Series Two; Blog Twenty-Four
“Sometimes the only healing you can offer is a chapter from your own life story.”—Ken Wells
Getting emotionally naked with reality is a scary proposition. Facing personal brokenness risks tearing away the fabric and sometimes even the foundation of meaning for your life. Ripping away the facade of delusional thinking can feel terrifying—like free-falling with no bottom.
In 1989, I was forced to get emotionally naked in a very dramatic way. I was serving on the pastoral staff of a church in Denver, Colorado. I had worked at the church for 13 years and then left to pastor a church in Kansas City. After two years of ministry in Kansas City, I abruptly left the church to return to the same Denver church. The senior pastor of the church had hired an assistant to cover the responsibilities that I once did. However, the assistant he hired did not work out well and left. He wanted me to come back to cover my old position. His lure was promising me that he would do everything he could to ensure I would take over the Denver Church when he retired.
What I did not know when I accepted this offer is that this pastor had used up all of his credits with the congregation. By that I mean he had committed one too many errors and essentially he was backed into a corner and being pressured to leave. This left me in a lurch, and I remained unsure even when he announced he had accepted a new job in Florida after twenty plus years in Denver. He told me he wanted me to go with him with the same promise that he would have me become his executive pastor once he retired from the Florida church. It all happened so quickly, and I agreed to accept the offered position and planned to move in a few months to Florida. Yet, I believe divine providence had another idea.
At the church, I had become a veteran to crisis. Usually, in my ministry I dealt with crisis every week and sometimes daily. While at the Denver church, within a span of five years, I officiated funerals for ten different suicide victims. One even shot himself while I was attempting to get him to calm down on the phone. I was with his widow when she went to the morgue to identify his body. I will never forget the echoing scream down the concrete corridor that day when they pulled the curtain back for her to identify her husband’s body. The face of the corpse had a look of horror and her face was ashen.
In early February 1989, I learned that one of the girls in my college ministry had just committed suicide. I recall going to the hospital with one of my colleagues once I heard the tragic story. It was the same trauma hospital that I had been to so many times before. I walked into the family room and there were about ten to fifteen family and friends of the deceased. The father approached me and with a threatening voice said I was the reason why his daughter killed herself. In some strange way he thought it was my responsibility to prevent her from being released from a treatment center she was in. She left on her own and signed out and went to her brother’s apartment—-the same brother who had previously molested her.
It wasn’t the first time I had to deal with a crisis. Nor was it the first time I had been falsely accused. But this time something snapped inside of me. Everything seemed to shift into slow motion. I did not remember responding to the accusation. I only remember walking away from the hospital and telling my colleague that something was not right. I began to unravel inside. I did not know what was going on. That night, I did not sleep. I couldn’t get the girl’s face out of my head. I was in a funk. Over the next few days I walked around in a daze.
In truth, I could not function. I simply stopped eating. Over the next six weeks, I lost 48 pounds. I decompensated. I was suffering from a major clinical depression. It was a free-fall from reality and stability. The suicide was a trigger, but I had over 14 years of intense workaholism that were slowly eating away at the core of my inner constitution. Somewhere in all of that was the buildup of frozen unresolved childhood trauma. During this time, the trauma reality began to thaw. Flashbacks of past hell streaked through my consciousness. It was a relentless rolodex of tormented memory. I can’t remember ever experiencing such intense pain, emotionally or physically, in all my days.
I began driving alone in my car aimlessly throughout the day and night. My head felt like an old washing machine, constantly churning back and forth. One day, a memory of me crossing sexual boundaries with one of my sisters surfaced. Different memories had been rolling around in my head about abuses perpetrated toward me. Now, I was confronted with my own acts of perpetration. At that point, it was too much. I felt like I had fallen into an abyss. It was a bottomless free-fall. I didn’t want to live anymore.
I have heard others remark that suicide was the most selfish thing anyone could ever do. But, from my experience, it seemed beyond choice. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. I was disconnected from everything except that one focus.
