The power of nurturing relationships to assist healing is legendary. Where relationships are fractured and strained, seeking reconciliation can also be a catalyst for even more healing.
We’ve spoken about a great deal about external and internal work people describe in their journey of healing. Lest it seems so simple as “just get to work,” we begin this next section with a helpful reminder from an older gentleman about the limitations of relying on our own selves alone:
Using willpower alone, I was unable to change these patterns. Battling my thoughts made me their prisoner, and resisting my emotions energized them. Until I realized that my mind didn’t have all the answers, I was attacking the problem, not the root cause. By itself, my mind could never create the wholeness necessary for healing. (44)
On their own, most people don’t seem to be able to find what they need. Hence, the importance of the next two installments—both of which focus on connection and all that flows from vibrant, ennobling, supportive relationships of different kinds. Although some kind of deepening, strengthening or healing of the connection with other people around is no doubt relevant to all the healing stories sampled here, we draw below on themes from 40 of the 77 accounts where participants spoke most prominently about the role of connection in their healing (4, 6, 11, 10, 19, 21, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30, 36, 38, 43, 44, 46, 47, 50, 51, 56, 60, 66, 69, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 78, 80, 82, 85, 86, 87, 96, 98, 100, 102, 107, 108)
Connecting with Healing Relationships
The first common pattern that shows up across virtually everyone’s story is the role that key relationships and community support plays in someone’s healing journey. This is unsurprising, since belonging and love are such integral parts of a joyful human life.
Being open and honest with what you’re facing. One especially common healing pattern—and even more common advice— is to “talk with someone.” That can mean reaching out to a friend, trusted leader or securing “professional counseling.” (72) Jennifer spoke of the value of “talk[ing] to someone about your troubles” and “admit[ing] that you need help.” (28)
This is no guarantee, of course, that this “someone” will take what you’re saying seriously. One woman described a professional minimizing what she was experiencing, to which she told him, “We’re talking suicidal thoughts here; we’re not talking ‘I’m a bit miserable.” (72)
In other cases, people may simply not know what to do to be supportive. Julie described being at her “wits end” one spring: “I was so depressed that I could hardly motivate myself to do anything, and I was having so much trouble concentrating at work that I was fearful of losing my job.” So, she said, “I told my friends how I was feeling and they tried to help and were incredibly supportive, but they didn’t know what to do for me.” Julie decided to then turn to her parents and siblings, “Finally, at a family dinner, everything came out about how horrible I felt and how hopeless everything seemed.” Yet this sharing “left my family in a state of complete fear—they were so afraid that I may try and hurt myself.”
Thankfully, one member of the family made a suggestion that day which transformed her path, leading to her own upward spiral, as Julie started meeting with a practitioner that takes a comprehensive therapeutic lifestyle change approach. She describes, “it’s all been working great. A year ago, I was isolating myself from everyone and would barely leave the house. Now, I’m seeing friends on a weekly basis.” This woman concluded, “being open that day changed everything.” (71)
Notice that, even if most people respond to a story of depression with confusion or fear, having just one person’s inspired support can make a difference. Unfortunately, that’s not always easy to find, especially given how isolated many people with depression feel. As one man described his grappling:
Quite a few times after work I had the impulse to just steer the car up the canyon and keep on driving, going from somewhere engaged and productive to nowhere in particular, escaping the responsibilities that depression magnified to what seemed like an Atlas weight. But then I didn’t. I turned toward home, and there I found a wife and family willing—and anxious—to help. (6)
For many different reasons, reaching out for help can feel just plain hard. Jennifer said, “It takes incredible courage to reach out for help when the tools and resources you have are no longer working.” They conclude that learning “how to open up and find a person you would like to talk to ….[is] one of the most important lessons and also very hard to do.” (28)
Disclosing to others how we’re really doing and reaching out to them has risks—there is no guarantee that the response will be positive or helpful. But, disclosure also has the potential to make a substantial difference, not only by the tangible treatment it can lead people towards, but by the healing nature of community support itself. Crystal, who had been feeling awful and isolated, spoke of deciding that she couldn’t leave her church meeting “without someone knowing what was going on.” (82)
Finding nurturing relationship support. That openness prompted a newfound community support that rippled through everything else. As Crystal then described it:
From that night on, I was [there each week] and the people there kept including me…inviting me to events…these people didn’t just put on events as some church gimmick or marketing promotion—they actually cared about one another. They wanted to spend time together, and it was a joy and mission to bring in new people. They also served together…[People] I barely knew helped me move all my things up to my apartment [when I moved]. There was an indescribable connection and common mission that I saw in these people that I’ve never seen before. (82)
“Having basic friendships wasn’t enough” she pointed out—“I needed to be known and accepted by a consistent group of women, with whom I could be authentic and open about the deepest parts of my struggles.” This woman went on to quote the New Testament teaching, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”—before adding, “These women became my closest friends, and I’m still amazed at the difference that living with a Biblical community makes.” (82)
For some, this unique level of support was found in a faith community. Nicole, who had faced a painful past, spoke of the impact of “attend[ing] church services as part of a healthy church family”—remarking that “after a painful childhood and the turmoil of the world. I felt loved—it was a place of belonging. I found an open, friendly, shoulder to cry on—and was able to talk with people about my desperate feelings.” (102)
Wherever it comes from, the moment of finding real fellowship and friendship can be a game-changer. Jane recounted:
As a last ditch effort to find some measure of relief from the pain and constant disorientation that plagued me, I went to my first Emotions Anonymous (EA) meeting. I found the people there to be attractive, funny, welcoming, and amazingly honest. Why, this bunch talked about feelings of jealousy, hatred, anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression as if these were normal topics of conversation! They made it look so easy. Here was a group of people who were talking openly about all my secrets and shameful feelings. They had them too! It was quite a revelation. For the first time in my life, I felt real hope. I was not alone!
