity when I am able to look eyeball to eyeball with someone and we have something in common. We identify a shared experience. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have sat with another father and we have discussed the woes of parenting young children. Or the times that I have chatted with other people that have a distinct taste in music. Or maybe those that enjoy coffee who identify as ‘coffee drinkers.’ You see, we all have identities and sharing those identities in the right context makes us human. It allows us to be an integral part of each others’ story. It allows us to build relationships and a narrative between a group of people that can become like minded.

When Paul talks about the identity we have in Christ (for my bible teaching and scholarly friends, some of the references would be Galatians 5:19-21, Romans 5, Ephesians 1-2, 2 Corinthians 5) he really is discussing what the reality of salvation means. We are brought into the sight of God no longer as guilty, but as free. It’s a change in both perspective and reality that God has. Paul identifies himself as the ‘chief amongst sinners’ as well, in 1 Timothy 1. What are we to make of the dual reality? Obviously, we are still human and are NOT perfect even in our state of salvation. But maybe Paul was talking more about the fact that we can now identify with both Jesus’ humanity AND his deity? Before Jesus made us new, and transformed us in God’s sight, we only identified with Jesus’ humanity. We identified with the temptations that he faced, the physical pain that he suffered, and the relationship nightmares that he found himself in. We identified with his anger, with his justice, and with his ability to win arguments with people. After we have experienced the changed reality and perspective of God, we are able to identify with his deity as well. We are not God at this point, we never will be. But we have access to know God in a new way. As my friends in recovery say, “Those who give their will over to God will recover, may you find him now.” Christians often celebrate the fact that God was both man and deity, but the reality is, maybe we should celebrate the fact that we can now identify with both. Our identity is found in both our humanity and our deity. Paul said it over 160 times. We are to be ‘in Christ.’

Enough of my pondering, borderline preaching. I enjoy pondering the nature of identity, for mine is reforming from what it was. I no longer have to be something for someone else, care about how people will respond to what I say or feel, or find solace in others’ feelings about me. I identify with many of you as human. I identify with many of you as ‘in Christ’ (and jacked up as well!) And my identity is multifaceted. I’m a lot of things with alot of people, and that changes as I build within the narrative of relationships.

Early on in recovery, everyone knew that I was an alcoholic. The poor check out lady at Walmart asked how my day was going. I said, “It would be better if I weren’t an alcoholic and could have a drink.” As she stood there mortified, not sure what to think, I realized that I had broken the rule of narrative within relationship. This was not a time or place to put that bedrock of who I identify with at the forefront. This was the time and the place to give the pat answer of “I’m doing okay, how are you?” I try not to put people in awkward situations like this anymore, but sometimes cannot help myself. I will be honest with people but am relearning what it means to identify with people, instead of telling them my identity in one word. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a failed pastor. I’m a child of God. I’m a dad, husband, size 34×34 pant wearer, and a coffee drinker. And so you and I identify with each other on some level, and continue to build the narrative within the relationship that we have.

I desire to know myself. All facets of myself. And get to know you as well, with shared experiences. Identity is to know someone, and our identity is brushed stroked quite broadly.

I’ll keep going to meetings and identifying as an alcoholic, reminding myself of who I am and clearly letting others into my world. It’s good for me, and good for you to remember who we are, so we don’t lose ourselves.