Mental Health and the Consequences of Quarantine – by Dr. Mark Jones LMFT

A special ‘Thank You’ to my guest blogger and friend Dr. Mark Jones for allowing me to share this much needed and crucial insight during this critical time. For more information about Dr. Jones and his vital work, visit the links provided at the bottom of this article – Matthew Mattera

The Cascade Effects

Since the implementation of the numerous COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and quarantine measures, couples and families are having increased stress and more conflicts. Before COVID-19, families could avoid each other by going to work and staying busy. Now due to this global pandemic, we’ve been forced into near-constant interaction and confined in very close proximity to one another over an extended period. During this season of close quarters quarantine, many people have seen suppressed hurts and resentments being activated subconsciously and then openly exposed in the form of anger, hostility, and aggression.

With this exposure of hidden wounds and hurt, basic human behavioral reactions begin to take over, often resulting in family members, who, due to pandemic induced quarantine and confinement, often transfer their previously concealed state of woundedness – an amalgamation of what is called Past-tense Woundings – onto each other. The irony is that these people don’t necessarily have to be cognitively aware that they have suppressed anger for it to be nested inside their subconscious mind. Alongside the deep-seated and long-concealed anger are the accompaniment of other toxic feelings that have also been buried for a long time; resentment, bitterness, unforgiveness, frustrations, hate, fears, and other negative emotions. 

Past Trauma – Present Struggle

When triggered, these emotions will almost always manifest in some form of aggressive behavior – both active and passive. This is why now, more than ever before, during this season of confinement and quarantine, family violence, domestic disputes, and child abuse are dramatically on the rise. When a person is pressurized with these ongoing and recurring stressful scenarios, their Past-tense Woundings and history of traumas, which through the years been encoded in their memories, become activated. These will then co-mingle with their present tense negative emotions, resulting in both the magnification and amplification of whatever they’re feeling and experiencing in the present. 

When the past and present tense emotions co-mingle and are felt in the present, they will exceed a level five intensity on a 1 to 10 scale. At that point, the brain’s reasoning center, known as the cortex, begins to shut down and the amygdala takes over. The amygdala records and stores, in exact detail, the intimate fingerprints of every chemical and sensory nuance caused by both our past and present tense emotions – including the raw and irrational ones. When the brain’s logical/reasoning part starts shutting down due to heightened stress induced by quarantine and confinement, it sets the stage for these irrational emotions to take over, resulting in a showcase of extreme aggression and hostility. 

In the turmoil and stress caused by the global pandemic, some people will shut down and detach while others will lash out and attack. Adding yet another layer to this already complicated problem set are those individuals who have struggled with a history of very low self-worth and dark feelings of worthlessness. Many times they begin to wonder if anyone would care if they were no longer alive. Additionally, those people pre-suffering from pre-existing chemical imbalances will often get worse. When the imbalance increases, the loop of negative internal messages will become louder, resulting in the mind becoming overwhelmed and confused. 

Wound Behaviors

In conjunction with present tense negative thoughts and emotions, the behaviors created from these wounds and traumas are collectively called Wound Behaviors. This is why, based upon many years of private practice, I wrote the book titled: “Walking Wounded.” Throughout my profession, I’ve even seen some people start having both delusions and severe mood swings. If a person is self-medicating to numb the pain, it will frequently lead to psychotic episodes, often to the point of having self-destructive thoughts and suicidal ideations. 

What I have just explained is from a psychological and emotional, and behavioral perspective. However, from a spiritual or supernatural perspective, the kingdom of darkness also increases its pressure on these areas of brokenness – especially those who continue to stay in climate of wounds over a long time. The chronic state of being wounded eventually creates a sense of relentlessness, invokes persistent feelings of oppression and torment, and produces overwhelming feelings of impending doom or imminent danger.  Suppose a person suffering from the issues I previously described lacks knowledge about this type of supernatural pressure. In that case, a ‘looming fear’ of the unknown will increase, often leading to a vicious cycle of fear-based “what if scenario” and “worst-case scenario” thinking. The presence of these looming fears will have a corrosive effect on their mind and slowly break the person down, eventually leading to anxiety and panic attacks.

This will frequently cascade into the onset of depression or lead to pre-existing depression worsening. When this happens, a dangerous combination of depression and panic attacks will profoundly deplete the person’s physical, mental, and spiritual strength. Instead of thriving, the person withdraws into a survival mode to ‘cope’ and somehow get through each day. Sadly, too many people become trapped in this self-destructive cycle, leading to exhaustion and desperately searching for a way to stop the pain and pressure. I’ve just described the downward spiral that many people have experienced during this unprecedented and challenging year – far more than ever before. 

Instead of becoming hopeless, I encourage you to intentionally go through a healing process where your life can improve, as opposed to worsening. An essential step in that restorative journey will involve identifying what hidden wounds are inside of you and begin to intentionally triage and treat them so that you can eventually heal. If you would like help resolving your wounds and traumas and would like to know more on how to begin the restoration of your mental health, please reach out so that you can experience more peace during these stressful times. 

About my guest

Dr. Mark F. Jones, LMFT

Dr. Jones has been counseling individuals, married couples, families, and groups in his private practice since 1992 and is also a certified and Approved Continuing Education Provider, offering CEU’s to other professionals so they can fulfill their requirements to maintain their license. He provides personal development and an array of professional services in the private, corporate, and government contracting sectors. 

Dr. Mark Jones is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in San Antonio, TX. His practice, South Texas Liberty Alliance Group was founded in1992 along with Mark Jones Ministries.

Dr. Mark Jones was moved to begin Mark Jones Ministries after overcoming a challenging childhood. At four years old, his father left him, his mother and older brother at a bus stop in Houston, TX. HIs mother had no experience, except to play a a church organ. A pastor had compassion on the family of three and gave his mother a part-time job at the church, play8ing the organ. He also transformed the church shed into a one bedroom apartment where Dr. Mark Jones and his mother and brother lived for years, surviving on oatmeal (a nickel at the time) and faith in God.

At the time, Dr. Jones and his brother Dub Jones (who is now a counselor in Dr. Jones’ practice) would ride the bus from Houston to San Antonio, by themselves, to visit their father. As they arrived in San Antonio, Dr. Jones would search for the familiar face of his father surrounded by a crowd of strangers. Panic attacks were a normal occurrence in his life as doubt and fear would engulf him.

In Houston, Dr. Jones’ mother would put him and his brother on stage to sing to the congregation. Even though Dr. Jones suffered from panic and fear, and bein g on stage made him face these horrific feelings, singing gave them both purpose. They were for forced to conquer these feeling ad build value and self esteem. The family of three eventually moved to San Antonio to be close to their father and his new family. It was there, in middle school, that the boys had to encounter the challenges of being bullied.

Through these situations, and many more, Dr. Jones, spent many years developing himself by Resolving his past, Restoring his health and Retraining his mind.

His breakthrough book Walking Wounded explains how emotional and other wounds manifest themselves in people’s behavior, which are called “wound behaviors”. In order for a person to be healed and whole, the wound must be identified, dealt with and resolved intentionally. 

In Walking Wounded, Dr. Jones teaches step by step how to resolve your past, restore your health, and retrain your mind so that you can maximize your potential. 

Dr. Jones has been married to his lovely wife, Theresa since 1981 and they have 4 adult children and grandchildren.  Dr. Jones’ second passion is singing; you may have heard him singing at Cornerstone Church, GETV world-wide broadcast, singing the National Anthem at various community events including the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo or the Texas Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. 

For more information about this critical topic or set up an appointment to speak to one of the professional mental and behavioral health caregivers at the South Texas Liberty Alliance Group, go to

To reach someone at the Liberty Alliance Group by phone, call 210-495-2797 or to send an email, go to

Read or listen to Dr. Jones’ book “Walking Wounded” by clicking the links below:

Hard copy –

Audiobook –

Suicide: Who Is Affected?

Suicide is a scourge that has slowly crept across the landscape of human demographics – age, gender, economic status – resulting in it becoming a leading cause of death.  Its blast radius is far-reaching with long-lasting damage to those who have been wounded by it.

The numbers are staggering. It’s the second leading cause of death across an entire generation, claiming the lives of victims from as young as 10 years old all the way to those well into their mid-thirties. The second leading group of suicide victims is middle-aged white males, who are almost 3.5 times more at risk of ending their own lived. Suicide is among the top ten causes of death across all age groups, stealing nearly 50,000 people from us in 2018 alone. The suicide rate in the United States increased by almost 33 percent from 1999 through 2017, from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people, with numerous statistics show that the numbers rose sharply sometime between 2006 and 2007. [1][2][3]

While the list of risk factors is long and the task of pinning down a cause has challenged the best and brightest of our mental, behavioral, and spiritual health communities, the purpose of effort remains the same – saving lives from self-destruction. The numbers don’t lie; while the statistics for 2019 are still being compiled, and the scope and compound effect of the global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has yet to be fathomed, the bottom line is that the projected numbers don’t look good.