She continued, “The members of EA are now my new family. They care for me in times of illness. They comfort me in times of trouble. They lend me their strength when I haven’t enough of my own…. life’s journey is much harder and slower when I try to go it alone. I need the uplift of the others in my group.” (12)
On a more intimate level, friends and family clearly have a big impact. Jada spoke of the importance of the “people I surround myself with”—describing how her daughter helped her notice her true mental condition. (78)
Professionals can, of course, also provide some wonderful emotional support. As one woman reflected, “One of the things that I appreciated most about Dr. Lee’s style of treatment is that she treated me as an equal partner. Instead of talking down to me like so many other doctors, she listened to my experiences and ideas and incorporated them into the treatment plan. I felt respected and listened to, and that helped keep me motivated.” (51)
Not as easy as it looks. As evident above, it’s not always so easy to find support that’s really supportive and help that’s really helpful. More than simply a willingness to reach out and be vulnerable, finding that support can take some additional work, including inside oneself. As one person described it, the question is “how to get the right kind of support from loved ones and not push them away.” (100)
And as simple as it sounds, this kind of connection with others can be surprisingly challenging for someone facing serious depression. For instance, healthy and helpful connection can sometimes be undercut by patterns of wanting to appear normal, which can invoke predictable misunderstanding and confusion among loved ones. As one woman described her husband’s experience:
Because he was good at hiding it, people didn’t believe us when we talked about it. Most of our family members didn’t believe us. There was a lot of judgment and I remember, in the darkest days, almost wishing my husband had cancer rather than depression. At least with a visible illness everybody would want to be there for us, instead of running from us and talking behind our backs. I felt betrayed on many levels. (108)
Tragically, some go for years without finding someone to help them. Brooke, who was trafficked at age 7, said “I did not receive the help I needed to heal” from the awful trauma. As a result, she said, “I neglected my inner world…in an effort to survive, seek acceptance, and prove my worth. Yet ultimately, it left me feeling depleted and alone.” (80)
Although more awareness of what’s going on for someone else is clearly valuable, sometimes too much direct help can be less helpful than a connection that is less intrusive. As William said:
I am a bit of a loner, I actually enjoy alone time and do not like crowds. …I was fortunate enough to make a good friend at my new job. While he did not know about my depression…I had somebody to talk to on a daily basis, even if it was just about work and nothing exceedingly personal. Being able to conduct conversation on safe topics, i.e., not depression, and receiving no judgment back from talking to him was really uplifting. (100)
While it’s common to recognize the value of connection, it’s less likely for people to appreciate the need for space. One man spoke from his own experience about the importance to let relationships (and people) breathe sometimes:
In terms of family relationships, we all have families; we all come from some family, and like it or not, those relationships define us in really important ways. I would say to those families who are struggling to relate to one another, and perhaps there is someone who is quite ill or who is facing severe mental/emotional challenges. I would just suggest that there is a real power in reserving some time, day by day, for not doing anything. Not fixing anything. Not fixating on these problems coming up. We fall into these ruts so quickly, where ‘This person is depressed, we need to make them not depressed.’ Maybe we’ll blame them for being depressed because they were always the lazy one…It’s so important to let that relationship breathe and give it space to be what it is. It could be depression, or an eating disorder, or could be schizophrenia; it could be very severe. But, can we reserve, or rather, can we defer the impulse to judge it, and to need it to be something else? Can we just make space for it, to allow it to be as it is? In my experience, when people came into my life and were able to just let me show up as I was, all of a sudden I was resisting my own experience less and less, I was more and more okay with that. And that gave my experience an opportunity to just have its voice and have its life. Once you give something space, it’s a matter of time before it expands, expands, expands and then contracts, contracts, and then before you know it, it’s a fond memory.” (11)
Clearly, there is a healthy form of solitude we all can benefit from. How exactly to preserve someone’s appropriate space, given the common pattern of isolation (24) in so many stories, is not so clear—especially when the two can blend together. As Joanne said, “I used to isolate myself; I would go to L.A. and my friends wouldn’t even know I’d come through town.” (72)
Becoming acutely lonely, according to some new research, is as stressful as being physically assaulted. And when this loneliness goes on for some time, it can take on a life of its own as people shut down socially, and start to experience suspicion, fear and hypervigilance about strangers. As Johann put it, “You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most…as disconnection spirals into more disconnection.”
This man went on to share his feeling that depression is “itself a form of grief—for all the connections we need, but don’t have.” To counter this trend in his own life, he described proactively “spend[ing] much more time face-to-face with the people I love” and “t[ying] myself more deeply into collectives—with friends, with family.” Johann reported, “I am more deeply connected to other people….than I ever have been before.” (21)
Receiving love. Some people wrote of the distinctive impact of finally receiving love from people around able to minister to their needs. After reflecting on her need to “talk to someone,” Marsha remarked on how “Ted was always there for me, always ready to listen, again and again and again, always giving comfort. He loved me in the purest sense. And I loved him. This is how Ted kept me alive.” About another person’s support, she likewise said, “He understood me in a way I hadn’t ever been understood; I felt nurtured in a new way.” Speaking of an even deeper relationship with her husband, Marsha then said:
I had a sense of belonging, of coming home. He was the spiritual part of me, the essence of me, as if for the first time. His love was pure and strong, coming from his radical acceptance of me. It transformed me. I was no longer without family, no longer homesick, no longer alone and lonely. I was me at last.
She reflected, “I felt the profound touch of his love… Kind words can be short and sweet, but their echoes are truly endless.” All these decisions—in all these various relationships—arose from this woman’s “active decision to find a community where I would feel supported emotionally and spiritually.” Reflecting on these connections, she said, “life is all about love….I was happier living with people.” (43)
“You need a good support system,” Ashley person said—the closer the better, as they continued, “I’m lucky I have a lot of love in my life. That helps.” She then described the impact of her marriage, which “allowed me to appreciate how much he loves me.” (75)
The impact of such loving support is especially apparent in times when someone is desperate. In one dire moment when a man admitted standing on a bridge ready to take his life, Mark described how a “stranger in the light-brown jacket talked to me.”
I don’t remember about what. He talked to me for a while. I don’t know for how long. I didn’t talk back much, but I listened, at least a little. He clearly wasn’t an expert at pulling kids off bridges. He wasn’t particularly comforting, or deep, or intentional. He was just there. I didn’t want another person telling me about all the things I should do, could do, but probably wouldn’t do. I just wanted someone who was there. Someone real, who wasn’t going to try to fix me or scold me or preach to me about all the things that were wrong with me. I wanted someone who could just be with me, maybe show me how to live.
This “saviour-stranger” as Mark called him, was “good at being quiet, too. Not stifled silence, but a silence I felt, the kind that gets you out of your own way and allows space for someone else. Maybe he was looking for the right words, or just didn’t know what to say anymore.” He thought, “That’s okay. People don’t always have to have an answer for everything.”
Mark went on to emphasize what the stranger didn’t say that was helpful:
We talked about my mom, my sister, my brother, but he didn’t tell me how much I would hurt them if I died. Even if he had, I wouldn’t have believed him. “Everyone will be better off without me.” I thought I was doing them all a favor, saving them the trouble of me….Over the course of our mostly one-sided, sparse conversation, he didn’t try to tell me that everything would be okay. How would you know? He didn’t give me any of the empty motivational platitudes. “Tomorrow’s another day!” That’s the problem. He didn’t say that what I was doing was wrong, or that I was selfish, or sick, or too young to understand.
“Instead,” he said, “the stranger in the light-brown jacket asked me about my life.”
He asked about my interests, my passions, the people and places and things that I cared about. He asked me to tell him about myself with what I felt was a genuine interest in getting to know my story. It didn’t seem to bother him that I didn’t answer much, even if I still heard him. I could hear him a bit more with each minute that ticked by. It was comforting to have someone stand with me. The little I said, he heard. He saw me. He didn’t leave. Maybe it’s because he stayed that, for those few minutes, I did too. (25)
This moment was a striking contrast with other experiences in his life, when even when Mark tried, the words he shared with others proved a barrier: “Attempting to telegraph what I needed without the right words had proven futile. I felt as though I had tried, and failed, to bridge the gaping chasm that continued to grow inside me, as who I saw myself to be splintered and split away from who I sensed others saw.” By contrast:
When the stranger in the light brown jacket stood at my back and connected with the version of myself inside my head, on the other side of the chasm, it helped. When the [other] stranger on the sidelines shouted to me, at me, objectified me, I gave up. The autopilot trigger was re-engaged. Triggers can be trivial, tiny vibrations of words, for one already teetering on the edge. (25)
Mark eventually gained the confidence to enter into a close and vibrant relationship. Johnann described this kind of focused support as an “antidepressant” in itself—and how the embrace of a community around us can become “empowering” to help a “depressed person to change his life.” From his own life, he remarked, “when people rediscover each other, problems that previously seemed insoluble start to look soluble”—sharing his feeling that “they didn’t need to be drugged. They needed to be together.” (21)
Clearly it can be helpful to share this among our close friends and family. But Johann later insisted that “we have shrunk our sense of self to just our ego (or, at most, our family), and this has made our pain swell, and our happiness shrivel”—arguing that “if we return to seeing our distress and our joy as something we share with a network of people all around us, we will feel different.” (21)
Sometimes the general love of anyone around is all we need. Other times, it’s powerful to receive love from people who have been through similar things. As Melissa said, “I wasn’t alone in my anguish, and there were others like me in the world!” (38) Johann went on to reflect on what he wished he could have told his “younger self”:
You’re not going to be able to deal with this problem alone. It’s not a flaw in you….if you stay broken up and isolated, you will likely stay depressed and anxious. But if you band together, you can change your environment….You have to turn now to all the other wounded people around you, and find a way to connect with them, and build a home with these people–a place where you are bonded to one another and find meaning in your lives together.
