Forgiveness and Escape from Depression

As many know it, forgiveness is a feeling that can’t be forced, one that often comes after a long inner struggle.

I’ve lived with the need for many forms of forgiveness, and each has been important in my recovery from depression.

I’ve felt the need to acknowledge hurt that I’ve caused and to ask for forgiveness. I’ve known the reconciliation that can come from receiving it and the pain when it has been denied. I’ve felt the need to forgive others and the peace of finally being able to do so. And I’ve struggled for years with the need to forgive myself. As I wrote in this post, I didn’t understand the importance of forgiveness for my recovery until I was surprised one day to feel it.

It happened after scattering my mother’s ashes on a ridge overlooking the Pacific. Without a conscious thought, I suddenly felt a forgiveness for her that I had resisted for years. A feeling of peace came over me as I released a lifetime of pent-up anger. I stopped blaming her for having filled my early life with so much of her bitterness, depression and disappointment. It seemed so clear then that she had only been following a long and unhappy family history.

Her father’s parents had given him a legacy of depression. He had filled my mother’s childhood with his illness and denied her deepest emotional needs. She had vented her anger at me, and I lived with depression that burdened my family for years. But I was able to acknowledge it, seek treatment and eventually recover. Hopefully, that has broken the pattern of a destructive history.

Part of my recovery came from the forgiveness I felt in that moment after scattering her ashes. Accepting her as she was meant accepting myself. That gave me a kind of peace that helped my family as well as me. Freeing myself from anger and frustration with her made it easier to focus on recovering from depression.

Forgiveness has been on my mind recently, thanks to a post by Therese Borchard at Beyond Blue. She reprinted a passage from Helen Whitney’s Forgiveness: A Time To Love & A Time To Hate, the book Whitney wrote to accompany her PBS documentary of the same name.

From reading that brief excerpt, I felt again the power of forgiveness and at once got hold of the book. It narrates stories of people who have endured life-changing experiences of physical and emotional violence. Each has either had to ask for forgiveness or answer the question, Can I forgive? Some have been able to, many have not.

These stories range from personal tragedies to public atrocities, including the genocide in Rwanda, and fully explore the spiritual and emotional dimensions of forgiveness. The story that hit me most deeply concerns a woman who became suicidally depressed and left her family.

Liesbeth and her husband Dan, a successful journalist, had two young children and appeared to be a happy family. After several years, however, Liesbeth began to feel empty and lost. She experienced severe panic attacks along with physical symptoms that left her ill much of the time. Eventually she became suicidally depressed, feeling trapped in a stifling life and longing to break free to find her own career.

She was sure that she could never find the freedom she needed so desperately as long as she remained a mother and wife. Her needs were often ignored by a husband whose energy and deepest attention went into his career. After being torn for a long time between love for her children and the need to get away, she finally put her family’s needs aside and moved a thousand miles away to launch a career of her own.

I’ve written several posts about the lure of a new life as a fantasy cure for depression. Liesbeth’s experience, though, shows that life can be more complicated. In fact, she found what she was looking for, far beyond the initial exhilaration of escape. She got a Ph.D. in psychology and succeeded in creating a new, more fulfilling life. However, she shared the huge emotional cost of that new life for her family. They’re still trying to heal a decade after the break-up.

As they see it, forgiveness has become the central problem. Dan, her husband, was able to forgive her after a few years and move on from the loss that baffled him. But it was a crushing experience for her two children.

Not only had they been abandoned by their mother, but Liesbeth could not bring herself to explain why she had left or respond in any way to their hurt. She believed she had to steel herself and shut out their emotions in order to get away.

Despite learning so much in her new career about mental illness and the importance of loving relationships, she could not apply that to her own family. Now, she feels deeply the pain she caused and regrets the anguish her children have gone through. But she does not regret at all the career and fulfilling life she came to know after leaving. She still finds it impossible to let in all the emotional devastation she caused, feeling she can only take it in small doses. Otherwise, she would be overwhelmed.

Only after many years could Liesbeth even describe to her children the crippling depression that had prompted her to take such drastic action. They had never known about it and so had had to struggle with abandonment that seemed inexplicable. For years they went through waves of love, rage, hurt and need. Neither has yet been able to forgive her completely, though understanding her depression was a crucial step.

For her part, Liesbeth wants and needs to be forgiven but can’t ask for it because of her fear of rejection. Yet her children need to hear her say how sorry she is for causing so much pain. They need her to ask for forgiveness before they can give it.

Escape to a new life had proven essential in one way for a woman who had become suicidally depressed. Yet the emotional devastation left wounds in each member of the family that remain unresolved. Living with awareness of the harm caused, needing forgiveness, asking for it, receiving forgiveness and granting it are all critical steps in a recovery from depression that is far from complete.