Outside the immediate casualty of those stolen by this nebulous scourge is the circle of family, friends, and community left behind. Death is a hard thing for us to reconcile with; it is an unwelcome invader on both the human experience and the world around us. Death brings with it a sense of morbid finality and becomes a hard break in the physical fellowship we enjoy with a loved one who has slipped across the vapor-thin veil, which separates time from eternity.

The grief and loss following the death of a loved one becomes covered in a mountain of nuanced layers when the passing of that special someone is from suicide. Suicide complicates grief on an order of magnitude that can only be truly understood by those who have had pieces of their heart stolen by this unremorseful enemy. Suicide is sudden, often violent, and many times it’s a friend or loved one who not only discovers the horrific aftermath but is left with so many unanswered questions.

As we push forward in our collective quest to not only prevent this self-destruction, we are forced to reconcile with the fact that there is much about this suicide problem set that requires honest reflection and the embracing of answers which lie within our grasp – if we are willing to put aside our preconceived notions, bias, and perhaps even some closely held myths.

The long list of factors leading to the pattern of self-destruction in our modern culture is right in front of us. They reside on the key terrains of academia, media, and entertainment – core pillars that form the foundation of what we believe and how we behave. An intellectually and spiritually honest review of these pillars will show that much of what we’ve stitched into the fabric of our culture has primed the environment in such a way that it has lent speed, agility, and momentum to a complex and nefarious adversary focused on a desired end state of kill, steal, and destroy.

Suicide is a problem in our society – but not an unanswerable one. The list of cascade factors that have fed this plague must be tackled comprehensively, strategically, and most of all, humbly. I say humbly because if the lines of effort across mental health, physical health, and spiritual health are approached through an open-minded willingness to learn, synergistic, and coalesce, then the path to prevention becomes clear. 

References and resources:




Is suicide a problem in America?

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in our nation. That alone is a shocking fact, but when we unpack what that really means, what discover a staggering and overwhelming call to strategic, holistic, aggressive, intellectually honest, and sustained comprehensive action.

30% The increase in the rate of death by suicide in the United States between 2000 and 2016, from 10.4 to 13.5 per 100,000 people, according to a National Center for Health Statistics analysis of data from the National Vital Statistics System. The rate increased by about 1 percent per year from 2000 through 2006 and about 2 percent per year from 2006 through 2016.

50% The increase in suicides among girls and women between 2000 and 2016, from 4 to 6 per 100,000.

21% The increase in suicides among boys and men between 2000 and 2016, from 17.7 to 21.4 per 100,000.

According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), in 2018, suicide was the 2nd leading cause of death for an entire generation across about years. During 2018 alone, nearly 15,000 children, youth, and adults 10-34 years old were people lost to suicide. When we break that number down even further, the facts are heartbreaking. 596 of these losses were children 14 and younger. This number is followed by the losses of young people ages 15-24, which is a staggering 6,211. As we progress to the next age group, the numbers don’t get any better; there were 8,020 losses from suicide for adults ages 25-34. Pushing back even further, we see that the numbers and story are worse. When we stack up the total number of suicides in the United States across all age groups over the last 20 years, we come with a number near 900,000!

These numbers are absolutely shocking and represent the genocide of our legacy and future. We have witnessed the loss of an entire generation stolen from by an invisible adversary that stealthily operates on an unseen plane – the human mind; an intangible realm many leaders across the landscapes of science, education, entertainment, mental health, medicine, philosophy, and faith have difficulty navigating or understanding.

When we take a whole society approach, zoom the lens out to the 10,000-foot level and look at the suicide problem set across the culture, many of the answers are uncomfortable. If we observe the information and cultural environment with humble honesty, we’re forced to reconcile with inconvenient truths that don’t conform to the pattern of life and world-view we as a society have woven around us. How we answer these questions will determine if we’re genuinely ready and serious about fixing the problem.

Is suicide a problem in America? Absolutely – but now here come the hard questions:
Are we, as a culture, ready to invest in developing sustainable long-term solutions? Are we willing to have a genuine national dialog, or will we pursue feel-good platitudes and soft-serve sentiments as an effort to cover up our lack of intellectual honesty, critical self-reflection, and genuine curiosity for real answers?

I believe suicide is a scourge that has increasingly haunted our culture. But I also believe there are answers and a solution. It’s time to expose this killer. It’s time to bring HOPE!



Empathy. It’s the unique ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Someone empathetic can step into the shoes of another person and understand their feelings and perspectives. They share in the experience as if it were happening to them. A strong sense of empathy is a critical part of the healthy development of our relationships. It’s also a mark of emotional maturity. In my upcoming book, HOPE – a memoir: my journey of love, loss and faith, I talk about what it was like for my family and me in the week, months, and even years following the passing of our oldest daughter Elizabeth from suicide. The shock and pain of losing a child are hard for anyone to process and carry. It’s a pain that no parent should ever have to carry. Suicide turns that heartbreaking loss into a massive and complex pain that seems nearly unquenchable.

“For a parent, the loss of a child is a grim and morbid reminder of death’s intrusion on the human experience.”

Excerpt from my upcoming book HOPE – a memoir: my journey of love, loss and faith

One of the things I talk about in my book is the importance of empathy. I write about the need for others to look unselfishly outside their own immediate world and be willing to lend a helping hand or ear. When someone is walking through hell, they must know they’re not alone; in fact, it’s often lifesaving. Just knowing that I had people I could depend on and call any time – day or night – was critical in seeing my family and me through those dark hours. People who are walking through crisis are not looking for a clever ‘one-liner pick me up,’ a motivational pep talk, or an in-depth philosophical explanation about their problem. They just need someone willing to be available, present, and listen. This is what I call Dynamic Empathy. This type of empathy is a rapid response, quick to listen, and sensitive enough to help meet unspoken needs – things that are normally mundane and routine, but in a moment of crisis are impossible to manage. Stuff like cooking, cleaning, daycare, grocery shopping, car maintenance, yard work, etc.

“On the other hand, the death of a child resonates with anyone who has a heart. A child dying is completely counter to the accepted order of things. It is a parent’s worst nightmare.”

Excerpt from my upcoming book HOPE – a memoir: my journey of love, loss and faith

Then there is the long-term aspect of empathy; what I call Sustained Empathy. Over time, as the dust settles and the smoke clears, often the person or family who has suffered a loss is forgotten about. The weeks turn into months, and the months become years; meanwhile, the condolences, warm wishes, and prayers become less and less. This is where Sustained Empathy is critical. While everyone else moves on with their lives, those who suffered a major loss, like the one my family and I did, are slowly learning to walk again. But this time, it’s with a limp. Every holiday and birthday, that limp is a little bit more painful. Special moments like anniversaries and graduations bring with them a hidden sting that only the wounded survivors know. And for a parent, every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day becomes a reminder of a baby that was lost. These are the moments when Sustained Empathy is critical. 

Sustained empathy remembers to send a card, text or a even make a phone call that says, “Hey, I’m thinking of you, and you and your family are never forgotten.”

Don’t forget to check out my FREE unedited SNEAK PREVIEW of my upcoming book here:


“This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls…”

Hebrews 6:19

Over a period of about 30 years, I’ve lost six people in my family to suicide and self-harm – my dad, little brother, two uncles, a cousin, and then my oldest daughter. Over the years, I’ve shared this personal journey with many people, and I’ve discovered that most of them aren’t equipped mentally or emotionally to process something so heavy. I soon realized that this difficulty for others to connect and empathize with the size and scope of such a massive weight stemmed from a failure to understand the many layers of this nebulous, complex, morbid, and taboo thing called suicide. And so, in this book, I’ve dedicated myself to paving a path towards the following goals:

Deliver a first-hand account: Give my friends, family, and the larger public audience an ‘inside baseball’ understanding of what it really looks like to be in the daily knife fight against an invisible adversary that lethally attacks from an unseen place, as well as give a raw, unvarnished picture of the tragic smoldering aftermath. I also want to give a unique ‘boots-on-the ground’ perspective to the professionals who work across the spectrum of human health – physical, mental, and spiritual – and provide honest insight into what I believe is a three-part problem set: body/mind/spirit. 

Sharpen understanding: Explain how information, in the form of enduring themes and messages, is employed through ‘dials and levers’ (small and subtle vs. large and obvious), to influence our cognitive process (shape our values, beliefs, attitudes) and condition our sentiments – and when coalesced, ultimately drives our behaviors. In addition, illustrate that the human mind occupies an unseen yet very real place and that it’s on this intangible plane where the most critical and cataclysmic conflict unfolds. 

