Forgiving the Hurt: What Does it Mean to Forgive Our Abusers?
by Alicia McClendon
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“Forgiveness is taking the knife out your own back and not using it to hurt anyone else no matter how they hurt you.” — Hana Malik
I’ve heard people say that “forgiveness is for you,” not the person you’re forgiving. It cleanses the soul; frees the mind. Do I agree? It’s hard to say. I can’t answer that. Not now, and maybe I never will.
I grew up in a single parent home, no father to give me guidance on boys and a mother who suffered from mental illness and addiction. My childhood lacked love and was full of neglect. The emotional and mental abuse was more than any child could handle. There were no Sunday dinners, there were no hugs, no kisses, no I love yous. It was just endless darkness in the home and in my mind.
My mother was and is a mentally ill woman. She wasn’t an unkind woman, she just wasn’t kind to me. My brother was different. Her compassion and attention were reserved for him. If he put a hole in the wall after a video game angered him, she’d just leave it in case he did it again. She never argued with him. When I was in college, she finally admitted this to me, her explanation being his autism which left me feeling some amount of resentment toward him. It wasn’t his fault, though he would rub it in my face. He knew I was left with the scraps—hate-fueled words and arguments that led to nowhere. The one person on this earth that was supposed to love me and treat me with kindness was the last person to do so.
She’d leave me at my grandparents days at a time while she disappeared to use drugs. She’d leave me to find rides home from school and basketball games, even if it was eleven at night. She’d start drunken arguments with me, purchase drugs right in front of me, even steal money from me. My worst memory of her happened when I was five-years-old. I told her that my babysitter’s granddaughter was being weird and showing me sexual videos, yet she continued to take me to their home. I didn’t fully explain what was going on because I was five, and I was embarrassed. I finally found the courage to tell her that this woman molested me, and what did she do? She called me a liar.
When she wasn’t intoxicated or high on anti-anxiety meds, she was asleep from the moment I went to school to the moment I went to bed. It was a cycle that went on for ten years, and it was when I was off to college that she miraculously decided to enter rehab. She came out a different woman—I can say that. She was no longer this hate-fueled monster that I called Mom. However, it was too late for me. She tried to be motherly. Tried to give motherly advice, loaned money so I could buy books for college, she even bought me a car (though later she took it back for herself). In the end, the arguments didn’t stop at the exit of that rehabilitation center. I knew at that point that she was just mentally ill. Her words would continue to stab me. The hate I felt toward her never vanished. Maybe it’s not hate. Maybe it is just apathy. Apathy reserved just for me. I could give more examples about why I feel this way, but if she doesn’t care, who will?
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I knew when I became homeless and had nowhere to go that she wasn’t a mother to me. She said she’d pay to have me stay with my uncle. Then when I showed up to her, intoxicated and hurting in the middle of the night, she said I could stay for the night only. Hurt even more, I left and slept elsewhere. When I had two mental breakdowns, nearly tried to die by suicide, and told her this, she stopped replying to me. Didn’t try to convince me not to do it.. Didn’t call the police. Perhaps she blocked me.
At age 32, I am broken. My soul is shattered. My mind is sick. I live my life as if I am in this bottomless pit attempting to climb my way out. Yet to cleanse my soul and free my mind, I am supposed to forgive her? The answer is supposedly, “yes.” What my therapist said was that my mother will never be the mom I so desperately needed as a child and what I needed to do was create boundaries with her, and in order to make that work, I needed to forgive her. I would create this line that she couldn’t cross, and if she did cross it, it meant that I’d take a step back. With this line, she couldn’t treat me any way she wanted, and if she respected the line, I wouldn’t bring up any past trauma because she would be “forgiven.”
But why should I forgive someone who would verbally attack me, neglect me, gaslight me, make me feel like I was nothing? That’s my mother! But she’s just mentally ill, right? Forgiving someone is not about them. It has nothing to do with them. Every step I take in this journey triggers me, angers me. I bring up the past. I relive the trauma. I say hurtful words that I can’t take back. My anger can go so deep within me that it leaves me physically sick. The chest pains, the tension headaches, the tingling left arm—all physical signs that anger has taken control of me. I begin to lash out at innocent people or I build this brick wall around me so no one can get through. This wall, I believe, will protect me from harm. At times I even blame myself. “I deserved this.” I say it time and time again until it’s branded into my mind.
I’ve been finding that to say you forgive someone is easy, but actually forgiving the hurt, the neglect, the trauma, the abuse? Completely different. I have said many times I forgive my mother for how she broke me, but do I really forgive her? If I continuously bring up the past to her, have I truly forgiven her? She has never apologized to me, so to forgive her? It takes courage and determination to really mean it and to know that forgiveness might not mean reconciliation. It means to release the negative toxins that have invaded the mind and spirit, letting go of self-hatred and stress. It can hurt to forgive, especially knowing that person might not even care for your forgiveness, and would never bother apologizing.
I think if you do it right, when you’re around them, you don’t think about any of the trauma they caused. You don’t feel any of it. You are no longer harboring those ill-feelings toward them. The person is just a normal presence to you. So first, you have to forgive the trauma they caused. You’d then have to forgive their response to your trauma too. You’d have to understand that they are mentally ill, and their mind is different from the average person. Lastly, you’d have to forgive the person they are now. Additionally, forgiveness might not come with reconciliation: that person may no longer be present in your life. Why never reconcile? Because you know that person will never change and will only cause you more trauma. Trauma you just don’t need.
I was raised in a broken, neglected household that lacked love and support. As someone who was verbally, mentally, and emotionally abused, I became an adult having to deal with my trauma. I forgive my mother for the past trauma, even though it continues.
Forgiveness. What is so hard about it? Everything. But sometimes you have to put yourself first.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Evan Bowen-Gaddy | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Addiction, BIPOC Mental Health Recovery Stories, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays, Trauma