And not to yield.

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.


When your routine is off.

I am a creature of routine. This shocks people, but it’s true.
I wear the same four shirts over and over. I have two pairs of pants I wear almost every day, unless I wear shorts that day, when I will wear one of two pairs, or if I have to dress up, in which case I wear that nicer pair of pants I own. I alternate between two pairs of shoes, no matter the clothes I have on.
I drink my coffee from the same mug nearly every morning, wake up at the same time nearly every morning, eat one of three things for breakfast, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to quote the king.
Flaubert said to “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I like that a lot.
But sometimes things throw the routine off. Like right now, Renee is out of town to visit her family, so three cats and I are living the bachelor life here in this tiny apartment.
Which is fine – I lived by myself for a long time before I got married, and I do all the cooking anyway, and while I struggled a bit with wondering what sort of cat food we buy for the cats and where we keep the trash bags, I am doing fine.
Except that the routine is off, and things fall through the cracks, all of which makes me feel mega uncomfortable, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes.
So this morning when I woke up feeling off, I just put it down to the routine and the changes and got up to make my coffee the same way I do every morning. And in making the coffee I moved something on the counter and saw my pillbox – the one with the daily little boxes for each day of the week that I use to track the medication that keeps my depression at bay – and that it was amazingly full.
It seems I had not taken a single pill since Monday morning. In other words, I missed three doses. No wonder I am off.
Before you ask – I’m fine, and in a good place and not really depressed, just off – again, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes. But it does feel a bit disorienting. It’s the most doses I have missed in a year.
But one side effect of all of the mess that is my head – the ADHD, the chronic depression, the learning disabilities I have and all of that – is that you tend to blame yourself when things like this happen. Instead of thinking, “Of course you are disoriented – your life is a bit chaotic right now”, which is what my counsel would be to anyone else in this situation, you tend to see it as a personal failing. Like you don’t want to be healthy enough, or you are not trying hard enough, or maybe you just are not enough.
All of that to say, I cannot wait for my wife to return. I cannot wait to move into our permanent home, and I cannot wait to have a regular routine again. For me, it really is a matter of life or death.