They say that hell smells like burning sulfur. To me, it smelled like the Extended Stay hotel in Huntsville, Alabama.
I was working on an out-out-town interpreting assignment for a couple of weeks. I had gone home for the weekend, and when I pulled out of the driveway that Sunday night to head back to work, I knew I’d never see my wife and little boy again.
Six years ago today, I was supposed to be dead. (At least that was my plan.) It was a surreal week. I guess planning to die is like that: nearly every conversation that week felt like an out-of-body experience. It was as if my body was working, independent of my traumatized mind.
I worked each day. And then I would return to the hotel where I was staying, to be tormented by my own thoughts and mental illness. It was the darkest week of my life. I imagine feeling something like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, being pressed like an olive into oil.
I had made some stupid mistakes. Hurt some people. Lost a job. And my personal failures, combined with untreated trauma and shame and fear of never being enough, never being believed, and no one caring – sent me into a tailspin. I was in a fog of depression, spun up wildly by anxiety, and shame was corroding my guts from the inside.
I believed my only way out was suicide.
And yet, I’m not dead. I’m still here. For some reason, God wasn’t finished with me. Messy Grace wouldn’t let me go.
One thing I’ve learned over the past six years of recovering from the worst day of my life is this: I am not alone. Countless people are overwhelmed, suffering the shameful lashings of their past, holding onto gut-wrenching memories, unable to catch their breath in a world that tells them just to keep pushing. If the pressure of fear, pain, anxiety, and anger simmer and grow, sooner or later they’re going to explode.
The latest CDC statistics on suicide are staggering. In my home state of Alabama, from 1999-2016, the suicide rate increased by 21.9%. In 2016 alone, 142,000 people died of “diseases of despair” (which include alcohol and drug abuse, plus suicide). According to the CDC, “rates increased in nearly all states,” ranging “from just under 6 percent in Delaware to over 57 percent in North Dakota. Twenty-five states had suicide rate increases of more than 30 percent.”
We have lost bright lights to suicide. People like Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Chester Bennington, Amy Bleuel, and Pastor Andrew Stoecklein have all succumbed to this kind of unimaginable suffering. And please don’t forget the recent death of nine-year-old, Jamel Myles.
Despair is no respecter of persons. Mental illness isn’t intimidated by your pedigree, faith, or future plans. The treachery of hopelessness, the stigma of depression, and the sharp pain that lies to us, convincing us that suicide is the only answer; these things don’t just rob us of celebrities and heroes. Suicide killed my aunt when I was fourteen and murdered a friend of mine when we were only children, leaving his twelve-year-old body hanging lifeless in his bedroom closet.
When we got the news about my aunt, I’ll never forget the way my Mom screamed, “My sister!” as she dropped the grey receiver and it swung out and slammed back against the kitchen wall. In the immediate aftermath of her suicide, the days crawled by, but her funeral sticks out clearly in my memory. The hushed words of church people are what I can’t seem to shake. The ones who believed suicide was no different than murder, “in the eyes of God.”
It would be another fifteen years before I contemplated my own death, but the under-the-breath comments of church people stuck with me like glue. I was convinced that if I had gone to the church with my pain, I would have been called “demon possessed,” or told I lacked faith. The churches I grew up in liked easy fixes. They don’t typically do well with messes that require more than a simple prayer of faith. If it can’t be cleaned up in one “altar call,” no thanks.
After I woke up in an ICU hospital room, my wife helped me realize that Jesus can save your soul, but counseling could save your life. These days, Lindsey continues to call out my toxic theology and harmful self-image. In sickness and in health, ya know?
I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been. But no matter what treatment plans I’ve followed, anxiety remains my constant companion, like it or not. Living with anxiety means secretly rejoicing when other people have their own problems to talk about, so you don’t have to share your own. You hide, silently isolated, pretending to care about the struggles of the whole world, as long as you can remain anonymous in your own suffering. It means you sometimes smile at a friend, wishing they knew you’re dying on the inside, and equally thankful they’re unaware.
Anxiety doesn’t only hit on the side of the road. Sometimes it strikes during happy hour with your friends, or at the exact moment your co-workers are laughing at an apparently hilarious joke. Anxiety is crying in your car after dropping off the kids at school or in your shower, so no one hears your sobs.
