Thursday, November 26, 2015

Rejoice in all things

This is a new version of an old blog, but its truth still rings true today. Today I’m thinking of friends and family who won’t be with us. And I’m remembering what Paul wrote. To rejoice in all circumstances. Not just the good ones.

Thanksgiving was my father's favorite holiday. It may have been his favorite day of the year.

He would rise early, whistling with gusto and singing silly songs in the shower, while mom did all the work in the kitchen.

Dad loved Thanksgiving because it was the one day of the year he was sure to see almost all of his Smith kin. Especially his five brothers and sisters.

They were an unusually close set of siblings, their relationships forged by fire with the tragic early death of their mother, who died when my father was 11 and the youngest was just an infant, and the premature death of their father, who died when my father was in college after living for years with a broken heart, never remarrying or even dating.

Every Thanksgiving morning, after watching Big Bird, Kermit and others float through Manhattan, we'd pile up in the station wagon and motor through the Wiregrass toward Geneva, home of my namesake.

Uncle Jack and his sweet wife, my Aunt Mildred hosted all the Smiths every year. They fried up the best hand-breaded chicken fingers you've ever tasted and put out salty Apalachicola bay oysters before any of us even arrived. I ate more fat oysters on Saltines, dripping with tangy cocktail sauce, than one could count.

Mom always brought the mouth-watering homemade dressing, never cooked from a box. For years, she baked a plump turkey in the oven and made gravy from scratch.

Each time one of the siblings and their families arrived at Uncle Jack's, they were greeted with an uproar as though a celebrity had just arrived. There were big hugs and smiles, laughter and commentary on how much the children, usually dressed in khakis and button down shirts we didn't want to be wearing, had grown.

My cousin, Mac, was in charge of pouring and refilling the champagne, which made the day more fun and interesting as it went on.

My Aunt Janice, an attractive French teacher, and her husband, my Uncle Doug, were usually the last to arrive. The fun didn't start until they had gotten settled in. One year, Aunt Janice paraded around with a boom box, trying to lead us all in the singing of Handel's Messiah.

Another year, I she sang something in French and played conductor on the back steps, trying to get the children too busy playing football to sing along. They didn't.

Aunt Janice, who would hold her chin high while taking drags from her long cigarettes, was always interested in me and told me she loved me.

My Uncle Maury was the family patriarch, an esteemed and brilliant attorney, always dapper in slacks and a stylish coat. He had a booming voice and a great laugh. Uncle Maury was more than an avid Alabama fan, he was a member of the university Board of Trustees.

My favorite part of the day when I was a kid was making my annual $1 Iron Bowl bet with Uncle Maury. In years I'd win, he always sent me a crisp dollar in the mail with a gracious note. I'm not sure I ever paid him.

My Uncle John, who dad always said had more personality than most accountants, was less friendly to any Auburn fan, even his nephew. One miserable year when some demonic TV executives decided the Auburn-Alabama game should be played on Thanksgiving, we all gathered around the television at Uncle Jack's. Uncle John drank a few Coors Lights, "Silver Bullets" he called them, and threw a yellow napkin at my feet on the floor every time Auburn got a penalty.

It took me a while to get over that, but I did because he's married to my Aunt Sarah, the kindest person I've ever known. (She went to Auburn).

Uncle Jack and Aunt Mill worked like dogs to make sure we all had plenty to eat and drink. They even put an addition with big windows on their house, mostly for our family reunion.

Uncle Bob, another attorney, always showed up wearing a coat and time, his graying hair neatly combed to the back. He always had a story about his children, my cousins who we loved to get into mischief with during our day in Geneva. Uncle Bob and Aunt June were kind and engaging, and I loved visiting with them even though they were Democrats. We didn't talk politics.

Somehow, Uncle Jack, a contractor with all kinds of big toys on his spacious back lot, never lost his patience with the cousins who played around on his crane and even managed to crank up a diesel truck one year. We couldn't turn it off, so Uncle Jack walked out back and shut down the throttling engine without saying a word.

It seemed to take hours for Aunt Mill, her sweet daughters and "the help" to put out all the food, a feast fit for a king. We all ate too much, laughed, and sometimes looked at pictures from the siblings' childhood years or Thanksgivings past. Dessert and coffee always followed while the Lions and some other team played a meaningless football game on the living room television.