He also summarized, “We have been tribeless and disconnected for so long now. It’s time for us all to come home.” (21) Yet like everything described in this review, this isn’t a panacea, as Crystal noted: “Even with new friends and church activities, the darkness was still very much present and trying to lure me back into the deafening silence of isolation.” (82)
But what of those who struggle to find someone?
Creative ways to connect. One man, Grant, found a reassuring sense of connection to deceased family members by immersing himself in the history of his family. He said that he “gradually” started noticing how he began to “feel lighter” as these connections deepened—to the point that “after two years,” he “didn’t even notice the depression at all.” (19)
For others, animals provided valuable connection, underscoring “the role of pets in healing from depression.” (4) As one woman said, “I leaned on my relationships with my family, friends and dog.” (77)
Julie detailed, “Psychiatrists, therapists, and family tried to intervene, but nothing reached her until the day she decided to do one hopeful thing: adopt a Golden Retriever puppy she named Bunker.” Yet what could “one small puppy” do in the face of so much pain? This woman went on to describe her connection to a pet as “a place without ridicule, doubt, sorrow, or anger” where “the true healing” began for her as she found “the power of love.” As Julie summarized, “There are times when another creature can hold our love until we can hold it for ourselves. And then, in perfect symbiosis, the beloved can become the lover, until they are one force.”
This woman highlighted “the astonishing ways animals can help heal even the most broken hearts and minds.” Still another described how the love of a dog stands out for the fact that it involves “no judgment or criticism, just unconditional love on a continuous level.” Reflecting on 17 years of companionship and sweet support from her dog, Julie reflected how he had arrived “about 3 months old and looked at me with old and wise eyes…gentle and loving. He never left my side and was a Godsend at a time when we both needed love.” (66)
The relationship nudge to keep going. In a previous installment in the series, we explored ways that individual schedules and commitments to physical activity and work were important nudges to help “keep moving,” even when people didn’t feel like it. In a similar way, these commitments to volunteer and do their part in supportive relationships seemed to provide accountability that helped decrease pain. As one woman described her husband, “even in the midst of depression he would get out of bed…and accept challenges. Like when he got called as a [volunteer in a religious congregation] where we had moved. He said yes to the calling that has been the hardest calling our family has ever had. The branch was very small, with many severe problems.” (108)
Sarah admitted feeling at a low moment, “I wasn’t interested in staying alive for myself. I wasn’t important to myself.” But at that time, she said, “I was important to my daughter.” Sarah continued:
I loved so many things that went along with being a mother. I loved doing all of the things with Grace that my mother had never done with me. Starting when she was a baby, we read together, which became a part of her nighttime ritual. We said prayers before bed and then I would kiss her on the forehead goodnight…. I always tried to listen to Grace, who would tell me about her day…All of this, engaging with my daughter in a way that my mother never engaged with me, was immensely healing. Knowing I was important to Grace gave me strength.” (36)
The responsibility and meaning in connection is evident in so many stories. For Joanne, thoughts of how her condition could affect her daughter pushed her to make some changes. “The thing that made me go for help was probably my daughter. She was something that earthed me, grounded me, and I thought, ‘This isn’t right; this can’t be right. She cannot grow up with me in this state.’” (72)
Sometimes this accountability is implicit and other times it’s more direct and conscious.
Another man expressed, “I allowed my marriage and family responsibilities to ‘force me’ to get up and go to work—and that compelling sense of duty has proved one of my greatest blessings.” He then went on to recount more direct and specific ways in which his wife provided accountability and support: “At first, I relied heavily on my wife in my psychological self-care. She provided perspective and alternate ways of viewing my experience, myself, and my relationships”—something he called “an invaluable reality check on the spiritual despondency and nihilism depression can bring.”
He admitted, “She hates the spiritual toll she sees depression take sometimes,” but added, “She musters me and together we push back.”
Together, we’ve gotten better and better—me not looking to my wife to be ‘responsible’ to make me happy; her accepting that while her love makes her want to take on that task, she can’t and shouldn’t shoulder it exclusively. Yet she’s there for me, and she has learned in good humor to swat at the depression from time to time like a fly in her kitchen—and it makes me laugh. (6)
Spouses can be huge supports for each other, as one mother recounted about her son, “I encouraged him to come to the gym with me because I know that physical exercise can help the mind also. Some days he didn’t want to go but I always persuaded him never to give up.” (107)
Ashley spoke of loving reminders from her sister that helped her reframe her emotional pain, “Sometimes when I feel burnt out, she’ll remind me how deeply I feel,” admitting how she often takes things too much to heart. (75)
Jane described feeling mentored in a better way to live by her community: “The brilliant insights and wisdom of those early EA members who were here when I got here have allowed me to learn a healthy way of life (have actually allowed me to live a life) beyond my highest expectations.” In the wake of this, she’s been able to provide that same thing for others, “The thirty or so people whom I have sponsored over the years have also inspired me, with their honest and courageous actions, to grow along with them.” (10)
Giving love + getting outside of your head. As powerful as it is to receive nurturing love and encouraging accountability, that’s not the only element of relationships people find healing. In addition to taking love in, people spoke at length at what it meant to be able to give and share love with other people. “One of the most counter-intuitive pieces of my recovery was volunteering [to serve others]” Crystal said, “this was pivotal in learning how to get my eyes off of myself and start considering others.”
She went on to acknowledge, “I never would have been able to hear this in the middle of my struggle, but my obsessive focus on my own feelings could be described as ‘selfish.’ If we break that down…’self-ish,’ focusing on oneself…it’s clearly true, because I was doing that constantly.” (82) Part of this undoubtedly arises from the isolation so many experience with depression. As one individual put it, “in my isolation I was stuck inside of my head, focusing on myself most of the time.” (94)
Johann acknowledged the self-absorbed quality often common in depression:
When you are depressed…you feel that “now everything is about you.” you become trapped in your own story and your own thoughts, and they rattle around in your head with a dull, bitter insistence. Becoming depressed or anxious is a process of becoming a prisoner of your ego, where no air from the outside can get in.
