On Forgiveness

Onforgiveness blog iStock_000001555960XSmall People sometimes refuse to forgive what someone has done because they think of forgiveness as giving in or condoning bad behavior;  that’s not it.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying that something was okay, just that you are at peace with what happened — forgiveness means that you’re no longer enslaved by it.

Years ago, I lived in New York City.  I did a lot of journal writing then.  In cafes, on the subway, in cafes, at burrito shops, and in more cafes.  I was writing to try to understand myself, my mind and heart, my pain then, and how to dissolve the pain.  Journal writing and the thinking that went along with it was my Dawn dishwashing liquid, dissolving the hardest, most clingy pain.

The complexity of my issues with my mother was particularly tough to cut through then.  My mother allowed my stepmother to adopt me as her own daughter when I was six-years-old.  I was opposed to this with every fiber in my small person’s body.  But I had no voice.  I didn’t live with my mom after age four, I lived with her parents from age four to five.  She was eccentric (read crazy) and plagued by addictions.  The word “abandoned” is overused these days, but my mother abandoned all her mothering responsibilities.  She stopped mothering me when I was four, so she had memories of us together, while I have none.  She spent her entire life trying to get back on her feet and sober but never succeeded for very long and she died at age 53.  You can read about her here .

 

She would call me at two a.m. to talk as if it were two in the afternoon, she sent me Christmas ornaments for my birthday in August (wrapped in newsprint); her strangeness was extremely hard for me to handle and I longed for a normal, loving, nurturing mother.  I ached for it.  I rejected the narcissistic one I had, the one who’d left me to her parents to raise (later she would call this act of abandoning me “setting you free.” )

 

One day the weight of her, and my anger towards her, was too much.  I was in my own way.  I needed to be lighter.

 

So, I forgave my mother.  I traded my hate for lightness.  Here’s what I did:  I lit a candle and turned off my bedroom light.  I watched the flame of the candle, and tried to put everything else out of my mind–the loud city outside my window, my roommate in the bathroom, all of it.

 

As I began whatever I was about to do (I didn’t really know), I realized that I had to not just THINK the forgiveness, but I had to say the words, too.  So I found myself whispering.  I said things like I forgive you for hurting me.  I’m not going to carry this anger around after this moment.  I forgive your selfishness, your turning your back on me.  I forgive the world in which this pain happened. 

Whispering was essential.  And the formality–the candle–as simple as it was, was essential.  Every word I whispered to the candle I really, really meant and felt.  That act of forgiveness was a bargain I was making, a bargain of complete forgiveness in exchange for a bit of lightness.  A lot was at stake–I had felt the anger and disgust toward my mother for a very, very long time.  I was attached to that anger and disgust.  It had occupied a space in my heart for so long that it was actually like saying goodbye to a dear but crazy friend when it was time to let it go.

 

I whispered the words, and cried and cried.  The relief was immense.  It was real.  I never looked back, I was propelled forward.

 

Not surprisingly, other layers of emotion revealed themselves over the years, and there was of course more to think about and work through regarding my mother.  Much!  But the act of forgiveness of the abandonment specifically was a really important, freeing step for me.  And I learned that we’re all built to self-heal.

Comments

  1. Megan says:

    Hi Amy. I wanted to say that I really appreciate your website. I found it about a year ago when searching for information about Adult Children of Alcoholics, and everything I read that you wrote rang true to me. It was amazing, just feeling like someone out there felt the same way I do! So I wanted to say thanks for writing.
    Also, I really relate to this entry specifically. I was just thinking yesterday about how I need to let go of my anger towards my mother, how it is just stifling me and driving me crazy. It is a huge weight that I can’t ever seem to rid myself of. So reading this blog today has really helped me feel like I can and should get over this anger. I am going to try a kind of forgiveness ceremony like the one you describe.
    Also, congratulations on the birth of your son! He is gorgeous.

  2. amyeden says:

    Megan – Thanks for the congrats! (this Sunday will be a new kind of Mother’s Day…) I’m glad the timing was good on this post, and I hope you get some relief with your forgiveness efforts – sounds like you’re really ready for it. It does get heavy, doesn’t it, carrying the resentment around? I’m so glad my blog has been helpful for you!