Develop discernment: Encourage people to ask some inconvenient and uncomfortable questions while humbly embracing and implementing honest answers which may be unpopular or disliked. Invite people to take an honest and critical look at what they consume through their eyes and ears and then ask themselves what impact their informational diet has had on their mental metabolism and overall health – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Furthermore, promote active reconciliation of what’s broken and the induction of sustained healing, which also require an intellectually honest dialog amongst those on the landscape of adult leadership.

Induct change Compel the adults in the room to be proactive partners in helping solve this problem. Encourage parents to ask the difficult questions, take a robust, comprehensive look into the means and mediums which are influencing our children and youth, and then make some tough yet potentially life-saving decisions. In tandem, engage key leaders across academia, entertainment, civics, and faith – all of whom are an intrinsic part in the care, feeding, and overall health of our culture and society – challenging them to ask the same critical questions and embrace the honest answers in order to effect lasting widespread positive change.

Bring Hope: Last, but certainly not least on this list, is the desire to deliver a bold and unapologetic message of resolve, showcase the power of faith, and share a story anchored in unending Hope. In the scorching heat of the fiery furnace that I’ve endured, it was a focused and specific Hope to which my heart and soul were anchored; not some vague wish, far off desire, or a naive warm fuzzy feeling. Instead, I took a giant risk and secured myself to a Sovereign Power through an unbreakable and tangible tether greater than any fire, storm, or tribulation and braced myself against the strong arms of an Eternal Father whose love and grace is beyond my wildest dreams.

* * *

Apart from the four years I lived in Maryland, I grew up in our nation’s smallest state – Rhode Island – whose unofficial slogan is “The Ocean State” and motto is a simple yet powerful and boldly emblazoned word across a blue ribbon underneath a golden anchor encircled by 13 gold stars – HOPE.

Rhode Island is where I spent most my childhood and youth, a place that holds precious pieces of my heart. It has the perfectly preserved fingerprints of early colonial American history woven into the fabric of its culture and architecture, as if time forgot to touch many of the buildings and side streets from over 200 years ago. Along the coast, there is a vibrant and robust seafaring presence imbued into the heart and soul of its natives. For a local Rhode Islander, names like Charleston, Wickford, Narragansett, Scarborough, Point Judith and Galilee will conjure up images of quaint New England villages nested against grayish-green seawater, fishing boats with nets hanging over the sides, and the shrill cry of seagulls gently gliding aloft over the harbor.

Rhode Island summers are post-card perfect; warm and vibrant, as the air carries the salty and briny fragrance of the Atlantic Ocean crashing along the rocky shoreline of Narragansett Bay. Little towns dot the coastline with houses and business tucked up to the sandy beaches. When I close my eyes, I can still see and hear the frothy white-capped waves as they crash onto the shore and seaweed covered rocks.  From mid-May to the beginning of September, these coastal towns bustle with tourists from all over New England and even as far away as New York and New Jersey. Throughout the summertime, people congregate along the Narragansett Sea Wall for a relaxing stroll, a cup of frozen lemonade, or a scoop of freshly made coffee ice cream atop a warm waffle cone. The sea wall, which is about a one mile stretch of skillfully crafted concrete hurricane barrier wall, leads along famous landmarks like the Narragansett Towers and the Coast Guard House Restaurant, before conspicuously ending at a small stone well-house seated in the middle of the intersection South Pier Road and Ocean Road.

From across the Narragansett Bay, you can see the islands of both Jamestown and Newport, as well as the large iron and steel bridges which connect them. The main towers of the Newport Bridge (officially known as the Claiborne Pell Bridge) rise an impressive 400 feet above the water, and its main span is just over 1600 feet, making it the largest suspension bridge in all of New England. On a clear day, the skyline of the state capital, Providence, can even be seen from the lofty bridge deck. A visit across the bridge and into Newport will reveal a rich nautical heritage and wealthy legacy – from the cobblestones of Thames Street leading to the shops, restaurants, and sailboats of Bowens Warf, to the elegant and extravagant mansions which proudly line Bellevue Avenue. But there is one place there that holds a special emotional significance for me – the U.S. Naval War College, one of the world’s premier institutions for professional military development and maritime warfare training. Its presence has been a center of gravity for the rich nautical heritage of Rhode Island since 1884. I would see and hear about that place growing up. When I enlisted in the Navy in 1998, little did I know that I’d eventually return and attend officer training there – albeit only four months after we had buried our oldest daughter Elizabeth in a North Kingstown cemetery about 13 miles away. 

Along with many of the descendants of Revolutionary War colonists, there is a mix of cultural backgrounds. My hometown and state became a melting pot for immigrants throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries; hardworking people who brought with them rich stories, music, food, and bold dreams of building a better life in Rhode Island and along its vibrant coastline. It’s in that same spirit of searching for a new beginning that I enlisted in the military. I left my home in the Ocean State to become a Sailor in the U.S. Navy, a young man on a search of adventure, a quest for purpose, and, most of all, the discovery of myself. But while I traversed along the road of life on my military journey, I would be revisited by the same dark specter who violently stole my dad when I was just a little boy.  I felt like no matter how far away the Navy took me or how many robust layers of military structure surrounded me, none of it could stop that invisible adversary from repeating its background soundtrack of hopelessness, destruction and horror.

Then, on a warm afternoon in the middle of May 2015, that soundtrack roared to a crescendo as my whole world collapsed upon itself. That day, I got home early from work and had enough time to catch up on some chores outside. I was on my rider mower when the school bus pulled up, and my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, stepped off it. I waved hi to her, and she casually waved back. That was the last time I would see my oldest daughter alive on this side of eternity. A short while later, I walked into my house and found my little girl lying dead in my closet, violently and horrifically taken the same way I had lost my dad over 30 years prior.

The size and magnitude of a loss that graphic and raw is almost impossible to fathom. During the weeks and months that followed Elizabeth’s passing, one of the biggest things that stood out in my mind was: “First my dad…then my brother…then all these other people…and now my little girl.” The tragedy woven into my family fabric had now become sacred and profoundly wounding. I told myself that it has to end – no more!

Growing up, the loss of my dad made me feel alone and searching for a father; in my mid-twenties, when I lost my brother, I was angry at God and pushed Him away – but when I lost my little girl, I didn’t blame God; He didn’t do this, but I knew who did. The same adversary, which wove the dark and tangled web of lies, depression, self-hate, and self-hurt that took my dad, took my brother, and had taken the other family members who hurt themselves, had also lied to my little girl and stole her from me. I wanted to make the enemy pay for it; there was going to be a reckoning, and that was the beginning of something. 

All my life, I felt a Divine Invisible Hand on my shoulder; I used to fight and resist it. I thought I could navigate life on my own. I used to keep God at a distance and only ask Him for help if I thought I needed it. This time I decided to put my hand in His so He could heal, lead, and guide me into fulfilling the purpose that I was created for.

Chapter 1

October 3rd, 2017. The sky wore the faint glow of predawn light as the twilight stars gently twinkled and confidently hung onto the night before the first sunbeam danced across the frigid water of the Currituck Sound. Erica, Isabella, and I walked outside to the car, our breath creating little clouds of steam against the frosty chill of the North Carolina autumn morning. Within a matter of hours, a new human life would come into this world. This wasn’t my first trip to the delivery room, but I was just nervous as if it were. Half asleep, Isabella sat in the back next to the little car seat, which would soon carry her newborn baby brother. As we drove to the Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, I reached over and held Erica’s hand. I knew she was nervous and anxious. Having a baby is a big deal and a significant life event for anyone on their best day. Still, even though we felt moments of nervousness and anxiety, we relied on God and our Wave Church family, who surrounded us with prayer, love, and support.

The car’s GPS screen said that the trip to the hospital would take about 30 minutes – I think I got there in about 20; my excitement bore down on the gas pedal like a lead weight. I took the exit ramp off Route 168 leading into the heart of Chesapeake and towards the hospital – the gentle morning light cast a soft magenta glow through the windshield and into the backseat, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw Isabella had fallen asleep. “Isabella, we’re here. Time to wake up, sweetie”. Like a kitten awoken from her afternoon nap, Isabella’s nose and eyes scrunched up as she yawned and stretched, “Oh, we’re already here? That was fast,” she drowsily replied. I pulled the car up to the very front of the building and into one several parking spaces labeled ‘EXPECTING MOMS.’ “Wow, this is for real…today is the day… I’m gonna meet my son!” I thought to myself.

