April 16, 2017

The Last Blog

By Jack Smith
God must have a sense of humor.
He sent a red bird, of all things, to save my life. You’d have to be an Auburn man to understand the irony.
I was stretched out on a sofa in a modest apartment at Skyland Trail in Atlanta, watching some inane daytime TV show, the kind people who don’t have careers like I had get to watch. It had been another long day of mindfulness meditations, music therapy and memory exercises.This routine had become my life.
Facing divorce and a future that was uncertain at best, I had been miserable my first month at the world-class treatment center. But I was beginning to feel a little better. The fighter in me was making a comeback.
Despite my progress, I was still tired and frustrated. I was a zombie in a pharmaceutical fog most of the day, worn down from shock treatments that rebooted my brain but left me with black holes in my memory. My spirit had been choked out of me by the heavy albatross of guilt from a second suicide attempt that cost me everything except the one thing I had hoped to lose. My life.
I was growing impatient with the side effects from the meds, which made my hands shake more than usual. Taking handfuls of lithium, mood stabilizers and antidepressants does that to some people. For patients like me with a familial tremor, it can be a nightmare. Some tasks are difficult; others are humiliating.

The worst part of it all? The color of life had faded away.
And then he appeared. A beautiful cardinal landed on a tree just outside my window. It was a proud male with a strong beak and determined eyes behind his black mask. His crest was the most beautiful scarlet color I had ever seen.
It was as if someone changed the television from black and white to the most vivid color imaginable. After a long visit, the cardinal finally flew away. In the days that followed, I stared out the window hoping to see him again. The tranquil grounds outside our apartments were alive with the colors and sounds of spring. And they suddenly looked different.
I had never noticed how beautiful the pink azaleas, white dogwoods and yellow flowers that reminded me of home really were.The cardinal came back the next day and the day after that. I shared this story with my counselor, and she told me to never forget that moment.
“Why?,” I asked her.
“Because that’s the moment you saw color again for the first time in a long time,” she said. “Maybe that cardinal was a sign for you, Jack.”
Nearly three years later, I still believe the cardinal was no coincidence. God sent him to help me keep hope alive. It was a sign: If I kept trusting Him, I would be okay.
Inspired by my fellow patients and encouraged by the amazing staff at Skyland Trail, I kept getting better. The fog of depression finally began to lift with the help of changing meds and therapy, but it took more than the right cocktail of drugs. It took the fighting spirit deep in my bones that had been dormant for too damn long.
Slowly but surely, the warrior inside of me made a comeback. I had been flat on my face on the mat when I arrived at Skyland Trail, pummeled by a cruel disease and crushed by the painful realities I faced after my discharge.
In the early weeks of treatment, it seemed like life could not get any worse. Then one day, I made a decision. I was determined to get up off the mat, knowing the menacing heavyweight would be there waiting for me to pull myself up by the ropes, daring me to stay in the ring.

That’s what millions of people fighting depression and serious mental illness face every day. Major Depressive Disorder is like a boxer who never tires. It often slips out of the shadows and sneaks up behind you, starting with a sucker punch to the kidneys.
Left untreated, depression can beat the life out of you. And it hurts. Mentally, physically and emotionally. My heart breaks every time I talk to someone who is suffering. Depressed fathers who feel they have failed and fear telling anyone they are struggling. Anxious wives who believe they are somehow failing their husbands and their children. Struggling teenagers and college students overcome with angst and stress. I’ve met them all.
I’ve learned a lot about pain and suffering from my own experiences and from those who’ve been brave enough to share their stories with me. I’m grateful to God for them and the lessons suffering has taught me. Suffering brought me closer to the cross. For that reason alone, I would not change anything about my journey.
Suffering and the perseverance that came from it taught me another critical lesson: The pain of depression is only temporary. If you hold on long enough, the storms we all face eventually give way to sunshine.
Surviving those dark days helped me realize the battle will be won, either in this life or the next.
It also taught me nothing is more hurtful than losing hope. Hopelessness leaves us empty inside. It sucks the marrow of life right out of our bones. It takes away our God-given urge to fight that lies deep within us all.
I recently read “Wild at Heart,” a book by John Eldredge, for the second time. I would highly recommend it to any man who feels lost or weak or bored by life. The author poses the central question all men face: “Am I really a man? Have I got what it takes when it counts?” Reading the book again reminded me the fighting spirit I possess was put there by God. He designed me to be more than a nice guy who skates through a dull existence, avoiding risks while fearing danger.
He created me to come through when it counts, even though there are times when I struggle and falter and wonder why it has to be so hard. As Eldredge writes, He created hearts full of passion and a lust for adventure in us all. The hard part is embracing who we were created to be.
I’m still on that journey. I still fall down from time to time, but fear seldom stops me from taking risks or choosing to fight when the battle is on.
I fight because that’s who God made me to be. He gave all of us the strength and capacity to be warriors. Read the book of Ephesians. He promised us if we suit up in the Armor of God every day, we can win any battle we face, no matter how long the odds.
I have a medallion I cherish and a semicolon tattooed on my left ankle. I got the tattoo on my 45th birthday. It was a promise I made to myself—even though I knew my mother would not like it.
The medallion I carried in my pocket is engraved with a warrior suited up in armor given to him by God. The inscription includes the powerful words from Ephesians that strengthen me when my spirit grows weary. It reminds me I’m a warrior when I have God on my side. It was given to me by a good friend who has helped me time and again.
Yes, there are days I still get knocked down. But most of the time, I no longer try and pick myself up off the mat by myself. I rely on my faith, family, friends and the fighter deep within me.
And about that semicolon tattoo. It means my story isn’t over. There is more to come, maybe the best part. If you or a loved one suffering from mental illness is losing hope, don’t despair. Ask God to help you through it not one day but one hour at a time. He will provide the strength you need.
Remember “The Shawshank Redemption?” It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. Do you recall what Red says to Andy in the prison yard? “Hope,” he says while pulling a toothpick from his mouth and pointing it at his friend, “is a dangerous thing.”
I don’t agree. Hope is all we have when the ox is in the ditch and there is no one there to help us pull it out.
Let me tell you the part Hollywood doesn’t like to talk about. Without faith, there can be no hope. My faith saved me from despair. I believe with all my heart God sent that cardinal to perch on the tree just outside my window.
I’ve seen hundreds of cardinals since, and they always remind me to never lose hope again. I could tell you countless amazing stories about times I’ve seen cardinals when I needed a nudge to keep moving, a spark to keep the fire in my heart burning. Several prayer warriors close to me can tell you stories about cardinals they saw while they were praying for me or wondering how I was doing.

Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and other forms of mental illness are medical conditions just like cancer or diabetes. So please hear and understand this point.
Faith alone is not sufficient to treat mental illness. I’m still troubled by surveys showing half of all Christian pastors don’t believe it is a sickness. They apparently think if we just pray hard enough, we don’t need doctors or real medicine.
I’m not sure what they actually believe, but I know the church needs to wake up and care for the countless people in their own pews suffering in silence. I can tell you that from experience.
I pray that all those who may be suffering and wondering why they can’t get better without help will know and remember this: Mental illness is not weakness. It is sickness. And it requires proper medical and therapeutic treatment.
So please, if you are hurting, get help. Take the hardest step—the first one— by telling a friend or loved one. It will make you feel better.
While I’m retiring this blog, my humble efforts to try and help people will never end. This blog has been a blessing and a burden, but I’ve met or talked to countless people who need a little help. And a lot of hope. I just wish I had more time to be there for those who need it.
Those who courageously reached out to me as a result of the blog have helped me more than they will ever know. That’s what happens when we share our stories with people who can really understand them—those who have walked in the heavy shoes of misery.
I still believe what I’ve written before. Secrets lose the power to hurt us when we drag them into the light. That is why we must fight stigma until it no longer exists. We need to continue the progress made toward a less judgmental and more compassionate culture.
On a chilly morning not long ago, I was enjoying a fresh cup of coffee on my back porch. The mug warmed my hands while I sat quietly and listened to the birds. The red wind chimes hanging from above tinkled as a light wind whispered through the naked trees, the pale yellow sun rising in the distance.
I paid $5 for those wind chimes at Dollar General, but they are priceless to me. The wind chimes were not an impulse purchase like some of the random items I often bring home from my favorite discount store.
I love Dollar General. Shopping there makes me feel like a regular person just trying to make it in the world like everyone else pushing around buggies weighed down by so much more than groceries. I often wonder about their stories.
Seeing the wind chimes I wasn’t looking for was not a random occurrence. It was a sign from God. You see, the first one hanging on the rack had a red cardinal made of cheap stained glass perched on top of the chimes. Some might say it’s tacky. I say it has eternal value.
Now every time the wind blows, I remember what may be the most important moment of my life. I remember what the cardinal means to me. Hope. Hope for peace and happiness. Hope for lasting love and an abundant life. Those dreams have begun to become true in my life. That is a miracle.
I’ve fought enough battles to know every day won’t be easy. When I started this blog, I wasn’t sure what to name it. I settled on “One Man’s War.” I had it half right. It is a war. It will never fully go away. But I no longer fight it alone.
I will win it one way or the other, because like Roman soldiers who hooked their shields together for battle, I now fight it with the help of others. And an Almighty and Everlasting God who will never forsake me.
I took another sip of coffee and drank in the beauty of that winter morning, knowing spring will soon arrive. The rich Arabica blend with a touch of sweet cream made me think.
This is what victory tastes like. Thanks be to God.