He cites Bill Richards as saying, “Depression is a kind of constricted consciousness…You could say people have forgotten who they are, what they’re capable of, have gotten stuck…Many depressed people can only see their pains, and their hurts, and their resentments, and their failures. They can’t see the blue sky and the yellow leaves, you know?” Speaking from his experience, Johann then says:
If you want to stop being depressed, don’t be you. Don’t be yourself. Don’t fixate on how you’re worth it. It’s thinking about you, you, you that’s helped to make you feel so lousy. Don’t be you. Be us. Be we. Be part of the group. Make the group worth it. The real path to happiness…comes from dismantling our ego walls—from letting yourself flow into other people’s stories and letting their stories flow into yours; from pooling your identity, from realizing that you were never you—alone, heroic, sad—all along. No, don’t be you. Be connected to everyone around you. Be part of the whole….…The self isn’t the solution. The only answer lies beyond it. (21)
Linda likewise described coming to the realization that “I now knew what I hungered for—a connection with people…I chased silly romances…and it didn’t fulfill me. I chased money and fame, hoping the sense of accomplishment would take care of it, but none of that worked. My healing came through connection, it came through motivating and encouraging others, and it came through making an impact in people’s lives.” (26)
Healing through newfound purpose in life. Marsha said, “one way to alleviate depression is volunteer work”—writing how she went to college “in order to help others” more. She elaborated on the “power of love-accepting kindness and the power of loving others,” specifically describing learning to help others who were hurting: “What these people obviously needed was for me to be compassionate, to validate them, to show that the factors driving their suffering made sense to me.” (43)
This reflects the “power of validation” in both directions, given and received. (24) Juanita “found a special place to volunteer” that felt right to her—“enough interaction without any real conversation to speak of.” (47) [Notice how often people are speaking of just the right amount of connection—e.g., some talking, but not too much…. some chance to interact as a volunteer, but not too much].
Sarah wrote about how “work had given me purpose, routine, and a reliable income”—but how she wanted more, recounting a short, repetitive prayer, “Please, God, help me; what do you want me to do?” (36) Another man spoke of the critical importance of what he called “consecration” or “seeking a life of Christlike purpose, meaning, and relevance.” (66)
As reflected above, there is responsibility and meaning in connection, perhaps especially in relationship to children:
- Joanne described how thoughts of how her emotional condition could affect her daughter pushed her to finally reach out and get help. “The thing that made me go for help was probably my daughter,” she said. “She was something that earthed me, grounded me, and I thought, This isn’t right; this can’t be right. She cannot grow up with me in this state.” (72)
- Jonathan said, “I have been blessed with a four-year-old son who inspires me every day.” (96)
- Another woman described the profound impact of “playing happily” with her two children and seeing “this peace and comfort and love in their life—how different from [my life]!” especially “because both of them have their parents in their lives and are filled with the Holy Spirit…the most amazing thing.” She added, “if that’s the only thing that happens—that my children know who God is, and how important he is” then it’s enough. (85/111)
More broadly, people also find fulfillment in professional activities of various kinds. One woman who found great healing in the opportunity to create and serve in her business, said, “creating, giving, sharing and connecting gave me reasons to get out of bed each morning and defined why I was here….Creating was my most compelling reason to live and armor against meaninglessness.” Melissa added, “In order to derive purpose, my abiding mission was now to channel darkness into light and forge meaning through connecting with others.” (38)
And Matt also noted, “My professional activities as a teacher and a marriage and family therapist time and again took me outside myself and proved to be a miraculously transformative and healing influence” that reinforced “the joy of a purposeful, generative life.” This man further reflected that “serving, helping, lifting others…lifts me, amazingly and reliably”:
Paradoxically, losing myself in love is my best self-care and healing prescription, not only alleviating but actually putting depression completely into remission for a time, replacing it with pure joy and fulfilling purpose….While depression was still part of my mortal makeup, the joy of giving myself in love and service transcended that mortal reality and I found myself rising above and entirely out of depression. Even in the face of daunting days, I have found helping others to be a reliable pathway to joy. Pouring myself into the art and practice of loving others lifts my spirits, turns my mind and heart, and brings relief and sustaining packets of joy. In a kind of spiritual apprenticeship and mentoring, the hint of depression came to be a signal that I needed the rejuvenating spiritual exercise of ‘getting outside myself.’ (6)
Johann emphasized, “Everybody wants to feel useful, and have purpose…[people] want to feel like they’ve had an impact on other humans—that they’ve improved the world in some way… Happiness is really feeling like you’ve impacted another human positively. I think a lot of people want their work to be like that.”
From his own experience, he recounted, “Even if you are in pain, you can almost always make someone else feel a little bit better…when I applied this technique, I realized that it often—though not always—stopped the slide downward. It worked much more effectively than trying to build myself up alone.” (21)
Matt also described how he “determined to make relationships the most important consideration in every context”—elaborating:
I chose to be liberal in enjoying the pleasure of deeply and authentically connecting with people, everyone my life came in contact with. I discovered I could live well with depression through nurturing caring relationships. Pouring myself into marriage and family life, and letting my wife and children pull me in, too, is a lifeline—drawing me out of that inward-focused spiral that seems to be part of the etiology of depression, at least for me. The key ingredient here seems to be pouring myself into my relationships. It’s not about relying on others’ choices to make me happy, but about pouring my capacity for caring into them. (6)
One individual went on to describe another woman’s story whose recovery from depression and anxiety was catalyzed by intentionally seeking out people to do even some small good through community gardening. As she put it, “I was really almost desperate to reconnect with people….I stopped obsessing about me so much. I had other people to worry about.” She elaborated:
There’s something about engaging in the natural environment, even if it’s a little scrubby patch in a really urban area…I was just reconnecting with the earth and noticing little things. You stop hearing the airplanes and the traffic, and you get a sense of just how tiny we are, our insignificance….It was actually getting my hands dirty, literally getting them dirty” that helped her to discover a sense of place. “It wasn’t just me. There’s the sky. Out there’s the sun…It isn’t all about me right? It isn’t about my battles with injustices. There’s a wider picture here, and I need to be part of that again. That’s how I felt sitting in this garden with my hands in the flowerbed.”
There are a wide variety of other examples. Jane said, “I became of service to others and, eventually, spreading the message of the Twelve Steps became more important to me than reviewing my own miseries. (12)
In addition to the objective physical service, this turn outwards includes the cultivation of something new inside. Johann described another woman who cultivated loving-kindness for others, as she described it, “That same tender, warm happiness you have for your child when they’re having fun and they’re happy or they get something they like, you can feel that for a complete stranger, and it’s quite incredible. It’s almost like looking at them through the eyes of a loving parent that just wants someone they love to be happy and have good things, and there’s a tenderness to it for me.”
He reflected in response, “If you can be happy for others, there’s always going to be a supply of happiness available to you. Vicarious joy is going to be available millions of ways every single day. If you want to look at other people and be happy for them, you can be happy every single day, regardless of what’s happening to you.” (21)
Matt, who previously described “pouring” himself into relationships emphasized the impact of cultivating more “expansive love”—going on to reflect on the cultivation of charity as something he considered a spiritual gift: “Spiritual self-care for depression has also included recognizing that some of the dark brooding of my depression directed toward others is inconsistent with the pure love of Christ, and I needed to chase it away with charity. Together, my wife and I have learned to detect these dangerous thought detours and instigate a U-turn to more wholesome, sanctified thoughts and pure love toward all around us.”
