Friday, June 23, 2017

The Troubles of Isaiah Campbell

This is super long, just to forewarn you!

My second book, The Struggles of Johnny Cannon, came out on October 13, 2015.

Two weeks later, I was in the emergency room because I thought I was dying. Over the course of the next year and a half, I watched my life as it had been on October 13, 2015, slowly but steadily come crumbling down around me. And today, I'm a better man for it.

Yeah, you guessed it, I've got a story to tell you.

But first, the backstory. 

If you didn't already know this about me, you should be aware as we enter this tale of life-altering events that I'm a man of faith. I'm a Christian, not in a "this is how I was raised and how I vote and God and guns" kind of way, but in a "I've come to believe that the truth I find in the Bible, and especially in the life and teachings of Jesus, is the foundational truth on which I'll base my life" kind of way. My faith is the core of who I am.

That's why I became a pastor. Well, that and the fact that, with a bible college degree, there's not a whole lot of other fields for which you are qualified. (Oh, yeah, did I not mention that? Yes, I went to a bible college to become a missionary at first, then a church planter, then a translator, then a musician, and eventually graduated with a ton of college credits (I'm proudest of the music and language training) and a diploma that declares I have a degree only in Bible)

Of course, I must admit that being a pastor has not ever been my dream. Writing books has always been my dream. And it was at that parenthetically mentioned bible college that I took a creative writing class in which my professor, Mrs. LaDonna Friesen, encouraged me to pursue my dream "because dreams come from God." And, wouldn't you know it, through her encouragement, I was able to sign with my dream literary agent, sell a book (then a couple more) to a Big 5 publisher, and see my dream of telling silly little story about an Alabama kid who takes on Castro, the Klan, and the CIA come true.

Meanwhile, in my pursuit of taking care of my family and doing the work that I trained to do, I took a position at a church as the Children's Pastor. And I must tell you, this position was a blessing-and-a-half financially, because it paid me pretty darn well. With that position and some freelance work, my wife was able to see her dream of staying home with our kids while they are still young come true. 

So there you have it. Two dreams coming true. Happily ever after, right?

Insert clever GIF here.

Yeah, so back to the breaking point two weeks after my second book came out.

I had scheduled some school visits to promote the book down in Florida, a trip that also included a Disney World vacation for me and my family. And so, there we were at Disney World, and I was pushing a stroller with my son in it, and all of a sudden, my chest decided my heart needed a great big hug. I nearly collapsed from the pain and the shortness of breath, dizzying pain that sent sparks through my eyes and made my brain feel like it was going to pop.

I was sure I was having a heart attack.

My wife got me into an emergency room as soon as possible and that's when we got news we weren't expecting.

I'd had a panic attack. In the happiest place on earth.

I'd never had a panic attack before, and I'm not afraid of large crowds, nor do I have any real phobias that create any kind of debilitating reaction in me, so this was completely unexpected.

As the doctor tried to help me sort through everything, she asked a good question. "What's your stress level?"

I just started laughing. "Let's see, a brand new book, an incredibly demanding job, a family of five that depends on my income? Yeah, I'm stressed."

She recommended therapy (which I began) and that I eliminate stress. Another doctor gave me some pills with the caveat that "this may hurt your creativity for a little while until you balance out." 

Within a week of starting the pills, I couldn't write. Like, at all. Not even a limerick. Of all the stressful thing in my life, writing was not what I'd hoped to eliminate.

Two months later, we found out my wife was pregnant. My chest began to tighten again. But I was happy beyond measure. I'd always wanted a big family, and four kids just seemed right for us.

But then, two months after that, we lost the baby in a miscarriage.

And so my writing was gone. My hope for another baby was gone. Thankfully I still had friends (though I didn't tell a lot of people about all that was happening, because I was raised in Texas and anything beyond "hello" is over-sharing), still had my church family, and still had a job that paid well enough to keep us in our Philadelphia apartment and pay our bills. Even though my dreams were gone, at least my life wasn't in shambles.

A couple months later, my wife and I went on an anniversary trip to Miami, where we also celebrated my birthday, and I decided to stop looking at what I'd lost and instead focus on a new beginning. I had one more book coming out in 2016 (AbrakaPOW), and after that, if I never wrote again, I'd had a good run. Maybe Pastor Isaiah was who I'd be for the rest of my life and Author Isaiah would be a fun memory to tell the grandkids.