As the subtle chill and sweet smell of the Hampton Roads autumn danced across my face, I walked to the passenger side to help Erica get out of the car. The warm yellowish-white glow of the hospital’s entrance lights lit a welcome path for us, leading up the automatic sliding doors. I slowed my pace and looked around for a sign or clue leading to the place where all the babies are born, but Erica had been here before as part of the pre-natal hospital orientation class she had taken a few weeks prior. “C’mon guys; the elevator is right over here – let’s go,” Erica directed with a voice of military confidence and efficiency.  As we stepped into the elevator, Erica reached over and touched my hand, “How are you doing, love?”; my face must have given me away because I was nervous – very nervous. “Oh, yeah, I’m ok…just a little tired…hey, I wonder what the chow is like in this place, you think hospital food still sucks? Because I’m starving, I could use a cup of coffee too. What are we here for again? I forgot,” I nervously joked around, trying to lighten the high-gravity event soon to unfold.

Once we were all settled into the hospital, the whole check-in process took less than half-an-hour. One of the nurses escorted Erica into her private delivery room, and then we were introduced to the team of nurses who would be helping deliver the baby. The lead nurse took Erica’s blood pressure and other vital signs, while Isabella and I curiously looked around the room where we’d be spending the next several hours. A few minutes passed then the nurse began the process of inducing Erica’s labor. The doctor came into the room soon after just to fill us in on what to expect. Standing in that place at that moment felt surreal. Our family had been through so much during the last 24 months.  I asked the doctor what time he thought Erica might deliver the baby; he chuckled and joked, “Definitely before 7 pm because that’s when my favorite TV show comes on!”

The medication for inducing labor would take several hours to kick in, meanwhile as the morning wore on, Isabella and I got hungry. I went and picked up some breakfast at a fast-food restaurant down the street. When I got back to the hospital, Nina, one of Erica’s close friends from church, kept Erica company in the delivery room. Childbirth is a unique and emotional event for any family, even more so for ours. Although we were many miles away from biological relatives, we were never alone because we had our church family there with us. For the next several hours, Erica’s friend stayed by her side to keep her company, comfort her, and pray with her.

Soon lunchtime came around, and the nurses were checking on Erica more frequently. Based on the progress she was making, she would be going into labor very soon. Around noon, the first wave of massive contractions kicked in. The nurse called the doctor, who was in his office down the hall, and provided him an update. Based on how far apart and how intense the contractions, it wouldn’t be long before Erica would need to start pushing. As the contractions increased in intensity and frequency, the nurse asked Erica how she was feeling. Erica replied that she felt intense pressure and pain. When the nurse checked her dilation progress, she was surprised and said that Erica was ready to start pushing. Then the nurse quickly called for the doctor to come in and begin the delivery process.

Meanwhile, Nina and Isabella rushed out of the room while the doctor started delivering the baby. We had agreed beforehand that Isabella should stay in the waiting room with Erica’s friend while she was going through the actual delivery. Once the doctor arrived, he asked enthusiastically, “So, how’s everyone doing? Y’all ready to have a baby today?” as the nurses helped him put on his gown, mask, and gloves. “How are you doing, momma? You feelin’ alright?”he said to Erica as he checked the charts and vitals. Erica tiredly replied, “Yes, I’m just ready to get this done.” 

“Hey, Dad, how you doin’, sir? You look nervous, come on, you’re not nervous, are you?” the doctor chuckled and joked. I smiled and replied, “I’m good to go doc – ready to do this.”

By this point, the contractions were coming closer and closer together and merged into nearly one prolonged contraction. The doctor looked at the monitor screen and waited until the next big one. “Alright, Erica, you should be feeling another big one any moment…as soon as you do, I want you to push until I say stop…you ready?” the doctor said. Before he even finished his sentence, he suddenly shouted, “NOW!!!…PUSH…PUSH… PUSH…C’MON, THAT’S IT.  P-U-U-U-U-SH!!!”

Erica’s squinted and winced, her face became bright red as she bore down and pushed. My hand went numb, and the blood left my fingers as she squeezed my hand until it felt like my fingernails were going to pop off. One push…two pushes, then suddenly the doctor said to Erica, “Alright mom…you got this…this is it…this next contraction you’re going to have this baby. You’re almost there. One more big push.” Then the doctor looked over at me, “Dad when I say ‘PUSH,’ I want you to tell her she’s got this… ask her to push as hard as she can.” I nodded and looked Erica in the eyes. “You got this, honey…get ready…our little guy is almost here.” I had scarcely spoken the words when Erica’s face winced up again, and the doctor shouted, “PUSH…C’MON MOMMA…PUSH!”. I echoed the doctor’s words and excitement, “Yeah, Erica, push…ya got this honey…push”. 

As Erica battled with all her might, I saw the doctor quickly reach down and tell the nurses to get ready. Suddenly the energy in the room was buzzing and alive with preparation and intensity; within moments – mere seconds really – a new human soul would enter the stage of the world. One nurse stepped closer to the doctor, while the other went to check the heat-lamp, scale, and other stuff they would need once our baby was born. While I was still looking over at the two nurses setting up the post-delivery equipment, I suddenly saw out of the corner of my eye a little wet, and wiggly human being appear in the doctor’s hands. “Well, here he is! It’s a boy, dad! You’ve got a boy…oh wait, did you already know that?” Before I could entirely focus my eyes and attention on what I was seeing, a shrill yet mighty cry pierced through the moment in defiant victory as if announcing the arrival of a mighty warrior.

Meanwhile, as all this was unfolding, what we didn’t know is that Isabella had refused to go to the waiting room and insisted on standing right outside the door to the delivery room until she heard the cries of her new baby brother. Meanwhile, Erica’s friend Nina stayed with Isabella, and they stood together, just inches outside the delivery room. Interestingly, the hospital had a tradition of playing a cute and warm little jingle over the maternity ward announcement system every time a new baby was born. As the chimes and bells echoed through the hallways and room, and the nurses held my baby boy in the receiving blankets, my eyes began to fill with tears of joy. Nothing and no one will ever replace my dad Michael, my little brother Benjamin, or my precious daughter Elizabeth. But at that moment, it felt like the wounds and pain caused by their traumatic and sudden deaths were soothed with the healing touch of hope and life. In that instant, I determined in my heart that none of the darkness, trauma, and pain which I had walked through would ever touch that little boy. I looked at him and vowed that I would be by his side to love, protect, train, and develop him into a man who is boldly confident about his God-ordained purpose and destiny. I gently held his tiny newborn hand in mine, leaned over, and quietly whispered in my son’s ear, “I love you son… I’m never going to leave you…your daddy’s never going leave you”.

* * *

When my dad Michael committed suicide, he didn’t know the cascade effect it would have across multiple generations in one family – his life stolen by a sadistic and unremorseful enemy who preys on the human soul. Over about 30 years, that same enemy, who caused my dad to give up hope, continued to lurk in the shadows.  It whispered wicked lies of self-loathing and self-harm to other people in my family.  The enemy wasn’t satisfied with merely causing misery – no, instead, it fiendishly delighted in causing pain and suffering, all of which is part of its ruthless and cold-blooded objective – to kill, steal, and destroy. 

The same enemy, who preyed on my dad’s mind, also eviscerated and consumed every ounce of my little brother Benjamin’s confidence and self-worth. It weaved a web of deception and substance abuse around my little brother’s mind, to the point where one evening, he died from alcohol poisoning two months before his 19th birthday.  In the years that followed my little brother’s passing, the same enemy would end up wreaking havoc by stealing four more people within my family. Each loss echoed with the same sense of helplessness – as if those of us left behind could do nothing to stop it. It felt like the enemy told us that we had just to sit there, take it, wait, and watch as it picked us off one by one. Heartache and pain became a repeated drumbeat through my entire immediate and extended family – but for me, nothing was more personal or painful as what I had to endure in 2015 when that same vile and filthy enemy took my oldest daughter Elizabeth from this world.

Seeing my precious child stolen in the same violent and morbid way, my dad, her grandfather, was taken was far too raw, real, and personal. I knew I had to take action. The destruction had to stop. Elizabeth was just a 15-year-old girl full of life, beauty, and promise…and yet that same wicked enemy, who had destroyed and stolen the lives of so many other people in my family, took my daughter’s life too. And so, I embarked on a journey of healing, purpose, and hope. It was an active and intentional counter-offensive comprised of six lines of effort:

  1. Strengthening my spirit and deepening my relationship with God.
  2. Healing my mind from everything I had suffered.
  3. Sharpening my life’s vision and taking active steps to make that vision reality.
  4. Recognizing chronic toxic behaviors.
  5. Defining and setting boundaries on those who refuse to think, operate, or be in relationships in a healthy way.
  6. Knowing and embracing my God-created purpose and living it unapologetically and boldly.

