Some memoirs are kick back, relax and drink in the story kind-of books. Others are sit up, take notice, grab a pack of Post-its and a highlighter, and prepare to have your soul rocked.
Loved Back to Life by Sheila Walsh was a soul-rocker for me.
In her mid-30s, Sheila was at the top of her career as co-host of The 700 Club when she hit her breaking point. She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital where she stayed for a month.
In trying to balance a career and the chaos inside her head, Sheila writes, “If I’d had something that showed up on an X-ray, it would have been easier to rally support, but what do you say when you feel as if you are losing your mind?”
Boldly, Sheila lays out a kaleidoscope of emotions and experiences – owning each one as a work of art that ultimately provided an important lesson in the tapestry of her life.
In addition to pointing out the specks in other people’s eyes, she reveals the logs in her own. And right there in the introduction she proclaims: “The truth that I thought would kill me actually saved my life.”
But Sheila’s journey was far from easy.
A “friend” tried to dissuade her from entering the psychiatric hospital, saying, ‘Please, Sheila, don’t do this. If you do, God won’t be able to use you again... Once the public finds out where you’ve been, well, your ministry will be over.”
But, you see, Sheila wasn’t trying to save her ministry. She was trying to save her life.
It’s amazing how when we sink to our lowest levels, the comments of others can suffocate us like constrictive second skins. Some people told Sheila she was on the cusp of a breakdown because she wasn’t praying hard enough. Others suggested she’d done something in her past for which she was now being punished. Still others had the “Buck up little camper” attitude and reminded her how much she had (materialistically) to be thankful for, as well as how much she stood to lose if she went public with her mental illness.
I became angry when I read some of the comments from people involved in ministry. I received similar treatment in not one, but two churches, and there’s an especially painful sting when judgment comes from a purportedly Godly place.
Sheila points out, “Jesus never encouraged His friends to cover over the pain in their lives, but to bring it into the light, where healing is found ... Jesus never shamed anyone. He did, however, call out some of the church leaders on their hypocrisy.”
In fact, Jesus was repeatedly drawn to the least of these, such as the Samaritan woman at the well, who was “mistrusted by woman and joked about among men.” Jesus not only befriended her, but also told her, “I know it all, and I still love you.”
Same with Mary Magdalene, the tax collector, the thief dying beside Him on the cross and countless others.
Sadly, most people are so consumed in their own lives that they have no interest in traveling to the depths of despair if they can avoid such a trip: “Rather than people moving closer, pressing in to see what was wrong, they drifted farther away.”
As I read, I became slightly consumed in my own hurt, but then I witnessed Sheila’s grace. And the grace extended to her by God. I plunked down several Post-it note reminders to be kind, always, with myself and others:
“If one of us stumbles – gets caught in a lie, falls off the sobriety wagon, has an affair – the rest of us will simply keep walking, praying that we will learn to be better judges of character next time. We allow our disappointment to become distance, confirming the worst fears of the person who is left lying in the dust: ‘I am a bad person; why did I even hope that God could love me?’”
And this reminder: “Hurting believers whose lives are in tatters need real help. If we were able to put aside our need for approval long enough to be authentic, then, surely, we would be living as the church.”
And one more: “It is not our job to try and shame the world, but to love them with the love of Christ.”
Sheila tackles the subject of depression and takes a hammer to the stigma that’s still surrounds mental illness.
She wrestles with why God gave her this burden, and imagines the Father, Son and Holy Spirit grappling with the best way to teach her valuable lessons about overcoming fears: “We will invite her greatest fears to visit her. They will take up residence, but only for a while. It is only in living with them that she will ever overcome them.”
One of her greatest fears was being viewed unfavorably by others. “I had spent so much of my life measuring who I was by how other people viewed me... How could I explain to people who called from all around the country what I was struggling to understand myself.”
A close friend told Sheila: “When the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of change, you’ll change.”
Amazing how pain can energize us with an intensity we otherwise might not possess.
Like Sheila, I’ve struggled with clinical depression for as far back as I can remember, I’ve probably got a leg up on some of the MDs out there when it comes to knowing both sides of the story. I’ve done all the research and I know how depression feels. In fact, when I struggled with postpartum depression in 2007 and touched the edges of my own breaking point with death lapping at my ankles, a new low registered in my mind.
There are many days, still now, that I’m keenly aware of just how far down my mind is capable of going.
On this topic, Sheila writes, “You can try for years to deny the things that are tearing at your soul, but they will not go away. They thrive in the shadowlands, and if you don’t deal with them, they will one day deal with you.”
WOMAN OF FAITH
I heard Sheila speak at a women’s conference in September 2016, a tumultuous time when I almost didn’t attend the conference because of the mess of my own life. I was living at my dad’s house as we journeyed through his last days of in-home hospice care. My life was at a crossroads in many areas, not just with losing my dad, and I was afraid of what was ahead.
In both her talk and in this book, I appreciated that Sheila doesn’t dance around difficult subjects. There’s a freshness in her directness, and a wisdom that comes from being in hell’s basement and clawing your way out.
I once had a pastor read my memoir and tell me he appreciated that I told my story with “gut-level honesty”. Since that day, I have strived for nothing less and I like that Sheila has done the same.
While Loved Back to Life is indeed a love story, the affection is less about the man who later becomes Sheila's husband and more about how she learns to fully love herself – battle wounds and all – through the never-ending love of Christ.
As for the “friend” who said her ministry would be over if she went into the psychiatric hospital, the opposite turned out to be true. Sheila signed on with Women of Faith for several years, and now has a ministry called “Life Today,” plus a handful of books in print. Learn more at www.sheilawalsh.com
Amy Lyon is the author of the memoir, “Only God Knows Why: A Mother’s Memoir of Death and Rebirth,” and the inspirational romance, “Divine Interruption.” You can connect with her at www.amylyon.com