The day after my birthday, I walked into my office at the church and started reading my birthday card. I was immediately called into the executive pastor's office for a meeting.

My employment was terminated, effective immediately. I needed to clear out my desk and be gone ASAP. No, there was no moral failure. No, I hadn't done anything wrong. I just wasn't the right person for the job, and so I was no longer employed.

Pastor Isaiah died on June 2, 2016. And, with one quick meeting, my family was without income. My wife and I drove home, stunned, realizing that we couldn't afford to live in our apartment anymore. We contacted our landlord and a friend and agreed to move out within a couple of weeks. All of our things to storage. Our bodies to live with friends and family.

Homelessness is an odd state to be in, particularly when you have a book release coming in a few months and you're still going to schools and bookstores to promote your last one.

Promoting books is an odd thing to do when you no longer have the ability to write creatively. Even more odd when you know that you've already gotten and spent your advance money to keep your family afloat and, most likely, you'll never see another cent of profit from these books you're pushing into the hands of happy little readers.

Yeah, this story sucks. I'm sorry. But, thankfully, it gets better.

I tried to force my creative spirit to return over the next few months, but it didn't play nice with me, partially because those pills never did level things out. Finally, with advisement, I weaned off of them, but the creativity was slow in returning. I was desperate to sell something, anything, to get an income, so I peppered my agent with idea after idea, most of them terrible and hackneyed. She was patient with me. I was impatient with myself. Patience and homelessness don't work well together, especially when you've got a family.

We were homeless through Christmas. We spent the holidays in my brother's house.

Some time around then, my wife got pregnant again. (Apologies to my brother, I promise we washed the sheets) But this pregnancy was complicated and difficult. We had to spend time in the ER from the very beginning. Finally, we found a specialist in western PA who could help my wife best. In March, through some miracles that go beyond explanation but I attribute to the blessing of God, we were able to rent a house and moved our family closer to the doctor. I got a job substitute teaching and a second job working in a restaurant. Somehow, we started making it again.

And, somehow, I started to find myself again. I started doing cognitive behavioral therapy (which I'd forgone in favor of pills before). I started reading for fulfillment and self-growth. I started journaling. Oh, and praying. That became a vital part of my daily routine again too.

And then, like a dying ember that finds fresh kindling, my creativity began to come back to life. I started writing again. Short stories, then longer stories. And now the first draft a novel is being born on my desk, a book about spies and adventure and heroism and an all-girl-school and finding life anew.

And, in just a couple months, my second son will be born.

We're still impoverished (literally). We're still struggling. My income right now is less than $2,000 a month. We still have to pray that God will provide for our bills and our food and any emergencies that might pop up.

But I'm nowhere near as stressed today as I was in 2015. Because I have the two most valuable invisible currencies in abundance.

Dreams and Faith.

This is the first time I'm sharing the fullness of this story publicly, but I'm doing it for a reason. I'm doing it so that, as God provides for my family, He will get all the glory and credit for doing what only He can. Taking a boy like me and doing something amazing for me and through me, for the world.

I didn't write this blog post to solicit help, but rather to be honest with you about my life. I want you to see that, even in this difficult time, the positive messages I spread on twitter and facebook are genuine and I believe them. I believe in God's love, I believe that we can all make a difference, I believe in the power of art and stories to change the world, and I believe you and I can be heroes if we just try. Whether or not the church I'd worked for was right in terminating my employment is no reflection on my faith in God or in the Church, because I'm still passionate in my faith and in my love for the community of Christ.

But more than that, I want you to see the audacity of hope (thanks, Obama), because it was the lack of hope that nearly killed me even though I had a book and a job and a vacation in Disney World back in 2015. But it is the presence of hope today that enables me to find joy and gladness, even though I have no "reason," no new book contracts, no real job, no nothing. But I have hope. I have dreams. I have faith.

And in that, I have more than enough to be happy.


1 comment:

Brinton Culp said...

Thank you for sharing! We are currently reading the 1st Johnny Cannon book and have already read the 2nd which is the first book my son devoured--and I loved it too! (The voice was perfect!) And again thank you for sharing your personal story. Thank you for sharing faith, hope, and dreams. May you continue to grow these in your own journey as your stories grow them in your readers. Blessings