To put action into these lines of effort, I leaned on three essential resources:

  • God’s faithfulness and the promises that He has declared in His word to heal the brokenhearted and wounded, use all things together for my good, restore and multiply what has been stolen or lost, and to never leave or forsake me, 
  • A strong cadre of people who could speak life, wellness, strength, and help me rehabilitate my mind from the horrible things I had witnessed. These individuals are dedicated to helping me sort through layer upon layer of damage which had been caused by the dysfunction, abuse, and manipulation I suffered during my childhood.
  • Fellowship with people who shared the same values of life, purpose, and faith. I became part of a family of Believers who could keep me accountable, encourage, and pray with me as I embraced life with tenacity and intentionality. 

As momentum built and I advanced along my six lines of effort, I began to see growth and changes. A vision was forming, and clarity of purpose was taking shape. It meant building a legacy of excellence and prosperity in every aspect of my life – mentally, emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually – a point where God’s very best is woven into the fabric of not just my life but the lives of those who come after me. And so, my vision became plain: establish a legacy of life, promise, and hope built on the endless love of a Sovereign God.

Chapter 2

Undoubtedly an important day in my life was Monday, April 24th, 1978. That was day one of my life journey – it was the day I was born. The parking lot of South County Hospital was dotted with the last remaining mounds of dirty snow which stood as frosty reminders of the “Blizzard of ’78”, a catastrophic, historic nor’ easter that plummeted and buried the New England area, with hurricane-force winds and almost 30 inches of snow between the morning of February 5th and the evening of February 7th, 1978. My parents were young and had only known each other for a short time. Neither one was prepared or ready to start a family together. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of information regarding my parents’ backgrounds or the details of how they met; I know even less about what their childhoods were like. For the sake of preserving my parent’s and extended family’s privacy, I’ll discuss personal perspectives and thoughts of the experiences from my childhood and life-journey instead. These pages contain crucial and compelling details which, when stitched together, provide a breathtaking and faith-inspiring picture, revealing the Divine Invisible Hand of God. Much of this specific chapter is either from a secondhand account or my own memory as best as I can recall.

In January of 1979, my mom was homesick and missed her parents. She and I took a bus from Rhode Island and traveled to Maryland, where her parents lived; meanwhile, my dad remained in Rhode Island.  My mom’s dad worked for the U.S. Navy as an aircraft metalsmith, at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, or ‘PAX River’ as it’s known locally. I’m not sure what my grandmother did for work. She and my grandfather lived just outside the Navy base in a duplex, located in an old Cold War-era military housing neighborhood nicknamed ‘The Flat Tops’ – squat little pastel-color painted cinderblock buildings with flat sloping tar shingled roofs. 

My mom and I stayed with my grandparents in their ‘flat top’ for about a month. During that time, an aunt of mine – one of my mom’s younger sisters – invited my mom to a church close to the PAX River Navy Base. Much of the church leadership and attendees were either civilians who worked on the base or were active-duty military stationed there. During one of the church services, my mom decided to become a Christian. As the pastor and church leadership got to know my mom more, they saw a deep need for mentorship, discipleship, and an overall climate change for my mom and me. Shortly after my mom’s conversion to Christianity, we moved out of my grandparent’s home and in with a family from the church, who lived on post on at the PAX River Naval Base. They were a Navy family and served as leaders in the church my mom and I were attending. The leadership in the church was sympathetic, providing mentorship and guidance for my mom. Eventually, she was ready to go back to Rhode Island and be reunited with my dad – but his priorities were elsewhere.

In the early winter of 1980, my mom and I took a bus from Maryland to Rhode Island, and we moved back in with my dad. We were only there for a few short months, but my mom introduced my dad to a local church pastor in Wakefield, Rhode Island, during that season. One day that pastor came by the house where my mom, dad, and I were staying. My dad and the pastor talked for a while, and towards the end of the conversation, my dad made a decision which sealed the eternal security of his soul – he received Jesus into his heart. Now, to be honest, I doubt my dad understood or was even interested in all the specific doctrinal details of Christianity, but around the time I was five or six years old, I do have very vivid memories of him reading the Bible; every time he did the atmosphere and climate around him seemed to lighten. Later that year, we moved from Rhode Island back down to Maryland. My mom reconnected with the same friends from church while my dad looked for a place where we could live. A short time later, we moved into a mobile home, located in a trailer park called National Trailer Court in Leonardtown, Maryland, situated about five miles outside of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. 

From my earliest childhood memories, I can recall the trailer we lived in was covered in a layer of corrugated tin and painted white. The sun had faded the thin layer of paint; the years of weathering and oxidation left a chalky white residue on my hands whenever I touched the metal sides. In front of the trailer was a massive oak tree. Calloused rough grey bark covered its mighty thick trunk like a tough armor hide, and the wide outstretched branches provided a broad canopy of protection as I played under its umbrella of leaves and acorns. At the base of the giant oak were thick roots that plunged deep underground and anchored the stalwart behemoth as a symbol of safety, stability, dependability, and strength. This was my sanctuary from the heartache and turmoil which filled the climate of my home.

As a little boy, I would spend hours under the cool shade of this tree, creating intricate networks of highways and overland infrastructure made from rocks, acorns, and broken twigs on a patch of bare earth. That patch of dirt was my world where I would make roads for my small pocket-sized cars. I had a whole system for engineering and developing my marvels of overland transportation. I would take my first three fingers and run them along the dusty ground, and as I dragged my hand through the dirt, my chubby little fingers would leave a pattern – three small indentations – which formed the lanes of my superhighway. I loved making roads in the dirt; I spent what seemed like hours out there in the front yard with a dozen or so little cars, trucks, and tractors – I was the master engineer and mayor of my little world, under the shade and watchful care of the mighty oak. I usually played by myself; I was content being alone. I enjoyed the silence of my own world without distraction or disturbance. I took my roads, highways, and little dirt city seriously. As much as I enjoyed the company of other kids, I didn’t like them messing with my carefully crafted miniature metropolis.

Although my world outside under the oak tree was a quiet, peaceful retreat, the world inside the trailer was heavy with sadness, neglect, instability, and loneliness. Inside, it was stark and cold with very little furniture. Cockroaches would hide in the corners, crevasses, and cabinets, waiting for the lights to turn off so they could scurry around and scavenge in the darkness. Standing in the front door and looking into the trailer, you would see faux wood paneling walls and cheap wood-floor pattern vinyl linoleum covering the floor. There was a plaid patterned couch in the living room made of some kind of rough bluish brown polyester material that felt like a burlap sack. In front of the couch sat the only luxury we had – a color tv. To the right of the living room was a single step leading up into the kitchen and dining room, which had a small round wooden table surrounded by four little chairs. It was at this table that I remember seeing my dad read the Bible; he’d sit there for hours with an air of solidarity, wonder, intrigue, and vulnerability.

Turning around from the dining room and kitchen and walking back into the living room was a hallway leading down to the back of the trailer. It was poorly lit, and the dark wood paneling seemed to soak up every speck of ambient light from the living room. Walking towards the back of the trailer, on the right, were two bedrooms that flanked a small bathroom in the middle. One of those rooms was mine. It was cold, unwelcoming, and bare except for one tiny closet and a spartan bed. Every night, before I went to sleep, my parents would shake out the covers as a dozen or so roaches ran out from under their linen hideaway. The bedroom on the other side of the bathroom was little more than an oversized closet with just enough space for a small twin-sized mattress. Then at the very back of the trailer was my parent’s room. A few feet in front of their room was the back door, which I don’t think we ever used.

Everything about the trailer was cheap, decrepit, and on the verge of falling apart. The turn handles used to crank open the windows were either missing or had the threads stripped. The sliding doors, which closed off the bedrooms and bathroom, would always come off their tracks and could only be locked with a little’ hook and eye’ latch. In the bathroom, the toilet rocked back and forth while the vinyl flooring bubbled and detached from the water-damaged particle board subflooring below.

Food was scarce; I can recall many times when my parents had to reach out to either a community charity service or a local church so we would have enough food to eat. As far as what my dad did for work, I’m not too sure. From some of the secondhand accounts I’ve heard, he held a few jobs at various times; once as a maintenance man for an apartment complex and another time, he worked as a construction laborer. My dad would often take off and leave my mom and me – often for days on end with neither of us knowing where he went or what he was doing. 

I hated it when my dad left like that and would always get scared that each time would be the last time would see him. Even though I was little and didn’t have language for many of my emotions at the time, now that I look back, I used to wonder if he loved us – I used to wonder if he loved me, his son.  It made me angry to see him take off, and I dreaded having to deal with the consequences of my mom’s emotional meltdowns, which were sure to follow afterward. 

