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Catching Your Breath: Chapter 1

Catching Your Breath: The Sacred Journey from Chaos to Calm

“Who is he?
A railroad track toward hell?
Breaking like a stick of furniture?
The hope that suddenly overflows the cesspool?

The love that goes down the drain like spit?
The love that said forever, forever
and then runs you over like a truck?
Are you a prayer that floats into a radio advertisement?

Despair,
I don’t like you very well.
You don’t suit my clothes or my cigarettes.
Why do you locate here
as large as a tank,
aiming at one half of a lifetime?”

— Anne Sexton

Chapter One: DROWNING

When I was a little boy, my dad was my hero. One summer when I was 5 or 6, we took a trip to Nashville for a few days to visit my dad’s best friend. The hotel had a pool. I distinctly remember standing on the stairs at the entrance to the shallow end when Dad said, “Okay, ready to count? Let’s see how high you can count & how long I can stay under.”

My dad, the career firefighter and marathon runner, held his breath and slipped beneath the surface of the water. I watched him swim away, toward the shallow end, turn, and slowly make his way back.

For the first few seconds, it was so cool, but to a kindergartener, staying under past the count of ten seemed either impossible or superhuman. He didn’t come up for what felt like forever, and I was getting nervous. You know, 60 seconds seems like an eternity if you’re a small child.

When my dad finally emerged and took that first gasp of fresh air, I was both relieved and amazed. I cheered, “Dad! Oh my gosh! I counted to 60! How did you do that?!”

As awed as I was to see my dad’s trick, I always felt better when my hero was near me. The water was an uncertain thing to me: I knew I couldn’t hold my breath and swim for it like he did. And I didn’t like feeling alone.

It’s interesting, children can’t hold their breath as long as adults can. But the older we become, the longer we teach ourselves to hold it in. The same is true in life. Countless people are holding their breath and fears, just waiting to exhale.

A Case of the Mondays

You curse the alarm as it blares in your ears. The new baby was up on-and-off all night. So you were up, too. Your mother-in-law was staying in the guest room to “help,” but she slept soundly all night long.

You have a flat tire because it’s Monday morning and Mondays were made for flat tires. You think to yourself, “I cannot handle one more thing.” You finally get on the road, knowing you’re already ten minutes late for work, just to find cars backed up for miles. Of course, there’s an overturned tractor-trailer on the interstate.

Your blood pressure spikes and anxiety grips your chest as you realize you can’t afford to be late. There are rumors of layoffs at work and everyone wonders which staff meeting will be their last. You can’t afford to give them a reason to sack you.

Maybe you slam a fist into the steering wheel and growl with frustration. Or spill a cup of coffee down your shirt and have a total meltdown in the breakroom, leaving coworkers staring.

If I were there, I’d pull your coworker aside and whisper, “Trust me, friend: it’s never about the spilled coffee.”

Look, you don’t need an official mental health diagnosis to have a meltdown. There are plenty of mostly normal people with relatively ordinary lives and good families who completely lose their shit in chaotic moments.

Can you blame them? At one point or another, we all know what it’s like to fear an unpredictable future, dread an encounter with that overbearing person, or experience the shame of an unforgiving past. We stress out over people and situations that we cannot change or control. And then we beat ourselves up about it.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? When I make a mistake, I can be hateful, vile, and just plain mean to myself. Why do we do it? Sure, we mess up. No one is arguing that, but why do we treat ourselves worse than we’d treat our worst enemy? We’re human, and for some reason, the Divine didn’t program us for perfection. Therefore, there will be times we screw things up.

But instead of talking about the problem (we made a mistake), we view ourselves as the problem. Instead of calling it like it is and saying, “I messed up,” we say, “I’m a loser.”

What an idiot.

I’m so stupid.

I’m a mistake.

I am a failure.

We give ourselves no room for mercy. We accept no imperfections or flaws. Even if we might offer someone else a second chance, we refuse it for ourselves, condemning ourselves to a life sentence of self-hatred, criticism, and shame. And for what? Making a mistake? Being human? Dropping the ball?

Weak Sometimes

When my son, Ben, was around four years old, I took him with me to the grocery store. As I pushed the cart past the yogurt and cream cheese, I stopped to add a dozen eggs to my cart. I opened the carton and carefully inspected each one. I asked Ben if he knew what I was doing. “Checking to see if they’re broken,” he said. I was pleasantly surprised.

A few days later, I was reminded of those eggshells as I had lunch with a close friend. Kendra always seems to have it together, even in the face of heartbreak and adversity. Few people knew about her unfaithful husband who liked to spend grocery money on his drug habit. She loved him desperately but worried about being able to keep the lights on. She wondered whether Child Protective Services would find out and take her babies away.

Kendra took a second job to make ends meet and never asked a soul for help. While keeping up appearances is something we Southerners pride ourselves on (that and college football), she wasn’t so concerned about what others thought. My friend was just doing what she could to be strong for her kids. She was just trying to make it another damn day.

I had watched Kendra walk through difficult decisions and unbearable circumstances with dignity and grace for years. She’d been pulled in every imaginable direction without friends, family, or coworkers realizing the hell she lived in.

Until she couldn’t. Kendra had been one of the strongest people I knew, but as I sat across from her, I could see her sudden fragility. Years of chaos and mess had nearly broken her. I knew I needed to tread carefully.

