Saturday, September 6, 2014

Out of the Valley of Death...

I honestly don't know why I'm doing this, but something inside me told me to write about this...right now. 

Maybe it's because of all that's happened in the last few weeks.  Maybe there's just someone that needs to know they are not alone in their struggles.  Maybe it's just a compelling need for some transparency...a moderate amount of transparency.  Whatever it is, it won't go away, and I've learned that when that happens all I can do is write.  So, in the spirit of transparency, or in light of all that's going on in the world right now, or in case someone just needed to know they aren't alone, here we go. 

Let me start by saying that even though I'm a pastor, I don't have it all together.  I have ups and downs just like everyone else.  I have days when I think "What the hell else can possibly go wrong?" just like everyone else.  I have times when I just want to toss a tent into my truck and point it toward the setting sun...or I used to.  Then I've had the really bad days, and I think most of us have been there.  I think that is what I'm supposed to write about today, but to say it makes me very uncomfortable is the biggest understatement since Moses said, "Hey y'all, let's go for a little walk."

About 10 years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression like probably 75% of the rest of the country, and tried one med after another.  Some made me fat.  Some made me sleep.  Some kept me awake.  Some had side effects that I don't even want to think about, but I kept trying new ones because I knew that something had to work.  Things had to get better.  I tried to just "snap out of it" like so many well meaning folks told me I should, but I just couldn't.  It seemed the harder I tried, the worse things got. 

That continued cyclically for years.  There would be a couple years where things were okay followed by a few months, a year, or a couple years where they weren't.  My schedule was crazy busy.  Life was happening.  Our kids were born and started growing up, way too fast.  Some churches I pastored helped me heal at times, some tried to tear me down.  Up and down...up and down...constantly.  It seemed as if I'd get my feet back under me just long enough to stand up and take a look around before they got knocked out again. 

Then I entered a really dark time about this time last year.  The church I am serving was starting to grow.  Things were looking up.  I really do have the dream appointment for me (in the United Methodist Church "Appointment" is what we call an assignment to a church).  I don't really know what it was or what caused it.  From all appearances, I was a rising star pastor and should have been on top of the world.  The funny thing about appearances, though, is that usually you don't have to scratch very deep below the surface to see that all is not as it appears.  My inner self was a mess.  I was, still am, a people pleaser and can't stand for someone to be upset with me.  I was, still am, terrified that somehow I'm going to screw this church up (as if I'm really in charge of that at all).  I had taken the sense of safety out of our home because I was always so on edge that my girls were afraid to speak around me.  Maybe it was one of those, or all of them.  I don't know.  Long story short, I was exhausted.  Physically.  Mentally.  Emotionally.  Spiritually. 

Folks were saying, "You need to take some time off," and I was going to, but I had a plan for my vacation and it wasn't time yet.  I bust my tail during the year because I'm a hunter and want to save vacation for deer season.  Just me and my bow... or rifle... alone in the woods... watching... listening... waiting for a decent shot.  So the second week of November I clear my calendar.  No meetings.  No office.  No phone calls.  No email.  Very few texts.  I hunt.  From before daylight until after dark.  I look forward to it every year now. 

Last year, though, it was different.  I still enjoyed it, but not like I used to.  Instead, as I sat there in the blind, breathing quietly, moving only my eyes to look around, and paying attention to the crunch of every leaf, I started thinking things that scare the hell out of me now.  I'm not sure I was even conscious of it at the time, but looking back I remember doing it. 

See, hunting for me is a lifelong endeavor.  I started following my dad into the woods at 7 or 8, but not packing a gun.  All I got to pack were the squirrels by the tail as we walked back to the truck.  At 10 or 11 I started climbing into the deer stand with him.  At 12 I drew first blood and dropped my first deer.  At 13 dad gave me the Marlin 30-30 I still hunt with today.  For over 30 years that rifle and I have climbed up one frost covered deer stand after another.  Looking back at last year's hunts, I remember looking at that rifle leaning up against the blind and thinking, "What a tragic hunting accident." 

It would have been so easy.  Just lean it up against my chest.  "Click..."  It's over.  I told you that I was in a bad place.  You may have been there, or may be there right now.   

No more stress.  No more worry.  No more despair.  No more struggling with the pain my bad decisions have caused.  No more bills.  No more running out of money before I ran out of month.  No more hopelessness.  No more depression.  No more.

No more chance of life ever getting better, either. 

Fast forward 10 months.  Today, I'm living proof that life can get better.  Even when you think there is no way in hell you can take one more day, life can get better.  This summer has been pure hell, I'm not even going to try to pretend it wasn't.  June 5 of this year I hit rock bottom...absolute rock-freakin'-bottom...and I have thanked God every day since that I did.  What they say is true...when you're at the bottom, the only way to look is up. 

Oh, sure, I could have wallowed in self-pity just about as long as I wanted to.  God knows there was plenty of it to wallow in.  I could have thrown up my hands and said, "Way to go, Jay, look at the damned mess you've made this time."  I could have walked away from everything, thrown that tent in the truck and just took off.  Mexico was always an option.  The food is great, by the way. 

However, when I woke up on June 6, I took my first step out of the valley of death.  It wasn't easy.  Swallowing your pride never is.  Admitting you were wrong sucks.  In fact, the next three weeks were just as, or more painful than realizing I had hit rock bottom.

That was three months ago this week.        

It's been a long road, but you know what, life has gotten better.  Believe it or not.  10 months ago, if someone had told me that today I would still be here and actually beginning to get my stuff back together I would have called them a liar.  I didn't see how it was possible.  I didn't see how there was anyway I'd ever be happy again, or that life would ever again hold anything that resembled the man I used to be.  But I am.  I'm happy again.  I still have rough days, but the good ones are starting to outweigh the tough ones.  I'm enjoying life again.  I'm enjoying my job again. 

I'm finding my focus again. 

This past month I finished two projects that I started a few years ago and published my first two books.  I'm actually a published author now and that, to me, is pretty freakin' cool.  10 months ago I was ready to give up.  Now I can search my name on Amazon and there it is. 

I'm giving my girls more of myself than I have in a long time and they are noticing the difference.  We had a water balloon fight a couple weeks ago just because.  We hang out and just watch TV together sometimes and I'm realizing that I enjoy it again. 

I have a leadership team at church that watches out for me and doesn't mind calling me to task when I'm spending too much time at work, and I have others who love me enough to do the same.  The difference is this time I'm listening.

Deer season opens Saturday...and I can't wait.  Not so that I can look at my weapon of choice and think "What a tragic hunting accident," but because, by damn, I love hunting...again.  I even  have a hunting buddy who is putting together a set of jugs so that we can catch some catfish if the weather is too hot to be in the woods and I'm clearing a day soon to just fish and  hang out. would be so easy for me to say this: "Well, I did it.  I came back from the abyss, so you can too."  But I know it doesn't work that way.  I know that if you are struggling right now, there is no magic switch that will turn the struggle off.  But I do know this, the sun will come up tomorrow and the God who created you would love for you to be here to see it.  That first step in your climb out of the valley of death is waiting for you.  Then the next.  Then the next.  Then the next.  Then after a while you'll look back at the place from whence you came, and hopefully see hope where there was none and a future filled with forgiveness, grace, and the unconditional love of God. 

If you need someone to talk to, someone who has been there and made it through, here's my cell number. 270-748-9619  Shoot me a text and we'll get together and talk.