June 23, 2019
Scripture: Psalm 13 and Luke 5:17-26
Sermon: Bob’s Story
Guest Sermonizer: Bob Agamalian
Last Sunday we heard how Pastor Eisenhauer experienced God’s presence in the places she has traveled to. My story about experiencing God’s presence is different. I had turned away from the Church for many years. I had to reach the lowest point in my life before I again felt God’s presence.
I have worked in IT for the past 26 years. I have been a Technical Project Manager for the past 22 years. The Tech Industry is ageist. Like many of my colleagues it became harder to find work as I got older. I wasn’t ready to retire. Usually, I worked on short term, contract assignments. I was always looking for the next thing. I had this determination that I was going to show “them’ that I wasn’t done. It was never entirely clear who ‘they’ were. But I was going to show them.
In 2018 I had contract work. I was approached by two men, I had worked with before, who had an idea for a start-up. The idea didn’t go anywhere but it required a lot of my time. I was also the Chair of the Communications Committee and the Secretary for the 23rd Legislative District Democrats. There was no shortage of deadline driven work in the run-up to the election.
Not everything I was doing paid but, I was keeping busy. I then add a fourth thing. I became involved with a Digital Agency that specialized in Search Engine Optimization and Internet advertising. Both of these activities involve associating descriptions and key words with websites sites for businesses rank higher in search results. The Agency also did website development. I began managing customer relationships and delivering customer projects while juggling my other activities.
I was acquainted with the principles of SEO and paid advertising but, I was not an expert. I have always had this belief in myself that, as long as I could get involved, I was a quick study and, I would figure things out. In the case of the digital agency it turned out that there more things to figure out than usual. I quickly became overwhelmed.
I knew less about running a business than I thought I did. Then there was the matter of managing relationships with existing customers and firms that referred new business into the Agency.
I was determined. I wasn’t going to give up. I convinced myself that if I just worked a little harder, I would get on top of this. Before I knew it, I was working 14-hour days six and sometimes seven days a week. The paradox in pushing yourself that hard is: the harder you push yourself, the less effective you become. New business wasn’t coming in as fast as I needed it, I struggled to maintain and foster the relationships. Before long, all I could feel was despair. I saw no path forward. I sank into a severe depression. On January 5, 2019 because of my depression I attempted to commit suicide.
I deliberately overdosed on my prescription medications. It was a cool day but, I went outside because I wanted to look at the trees while I was able. The last thought I remember having was “And now I wait”. I have no idea how long I was unconscious. The next thing I became aware of was the paramedics lifting me onto a gurney.
It was a surreal moment. How could this be happening? How is this possible? I noticed my wife Cathy and our friend Phil walking beside the gurney as it was being loaded into the ambulance. I remember Phil saying “Stay with us Bob, we’re all here for you”.
I was taken to an Emergency Room, stabilized and, eventually became conscious. Shortly afterward, I was seen buy a clinician from the Kitsap County Mental Health Department. She told me that, in her assessment, I was a danger to myself. I was given the choice of being voluntarily or involuntarily committed for in-patient treatment. If you are involuntarily committed you, essentially, surrender your civil rights. The only way you can be discharged is with the approval of an Administrative Judge. There was really little choice in the matter and, I agreed to be voluntarily committed.
I knew I would be gone at least a week. I also knew that there would be consequences for this. When you are running a service-based business, unexpectedly going dark for a week, isn’t exactly a strategic move.
Treatment consisted of individual and group therapy sessions centered around learning coping skills and techniques that we could use when we were discharged. I was also diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder Type II.
This surprisingly had a calming effect on me. It helped me understand myself better. It explained why I had reacted the way I did in certain situations. Why I was always pushing myself.
For a while, I grappled with the question “Why am I still here?”. Surely there was a reason or purpose to all of this. Eventually, I came to the realization that the reason I was still here was because, I was still here. Best not to overthink it, I concentrated on finding the strength to make my way through this day and, all the days that followed, while being the best person I could be.
I was discharged home. The consequences I imagined materialized. An intense period of negotiation began as I worked my way out of the arrangement that had turned toxic. The first realization I had was the depression had completely blinded me to all the people in my life who cared about me. The feeling I had, in my depressed state, convinced me that that I was alone and there was no one who cared.
In short order, I realized how wrong my thinking had been. I was thankful that our son Greg has a keen analytical mind. He stepped up to help with the negotiations at a time when I definitely was not at the top of my game. I was thankful that our daughter Rachel had grown to become a caring, compassionate young woman. She would text me at different times during the day to see how I was doing. Or, she would share funny memes and videos with me because she thought I would like them. Then there is my wife Cathy.
Cathy is an incredibly strong and determined woman. Granted there are days when I wish she would demonstrate her strength and determination in slightly lower doses. But I cannot imagine my life without her. One day, shortly after I was discharged, I was struggling. I asked her: How is that you have put up with me and all my nonsense for all these years? She answered “Because I love you.”
As wonderful as friends and family were, I knew that helping me put a burden on them. If I slipped back into depression would they recognize it? What if they said something that ‘set me off’? I began working to get the help I needed.
I had been referred to a program at Harborview Medical Center as I left the hospital. I contacted them and began the evaluation process for the program. It would require three separate appointments on different days. I got to the end of the process. I was told everyone agreed being in the program would be beneficial. However, they had a nine-month waiting list. Perhaps I should consider making other arrangements while I was on the waiting list? Well, Crap!
