A Conversation with Sarah Mae, Author of The Complicated Heart
Andy Whisenant | Sep 17th
“She broke me.
But He found me.
And after He bound up my wounds
He taught me how to love her.
Because she was broken too.”
It’s the story of how I learned to love and forgive my alcoholic mother.
On my mom’s deathbed I promised her that I would tell our story. God did so many miraculous things in our relationship, and I wanted to tell people what e did. So I waited about a year, just letting myself rest and grieve and process, and then I knew it was time, and so I started writing.
The most impactful and heart-wrenching thing I learned was just how lonely my mom was, and how much pain she had endured. It made me think of all the people who hurt others, and how underneath the cruelty and inability to show love is often just so much pain. Pain upon pain.
Getting to look behind the curtain of my mom’s life helped me better understand her. I don’t excuse her behavior, but I do have empathy toward her, and I have lamented deeply at the losses we both experienced.
How much I’m like my mother. I had always vowed I would never be like her, but the truth is, I am like her. I’ve got her DNA in me, and parts of her personality and bents are stamped in my soul. My mom drank to escape her pain and her reality; I’ve had my own addictions that have nothing to do with alcohol but definitely are means for escape. But it’s not just the “bad” things; I can finally see the good things, too. My mom loved to write, and I’m a writer. She loved art and poetry and beautiful words, and she had a sharp mind and quick tongue; me, too.
As I read her journals it was like reading pieces of my own. The condemning voices in our heads and the self-help talks and the lists and the pleading prayers are all there, in her words and mine.
I think in some way, I always knew that part of me was like her. It’s just that now I don’t run from it.
As soon as I began reading her journals, I just kept thinking, “She was so complicated.” She’d write about loving Jesus and wanting to be a good mom and the stress she felt in fighting for custody of her kids that she loves so much. The space between her words and the reality of how she treated my sister and me was cavernous.
After she died my husband went to clean out her apartment. He opened a drawer in the fridge and found it filled with vegetables and candy wrappers. He told me it reminded him of her, how she was always battling between things that are good and things that aren’t.
And the truth is, this is most of us, right? We are all wrestling internally in one way or another, at least sometimes, through our lives. None of us has it all together; none of us is a fridge filled with only healthy things all the time. You can love Jesus and still struggle in strongholds of sin. I think of Brennan Manning and his alcoholism and how he loved Jesus but struggled with his addiction all his life. It’s complicated. I don’t understand the human heart, but God does. It’s why Jesus had to come and die and defeat sin and death; we can’t do it.
So yea, we’re all a bunch of complicated hearts. Loving people who hurt us is complicated, and loving ourselves after being in abusive relationships that mess with our self-worth is complicated. But we are called to trust God with our pain and love, even when it hurts.
The book is structured in three sections: She Broke Me, He Found Me, and She Was Broken Too. These sections represent the main narratives of my life between the ages of 14 (the year I moved in with my mom) and 36 (the year she passed away).
My mom’s journal entries are placed at the end of each chapter. Her voice gives context to her life and how she viewed what was happening in her world and relationships.
Anyone who wants to know how to love themselves and others even when it hurts, and anyone who has wrestled with these questions:
How do you forgive someone who wounded you so deeply, who carelessly brushed aside your pain, who caused such destruction? And even more specifically, how do you forgive them when your wounds are still open, when they show no remorse, when you are so dang tangled up with them you’re not sure how on earth to get untangled? How do you maintain a relationship with a toxic person? How do you not run for the hills, saying, “sayonara and peace out”?
If you should run, how do you know when or how? How do you love your enemy when that enemy is your own mother or father or sibling or spouse? How do you get your emotional junk together so you can put a stop to the unhealthy patterns, behaviors, and habits you feel stuck in? Is it possible to get to the point where the pain no longer consumes you? And is there joy and victory in the midst of loss and unmet needs?
Those were my questions, and if someone relates to them, then this is the book for them. If someone doesn’t relate, it’s still for them, because I guarantee they know someone who is struggling in a dysfunctional relationship.
Reading my mom’s journals. It was so awful. After she died, I spent the night reading several of the journals, and afterwards I got into my car and just drove down the highway screaming at the top of my lungs, crying out, wishing I would have known her like I got to know her through her journals.
When she read it for the first time, she told me it really helped her to understand the relationship I had with our mom and how her experience was so different. She is younger than me, and we have different dads. I had an escape, and she didn’t. She learned early to protect herself by building practically impenetrable walls, whereas I was the sensitive one that felt everything, even though I hated myself for it. She also told me the book helped her to process some of her own story with our mom, and for that I’m grateful.
On a practical note, she was amazingly blunt when it came to the things I got wrong, timelines and such. It was so helpful because I was able to fix the errors!
First, my promise to the reader:
I will tell you my story honestly, even the vulnerable parts.
I will never be fluffy or trite with you.
I will show you how to love and forgive when it hurts. And yea, it hurts. But after the hurt is the blessing.
I will tell you the truth about what God did and who he is.
Here’s the hope:
There are miracles and surprises and gifts even in the middle of the pain and the mess and complication of it all.
You can have a fulfilling life even in the midst of some unmet needs.
Dysfunction does not have to be your legacy. You may have been born into it, married into it, or created it yourself, but it does not have to be your destiny or your identity.
Victory is always on the table.
Working through this book, specifically in regard to my mom’s journals, just made me want to love women well and leave the judging, as best I can, to God because only he knows their hearts, their wounds, their history, and how to intimately call them to himself.
An example might help here. I read in one of my mom’s journals (that didn’t make it into the book) that when she was at work she couldn’t understand why people would give her mean looks or be unkind to her or not want to be around her. When I read that I thought, they probably smelled the alcohol that permeated from her. And it struck me that my senses only give me part of the story. I have no idea what’s going on in someone’s life that may have, with the tangling up of sin, led them to act in ways that the childhood version of themselves would never have imagined. Most of us have hopes and dreams and intentions, but somewhere along the line some of us get really hurt, and our vision of life and view of ourselves, God, and others gets twisted up with pain and lies.
Fantine, from “Les Misérables,” says it well in the song, “I Dreamed a Dream”:
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
So what I’m saying is, if I see a woman who reeks of alcohol at her job, perhaps I’ll go up to her and smile and ask her how her day is going.
I want to see readers free from all that hinders them from loving God and loving others.
I hope my story helps them to be okay and enjoy life, even in the midst of some pain. I want them to finally feel normal (dysfunctional relationships can make us feel crazy and powerless). I want to see readers setting healthy boundaries, rejecting lies, becoming secure and confident, and loving themselves (instead of beating themselves up) and loving others. Most of all, I want them to trust God with even the deepest of wounds, believing that not only can he heal and set free, but he can also redeem what seems impossible and broken.
A Conversation with Sarah Mae, Author of The Complicated Heart
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