For someone living with anxiety, it is a daily battle just to change out of your pajamas, stand at the front door, peer out the window and wait for just the right moment when no one else is in sight, so you can pick up the package from UPS and not have to interact with another human being. Sometimes it means taking your kid to school, so you don’t have to make small talk with other adults at the bus stop.
Living with anxiety means living with the constant fear that you’ll feel this way for the rest of your life. You look in the mirror and, as much as you want others to see you as a person, all you can see is your own misery. Your diminished self-worth is based on the fact that you not only feel crazy, but believe you are insane.
Living with anxiety is stressful. People who know your diagnosis ask how you’re doing and you nearly have a panic attack because you don’t know how to adequately explain something you don’t even understand yourself. It’s exhausting fighting with your own head. Living with anxiety is one of the most courageous things a person can do. Your mind writes a story that would make any “normal” person weep, but you live with it every moment of every day because you know the only other alternative is a far less-happy ending.
I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve been consumed with shame and bogged down by depression. I’ve been spun-up by anxiety and thrown into the wall by PTSD. I know what it’s like to rest the Bible in my lap in a hotel room while writing “goodbye letters” to all my closest people.
When loneliness mixes with mental illness, shame, and a generalized sense of hopelessness, it’s a cocktail that can destroy everything. Most importantly, it can ruin you. I know what it’s like to think it would be better to die than to face tomorrow. I’ve walked through that living hell.
And I’ve faced tomorrow. And tomorrow isn’t always more comfortable. The sun doesn’t always come out right away. Things don’t always miraculously change and improve overnight. But with the right resources, professional support, and self-care, the sun will come out eventually, or you’ll learn to dance in the rain. Things do get better, bit by bit.
I sang my first solo in the Christmas play at church when I was only five. I served as a youth leader in my local church all through high school. In my twenties, I attended two years of ministry school. And yet, at the age of twenty-nine, when I tried to die, I didn’t ask for help from the church where I worked. I had seen how the church treats people who just can’t seem to get it together. I didn’t want any more of their pious glances, toxic theology, or frustrated prayers.
This is the reason I am open about my story and why I encourage others too. Sharing my story always carries with it a bit of necessary weight, but I refuse to remain silent any longer, as people fall victim to the lie that there is no hope or help. When we own our stories, we take back the power of shame and stigma. Each time we expose darkness to the light, everyone wins.
The world is full of overwhelmed people who are just trying to fake it till we make it. The church is, too. I wore the mask of performance and perfection for many years. But honesty and vulnerability have brought a new kind of strength, healing, and energy to my life. I don’t ever want to go back. Maybe we can fake it till we make it, but it’s a rotten way to live. And really, is it even living?
When the church or culture at large tells you to keep pushing, ignore your feelings, discount your needs, demonize your weaknesses, avoid your doubts, and just choose joy, this is your invitation to come up for air and breathe again. You don’t have to walk through a living hell all alone.
I am walking into the seventh year of recovery from a suicide attempt. In my Christian tradition, seven is a very sacred number. Creation is said to have been completed in seven days. The Abrahamic blessing is a seven-fold blessing. Life happens in seven-year cycles. There are seven parables of Matthew and seven mysteries. Seven bones in your face. Seven is the number of completeness and celebration.
So as we enter this year of completeness, we won’t back down.
We won’t look away.
We refuse to ignore suffering.
We will love our neighbors – especially the messy ones.
Most of all, we will love ourselves.
We are not giving up.
If you’re reading this and you love Jesus with all your heart, but life just plain sucks, I’m sorry. Please know you’re not alone. It will get better. I promise. Please don’t give up. Don’t leave. This will get better. I don’t know how or when, but I have lived through enough to know that hard days don’t last forever. I know that hard days can seem unthinkable at times, but in my experience, they come and go, just like the tides.
So hold on. And let go of all the things that are weighing you down. If it feels like your ship is sinking, throw all the excess cargo overboard and hold on. Hold onto these words. Hold onto hope. Hold onto memories of better days. They will come again.
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: When You Feel Like You Can’t Go On
7 Life Lessons from a Suicide Survivor
Living with Depression & Anxiety: 7 Coping Strategies that Work (e-book)
Guest Blog – Worthy and Unashamed: Facing Mental Health Stigma in the Church Head-On
Peace, Be Still: Finding Hope in the Midst of Anxiety
What to do When Your Child Attempts Suicide
Pastor to Psych Ward: Recovery from a Suicide Attempt is Possible.
How a Simple Hug Changed My Life