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Leadership and Suicide: When Ending It Seems Like The Only Way Out

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It’s so hard to write this.

Hard because it’s something that has impacted so many people and it’s so close to so many of our hearts.

As many of you have likely heard, last week Andrew Stoecklein, the pastor of Inland Hills Church, took his own life at age 30 after a battle with anxiety and depression.

I never met Andrew or his family nor have I visited his church, but, like so many of you, I’m devastated for everyone involved. His wife Kayla wrote a moving tribute on her blog, and Andrew’s death made national and international news.

That’s difficult enough, and all of us need to pray for Kayla, their boys, family and church. (And please consider giving to this GoFundMe campaign to help support Kayla and the boys.)

The other reason it’s hard to write this post is because I don’t even like to admit I was there too a number of years ago myself.

My story isn’t a long battle with anxiety and depression per se. The way I got to suicidal thoughts was through burnout. And the worst part of my burnout in the summer of 2006 was a season when I thought that ending it was the most logical and least painful way out.

You know how hard it is to talk about this stuff? I’ll tell you how hard. In my new book, I have an entire section on burnout and how to overcome it, but I only gave five paragraphs to my battle with suicidal thoughts. Honestly, I was just too terrified/embarrassed/ashamed to write more.

But today, in light of the widespread dialogue that’s emerged over around Andrew’s passing, I’m going to give it a few more paragraphs, because like many of you, I was so saddened to learn about the suicide of a leader who by every appearance had so much going well: a wife who loved him, three sons, a great church and a future.

Let me say it again before we dive into more words: Maybe you’ve thought the only way through your pain is to end your pain. It’s not.

MY STORY

This may come as a surprise to many people who follow me online, and likely to a lot of my friends and people who know me personally.

But not only did I move into full-fledged burnout in the summer of 2006, it got worse. I tell the whole burnout story in the book (it’s just so easy to get burned out these days), but here’s an excerpt from Didn’t See It Coming on my suicidal thoughts:

“My situation grew even darker than all that. Over a decade later, I still can’t believe I’m going to write this next section. Part of me doesn’t even want to admit this portion of the story is true. But it is, and I know this is an aspect of the experience far too many people can identify with.

“By late summer, I began to think the best way to get through this burnout was to not go through it. Because hope had died for me in those months, I began to wonder whether that should be my preferred option as well. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously think that suicide was the best option. If I had lost hope, was no good to anyone, couldn’t perform what I was expected to do, and was causing all kinds of pain to others (a conclusion that wasn’t coming from a place of objectivity), then perhaps the best solution was to be no more.

“By God’s grace, I’ve never owned any weapons. If I did, I shudder to think about what I might have done to myself in a weak moment. I’m not terribly coordinated or technically skilled, so I figured a kitchen knife would probably result in me doing things horribly wrong. In my mind, my preferred path was to take my speeding car into a concrete bridge support and end things that way.

“I don’t know how close I came to doing it. I’m far from an expert at determining how serious a threat like that is. Although I never undid my seat belt and never sped up far past the limit as a bridge approached, I do know the thought of ending it that way became a false friend to me, a strange and perverse source of comfort. And, in a twisted way, maybe a way of getting back at a God and a life I felt were letting me down.

“As I look back now, over a decade later, on how I felt at that time, it seems like it was someone else who struggled with those thoughts. It’s amazing how an episode like this can play with your mind, but that’s exactly what burnout does: It messes with your thinking.

“Its arena is your thought life, and burnout can be a merciless, savage beast. I’m so grateful I didn’t listen to those voices, but I share this in case you might be hearing something similar.

“Do the people you love a favor: Don’t listen. Don’t give in. Don’t give up. The negative voices are lying. That’s not who you are, and that is definitely not the solution, even though some days it can feel like it is.”

Looking back on that now, I can’t tell you how grateful I am I didn’t listen. The story in my life is so much different than I thought it would be in 2006. It’s so much better and richer and more fulfilled.

But I couldn’t see that back then.