I feared she had become like those eggshells, ready to crack at any moment. I wondered if that thin shell might crumble if I asked one more question.

Those moments aren’t easy. When someone I care about seems to be suffocating underneath the weight of life, my deep-rooted habits flare up. My savior complex kicks into overdrive and I have to restrain myself from looking for the nearest phone booth to change from suit to superhero.

I love my friends, so it was tough not to try and swoop in as Kendra’s guardian angel. Cherry-picked Christian scriptures that had been drilled into my head over the years flooded back, along with all the times I’d been told God would magically fix everything if we just pray hard enough. But I couldn’t bear to use Bible verses to give a false sense of hope.

I wanted everything to be alright, and I wanted to play a part in it all working out. But I saw the sadness, exhaustion, and loneliness in my friend’s eyes. Kendra wasn’t looking for a Super Christian or a savior. She just needed space to breathe. She just needed me to embrace the tension of uncertainty with her and let her know that I saw her. This “got-it-together, keep-it-together, don’t-let-them-see-you-cry” friend of mine was trusting me with her pain and weariness and fear of all that felt uneasy.

It was a holy moment.

An eggshell holds it all together and protects everything inside. But one foul shake of the carton, one sharp drop, one little push, and splat, out spill baby chicken guts. The harsh reality is this: sometimes, even good eggs crack. In those moments, friends and loved ones get the chance to pad the carton with an extra layer of love. And at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got: uncertainty, hope, and the compassion of those who care about us.

In moments of personal despair, the Bible mostly either confuses me or pisses me off. Even as a pastor, sometimes the only part that seemed fully human to me was the Book of Psalms, a collection of songs, poems, confessions, and laments that people wrote in the best and worst moments of their lives. One portion that resonates deeply with me is this confession by King David:

I’m up against it, with no exit—

bereft, left alone.

I cry out, God, call out:

‘You’re my last chance, my only hope for life!’

Oh listen, please listen;

I’ve never been this low.

I’m certainly no Bible scholar, but it does seem that David understood what it was like to live in all sorts of chaos. King David was a royal screw up. His confessions in the Psalms are a roller coaster of emotions, but I think he had genuine faith. David’s story is incredibly human and tragically flawed. He was a military veteran, had an affair, knocked up his baby’s mama, and then had her husband killed. Can somebody say, “Jerry Springer episode?” Chapter by chapter, this trainwreck of a “man after God’s own heart” famously flip-flopped from hope to fear, doubt to certainty, despair to peace, anger to sadness, chaos to calm.

As I write this, I’m listening to my very favorite, always-on-repeat song: “Weak Sometimes” by Devin Balram. Here’s what it says:

You’re put together, you’re so well and put together

That even on your tragic days, you seem fine

You try so hard to hide that there’s a fight inside

But I can see it in your eyes that you’re not fine

Whoever said it was wrong to be weak sometimes

To cry yourself to sleep & wake up with your tears barely dry

You might feel like you’re dying, that the end is nowhere near in sight

But whoever said it was wrong to be weak sometimes?

You say that pain just gets in the way

Just let it sit, it’ll dissipate

You say that no one’s had a better day

By dealing with their shame

Whoever said, it was wrong to be weak sometimes

To cry yourself to sleep & wake up with your tears barely dry

You might feel like you’re dying, that the end is nowhere near in sight

Whoever said it was wrong to be weak sometimes?

Damn, I love those words. After all, we’re all weak sometimes. Or if we’re not, it’s just because we’re so busy holding our breath and trying to “just keep swimming.” Like my friend Mike said recently, “We’re all doing one of the hardest things possible. Living.

When I was much older than the little boy watching my dad from the shallow end, I was acutely aware of what it felt like to hold your breath so long that the pain and shame feel like drowning. For me, the end of the rope looked like waking up in an ICU hospital room after a serious suicide attempt. That was the point I started to learn how to breathe again.

Humaning Ain’t Easy

In chapter five of the biblical book of John, Jesus was at a well-known spot for healing called the Pool of Bethesda. Legend had it that an angel would come stir up the water every so often and whoever got in first would be miraculously healed. So countless sick and disabled people hung around the water, watching and waiting for their chance to slip into the swirling waters.

One guy had been an invalid for thirty-eight years, but he hadn’t received his healing because no one would pick him up and carry him to the water’s edge when it began to churn. Jesus heard the man’s story and said, “Get up. Take your mat with you, and walk!” And the man did.

What was different? The man didn’t even have to step into the water. What changed? He didn’t know it, but what he had actually been waiting on for nearly forty years was for someone to come along and say, “It’s okay.” He just needed permission.

What are you waiting for permission for?

Permission to do something.

Permission to quit something.

Permission to say something.

Permission to question.

Permission to rest.

Permission to cry.

Permission to not give a damn.

Permission to expect better.

Permission to still be upset.

Permission to move on.

Permission to seek a better way.

Permission to be weak.

Beneath all the different things we think we need permission for, I believe what we need is permission to be ourselves. Permission to belong, just as we are.

Mostly, I think we’re all in desperate need of permission to be human.

Have you ever secretly wished you could tell someone what you really think? Not necessarily in that “I’mma give her a piece of my mind” kind of way, but just the ability, space, or courage to peel back the plastered smiles, stop hiding what you’re feeling, and show everyone who you really are underneath? Yeah. Me too.