  3. Teek says:

    This is a wonderfully wise post, thanks for leading the way for others of us!

  4. LKG says:

    Just want to say thank you for this post and for your amazing blog. My mother also died at the age of 53 (7 weeks ago) and I have been searching for answers/comfort.
    Your blog has been such a blessing to me – to know that I am not alone.
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  5. Lori says:

    Hello Amy, I have read so much of your blog and I appreciate it so much. I have read all of your entries on forgiveness. I am still having a hard time forgiving. I have so much resentment and anger. It paralyzes me. Some times are better than others. I can go for months without thinking about things, or being acutely resentful, and then it comes back to the surface and I feel intensely resentful, angry, desperate, and idiotic. I feel like an idiot and a chump for still talking to my alcoholic father and my enabler mother and for allowing them into my life and my children’s lives. My question to you is if you have ever addressed your parent and told them your hurts and how they were horrible parents. I know you mother is not alive but have you ever confronted your father? I have never confronted my parents and I am 39-years-old.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks Lori! Heck I’m 40 and this stuff is present, at least to an extent. I’m not sure that it goes away 100%. It just becomes…manageable, and dimmer…less acute. What you wrote sounds a lot like something I’ve said to my therapist, about the anger not going away, about the resentment continuing to resurface, and the frustration when I feel like I gave in, yet again, to interactions that I’m not sure I want to have (in cases in which I’m unsure if I’m playing nice or genuinely want to spend time together). I don’t remember exactly what he said to me but he helped me see that it was perfectly understandable for me to feel anger (and lots of it). I think forgiveness is a gesture we make within ourselves, a gesture to attempt to move on, a gesture that begs the Universe to alleviate some of our suffering about the person/event, and a gesture…at times…that brings relief — to an extent. If someone broke a vase, you can forgive them. When my father behaved selfishly and gnawed at my self-identity and self-esteem and loved me conditionally, well, forgiveness cannot erase the pain and anger of all that — but time and forgiveness (paired with boundary-setting) can make those feelings manageable.
      I’m wondering as I re-read your comment if you might be expecting yourself not to feel, not to feel all of those very, very valid and completely justified feelings…? If the little girl you were at 5 years old were standing before you, would you tell her she had a right to her anger, desperation, and feeling idiotic? I think that if you can embrace that little girl and allow her those feelings, you’re working at the root level and that may bring you some of the empowerment you’re needing.
      But to answer the question (sorry! I was inspired by your comment!) Before she died, I did confront my mother and she wasn’t able to hear me (she was silent), but I’m glad I said what i had to say. It was for me to speak my mind. (She later, at a different point, told me that by abandoning me to her parents at age 3 or 4 (nobody remembers exactly how old I was) that she was “setting her daughter free,” so that’s a taste of her POV. With my father, I’ve confronted him in the past but not in the way I would like to now – when I confronted him in the past I was spewing anger (not unjustified); now I’d like to do it calmly. I know that I won’t get anything from him in the act of confronting him in the way of acknowledgment (only a month ago did he punch another passenger on an airplane)–because, let’s face it, we have expectations about the other person going ‘Oh my God, You’re Right.” So my approach to owning my life is to say NO to visits I don’t want and to limit interaction to only what feels OK to me and the little girl inside. That’s not easy! That said, what I would like to do is address the stories my dad occasionally tells – some sweet story about when I was a kid – and use those opportunities to say, “Actually you were the only one laughing – I was really afraid when that happened, and scared and embarrassed about how angry you got.” The reason I want to do it like that rather than a blanket-confrontation is for me…because every time I hear him summarize or glamorize a moment my childhood, I want to scream LIE! So what I need is not a grand confrontation, but I do need to address those quick casual stories that come up. Because I’m mad at myself when I don’t, I’m mad at my silence (which feels like compliance); when I don’t say anything I feel like I’m not championing my inner little girl and that I’m being drawn into the lie.
      Whoa – this is a letter…I hope there’s something of use here! -AE

  6. Lori says:

    Amy, thank you so much for your response and for sharing.