At that time, I could go to Stapleton International Airport and stroll through the concourses without check. It was before the days of 9/11 and the security check. One day, I decided to walk down a concourse and out one of the exit doors onto the runway and into the path of a jet taking flight. It never happened. Two dear friends of my wife and me had come looking for me. They found me and foiled my plan. In retrospect, I am forever grateful. These folks were the best friends I have ever known in my life to this day.
I spiraled downward for a long time. Things did not get better. I had tremendous anger inside about what I had done and what had been done to me. I drove around with all this rage inside. Once I travelled to an area of Denver called Five Points. In rage and self-destruction, I tried to run down what I believed to be a gang of Crips. I did not know for sure if they were, but I thought if I antagonized them enough, they would surely shoot me. So I ran at them with my car and the gang dispersed pointing their finger at me. I waited for sounds of gunfire, but none came my way. Clearly, I was out of control.
I know my wife was scared for me and so was I. At the time, I had three young boys. I was unable to consider their needs. The thoughts and urges toward self-destruction were overwhelming. The emotional pain was more than I could handle. It felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit and I was unable to stop any of it.
I remember feeling totally detached from everything and everyone. I got to a point where without doubt, death was better than the pain inside. Finally, my wife and these two friends convinced me to reach out for help. I received it through hospitalization at the Columbine Psychiatric hospital in Denver. I was there for three weeks.
The first night I stared at a piece of fuzz on the window for several hours. The attending nurse observed me doing it and did not say anything to me. I don’t remember a lot about the interventions. I recall confronting and almost getting into a fight with another patient. We were watching television and he suddenly got up and threw his chair into the TV screen, destroying it. I got up to smack him, but five nurses intervened. Almost anything triggered my rage. I recall believing that it didn’t matter because I was going to die anyway. This attitude melted away so much fear. I truly just didn’t care anymore.
They allowed me to spend time in the exercise room. I would beat the punching bag until every stitch of clothing was drenched in sweat and I was totally exhausted. It felt good. So, they let me do it multiple times a day.
Once, during a particular rough patch, I found myself in the proverbial padded cell. The ceiling, walls, and floors were padded. I remember thinking that my life and career was over. I had my Bible with me, and I opened it to Psalm 91. I read the verse out loud, “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” I thought about all the crap that my family and I had gone through in the church and a wave of rage came over me. There were memories of a lot of sexual abuse. I remember the shame that all of my siblings experienced. I ruminated on the complexity of everything I knew about the church and its abuse. I wanted to throw up, but I did not. Rather, I began hitting my Bible with my bare fists. I struck my Bible again and again until my knuckles were bleeding. When I finished I was totally exhausted. It wasn’t the physicalness of activity. It was tapping into all the rage, hate, and shame that had enveloped my life like a wet blanket for so many years.
At this time, my mind began to clear just a little. I recall being aware that if I could beat the hell out of my Bible and God still loved me, then I could live. In retrospect, I don’t think I really cared if God loved me or not. Over time, there were many days that I certainly have not loved God. However, I chose in that moment to believe that I did love God. It provided relief in the moment.
The next day I committed to my wife that whatever it took, no matter how hard it may be, I was going to “hock my socks” if need be, to get better. Slowly, I did. Over the next 30 years I learned to manage depression. It has never left and I deal with it to this very day. I have learned to make depression a friend that helps me to be aware of my limitations. When I ignore my boundaries, physically or emotionally, depression reminds me and tells me that something is out of balance. It is stubborn and powerful. If I do not pay attention, it will kick my ass.
In the beginning, Prozac and Xanax were helpful. I weened myself from Xanax and eventually was taken off Prozac. I would never have signed up for depression, but it has been a constant teacher. I have transformed it into a healing force by learning to live within the confines of limitation. It has helped me to cultivate a deeper spirituality. Through emotional brokenness so common to many, I have been able to find healing resources by embracing a painful past. It has helped me carve out brilliant insight from tragic experience. Embracing heartbreaking struggle is a common experience that consistently appears with common shared brokenness. It is the leaning into this brokenness that serves to access my own inner brilliance.
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