Instead, we allow rules of institutions, unrealistic expectations of others, outdated cultural norms, and our own toxic self-hatred to cake on our souls like Playdoh on my four-year-old’s chubby palms. Grime, snot, and purple marker mix with sweat in her little hands as she unintentionally paints the glass of our beautiful French doors. Our spirits look similar, smeared with pain, performance, ego, and fear of what everyone else thinks.

Some days I have to stand in the bathroom, face set firm, staring in the mirror, giving myself permission to be human. Sometimes I still have to remind myself to untie the cape from my neck, come down off the cross, and take a deep breath.

You too? It’s tough to stop. But, friend, do whatever it takes to snap back to this reality: you are human. You are only one person – only capable of doing so much before you completely forget about the fragile beauty of your being. You have permission to be yourself.

Because guess what? You’re a freakin’ human!

Not a robot or an algorithm or the newest AI technology. Not a spreadsheet or a superhero or the savior of the whole damn world. Your name is probably something like Cindy or Billy or Tom or Tammy or Steve or Jon. It’s probably not Jesus (unless you’re Latino) or Clark Kent or anyone else with a cross or a cape on their back.

Before you’re ever part of any group or carry any label – be it Christian, Democrat, parent, spouse, teacher, student, or any ethnicity/nationality/gender/orientation – before ANY of that, you are a human.

We’re human. That’s it! And it’s cause for celebration, and a call for radical grace. Humaning ain’t easy (let’s not even get started on adulting).

We are bruised, yet brave.

Once broken, now held together by strands of love,

Proudly on display on the front porch of God’s house.

A tapestry of red and yellow, black and white,

Flapping in the breeze of the Holy Spirit.

Unashamed. Unafraid. No longer willing to hide.

Slaves no more.

Standing tall.

Fists on hips.

Courage

Just behind our ribs.

The man in John 5 had been an invalid: sick and unable to care for himself. Pronounced another way, the word means something entirely different. In-valid: not valid. Not legitimate. Not significant.

The sick man needed someone to validate him. To confirm him. To approve of him. He needed someone to tell him his life mattered. He was longing for meaning. Just like many of us, he needed permission to be human.

As Jesus spoke, I imagine the man heard something very different than simply, “Get up and walk.” I think he heard something more like:

“You have believed your life doesn’t matter for far too long. You have worth. In spite of your past, your imperfections, and what everyone else thinks about you, I am giving you permission to get up and walk away. Get up and leave this place. It is time to move on. Be different. Be new. Don’t look back.”

Did you notice that Jesus didn’t even address the man’s issues? Jesus wasn’t blind: I’m sure He noticed the guy’s problems. But Jesus loved beyond the labels. He saw past the illness, to the heart of a human being who had been created by Divine Love. While others had tossed him a few coins to silence his cries, Jesus came along and embraced him in the fullness of his humanity.

Jesus recognized the man as a person and helped him find purpose in the midst of the struggle. In recovering his value, the man was able to see himself as an equal, probably for the first time in his life. And that may have been the greatest grace of all.

Whoever you are, whatever your story, whether you even believe in this spiritual stuff or not, listen to the invitation of Jesus, my favorite human:

“Come to me, all you misfits. Come and rest. Bring your story, covered in grit and grime and glitter and let’s write something brand-new together. Come to me, all you who have been told you don’t belong. Let Love create beauty from the ashes. Sit next to me, you who have believed you’ll never be enough. There is space at the table for each of you who’ve grown weary from holding your breath for far too long. Come to me. Come and rest. You are welcome here, just as you are.”

Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, take those words as an invitation to exhale all the pain, anxiety, anger, and everything else you have been holding on to. We’ll learn to breathe in calm and newness together. We’ve got this! The journey is all about learning to embrace the whole person, which requires cultivating mental, emotional, and even spiritual wellness.

I’m not a medical professional; I’m just a guy who survived a shipwreck and found the courage to talk about it. Much like the day my dad finally laid his head against the edge of the pool and drew a deep breath after his long stretch underwater, my journey from chaos to calm started after years of holding everything inside, blindly hoping all the pain and stress would magically disappear.

No matter how superhuman someone may seem, we all know what it’s like to feel completely overwhelmed by life. We are all desperate for the safety of the shallow end. The good news? We don’t have to live like this forever.

Welcome to the shallow end, friend.


*The critics have spoken. Read Zachary Houle’s editorial review of Catching Your Breath. Just click here.

Order Catching Your Breath Today

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45 Pieces of the Best Marriage Advice Ever

Lindsey and I have been married more than a decade. The first seven years or so were full of more downs than ups, more bad than good, more sickness than health. During those dark and fearful days, we both considered quitting more times than we’d like to admit.

These days, we’ve become best friends. But there was a whole lot of living in between the hard times and these much better days. So please don’t read this like there was some cosmic snapping of the fingers and suddenly our marriage was a Nicholas Sparks’ novel.  No way. Not a chance.

No magic potion will promise you a pain-free marriage or a perfect life. But here’s 45 things marriage lessons we’ve learned in the past decade. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

  1. Love is a give and give, not a give and take. Try to out-serve each other.

  2. Screw the social norms. If she likes to be outside, let her mow the lawn! If he’s creative, let him help decorate the house! Your marriage is unique – celebrate that!