    My mother occasionally likes to paint a rosy picture of my childhood. Sometimes I call her out on it but other times I say nothing and seethe after the visit. I very much like your idea of addressing the individual stories and not having a dramatic blowup over how my entire childhood was shit. I like this approach very much will definitely try it.

    We have had confrontations in the past and I have told my mother numerous times that I hate my father, etc. However, I have never specifically told my father how his drinking affected my life. He is a bully, narrow-minded, wound tightly, on the defensive — an animal ready to attack — and still drinks. Sometimes I am still afraid of him because he was physically abusive growing up and was moody and bullying. (Of course he was moody, he is an alcoholic. ) Recently I disagreed with his politics and he screamed at me.

    I have recently started therapy again and this time I would like to finally not care what my parents say and think of me. I have improved my boundaries over the years and they still need perfecting. I agree with your approach of of only agreeing to visits you can handle and limiting interaction. Lately, I visit less often (we live in same town) and sometimes I don’t answer the phone. I avoid my parents because I am afraid I am going to lose control.

    It’s painful and nerve-wracking when around them with my kids. I’m on the defensive, tense, and afraid. My kids are getting older (ages 9 and 11) and it won’t be long (if they don’t already know by now) until they are disappointed by their grandparents. My parents are incapable of real closeness and are self-centered. Navigating this whole thing is so difficult.

    This comment of yours is so wise and helpful: “When my father behaved selfishly and gnawed at my self-identity and self-esteem and loved me conditionally, well, forgiveness cannot erase the pain and anger of all that — but time and forgiveness (paired with boundary-setting) can make those feelings manageable”

    So true.

    My problem is that my feelings will be manageable for great stretches of time. I can go months without feeling angry or thinking about my parents and childhood. But then something will happen. They will say something insensitive, or I will see my father bullying my mother or a customer service person on the telephone, and it will trigger me and I will fall into this hole of hate and anger toward my parents. I long for relief and I long for the day I no longer care what they do or say.

    Thanks again for replying to my earlier comment and for creating this wonderful site. I really appreciate it.

    • Amy Eden says:

      So, so great that you just recently started therapy again. A good therapist can really go a long, long way. Particularly if they get ACoA issues. I hope yours can really advocate for you and support you in raising the bar for yourself and all the interactions and people in your life bit by bit. For what it’s worth, I can assure you (really, I can) that if you start small and say “no” to interactions and visits (and rosy story-telling) bit by bit (20% of the time, 50% of the time, then 80%…), it will get easier and less traumatic to say no and maintain your truth and boundaries over time. And there are a lot of other cool emotional benefits along the way, too – a sense of self-championing. Thank you for connecting – it’s great to have this conversation!

    • Amy Eden says:

      PS: Also, for what it’s worth – when I did some work on developing my sense of being correct and justified in what I sensed was right for me, regardless of what others expected or wanted from me, I was able to break the decades-long cord between my parents and myself (my divorced stepmom and father). I had very little practice turning to myself for permission to feel or think, and man oh man, was it ever liberating to learn how to do that (thank you therapist). I was a real conceptual shift for me. So, perhaps doing that kind of work and thinking may way “in” for you… a.

  7. Lori says:

    I also forgot to mention that I have just recently started therapy again. A few years ago I was in therapy for surface issues like self-esteem and social anxiety but did not connect the fact that I was suffering from these things because I am an ACOA.

    I knew my childhood was crapola and I know I suffered physical abuse by the hands of my father. But since my father was a “functional” alcoholic it took me a long time to put two and two together. He’s not so functional by the way. He is one of the worst alcoholics who drinks away from home in bars and drives home nightly putting himself and others in danger.

    So, this time I hope to do some real work and finally become well-differentiated. I also forgot to mention that I completely agree that it’s acceptable and my right to be angry. I have been angry. I have raged. I have cried a million angry tears. I believe anger is essential for healing. Sorry to ramble, wanted to add that and thank you again for your helpful site.

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