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.

Do the “Next Right Thing.”

I am a failed pastor. I had a moral failure. To most of you, that is shocking, and yet, to most of you there is always a part of you that knew that I was a failure. And I am owning up to it, finding myself again, and am working through the wreckage that this moral failure caused. I walked in, for the very first time, on February 18th, Alcoholics Anonymous (maybe I’m not so anonymous?) and sat down, unsure exactly of what the format would be or how I would introduce myself when the ‘famous in movies’ introductions were made.

I walked into the room, unsure, unsteady, unstable. I need help and this is a last ditch effort.

There were clearly two leaders seated in the front of the room. One of them rang a bell and started the meeting with a moment of silence for the still struggling alcoholic. Then the serenity prayer was prayed. The liturgy of an AA meeting had begun. For the next several months, I would grow to enjoy this cantor of reading that was predictable, reminding, and unsettling, all at the same time. At the end of the reading of the 12 steps and a reminder that we cannot and will not recover, if God doesn’t help us, one of the leaders asked if there was anyone at the meeting for the very first time with 24 hours of sobriety. I raised my hand tentatively, knowing that this would be the very first time, in any group that I would share with others the depth that I had fallen. The leaders asked for my name. I answered with a shaky and unsteady voice…

“I’m Chris….” My voice trailed off…”And I’m an alcoholic.” There, I said it. Out loud, for all to hear. The leader invited me up to the front of the room, and I received my 24 hour ‘desire’ chip and the meeting continued. The group clapped for me as I sat down. For the next several months, these words would be a staple in my language. My identity began to change and morph into something that was clearer than anything I could have ever imagined. My life was changing before my very eyes, because of this simple phrase uttered in a roomful of strangers.

Anywhere that I have ever been, I have been a stranger. Sure, I knew people’s name, occupation, family members, and even sometimes remembered a little bit about what they had told me the week before. But to say that we were anything but acquainted strangers would be disingenuous . I knew that very few, if any people, really knew me, and I was sure, if they did get to know me, they would not like me. I didn’t like me, so why would others. If I remained perfect for others, at least on the outside, then maybe I could navigate my way through the rushing current of that which is pastoring people. If I could be strong for others, maybe I could teach myself how to do the same. If I could counsel others with ‘wisdom’ surely that was found deeply embedded in me that I could tap in for ‘me’ at some point? I was a stranger to others. They were strangers to me. But even darker, deeper, and by far more scary than any of that was that I was a stranger to me. I didn’t know me. I didn’t know who I was. Who I wanted to be when I grew up, where I wanted to live, how I wanted to live. This led me to continue to just do the next thing that was available in front of me. And as a young man in their early 20’s who is ambitious, I felt as though the world were mine for the taking. There were more than enough hours in the day to do the work of two people, there were more people around me who needed ‘me’ to save them, and there were always ways to impress those that called me their employee. I just had to make sure that I navigated with great precision, because to be found out as a fraud would mean that it would go away. All of it. My wife, my kids, my job, my house, my friends, my car, my everything would go away. I had to make sure that I didn’t fail, that I was perfect for others, and then, at some point to deal with the pain that all of that mask caused me on the inside.

How many days have I gone jetskiing in a row? How many days have I tried to kill that pheasant? How much or how little have I eaten? When is the next euphoric high going to be with the next event or promotion, the next big achievement? I know that I lost count of these things at times. I know that I felt guilty at certain points for the time and energy wasted…But, I always…I always needed more. Always more of whatever it was that made things ‘feel’ better at the time. I needed approval for those things, so even the things that I did in excess were things that were celebrated as ‘family’ things or ‘personal care’ things. I even tricked myself and others into believing that somehow I ‘deserved’ what I was indulging in.

Alcohol. It was the one thing that I could not have. It was one thing that I never really liked or indulged too much in. I mean, I drank a bit in college, but I think most of my friends did as well, and they didn’t end up a drunk. When I first drank, I experienced a different sensation and much quicker than anything that I had tried before. Jet skiing, hunting, relationships. All of these paled in comparison to the depth that alcohol would relieve my inside pain. And I began my affair with the drug. Cunning, baffling, and powerful, it overtook me. I began to day dream about next time I would binge instead of dreaming about the future that I was to live. I began to ponder whether I was an alcoholic. And kept drinking. It drowned pain, caused me to feel like myself, and allowed me to develop an identity that I thought was, at the very least, somewhat developed within me instead of others telling me how and who to be.

And it got me. There is a lot to my story, which is why I am writing away on a book, and there is a lot to the story of God. But I don’t walk away from this particular experience with any sense of pride or arrogance. If I could have experienced what I am experiencing these days, before I ever picked up a bottle of whiskey, I would take whatever that potion would be. But there is no potion. I’m still a failed pastor. But that’s not my complete identity. My identity is in Christ. He is also cunning, baffling, and powerful, but those were just words that I used in idealogy to wow people with what I knew about God. Now I know them to be true. I identify, truly identify, with those that recognize their humanity deeply. I identify with those that have addictions to all sorts of things. I identify with brokenness, loss, pain, and guilt. I identify as an alcoholic, failed pastor. But aren’t we all, at some level, failed humans? Most of the writing I have ever done has ended or concluded with ‘an answer’ to the problem that was posed. The reality is that I don’t know the answers anymore. I only know that I have to take things one day at a time. I have to find solace in the fact that I don’t want to and cannot control the next person, place, or thing that I will encounter. And one day at a time, I’ll make it.

I heard a deep, non theologically ‘accurate’ discussion of sorts in a meeting recently. We were discussing the will of God. There are several atheists present in groups that I attend and I have learned so much from them. It’s generally not that they are so much atheists as they are brilliant. You see, most of the atheists I know are very articulate.

One of them, in this discussion said, “If there is a will of God, I contend that it would simply be to ‘do the next right thing.’”

And with that, I think I’ll pass to one of you. And I’ll take another 24. Because that is the “next right thing.”