  3. Form a unified front. Whether you are dealing with friends, family, or your children, be united. Talk to your partner first! Make a game plan and have each other’s backs.

  4. Own your issues but don’t feel like you have to own theirs. It isn’t our job to “fix” the other.

  5. Honest and direct communication should be at the top of every list for a successful relationship of any kind. Say what you need. And say what you don’t need. No one is a freakin’ mind reader. A badass marriage starts with robust communication.

  6. Balance the serious with the fun. Life is too short, and marriage is hard work. Do what you can to live it up!

  7. Be vulnerable. If you use humor as a defense mechanism, stop. Speak your truth. If you want to stop feeling overwhelmed with marriage, sometimes you’ve got to let it all hang out.

  8. Be trustworthy. Trust is the cornerstone of any good relationship. You can’t have love without trust. That means that if your partner tells you something personal or hard, it goes to the grave with you. Ride or die.

  9. Forgive quickly. Keep the small things the small things. I’ll never forget the ridiculous fight we once had over the exhaust fan in the master bathroom our first year of marriage. Decide what matters, and work it out.

  10. Take some time apart. A good marriage knows not to smother each other. Let him have a guy’s night. Or leave the kids with him and go enjoy a glass of wine with the ladies. A little absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

  11. Know which family you belong to. Your spouse and/or your kids are your family now. You can honor your parents and respect your in-laws without letting their opinions control your relationship.

  12. Don’t neglect date night. I know life is busy and babysitters are expensive, but don’t neglect time away with one another! Whether you go out, or order pizza and stay in, be intentional about your time together.

  13. Even if you love your person, sometimes they are going to piss you off. In times like that, the best thing you can do is calm down before you blow up. This will allow you to respond instead of reacting.

  14. Stop running. Sometimes the best thing is to take time to “cool down,” but it is never okay to have something that serves as your “escape” from your family. If you feel the need for a constant “escape,” you need to ask yourself what you’re running from.

  15. You are not his mother. Find a man who loves the way you think and look, who enjoys your company, and – most of all – who respects you as an equal. If a man is looking for someone to wait on him hand-and-foot like his Mama did, keep moving, sister.

  16. Take care of yourself. Caring for your spouse and children doesn’t mean you neglect yourself. Don’t ignore your soul. Life is busy, marriage and children are demanding, and if you don’t speak up for yourself, no one else will! Say what you need and don’t be afraid to confess what you want. Mamas are not machines!

  17. You are the only people who live inside your specific marriage. No one else lives in your house, knows what your spouse is like behind closed doors, and no one is going to stick this thing out but you. You are the one doing the hard work to make things last, so ignore the critics.

  18. Choose your battles. Socks on the floor don’t matter.

  19. But she ain’t your Mama. Put your own dishes in the sink.

  20. When things fall apart (because they will), hug her tight and silently count to thirty. You’ll be surprised just how much that can fix.

  21. It’s your marriage. If it’s excellent, it’s because you put in the work. If it sucks, you better put in more work. Only the two of you can make your marriage healthy. So push away distractions, shut out negative opinions, and do what it takes to make it last.

  22. Guys: flowers for no particular reason are always a good idea.

  23. Don’t just hope for the best. Do something. Don’t avoid the hard conversations so long that resentment takes root. Address problems as soon as they come up.

  24. Listen more than you speak.

  25. When life is stressful, look for opportunities to laugh together.

  26. Girls: Don’t throw away his favorite t-shirt without asking first. No matter how many holes it has.

  27. Intimacy is about more than sex.

  28. Guys: notice the details. The new earrings, the shoes, the fact that she put clean sheets on the bed. And don’t just notice it, say something.

  29. Compliment each other regularly. Let your words bring life to one another.

  30. Girls: Don’t expect him to intuitively recognize a problem. It probably won’t happen. If something is up, tell him!

  31. Forgive until you actually mean it.

  32. Guys: If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie. Girls, if he doesn’t, do it for him. This is not a hill worth dying on.

  33. Sort out the chores between you. In our house, if she cooks, he cleans.

  34. Fight fair. Stick to the present issue and do everything you can to resolve it. Don’t pick at old scabs.

  35. Don’t be afraid to reach out when you’re in over your head. The thought of marriage counseling really freaks people out. Most folks do not like the idea of airing their dirty laundry to a complete stranger. I get it, but there’s no shame in seeking professional help when you just can’t fix it.

  36. You will not always “win” the argument, and that’s okay. The point isn’t “winning or losing” in the confines of marriage; the goal is mutual understanding and respect of one another’s views. We’ve got to start viewing our spouses as partners instead of opponents. It’s not about being right, it’s about understanding each other.

  37. Don’t kick them when they’re down. We all go through seasons and have tough times. If you are choosing this relationship for a lifetime, then choose your battles and your timing wisely.

  38. Stop trying to fix your spouse. I am not my wife’s therapist, and she isn’t mine. While we play a primary role in each other’s support systems, we are not professional helpers.

  39. There is conventional wisdom that says not to go to bed angry. I disagree. Sometimes you go to bed with a hurt heart, with the full intention of waking up and talking about it once things settle down.

