I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide. I was 28 years old, married five years, and the proud father of a tiny baby boy. No one saw it coming (usually no one does). I’d been a star student, never met a stranger and always did my best to make everyone feel better about themselves. I was born to be a pastor. What happened?
“If we don’t have a theology that embraces mental illness, our God is too small.”—William Paul Young, author of The Shack
I’d been raised a “good little” Baptist, and then became a devout Pentecostal. I had also lived through the aftermath of my aunt’s suicide 15 years earlier, and I’d heard the things church people mumbled under their breath at her funeral. I had listened to the pastor’s response to my Mama’s question, “When someone commits suicide, do they go to hell?” I saw teams of people attempt to cast out demons when depression was mentioned at an altar call. And I’d heard well-meaning Christians tell those same people to just “choose joy.”
In ministry school, I struggled with the notion that there’s a demon behind every bush. I knew plenty of hurting people and they certainly didn’t seem possessed to me. And if broken hearts (or broken brains) are indicative of demon possession, doesn’t that include an awful lot of people? I adored my aunt, and I was certain she hadn’t been demonic. She was just broken, exhausted and misunderstood. She was hurting, just like the other 44,193 people in America who die by suicide every year (AFSP.org).
The truth is, I understood exactly what my aunt had felt like for so many years. I was a pastor, and I wanted to die. Everyone thought I was on top of the world; I was too ashamed to tell them it felt like the world was on top of me. On Sept. 21, 2012, one day before my son’s first birthday, all my secrets came to a fever pitch. My life hung in the balance in an ICU. Once I was stabilized, I was sent to a psych ward, followed by intense counseling and therapy, then new prescriptions. Throughout my recovery, one of my most pressing questions was, “Will I ever find my place in the church again?”
When we resigned from the tiny little Baptist church where I’d been serving when I attempted suicide, I wasn’t sure what would happen to the relationship I’d always had with the church. I believed the Church of Jesus Christ was the hope of the world, but was it the hope for a pastor who felt like a failure? Where does the person who doesn’t feel man enough, husband enough or Christian enough go to lay down their burdens?
In my previous ministry position, I met a worship pastor who also traveled with a band. He was gregarious and kind, and I believed he genuinely liked me. He was also a Methodist, and I knew they were prone to have a drink from time to time, so he couldn’t be all bad. I mustered up the courage to call this acquaintance-turned-friend, and we sat at Starbucks together as I bared my soul. All of it. The deep, ugly, shame and secrets that had been festering beneath the surface for nearly 30 years.
He invited me to church. And for the first time, I wasn’t invited because of my speaking or musical abilities. I was invited to be a part of a community of people who would love me, right in the midst of my pain. This friend of mine echoed the words of Jesus to me, from Matthew 11:28-30:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
He didn’t preach to me. He didn’t tell me to choose joy. He didn’t even bring his Bible to the coffee shop. What Ben offered that day was a gift of friendship: a safe place to rest my head. He gave me the opportunity to tell my story with raw honesty, and no fear of rejection.
My family spent the better part of a year at Ben’s church, resting. We never joined their leadership. We offered no great deeds of service. Just like my aunt all those years ago, we were exhausted, broken and feeling misunderstood. And what we found was safety, kindness and acceptance.
Historically, mental illness has been misunderstood. But we can change that. We don’t need you to be our psychiatrist; hopefully we already have one. We don’t need you to try and fix us. We don’t even really need you to understand us, though we’d love for you to try. All we really need is for you to sit with us when we are sad or hurting or don’t have any words at all. It’s great to tell us Jesus loves us, but what would be even better is if you would show us love and acceptance. Tell us to “come just as you are” and really mean it. The one thing depressed people need is a friend.
Are you the kind of friend who readily seeks to understand? Are you willing to sit with the hurting without judgment?
For those with depression: There are people out there wanting to understand and be with you. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has compiled a list of some model faith groups. More than likely, churches in your area have resources to come alongside you.
If you or someone you know needs support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
Steve Austin is one of the hosts of CXMH: A Podcast at the Intersection of Christianity and Mental Health. He’s also the author of the best-seller, From Pastor to a Psych Ward. Steve blogs regularly at iamsteveaustin.com and he lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two kids.