It Started with a Plan to End My Life

Twenty-nine years ago…

It started with a plan to end my life. I had recently quit my job and needed to update my resume. My motivation level to update my resume was at zero. My motivation level was often at zero. I had no plan of what to do with my life, no degree, and few job skills beyond photography. I was good at sleeping though. I slept a lot. Some days I could not even get out of bed. Everything felt overwhelming, so I pulled the covers over my head and sank deeper into sadness and shame.

My sadness devolved into depression in a matter of weeks after moving into our new home. I puttered around the kitchen wiping counters, unpacking boxes, and putting dishes away. Every day I thought of suicide. I wanted to lay down, fall asleep, and never wake up. My shame and guilt were stuffed in a backpack that I carried everywhere. What was wrong with me? I was healthy, married, we had a new house. My life was good, but I was miserable. I hid all of this from Rob and my friends. Who could I talk to? Who would understand? So, on Saturday while my husband was gone, I made a plan to end my life.

Cathy Heller writes in her book, Don’t Keep Your Day Job, “The opposite of depression is not happiness. It’s finding a purpose.” Purpose and meaning change your life. It’s the reason Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, sold more than 35 million copies. We have been hard-wired for purpose, yet I had none in my life.

I thought getting married would bring meaning and purpose. I thought buying a house would chase away the sadness. I thought all I needed was independence or a better job to feel fulfilled. But I was still empty inside. Let me be clear that God did not wave a magic wand and remove my depression. He did not eliminate struggles and trials with the flick of a wrist. No. He simply turned me around so that I was facing the right direction. A direction filled with purpose, hope, and a more peaceful view of the world.

My parents came from large Catholic families who attended mass and sent their children to Catholic school wearing plaid skirts and black, patent leather shoes. My mother tells how she would pin up the hem of her skirt before school so that she would look like the other high school girls. Those girls were wearing miniskirts while she and my aunt wore them below the knee. Then she would let down her skirt before riding the bus home.

My parents’ attempt to be faithful to the faith was thwarted after I was born. They like to share the story of how I embarrassed my father one Sunday during mass. My mother left the sanctuary to attend to my newborn sister. I stayed in the pew with my dad. At two-years old, potty-training was still new. I tugged on my dad’s shirt sleeve to get his attention. Dad shushed me and reassured me that mom was coming back soon. Since he was not understanding my request, I stood up in the pew to meet my dad’s gaze and loudly declared, “I have to poop!” The entire congregation turned to look at us. Then, with one swoop, my dad rushed me out and we never returned. Thus, the reason I was not raised attending church.

My husband, Rob, and I married on a Saturday in September. It was warm and sunny, so we chased down the ice cream truck while I held my veil to keep it from flying away. A crowd began gathering around the truck and I noticed a gaggle of girls. They were maybe ten-years old.  The girls giggled and pointed excitedly saying, “Look, it’s Cinderella!” I marveled at their innocence and joy, and tucked it away in my heart.

Dr. Edith Eger is a Holocaust survivor and clinical psychologist. In her book, The Gift, she explains, “The opposite of depression is expression.” My ability to express myself, especially my feelings, was juvenile. In retrospect, those young girls were more capable at expressing their emotions than me. Most adults can only identify three emotions. We not only fail to identify them; we fail to express them appropriately[1].

As a young woman, I thought I was resilient, but life was just beginning. It has taken me years to learn self-expression and self-awareness. Journaling and mindfulness practices teach me to feel my feelings. Prayer and running give me a path and outlet when life is overwhelming. And counseling introduced me to the five pillars of resilience; purpose, self-awareness, mindfulness, self-care, and positive relationships. These pillars, held together by my faith, increased my resilience in life.

Faith, however, was absent in our life. We bought our first home the next June and quickly settled into married life with our dog, Annie Oakley, whom we adopted from the shelter. She was a Shepherd-Collie mix and the runt of the litter. Annie would steal my husband’s dirty socks from the hamper and hide them in her crate. She did not chew them up; she only wanted our scent in her bed.

Rob was riding rodeo at the time. I am not exactly sure how it all came about, but his brother was a bull rider and the janitor at his high school rode saddle bronc. Gene, the janitor, was a groomsman in our wedding. He took Rob under his wing as a father-figure and introduced him to bareback riding. This is all so confusing since we lived in Detroit, not on a farm. But Gene was raised in Texas which somehow explains everything, but nothing at all.

Sometimes I tagged along to the rodeos, but mostly not. I am not much of an outdoorsy type unless you count running for the ice cream truck. On the July 4th holiday weekend, Rob paid his entry dues and headed for a 3-day rodeo. You are thinking that a Netflix binge night was in order, but these were Blockbuster days. I mean the store where you rent VHS tapes. Anyway, I am not a movie buff. Instead, give me a good book, nonfiction, and some coffee. Don’t forget the snacks, then I am all set for my holiday weekend.

