I am so honored to have my friend Steve Austin sharing his story today of struggling with mental illness and being a pastor who tried to die by suicide. Steve, I am so grateful that you are alive and for the grace that stepped into your life! Thank you for your honesty and willingness to share your story and share grace with us. You are helping to break the stigma and to bring people hope. Steve and his wonderful wife Lindsey talked on Steve's podcast this week about How to Survive When Your Spouse Tries to Die by Suicide. I encourage you to check it out.
I Was a Pastor with a Broken Brain
By Steve Austin
This week marks five years since I nearly died by suicide.
The truth is, I’m not alone. This year, approximately 44,000 Americans will believe they have reached the end of their rope, and die by suicide. And for each person who dies, another twenty-five will attempt.
You might think my story is a bit rare because I had a family. I had been married five years when I tried to die. But there are lots of married people who die by suicide. Maybe it’s the fact that my little boy would turn a year old the very next day. And yet, there are plenty of parents who end their lives.
The thing most people find rare about my story is that I was a pastor on September 21, 2012. I had lost all hope and tried to hang myself in a hotel bathroom that night. When that failed, I crushed the contents of bottle after bottle of medication and drank to my death.
I was raised in the church. I served on youth leadership. I traveled with the Gospel choir in college. My feet had touched the soil of three foreign countries, preaching and spreading the hope of Jesus. I had two years of ministry school under my belt. I was passionate about the unconditional love of God, but I was just as determined to end my secret suffering.
I was a pastor and a lifelong Christian. I loved Jesus with all my heart. And I adored my family. I just despised myself. I was desperate to find peace, no matter the cost.
I didn’t know about counseling or therapy. I didn't know I had permission to tell my truth. I lacked the confidence that God would meet me in the darkness. I was exhausted from a life filled with shame, and a fear-based religion that left me shakily scared of appearing less-than-perfect.
My desperation was partly rooted in the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. I was also horrified at the thought of anyone discovering my twenty-year pornography addiction. And then I lost my job. That was the straw that nearly crushed me. Shame told me I was nothing more than the sum of all my unfortunate mistakes.
I knew people who had worked through unthinkable trauma. I had seen how Jesus could heal addiction. Those stories made the most inspiring testimonies during a Sunday morning service. But I had never heard a Christian (must less a pastor) stand up and tell the truth about their broken brain.
I believed the lie that my life would never get better. I was convinced things would only get worse. No one would understand my struggle. No one cared. And I was certain I’d used up every ounce of grace Jesus could muster.
I grew up in fundamentalist church culture, where everything was black and white. There were concrete answers for every question. We had no safe space for doubts, dysfunction, or differences. And anytime I’d ever seen someone confess a personal struggle with mental illness, a team of people prepared to cast out a demon.
My experience with Christianity was one that separated the wheat from the chaff; the healed from the sick; the sinners from the saints. And if you didn’t get your miracle, you just didn’t have enough faith.
I had vegetable oil crosses smeared on my forehead more times than I’d like to admit. I’d been shoved backward by fiery preachers, praying for healing. I’d feigned “falling out” in the Spirit so my friends wouldn’t know what I fake I was. I had done it all, but it seemed that either Benny Hinn was as much of a fake as me, or Jesus was a liar.
In her provocative memoir, Some Things You Keep, J.J. Landis talks about a “magic Jesus pill,” but I’d never seen one work in my life. I’d soaked my tears with prayers for Jesus to snap His cosmic fingers and fix me, but nothing was happening. The shame was nearly as unbearable as the panic attacks.
No one, other than my wife, knew that I was hiding my prescriptions in my lunchbox and sneaking into the bathroom stall at church. I would lock the door and take my meds like clockwork, scared to death that someone would catch me. I knew I wasn’t doing anything illegal, and these medications were the only thing keeping me functioning, but where I come from, you can either be Christian or “crazy.” You can’t be both.
When Jesus doesn’t snap his fingers and heal everything in an instant, we get uncomfortable and impatient. Stories like mine don’t fit neatly into our boxes. They aren’t nearly as popular as mud on the eyes and dipping in the river seven times and seeing miracles.
My church culture placed great emphasis on the spiritual life. I was raised in a herd-like mentality that demanded outward performance, to the detriment of genuine faith. Because my brain didn't work like other Christians I knew, I learned to blend in and keep my mouth shut.
For those of us with mental illness, the church can sometimes feel cranky and unkind. We often hide in the shadows, for fear of being thought of as less-than a full Christian. But we continue to stubbornly white-knuckle the back of the pew, hoping to one day be accepted, just as we are.
Anyone who has spent time in a psych ward would love for the church to look a little more like an in-patient unit. We don’t expect the psych ward to immediately “fix” us any more than we think church attendance will magically remove all of our doubts or struggles. But respecting the process and cultivating a community where honesty rules the day has the power to shatter our shame.
Are you a church person who doesn’t understand mental illness? It’s okay. Just remind us that grace is here, even when our life feels overwhelming and dark. Tell us that we aren’t a lost cause and that our life isn’t over. Remind us that God makes all things new and accepts us exactly as we are.
Receiving God’s grace for each step of our journey, past and present, helps us find rest for our weary and wounded souls. In recognizing that we have problems just like the person in the pew next to us, and asking for practical ways to work through them, we can all heal together.
As I continue to recover from my suicide attempt, I am learning that life isn’t neatly boxed and bowed. When it comes to church, I'm not asking for my pastor to be my psychiatrist. I don't need my Sunday School teacher to try and fix me, or for any clergy person to have all the answers. I just need people to choose kindness, even when they don't understand.
If you or someone you know feels hopeless or is thinking about dying by suicide please seek help. You matter. You are loved. You are valuable. Please stay. You can call or chat online with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255) or by clicking here. Or you can text the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
Steve Austin is a life coach, writer, and speaker. Steve's goal is to help people create a lifestyle of focused emotional health and clarity. Get Steve's Amazon best-seller, From Pastor to a Psych Ward, at iamsteveaustin.com for free today.