Admitting that cultivating this gift required “real spiritual exertion,” Matt spoke of how his faith was a “compass pointing the way to thoughts and feelings toward others that rescue me from a depressive downturn.” (6)
Healing, healing others, and finding more yourself. We’ve explored how different kinds of relationships and connections—being heard, being loved and having chances to serve—can help encourage and support healing. It’s also the obvious case that healing itself reinforces the health of relationships. As Ashley said, “my friendships have only gotten stronger” and “all of my relationships have improved” as she has found more healing. (75)
Some spoke of finding new purpose in the wake of fresh healing. For instance, Mark described feeling like he had “finally escaped, for real this time and not only in my head. Now that he had “finally become unstuck” he felt like he was “now making up for lost time.” In arriving at college, he said “I opened up and found a whole new life. I followed my passions, I started to come out of my shell, and by my final year I had been elected student council president as well as the youngest-ever president of a provincial community mental health organization.”
All this clearly reflected some of the healing Mark had found, but it also fueled even more of the same, as he said: “being busy, being connected to others and having the clear goal of a degree to work toward helped.” He added, “As happy as I was to believe I was making a difference in something bigger than myself, my new initiatives were making a difference in me too. …I liked the sense of being useful.” (25)
It was especially common to hear people speak of being motivated in their healing by a hope of being able to help others facing similar pain. As Marsha described her deep motive in healing, to “get out of hell and get others out.” (43)
Melissa reflected, “there must be others locked in the throes of despair unable to break free” while adding, “If I could solve the puzzle of my own life then perhaps I could help others do the same.” Because of the role creativity played in her own healing, she mused more specifically, “I could use my life experience and encourage others locked in their heads to find a lifeline and purpose through creating, giving to or helping others from the wellspring in their hearts.” She went on:
Perhaps hearing my message might forge a sense of kinship and connection with similar souls, allowing them to move forward with newfound purpose. For I knew my mission was to now help others unearth what gave their lives meaning and find the outlet to express it to the world, making light from dark and connection from isolation. (38)
Mark admitted, “Nothing excited me more than having something to be passionate about”—and coming to believe “I might really be able to help people.” He admitted:
I didn’t know how to do that at first, but now maybe I could reframe what had previously been my symptoms into more valuable skills. Maybe I could take all my mistakes, all the moments in which I had tried to tear myself down and use that as material to build others up and do good. Maybe my struggle could be my strength.
That included struggle with others, as Mark remarked, “Even when people pushed back, or disagreed, or weren’t as passionate about these issues as me—and there were lots of those people—suddenly I found myself reframing those challenges as obstacles to be overcome rather than barriers holding me back.” (25
Healing from Abusive Relationships
It’s one thing to celebrate the healing that arises from healthy relationships. But what happens when those relationships are not only far from healthy—but an obvious and principal source of pain?
Over the last decade, it’s become so abundantly clear how much past trauma impacts mental health—with innovative, fresh ways to help people find healing and move beyond its effects.
Navigating present unhealthy relationships. Yet before talking about overcoming past influences, it’s important to draw attention to what people reported about navigating currently unhealthy relationships.
Since all relationships can become difficult and even unhealthy, it’s important to emphasize the potential of many kinds of difficulties to heal. When that is not possible—and when a relationship has become so toxic and traumatic that individuals are being damaged profoundly, something else is required to prompt more healing.
As Joanne described, “I was very frightened of my father for a very long time and also tried desperately to get his approval and make him happy. Then there came a point where I couldn’t do that anymore, so I haven’t had any contact with my father now for a few years.” (72) Helen described divorce from her abusive husband as crucial to healing, after years of “living in an abusive marriage filled with sorrow and pain.” (60)
Jane said, “After one final marital humiliation, I threw my husband out and filed for divorce. The loving support I received in [support] meetings during that terrifying and torturous period carried me through to freedom.” (10)
This kind of physical separation is crucial. Even when someone separates themselves from an aggressive or abusive person, of course, their influence can continue in other ways. After describing the many other efforts to find emotional healing, Moni acknowledged, “none of them could erase the underlying cause of my ‘disorder,’ which was mainly rooted in childhood trauma.” (46)
Jane, who kicked her husband out, expressed how meaningful reminders of love were around her, even during the many years of abusive struggle and trauma that started in her childhood: “There, in the midst of so much pain and violence and humiliation, was my grandmother. She shielded us as much as she could and compensated with unconditional love, good humor, and generosity. She probably saved my life just by being there.” Only after her grandmother’s death, Jane realized how much she had done, “I never appreciated my grandmother when she was alive. I took her for granted. Only the trauma of my parents’ violence was real to me. I had become addicted to violence and addicted to pain. In spite of my best efforts, I just didn’t know the way out.” (10)
In what follows, we review some of what people do to work through the mental and emotional residue that past abuse can still exert.
Sharing what really happened. Simply speaking out loud to someone what happened can be a crucial step. As Sarah said, “It took me until almost the end of the group before I could relate the details of my father’s abuse. Even then, I was close to a panic attack. It surprised me how hard it was to talk about my experiences to these people, even though they had told me about their own abuses.” (36)
This is significant especially because the memories of what happened can be so fuzzy when something is traumatic. As Marilyn recounted:
As a child, teenager and adult, the first ten years of my life had been mostly erased. There were no memories of sexual abuse, but my body never forgot and replayed the disgusting events every night in the form of nightmares and night terrors. Upon awakening every morning, tears stained my face and remembrances of the nighttime dreams played over and over again…My smile was forced in order to fit in, but I knew from an early age that I was set apart and different from all the other kids, but I didn’t know why. (50)
Johann described some of the mental blocks preventing him from seeing and confronting clearly what took place:
I didn’t talk at all about the violence and abuse I survived as a child until I was in my mid-twenties, when I had a brilliant therapist. I was describing the course of my childhood to him, and I told him the story I had told myself my whole life: that I had experienced these things because I had done something wrong, and therefore I deserved it.
“Listen to what you’re saying,” this man’s counselor responded. The man didn’t initially understand what the counselor meant:
But then he repeated it back to me. “Do you think any child should be treated like that? What would you say if you saw an adult saying that to a ten-year-old-now? Because I had kept these memories locked away, I had never questioned the narrative I had developed back then. It seemed natural to me. So, I found his question startling. At first, I defended the adults who had behaved this way. I attacked the memory of my childhood self. It was only slowly—over time—that I came to see what he was saying.
