Struggling in the Spotlight: In Memory of Amy Bleuel
All of us have struggles. For those who are growing a ministry, creating a brand, building a platform, or hoping to reach more people with a specific message, it is hard to know how to handle personal challenges. There’s a very real need to protect the work you are doing. We offer our stories as a way to help others, and each time we make a personal mistake, throwing in the towel becomes a legitimate consideration.
At least that’s been my experience. As one working through my own recovery from addiction and a suicide attempt while also writing and sharing hope with others, I get it. I am trying to raise healthy and whole children, while consistently engaging and romancing my wife, and also using my experience to help someone else. This is no easy task.
The struggle with anyone who chooses a more public life is that the fishbowl concept consistently comes into play. People stand around to watch you swim. The thing is, most folks don’t know enough about fish to know if they are swimming or drowning until the fish is floating at the top of the bowl.
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I’ve never seen this struggle more than during my years in traditional ministry. As a pastor, everything you do has the potential of being scrutinized by everyone you know. There are those who want to hold you accountable and there are those who long to see you (and the Church universal) crumble. I remember the nights of driving home after a difficult interaction with a parishioner, wondering why I kept trying. It has been said that Christians are the only “army” that shoot their own wounded. And sadly, I’ve seen that too.
Yet the fishbowl struggle is often a blessing. It keeps you vulnerable and humble. Reminders of your humanity allow you to connect with others in the midst of a brokenness you completely understand; however, it is also the scariest part of the job. Knowing that you have the potential to break the very thing you love causes anxiety most folks outside of the fishbowl cannot understand.
I’m okay with people seeing Steve Austin, the sign language interpreter who left work early last week because of a panic attack. My fear is that people will believe that because I share redemption stories, they will believe I no longer struggle anymore.
Friends, I still struggle.
Even though I am in the best mental health of my life, following my suicide attempt in 2012, there have still been a few times when I've wanted to just disappear. Mental health is that way - irrational and unfair at times. And even though I have all the tips and tricks and a great support system, when those thoughts creep in, I feel like a failure. I haven't quit. I choose to keep living. But the temptation itself feels like failure.
The fear of being seen, of truly being known, is a universal one. Mine is not gone. If people know I still struggle, will they continue to take the redemption stories I share seriously?
Brene’ Brown would say we fear not being enough. I fear both that I can’t offer hope to enough people, and that my honesty will sacrifice the hope I’m offering. Multiple times on a Sunday morning, people come to me and say “thank you” and begin to share portions of their story. There’s no greater honor and at the same time, I want to scream, “I am jacked up! I have more issues than you! It’s just an online journal! I have no idea what I am doing! I’m barely saved!”
What shame whispers, I want to shout.
The power of vulnerability is life-changing. To have the boldness to say, “Just because I didn’t give up last time, doesn’t mean I am no longer tempted,” gives each of us space to mourn and grow. We can have really good days, reaching other people, engaging at speaking events, or reading emails from people who have been moved by our stories. Those joys are very real. But even in our best moments, struggles leave anyone in the fishbowl feeling fragile and, often, alone. All it takes is one negative word, one trigger, to send us spiraling again, drowning in the very thing we so carefully and lovingly created.
No matter how successful you may be, all of us struggle. On my best day, anxiety still has the chance to kick my ass. If I said anything different, I would be lying. The spotlight doesn’t erase struggles. And really, isn’t that a great relief? Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane shed literal drops of blood. Even our Savior, in his most significant hour, struggled under the pressure, feeling crushed like an olive into oil.
But you aren’t Jesus. Nothing matters more than you-- who you are at your core --apart from your title, success, brand, organization, ministry, or any other ways you have devoted your energy. No matter how many likes, follows, or shares you get on social media, everyone needs hope.
If you're in ministry, running an organization, or building a platform - you have an even greater responsibility to take care of yourself. Instead of fearing what might happen to your brand or reputation, show yourself some of that same kindness you show others and ask for help. In showing others that we all need help, you could save more than just your own life.
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Amy and I had some intense, brutally honest conversations for a period of about three months in 2016. Whoever said "it's lonely at the top" knew exactly what they were talking about. It's why my friend Robert Vore says that loneliness is like kryptonite for the person with a mental illness.
I lost my friendship with Amy Bleuel because I refused to tell her anything but the truth regarding mental health, but I don't regret it. It's human to think, "I wish I could have done more," but the truth is that I did everything I possibly could to help my beautiful, wounded friend.
Rest in peace now, Amy. We will miss you, but your story will live on.
Struggling in silence produces unthinkable pain. But you don't have to struggle alone.
If you're in a dark place, start by contacting the Suicide Prevention Lifeline right now at 1-800-273-8255.
Get your FREE copy of my book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward: Recovery from a Suicide Attempt is Possible. Just click here.