Forgiveness is the ability to let go of a burden someone has put on your soul. The feeling of anger and resentment can eat you up inside. It is a lot to carry indefinitely until you decide not to carry it anymore.
Forgive: (verb) To stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone.
Forgiveness: (noun) The action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.
To forgive someone does not mean you necessarily have to forget. Forgiving allows you to free yourself from the brokenness you feel and allows you to move forward. Whether you decide to move forward with or without that person (you have forgiven) is entirely up to you. It depends on:
- Is it healthy to do so?
- Do they recognize what they have done?
- Is there a risk they will continue to hurt you?
In my lifetime I have had to deal with both sides of forgiveness. I have had to come to terms with forgiving transgressions and violations that almost ended me. I have also had to ask for forgiveness from the people I love and who counted on me. Both sides of forgiveness are humbling.
From last week’s post on “Loss”, I mentioned that I had thoughts that perhaps God took my mom when she was only 60 so that I could fully fail -so that I could grow. I will dive into that story first and explain how I came to that conclusion.
Mom and Me
I believe that Mother/Daughter relationships are complicated. Ideally, who wouldn’t want a mother who is not only a close friend, but also a trusted advisor and confidant? Sadly, this was not the relationship that I had with my mom. Mom lost custody of me to my father when I was only eleven. Because of this, she lost valuable time with me during my adolescent years. When I became an adult, she and I were free to have the relationship we wanted without having to deal with my father. However, that relationship never developed into a positive one for either one of us. I often wonder if those lost years contributed to the critical and hurtful things, she continually said to me. She had advice and opinions on everything. She played head games and laid guilt trips on me to try to get me to do what she wanted me to do. It was suffocating. I hated the way she treated me, and I just wanted to be free.
Standing up to mom I thought I was being strong but that wasn’t true. It was just an unhealthy reaction to the way I was being treated by her. By engaging, all it did was escalate the situation. As time went on, I began to snap back at her even before she said something hurtful. She could literally say just about anything, and I would snap at her. I instinctively knew where she was going with her questions even before she got to the place to harm me verbally. When looking back at how I behaved, I know now that I could have done better.
A Toxic Relationship
Mom was my best friend and my worst enemy. I wanted to get to know her and spend time with her, but her behavior and my reaction to it became a vicious cycle. No matter if we went to play bingo, watched television, shared a meal, or did crafts together, there wasn’t a day that went by where we didn’t argue. We would quickly make up as if that was a normal part of our relationship. Then we would do it all again the very next day. This repetitive cycle went on for over 20 years. The problem was that many of these arguments included her attacking me with cruel and snide remarks. The words she said to me were not what you would describe as normal criticism. They were well crafted damaging insults that still play in my mind like “sound bites.”
The relationship with my mom alone could fill the pages of a book. There is just too many memories and a lot of painful experiences. Here is my horrible truth—- After mom died, I felt relief! I was free for the first time in my life to make my own decisions and not hear her voice telling me what I should and should not be doing. I felt like a kid in the candy store with the whole world in front of me. Freedom for the first time in my life at the age of thirty-nine. I could make my own decisions without her judgment. Maybe it was too much freedom, and it came too fast for me.
God Took Mom So I Could Grow?
I fell apart after she died and made a lot of mistakes. But by making those mistakes I was able to find myself. That is the biggest gift I could have gotten in life. It’s hard to explain how falling to the bottom of a pit could be the ultimate gift, but it was for me. When you get to the bottom there’s only one way to go, and that’s up. I never wanted anyone to help me my entire life because I trusted no one and thought I could take care of myself. When I was at my bottom, I finally came to the realization I couldn’t help myself. And at the very moment I realized I could not do it on my own, I felt this release from within my spirit that allowed me to let others come in, pick me up and get me started on a new path.
