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?