  40. Cry together.

  41. Know your limits. I don’t believe “When you have done all you can do, stand” is always the best advice. To the one suffering in silence, this kind of advice can feel like a death sentence. I have seen firsthand that separation or divorce can be the next right step, and can breathe peace into a family. Sometimes the best way to love and honor everyone involved is to leave.

  42. Take time for yourself. Marriage is stressful, no matter what. Sometimes it’s impossible to leave your responsibilities. In that case, find moments of quiet to enjoy something simple – a cup of tea, a few pages of a book – even within your routine. Give yourself space to breathe. It matters.

  43. Be honest. When something frustrates you, speak up. There’s nothing worse than an old sore that’s been left to fester. If something hurts your feelings, say so. Nobody wants to have to dig to find out why you’re pouting. Just follow this simple rule: tell the truth in love. It’s always the right choice.

  44. You must set clear boundaries with outsiders (yes, this includes friends and family). Your marriage–both its joys and dysfunction–is nobody’s business but your own.

  45. No more comparisons. Nobody has the perfect marriage. Let go of what you think it is supposed to be, and live in the relationship you actually have. Stop trying to have your friend’s marriage or mimic your parent’s relationship. Nobody has the magical romance they portray on Facebook, so shut that noise off.

Interested in relationship coaching? Click here.


Listen to this week’s podcast episode: Divorce is an option, but is it the best?


PRE-ORDER CATCHING YOUR BREATH

Exciting news, friends! My upcoming book, Catching Your Breath: The Sacred Journey from Chaos to Calm, is now available for pre-order on Amazon for the discounted price of only $7.99! To pre-order your copy, go to catchingyourbreath.com.

As a bonus – when you email me a picture/screenshot of your receipt, I’ll send you the Catching Your Breath Digital Swag Pack! This includes:

  • The Catching Your Breath Manifesto (printable PDF)

  • Early access to the first 2 chapters of Catching Your Breath

  • 2 bonus chapters:

    • When Your Marriage is Overwhelming

    • Leaning into Fear

  • mp3 download of “Weak Sometimes” by Devin Balram

ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY AT CATCHINGYOURBREATH.COM!

I am Steve Austin.

Whether you’re looking for a coach you can trust or a lifeline because your soul has been wounded, you’re safe here.

As you check out my site, my goal is to encourage you to do things like: silence your inner critic, cultivate a lifestyle of self-care, and recover from whatever has wounded you. Fear, shame, and guilt have permeated our culture for far too long. It’s time to be embraced by Divine love, exactly as you are.

Welcome home.

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How to Keep Your Friends from Dying

A few weeks ago, I was at lunch with friends when I mentioned in passing what a rough patch I was in. I didn’t go into detail. I didn’t belabor the point. I wasn’t looking for attention or a pity party. We were just talking about life, and I made a brief comment that went something like this, “Oh, I hear you. I’m in a pretty rough patch right now too.”

My soul was quaking more than my hands as I mustered the courage to even admit that life wasn’t perfect. I was hurting. The last thing I wanted was to be vulnerable. And yet vulnerability is the only thing that can save us when we’re drowning in a pool of our own shame.

My friend Jenn didn’t skip a beat, continuing with whatever we were talking about at the time, and then about five minutes later, returned to my comment. “Hey, I don’t want to skip over what you said about life being really hard right now. Is everything okay? Do you wanna talk about it?”

On the outside, I was being the “Steve Austin” most friends and close acquaintances know and expect me to be, smiling and laughing over lunch and a beer with friends. But the tension inside me was the stuff of crazy making. Every conversation, each song on the radio, and all of my thoughts felt triggering.

Since January, I’ve been working through some deep emotional baggage; a private issue, more than twenty years in the making. It’s felt especially tricky for me because writing is my therapy, but this isn’t a subject I’m ready to go public with yet, if ever.

I didn’t want to give details, but I did want to talk about the pressure I was feeling. I was desperate to not feel so alone. I wanted so badly to get my shame and pain out in the open. To have someone hold my fear. To be hugged and loved, to trust someone with my tears. But I could hardly push the words out past the knot in my throat.

I told Jenn that I was struggling really hard.

She said, “Let me ask you something that I hope isn’t triggering. I know you’ve worked through years of therapy after the suicide attempt. You’ve written books, you’re a speaker, you have a podcast, and you’re a life coach – but do you ever have suicidal thoughts any more?”

What a bold question.

I took a deep breath and gave myself a little time to process. What the hell did she just ask me? And am I going to answer this honestly? Holy shit. I don’t even know what to do with this.

I didn’t want to die. I didn’t feel suicidal. But I was going to be traveling for work soon after this conversation, and I know that loneliness and depression can be a toxic cocktail. I hadn’t felt this triggered in years. I was shaky scared about being alone in a hotel room for a few days because almost six years ago, I nearly died by suicide in a hotel room.

So I told my friends all of those things. And ended it with this, “I don’t want to die. I’m not in a bad place. I just don’t want to be in the middle of the emotional mess I’m in right now.”

If you’re reading this and worried about me – thank you, but don’t. I am genuinely okay now. I have processed and asked for help and let my support system know what I’m going through. I traveled out of town and had a wonderful time. My friends checked on me multiple times a day, and the trip was a great success.

I am healthy. I am strong. I have learned how to breathe again. I take my meds when I’m supposed to. I eat healthy-ish. I exercise. I talk through my issues. But I’m still human. And sometimes I’m not okay. Sometimes I still want out of the anxiety, depression, stress, or shame. Sometimes I want to run screaming from the panic attacks.

