Carolyn Hodill (MATS ’10) was ten years old when she first contemplated suicide. Nearly a decade of abuse, some of it pre-verbal, by a family member had transitioned to neighborhood bullying. “I became the object of entertainment: a joke, humiliated,” Carolyn says.
While at a Girl Scout Camp, Carolyn made her first attempt at suicide by trying to drown herself. A camp counselor discovered her and talked her out of the water. “My parents had no clue,” she says. “I was told I could never talk about the emotional abuse. When people do bad things and you are intimidated to the point you can’t tell anyone, that is abusive.”
USA Today reported findings from the American Medical Association indicating that depression does not necessarily lead to suicide, but that a majority of all suicides do begin with depression. Depression causes two-thirds of the 30,000 suicides reported each year, according to the AMA.
In Carolyn’s case, abuse had caused her to be hypersensitive. At home, she stayed near her father because it was safe. But she had a streak of anger that came out at school. She would explode on classmates who picked on her, even jokingly so.
Carolyn remembers, “In high school, I dated a guy who pressured me for sex. He tried to blackmail me—that if I didn’t do what he wanted, he was going to enlist in the army, go to Vietnam, get killed. He said it would be my fault. At one point, he nearly raped me. I broke up with him immediately.”
Carolyn hit the emotional bottom. “I decided to end my life. I took steps to make sure I would not be found. Nobody knew. I was sitting in my car in the middle of nowhere. I began to cry and repent, asking God to forgive me for messing everything up. Then I said, ‘Into your hands I now commit my spirit.’”
The Lord powerfully spoke to Carolyn in that moment. What she had known previously in a theological sense, having grown up in the church, she understood now experientially. At that point, she says, “I realized it was not my life to take.”
Contrary to popular misconception, suicide rates do not increase during the holidays. Analysis by the Annenberg Foundation shows that suicide rates in the United States actually spike in the spring and fall. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death among adults, and the third leading cause among youth. And still, the average number of daily suicides nationwide increased by 25% between 1999 and 2007.
For people employed in care industries, including ministry and medicine, the post-holiday season can be an emotional low point. As congregants and patients seek to recover lost joys of broken relationships and the culture promises “the most wonderful time of the year,” caregivers often serve as an emotional and spiritual anchor for those experiencing depressive tendencies. Pastors comfort. Counselors listen. Youth ministers express empathy. But care for others can result in carelessness toward one’s own spiritual condition, and one’s own physical and emotional needs.
In the wake of all these emotional demands, discouragement, despair, and even depression can set in. Carolyn reflects, “The secretiveness of suicide is a huge issue. The ones who cry out are asking for help. I wasn’t crying out for help. Those are the ones you don’t catch.”
The authors of Resilient Ministry write, “We have come to define spiritual formation as the ongoing process of maturing as a Christian. . . . It is easy to assume that pastors are always on a clear and intentional spiritual growth trajectory. After all, when was the last time you heard someone ask a pastors how they were doing in their walk with the Lord?” (Resilient Ministry, by Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie, p. 19).
The holiday season at least regularly burdens caregivers with urgent demands driven by high anxiety from undifferentiated people. Self-care quickly takes second place as a pastor and his role are conjoined. “Taking care of oneself requires conceding that we are finite human beings with limits,” Burns, Guthrie, and Chapman note.
Jesus became more to Carolyn through her dark night of the soul. She says, “Until that time I only knew Jesus as a child’s best friend. At that moment, he became more real than the problems that brought me to the place of wanting to give up on this life.” Carolyn would go on to marry, have children, and eventually attend Covenant Seminary in order to help serve her local congregation.
Carolyn and her husband Randy live in Columbia, Missouri. They have been married for 40 years, and have 4 children and 7 grandchildren. Carolyn continues an active role of ministry leadership at Christian Fellowship of Columbia, where she has worshipped for 40 years.
When Life Goes Dark: Finding Hope in the Midst of Depression, by Richard Winter
Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, by Tim Rath and Jim Harter
Ordering Your Private World, by Gordon MacDonald
Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter L. Steinke