Series Three: Blog Eighty-One
“When you’re lost in the woods, it sometimes takes you awhile to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path, that you’ll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it’s time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don’t even know from which direction the sun rises anymore.”- Elizabeth Gilbert
Have you ever been lost in the woods? It’s scary. Do I go this direction or the other? Is there hope that I will be found or am I getting more and more lost? It feels helpless. It’s overwhelming. You want to panic. Depression feels this way. It is like being wrapped in a heavy wet blanket that never dries out. It is claustrophobic to the max!
It’s been awhile. I was 38 years old, a pastor in Cherry Hills, Colorado. I was sitting in the family room at Denver General Hospital with the family of Laura who had just taken her life with an overdose. She was triggered by a poor interaction with her brother who had earlier in life molested her. The family was distraught. Her father pointed his quivering finger at me and said “You are responsible for this. You carelessly supported her leaving the treatment hospital that took her life!” Of course, I wasn’t responsible. The grieving father was suffering indescribable pain. I was not a newbie to the experience of suicide as a pastor. There were others. During the past 3 years there were ten suicides whose funerals I presided over. Each was a tragedy. Yet, somehow, this one was different for me. I walked away from the hospital numb. I recognized that I had begun to emotionally shut down. I couldn’t think or talk. I was emotionally paralyzed. I sat in a chair throughout the night. I had fallen into a major clinical depression. The death of Laura triggered my own memories of childhood sexual abuse. I wallowed in the nightmare of vagueness of what happened to me. I agonized about times in early life that I crossed boundaries with siblings.
I didn’t function. Inside my brain it felt I would go from being numb to anger to helplessness. At times it felt like an old washing machine had been turned on inside my brain as my mind churned back and forth. I stopped functioning. I didn’t want to leave the house even though I didn’t feel safe inside it. I ended up going to a friend’s basement and laid there for days on end. Emotionally, I was gone, unable to function as a husband, father of three small boys or as a minister. I stopped eating. In six weeks I lost 48 pounds. At times, I became very angry. I was suicidal. I attempted to walk through a door leading to the runway at Stapleton International Airport in an attempt to walk in front of a taxiing jet. This was before the TSA era, but still very difficult to accomplish. Two dear friends rescued me from my suicide attempt, saving me from hurting myself, humiliation and possible incarceration. I was very destructive. I began cruising in my car for hours, seething with anger while marinating in depression. I drove to an area of Denver known as “5-points”. At the time it was an area known to be a territory for the “Bloods” and “Crips” gangs. I aimed my vehicle at a group of kids I thought were likely gang members. I thought if I drove into them they would shoot me. So I tried. The kids scattered from the street and pointed their fingers. It was dusk and I figured their fingers were guns and I waited to be shot but was not. So, I kept driving.
I was out of control, obviously mentally ill. I began seeing a shrink who prescribed Xanax for anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping and was given Haldol which is an antipsychotic to help calm my suicidal ideation and bizarre thinking. I clearly became confused. I would forget when or how much Xanax I took. I remember wanting to get better. I thought the drug would help me. In confusion, I took 7 Xanax in a very short period of time. I was dangerous and needed hospitalization.
My wife and two friends convinced me to enter Columbine Psychiatric Hospital. I wasn’t there long. It was only three weeks. The first day I stared at a piece of fuzz on a big picture window for eight hours and was not high on anything, just emotionally lost. The staff left me alone during that time. Later a matronly type nurse tended to me. She was gentle and warm. Later, I connected her warmth to the lack of connection and warmth from my mom. This was helpful in later stages of recovery.
They let me go to a physical rehab room that had a punching bag. I would punch the bag for a long time until my clothes were totally wet and I would collapse with exhaustion. I didn’t even know what I was pissed about at the time. Another guy who was struggling with his own delusion threw a chair into the community TV causing it to explode. I lunged for him and would have attempted to beat him to death if two orderlies had not intervened and pulled me away. I remember thinking “why am I so angry? I don’t even really care about the TV or the ballgame I was watching.”
The heavy wet blanket of depression continued to suffocate me. A breakthrough experience occurred for me in the proverbial padded cell. They put me there because I was a bit rowdy on the floor one night. As I sat alone in the middle of the cell with the same Bible I still have. I turned to the first verse of the 91st Psalm “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty”. I thought to myself, “Here I am crazy, clearly suffering from mental illness”. I had sacrificed my life to do the work of the Lord. The dysfunction of cult-like upbringing in an abusive church had finally caught up with me! I wanted to scream out one long F***ck!! I remember hitting my Bible open to the 91st Psalm until my knuckles began to bleed and I gave way to fatigue. I just wailed alone for the longest time. Later the nurses came and got me and I slept deeply for the first time in a long while. It was the first time I remember expressing anger about the concept of God that had been ingrained and the hurtful relationship to the institution of church.
I began a long journey of putting my life back together. It was not a spectacular visible change. Thirty three years later I have been “born-again” many times. Healing has been an evolution of internal wisdom and behavioral change. The essence of who I have ever been still resides within my soul. The scars of past experience will always be. All of the things I have ever done, both the hurtful and helpful, comprise who I am in the present. I have the potential for harm and health. My future mental health depends upon my daily choices. I have been on a journey of making peace with my past, addiction and struggle for several decades now. While I have never “arrived”, I continue to transform myself. I have learned to be proud of where I have been and who I am in the present. Depression remains a daily struggle.
I have revisited the 91st Psalm many times. My understanding of God has evolved and changed many times. Now, I do take refuge in the God of life force. I also recognize that God takes refuge in me. I need God and God needs me. It’s a merger of life force. In order for awakening, understanding and love to be real in an everyday world, it requires God to take refuge in me. It is not a one-way street. Awareness is necessary for connection.
During the journey of healing throughout my life I have learned to make depression, addiction and struggles in life the voice of God. Each experience brings a message signaling emotional needs that must be addressed through healthy alternative measures. While it is not helpful to be paralyzed with mental illness, depression does bring awareness to life imbalance. When you listen to the message that depression brings, it does help you find your way back to your center of truth. Though for many it takes time. Deep listening to depression with your heart can help you to find your way out of the woods.
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