Reflecting on his own experience, Johann said, “we now know how kids come to believe that it’s their fault they’re abused or hurt—as a way to feel more in control.” That can continue later in life, he said, as a “misfiring of the thing that made it possible for you to survive at an earlier point in your life.” (21)
Even without clear memory, the consequences of what took place years ago are tremendous. As one individual who faced painful early trauma commented:
At the tender age of thirteen, a voice said to me, “Why don’t you commit suicide!” I looked at the other kids nearby to see if anyone else heard the strange voice, but saw no indication that they had. From that morning on, I heard suicide/death’s harassing voice almost every day until my late thirties. Before that morning in the hallway at school, the thought of me ending my life prematurely had never crossed my mind, even though I had a boatload of problems. Included in that long list of maladies was major depression, generalized anxiety, shyness, multiple personalities, anorexia, fear and so much more. (50)
Coming to see more clearly what took place—and then share it out loud with someone else—can help individuals begin to uncover the root contributors to so much emotional and physical angst, including depression. Here are some of the examples of painful experiences that people report from their past:
- Lucie spoke of “not feeling safe and knowing where I belonged” due to being physically abused, emotionally abused, and sexually abused. “Trying to deal with it all, she said, “I cracked.” (85)
- Newton described having “all the obstacles imaginable: sexual and physical abuse, a drug-addicted mother, the violence of gang life, homelessness, and a criminal record—all before he turned eighteen.” (87)
- A third man said, “I had a few things happen to me as a kid, that made life confusing and downright hard.” (86)
- My childhood was “complete and total chaos,” Ashley remarked, the result of “constantly being uprooted from home and school.” She detailed, “I lived alternately with my mother, father and grandmother and went to 13 schools in 12 years. Everything was in such a state of disarray and dysfunction that I became a hypervigilant child, doing the best I could to raise myself under extraordinarily unpredictable and unsafe circumstances.” Only now, Ashley admits, can she look back and say, “Gee, I wasn’t just alone a lot —I was really lonely. I was clinically depressed at the age of eight.” (75)
My father had a violent temper—we lived in constant fear when he was around. I suffered a lot of physical and emotional abuse disguised as punishment for things that were really just mistakes or fumbles. I remember when I was four, I was told to set the table. For some reason, my father was already seated at the table and was watching me carefully to make sure I did it right. I was so scared and self-conscious that I dropped the last plate in my hand which would have been the plate at his place. He beat me severely about the head and torso, called me names, accused me of deliberately breaking the plate, declared me unfit to be in his presence, and sent me to my room without food or water or bathroom privileges for a day. Scenes like that were common occurrences in our house. No one was safe.
Whereas mothers can often provide safety in families like this, this woman admitted sadly:
[Mom would] hit us with hangers, broom handles, vacuum cleaner extensions, and any other weapons that were handy. By the time I was a teenager, she was slapping me hard in the face on a daily basis. The last bad beating I took from her was when I was twenty-six. I couldn’t escape her then because I had a broken collar bone. I thought she hated me.
Rather than escaping this pattern as an adult, Jane recounted:
My marriage was in many ways a continuation of my childhood pain. I tried to make it work in spite of incredible emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. I blamed myself for many of our problems. My drug-addicted husband had beaten me for the hundredth time—punching me and kicking me until I was half-senseless. (10)
Once again, it was seeing what had actually happened and beginning to articulate it to others that began the healing process of trauma for this woman—which catalyzed her emotional healing too. Jane went on to speak about her sponsor in Emotions Anonymous, who “directed me to get a better perspective on my childhood, so my first real inventory was of my childhood, of what was done to me.” (10)
Deeper internal processing. Here and elsewhere, people play a critical role in the healing process. But one woman admitted these connections weren’t sufficient to find what she really needed. As Linda said, “Although I found love through them that I had never known, it still wasn’t enough to fix my problems”—going on to share her realization that she needed to go deeper in her own inner work “if I wanted wholeness and peace,” rather than continuing to “search for it in other people or things.” (26)
In what follows, I review more of what that deeper inner work entails for people. Sarah described learning to stand back from her life to see it less personally—saying “I could extricate myself from the wreckage. I could stand beside it. I could view it more objectively.”
That helped her see past horrific moments, and see clearly—especially who was responsible, “I came away understanding that I hadn’t made my father do anything. He was the abuser; I was the child.” Sarah also saw the shame involved as a “lie.”
With the help of these insights, “The abuse no longer controlled me as much,” she said. “I learned to respond more and react less.” While admitting, “I would probably never be able to consider my childhood dispassionately, I could now at least feel the emotions without crumbling.” (36) William described working to “not be so controlled by my pain”—with her counselor helping her see the patterns she was involved in: “you’re on an emotional seesaw.” (100)
Some find it helpful to draw upon different techniques to work through and “release” past trauma (21), inner tensions and “energy blockages.” (46) Some of this deeper trauma healing was described in accounts as connected to “energy” work (77) with various practitioners. As one person said, “Trauma work of EFT and energy work was very important to my healing.” (51) That can include techniques that some report as helpful in releasing trauma, such as meditation and breathwork (in this case, a “form of voluntary over-breathing accompanied by special music, where the person breathes deeply and rapidly to get into a non-ordinary state of consciousness” which “allows previously unprocessed subconscious material to become conscious and integrated.” Moni went on to describe an example of a shift that happened in her work:
The most significant breakthrough came during the fourth session of the breathwork. After three painful sessions, all of which seemed to bring up more traumatic material, everything came to a climax during one powerful session in which I accessed repressed thoughts and feelings related to my history of child abuse. Horrific memories surfaced that I had buried somewhere deep inside myself decades earlier. Not only were the memories and emotional pain excruciating, the huge release of physical energy was also quite tough to bear. I often found myself quivering as hot and cold sensations took turns surging through my entire body.
She then related, “by the next day I already felt much better. I felt as if a weight had lifted inside; I was peaceful and confident and ready to proceed with the work. Everyone with me could see a shiny new glow on my face.” Continued work with this practice led to other changes “happening within me”—including a larger sense of “oneness” with the world around that she was unaccustomed to, and a “deep reconciliation with my past.”
Moni went on to describe coming to be able to “forgive my abusive father, who had died 19 years earlier, for all the pain he had caused me as a child.” As a result, “It was as if a heavy curtain was drawn back from the window of my soul and I could see my true self in the light for the very first time.” (46)
It’s not just creative techniques that prompt such moments, however, with certain faith practices doing much the same. Sarah described a profound spiritual moment where she felt God’s tangible love, while also glimpsing her parents who had caused so much harm and damage in her life. “Their impact on my life was clear to me just then, and yet this moment with Jesus seemed so much more important. I heard myself saying, ‘Forgive them, Father; they did not know what they were doing.’”
She quickly admitted that “not even God’s love can replace a childhood”—but emphasized the power of coming to know that she had “become aware of a force that had sustained me through all of the consuming darkness and confusion of my life.” (36)
It can be challenging to “emotionally and spiritually work through past wounds”; one woman who had been “horribly abused” described how some of “these deep hurts can take years, decades, to work through.” She added her belief that “some wounds will never completely go away in this life.” Instead, she suggested, you “can learn to embrace them in forgiveness so that you can live with deep fulfillment and joy along with the wounds.” In this way, “woundedness can be turned into great strength and compassion” as long as you can “release your unforgiveness or desires for vengeance.” She added, “The person who wounded you is not hurt by your unforgiveness, but you are.” She underscored that in her experience of depression healing, it was crucial to “give up whatever injustices you feel you have a right to be angry about…or sad about.”
