Review and thoughts on ‘Heaven Is Here’

It’s funny; I simply don’t read a ton of “inspirational” books; I do read memoirs and biographies on occasion as part of the wide mix of things I do like to read. But I don’t read a lot that’s really intended as inspirational, except for some official religious/church books, which I consider more reading for spiritual/religious purposes. So it was a little unusual for me to decide to read popular blogger Stephanie Nielson’s Heaven Is Here. And the main reason I did read it is I wanted to include it as part of my overall research into the topic of beauty and self-image, which I blog about sometimes here; in this case, I was curious to see what she had to say about how she felt about her appearance after a horrific plane crash that burned 80% of the skin on her body.

It’s also an interesting and different experience reading a book by a Mormon written for a general audience. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints myself, I’m very used to the Mormon culture and way of talking and thinking about things, and I’m used to listening to speakers and reading books by Mormons aimed at other Mormons. But it’s rarer to read something one of “my own” has written that will be read mostly by people who aren’t familiar with some of our terminology, beliefs, and culture.

That said, it was such a fascinating experience reading this book. It actually elicited all kinds of interesting feelings and reactions as I went along. I will admit that we Mormons tend to have some interesting cultural quirks that may seem unusual to others; we marry young, for instance, typically after very short courtships, and have more children than the average. Some of our cultural quirks are particularly pronounced in the state of Utah and a few other pockets of concentrated Mormon population (note: I’m not a “Utah Mormon”: I grew up East of the Mississippi and only lived in Utah when I went to Brigham Young University). So it wasn’t surprising to me to read that Stephanie married at 19 after less than a year of knowing Christian Nielson. Or that she started having babies right away. Or that she was just thrilled at that young age to just get started with being a stay-at-home mom. At the same time, even though it was familiar territory, it was still different from what I chose to do (marry at 23, get a college degree, have first child at 26, work part-time off and on and freelance while raising kids). And there’s still just enough of cultural expectations and a kind of cultural divide that those (what outsiders may consider slight) differences just kind of grate a little somehow sometimes.

Nielson starts with telling about her very large, happy and tight-knit family in Utah and her fairy-tale courtship with Christian. She lays the groundwork of her happy, idyllic life before she moves on to the plane crash that changed it all — well, temporarily. No matter how you look at it, not everyone (well, rarely anyone) has that kind of idyllic upbringing, love story or marriage. And that’s OK. Even in our church, unmarried young people and adults are reminded not to expect an “easy” and “obvious” courtship that leads to marriage. Sometimes it is not clear if the person you’re dating is “the right one” (itself a myth). You mostly have to make sure you date good people and then choose wisely, marrying someone who has solid good qualities and should make a good partner. The answer is rarely written in the stars or with fireworks. And most of us know that idyllic families happen far less often than we’d like. (We can’t change our own upbringings, let’s just say, but we can do the best we can to provide our own children with solid, happy homes.) So reading about Nielson’s happy-happy-happy life can honestly make one feel a little over-sugared.

But knowing going into the book what Nielson is going to experience makes that early part of the book palatable — it’s all too clear that she’s going to need every ounce of strength, idyllic family support system, and reserves of happiness and faith that she has stored up to be able to survive the ordeal that she does go through. Heaven Is Here doesn’t necessarily provide many details of the plane crash or the injuries she sustained, but it definitely shares the emotions she went through after the crash — the story is no longer idyllic. Nielson is painfully honest about her fears, her anxiety, and the many scary feelings she experienced in the months after she woke up from the 10-week medically-induced coma in which she stayed shielded from unbearable pain. She had support from family, but she often felt alone, and she wanted to shield herself from even many of her own loved ones and friends. She was scared of how people would react to her, how she looked, how she felt, how her life would never be the same. She was scared of having to face a new life, one that stood in stark contrast to her “before-crash” idyllic one. The bulk of the book, then, allows us to see inside her mind and heart, as she struggles and wants to stay in a cocoon but finally knows she must gradually burst free and move forward, as difficult as it will be.

As much as I felt some reservations and knee-jerk reactions to her pre-crash account of life, I couldn’t help but be tremendously moved and, yes, inspired, by how she lived after that crash. I loved her honesty about all of the moments she had that were not supposedly inspirational. Because that’s what lent reality and depth to all that was truly uplifting. It felt authentic. She was able to do what she’d set out to do: give hope to readers and show that life is beautiful, particularly when filled with love. And a perfect body or perfect face has little to do with that. For all that, I was grateful to have read her story.

A shout-out to the blog that started this conversation

Early last month, I saw this lovely post linked from a friend’s Facebook page. It got me thinking about my situation, and I decided it would be useful to start a blog that talked openly about mental illness. So here we are, about six weeks later.

Being Sunday, I will focus today on some faith-related observations. I don’t necessarily intend this blog to be focused entirely around faith and my religion in particular, but from time to time I’d very much like to address belief because it is very important to me and how I experience life.

I am of the opinion that my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has done a nice job bringing some of these more sensitive topics to the attention of the church membership worldwide. The official magazine of our church is called the Ensign, and it comes to homes monthly with lots of wonderful inspiring articles and first-person experiences of how the gospel of Jesus Christ has changed people’s lives. The magazine has featured over the past decade more and more articles that address special situations like how to parent and teach people with disabilities, for instance, and how to tackle the problem of pornography. It has featured articles about mental illness, as well, from the viewpoints of licensed therapists and from those who have struggled with it personally.

So in no way do I think our church has tried to sweep the issue under the rug or act as if it isn’t a challenge to many people. I have definitely enjoyed the articles about mental illness in the official magazine, and I have appreciated books that have been published about the topic that are aimed at the LDS audience.

But I do think that more can be said, more can be done to bring what was once rather a taboo topic out into the open. I’ve already written about how more people seem to understand physical illness, and I liked how this blogger mentioned the same feeling. Our church women are known for providing meals to those who are sick or who have just had babies. We’re great at delivering casseroles. But while I have been given some meals over the years postpartum, I haven’t been provided much sustenance when it’s come to my mental recoveries. I think that there are basically two reasons for that: 1) few people even know when someone’s suffering from mental illness (in general or a bad episode of it) and 2) our society as a whole still just doesn’t talk about it enough so that it’s something people all feel comfortable with. Sure, not everyone is even good about talking about physical illness, shying away from the “C” word, for example, but even so, I think that the more a topic is addressed, the more people can become comfortable with it and the less it will feel like a taboo.

So here I am, again writing these words out in public so they can feel less strange, less taboo, less “other,” less misunderstood. The topic of mental illness is extremely personal to me, and I could continue being very private about how it’s affected me, or I could do what I’m doing now: just speaking out loud. I think this whole blog has that same purpose: to contribute to a conversation, to raise awareness, to increase sensitivity and understanding. I think that in our day we have been blessed with the gift of technology, and if we use it to improve and uplift people’s lives, we will be giving a gift to others.