A NOTE TO OUR READERS:
This piece discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you or a loved one struggles with thoughts of suicide, please seek help. For U.S. residents, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 988.
The full article will appear after the break.
I have survived a suicide attempt, and I remember the shame I felt when I came back to consciousness in the mental health ward of the hospital. I slowly replayed the circumstances around the attempt in my head. I had tried to overdose using several medications that I was certain would end my life. I had even taken the time to write two letters to my wife. One letter was a series of instructions to help her put the pieces of our life back together practically, covering things like what passwords were for certain websites she would need to access and how to use my phone to pay certain bills more easily. The other letter was essentially an apology. I told her how much I loved her and how much I wanted to continue to build a life with her, but I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief about so many things and couldn’t see a way through the pain. I remember thinking about how I tried to die by suicide within a couple of days of my youngest son’s birthday, and how he would now have that memory forever superimposed upon his brain when a birthday came up.
I felt like an utter failure. The worst part was this: I was also angry I was still alive. All my pain, confusion, unresolved grief, and anger were waiting for me on the other side of my consciousness. Nothing had changed. I couldn’t even die by my own effort, so I added that to the list of things I was angry about. I felt so lost in the mental health ward, and in such a daze that I couldn’t function for days. I was going through the motions of taking whatever medications were placed in my hands, eating whatever food was placed in front of me, and zoning out in front of the television all day unless there was an activity I was required to do.
In an instant, everything changed for me. I was sitting in the television room watching a movie when I felt a stirring in my spirit. I didn’t quite know how to process what I was feeling, but I knew I couldn’t do it while watching a movie, so I went back to my room and sat on the bed. There in the middle of the mental health ward, in the middle of my perfunctory existence, in the middle of my not caring about much of anything—God spoke to me. It was simple yet profound, and it changed the course of my life. I didn’t hear an audible voice, but it was as real as if I had. God spoke into my heart, “I still love you.”
I couldn’t believe it. Actually, I didn’t believe it at first. I argued with him about this stunning revelation. “You can’t love me, I tried to die by suicide. I’m a mess. I don’t really even care if I’m alive right now. I don’t want to talk to my wife or kids. I am content to stay in this hospital for the rest of my days, except that means I can’t attempt again. You can’t love me. I don’t even love me.” And there it was again: “I still love you.” He didn’t engage with any of my arguments. He didn’t try to outwit me or talk me into a corner. He didn’t do anything but declare his love for me, despite the disaster I was in the moment.
I wish I could tell you this whisper was all I needed to get on the road to recovery, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said that. My pastor came to visit me the next day. When I heard he had come, I was so very nervous about what he was going to say to me. I recalled the previous conversations I had with other pastors about mental health, and how poorly they went. Surely this would be more of the same, only worse because now I had actions to accompany my mental state.
I was rehearsing these thoughts and preparing for the worst the entire time I walked down the hallways to the visitor room. I was almost getting sick to my stomach, and I had already convinced myself that my pastor was coming to heap condemnation on me. As a matter of fact, I almost turned around to head back to my ward before I even got to the room because I was convinced this would not be a good conversation. I kept going only because my current pastor seemed to be the type of guy who might not kick a brother when he’s down, but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t sure if I was judging him rightly.
When I got to the room, the first thing Pastor Marty did was give me a fierce bear hug, and then he said, “I’m sorry things got so rough for you that you felt you had nowhere left to turn but to try to end it. I’ve been closer to that place myself than I’d like to admit, and I know how it feels.” I wasn’t expecting that as the intro to our conversation. We talked some about the psych ward and how it was treating me, if I liked the food (I didn’t) and if I like the people (they were okay). Then Marty got down to business with me. I could actually see his demeanor change, and I prepared myself to be bulldozed again by a Christian leader. Only the bulldozing never came.
Instead, Marty looked me straight in the eyes and said this: “We can’t have this happen again. Your family needs you. Your church needs you. We need you. The church isn’t the full church without you in it. And God’s not done with you yet.” I could have taken this as an attack, but I knew exactly how Marty meant it. He was telling me I was part of the family of our church, our church would be hurting without me, and I needed to remember that. It changed the course of my life. In the same way God’s whisper in the psych ward told me he still loved me, Marty’s words affirmed me in a different way.
He called me back to belonging, to a place called home, and he reminded me my world is bigger than I felt it to be when I attempted suicide. Beyond that, he brought the reinforcements of hope and family to my soul and called me into a stronger sense of self-worth. I’m forever grateful to Marty for those words because they’ve put a boundary line in my spirit that will keep me from attempting suicide again.
These were the kernels of hope I needed to rebuild my life. If God could still love me after my attempt, and if my pastor saw a reason to continue to invest in me, maybe there was something redeemable about me after all. Maybe my family could still learn to forgive me and love me again. Maybe there was a reason to try again. So that’s what I did; I started trying again. Instead of being a zombie in our group sessions, I was actively engaged, responding and asking questions. When the doctors came and interviewed me, I was an open book rather than a locked-up warehouse. When they suggested a very specific course of treatment, I questioned them about its efficacy, the risks of the treatment, and what the outcomes could be. I wanted to get better, and I was willing to do whatever it took to get there. We did end up following that course of treatment, and it changed my life. But I never would have even cared enough to learn about it if I hadn’t heard that whisper in my spirit and had that visit from my pastor a few days prior to the doctor’s visit.
Over the course of two days, my life was rearranged permanently. In the first instance, the Holy Spirit spoke life into my bones with a simple declaration. It’s something I could have read in any Bible, but it reverberated into the very depths of my spirit because I didn’t read it, I felt it. In the second instance, my pastor affirmed the importance of my presence in my church and reminded me that I had a place to belong. My suicide attempt hadn’t rendered me useless or unworthy of community. No, I was still wanted and needed in this place I belonged to. In the sometimes rocky roads that have come since my mental hospital stay, these moments have been an anchor.
Cover image by Cory Bouthillette.