Chapter 3

My dad’s days and even weeks-long disappearances always came without warning. His absentee escapades usually started out with him going out to ‘run some errands’ or perhaps going to ‘meet up with a buddy.’ As the hours passed, I could feel my mom watching the clock tick. As the sun began to set, and the first stars of dusk appeared in the sky, anxiety, and fear would creep into the trailer through every seam and gap like an invisible vapor. My mom would begin to call people from the church, her voice was frantic with worry. “I don’t know where Michael is…he said he’d be right back…I need you to pray with me; let’s plead for a hedge of protection around him.” This was a repeating soundbite, which was an all too familiar part of our lives. Often, people from the church would come and keep us company or take us over their houses. Other times, my mom would get a ride to her parents’ house, which was only a few miles down Highway 235.

Inevitably – usually a few days later – my dad would either end up calling or would just show back up. My mom never stood up to him, and no one ever put him in his place for being so rude, selfish, irresponsible, and hurtful.  Honestly, as I look back, I don’t think my dad would have listened if my mom said something to him, but I wonder what would have happened if another man confronted him. I believe that my dad’s behavior was instrumental in causing my mom and me to have abandonment issues. Every time my dad would leave unannounced, she would become extremely protective of me as if something or someone would take me away from her too. In addition to my dad’s dysfunctional pattern of abandonment, were the times when he was arrested. One time, in particular, I remember him being gone for several days, only for us to find out that he had been in jail. I don’t know the details of what led to his arrests, only that it involved drugs of some kind – probably marijuana. 

Shortly after he was released from jail, one of my dad’s older brothers flew down from Rhode Island to Maryland to get my dad and bring him back to Rhode Island. My uncle Don was someone my dad respected and was probably one of the few people who could handle him. Uncle Don had a personality and demeanor similar to a ‘wise guy’ character from a mafia movie; no-nonsense, street smart, and tough. On top of all that, he was a criminal lawyer, so he had expertise in dealing with difficult, stubborn, and troubled people like my dad. Many years later, uncle Don would hold a very special place in my heart. 

My dad was gifted intellectually and physically. He could have easily been a leading mind for a company, a successful doctor, philosopher, historian, or professor if he had ever harnessed his full potential. Despite all his gifts and talents, my dad wasn’t happy. He lived with a brooding atmosphere of melancholy that surrounded him. In addition to his temperament and emotional issues, he wrestled with alcoholism and drug addiction. I have vivid memories of my dad going into drunken rages. The dark and depressing climate, which he carried while sober, was magnified when he was under the influence of a mind-altering substance. I have painful memories of graphic domestic violence because of my dad’s anger and rage. As frightening and traumatic as these explosive outbursts were, they were not an everyday occurrence, nor did he lose emotional control every time he drank. There were plenty of times where I can remember when he’d sit back, have a few beers, and quietly watch his favorite tv shows. In fact, that was the majority of the time. Strangely, these were actually good memories. He was mellow, relaxed, friendly, and engaging. My dad would have a warm glow, and things seemed to be ok.

Despite all the dysfunctional behavior, I do have some good memories of my dad, like taking me to get ice cream or to a fast-food joint for a cheeseburger and fries. Probably, the most vivid and fondest memories that I have is him taking me to the movies. We went to watch ‘Star Wars – Return of the Jedi,’ and another time we went to see ‘Star Trek – The Search for Spock.’ My dad was a big science fiction buff. Some of my happiest moments with him were when he’d sit on the couch and watch shows like Star Trek or Battle Star Galactica. One of his other favorite shows was M*A*S*H, a comedy/drama show set in the Korean War era. Years later, these same shows and movies would end up becoming some of my favorites as well.

I’ll never forget the month that ‘Star Wars – Return of the Jedi’ was released in theaters. A few weeks before the big-screen debut, a three-hour Star Wars special aired on prime-time tv. My dad made a huge deal about it and wanted to make sure he and I watched it together. The night of that Star Wars tv special, my dad had all kinds of snacks and refreshments set up for us. During the commercial breaks, he’d tell me all about the characters and their backstory. I was so excited. It was one of the few moments that I felt like his little buddy. These are really just a few instances, in only a small handful of moments that we would share as father and son. The years, stress, and trauma of my journey, since his passing, have turned these memories into faded fragments from a long-ago dream.

Church wasn’t important to my dad and I think he only went with us a handful of times. On the other hand, my mom used to take me to church every Sunday. In fact, next to the healthy oak tree in the front yard of the trailer, going to church was the only other stabilizing presence and constant; it was an anchor. I looked forward to Sunday school, singing the songs, playing with the other kids, and watching the Sunday School teacher recreate supernatural scenes of a man and woman being deceived by a cunning adversary, a family of eight cloistered in a ship with two of every living animal while the floodwaters raged, a sea split in two as a nation of people cross on dry land, a giant slain by a shepherd boy armed with a sling and stone, a baby sent from Heaven to rescue the world, water turned into wine, thousands fed with a single lunch, blind men healed and made to see, demons cast out and stripped of their dominion, the Son of God crucified as a sacrifice for all humanity, and a Savior defeating death by defying the grave. The teacher took little felt-backed paper cut-outs of people, animals, and buildings, arraigned them on a white flannel board, and recreated these stories of trial, hope, faith, and victory. She taught us that the same God who rescued, saved, healed, and blessed those people is the same God who is with us today.

After living in Maryland for about four years, my parents decided to move back to Rhode Island. We moved out of the trailer and into an old, run-down motel for about a week. It was located a few miles between the Navy base and my grandparent’s house. Although I don’t remember the exact day we moved out of the trailer and into that motel, I clearly remember staying there. It was dismal and depressing. We slept in a second-floor, studio-style room that was dark and dingy. It had a small ‘living room’ with a sofa and a little kitchenette connected to a tiny bedroom. The main ‘living room’ smelled like a stale cocktail of cigarettes, mildew, and vomit. The carpet was a dark shade of bluish-green, and both the walls and ceiling were stained by years of cigarette smoke and bad plumbing.

Towards the end of our stay there, my dad decided to go on ahead of us to Rhode Island. From what I’ve been able to gather, he was probably having us move to Rhode Island to see about getting a job working with his folks, setting up my mom and me with a place to live, and then starting us along on a new life. He left about a day before my mom and me. A day or two later, my mom and I got on a long-distance bus and headed to New York City, where my dad was supposed to meet us. We got to the bus station in the Big Apple; that place was absolutely huge! It seemed like there was an ocean of people and cars everywhere. The smell of engine exhaust clung to the air as the city echoed with car horns, sirens wailing, and people trying to hear themselves talk above the noise. I had never seen such a place in real life, only on tv. “So, this is what a big city is like; it’s really noisy, and kind of has a bad smell,” I thought to myself.  My mom told me to keep an eye out for my dad; she said that he’d be wearing some light grey or white pants. I strained and squinted, hoping to catch a glimpse of my dad through the crowd of people. After a few minutes, I saw him come down the escalator and into the bus terminal. He greeted my mom and me, then the three of us headed to the next terminal so we could catch the bus to Rhode Island.

The bus ride was hot, cramped, there wasn’t much to eat, and the bathroom at the back of the bus smelled horrible. As the bus pulled out of the New York city limits, I remember watching and seeing the skyline disappear over the horizon. I sat with my forehead and scruffy red hair pressed against the cold glass window for the next few hours. I stared at the cars driving next to us, occasionally making eye contact and smiling back at either the driver or one of the passengers. Meanwhile, my mom and dad sat next to me and quietly talked, and I could make out bits and pieces of their conversation. The diesel engine’s dull drone mixed with the bus’s gentle rocking caused my eyelids to become heavy. It had been a long day. Eventually, I leaned over and laid across my parent’s lap and fell asleep.

I must have slept a few hours. The next thing I remember is my parents waking me up and telling me that we were at the bus terminal. I didn’t know what a terminal was, but it sounded pretty important. So, we got off the big bus and caught a local state transit bus in Providence, Rhode Island, to Nanny and Papa’s (my dad’s parents) house, which was down in North Kingstown.

When we first got to their house, Nanny offered to make me something to eat. I didn’t have a decent meal in a couple of days, so I was ready to eat them out of house and home. While Nanny went into the kitchen to put some food together for us, Papa and dad talked. I’m not sure what they were discussing, but at some point, my dad walked up and told me that after we ate dinner, we were going to the store. Papa walked up behind my dad, sat down next to me, looking at my dirty clothes and worn-out shoes. The look on his face said he felt sorry for me. I’d been wearing the same outfit for a couple of days, hadn’t had a bath, and the smell coming from my shoes was horrid. I had no socks and was wearing a second-hand pair of baseball cleats, passed down from a neighborhood kid, back when I was still living in Maryland. Summer was drawing to an end; besides the clothes on my back, I didn’t have anything else to wear. School would be starting soon, and I desperately need new clothes and school supplies. During those first several days at Nanny and Papa’s house, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my cousins (who lived across the street) or watching the big tv in my grandparent’s living room. They had cable tv service; I’d never seen so many channels before. 