Of the many individuals that I have been able to forgive, mom is one of them. I came to understand how complicated our family dynamic was. How someone’s childhood experiences can shape how they deal with relationships. In retrospect I feel that mom had her own demons from her past as well as mental health issues. I’m not excusing her behavior but rather considering the explanation that she didn’t know how to communicate with me in a healthier way. Quite honestly, I didn’t know how to communicate better with her either. When working on forgiveness, I considered her childhood, her personality, her mental illness as well as my own circumstances. I was suppressing my own childhood trauma and I’m sure that was a contributing factor in how I related to her. All things considered; I was able get to the place I needed to get in order to forgive her.
When I think about forgiveness, I wish I could have apologized to my mom for my behavior when she was alive. I had a role in our relationship, and I take responsibility for my actions. I know that I was angry with her and angry in general. Maybe the anger stemmed from her losing custody of me and how I ended up with my father. How my life could have been different if that didn’t happen. I have expressed my sorrow to her since her death, and I believe she knows my heart and understands. I feel at peace with her, and I think mom and I are fine now.
When dad took over custody, he abused me verbally, sexually, physically, and spiritually. When I became an adult and was able to escape that torturous environment and live on my own, I had no idea who I was.
I thought I knew. But now that I am older and can reflect on my life, I realize I always thought I knew a lot, until I knew more. When I left home, I thought I was free, but had no idea what freedom was. I had not even touched the surface on what freedom really meant for my spirit. Back then I was oblivious to the lasting effects of child abuse. I thought the abuses that I suffered were something I could just put in a room in the back of my mind and close the door. There is a term for this. It is to compartmentalize. This is all well and good until it resurfaces, rears its ugly head and trashes your life. The term for this is Complex-PTSD.
After mom died, I hit my rock bottom and went into recovery, I remember feeling this openness and a willingness to learn. Something I didn’t feel before. I already knew I had messed up so badly in life and I wanted to try something different. I wanted to change and was open and teachable. I found that there is no running from the past and I had to deal with things head on whenever my mind decided to throw something at me to work on.
I dealt with what occurred in my childhood by slowly peeling away layers of me, like an onion. Each layer allowed me to grow more, and I was able to discover a little more about who I was. Each layer allowed me to come to terms with my past. It helped me in the way I perceived myself, others, and the world around me.
I had people around me that cared enough to walk me into a whole new life. During my recovery I learned that in order to truly move forward I had to unload baggage – to forgive as well as to ask for forgiveness. I took responsibility for my actions during my addiction and reached out to those who I believe I needed to apologize to. It was my pursuit of freedom.
In the spirit of becoming the best version of myself, I still try to stay open and teachable so I can continue to grow. It takes a conscious effort to stay in the mindset that you are always a work in progress.
How to Forgive the Unforgivable?
Child abuse comes in different forms. I will share a part of my story where it concerns sexual abuse at the hands of my biological father.
My father began molesting me when I was six years old. By the time I was twelve he took my innocence. That is the polite way of saying he took my virginity. By the age of fifteen I had grown tired of this never-ending repetitive abuse and because I was older, stronger, and more aware of how wrong this abuse was I got brave. I will never forget the night that my father came to my room and tried to touch me. Like every other time, it was late, where everyone in the house was asleep, including me. I woke up hearing his breathing and knew he was in my room. When he pulled the covers back and began to touch me, I yelled “No” really loud! It scared him. He was so afraid my stepmother could have heard me that he quickly exited my room. That is how I got him to stop. I continued to do this because it worked, and he eventually stopped coming to me at night.
In trying to find a way to forgive this unforgivable crime I had to dig deep. How did I come to terms of forgiving something so heinous and unforgivable? One thing that I want to make clear is that my father did acknowledge, recognize, admit, and take responsibility for what he did to me years later when I confronted him. This made the road to forgiveness a little easier for me.
All my life I had split my father into two. There was the father who was funny, smart, interesting, and charismatic and the father who was the child molester. I liked one father but hated the other. If I had to let the father I hated go, I had to let both go. Easier said than done apparently. Ending ties was a really hard thing for me to do. My father died in 2008 and I was finally free of him. There were no longer two individuals in this horrible, humiliating story.