It always ended too quickly, and we left with full bellies and heavy eyes. The drive home from Geneva to Eufaula was quiet, the autumn orange sun casting long shadows off the Southern Yellow pines.

We made that trip to Geneva for more than 30 years of my life, and today I cherish those memories. My father, Uncle Jack, Aunt Mill, Uncle Maury, Aunt Cile, Aunt Janice and Aunt June are no longer with us.

I know we will all reflect on those special days, even though holidays are made harder by death and divorce and other things that just happen. We will all find something to smile about, and we will all go to bed with full bellies, grateful for the ties that bind, grateful for Thanksgiving memories, and grateful that God put us all on this earth together.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Out of the Darkness & Into the Light

Out of the Darkness Walk 
October 2015

Three weeks had passed since the night I reached a place so dark and desperate and painful that I began to believe the lie. 

It was the night I gave up. The night I lost hope. The night I said to hell with this, I quit.

I gave up on my children. I gave up on my family. I gave up on my friends. 

I gave up on my coworkers. I gave up on all the people praying for me, including many I didn’t know. 

I gave up on many who were suffering in silence, people I had never met who found inspiration in the words I wrote about my struggle. 

I gave up that dark and surreal night because I believed the lie. The lie that I was broken beyond repair. The lie that my family and friends would be better off without me. The lie that I could make the pain go away if I just shoved as many pills down my throat as possible. 

I believed the lie because depression is a cruel disease. It is cunning and relentless and opportunistic. It crouches in the edge of the wilderness of our minds, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.  

It waits until darkness and clouds cover the stars and obscure the moon, making it impossible to navigate the storm in the blackness of a bitterly cold, long winter’s night. 

It waits until we are weak and vulnerable, and then it comes on slowly at first. It pushes us down a slippery slope into a dark and lonely abyss. 

We begin to believe the lie because depression and other forms of mental illness are like cancer of the mind. The cancer spreads from our minds to our hearts and even our souls. It feels like there is no cure, and there isn’t. 

It feels like there is nothing anyone can do to help us, but that is a lie. We believe it even though part of our mind knows it is a lie. We believe the lie because we have lost hope, one of the most powerful forces on earth, second only to faith and love. 

We feel like we are standing on top of a burning building, and the only thing we know to do is jump. 

What we don’t realize in that surreal and disconnected moment is that when we jump, the dreams that so many others have for us come crashing down with us. We don’t realize the collateral damage we are inflicting on those who love us the most, those who would give away everything they have just for one last chance to tell us they love us, one last chance to tell us hope is not dead, one last chance to tell us they will stop at nothing to get us the help we need. 

I jumped from the burning building. Twice. But I’m still here. I don’t know why I am here and your friend or loved one is not, and I know it isn’t fair. 

But I am here. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was holding my hand as I walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Somehow, he saw me through to the other side, and today I stand in the sun. 

I am telling my story because I can’t just stand in the sun and soak up the glory of God’s creation without thinking of those I left behind in treatment who have relapsed, never made it out or decided they could no longer fight because they were so weary from it all.

I am here telling my story not because I want to….it is easier just to bury it deep in the dark corners of my heart and hope that it never sees the light of day again. 

But I have learned we can’t bury pain in our hearts and ever hope to be truly happy. I have learned that holding onto secrets is dangerous and toxic. Thanks to God’s grace and the faith and wisdom of my then 14-year-old daughter, I finally learned something important: Our secrets lose the power to hurt us when we drag them into the light. 

That is the wicked power of stigma….it keeps us from getting the help we need and from believing there is still hope. 

That is just part of my story. But today isn’t really about my story. It is about your story. 

It is about the student who wrote that he was putting together a team for this event because the campus ministry he serves lost two members to suicide in one year.

It is about the young college student who lost a dear friend because she never shared her pain with anyone else. 

It is about the grandmother here with us today who lost her grandson to suicide, then her own son only months later. I can’t fathom how much pain he must have been in after losing his own son. That’s why I can’t stand here and judge him today. I know what it’s like to hurt. 

It is about a friend I made just yesterday who lost her sister to suicide three years ago. She wants to start a program in the schools so teenagers become more aware of suicide risks and warnings. The statistics tell us we should have done that yesterday. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people.  

It is about mothers and fathers here today whose lives were devastated and whose spirits were crushed because their son or daughter lost hope and for whatever reason just couldn’t ask for help. 