So please don’t think I took a prescription or a “magic Jesus pill” and suddenly my life was okay. It’s just not true.

A few friends and I talked about this very thing in the second episode of the CXMH podcast (click here to listen). You can have suicidal thoughts without being suicidal.

Have you ever been there? I’m no medical or mental health professional, but what I know is this: you don’t have to have an official mental health diagnosis to feel completely overwhelmed.

When depression and shame nearly killed me, nobody saw it coming. I had a great job. A beautiful wife. And my little boy’s first birthday was the day after I almost died. From the outside looking in, my life was Pinterest-perfect. But inside, I was crawling through a living hell.

My anxiety was through the roof. The “black dog” of depression made it hard to get out of bed some days. I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse when I was just a preschooler, and the PTSD, plus the panic attacks, and the porn addiction, and the shame of all those things was eating me alive from the inside out.

I had performance-based Christianity down to an art. I knew when to stand, sit, kneel, and raise my hands. (I was sort of like the Richard Simmons of Liturgical aerobics.)

I spoke the lingo. I knew the songs. Everyone thought I was on top of the world. They just didn’t see that it felt like the world was on top of me.

Just in case you think stories like mine are rare, the latest suicide rates from the CDC were just released in June, and they show a continual rise in the number of people attempting suicide and also those dying by suicide. In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise. The sad reality is that suicide doesn’t discriminate.

So what can you do?

You’re not a mental health professional. You have no training. You’ve never felt suicidal before. Can you actually do anything to support the cause of suicide prevention?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

In the real world, suicide prevention looks just like what my friend Jenn did for me: she listened. Suicide prevention begins in everyday conversations. It starts with listening to the people around you. Listen for the hurt beneath the words. Keep your heart and ears open for the hopelessness and be courageous enough to ask about it. Don’t ignore the pain of those around you.

“To me, the definition of hell is simple. It is a place where there is no understanding and no compassion. We have all been to hell. We are acquainted with hell’s heat, and we know that hell is in need of compassion. If there is compassion, then hell ceases to be hell.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh, “You are Here”

We’ve all felt weak or hurt or scared or ashamed. We’ve all been in dark places before, probably more times than we’d like to admit. But it’s part of what makes us human. Life isn’t always comfortable or easy. We need each other to survive the roller coaster of experiences we can neither predict nor control. If you want to do the transformative work of turning someone’s living hell into heaven, it all starts by listening and responding with understanding and compassion.

Looking for more help?

I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide. For a limited time, you can download my Amazon bestselling book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward, absolutely FREE. Just click here.

Resources:

  1. 8 Quick Tips for Helping Your Depressed Teen
  2. What to do When Your Child Attempts Suicide
  3. This is Why It’s Our Fault When a Child Dies by Suicide
  4. How to Keep Your Friends from Dying
  5. When Priests Condemn Suicide

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Online Chat (or call 1-800-273-8255)

*The critics have spoken. Read Zachary Houle’s editorial review of Catching Your Breath. Just click here.

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You are not the worst mistake you’ve ever made.

You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing.

— Stella Adler

When it comes to making a mistake, I can be hateful, vile, and just plain mean.

What about you?

Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why do we do it? We mess up. And maybe we royally blow it. No one is arguing that, but why do we treat ourselves worse than we’d treat our worst enemy? We’re human, and for some reason, the Divine didn’t program us for perfection; therefore, there are times we are going to screw things up royally.

We blow it. And instead of talking about the thing we did – we made a mistake – we view ourselves as the problem. Instead of calling it like it is, “I messed up.” We say, “I’m a loser.”

What an idiot.

I’m so stupid.

I’m a mistake.

I am a failure.

We give ourselves no room for mercy. We accept no imperfections or flaws. Even if we would offer someone else a second chance, we refuse it for ourselves – condemning ourselves to a sentence of self-hatred, criticism, and shame.

And for what?

Making a mistake? Being a human? Dropping the ball?

James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

Here are ten quotes that help me recenter when I make a big mistake. I hope they help you, too.

1 – “I don’t want to die without any scars.” ~Chuck Palahniuk

2 – “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place, and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” ~Rocky Balboa

3 – “If you ever start taking things too seriously, just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.” ~Joe Rogan

4 – “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” ~Lao-Tzu

5 – “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” ― Sophocles

6 – “Don’t be careful. You could hurt yourself.” ~Byron Katie

7 – “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” -God

8 – “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

9 – “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” ― Salvador Dalí

10 – “We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.” ― Steve Maraboli

Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.

Steve is also the author of the Amazon bestseller From Pastor to a Psych Ward. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children. Find him online at iamsteveaustin.com. Subscribe to Steve’s free Friday newsletter – just click here!

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God is Love. No, really.

I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are

From “This is Me” (soundtrack for The Greatest Showman)

Have you learned to be ashamed of your scars? What about your secrets? Does stigma keep you silent? Do you fear being caught in your addiction? Or shunned if they find out who you love? What if your church friends found out that you have more doubt than faith these days? How would your tribe respond if you told them you don’t vote like they do?

How many brilliant children stay quiet because of the color of their skin, believing no one would care about their dreams? How many people hide in the back pew at our churches, attacked by the black dog of depression, scared to death for anyone to know? How many hurting people feel cut down by words of hate, disapproval, and disappointment?

