“Life is fragile and heartbreaking. It turns upside down in a minute. Love your children, hold them tight. Love your family, hold them close. Love your friends, keep them near. Be gentle with others, as so many are fragile and struggling. Actually, I think it’s best to assume everyone is struggling, so treat everyone with love, tenderness, and compassion.” – Maria Shriver
I was making the rounds on social media last week. I happened to see a post by Maria Shriver, a personal heroine of mine, that moved me to tears. She had recently lost her beautiful cousin, Saoirse, who was only 22 to a drug overdose. Maria’s quote touched me at my core. It made me think that it’s more important than ever for us to be real – real with ourselves so we can be real with others.
We should assume that in some way every single person is struggling on the inside. If the struggle is part of life and it’s necessary for us to evolve and grow as humans, isn’t it time for us to normalize it into the conversation? Isn’t it time we ended the shame, the stigma – for ourselves and for others? Isn’t it time for us to learn there’s immense courage in vulnerability? Isn’t it time we realized being vulnerable and sharing our darkest moments, the dark nights of the soul, could be the key to saving lives – our own and others?
I remember when my kids were in high school. It wasn’t an easy time. After 20 years of emotional abuse and having been broken to the core, I filed for a divorce. My ex husband angrily refused to leave the house which meant 7 months of a horrendous court battle to force him to leave while enduring months of torment, rage, and abuse. It also meant that my children were put smack dab stuck in the middle right where they didn’t belong. It left deep scars on their young psyches … and on me.
My daughter had gone to a Kairos Retreat during her junior year at New Trier High School. It was a Christian retreat, a weekend where the teens were removed from their homes and their cell phones, and given a safe space to begin opening up to their inner worlds. It was a weekend to learn about themselves and others, a time for courage in vulnerability. The greatest lesson from Kairos was that things aren’t always as they seem. Much of what we believe about others and the lives they live is simply an illusion. We are all struggling in some way.
The area we lived in was the North Shore of Chicago. It was a wealthy suburb filled with white picket fences and perfectly manicured houses. There were mansions that lined the lakefront. It was a community where there was an unspoken understanding. Perfection ruled … and vulnerability and deep dark secrets were quietly swept under the rug. Everything always seemed so perfect. Only, it wasn’t.
Kairos was a welcome retreat, a refuge for teens who were struggling and those who didn’t know they were. Kairos was about being real and letting your shield down. It was a weekend designed to create a safe space to open up and allow those deep dark secrets out into the light, the light of compassion, empathy and understanding.
I’ll never forget the stories my children shared, not personal stories of others, but their own personal experience of transformation and not feeling so alone for the very first time. They were finally able to see for themselves, to peek behind the curtain of perfection, and to see that the wizard isn’t necessarily real. They would understand that no matter how perfect a life looks, how much wealth a family accumulates, how many opportunities and advantages someone has, this doesn’t give them a free pass out of the dark night of the soul. Behind the mansion walls and picket fences, there was a universal pain that existed. What they shared through that weekend was finally feeling they weren’t so alone. They understood that the struggle was real and no amount of money, advantages , or perfection could buy their way out of it, numb it, pretend it away or cover it up. They found that the stories they wrote in their minds about how easy life was for others was fiction.
I remember high school being a painful time. I felt so alone. I lived in my head, disconnected from my heart. I thought there was something wrong with me … deeply, fundamentally wrong. It took me until my mid 50’s to begin to unwind the decade of stories I was telling myself and the beliefs I had accumulated over a lifetime of being told I wasn’t worthy to understand that I was.
I learned at an early age to cover things up, to push them as far down as I could into the deep, dark recesses within, and to pretend that everything was OK. The thing is, darkness doesn’t go away on its own. Anything that’s suppressed, repressed, rejected, or denied only builds up over time. It’s all energy. Transformation cannot take place in the darkness. Transformation can only happen when we have the courage to bring light to the darkness or the darkness to the light.
Looking at images of Saoirse, Maria Shriver’s young cousin, defied what we think of as someone suffering from depression or mental illness. Yet she spent much of her life struggling. A privileged life doesn’t lessen the burdens, the darkness, or the struggle. Sometimes, it enhances it.