She added, “I learned the healing process of remembering, forgiving and dismissing. I had to learn how to really dismiss and let go of all the hurt and unforgiveness. Nothing that hindered my healing process could remain. Nothing could stay hidden in a corner somewhere. It all had to be sifted through methodically, thought by thought by thought.” (69)
Allowing yourself to experience grief for what you passed through—compared what might have been—is often a part of the process. As Mark said, “I think that grief is our resistance to letting go of ….the past. Grief is what hard change feels like. If we do it well, we come out different, better, regardless of the change. If we resist, we’re changed anyway, but more painfully.” (25)
Although difficult, this hard mental work is reported to be ultimately worth it. As Brooke explained, “We experience pain when we encounter trauma, hurt, or loss in our lives. But we perpetuate suffering by the stories we tell ourselves about what happened. When pain meets healing truth and tender awareness, grief can be released, and we are free to create new meaning.” (80)
This ultimately means living in a place where the abuse isn’t your life—and where your life becomes something much more. As Sarah said, “[My therapist] helped me discover who I really was. I was worthy of better…I could have dreams. It was okay to ask for things.…I could move forward. I could live. Really live….I was protected now from the past. I was safe now. I was home.” (36)
Seeing one’s infinite worth. After terrifying previous experiences, arriving at a safe, peaceful place is a long journey for many. Linda admitted struggling to forgive herself for “moments when I was forced to do horrific things to my sexual abusers” and how she came away “feeling ugly after years of hearing it from others.” (26) Sarah also described feeling “totally unloved and unlovable” and feeling “totally alone and without love” which, she said, is “an intolerable place for any of us to be.” (36)
By working with a group of other surviving women, Sarah spoke of coming to understand something significant and surprising: that she “did not have some kind of grotesque or hideous underlying flaw…which I assumed I had [for] most of my life.” (36)
Joanne was asked by someone hurting, “Can you please teach me how to scare the ‘dementors’ [symbols of depression] that have been living under my bed? I’m tired of being sad all the time. Someday soon I’ll leave this life behind.”
This woman tweeted back, “They’re bothering a unique, valuable human being who deserves happiness. Ask for help. Don’t fight alone. Big hug.”
The teen went to sleep that night “…with a smile on my face.” (72)
Getting clear about one’s true identity can help with this sense of worth. Moni described going on a retreat that “helped me discover the ‘real me.’”
I found my true values and strengths. The urge to put myself down all the time vanished completely, and I can appreciate myself now for just being me. This helps me get back my inner balance whenever it is challenged by life circumstances. Life has not become less demanding, but it cannot harm me as much anymore—and this makes all the difference. (46)
For some, this deeper sense of an identity of worth came from a renewed relationship with the divine. “God showed me my identity,” Nicole said—“That person I had lost over the years. Who I was, what I was good at. I now have an identity in Christ—and when I am in Christ, I inherit all his goodness, and all His promises. They cannot be taken away from me—I am a child of God!” (102) Marcia said she “found her true identity as the beloved child of God she is.” (56)
Juanita said, “For me, finding my true self clarified what really mattered to me and cleared away tons of distractions that had kept me from living into who I am. …my chief responsibility is to be true to discovering the ‘me’ God and I are co-creating together.” He continued, “The treasure that I am coming to see in me is worth surrendering all that I had believed about myself. The old me feels like fool’s gold in comparison to the state of transcendence that I have been experiencing. …the presence of God in me is all-affirming.” (47)
Rediscovering a sense of goodness and meaning. Johann spoke about connection with others as important in recovering meaning and catalyzing his own healing. “By coming together with other people, and thinking deeply, and reconnecting with what really matters, we can begin to dig a tunnel back to meaningful values.” He noted that loneliness doesn’t end only with being around other people, adding that, “You also need…to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group.”
In this way, Johann admitted also becoming “more deeply connected…to meaning—than I ever have been before” (emphasis my own). In addition to his conscious efforts to cultivate deeper relationships with friends and family, he reiterated that this also reflected “pursuing causes I know really matter”—even purposes that were “bigger than myself.” (21)
Linda similarly said that “Knowing and understanding the world on a more meaningful level gave me hope….I never felt as fulfilled as I did when I was seeking the world in a way that was bigger than me, bigger than all of us. I find peace in knowing there is more to our story than what we see in the everyday situations. I find direction, and…healing.” (26)
Others admitted to struggling to find this. Juanita said, “In the back of my mind there was the unspoken question, ‘Is this all there is and then you die?’” (47)
For some people, the ability to see more goodness and meaning in life arose from a deepened connection with God. As one woman said:
Our postmodern culture conditions us to assume the negative about everything, that life is generally bad. So many people interpret everything unfavorably and believe that the world is indeed a terrible place. If we turn that around and assume the world is generally positive, and we are loved by a good God…everything changes. We begin to see connections and purpose where other people perceive only negative emptiness. By choosing to believe in the good, and in a loving good God, our eyes are opened to the good, and our world becomes good, filled with magic and beauty. (69)
Closely connected to a deeper sense of meaning, of course, is a greater sense of purpose, described earlier.
Removing the burden of toxic anger. Melissa reflected, “I wasn’t going to change others through bitterness and wishing they were different,” yet admitted what she was going to do was “totally poison myself with hostility,” and “living life eternally miserable.” She confessed, “I already had a predisposition to starting each day despondent and was perpetuating that mindset with negativity and blame regarding my circumstances. (38)
It’s common for people to find themselves weighed down with anger they carry around about issues or individuals or groups—with some kind of a specific detox that proves helpful, and even critical in improving mood. One woman describes how being able to share her feelings and thoughts of frustration with a sympathetic member of the opposition party helped her feel less depressed. Another person said:
I was tired of hating the world. I was tired of seeing it in fogged lenses that only magnified the world’s bleakness and darkness. I was ready to clean my sight and see the world for what it truly was. The world was fully of beautiful people—[including so many] that had endured their own version of suffering.
One person reflected on new insights she had about how anger had controlled her mind:
In my anger and hatred, I justified how I felt because of my past. I justified my outbursts because I believed that what I was thinking and feeling was right and I stubbornly refused to admit to myself that I could be wrong. You can’t achieve anything in the right way when you approach it in anger. (26)
This doesn’t mean never communicating anger, however. When people are unable to articulate and process underlying anger in healthy ways, it can often come out in unhealthy, harsh ways. Jada acknowledged that unremitting anger had fueled suicidal thoughts, admitting, “I was sitting on so much rage.” She went on to speak of the value of allowing frustration to be articulated so it can be processed. (78) Marsha described leveraging frustration for more forward movement—“The idea of proving everyone wrong kept me going…this kind of anger can be helpful.” (43)
Watching where your heart is in relation to conflict can be an important mental health vital sign—as Jim summarized, “You are either in a loving place, or you are in an unloving place” (73)
Moving beyond hypervigilance and reactivity. Sometimes there are specific people or groups in our present life that seem to correlate with negative mood. Other times, past trauma can leave us with patterns of hypervigilance and oversensitivity more generally—leading Danny to feel like he was “being a prisoner of what other people think.” (98) Linda spoke of a generalized anger she became aware of—a pattern she described as “choosing to hide from [her] pain,” while “blaming the whole world…instead of the few people who actually hurt [her]. (26)
“I used to blame others for how I was feeling,” said Ashley. “And I now know that no one can make you feel anything. One of my favorite quotes is by Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’” (75) Juanita described coming to realize how she had over-blamed parents “for certain things about my childhood” and embraced a “false narrative”—adding, “In all honesty, my parents, like so many others, only did what they knew to do, and I totally get it, because that’s what I’m doing now as a parent. We work with the tools we have.”
She went on to reflect about the lessons she needed to learn to move beyond this pattern, “Growing up with a serious addiction to approval meant that I have unknowingly engaged in a lot of blaming, complaining, and explaining.”