One of the last memories of spending time with my dad is when he took me to the North Kingstown Town Beach, about a week or so after arriving in Rhode Island. It was within walking distance of my grandparent’s house, maybe about two miles away. It was our last bit of time together, just him and I as father and son. As we walked to the beach, something about my dad seemed different; he seemed far away. I’ll never forget one particular moment while we were waiting to cross the street. I looked up at him to ask a question. As he looked down and we made eye contact, I had this feeling that he wasn’t really there. It seemed like he was somewhere else and not at the moment. Years later, I would wonder if he was already pondering the idea of giving up on life. Something about the look in his eyes made it seem like he was far away. It was as if he had allowed the spark of life and hope inside his soul, to slowly extinguish and disappear. It was a look that I would see again about 30 years later, in the eyes of someone else that I love so dearly. My dad and I spent a few hours at the beach. The sun’s rays warmed the salty air and soft powdery sand as the water gently splashed on the shore. While I played and built sandcastles, my dad sat on a bench and watched. For a moment, he seemed relaxed and calm, smiling back at his little boy, almost with a sense of peace and serenity. For a brief moment, everything seemed like it was going to be ok. 

A couple of days after my dad and I went to the North Kingstown Town Beach, my dad’s youngest brother took me to Narragansett Beach, one of the most popular beaches in the area. It’s only about 10 minutes away from Wickford, (heck it’s Rhode Island, everything is about 10 minutes away), but it’s much larger. There’s a lot to do and is a huge tourist attraction for folks in and around the southern New England area. After spending the day at the beach with my uncle and a few of my cousins, we all headed back to Nanny and Papa’s house for dinner. My dad asked me how my day was, and I told him I had a good time; that the Narragansett Beach was even better than the one he had taken me to. I’ll never forget that conversation. After I said that, I was worried I hurt his feelings. He quietly nodded, softly smiled, and said, “Good, I’m glad you had a good time, Matty.” As August drew to a close, these would be my dad’s final days on Earth. During the weeks and months following his death, I played that scene over and over in my mind. I remember wondering if the reason that he hurt himself was because of what I said.

Forgetting September

Bottom Line-Up Front

The epidemic of suicide is not unstoppable – but based on my experience, providing real solutions that’ll eradicate this plague requires a level of effort which most people aren’t prepared for. If society is truly committed to fixing this problem, then we’ll need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions, be willing to accept truthful answers, and have a strong commitment to the moral, intellectual, and spiritual honesty required to bring this scourge of hopelessness to an end.

Reality Check:

  • Around the world, every 40 seconds someone dies from suicide.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in 2018 alone.
  • On average there are 130 suicides per day in the U.S.
  • Approximately 22 U.S. military veterans (active, reserve, guard, retired, prior service) die from suicide every month.
  • The highest rate of suicide is middle-aged white men; white males account for almost 70% of suicide deaths.
  • Men die by suicide almost 3.5 times more than women.
  • The suicide rate in the U.S. for children and young adults ages 10 to 24 increased by nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018.
  • Suicide awareness is not just another cliché activism phrase.
  • Suicide has spiritual, psychological, and biological connections.
  • Behavioral science, mental health studies, media, academia, and yes even the Church are all missing the mark in addressing this crisis.

The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) has designated September as National Suicide Prevention Month, and until I saw my social media feeds dotted with reminders of this fact, to be honest; I had completely forgotten about the fact that September was dedicated to this high gravity cause.

If you know my personal story, that may come as a surprise to you. After all, we’ve lost six people in my family from suicide and self-harm – including my dad, brother, and daughter – each life suddenly and tragically extinguished over about 30 years.

My dad shot himself in August 1984, my little brother overdosed in March 2004, and my little girl ended her own life in May 2015; their deaths being part of a heartbreaking list of precious souls in my family who also suddenly ended their own lives across different months and different years. Considering the size and scope of my life experience, it’s hard for me to confine ‘suicide awareness’ to just one month – I’m aware of suicide all the time. 

I think there are a lot of well-meaning motives and intentions regarding these awareness efforts, by people who genuinely care about the crisis of suicide. I applaud and thank them for stepping up and looking for a creative way to bring light to this highly sensitive and emotional topic.

All that being said, one of the things I’m known for is being blunt, honest, and frank – just ask my close friends and family, they’ll tell ya – so let me not mince words. I’ve never been someone who gravitates towards these types of public awareness campaigns; not because I don’t believe there’s an issue that needs to brought to light – hell, I’ve lost six people in my own family because of this specter of self-destruction. I know what the monster looks like and the wake of damage it leaves behind – I just think that the effort to bring awareness to the issue of suicide needs to include honest discussions, bold solutions, and most of all need to provide real, and tangible HOPE.

Hope. It’s a word which sadly, so many people feel is out of reach. Instead, they make an irreversible decision to leave this side of eternity.

The night my dad shot himself, his hopelessness fueled itself with both alcohol and anger followed by a brief moment of eerie silence just before he pulled the trigger. The evening my little brother died from an overdose, his hopelessness was drowned in alcohol and loneliness – his last breath drawn while he was passed out on a basement floor. The day my daughter shot herself, her hopelessness was fed by cruel lies and destructive narratives spread through social media and peer pressure. This same hopelessness also took three other people in my family – it deceived them by saying all hope was gone and that suicide was the only way out of their struggle, pain, and misery. 

So, as you can probably guess, I don’t compartmentalize suicide awareness to just one month. No, instead I’m aware of it every day; the hollow gut-wrenching pain left behind by unforeseen possibility, unanswered questions, and unfulfilled potential which echoes in my soul throughout the year. In my journey, I’ve found myself becoming protective of the word suicide. Not because I like the word, but because I’ve been deeply impacted so many times by it – you see, unlike most people who have never felt the pain of suicide firsthand, it’s more than a word to me. It’s more than a bad thing, it’s more than a tragedy, and it’s more than something sad and emotional. It’s an unwelcome invader in my life, a vicious thief who stole the most precious pieces of my heart, and a cunning killer which has not only gone unchecked, but has been unknowingly enabled through pop-culture and the information systems through which its narratives are propagated.

Awareness of the pain

The wake of phycological damage and mental pain left behind from suicide is incomprehensible by those who’ve never seen it. My dreams are still haunted by the horror of finding my dad with a self-inflicted gunshot wound when I was six years old and then, about 30 years later, finding my beautiful 15-year-old daughter the same way. 

Suicide is not glamorous – the people who succumb to its hopelessness just don’t get so sad to the point where they go on a long vacation, but just forgot to leave behind a call back number. No, instead suicide is permanent and often violent and gory; and someone always shows up to call 911 – many times it’s a close friend or a family member. 

Think about that for a moment. Most people cringe at scenes from a horror movie. Now imagine going about your day, like everything is normal, and then all of a sudden walking in on your most precious loved one and what looks like a scene out of one of those terrifying movies. It’s horrible! That’s one of the points I want to drive home. 

Nothing is solved by suicide – I say again, NOTHING!  It only makes things worse. There are days when I feel that the mental damage and trauma caused by what I’ve seen has aged me at least 15 to 20 years. I’ve struggled with nightmares, tremors, anxiety, anger, and panic attacks. And that’s just me – don’t get me started on what my wife and youngest daughter have had to deal with. It’s been no picnic and required lots of counseling, a strong commitment to healing, tenacious faith, raw prayers, along with the love and support of some great friends and family to help us persevere and push forwards.

It’s not just another ‘good cause’

Activism is great. It brings awareness to critical issues and fuels forward momentum which can lead to positive changes.  There are a lot of movements and organizations out there, but to me, the most effective and genuine activism is spearheaded by those who have firsthand boots-on-the-ground experience with the topic or issue that is being addressed. These people bring real, relatable knowledge and passion to the cause which they are mobilizing for. They are qualified and vetted voices on the subject at hand, validated champions who are on a mission which holds a piece of their heart and soul, and warriors on an intangible battlefield littered with the casualties of fallen family and friends.

Alongside these brave souls are those who have secondhand experience with suicide by watching and helping a friend or family member survive such a tragic loss. These are faithful allies and partners to those of us who are left behind – sentinels who stand in the gap and stay strong for people whose world has crashed and burst into flames. I’m privileged to have people like this in my own life – their names will never leave my lips, and the honor of their dedication will never fade from my memory…you know who you are.

However, on the flip side, in the process of raising awareness and encouraging dialog on something so deeply painful and personal, organizations and activists risk losing empathy, perspective, and sensitivity to everything I’ve just described. Death is an unwelcome specter and ravenous invader in this world – I believe we were never meant to experience it. Suicide adds to death’s cold chill by bringing compound pain and complicated grief. Suicide is sudden, unannounced, goes against our natural instinct for self-preservation, leaves countless unanswered questions, breaks the hearts of those left behind, and can set in motion a generational pattern of self-destruction – all of which stack together forming interwoven layers to the pain of suicide.