That weekend in 1992 seems like yesterday and a lifetime ago. I plopped on the couch sitting cross-legged with my pen and notebook. Sadness and hopelessness swirled around me like a windstorm. How do I say goodbye? What do I tell him? How does someone go from “not getting out of bed” to “I am making a plan to end my life”? I still cannot articulate what happened, but I felt I did not belong anywhere, especially here in this world.  This world, my world, was swallowed up in darkness. My pen touched the paper and I hesitated as if someone had whispered in my ear, “What if you gave God a try?”

God? What a strange thought!

Some people are raised in homes where their families talk about God daily. I cannot explain how one day I did not know God and then, the next day, I did. Rob’s brother and sister-in-law had recently found faith in God. First, they did not know God and then one day they did. Ed and Maureen started talking about God all the time. They attended church on Sundays and Wednesdays and prayed before meals. Mostly, they talked about Jesus, and then gave us a Bible for Christmas. The two of them sat on the edge of the sofa watching us open the box. I was speechless, and sheepishly hugged their necks. Then I put the Bible on our bookshelf to collect dust.

Over the next few months, I saw Ed and Maureen change. They smiled more and they were kind to one another. They invited us to church and Bible study and dinner. Bible verses and crosses now hung on their wall. “Who does that?”, I thought.  I did not understand, but it was growing on me.

So, there I was sitting on my couch several months later when I heard it. It was not audible. It was not a voice out there or a voice in my head, but it whispered, “What if you give God a try?”

On Sunday morning, I woke early to attend 8 o’clock Mass. There was a Catholic church near by where my mom attended occasionally. I slipped into a pew near the back. The smell of incense hung in the air, and I closed my eyes as the world melted away. For the next hour I was still, my breath was steady, and my heart waited for God. Was this how you did it? The hearing from God part. Is this how it works? I shifted in my seat and thumbed through the missal hoping to find a clue to my mystery.

As the priest blessed the communion elements, I remembered my days in Catechism. My grandmother’s concern for her granddaughters was wide and deep. She prayed relentlessly until she could not take it anymore. “Marlene,” she said, boldly confronting my mother, “Those girls need to make their sacraments!” And, just like that, we were enrolled at St. Alexander’s Catholic Church.

The people made their way from each pew down the aisle. My feet shuffled behind the others, and I held out my hand to receive the bread. After receiving the elements, I knelt in my pew and asked God for help. “God, take my life and fix it. Whatever you want me to do, wherever you want me to go, whatever you want me to say…I will do it. But I cannot do it myself anymore.” Almost as an afterthought, I said, “Oh, and about Jesus. I know he has something to do with you. Please help me understand.”

God showed up and made the world beautiful again. Right there. At that moment. In that place. I stepped through the doors into the parking lot and squinted from the sun. It was warm on my face and the air smelled sweet. A breeze brushed my cheek and I sighed deeply releasing my sadness and shame. I drove home in silence.

Kicking off my shoes, I puttered in the kitchen making coffee, then I pulled the Bible from the bookshelf and blew away the dust. I ran my hand over the cover tracing the gold imprint. The priest had read from one of the Gospels that morning. It was the only thing I knew about the Bible. I knew Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were about Jesus. “Let’s start with John,” I said aloud. My mother participated in a Bible study on the Gospel of John. She talked about it for weeks as if God had come alive to her on the pages. I sat on the couch and my finger ran down the Table of Contents looking for the page number. In John, chapter one, I began reading:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14, NIV)

“Wait”, I thought to myself, “Are they saying that Jesus is God? Umm, that can’t be right.”

I read it again and again. Jesus is God, but why did no one ever tell me? I was afraid to call someone. Who would I call? Maybe I wasn’t fully understanding what I read. But if I was right…if it was true…then these people touched God. They heard his voice. They looked into his eyes.  

The Light shone in the darkness that day, and the darkness did not overcome it. I clasped my hands over my mouth and started to weep. Years of sadness and despair rolled away. Everything I thought I knew turned upside down, and my soul found purpose for the first time. I started to read again, and I could not stop. I finished John’s Gospel and then I read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I read the Book of Acts and Genesis and my heart found a place to belong.

God answered my prayer that day. The one I whispered while kneeling in the pew. He showed up in the pages of the Gospel of John and set my heart free. My sadness was replaced with joy. My shame was traded for peace and hope. And my backpack was filled with new and amazing discoveries. Yet, I had no idea that God was about to take me up on my offer.

Wherever you want me to go, whatever you want me to do, whatever you want me to say…I will do it. Never would I have imagined the pastorate or church planting or podcasting. Cell phones had not even been invented. I was just trying to make it through Monday! But no one could have prepared me for the life that was about to come next.