Alabama is known for tornadoes. Without fail, after a storm, the news crews will interview the toothless guy with tobacco in his lip, wearing a wife beater. And what does he always say?
“IT SOUNDED LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN!”
It’s funny to watch the rednecks on the news, but they’re not wrong.
As the storm is passing over you, the rumbling destruction can sound a lot like a nearby train. But when I was just a little boy, during the worst of tornado season, just before the winds tore down three giant oak trees in our yard, as my mom and dad and I hunkered down underneath my parents mattress one night, I was struck by how quiet it seemed, just before the storm hit.
I wrote a book about the day I woke up in an ICU hospital room, after nearly dying by suicide. September 21st: I talk about it all the time. The liver issues, being numb from the waist down. I speak about it. I tell my story on blogs and podcasts. The day I woke up – I share that story often.
People love the mystical experience of God whispering, “I’m not finished with you yet.”
But we rarely talk about the day I decided to die; the day I said I can’t do this anymore. I can’t fake it. I can’t drag my family through what I thought was about to come. I can’t go on.
We need to talk about the day you reach rock bottom and believe there is no hope. We need to keep talking about the day that convinces you this will never get better, and it will only get worse. We cannot brush past the song of shame, “Nobody cares. Nobody loves you. Nobody will believe you. Nobody believes in you.”
On the day you decide to die, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been married or how many kids you have. Nobody cares about their career path or pedigree on the day they give up. Scripture memory, accolades, and community involvement aren’t at the front of your mind on your darkest day ever.
None of that matters anymore.
September 20, 2012: I’d been married five years. My little boy would be turning a year old on September 22nd. I grew up in the church. I had worked in the church for five years at this point. I was a good person. A great guy. Beloved.
And yet, I believed my only answer was suicide.
Much like the quiet few moments before the tornado, there is a false sense of calm that happens at the point when you decide to die. Up until this point, you’ve been overwhelmed by noise. The white noise of anxiety has been screaming in your ears. The black dog of depression’s been barking in your ears and nipping at your heels. But when you become determined to die, the demons shut up. They get hushed because their work is done.
It gets really quiet.
For years, I’ve wondered if it was quiet for Judas: my favorite of the Disciples of Jesus.
He threw the money back at the religious leaders’ feet and left in a shame-fueled panic. In that space between tossing the coins at their feet and going to find a rope, a tree, and hanging himself – I wonder how quiet it was? He had been tormented. He knew no one would believe him or care. He was convinced this would only get worse. This would never get better.
I wonder how quiet it was in the twilight hours between living and dying.
When I imagine Judas, I picture him as wounded man – maybe even mentally ill. A hurt, an offense, divorce, jealousy, a drinking problem, something unexpected that causes us to question everything we’ve ever known. We have a weak moment, and the emotions that have been simmering all this time suddenly begin to boil.
This picture of Judas is one that mirrors our lives when we begin to focus more on our failures than the power of second chances. I’ve heard well-meaning people say suicide is “the coward’s way out,” but they have obviously never experienced the depths of tragedy and despair. For someone to die by suicide, I believe they’re already living in Hell. From that place, condemnation to eternal judgment is nothing new. They’re already there.
The biblical account of Judas is the most moving of all the disciples for me because it highlights that he was a very flawed man. So am I. Judas genuinely loved and followed Jesus, yet he royally screwed up and we see in Scripture just how deeply he regretted his betrayal. All of this feels eerily familiar to me.
You can fight me, but I don’t think Judas is burning in Hell. I think his own personal hell was in the moments before and after he kissed Jesus on the cheek and threw those thirty tarnished pieces of silver back at the feet of the Pharisees. Judas acknowledged his own guilt and begged for things to be different. I think as the thirty pieces of silver clinked across the limestone floor of the synagogue that dark night, Judas made his peace with God, but felt he could never face his own shame in public ever again.
I have walked a mile in those same shoes.
It was quiet for me. It was dark and quiet in that hotel room with my Granddaddy’s Bible, writing letters to the people I loved – the people I was betraying.
It was quiet on September 20th. The day I gave up. The day I lost hope.
Every year on this day, I journey back to all the places that led to the darkest day of my life.
Last year, I meditated and journeyed back to the little boy in the side yard at my parent’s home. It was right after I had been abused. I was tiny, shocked, and shakily scared. That’s where it starts for me.
The worst day of my life doesn’t start with losing my job at 28. My experience with trauma and hopelessness doesn’t begin with my first panic attack in high school. This journey didn’t even start by getting hooked on porn at 12. For me, it starts when I was raped at the age of four.
In my meditation, I traveled back there and asked that little boy for forgiveness. I apologized for giving up on him. For believing he was hopeless. I held him close and told him how much I loved him. How sorry I was. I embraced that innocent little boy and said to him that he made it. That he’s okay. I had to tell him that life gets better.
Not overnight. But, life does get better.
So if you’re reading this and you think things may never get better, in my experience, that’s not true. In fairness, I don’t know when or how it will get better – I know it’s likely not by the snapping of Jesus’ cosmic fingers – but it will get better.
This day every year, I have to forgive myself for nearly abandoning my family. I didn’t think I had any other option. I thought I was doing them a favor.
Forgiveness isn’t a one time process. When it is something deeply traumatic, cutting to the core of your identity, you remember.
I remember. And I need to remember. I need to be reminded that there was a day in my life six years ago when I gave up. When I lost hope.
Things were scary as hell for me. But through a long, patient, arduous process of getting really honest – digging through the most difficult, awful, nasty, uncomfortable, terrible things – through prayer, counseling, medication, and meditation – things have gotten better.
Much, much better.
But I had to forgive myself. And I forgive myself every year on this day.
I remember the little boy who was broken in the side yard.
I remember the images no child should have burned into his brain.
I remember wanting to die.
I remember begging God to take me.
I remember praying for cancer.
I remember the bridges and overpasses.
I remember the pain and shame and fear.
I remember, but I don’t live there.
I can’t stay there.
Those things happened.
I call them by name and acknowledge them.
But I can’t set up camp and stay there.
And I forgive.
The wrong choices I made.
The pain others caused.
And I choose.
I choose to move forward.
I choose to accept messy grace.
I refuse to allow the worst day of my life to define the rest of my life.
Judas lost all hope. So did I. He went outside the city, threw a rope over a big tree branch, wrapped a noose around his neck, and died by suicide. My first attempt was a leather belt, wrapped around a flimsy shower rod in a hotel bathroom. I wonder if the last sounds Judas heard, before his neck snapped and he died, was his friend and teacher, dying on another tree. Dying to give us hope. The One dying for Judas and for me.
I have been changed forever by my trauma, but I won’t allow those things to rule me for the rest of my life. I will be more kind, gracious, and compassionate. I won’t live with shame. I choose not to live with the uncontrollable guilt. I still believe in the God who makes all things new.
Six years after the day I decided to die, I can tell you that life is worth living, but you have to forgive others and yourself. You have to choose to see God in your worst moment and in the face of your worst enemy. There is enough grace in each day to bind your wounds, heal your heart, and lift you to a new place. You don’t have to forget, but you must forgive.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
Podcast: Life-Giving Spiritual Practices for Weary Parents (Courtney Ellis)
What is shame? (And how to heal it.)
Exploring Grief: A Podcast Series (with Brandon Carleton)
It’s Time for the Church to Confront Mental Health (via USA Today)
Suicide: Let’s Talk about It (podcast)
Pastors and Suicide: What You Need to Know
You Heal When You’re Heard
Why Are We So Bad at Grieving?