As if all these were not bad enough, those left behind by suicide – especially the close family – can often feel alone and without genuine comfort or judgment-free support. In my own experience, I’ve seen that most people just don’t know what to do or say in the aftermath, because, as a society, we are not equipped to give meaningful help or comfort to those grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide. But even worse than the lack of meaningful words or action, are the insensitive and calloused people who would dare judge and scrutinize those left behind to struggle as they try to bear up under such a massive burden.

Critical Questions

This is where I’m going to be a little blunt, so bear with me. I’m a military veteran with over 20 years of service. The majority of my time in uniform has been spent in a high paced operational environment doing the nation’s business in some of the world’s harshest locations. I started at the very bottom of the enlisted ranks, worked my way up to senior enlisted, eventually earning a commission as an officer. I’m seasoned, I’m experienced, and I’m honest. Adding to my rich military experience is a personal family journey that has challenged and tested every fiber of my soul and faith. I say all this to preface my series of succinct critical questions which I will be discussing in this upcoming series:

Is suicide a problem in America?

Who is affected?

What’s the cause and what’s making it worse?

Are there any real, comprehensive answers, and if so, what are they?

When it comes to critical issues like suicide, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of superficial activism. In our modern social media interconnected environment, its dangerously easy to get caught up in a cycle of platitudes and cliché’s which unintentionally dimmish the gravity of such a deeply emotional, personal, and life-altering topic. While I believe it’s necessary to raise public discussion and awareness of suicide, I feel that it’s just as, if not more, important to have an open dialog about finding solutions. 

Results, not Rhetoric

In this upcoming series, I’ll draw from my resume of ground zero experience in the suicide problem set; a scourge that not only haunted my family, but has been a plague on our nation and culture. I intend to be raw, honest, and enlightening, while at the same time providing my qualified inside perspective to help drive leadership – both in the Church and in the public square – to reassess and reengage this leading cause of preventable death, with a commitment to discover and embrace real solutions. 

My personal experience has led me to believe that suicide is preventable, and that there are very real and tangible factors that coalesce to form a fatal outcome. I believe there are concrete and comprehensive answers which will cure the deep sense of hopelessness that has tormented the hearts and minds of so many people – old and young alike. 

During this series, I’ll frankly layout details of my journey, dispel closely held myths related to suicide, provide a step-by-step analysis of problem factors, and draft a road map that will be a game-changer in the battle against suicide. My goal is to help families, churches, and communities effectively peel back the layers of this problem, identify critical elements, and frame out a proactive vs reactive approach. 

Adult leaders in the home, church, school, city hall and cinema have the power to reset the rhythm to which our youth are marching and to change the climate of our culture which is destructively influencing us all.

Suicide is a tactic employed by a hidden adversary – it’s time to expose it.

Five Years Ago…

Elizabeth's Last Picture

The last photograph taken of Elizabeth

Norfolk Zoo – Mother’s Day weekend – May 2015

Yesterday, as I sat in my truck getting ready to leave the parking lot of the military base where I work, I looked at the clock. The numbers on my touch screen display read 15:45…3:45pm for all the civilians out there. The strong low rumble of my F250’s diesel engine played like a bass laced soundtrack while the San Antonio sun, soaked its way through the driver’s side window tint. I looked at the digital numbers on the screen, pondering the heaviness which weighed on my heart – my subconscious mind was recalling nuances and details from a slice in time, which to this day echoes with loss and sadness.

I thought to myself, “Five years ago today, at this exact moment, little did we know that we were spending our last full 24 hours with our oldest daughter Elizabeth. That evening would be her last sunset, our last meal together, and our last time tucking her in to say goodnight.” Slivers and flashes of memories from that day came flooding back. I closed my eyes and could see little details and pieces of conversations as if I was right there, back in our old house in North Carolina. Sitting there in the truck, I could feel my heart race, my breathing becoming heavy, and my eyes begin to fill with tears. My lower lip quivered as a clear memory of Elizabeth’s beautiful face raced across my mind’s eye; “I miss you so much Elizabeth…why…why did you leave us?”, I scarcely whispered as tears escaped my closed eyes and rolled down my face.

If I could only have those last few hours back. If I could only tell Elizabeth how much we love her, just one more time. Her life was so full of promise and potential – talented, intelligent, and beautiful – and yet it was all stolen away from her when she left this world far before God intended.

The sudden and tragic passing of Elizabeth has forever impacted and changed our family. As I look back over the last five years, I can’t think of a time in my life where I’ve not only cried and prayed so much but in my journey of healing, I’ve also learned so much. I’ve discovered uncomfortable truths and hidden flaws about my character and areas of my life which were difficult to face at first, but by surrendering to God’s process of healing and growth, each day I’ve become better, stronger, wiser, and healthier. The white-hot pain caused by Elizabeth’s passing has become an unending and unquenchable fire and fuel for the forge in which God has been refining my soul.

In that fire so much gets burned away and yet so much becomes revealed. The stupid, trivial, and insignificant things that once occupied my time slowly began to fade away into ashes and smoke. Life suddenly became something as instant and sudden an on and off switch; one moment you’re here…the next moment you’re not. In a nanosecond, it can all be over.
Inside the furnace of refinement, I’ve seen that the greater the flaw the hotter the heat and the deeper the impurity the more time in the fire. The refinement process is just that – a process; one which continues throughout a lifetime. Refinement never ends, because when refinement ends so does growth. And when we stop growing, we stop becoming an outward life-flowing fountain and turn into a bitter self-centered drain.

My refinement process is far from over – but I’m a lot farther along in the journey of healing and purpose than I was even a year ago – and certainly lightyears ahead of where I was five years ago when my heart and soul was shattered upon the jagged rocks of hopelessness where so many others in my family had fallen.

These past five years have been a whirlwind. Changes, growth, and movement beyond what Erica and I had expected in those first days, weeks, and even months after Elizabeth had gone. Together, we look back and see how we have become different, both as individuals and as a couple. Different in a good way; different because we’ve had to navigate the worst terrain that any parent has to traverse, the death of a child – from suicide. A loss like that carries enough pain and heartache to last a thousand lifetimes.

A heartbreaking, soul-crushing crisis like the one we’ve faced has a unique way of drawing out the very best or worst in people. Our journey of healing and growth has also sharpened our awareness of human nature and the people around us. In and through these past five years we have been blessed by warm acts of kindness and empathy from people who were either strangers or acquaintances and sadly we also felt the cold callousness and even vitriol from some family members and people we thought were friends.

Throughout these five years, our relationships and circle of people we orbit around have morphed and changed for the better. We had experienced something traumatic, so to heal we engaged in an aggressive and determined journey of healing through faith, therapy, and prayer. We surrounded ourselves with the best minds in the mental and behavioral health community and immersed in the process of total rehabilitation. The progression was invasive and sometimes even painful – like being in traction because every bone in your body is broken after skydiving with a failed parachute.

We learned a lot about ourselves through it all. Values, beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives began to change while a vision and purpose for our lives began to form and become clear. As that vision began to gain 4K clarity and definition, so did our drive, tenacity, and sense of focus. Our primary motivating factor of pursuing a life of healthy thinking and excellence was (and always is) the memory of our daughter Elizabeth and the unshakable hope that we will see her again. Her life is far too valuable and sacred to be simply relegated into a woeful memory surrounded by cheap platitudes, shallow sentiments, or dysfunctional patterns of grieving.

With the unrelenting dedication to moving forward, comes inevitable changes. Changes that some colleagues, friends, and yes even some family members may not understand or worse even resent. That’s ok. It’s not their journey, it’s not their healing, and it’s not their Elizabeth. She was, and always will be, our daughter. Erica and I raised her…we nurtured her…and tragically we buried her.

On the flip side of all the challenges, Erica and I also saw people from within our family, community, and military network of friends rally around and hold us up when we were too weak to stand. Before Elizabeth passed away, many of these special people were either casual friends, coworkers, and some were even strangers – but on that terrible day, when the fire roared and the waters crashed, God stepped in and brought with Him a special cadre of human souls who to this day, I will never forget.
You know who are – you are the ones who ran towards the flames and flood and helped my family and I carry a burden than no one should ever have to carry. Thank you.

As I head into May 12th, 2020 – five years since my precious Elizabeth took her own life – I think back and see how far God has brought us, and then I eagerly look to the horizon. I trust that the Almighty will bless me with long life and many happy days as I serve Him in the purpose for which He created me.

I’ll see you again someday sweetie. Until that time, daddy has work to do here. I love you Elizabeth – always.

Full Speed Ahead…