So let me take you there and share five things that I realize now that I didn’t know then.

I hope they feel like hope and help to you.

1. It’s Difficult to Communicate How Dark It Gets.

If you talk to most people who know me well and know me personally—even the people closest to me in 2006—and asked them Does Carey struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts? their answer would be Are you kidding me? Of course not. No.

But back in ’06, I did. Big time.

Whatever your battle, you know this is true: Leaders, the way you appear on the outside is different than the way you feel on the inside.

Even the people who knew me best in ’06 have asked me, Was it really that dark?

The answer is, actually, yes.

But even though I’ve been a writer and speaker for decades, I didn’t have the right words to articulate how bad it really was, even though I’ve had hundreds of gut-honest conversations with counselors and the people who love me most.

In her letter/post to her late husband, Andrew, Kayla wrote:

“You were right all along, I truly didn’t understand the depths of your depression and anxiety. I didn’t understand how real and how relentless the spiritual attacks were. The pain, the fear, and the turmoil you must have been dealing with every single day is unimaginable.”

Her words hit me deeply.

I know for me, the reason people couldn’t have understood how I felt is because I couldn’t properly articulate how I felt. It’s not their fault they couldn’t understand. And it’s not really the depressed person’s fault they couldn’t articulate it.

For me, the darkness came as a surprise, as an unwelcome guest, then a resident. And on certain days it felt like it owned me. I felt like I was in that bad dream so many of us have that we’re being carried away and you try to scream and nothing comes out. It gets like that sometimes.

The words come easier in the rearview mirror than they do in the moment.

I just pray you hold on long enough so there’s a rearview mirror to see.

2. It’s Spiritual.

Kayla also wrote:

“The enemy knew what an amazing man you were. The enemy knew God had huge plans for your life. The enemy saw how God was using your gifts, abilities, and unique teaching style to reach thousands of lives for Him. The enemy hated it and he pursued you incessantly. Taunting you and torturing you in ways that you were unable to express to anyone.”

I don’t know what you think about spiritual warfare. I used to think it was something that happened 2000 years ago. Then I got into ministry.

Not everything is an attack by the Enemy. Sometimes you just need to take responsibility and clean up your act.

But just because everything isn’t an attack by the Enemy doesn’t mean nothing is. Sometimes you do everything you can do and battle rages. (By the way, if you’re a spiritual skeptic—welcome. And if you this is crazy talk—which you might—just study 20th-century history and ask yourself why well-intentioned humans behave the way we behave.)

This stuff is real and Kayla has articulated it well. She’s right.

There is an enemy and he hates love, he hates hope and (as hard as this is to hear) he hates you.

My wife Toni and I were under some intense attacks when I was at my lowest. It was a battle some days just to stay married and to stay in ministry and to stay alive.

Without being trivial (because this is hard to see when you’re depressed), it’s important to remember that we know how this story ends. Hope wins. Jesus wins. The Enemy is defeated, and death loses.

Satan can’t steal our salvation. But he can steal our joy. And he delights in doing it.

Just know that when it gets really dark, the only way back to hope is through the Light.

3. Your Emotions Lie.

We live in an emotional age. You and I get encouraged to listen to our feelings and to follow our emotions.

There’s one problem with that. Your emotions lie. Especially when you’re depressed, burned out and discouraged.

You do you is some of the worst life advice you can give. There have been huge swaths of my life when I sucked.

You know what’s better than your emotions? Your obedience.

For all the reasons mentioned in this article, I am not slamming people who gave into the darkness and ended their lives. This article is for the living, not the dead.

What I am saying is the best thing you can do when you’re depressed and suicidal is to do the thing you know to be true even if you don’t feel like doing it.

Burned-out, depressed people don’t think straight. I didn’t. Mental illness attacks your mind. It attacked mine.

Remember,

You are loved even when you don’t feel loved.

There is hope, even when you can’t feel hope.

You have a future, even when you can’t see your future.

I know this all personally because I felt exactly that way.