We’ll never know the dark moments that led to her losing her young life. It wasn’t the first time as she openly and bravely talked about trying to take her own life years ago. She courageously talked about her own struggles in the hopes of helping others. No one knows yet what led to her passing. Now, she’s gone and there’s an outpouring of love and compassion that was waiting for her – love and compassion that could have saved her if she had asked for help.
I’ve had many dark moments in my life. I’ve gone through bouts of depression. I’ve gone through periods of soul crushing despair. There have been times I wanted to give up; times I thought it might be easier to just leave the pain behind than face it head on; times I thought I’d be better off in a different place – times I believed the world would be better off without me, or that no one would care if I left.
It’s impossible to see the light when you’re in the midst of the tunnel. It’s only when we emerge from the tunnel that we can find the light. Yet, we can ask for help, reach out from the dark tunnel to find a hand to lift us out – to lift us up. We can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and ask others to help us to find the light until we can see it for ourselves.
Vulnerability is a powerful antidote to depression. Vulnerability is courage. Courage is asking for help. Asking for help is a way out of the darkness and into the light. Asking for help isn’t weakness. It is strength and it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It also may be what saves your life. It’s up to us to remove the stigma around depression and darkness. Struggle is part of life. It’s not meant to end your life.
Are you ready to be part of the solution – to let your shield down?
I know I am. Carrying that damn shield around, lugging it through over 5 decades of life, was exhausting. It stopped me from living – living a life that’s full out and Fierce.
Taboos and stigmas exist because we allow it. Taboos and stigmas keep us trapped believing there is something wrong with us. I assure you there isn’t.
We’ve been taught that Shields protect us. Perhaps … but they also keep us trapped and is the isolation worth it? Or healthy? I think not. It’s impossible to live in the light if you’re hiding behind a shield.
Assume everyone is struggling. If you know someone that seems depressed or forlorn from the struggle, take the time to simply tell them they are loved. Let them know that they matter … to you … and to others. Life moves so damn fast sometimes that we neglect letting others know how much they are appreciated. Research on suicide shows us that, in hindsight, there were signs before someone takes their own life. It’s important for us to be awake and aware – to be mindful if we see someone we love begin to behave differently, to isolate themselves or to seem a bit more down and depressed. Oftentimes, there’s a cry for help. The more present we are in our own lives, taking care of our emotional health and well being, the more we are able to see the signs and get help before it’s too late.
Moxie requires courage. Courage is vulnerability. Vulnerability is allowing your shield to drop, your heart to open and to be real.
Vulnerability is like a magnet for the light – the light of empathy, the light of compassion, the light of kindness, the light that extinguishes the darkness. The light that’s inside of you. The light that’s inside of me. The light that’s inside of us. The light that connects us. The light that is you.
An update to this post: As suggested in the comments by one of my readers, and wholeheartedly agreed by me, PLEASE make sure to get professional help when you are in the midst of depression, despair or a dark night of the soul. It’s imperative to be real with ourselves before the darkness overwhelms us. Sending love and light your way. Catherine
This is so powerful, Catherine. You express yourself beautifully and I see my struggle mirrored in your words. Like you, I’ve experienced decades of struggle. Unable to find understanding, encouragement or support in my youth I learned to hide and suppress vulnerability in order to survive as an adult. To the point of being unable to have meaningful (real) interaction with others for fear of exposing my fragility. Something I love about this wonderful mid-life community is the ability to share things openly in online forums that I’m unable to do in my real life. We all work so hard to project a strong I-have-it-all-together front … and we do such a good job we aren’t able to see the suffering in those closest to us. I appreciate the reminder that everything is not always (or often) what it seems and to take approach others from a place of love, encouragement and support in all interactions, no matter small or mundane they may seem . xo
Thanks for opening up an important discussion. I think you missed one thing though. Being vulnerable also means recognizing when you need professional help, even when friends try to help.
Like you, I finally divorced an emotionally abusive husband and got on with living a full life. Five years later, he hanged himself and I was on scene before the police got there, so I saw it all. I saw it again every morning as my first thought was that image, and the last thing at night for over a year. My friends told me over and over that it wasn’t my fault and there is nothing I could have done to prevent his suicide, but it didn’t stick. I struggled with feeling guilty because I felt relieved he was out of my life and my children’s lives-he tried to demonize me to our children and anyone who would listen. My children did what everyone is “supposed” to do:only speak in grandiose positivity about the dead. I felt guilty that I only seemed to remember the worse times. It wasn’t until I sought professional help that I saw I wasn’t a bad person for being unable to “speak well” about the dead. As my therapist said, if he was a jerk in life, he didn’t suddenly become mr wonderful by dying She gave me ‘permission ‘ to accept my feelings and work through them instead of trying to feel what I didn’t. Going to counseling for a few months was the best thing I could have done; it freed me.