It is about 1 in 3 Auburn students who say they have thought about suicide. That is what surveys tell us. I am not good at math, but think what that means. That means there are 8,000 students on this campus who either have been hurting or are hurting so much they were tempted to believe the lie, too. 

That is a big number that doesn’t really put it into perspective. Maybe this does. The next time you are walking through this Student Center, try to grasp that every third person in line at Starbucks may be struggling at that moment. Some of them may have cried through the night, wondering why the only thought they have is the world would be better off without them. 

Try to grasp that every third person you walk by carrying the weight of their books on one shoulder and a whole lot more pain and stress and worry on the other has at some point contemplated suicide. 

Today is about their story, too. 

Back to my story for a moment. It had been three weeks since I tried to take my life for the first time. 

My brother had joined me on a flight to Houston on our way to a world class treatment center. I had lost hope, I had become disconnected from God in many ways. Then I pulled my Bible out from under my seat. I flipped it open, looking for answers. Inside I found a note from my 14-year-old daughter. 

With her permission, I would like to share it with you now. 

Her letter got me through a terribly difficult time. It changed my perspective and changed my prayer. I quit praying for a cure that night. I started praying for God’s will for my life, even if it meant I had to suffer along the way. 

The pain and guilt began to lift, at least long enough for me to go through treatment that time. The dark clouds of depression rolled back into my life again less than two years later, but I still think that change in my heart and my prayer is why I am here today to tell you my story.  

Many of you here today can relate to the toxic nature of guilt. Guilt is like poison in our hearts. It must be flushed away before we can forgive others or even forgive ourselves. 

My prayer today is that those of you are living with guilt and regret can let go of them. It will always be hard to forgive your friend or loved one who made a tragic choice unless until you let go of the guilt. Ask God to flush it from your heart. 

Your friend or loved one did not understand that by attempting or completing suicide, they were only taking their pain and multiplying it by a million. They did not understand they were merely giving it to those who love and care for them the most.

If they had, they would have asked for help. 

Today I want to ask you to do a few simple things:

Please support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention with a donation or at least your prayers. If you are a student here, get involved with Active Minds Auburn. It is a great organization doing the important work of eliminating stigma through awareness of mental illness. 

If you have ever struggled with depression or bipolar or anxiety, make a list of 3 friends you can call at 3 am when it’s dark and you are lonely. Put them in your phone under “Favorites.” They may one day be much more than “favorites in your phone. They may be guardian angels that save your life. 

Before you go to sleep, pick up your phone and text 3 friends or loved ones that you sometimes worry about. Tell them you love them and that you will always be there for them. Tell them even if it’s 3:00 a.m., they can always text or call. Tell them you will just be there for them to listen and try to understand. 

And if you like music, go listen to Matthew West’s “Strong Enough.”  
It is about giving up. Not quitting, like I quit. It is about giving up on the lie that we are strong enough to handle the storms of life on our own. 

It is about recognizing that no matter how dark the skies, no matter how loud the thunder, no matter how heavy the rain, no matter how much fear we have in our hearts, there is a way out. It is about admitting we aren’t strong enough to do it on our own. Admitting that is not only okay. It’s the only way out when we can’t see the lighthouse in the distance.  

I love one verse in that song. This is what it says: 

Maybe that's the point 
To reach the point of giving up  
Cause when I'm finally, Finally at rock bottom 
Well, that's when I start looking up 
And reaching out 

I’ve learned that having the right doctor, the right diagnosis and the right treatment plan is vital in the struggle against mental illness. But I’ve also learned something more important. 

We must learn to lean on friends and family. Mine saved me. They brought me out of the darkness and into the light. My family never once judged me. They just loved me and stopped at nothing until I finally got some answers. 

Friends and family are critical, but I would not have turned my life around and found hope and happiness again if God had not stayed faithful to me. 

I kept my faith even when I didn’t understand God’s plan. 

My faith has sustained me through some hard times, including times when I didn’t have any courage. 

When I was at rock bottom, a dear friend gave me a little black book that has helped save my life. Inside are hand-written verses, songs and quotes. She even left blank pages so I could write my own favorites down.

I find one thing in my little black book that helps me every day. The words on the last page say it all.

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.’ 

You don’t need the courage to conquer it all in one day. God, your friends and family will do that for you in time. You just have to let go and let them. 

You just need the courage to try again tomorrow.