So how are you doing, really?

It’s a question I ask friends, leaders, family and myself more and more.

Last week, once again, we learned about a mega-church pastor who appears to have taken his own life. Although I didn’t know Darrin Patrick personally, my heart aches for him, his wife and children and the many friends who knew him well that I also know.

I can’t imagine the pain that those who knew Darrin well are going through, and my prayers and heart go up for them and out to them.

And as you probably know, tragically, we’ve seen a number of suicides of well-known and well-loved pastors, many of them really young, in the last few years.

I saw many people who knew Darrin talk about having just spoken with him recently, texting and emailing days before he died.

It often seems that leaders don’t show immediate signals about how deep their struggle really is.

I’m familiar with the dark struggle of leadership.

The struggle, obviously, doesn’t always end in suicide, but it does often end in discouragement, defeat and even quitting leadership because of the pressure.

So in this post, I’ll take you into some of my own struggles and share 5 things that I realize today that I didn’t always know about leadership. These insights have helped me sort through what I’m feeling and experiencing and helped me discern where the next path might be.

Whether you’re struggling with suicide, or if you’re just feeling isolated, unheard or misunderstood in leadership, I hope this post helps.

If you have the most remote question in your mind about your will to live, or if you are suicidal, please stop reading this post and call 911 or, in the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line (in Canada call 1.833.456.4566.)

Although I don’t regularly struggle with depression (I did suffer a deep bout of it in 2006), and I’m not a counselor, I do know the daily struggle of leadership. I can empathize with how dark it feels sometimes.

And that’s our common connection point. Almost any leader knows the deep struggle of leadership. You don’t have to be in it long to know how dark or difficult it can get.

I hope this post feels like hope and help to you.

MY OWN SUICIDAL SEASON

Although I write about leadership all the time, it’s difficult for me to write about leadership and suicide, in part because it’s a desperately complex subject, and in part because I don’t even like to admit I was there a number of years ago myself.

The way I got to my suicidal season was through burnout. And the worst part of my burnout in the summer of 2006 was a season when I thought that ending it was the most logical and least painful way out.

Let me say it again before we dive into more words and my attempt at some insights: maybe you think the only way through your pain is to end it. It’s not.

In my last book, I have an entire section on burnout and how to overcome it, but I only gave five paragraphs to my battle with suicidal thoughts.

Honestly, I was just too terrified/embarrassed/ashamed to write more.

The fact that I entertained thoughts about ending my life still comes as a surprise to many people who follow me online, and to some of my friends and people who know me personally. It’s just so hard to talk about.

But it happened.

I tell the whole burnout story in my book  Didn’t See It Coming, and here’s an excerpt from the book about my own personal suicidal season:

My situation grew even darker than all that. Over a decade later, I still can’t believe I’m going to write this next section. Part of me doesn’t even want to admit this portion of the story is true. But it is, and I know this is an aspect of the experience far too many people can identify with.
By late summer, I began to think the best way to get through this burnout was to not go through it. Because hope had died for me in those months, I began to wonder whether that should be my preferred option as well.

For the first time in my life, I began to seriously think that suicide was the best option. If I had lost hope, was no good to anyone, couldn’t perform what I was expected to do, and was causing all kinds of pain to others (a conclusion that wasn’t coming from a place of objectivity), then perhaps the best solution was to be no more.

By God’s grace, I’ve never owned any weapons. If I did, I shudder to think about what I might have done to myself in a weak moment. I’m not terribly coordinated or technically skilled, so I figured a kitchen knife would probably result in me doing things horribly wrong. In my mind, my preferred path was to take my speeding car into a concrete bridge support and end things that way.

I don’t know how close I came to doing it. I’m far from an expert at determining how serious a threat like that is. Although I never undid my seat belt and never sped up far past the limit as a bridge approached, I do know the thought of ending it that way became a false friend to me, a strange and perverse source of comfort. And, in a twisted way, maybe a way of getting back at a God and a life I felt were letting me down.

As I look back now, over a decade later, on how I felt at that time, it seems like it was someone else who struggled with those thoughts. It’s amazing how an episode like this can play with your mind, but that’s exactly what burnout does: it messes with your thinking.

Its arena is your thought life, and burnout can be a merciless, savage beast. I’m so grateful I didn’t listen to those voices, but I share this in case you might be hearing something similar.

Do the people you love a favor: Don’t listen. Don’t give in. Don’t give up. The negative voices are lying. That’s not who you are, and that is definitely not the solution, even though some days it can feel like it is.

Looking back on that now, there’s still so much shame and stigma mixed with gratitude that I didn’t listen to the voices in my head that were telling me the only way out was out.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am I didn’t listen.

For the rest of the post…