I’ve known Ericka Andersen for over a decade going back to my days as a conservative blogger/online activist type. Over the years I have been impressed with her career as she became an expert in social media marketing, digital influence and communications. She works hard, has a lot of energy and works for some great organizations.
I was equally impressed when she moved back to Indiana to be closer to her family and to start a family herself. And although I followed many of these changes via Facebook, we weren’t particularly close friends and my busy life and own family meant I only saw bits and pieces when I happened to catch them in my feed.
So when I heard that she was publishing a book, Leaving Cloud 9, about her husband and his remarkable life story I was intrigued. I try to make a point of reading books by people I know (even if only online). The dramatic nature of the story she would tell grabbed my attention even more. I was lucky enough to be able to get a review copy from NetGalley and dove in.
As I have mentioned on social media a few times, Leaving Cloud 9 is not an easy book to read. It tells the story of abuse, neglect, and abandonment; of PTSD, bipolar, social anxiety, divorce and depression. But it is also a story about love and redemption; about beating the odds and rising above the most challenging environment to find faith, hope and love.
The book reads like a memoir in the sense that it recounts the life of Rick Sylvester but it does so through the voice and eyes of his now wife Ericka. Along the way she folds in social sciences research and public policy issues related to the problems and issues Rick faced.
As I read through the traumas Rick and his sister suffered through and their continued attempts to simply survive when everything in life seems stacked against them, I couldn’t help but thinking 1) what a harsh reminder of how some people live and how blessed I am, even with challenges of my own family and 2) how did the @#$% did Rick survive?
And that is what the book drives at; that question looms throughout. Andersen’s answer is a combination of Rick’s own refusal to give up, a few people and circumstances at key points, and God’s saving grace.
Rick showed an amazing determination to just keep trying; to keep pushing forward. He joined the military after high school which gave him discipline, solidarity and friendships. It was not a smooth experience and he didn’t find the military his ultimate vocation but there were important elements of adulthood that were gained.
There were a few key people who helped Rick survive. First and foremost was his sister. They clearly relied on each other their whole lives and just having some else there with you as you went through hell meant something important. And later his sister would play a key role in helping Rick keep trying and moving forward. One of his mom’s boyfriends also helped Rick see that there were adults who cared about him and who could serve as role models, no matter how flawed. Just a glimpse of love and support meant a lot. And of course, Ericka is in many ways the final necessary piece to his healing process.
God is the other thread that is weaved into the whole story. Ericka and Rick are not shy about their belief that God is the ultimate reason that Rick has come through the incredible traumas he faced and found a life of stability, love and support. This foundational belief that God was moving in Rick’s life and in Ericka’s and that the only path to salvation was faith in Jesus Christ; both in the abstract theological sense and in the very real life sense.
You may or may not agree with this theological perspective. You may have nagging questions about the existence of evil and the role of faith; may wonder how Rick is different from the many other children who didn’t find a happy ending. But you can’t question the role it played in their respective lives and, as Ericka relates, how Rick truly found healing in the church and through his faith.
And as these threads begin to connect in the book’s closing chapters what struck me was the amazing love Ericka obviously has for Rick and the deep faith required to believe that 1) the real Rick was not reflected in his problems, his anger and social anxiety 2) that God was calling her to something important in this relationship. I don’t mean to imply that Ericka took on Rick as some sort of mission project but rather she understood that their relationship could be a true reflection of the redemptive love of Jesus and that would be a beautiful thing. To see through all the challenges and truly believe that God could make something beautiful out of all of the suffering, and of Ericka’s life, struggles and experiences, etc..
It is truly an incredible story. Not just that Rick could overcome incredible odds and graduate college, find stable employment, find a lasting love, and begin to create a loving family of his own, but that he and Ericka could meet in Washington, DC and create a bond that would lead to love, marriage and parenthood. Even having children was an act of faith and another example of how they persevered through love and faith.
So the question that lingers in many people’s minds has to be why write a book like this and why read it? Ericka and Rick took the risk to tell their story because they believed it would give hope and faith to those who might be struggling with the same or similar issues. They want to spread the message that you can survive and even thrive.
And in the same way reading it is a stark reminder of the incredible hardships many American’s face every day and that faith, hope and love are needed more than ever. Ericka and Rick’s story is inspiring and humbling. For many who read it, like me, it will be a reminder to count your blessings and an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith and family.
And that is a message we all need to hear.