Reading this and several other stories in Forgiveness, I’ve not only been deeply moved but have also felt a great grief coming back. My reaction is clearly a signal about my own continuing recovery. I can’t say I understand it very well, but this book and the subject of forgiveness touch on a deep and still unresolved need.

How do you react to this story? Has forgiveness been a central need in your life? What role has it played in your experience with depression?

Image by Alebonvini at Flickr

7 Responses to “Forgiveness and Escape from Depression”

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  1. What I am trying to learn now about forgiveness is similar to what you wrote. In order to really forgive, I have to first accept myself in total and then accept in full the person who has abused and betrayed me.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, CC -

      Accepting myself wholly – not sure I’ll ever really get there. I guess the hardest thing has been to separate myself from the specific acts I’m responsible for. Old shame tells me I always screw up, so forgiving myself for this or that act becomes difficult. And that’s a big part of self-acceptance for me. I think abuse so compromises the sense of who you are that self-doubt and guilt become hard to replace with the good anger that defends the integrity of self. I’m still confused about all this is some ways – though it’s much clearer when I look at someone else’s situation. Guess I’ll have to keep writing until I can feel deep down what forgiveness is.


  2. MK says:

    Forgiveness is the key to my husband fully reuniting with myself and our son. He is currently in a place where he is unable to forgive the mistakes and weaknesses in family and co-workers. I think this is because he cannot forgive himself for leaving our home. I do not know if he will ever be able to forgive himself — forgiveness and reconciliation would happen instantly on my part and our son’s part, but we know Dave has to ask for it. And I believe that asking for forgiveness and acknowledging his mistakes would be acknowledging weakness and he does not tolerate weakness in himself or in others. So we wait and hope and continue to live and build bridges strong enough for Dave to cross to come home.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, MK -

      Your comment brings up a lot of half-formed thoughts and feelings, and I’m still trying to sort it all out – hence my lateness in responding. I have to confess that forgiving myself has been the hardest thing. What I have managed to do is set aside injury I’ve caused as now beyond my control – and that helps me stop obsessing. I’ve also apologized for wronging people – though asking for forgiveness in so many words, no. I’ve punished myself emotionally and mentally and often revert to that state of mind, though now I’m good at catching myself when I start in.

      It’s interesting that your ex can’t acknowledge weakness while someone like me can’t acknowledge strength. Maybe they come from the same place – some sort of fear, insecurity, shame that is so intolerable to live with.


  3. Donna-1 says:

    I had never intended to forgive my father for all the pain he had caused in my life. He was emotionally abusive and fairly depressed most of his own life. His father had paranoid schizophrenia. I inherited both traits. But that is not why I did not want to forgive. He was mean-spirited but kind at times, he was ill and overmedicated himself to deal with pain, he was distant, reserved, explosive when I least expected it, and he would let Mother sit on his lap and display affection that he never gave to his children. He was a man of dissonant moods. I could never figure him out and I couldn’t forgive what I did not understand. But a few years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and became a docile, loving, lost, soul who would often put his arms around me and kiss ME and tell me he loved me. Eventually he wound up in a nursing home and I visited him every day, taking treats, helping to feed him, consoling him. One day I realized I had already forgiven him somewhere along the way. It had not been a conscious decision. I think I pitied him and was able to accept the meager consolation of love flavored by dementia. But…it was better than nothing. I’m glad I forgave him before he died. Now, I’m working to forgive my mother her complicity in the emotional abuse — she merely stood by and watched and warned us to hide. I learned to hide, all right — hide my emotions, numb myself, turn inward — in other words, I learned depression as a way of coping. I want to be able to forgive my mother now, who is 83, before something happens to her. She has no idea I feel this way. The pain is still unspoken.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna -

      I went through a similar experience with my mother. Her dementia sometimes put her into a rage or led her to punch out the nursing home staff or left her self-absorbed and indifferent to everything. Or she would have wonderfully lucid times when she could express her feelings as never before. When I visited I would never know if she’d tell me to leave as soon as I walked in the door or reach out to me in love. It was the openness and affection that were so amazing – exactly the loving closeness she had never offered before. Those were the moments she was most alive, most present. The dementia took away a lot of inhibitions – not always a pretty sight – but breaking down the emotional wall around her was remarkable. That experience I mentioned about scattering her ashes wouldn’t have been possible without those late glimpses into her heart and the ability to feel and return her love. She was the depressed one in my family, and I’m thankful that she passed some love along to me as well as the illness. Forgiveness does seem to happen at an unconscious level – just as healing does in so many other ways.


  4. Matt says:

    I am working towards forgiving myself. I feel the suicidal depression has laid waste to so many of my relationships and the overpowering shame and guilt. I too feel I can only glance at them in small bits so they do not consume me.
    Thank you for this wonderful post.