Want some good news? For many (perhaps not for all, but for many), your emotions eventually catch up to your obedience. Mine did.

So keep clinging to what you know to be true, even when you don’t feel like it.

4. You’re Most Tempted to Quit Moments Before Your Critical Breakthrough.

You know what’s hard about a low season in your life?

You have no idea what’s ahead.

I didn’t. When you’re burned out, you can’t see a better future because all you feel is the present pain.

When I was most tempted to unclick my seatbelt and drive into that wall of concrete I had no idea our marriage would grow to be as a rich as it’s grown. I had no idea that (as hard as parenting can be), I would get to have so many incredible moments with my sons. Finally, I had no idea I would finally come to some kind of peace with myself, peace with others and peace with God (it’s growing, and every day isn’t perfect, but still …)

And when I was at my lowest, I would have no idea that the next decade would include speaking around the world, writing books, blogging and podcasting for millions of leaders and reaching all the people we’ve reached here at home.

I am convinced of this: you’re most tempted to quit moments before your critical breakthrough, whatever that breakthrough looks like in your life (including something as simple as sitting on the back porch holding hands with someone you love).

You’re most tempted to quit moments before your critical breakthrough. So don’t quit.

5. The Best Thing You Can Do With the Darkness Is Bring It Into the Light.

So what do you do with the darkness you feel inside you?

Bring it into the light, that’s what.

Light dissolves darkness like love dissolves fear.

How do you bring the darkness into light? Well, for sure, pray about it. Bring it to Jesus, who is light.

But too many people stop there.

Here’s what you can (and should) do:

TELL SOMEONE

This was hard for me. It is for most leaders, especially guys. My guess is you will resist because of pride. And pride may be something that led you to burn out in the first place. Swallow your pride and tell someone safe that you have a problem.

Whatever you do, don’t keep your suspicions of burnout or suicide to yourself. Nothing good happens when you’re isolated. The way through burnout is through community.

It’s tough, but telling someone is the first step toward wellness. When you admit your problem to others, you also finally end up admitting it to yourself.

If you’re married, tell your spouse, but don’t just tell your spouse. Your pain may be too heavy a burden for your marriage alone to bear.

Reach out. Please tell a friend. Tell your doctor. Tell your counselor.

Leaders, please break the silence, before the silence breaks you.

GET HELP

Don’t just tell a friend, tell your doctor. Go to a good Christian counselor.

If you’re hurting emotionally call The Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Jarrid and Juli Wilson have been very public about Jarrid’s struggle with depression and founded Anthem of Hope. They have a live chat you can access, too.

Jarrid and I talk about his struggle with suicide and depression on Episode 162 of my Leadership Podcast.

A DEEPER CONVERSATION

Just know I’m praying for you and for every leader who’s struggling with depression and even thought for a moment about ending things.

Twelve years on the other side of my dark night of the soul, the suicidal thoughts are gone (hopefully forever) and hope again burns bright. I’ve never felt more alive, more grateful and more hopeful than I do now. Is every day awesome? Of course not. And any of my regular readers know that journey—I try to write as honestly and truthfully as I know how.

In addition to the paragraphs on my suicidal moments in Didn’t See It Coming, I do cover the subject of burnout in depth, along with six other issues people never really see coming: cynicism, pride, compromise, disconnection, irrelevance and emptiness.

It’s a gut-honest account of how those soft issues take out and take down way too many people, how to recognize them in yourself and I outline practical steps on how to thrive moving forward.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about my book here. It releases on Tuesday, September 4th. You can pre-order now.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

I hope this feels like hope and help to you.

I think this problem is far deeper than we admit, and we have to talk about it. While I was working on this post this morning, I got a random text from a friend (who didn’t know I was writing this article) telling me that two years ago he felt like killing himself. Crushed me. I love the guy.

So please break the silence before the silence breaks you.

Read more from Carey Nieuwhof »

Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church in Toronto, Canada. He’s the author of several best-selling books, including his forthcoming book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects But Everyone Experiences. This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.

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