It was late September 2012. My eyes squinted shut as the nurse wheeled me out the front doors of the psych ward and helped me into the car. This was the first time I’d seen the sun in more than a week.
"Good luck, Mr. Austin. Take care of yourself,” she said as she gently patted my shoulder, her hands unusually warm. “Remember,” she continued, “Every day is another step in the journey. Promise me that you’ll never stop telling the truth or asking for help. You’re one of the lucky ones."
The nurse’s gentle touch and compassionate advice made me feel a little more human, but “lucky”? How could anyone look at my current situation and call me lucky? The only thing worse would have been calling me “blessed.” I choked back a quick “I promise” as I closed the car door. My wife maneuvered out of the hospital parking lot, while I turned down the radio and reclined the passenger seat. “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” - Maggie Kuhn
The Long Drive Home
The first half-hour of our drive was mostly silent, including Lindsey's tears. It had been just one week since I earned the title: suicide survivor. And while we both had much to say, we didn't even know where to begin. I stared off at the clear blue sky, as the green interstate signs passed overhead. It’s going to be a long drive home. My face was blank, but my mind was spinning with two pressing questions, "What will I do tomorrow? And will I ever be able to go back to church again?"
Church had been my entire life, both personally and professionally. I often joke that I was born in the baptismal. My family was at our little Southern Baptist Church every time the doors were open. I sang my first solo at the age of five, served as a youth leader in middle and high school, went on my first international mission trip at the age of fourteen, attended two years of ministry school after high school, and served as a youth pastor and/or worship leader for the first several years of mine and Lindsey’s marriage. When I say, “church was my life,” I mean it.
I was alive, and my wife was still with me: I'm not sure which was the greater miracle. While I was grateful, there was still a part of me that was bitter about being a suicide survivor.
Depression and suicidal thoughts share many common threads. It would be a long time before I could start facing the impact of the fear-based theology I had been steeped in since childhood. It would take even longer to begin understanding the shame of childhood sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, and PTSD that had been eating me alive for years.
As we left Huntsville and inched closer toward home, Lindsey opened up. “Who are we going to talk to about this? I don’t want you blogging about it or posting on Facebook until we’ve given ourselves time to heal.” I agreed. We determined that our situation was no different than grieving family members at a funeral, who feel pressured to comfort other mourners as they file by the casket. We didn’t want (or need) that pressure.
Growth Begins with Acceptance
Once we got home, we sat down on the couch in a daze. Neither of us quite sure what to say, until Lindsey opened up again, “I’m not leaving.” I exhaled sharply and started to cry uncontrollably.
She waited patiently for me to regain my composure before she continued, “If you promise to never lie again, I’m not leaving. If you will tell the truth, go to therapy, take your meds, not isolate yourself with busyness, and ask for help when you’re feeling overwhelmed, I’m going to stay.” I could not stop crying.
Looking back on that sacred moment, I wasn’t just crying because my wife was bravely choosing to stay. I was crying for the little boy who had been sexually abused in the side yard of his home, his trauma swept under the rug by adults who didn’t know better. I wailed for the little boy who had always been told, “Dry it up, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” I bawled for the teenager who felt so ashamed of his questions and curiosities, fearing his lack of faith was keeping Jesus from healing him in an instant. I groaned for the ministry student who never quite fit in, convinced he had already been doomed to an eternity in hell. I wept for the young man who always performed for the approval of others. I sobbed for the pastor, husband, and father who was scared for anyone to know who he really was underneath all the hurt, hustling, and forced smiles. The tears were the first step toward accepting my current state. Before I could ever move forward, I had to accept where I was. I couldn’t sweep mental illness under the rug any longer. I couldn’t ignore the ripple effect of my sexual abuse another day. I had to tell the truth about my wounds and grieve my losses before I could ever begin the healing process. For the suicide survivor, acceptance is the first step toward wholeness.
Lindsey and I kept quiet about my suicide attempt for a full year. During that time, we each went to individual counseling, as well as marriage counseling. Once we decided to start sharing our story publicly, I started blogging about it extensively, and even published a book about my journey as a suicide survivor.
In the past seven years, I’ve learned seven powerful lessons about recovering from a suicide attempt:
1. Growth begins with acceptance. You cannot change (or heal from) what you won’t accept.
2. Refusing to dwell on past traumas and choices I cannot change, and not obsessing over a future beyond my control allows me to move on. I practice acceptance, so I can grow.
3. Hardship and losses are a natural part of life. Even when I am sad or disappointed, I can find something in any situation that I can use to my benefit. These days, I treat myself with compassion and take constructive action so that I can continue to heal.
4. Keep things in perspective. Now that I can look back on the darkest days of my life, I see that most conditions are temporary. Bad days don’t last forever. It doesn’t mean I discount my pain or cheapen my experience; it means I have hope that better days are coming.
5. Don’t forget to remember. When I think about the challenges I have overcome, it increases my sense of self-worth and boosts my confidence to deal with new issues as they come up.
6. Search for solutions. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, I seek answers. Some days, it seems really easy to obsess over my wounds, but I am determined instead to focus on what I can do to improve my situation. This is what keeps me thriving as a suicide survivor, rather than seeing myself as a victim.
7. An attitude of gratitude. On hard days, gratitude is one powerful way to change my attitude. Every single cloud may not have a silver lining but looking on the bright side and counting my blessings can make even the most unthinkable days seem a little more manageable.
The Struggle is Sacred
There’s a beautiful story in Genesis (the first book of the Bible) about a guy named Jacob who falls asleep one night and wrestles with an angel until daybreak:
When the angel saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
The angel said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
The angel said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
The angel said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on, it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God, and you’ve come through.”
Although I am the healthiest, I’ve ever been, I will continue to live with mental illness for the rest of my life. But the struggle (or wrestling) is sacred because it teaches me more about myself and reminds me of the compassion of a God who chooses to sit with me during hard times. When I feel tempted by thoughts of suicide, prayer is one of the things that brings me back from the brink.
Today, I accept the truth even when it is difficult. Facing facts instead of ignoring them or engaging in numbing behaviors helps me to become more peaceful and productive.
So, what about you, friend?
If we could dig down deep, below the surface of your life, what would we find?
I may not know your specific story, but I know that beneath all the labels, expectations, fears, doubts, hang-ups, and wounds - there is someone made in the image of God. Someone worthy of safety, love, and belonging. Someone with a story that is still being written. Someone who could teach us a thing or two.
Keep holding on when you don’t see any growth, know that some seasons are harder than others, keep practicing regular self-care, and trust that God sees you as you are - and loves you deeply. Remember to take care of yourself through the lifelong journey of recovery. Every day is another step in the journey. Never stop telling the truth or asking for help. You’re one of the lucky ones, too.
Steve Austin was an author, speaker, and life coach who was passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He was the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward."
If you or a friend need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, for free confidential, 24/7 help. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world. For additional help, please visit the suicide prevention resource page.