When I didn’t show up for an out-of-town assignment, my clients were concerned. When they couldn’t reach me, they called first my wife, and then the hotel. The police and EMT’s found me mid-morning, unconscious. They thought it was a murder scene. Blood-red vomit covered the bed and the floor. It had projected up the wall behind me and coated a massive picture that hung over the bed. Apparently the pink Benadryl pills, along with the tens of thousands of milligrams of other medication I took, created the effect of blood. By then I had been unconscious for a solid ten hours.
I should have been dead.
Eighteen hours after I blacked out, I woke up in a fog like I’ve never experienced before. Where the hell am I? Why is it so cold in here? Wait a second! Am I in the hospital? Shit! I’m still HERE?!? You cannot seriously mean that I am alive! Do you KNOW how much I took??!!?! Oh this is really bad.
My son’s first birthday was the next day. I don’t know what his birthday party was like. I was still in ICU, nearly dead. Three days later, the doctors decided my liver wasn’t going to fail, and I had regained feeling in my legs. I was released and immediately transferred to the psych ward.
The psych ward. Me. The former worship leader, youth pastor, radio host, blogger, ministry school graduate, father, and husband. The outgoing one. The friendly one. The upbeat one. Me. I was sitting in a wheelchair, headed to the psych ward. I stayed there for five days. I called it the arts and crafts floor: we colored and talked and rested a lot. I couldn’t sleep the first night because it was too quiet. The experience felt pointless and frustrating and humiliating and so uncomfortable.
It’s been over three years since the darkest days of my life and I am still standing. I still have harsh flashbacks at times. For awhile, I couldn’t stand black coffee. I remember crushing up those thousands of milligrams of medicine and pouring the powder into the hot mug, stirring it up, and choking it back that night. The smell, the taste, even the thought of black coffee for months after would send me into a full-blown panic attack.
But I’m no longer afraid of my demons. We all have skeletons in our closets, and as loud as they may scream for our attention, Love’s power is greater.
Once I came to the end of myself, I began to find my true self. I am coming out of a lifelong pattern of shame and stepping away from the expectations of performance-based religion. I am learning to be honest with myself and others about my struggles and I no longer internalize everything.
I have found the Love that is a belonging, a safe place, a fierceness that will not let me go. I have learned to find the beauty in imperfection and revel in it and I have learned to enjoy silence. And I have learned that my family is a gift.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, my eyes weren’t empty that day. They were just forgetful. They had forgotten to look for the joyful things in life.
If I could say anything to someone who’s struggling, it’s this: life is worth living. It’s worth fighting through all the hard times and the dry times and the lean times and the mean times. Cut through the busyness and bullshit and figure out what on earth you’re doing here and what your reason is for getting out of bed each morning…and then do that with all your heart. Get alone and get quiet and figure out what it is that still makes your heart beat.
I took a mulligan that day. In golf, a mulligan is literally a do-over. It’s taking another shot from the point of the foul, as if the first mistake never happened. Friday, September 21, 2012, is my Mulligan Day. It’s the day I was given a do-over at life.
Steve Austin is a family man, writer, speaker, survivor, and advocate of second chances. Steve lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and blogs regularly at www.iamsteveaustin.com