My children are fortunate to have a grandmother who is a fantastic swim instructor. Ben and Cara have been swimming since they were in diapers. At seven and four, respectively, they’re like little fish these days. But sometimes little fish become overzealous.
This mainly happens with Ben, but when one of my kids gets a little too sure of themselves, I have to step in and remind them that it’s okay to slow down. In the big picture, swimming is still a relatively new task, and sometimes my children have to swim to the ladder or hold onto the edge of the pool until they catch their breath.
I know Jesus faced the darkness in Gethsemane and chose to face it head-on. But I’m not Jesus. I wasn’t trying to stay. I wasn’t a hero. I was running away.
When I woke up in an ICU hospital room six years ago, I hadn’t died. I was still here. Mad as hell. Confused. Frustrated. Humiliated. Scared shitless. Shame had me paralyzed. Fear was swirling all around me. I had been catastrophizing all the worst-case scenarios, and I didn’t think I could possibly live through them.
When I woke up in that hospital room, it wasn’t a hero lying there. I just didn’t die.
And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I had researched, and I was ready (read: desperate) to die. For years, I hadn’t been slowing down to breathe. I was pushing forward, not realizing I had permission to stop and hold onto the ladder for a while. The word “rest” wasn’t in my vocabulary.
I threw my black leather belt over the metal rod in the hotel room and thought it would be lights out pretty quickly. One article I read said I’d be unconscious within about 15 seconds. I know that’s a pretty graphic detail, and I as much as I want to apologize, I want to be extremely clear that my waking up on September 21st wasn’t a choice. I didn’t choose to live until much later.
When the metal bar came crashing down, I had to resort to Plan B. This meant spending the time to cut and crush tens of thousands of milligrams of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. To try and end my pain, I stirred that deadly powder into my coffee, hoping it would hit my system as quickly as possible.
I didn’t choose to live on September 21st, I just didn’t die.
I’m not sure how much time passed between “not dying” and “choosing to live,” but it wasn’t overnight. Shame had a stranglehold on my mind, and even after the doctor released me from the psych ward, I was still living in my own hellish prison. Shame was the warden, Fear and Guilt were the prison guards, and my cell mate’s name was Depression.
Choosing to live came after months of individual therapy, plus marriage counseling. It was only after entirely starting over and learning to tell the truth for the first time in my life that I was able to choose to live. The choice to live included taking naps, eating right, setting boundaries, refusing to put work before my health and my closest relationships. Living, rather than not dying, meant I had to reconsider everything I previously believed about a God of vengeance and fear. To fully live, I had to scrape away all the death and decay and learn to see myself as God’s beloved.
There’s a big difference between not dying and choosing to live.
At some point, we’ve all been so busy holding our breath, trying to “just keep swimming.” Like my kids in the swimming pool, it’s normal to feel so excited to be breathing on your own for the first time. But it’s incredibly easy to slip back into old patterns and forget to do the one thing you were just so desperate to do: breathe. Once you choose to start living, you have to remember to take it easy. Living ain’t always easy.
When I was 29 years old, I became acutely aware of what it felt like to hold my breath so long that the pain and shame felt like drowning. After such a traumatic experience, choosing to live initially started with one breath at a time, then the choice became hourly, then daily.
Choosing to live is a fight at first. Even now, six years after the worst day of my life, there are days when 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 or come down off the cross and just be.
Because my nature is to perform and continuously hustle for my worthiness, I need constant reminders to slow down 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 hold onto the ladder and choose to live today.
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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 Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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