In late October 2006 I was approaching the middle of my 4th year at the University of Tennessee. Having just finished another stint as Rush Chairman of the fraternity, I had led or co-led the recruitment of every pledge class underneath me. With natural leadership gifts, Rush Chairman was a good fit. I was good at talking to people, and with the added bonus of fraternity money to throw the rush parties it was a no brainer. But by October 2006 I was spent. Worse, I was devastated, barely able to leave my room. Up to that point most people around me wouldn’t have known anything was wrong, but three years of panic anxiety had run me into the ground… a long time socialite turned recluse, on the brink of despair. The reality is that things had been heading this direction for a long time, but I was finally coming undone.
How did I get to that point? One sin at a time.
As a kid my life revolved around sports, church, and school, probably in that order. I was very involved in my youth group and a regular in the worship service on Sunday mornings. We are all sinners and I was certainly no exception, but my coaches, pastors, and teachers would have considered me a pretty good kid through middle school into early high school. That said, during middle school I began to decidedly move away from God. It was the late 90s, the internet was relatively new, and parental controls were relatively absent. My first experience with pornography was in 7th grade at age 12, and regular, almost daily involvement continued into my early 20s. It was the first addiction of many. AOL instant messenger was the primary way that my peers communicated with one another… texting before there was texting. Frequent immersion in internet pornography combined with increased opportunity for communication with the opposite sex – communication without the healthy constraint that face-to-face interaction provides – created the perfect environment for my sin to fester and flourish. Of course, in today’s world if your first brush with porn is in 7th grade, you are a late bloomer. And with smartphones and social media, we are well past inappropriate instant messages. We are facing an epidemic that, apart from God’s intervening grace, will bring devastating consequences for generations to come, the likes of which we can hardly imagine (and wouldn’t believe even if we could). Personally, what seemed to me to be a hidden and relatively small drift into sexual sin, was in reality a rushing current. Looking back, sin is like that river that almost killed me.
One of my best friends in college was a guy named Paul. Now again, I was an athlete growing up, but mostly a city boy… baseball, football, basketball, and golf. That, in additional to the occasional water sport and ski slope, was about as adventurous as it got. Paul, on the other hand, was a mountaineering nature photographer who once climbed an ice covered mountain with a team in Alaska (for a month!), then stayed an extra week (by himself!) in order to photograph grizzly bears. One day Paul asked me if I would like to learn how to white water kayak, which I assumed would be no big deal, which was dumb. In order to get our bearings we started in a section of the river that looked clear as glass, with no discernible movement whatsoever. Embarrassingly, within 5 seconds of putting out from the shore I had to learn how to eject from the kayak while underwater, because it tipped over. Then, when trying to stand up, the undercurrent – which remember, could not be seen on the surface – ripped my feet out from under me and sent me down my first rapid with no boat.
Sin is like that river. It seems safe to toy around with, but in reality it is a force that takes over and takes you places on the path of destruction that you never dreamed possible. And it does not discriminate. Sin is like cancer in that while it may start to grow in one location, it delights to spread its influence and effects all over.
It was the summer of 2003, about a month after high school graduation and a month before I was to head east from Memphis to UT Knoxville. In only a few years sin had dragged me far away from the athlete church kid of my upbringing. I had quit playing sports, except golf, because a) I didn’t have to answer to anyone else, and b) it was the only sport where I could continue to get trashed all the time and still perform somewhat decently. I hadn’t been in church much at all during the last 2 or 3 years in high school, doing what I had to do to get by in class and get into college. In the main my life was one long party, and frankly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. That said, things were about to change.
One night that summer, a friend and I were smoking weed and playing PlayStation – Tiger Woods golf I believe – a relatively low-key evening that would have normally put me home before midnight. But an acquaintance of his dropped by and asked if we wanted to help him do an 8ball of cocaine, for free. For those that don’t know, cocaine is expensive and an 8ball is quite a bit. I had been snorting coke regularly for about 6 months, so it was a no brainer. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, while driving my friend to wherever he was going, my heart felt like it drop-kicked the inner wall of my chest cavity. It immediately took my breath away to the point that I slammed on the breaks and put the car in park in the middle of one of the main streets that cuts through the middle of Memphis. I could hardly breathe, much less talk. We switched seats and my friend drove me straight to the hospital. Upon arrival, I threw myself on the check-in counter and somehow communicated that I was having a heart attack. The nurses got me back immediately and the doctor – aware that drugs were involved and not overly sympathetic to that fact – told me not to “croak” or he would have to tell my mom what I had done. For 6-8 hours I had those sticky things on my swollen chest as my heart rate was consistently above 200 beats per minute. That was the end. I was sure of it. My mom was by my side crying, but I told her she had to be strong because when she cried it made me feel even more like I was going to die. I was terrified, and not only because I was sure I was going to die, but primarily because I knew I was about to meet God and he and I were not OK.
A night like that should be enough to put you on the straight and narrow. If sin were not so powerful and so stupid, that would have been the case. It did change my life, but not in the ways you might think. Although I never did cocaine again, it didn’t slow down the party one iota. In reality, the pace only quickened when I got to college. But due to the trauma of that night I developed what they call severe anxiety disorder. So for the next three years I experienced regular, often daily, panic attacks. A clinical panic attack is a sort of out of body experience that involves symptoms very similar to those I experienced the night I overdosed… chest tightness and pain, pounding/racing/skipping heartbeat, loss of breath, and ultimately a very real sense that this is the moment I am about to die. The main difference is that a typical panic attack will usually last around a half hour, whereas the visit to the hospital was an all night affair. Even so, a panic attack is a terrible experience and I was having a whole lot of them. On the outside I was the Rush Chairman party guy, while on the inside I was living in continual chaos. Coming undone.
In the perfect providence of God, it all came to a head that Knoxville fall evening in October 2006. The constant anxiety had led me to be spending a lot more time by myself, which I never would have done entering college. That night I went to watch a couple buddies play in a flag football game. I was sober and had been that way for a few weeks. Unfortunately, the effort to clean my life up had only led to more internal chaos and more emptiness. I remember that night like it was yesterday. As I was standing by myself, trying to watch the game, it was as if the spindles of my mind were reeling, the rope fraying. I was looking out at the game but could not process what was happening in front of me. I was losing it and that was terrifying. Of the hundreds of panic attack I had experienced to that point. this was easily one of the worst. Desperate, I jumped in my truck and called the person who had been my refuge during those years of breakdown – my dad. He wouldn’t have been a fool to think I was suicidal. I was completely helpless and something had to give.
How did he respond? What happened with me?
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.Hebrews 9:27-28
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;Proverbs 1:7
fools despise wisdom and instruction.