Five years ago, I was sitting at the pool, trying to read. Some kids were laughing in the water, others were crying, and some were eating Goldfish crackers. My three boys were engaged in a full-on water gun war offensive. The kiddie pool can be a violent place; when you’re seven, you squirt kids in the eyes to gain ground. That’s how it works. Good dads happily take their kids to the pool in June, and I showed up, but I was not doing well.
It wasn’t the smell of musty chlorine, mildewed towels, or the sight of the whistle-happy lifeguard perched on his tower. I confronted him that summer about his petty rules, and for the record, nothing was found in The Book about “launching your own child into the deep end.” Apparently, lifeguards make their own laws these days.
In the bright sun, at the Westside YMCA, my heart was screaming with pain and fear. I was thirty-four, struggling as a dad, husband, pastor, provider, and friend. A previous decade of tense church-planting and full-time ministry had taken a toll on me. There was a lot of pressure to get everything right and grow the church, and it seemed like there was always more to do. Also, I felt the need to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Like I had it all together. Like I wasn’t tired. I was in fifth gear for too long, broken-down on the side of the road, my engine smoking with no oil.
I have known seasonal depression in February, but we were swimming smack-dab in the middle of summer! I was attempting to pray and coach myself with Scripture, yet I still felt paralyzed. A decade of endless strategy meetings, one-way discipleship appointments, lonely prayer times, and perfectionistic sermon writing had left me numb. I loved having coffee with college students and going on ministry retreats, but doubt was knocking down my door. My joy was smudged out with dread. I wasn’t diagnosed with a depressive disorder, but on that particular day, at the pool, I could not ignore my dangerously tired soul anymore.
And it was then that recovery began.
I never thought I’d go back to college, but with a speck of faith, and new tires on my car, I decided to commute to grad school. I drove weekly from Knoxville to Chattanooga to pursue a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. Having experienced counseling myself, both for strained relationships and for how being a pastor affected my marriage, I wanted to give that help to others. It has been a very long journey. I’ve had to put selfish dreams to rest, acknowledge my own limitations, and reimagine how to use my strengths. Full-time ministry was incredibly difficult. It was easy to make Kingdom work my identity and forget who I was. Unhealthy boundaries were common. I felt extremely alone in a sea of church people who treated me like “the pastor” because I was.
While working all this out at school, deep grief smeared the ink in my journal. There was so much loss. It’s scary as hell when life pivots so drastically. At times I didn’t even know how I would survive the transition, sacrificing sleep, money, and so much time with my family. Stress makes most of us edgy. I confess, once or twice (okay, four times), I flipped off a few rude drivers tailgating me at ninety. Other days, I would drive in silence and cry my way to school.
In the end, I had to listen to the Holy Spirit, good friends, and my own emotions. The unrealistic expectations of my minister job were deeply sown into my skin. I had to rip out the unhealthy pastor persona stitch after stitch and find myself underneath.
The old is fading, and the new is growing.
I continue to learn. I’ve found it’s important to hold all plans with a loose grip, allow yourself to feel negative emotions, speak up when things aren’t right, and hold on tight to safe and trustworthy friends no matter what. I do mad libs with my family now; I enjoy Saturday nights again. Also, I found that good friends are not contingent on the church one attends. The main lesson I learned, however, is that I’m Jarrod. Maybe it’s both elementary and profound. My worth, though, is not connected to my achievements or failings. In truth, all my strengths and weaknesses are secondary to what God says about me. I’m His.
Today, when I meet people for the first time, I say, “Hi, my name is Jarrod, and I do the work of a counselor.” When I put my name first and what I do second, it helps me keep things in perspective. It is an honor, now, to sit with people in their pain, stress, and relational turmoil. Therapy is often about a slow metamorphosis. I am thankful the Spirit allows me to use my own journey to help others who are wrestling with crises of their own.