Written and media by Joey Clinton.
I was 14 the first time I planned to commit suicide.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t a Christian (I was). It wasn’t that I had strayed away from God (I hadn’t). It wasn’t that I had done something worth killing myself over.
It was because I felt alone.
I was, like many of you reading this right now, raised in the church, came to Christ at a young age, went to Vacation Bible School, volunteered for mission trips, all that jazz. I read my Bible, I prayed to God, I tried everything in my power to feel okay, but I still hated myself. I hated the fact that I was alone—that I never felt a deep connection with anyone around me. That, while I was popular, I never really had friends. It wasn’t because people didn’t try to be my friend, but because I never felt comfortable opening up to anyone. I never opened up because, in all honesty, I didn’t quite know who I was at the time. I didn’t open up to others because I couldn’t open up to myself.
You see, what people who haven’t experienced it don’t realize is the erasing effect of mental illness. What I mean by this is that when you suffer from anxiety and/or depression, it erodes your ability to enjoy the things you once loved. All that once defined you grinds away until you’re left living in a world of grey. In my case, this began shortly before my freshman year of high school, which is normally the stage in life where you begin to discover who you are, and my mental illness prevented me from doing that. Not knowing who I was meant that I was able to be led astray by all manner of false ideas. I didn’t know my identity, so I believed my mental illness when it told me that I was unlovable. I didn’t know who I was, so when my depression told me I was worthless, I latched onto that. It ate away at everything I was and fed me lies about myself until I reached the point that I was ready to take my own life.
Luckily, God was watching out for me. He put guideposts and roadblocks into my life that gave me pause when considering suicide—people who mentored me, and songs that encouraged me. I had a family that supported me, a church that loved me, and my music and books to escape to. It didn’t magically fix everything, but it slowed me down enough that my parents were able to find out about my plans and get me the help I needed.
I got help, I got better, but not fully. I was still somewhat miserable, but I dealt with that through avoidance. My anxiety triggered the fight-or-flight response, and I desperately craved flight. I read book after book of characters flying away, finally feeling free from the pain that they felt. I told myself that I’ll be happy one day, I just have to fly away from this place. I begged and pleaded with God for an opportunity to soar on wings like eagles.
Fast forward to starting college at Purdue University. I make it there and it feels like I’m finally flying. I’m still trying to figure out who I am, and at Purdue, I start to get an answer. I make some of the best friends I’ve ever had within just the first few weeks. I feel unambiguously happy for the first time since I was a kid. I manage my anxiety levels so well that I’m able to stop taking my anxiety medication. I exist in a world of technology and software and friendship and parties and robots, and it fills my electric heart with joy.
It wasn’t a mass shooting, there was only one fatality (as if that somehow makes it any better). All I know is that when the time came, I wasn’t some heroic beacon of strength standing up to save people’s lives. I wasn’t the person I always thought I’d be in a disaster. I was afraid. I wasn’t standing up as a hero, I was hiding in a classroom, sobbing into the pages of a Bible, saying goodbye to my mom on the phone, fully believing that those would be my last words to my family this side of eternity.
My anxiety came back in full force. Don’t misunderstand, I was still happy. I was just suddenly scared of losing that happiness. It was the first time I ever felt like I had something to lose. To clarify, that’s not a knock against my family or my little hometown in Illinois, it’s just that this was the first time that I had ever made real connections without the cloud of depression hanging over the entire relationship.
The semester ended. Due to the fact that I couldn’t be in a classroom without having a panic attack, I failed one of my classes. I went home. I never returned to Purdue University. This is where the darkest period of my life began.
In part two, I’ll show you how God shined all the brighter through my darkest moments.