I bet you probably have at least one minor indiscretion from your past you’d rather not discuss. The childhood abuse you’ve never confessed to anyone. The affair. The eating disorder. The child that isn’t his. The abortion. The suicide attempt. The addiction. The breakdown. The debt. The internet history. The criminal history.

“But how could I possibly tell this one piece of my story?” I hear you.

For the first ten years of my marriage, shame and stigmas had me bound. I clung to a secret that nearly killed me. If, like me, you’re holding on to that one big secret, it is likely the source of your most significant fear: how could you be thoroughly loved if you were also fully known?

I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and I was living with anxiety and depression. I had addictions and secrets and curiosities and night terrors that I couldn’t possibly tell anyone. I thought the only way to be accepted was to hide everything. My greatest fear in the world was to disappoint one more person, so I learned the expectations, and lived up to them very well…for a while.  I knew the words to say, I could quote Scriptures like all my friends, but my inner-castle was built on the shifting sand of other people’s opinions and approval.

My secret became the most profound contributor to my shame. It started when I was just a boy and continued to build right up until the night I nearly died by suicide.  I heard the call of Jesus to “come and rest” all my life, but I was almost thirty-years-old, lying in an ICU hospital room before I realized he was serious. I had permission to be human. To admit I was weak. To ask for help. To allow the power of confession to wash over my soul.

It took nearly eleven years for me to peel back the layers of shame and secret keeping and let my wife in on my truth. Because she was willing to meet my vulnerability with grace, the power of confession has changed my life and transformed our marriage.

Being fully known. It’s not easy. I know that fear tells you that you could never be known and also loved. Guilt says they are mutually exclusive for someone like you. A woman with a past. A guy with dirt under his fingernails and cracks in his armor. Shame says there is no way you could ever be known and loved. The truth is, being known happens little by little, in ordinary conversations with people who love and respect you exactly as you are.

In Brian McLaren’s excellent book, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian, he shares a recurring message from the marquee in front of a local church he passes regularly:

“God loves everyone. No exceptions.

This is the message.

This is the Good News.

This is the Gospel.

This is it.

As I read those words, I smiled and choked back tears. In Ephesians, Paul prays that they may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…” (3:18-19)

Read: dogma, doctrine, theology – the love of God surpasses it all.

So maybe your doubts do outweigh your faith today – no biggie. Maybe you don’t have it all figured out – it’s okay! Good news: you don’t have to have it all figured out.

What if love was our entire theology? What if the goal of our lives was to live and love as much like Jesus as humanly possible? To listen to those who aren’t exactly like us? And to listen with the goal of learning – not converting or debating or convincing – listening to learn, so that we can love better? What if love was the goal?

Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…for God is love.

— 1 John 4:7-8

Love. God is love.

This is Me,” goes on to say:

Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum

I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

In the past six years, since reaching my very lowest point, I have met the real Jesus: the one who accepts me exactly as I am. And just as important, I’ve started finding my tribe. I’ve realized that my wife actually loves me for who I am, not the persona I displayed for so many years. I am finding true friends and building a support system (in real life and online) of people who celebrate me, and don’t ask for me to conform to a certain belief system or political ideology. They don’t expect me to “go with the flow” or subscribe to the status quo.

They love me for me.

No matter your history, pedigree, life choices, or the way you were born, you were created with infinite value. There room at the table for you, exactly as you are. Jesus continues to call us all to “come as you are”. You are not a mistake or an anomaly, and your life is not a matter of “moral indifference”. You are a gift from God.

You don’t have to conform to the ways of closed-minded, cold-hearted people who know nothing about your story or struggle. God has the final word, and the final word is Love.

When people say, “Confession is good for the soul,” I hear, “You better tell everybody everything you’ve ever done if you really want God and those you care about to tolerate you.” But that’s not vulnerability or intimacy; it’s the toxic voice of shame. And let’s be honest – confession is good for the soul, no matter your faith or religion. As my friend Ed Bacon said, confession is like pressing the human “reset” button – it allows us to offload whatever feels too heavy and seek solace and clarity in the safety of a trusted relationship. To be loved is to be known – one doesn’t happen without the other.

God loves everyone. No exceptions.

(Download the free printable and share it on social media this week with the hashtag #underdogswelcome)

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I Need You to Help Me See God Clearly

We are all important parts of a much larger system, pieces of the universe’s puzzle that would not be complete without us.

— Russell Eric Dobda

At my office, there is a puzzle table. Some of my co-workers spend their break time over the period of several weeks, piecing together 5,000 scattered pieces. As you can see from the image above, this one is about halfway there. The previous puzzle didn’t look as complicated for an outsider, but even though I don’t participate in the puzzle making, I love watching the picture come into focus.

Separated, each tiny part of the whole doesn’t make much sense. In this particular puzzle, one piece contains most of the little boy’s ear, another is of the tip of the dog’s nose, there are several pieces of blue from the door frame, and the busyness of the area rug. It’s exciting to find a match for a singular piece, but even two or three pieces joined together, still doesn’t reveal much of that 5,000 part masterpiece. But as I continue to work, connecting piece after piece, the big picture starts to become more clear.

Life is a lot like this puzzle.

