A True Story about a Woman I Knew
The Woman in the Portrait
I look at her image,16 X 20---
I think she’s beautiful
lying there on the cool autumn ground
in the center of the portrait, all the
life anyone could ever want surrounding her.
Her gaze is fixed and determined, though
if the doors to her soul were opened so as
to peer into her depths--
what lies beneath those steely eyes
is a shell of a woman waiting to be filled.
The woman in the portrait is empty,
having screamed out every fear, and
having extinguishing all the whispered lies that
intimated her life was over, she’d lost it all,
“go on, give up the ghost.”
Emptiness is a vacuum, they say---
There are places on the path that
are stepping stones; others are
bridges that must be crossed while
holding your breath. The woman
in the portrait, she’s filling again,
breathing without gasping.
She found the Bridge,
made it to the other side.
I sifted through the contents of my closet sitting around the bedroom. In the mess was a family portrait that had been stashed away when we moved into the house eleven years ago. The portrait was made a couple of months into my recovery from a severe depression that left me hospitalized during days when I came to the very end of myself.
I knew the woman in the photograph—the wife and the mother. I knew her. The past tense is important. She looked thin but she was pretty leaning against the one who loved her most, surrounded by her glory.
Memories have emotions so I went with them, but they were too much. I turned away. I’ve trained myself to return to the present when pain from the past punches me in the gut.
My friends are on the board of a non-profit for suicide prevention. They had their fundraising race on Saturday. I never go. It seems there is one last thing for me to process after all these years. It is my struggle with survivor’s guilt. I know (or maybe I assume) that the people supporting the non-profit are those left behind, those whose loved ones didn’t make it to the other side of the very real disease called depression.
I have deep compassion for their pain. I know they have family portraits sitting in closets or hanging on their walls that tell a different story than mine. They need the support of others who understand. These survivors are compassionate people who hope others won’t have to wake up every morning to the devastation that has come to their lives.
The woman in the photographic was at the beginning of a journey of renovation. Renovation happens from the inside out. There isn’t a magic pill. Rebuilding takes time. I know. I’ve lived it.
I’m seeing now this renovation includes dealing with the survivor’s guilt that would keep me silent. It was once shame that kept me tight-lipped. But I’m on to shame, the stealth liar whose ways are more dangerous than most people know. No, I’m not ashamed that I have survived. I only wish everyone did.
The three children in the picture are now adults. My story is their story. It was one that they didn’t ask to live. I admire them for their resilience. I know they have their own paths before them. I’m thankful I get to cheer them on.
In the portrait, I’m leaning against my rock. He suffered as much as I did when I was sick. I noticed he was holding up his frame with his palm to the ground. Hard things are hard on everybody. I think about how far we’ve come and I could bawl.
Although it was hard to see the me in the photograph, knowing what I know, I am overwhelmed by the grace and patience of my loving Father who brought me through the valley to live in the joy and freedom I wake up to every day.
I’m very aware that the story could have ended another way.
I’m careful to give advice for those struggling with depression. It needs to be offered with a teaspoon. Those struggling with the pain and anxiety of depression can’t take in too much at once. I've listed a few things I would say to anyone who is looking for a way out of the darkness. (If you are someone who loves someone you think is struggling with depression, consider these things they may be struggling to accept.)
• Talk to someone who is safe. Better yet, talk to someone who is trained to listen and to help those who are struggling with anxiety, depression, and anger.
• Take medicine. Be committed to slogging through its side effects. There are meds for depression. You should give them a chance.
• Let God love you because He does.
• Be who you are not who you think you should be.
• Ask forgiveness and forgive yourself when you don’t handle things well.
• Let go of the need to control and of narrow expectations.
• Appreciate little things---gratitude for small gifts adds up to a fuller life than you may have noticed.
• Search for and find beauty in the present.
• Walk toward the future even if you stumble as you move forward; a little progress is progress.
• Know that most likely others don’t know how much you’re hurting---even when it seems to you that it should be obvious. Be brave and ask for help.
(This is not an exhaustive list and I’m not a professional. These thoughts are to encourage and not to condemn. They are meant to give hope from someone a little further down the path.)
The last bullet point is important because often those struggling with depression feel the need for a rescuer. They think others see their need for a life preserver. This is too often a horrible mistake. This can be the most complicated part of helping someone toward healing and hope---someone who deeply feels unworthy and incapable of helping him or herself. Seek professional help for advice if someone you love is struggling.
Getting the outside of life sorted does nothing for the inside. The inner life, the spiritual life, the life with God cannot be ignored. Jesus Christ came to earth and made the way for the renovation of our hearts. He is a steadfast friend, a master craftsman who makes and remakes us with care and love. He is the hope for those in the darkness and those in the light.
Below is a picture of me and the doc that was made a couple weeks ago when we were blessed to spend most of a week in the mountains with our peeps. God is good. He is very, very good.