The forgiveness wasn’t for him. It was for me. Did I want to continue to carry the resentment, pain and heartache of these memories on my back for my remaining years? No. I reflected on my father’s upbringing to try to gain some understanding. I also thought; what kind of person could do such heinous acts like this on a child? Only a very mentally sick individual. To consider he had a mentally sick mind, I found an avenue where I could process my forgiveness.
An Insult to Injury
When I met my ex-husband, I was twenty-one and he was nineteen. We had a whirlwind romance and I married him six months later. We had two children together. By our 7th year of marriage I was very unhappy. I had grown and matured, but he didn’t seem to as well. Maybe we just grew apart. I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I left him. After our divorce he was sending me $600 a month in child support. I had full custody and I worked to make ends meet. My ex-husband decided to leave the state. The child support continued for several years but when he got out of the military and found a new partner, the payments stopped. When this happened in 1999 – it happened suddenly, and I was left holding the bag. He changed his address, phone number, and essentially abandoned his children and hid. I had to figure out how to pay the rent and support the kids on my own. I took a second job; working 7 days a week and I did this for over three years. This pressure obviously contributed to my downfall. I opened a case with Children’s Services when he stopped paying child support so that they could try to locate him. What he was doing was against the law, and I was drowning. Children’s Services sent a “feeler” out every six months to see if he would surface but nothing ever came of it.
Knowing When to Say When
Part of my journey with forgiveness was to forgive my ex-husband and let go of his debt. Several years ago, I closed the child support case on him. He owed me over $50,000. When I called Children’s Services to close the case the representative on the phone asked me if I was sure because once I closed it, I wouldn’t be able to reopen it. I told her I was sure. The reason I did that was twofold:
- I knew that I would never see that money. My ex-husband worked under the table to avoid being found.
- He hid out for years so that Children’s Services couldn’t find him. Part of closing this case was essentially also forgiving him for abandoning his children.
I remember feeling like I had him in jail and I was the one holding the key. I had just read something about resentments in a book called “As Bill Sees It” and thought about my ex-husband and the money he owed. I realized closing the case would be one of the biggest things I could let go of. I wanted to release him of the debt so he could be free, and more importantly I could be free of the resentment.
Considering the fact that receiving that child support could have very well changed the trajectory of my life – what I felt after I closed the case was a huge surprise. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was unexpected, and I liked how it felt. That is when I truly realized that forgiveness is not for the other person; it is for your benefit. We’ve all heard that cliché before, but I’m here to tell you that when you experience it yourself – forgiveness is freeing.
One of the most humbling experiences of my life is the forgiveness and grace I have received from my children. That unconditional love is not lost on me and I am so blessed and thankful. When I think about what I put my kids through when they were young, it is very painful. I was self-medicating – drinking, doing crystal meth, and going out to bars. I put them second in my life over my inability to deal with my past, my circumstances, alcoholism and addiction. I let them down in a very big way. I still have trouble forgiving myself for the isolation, pain, sadness, neglect, and anger they felt because of what I put them through. I think it’s harder to let go of the resentment we put on ourselves when we hurt someone we love. For me, it is easier to forgive others than for me to forgive myself.
Steps For Forgiveness
- Take Responsibility
- Don’t Make Excuses
- Don’t Be a Repeat Offender
When asking for forgiveness, the biggest takeaway I learned is to not repeat what we have done. If we keep apologizing for the same things over and over, how can we ever be trusted? Work on changing. It takes time to change the default in our brain from the way we have always behaved, to a new behavior. If we are aware of what we are trying to change, we can make a conscious effort to not repeat old behaviors. Eventually we will have a new default and won’t have to consciously think about it anymore. We can grow and improve to get closer to the person we want to become.
Processing and Moving Forward
Forgiveness is an effort to let go and move forward. Allow yourself time to process the situation, to be angry upset and hurt. Reach out for help or therapy if you are struggling to cope with your resentment. Finally, allow yourself the ability to forgive. It does not mean you have to let an individual back into your life. It means you’re freeing yourself from the burden of resentment and giving yourself closure. Whether it is forgiving someone, asking for forgiveness or forgiving yourself; it may be what is necessary in order rid yourself of the anger or pain within and move on with less baggage and a healthier mindset.