All these are merely ways of distancing myself from punishment or the fear of being unaccepted. …I’ve realized I no longer have to rely on blaming, complaining, or explaining to justify my humanity or my being. …I’m also learning the new freedom that comes—even while my stomach churns in rebellion—as I abandon my old script of asking, what will people think?
She added, “They will think whatever they think, and I will go on and so will they.” (47)
Learning to trust again. Sarah described the impact of learning to work through anger—and restore a relationship, starting with her counselor who “told me she thought it was important for me to have the experience of being angry at someone and yet be able to find a way to salvage the relationship.” She continued, “This was an entirely new process for me. Being angry with someone didn’t mean you had to leave them. And it also didn’t mean they’d abandon you or abuse you, two things I had always feared.” Sarah reflected, “There had always been only these two outcomes in my mind. Abuse, like my father, or emotional abandonment, like my mother.” (36)
It’s normal for people who have experienced such trauma to have such wonderings—even “struggling to trust someone again after you’ve been hurt in love.” (98) Sarah added, “if Tom came home late, I’d imagine the worst. I’d be certain that something terrible had befallen him. It would be my fault, of course. I hadn’t been worthy of him in the first place.” (36)
An important part of healing for many involves finally choosing to trust. Sarah went on to describe a pivotal moment with her counselor:
I had now opened myself completely to Joan and she hadn’t recoiled or criticized me. She hadn’t left. She wasn’t going to leave. I didn’t have to go it alone. And in that moment, I decided I was going to do something I couldn’t do before. I decided I was going to trust. Daily I had to practice choosing love and trust. (36)
“Often, I’d fail,” she admitted—but this began to move her in another direction. Sometimes a new intimate relationship opens up an opportunity for such emerging trust. “As our relationship evolved,” one Mark said, “so too did my openness about my not so distant past.” He recounted, “I had a conversation with Rebekah in which I told her a lot of what I had been through. It didn’t seem to scare her off the way I thought it might. In fact, it didn’t seem to bother her at all; she was supportive, and she didn’t leave. I trusted her with something personal and vulnerable, and it didn’t blow up in my face this time.”
Mark emphasized, “having a safe person to spend time with helped offset the loneliness and isolation I had been feeling.” (25)
Closely connected with choosing to trust again, is a parallel process of seeking to love again and restore connection—including and especially with people who we have struggled to love and who have even hurt us.
Reconciliation. Jane described pursuing some difficult reconciliation work:
I forgave my parents because, first, they can’t really hurt me anymore and, second, because hating them was hurting me. I am slowly building a relationship with my father based on mutual honesty and respect. This is a gift of the program which was never possible before I worked the steps. Sadly, my mother remains unapproachable. The program has taught me that in EA all things are possible, so I will leave that relationship in God’s hands for now. (10)
Julie was “haunted by troubling childhood memories,” and “continued to sink into suicidal depression”—until he began to experience “the beauty of forgiveness.” (66) Another individual who had experienced deep pain from a hostile childhood, reflected, “I was finally able to see my father in his true light, and feelings of compassion and understanding flowed out of me toward him.” (44)
This kind of authentic reconciliation and forgiveness process is very different than a pseudo kind that covers up terrible things. As Sarah said, “Because I’d wanted to be a good Christian, I had ‘forgiven’ my father back in my bedroom that day [as a child] when he asked for forgiveness for having been ‘a little fresh.’” (36)
Later in her healing process this woman learned that forgiveness of deep pain can happen, “but it has to be accompanied by an appreciation and understanding of what has happened and the impact of it on your life.” Otherwise, the past influences are covered up, rather than brought to light to heal. For Sarah, this meant “acknowledging the anger and rage and sadness.” But positively, she said, “in the process of healing from your wound, you increasingly become free of the power of the person who wounded you.” (36)
This kind of acknowledgement and openness about anger is very different than venting and channeling anger—even more so from keeping it inside. As Mendek man said, “Holding on to my fury for so many decades was draining and painful. It created darkness within me that was physically and spiritually depleting. I had to find a way to let it go.” Although he struggled to completely forgive the atrocities to his family (who had been killed in the holocaust), he said “I neither forgave nor failed to forgive. I just finally understood that I had to find a way to come to terms with my past. As long as I remained imprisoned by hatred, I’d never be able to fulfill my own destiny.”
His memoir continues:
When I meet a German person now, I try not to let my vision be colored by my baggage from the past. My intention is to meet him in the present moment. In this moment, he is just a person. Instead of automatically associating him with my worst memories, I deliberately make myself look at him with fresh eyes. I remember that despite everything, his essence is pure. Just like me, he was born perfect. Just like me, he learned through imitation, repetition, and force of habit. (44)
“One day I will die” Mendek said. And “before my last breath leaves my body, I expect to ponder the meaning of life…I don’t want to carry my bitterness and venom to the grave.” He then added:
It’s a conscious act. I do it because it’s what I’ve decided I want to do. I don’t do it for him. I do it for me. When I look at the world through the eyes of the past, I am miserable. But when I live in the now, unhappiness doesn’t exist, because I’m not keeping it alive inside of me. It’s not that I deny the past. I just don’t live in it.
Before his death, this man would encourage his grandchildren to not give up on their capacity to grow and learn better, telling them, “Remember to be loving, forget to be unloving” and “forget to be fearful, but remember to be cheerful.” (44)
“I didn’t like many things that had happened to me,” Mark acknowledged, before emphasizing the importance of learning “what you do with the things done to you.” Based on his study of children in his education, he observed, “children are hard-wired for struggle. That is, struggle is normal, because it helps people to learn who they are and how to be resilient.” Mark reflected:
This was important for me to learn, because it helped me to realize that my childhood might not have been some major sob story after all, and that I wasn’t screwed for life because of how I started. Maybe my upbringing was, actually, an advantage. This was a revelation to me. The past had passed. It was time to move on, let go and grow. (25)
Experiencing positive moments. It’s one thing to reflect on past wrongs with a compassionate witness. It’s a whole other thing to experience compassion and love in your own, new positive experiences. One woman who experienced past trauma reflected on a current community of love she was experiencing:
It became a close, caring little community and I started to feel at home with them. We helped each other outside of the group, too. We gave each other rides or babysat for each other. If someone was sick, we’d bring meals. These women became role models for me as mothers, something, of course, I did not have in my own life experience. They also became friends. (36)
The same man who experienced atrocities in the war described creating an “atmosphere” of love and forgiveness in his life that allowed the fearful patterns he had learned as a child to finally be “comforted.” Over time, Mendel said “I began experiencing the boundless peace and joy that resides in the depth of my being”—reflecting a “feeling no one can ever take away from me, because they are not dependent on conditions outside myself.” Finally, he said, “I was able to taste true freedom. My heart rejoiced. I had come home to love.” (44)
Of course, these sweet new experiences of life also include simply feeling better. Michael reflected on the difference between enduring sweetness being experienced in his life, compared with previous artificial highs:
I didn’t get my hopes up. But this time, it felt much different than a hypomanic phase, which always had a very jittery, cranked-up, ungrounded feeling. Rather, for the first time in memory, I felt consistently happy, calm, energized, and grounded. And it stayed. And stayed, and stayed. And—with the exception of a few down days here and there—it’s been that way ever since. (30)
Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash