I’m not sure when it happened.
Maybe it was taking Nancy off the ventilators and watching my friend die as a result of the drugs she just couldn’t beat. Maybe it was when Liz died. Or before she died, when she was just severely sexually assaulted and then went back to the guy who did it. Twice.
Or maybe it was when Eric was murdered in front of me, or when I visited Steve in jail after he killed another guy, or when I watched the woman I promised I would sit in the dark with die in front of me.
But I don’t know. Maybe it was when trusted employees tried to destroy what I had built, or when I got drug out of the mothballs when they needed a talking head on the anniversary of my friend Martha’s murder, or maybe it was just when I realized the big church that wouldn’t give us any money kept referring people to us.
I don’t even know when, exactly. But at some point, I burned out. I just couldn’t watch my friends die anymore. I just couldn’t keep going.
But at the time, I didn’t know that, either. In 2017, the depression came on like a wave and damn near killed me. I was just self-aware to recognize it for what it was, and I got some help. And once the fog lifted, once I wasn’t standing in the storm anymore, I realized I needed a break. It wasn’t so much self-care at that point as it was survival.
11 years. For 11 years I did that work. I was the person you called when you had no one else. Sometimes that looked like fighting the hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge you to the streets when you had no home and sometimes it looked like fighting the city that said you didn’t deserve to eat, but for 11 years, I was that guy. I was really, really good at being that guy, too.
Recently, I tried making a list of the people I loved who died in those 11 years, but they all tend to run together after a while. I know it was dozens. Sometimes they visit me in my dreams. Every winter people I loved would freeze in the woods, and we would find them after the thaw. I would legit get triggered by snow.
I taught classes on self-care, but like many before me, I was better at coaching than I was playing. It isn’t that I didn’t have good boundaries – I did, and do. I just didn’t know when to quit. I didn’t know how to stop.
In 11 years I had one vacation that lasted more than a week. The first five of those 11 years I barely made minimum wage. My wife had a heart transplant in 2015. I only took 2 days completely off work to deal with that.
It wasn’t that I was bad at my job. I was just tired. I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I had a year there where I could not sleep unaided. I would have nightmares when I was asleep, and panic attacks when I was awake.
After the fog lifted in the fall of 2017, I knew I had to leave. I had to. So, nine months later, I did.
* * *
I didn’t just need a rest. I needed to build something new. A new way to be Hugh. A way that was kinder to me. I am still learning what that looks like.
These days I am working on a new way to provide food and community to folks who need it, while allowing myself to stay just half a step back. I am pastoring a small group of people who don’t need me to survive, but who just love me because I am me. For the first time in 12 years of pastoring, I can give my home address to people I minister among.
I get tired faster than I used to. They say that will go away over time, and it is, if slowly. I still have trouble sleeping, but not as much as I used to. I have a lot of fear around money, but that has always been true. I am near my family for the first time in decades, and that feels pretty amazing. I have always been better at loving than being loved, but these days I am trying hard to learn how to do that, too.
I don’t know how to wrap this up – what destination I have arrived at after this journey. I just know that sometimes you can be really good at something, and yet that thing still almost kills you. I, unlike many folks I knew, survived. I made it out the other side. I’m older now. I am not as strong as I once was, but think maybe I am wiser than before I began.
At least I hope I am. And I can resonate, just a little, with the speaker in the poem Ulysses.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.