I want to encourage your audience to seek professional help- you don’t have to take a deep Freudian dive into your childhood or spend years in therapy to get through a dark period. Sometimes getting a few things sorted out with a pro allows you to continue to grow and change for the better as a result of a dark period without the pain in the way. You are worth it!
Catherine Grace O'Connell
Thank you for your courage in vulnerability and finding the professional help you needed to find your way through a horrific time in your life. I cannot imagine what you’ve gone through but I do understand how you struggled with your own feelings of guilt. I will definitely edit the post and add a note about seeking professional help. I finally ended up in therapy following a break down in my mid 40’s as the abuse escalated. I’m grateful you are in caring hands. I can’t thank you enough for sharing. Sending you so much love and light ahead.
What a beautiful post. I have lived through many difficult situations as well. Moving forward is sometimes difficult but the only thing we can do. Thank you for sharing Catherine. ❤️
Catherine Grace O'Connell
Thank you for sharing sister. I’m always inspired by the purity of your raw vulnerability.
It’s because you share and have a safe haven for us, that we can all learn from this.
Catherine Grace O'Connell
It’s that be the change thing sister. I created exactly what I needed! It’s a beautiful testament to fierce women around the world.
Trying to pull myself out of a dark period right now. Thank you for this. Xo
Catherine Grace O'Connell
Thank you so much for sharing. I sense this year’s FierceCon may be a life changing one for you as we tend to leave a lot of old beliefs and darkness behind while we find the light. Sending you my love!
I hope we can talk one day again in the future. We’ve both changed immensely after these years. I so related to all of this. I can hear the calm in your voice …like I feel in my own voice these days.
I’m still preparing for the vulnerability required to help others but I’ll be ready SOON ~~ I feel like I’ve been preparing for this all my life.
I’ve begun being vulnerable with people. I do reserve my vulnerability for those who deserve it right now because of incidents that happened in the last few years but I know…one day~~~ I’ll open up to the world because my desire has always been to help others and I’ll continue until the day I die.
I’m still basically struggling back but getting stronger everyday! Mentally I’ve never felt stronger or more balanced.
Sending love and light!
Catherine Grace O'Connell
Wonderful to hear from you. Of course, we can. It was nothing personal. I simply felt I had invested so much of my energy, heart, soul and time trying to get you to a place you weren’t ready for at the time. Everything happens as it’s meant to. I’m so happy to hear you’re in a much brighter place. Sending you my love, Catherine
Oh Catherine! So powerful and true. I have had 3 Dark Nights. The last one lasted for several years. My friends and daughter were so there for me. It was very hard to admit to them all that I was that vulnerable. To me, it meant I was broken, useless. Now I am younger than I’ve been in decades. Fierce, with an open mind , open heart, and open hands.
Catherine Grace O'Connell
I understand those dark nights that feel as though they will never end. It can feel absolutely terrifying to be vulnerable and open up about our pain. It’s so important to do it when we have the inner strength and are ready. I’m grateful you’re in a brighter place, my friend. Thank you for sharing!
Three months ago I finally couldn’t carry my shield anymore. It was too heavy, too much burden, but when I put my shield down, I sacrificed family that I love dearly. I endured an abusive father my entire life. Now at 66, on this day, of my birth, I say no more. Dad is gone from this earth but the abuse comes from my own sons and daughter in laws. I thought that I had to endure, but no more. I am enough. I have value because I breathe air. I AM ENOUGH. I AM WORTHY. Thank you for reading. That is enough.
Catherine Grace O'Connell
I do understand that Charlotte as I had a similar experience. I lost my family in the process too, over time. I still have my daughter but my mother and siblings continued to support my ex no matter how severe the abuse was and continues to be. It was a very organic process for me as I’m in a different space now. I’m sorry for your struggles but grateful you know that you are worthy because you are!