The hospital’s obligation to me ended when I was discharged. I began working with the office staff of my primary care physician to find another program. I became aware that are really few mental health resources in Kitsap County. And, there were fewer still that were willing to take a Medicare patient. At the time we were looking none of them had the capacity to take on a new patient.
After three weeks of searching I felt discouraged. Recognizing that this feeling could lead me back down the rabbit hole. I dug into my starter kit of coping mechanisms to deal with the negative emotion. I then said out loud “I have faith that I will find the help I need”. It made me stop short. When was the last time I had faith in anything?
I recognize, now, this was the beginning of me becoming aware of God’s presence in my life. It also led to the realization that God hadn’t gone anywhere. I had stopped listening. Shortly after that I got word that the Clinical Social Worker at Helpline House would see me.
She is wonderful. She has a way of asking questions that gets you to really explore your feelings. She is a highly skilled therapeutic listener. As you can imagine, lots of other people needed her services. Getting follow up appointments was a hit or miss affair. But that was O.K. I had someone I could talk to who was completely objective and, wasn’t emotionally involved. Progress!
Unknown to me, the enormous gears of UW Medicine had meshed and, ever so slowly, began to turn. A month after I started going to Helpline House, I got word that the program who had evaluated me had referred me to another program who could see me immediately.
I began seeing a psychiatry resident and was assigned a case manager. I work most closely with the case manager who is a clinical social worker. My social worker is very skilled at putting people at ease. We also discovered that we had both been in bar bands and, had other things in common.
He informed me that his specialty is Contemplative Behavioral Therapy which focuses on Mindfulness and Meditation. I honestly didn’t know what to think. I had a mental image of a group of people sitting in a circle in the Lotus position burning incense and waving crystals at one another.
I reminded myself that I had faith I would find the help I needed. The help we need does not always arrive in the form we expect. I embraced the approach and began to learn the practices.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist philosophy. This appealed to me. Years ago, I had read a book written by a Buddhist Monk titled “Living Buddha Living Christ”. It talks about how Christ and the Buddha were both powerful teachers and, the ways their teachings complement one another.
Mindfulness talks about the difference between doing and being. Most of our day is spent in doing mode. Planning ahead, concentrating on tasks. Doing mode can become a problem if we fixate on past issues we can’t resolve or, fixate on our internal critic. The goal is to train your mind to stop doing and be fully present in the moment to experience the sensations that arise from being in the moment. Sound familiar? It is a lot like what we try to achieve through prayer. I find the practice very beneficial.
During this time, I kept thinking about a song by New Orleans guitarist Anders Osborne. The song is titled “The Echoes of My Sins”. I have found the lyrics stirring. I also appreciate the way he changes the chorus between the first and second verses and the third verse where he brings the threads of the story together. After the first and second verses he sings: “As I slowly lost my way/All I could hear from deep within/Was the thunder of all of my guilt and the echoes of my sins”. After the third verse he sings: “As I slowly gave away my life/The church bells would still ring/So much louder than the thunder of my guilt and the echoes of my sins. In part, this motivated to look for a church home.
I began to visit different congregations and eventually came here. The irony was not lost on me that the subject of the first sermon I listened to was about Simon Peter who had turned away from the Lord. I sat in the pew thinking: “Wow, I wonder how she knew I would be coming”.
A couple of weeks ago I was mediating. A thought popped into my head: Everything’s different but, nothing has changed. It’s true, there is nothing fundamentally different about my life. What has changed is how I perceive and react to what’s going on in my life.
Sharing my story may have made some of you uncomfortable. It is still not easy for me to talk about this. I shared my story in the hope that, if you know someone who is struggling, there might be something I have said that, you can use to remind them that they are not alone.
I have tried to communicate my story in a way that lets you know this is a ‘we’ story not a ‘me’ story. This is a story about my experiences and what I have learned from them. But this is not a story about me. There is no way I could have arrived here without the support of the people closest to me and the help I have received. I am moving forward through God’s grace.
People have told me that they are sorry I had to go through this. I am not sorry for myself. This has been difficult and painful. But I cannot help but see the positive insights that have come from this. I am deeply sorry for the impact that my actions have had on the people closest to me. But this has allowed me to rediscover the miracle of God’s forgiveness which is there for the asking.
I am beyond grateful that I have responded the way that I have to my therapy. Mindfulness does not work for everybody. People don’t always respond positively to the medications I have been prescribed. I have met people with a similar diagnosis who are locked in a seemingly endless cycle. They are prescribed a mood stabilizer or an antidepressant only to have their therapy changed when the side effect of the drug become intolerable. I invite you to join me in praying for these people.
I do not feel that I have reached a milestone. I recognize that this is something I will work with for the rest of my life. I am at that wonderful stage in life where I have been diagnosed with other chronic diseases. This is no different. I will be challenged by other difficult situations and sadness. I will use what I have learned and know that God will be with me during those times.
This Church has a special place in all of this. When I was young, we moved frequently because of my Father’s job. I went to seven different schools between when I started Kindergarten and graduated from High School.
We tended to attend whatever Protestant Denomination was closest to the house. We were Methodists, Presbyterians and, for a time, members of a United Church of Christ Congregation. More years ago, than I care to admit, I was confirmed in the United Church of Christ. I have a sense of returning to something I never imagined I would be a part of again. We are still getting to know one another. But, know that when I come here and join you to celebrate the Service, it brings me joy.
Thank you for listening to my story. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
Postscript: “The response to my story has been heartfelt and beyond anything I could have imagined. Several people have shared their own challenges with me and, how hearing my story helped them. That was my hope, that by sharing the story, I might help someone else. This has been an incredible experience.” –Bob