“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” I John 4:18 NIV
In 2014 my husband went missing in the wilderness. Throughout those first few days of shock and disorientation, and then for the next year-and-a-half, as we searched for him, I needed all the help in the world.
When You Become the “Helpee”
After receiving the late-night phone call from my pastor saying my husband Steve was missing from the church backpacking trip, my mind alternated between two states. One was high functioning, as adrenaline propelled me around the house, and I busily prepared to leave for the mountains in the morning, sure he would turn up soon. The other was floating dissociation. From a perch hovering high up on the ceiling, I stared down at my immobilized figure sitting on the couch. I looked as tiny and one-dimensional as a character in a cartoon comic.
Soon after the sun came up, my sister began chauffeuring me for the six-hour drive to the search command center in California’s Trinity Alps. We spent most of the time making lists with details I’d overlooked the night before as I arranged for my 15-year-old daughter’s care, made a few phone calls, and packed. But once we reached the foothills and cell service dropped off, a thick fog blanketed my mind, mimicking the smoke we saw ahead of us from the forest fire threatening the very area we were headed to. My usual ability to problem-solve and communicate had gone offline, and I couldn’t begin to access it.
When we finally arrived at the search command center (a yellow schoolhouse sitting vacant for summer vacation), we set up camp at a picnic table outside, shielded from the sun by a great pine. I sat numbly on the bench while I felt my mind float away like a kite. My sister sat opposite me, diligently working on the details that still needed to be addressed. She functioned while I didn’t.
In a heartbeat, my place in the world had shifted. Like some malevolent magic trick, the familiar ground I was standing on twenty-four hours earlier had flipped, leaving me dangling upside down, my feet glued to the life I now owned.
I had few mental resources to bring to the table, no skills to offer to the search effort. I hadn’t felt this needy since I was a child. And even then—as soon as I could—I began taking on the “helper” role that is both a part of my calling and career as a therapist and a defense that has kept others from really seeing me and being able to connect to my true self. Now I was no longer the helper but the “helpee,” relying one hundred percent on family and the Search and Rescue teams who had converged from all over the state to find my husband.
We held a vigil at our picnic table for four timeless days while the teams scoured the forest for any sign of Steve. Then, when dusk would start to cast its long shadow, they would return, filthy and so exhausted they could barely walk while an intense mix of disappointment and gratitude collided in my chest.
But on the fifth day, something in the air around the command center shifted. I was having lunch with my sister when I wondered aloud whether today might be the day the teams switched from “rescue” to “recovery” operations. Maybe they had given up on finding Steve alive. Within minutes of voicing my fear, the Sheriff’s deputy called, summoning us back to the command center, where they announced they were suspending the search altogether. So now I would have to leave Steve behind and return home to my daughter, knowing he could still be alive, wandering lost or wounded in that rugged, wild place.
Fortunately, after just a few days at home, a helicopter pilot contacted me, volunteering to help find him. Once I spoke with him, my initial skepticism fell away, and we began planning how to move forward. All told, we ended up making twenty-two expeditions to the Trinity Alps, joined by a cadre of men and women—family, friends, and a large, steady group of big-hearted people from my church. Because of the help I received from these good souls and all the volunteer trackers, search dog teams, and forensic scientists, we did eventually learn enough about what happened to my husband to achieve a measure of closure. And throughout the hundreds of days full of challenge and high stress, no matter how inexperienced or dysfunctional I was in any given situation, this community of people still loved me. For a chronic pleaser like myself, this was profoundly healing—unconditional love at its best.
When the Quiet Descends
And as that season ended–after I stopped making the endless lists used to organize searches and packed away the neon orange safety vests and black walkie-talkies–the most challenging journey began. Without all of that busyness and responsibility to distract me, after family and friends returned to their own routines, an oppressive quiet descended on my home. Now my daughter would learn to live without her father and I without my husband.
When Vulnerability Finds You
My husband’s disappearance and death led to a state of mandatory vulnerability, born of trauma and sudden loss. But once the drama ended and life began returning to some semblance of “normal,” I had a choice to make: Would I gradually re-seal my wounded heart, covering it over with tidy, optimistic words hiding the rawness just beneath the surface? Or would I let myself keep it open, allowing people to see the complex mechanics of my ongoing, tangled grief?
When You Pursue Vulnerability
I chose openness. (Though, in reality, I felt like it chose me.) And I found healing. Healing in releasing the images and emotions through writing, through sharing them with a community. Some of them I knew, and most I did not. While I had grown accustomed to writing daily updates for the hundreds of people all over the country who supported our search efforts, with time, I gradually began to share more deeply. Night after night, climbing into my side of our too-large bed, I would set pen to paper and watch the contents of my heart spill out. Confusion, longing, questions for God, and seeds of hope. They all rushed out, eager to step into the light after being pressed down for so long.
I remember one morning, sitting in front of my computer at 2:00 a.m. I had just finished painting a picture of the longing I felt for my husband and the sense of trickery that came alongside it. He was the one I needed. But at the same time, he was the root of my pain. For most of my life, I never would have considered broadcasting my raw, tangled emotions to anyone—much less to the relative strangers following my blog at the time. “No, this is too much. Too personal. Too naked,” my fear whispered. But another voice prodded, “Stay open. Stay honest.” My finger hovered a while over the blue “Publish” button. But before I could lose my courage, I went ahead and pushed it, sending my most vulnerable words out into the world.
When You Experience the Gift of Being Seen
And then the most surprising thing happened. At church later that morning, several people approached me–people who hadn’t done so in the past. And each said basically the same thing. They thanked me for writing, saying my words were speaking for them too, articulating stirrings they couldn’t find language for. And there was healing for them in finally being able to name their emotions in this way and feel a little bit less alone in the process.
And in those moments, I felt a moving spirit of communion with these fellow travelers. They had seen my heart, and then they let me see theirs. I sensed delicate, invisible strands of connection forming between us, a zipline of sorts running from my heart to theirs and back again. This connection had nothing to do with my being in some kind of “helper” role with them. I wasn’t speaking from a place of competence, professional experience, or education. I was just myself. My messy, unfinished, work-in-progress self. And I was loved. Deeply.
While I couldn’t recognize it at the time, vulnerability offered treasure—like the glittering violet crystal hidden at the core of rough gray amethyst rock.
So today, my finger doesn’t hesitate much as I hover over the “Send” button that whisks these words away to our editor and then out to you. Because I have learned this hard-won truth: When I choose to really let myself be seen, love and a healing sense of connection are sure to follow.