I need you, and you need me to make it all make sense. Sometimes, when I feel stuck with a particular situation, or frustrated by my circumstances, the best thing I can do is reach out to a friend, colleague, or mentor. We head to lunch, or out for coffee, or hop on Skype for a few minutes to hash things out, and before you know it, as their perspective brushes against mine, I begin to see God and neighbor more clearly.

“I am the Vine, and you are the branches…” are famous words from Jesus. He goes on to tell us that disconnected from the Vine, and disconnected from each other, our discord will cause all sorts of problems. But if we remain connected to the Source of Life and we work hard to embrace the diversity of our unity with others, we can do anything.

When I view myself as separate from others, either because of their lifestyle, politics, or religion, I miss out on the fullness of God. But if I keep my heart and mind open, willing to learn from others and be challenged by their understanding of God, I begin to taste and see that God is good. Diversity is the spice of life. It is in the richness of our various colors and shades and flavors that God starts to come into focus.

When I look in the mirror, I see just one piece of God. My personality tends to show others a side of God that is the cheerleader, the encourager, and the Good Samaritan. While those traits are not without merit, I need more. That’s why a community is so important. Desmond Tutu said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

When I view those around me through eyes of love, I am better able to see the whole of God:

  • In my daughter, I recognize God’s whimsy.
  • In my son, I feel the refuge, safety, & gentleness of God.
  • My wife shows me the faithfulness of God – what Brennan Manning calls God’s “relentless tenderness.”
  • In my father, I witness the ways God wants to grow us.
  • In my mother, I see the way God delights in His children.
  • My friend Sue is a constant source – a deep well – of God’s wisdom.
  • In Rev. Ed Bacon, I see the table of God, where all are welcome.
  • My friend Chris shows me how God dances over us.
  • My Grandfather always embodied the mystery of God.
  • And my Grandmother lives out the Hope, which Hebrews calls “the anchor of our souls.”

Desmond Tutu went on to say, “We are, each of us, a piece of God.” Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are God’s masterpiece.” So when I feel that God is far away, unreachable, unclear, or hiding, all I need to do is connect with my neighbor. Red and yellow, black and white, straight, trans, Jew, Muslim, atheist and every other varied color of the rainbow: together, each of you helps my picture of God continue to come into focus.

*Click here for a free download of my “Pieces of a bigger picture” desktop background.


This post was inspired by a question on this week’s mailbag episode of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast. Check out episode 64 on iTunes, Spotify, or at AskSteveAustin.com today!


Only 35 spaces remain on the Launch Team for my upcoming book, #CatchingYourBreath! Members get early access to the e-book, plus a signed copy of the paperback, upon publication. Sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duGiH5

 

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A Spiritual Misfit’s Journey: Faith Like Lego’s

My little boy is a Lego-maniac. He’s only six-years-old, but he’s got a brilliant imagination and is meticulous with the details. At least once a month, his grandmother takes him to a “build night” at the local Lego store. Forthe first few months, on build nights, Ben would get a small kit and follow the instructor’s directions precisely. Eventually, he started bringing extra packages home, one of us adults would supervise and guide him as he pieced the characters, airplanes, and superheroes together. Building Lego’s with Ben reminds me a lot of my journey as a spiritual misfit.

For Christmas, I bought Ben a Lego “blockhead” (great name, right?) of the Beast from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Sitting with my son through the construction was a great chance to have some quality time with the little boy I adore so much.

At first, things were going great. My son was following the booklet, section by section, piece by piece. The longer Ben worked, I started to notice an interesting tension between his excitement over what was coming to life, and his exhaustion over not being able to follow such detailed diagrams.

But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse—and it’s doomsday to you if you do. (Matthew 18:6-7)

We were about 80% complete with building the Beast when Ben realized he’d put one piece in the wrong place. It couldn’t have been any bigger than 2cm x 2cm, but that one out-of-place Lego messed up the entire construction. If you’ve been following my blog for the past few years, you know my spiritual journey has mirrored that of little Ben and the Lego’s.

Spiritual Misfit

Eventually, Ben lost his temper and smashed his brand-new construction to bits. It wasn’t perfect, and to my son, if it’s not perfect: it’s worthless. I’ve been there, trying to jump through the hoops of manmade religion. I’ve exhausted myself, attempting to live up to every unrealistic expectation of religious leaders and armchair theologians. For a while, I became an angry Deconstructionist, too.

If you’ve had a similar experience, stubbornly seeking the approval of the institutional church, but only becoming more disenfranchised and disillusioned, I hear you. If you have more questions than answers, me too. I have been angry, frustrated, and worn out.

As a spiritual misfit, I find solace in the words of Jesus:

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. (Matthew 11:28-30)

After a while, my son calmed down and wiped his angry tears. In the process, Ben learned three lessons I hope he clings to the rest of his life:

  1. Manmade rules aren’t for everyone.
  2. Whatever has been crushed can be restored.
  3. Everyone belongs, not everything fits.

Looking for more?

Jon Scott and I had a great conversation on The Holy Heretics Podcast today. The title of the episode is “Faith…I doubt it!” If you are looking for a faith that embraces the gray areas of spirituality, listen to this podcast episode today!

Resources:

  1. Is Your Faith Water or Cement?
  2. I stopped praying months ago. Here’s what happened…
  3. Wholeness in a Time of Polarization

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