I attended a conference last week and I was introduced to Nancy (not her real name). A brilliant lady, I must say. I really loved her Plenary Presentations. We got talking and began sharing ideas, and our conversation after about an hour drifted to abuse. I listened with rapt attention as she shared her story with me and I was delighted when she gave permission to put up her story in the blog. Nancy has struggled with forgiving her brother for an abuse that begun in childhood. Read on:
Forgiveness is to me a paradox. Sometimes it seems like the penultimate step in moving on. Sometimes I think that forgiveness is more than abusers deserve. Sometimes I don’t know whom to forgive.
When I was a seven year old little girl my older brother (by 3 years) began physically abusing and sexually molesting me. It’s hard for me to use the word “molest” because it implies an act committed upon a child by an adult; and therein lies the ongoing struggle for me to come to terms, some 30 years later, with those events. The unanswered questions remain: was this normal “exploration” between children coming into puberty? Does this happen in all brother and sister relationships? Can I blame my life failings, self-esteem struggles, and feelings of shame and unworthiness on those events, or am I just looking for an excuse for being a loser? Brothers and sisters inherently fight, so at what point does what happened cross the line from normal to physical abuse? I don’t know if these questions can ever be adequately answered for me, or by me, although at different times I am clearly on one side or the other of the internal debate.
At the time the abuse began happening my parents were going through a divorce and my brother and I were left alone a lot. My mom had gone back to school in the evening and was dating regularly on Friday and Saturday nights. During this time I was also introduced to cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. By the time I was nine years old I was addicted to cigarettes, and was lying to my mom regularly about my whereabouts so that I could smoke, drink and get high. I stopped participating in extra-curricular events and went from being a top-achieving student to not caring about school. I felt alienated from my peers and anytime I felt uncomfortable socially I simply dropped out, or left, or went somewhere else mentally. This became a habitual pattern for me which I still struggle with as an adult.
My mom was a teacher, who had gone back to school to get a counseling credential. How could something be wrong at home and she not notice? How does a little girl go to school every day while these things are going on at home? How could so many people have failed this one little girl? Or did they?
I spent my teenage years getting high instead of focusing on school and learning how to be a responsible adult. At 18 years old I found my way into 12-step recovery and I remain grateful for those serendipitous events leading me in that direction. Looking back I can see that I didn’t hate myself just quite enough to continue my path of self destruction. “Just enough” is what saved me.
I remember the day I woke up and felt like I was dying. I was nearly 25 years old, clean and sober for about a year and a half, and one month off cigarettes. I was at work. I felt, suddenly, like I was going to literally crumble to pieces if I didn’t grab my middle and hold myself together. It was a physical sensation and it snatched the breath right out of my lungs. I didn’t know what was happening to me or how I would get through the rest of my day when I couldn’t let go of my middle. I simply sat down and didn’t do anything. How could I do anything? What actually mattered, after all?
I found a women’s group for “survivors of sexual abuse”. The name to me felt like a lens through which the rest of the world would view me, above all else, for the rest of my life, and I didn’t want it. The stigma of being an “abuse survivor” was overwhelming. In that group, however, I discovered that I was not so unique, and that perhaps (as in, perhaps someday in my long lifetime) I could stop holding myself accountable for those events. It gave me a glimmer of hope. Somewhere in there I saw a seven-year old girl little who had been failed by a lot of people other than herself; but it was hard to associate that little girl with me. That was me. This happened to me. I think I suffered during that time with post traumatic stress disorder and I think overall it was helpful to belong to that group. At that time I began to see my ultimate goal as forgiveness. To forgive meant freedom from my self-destructive coping mechanisms. Freedom from being angry and wanting to kill every man walking down the street holding a little girl’s hand, freedom from wearing that “victim/survivor” label like a visible tattoo. Freedom from having to walk through life gripping my middle to keep from collapsing.
During that time I also met with a therapist who told me that “sex play among children is normal, and sometimes joining a survivors group makes those events seem worse than they actually were.” At that point my anger turned inward. I had been working toward gaining an understanding of how and why these events were allowed to happen to me, and it then shifted to me wondering what in the world is wrong with me, that I need to find an external source for me being a loser. To say this was a set-back in forgiveness, both of myself and others, is to me a nuclear explosion-sized understatement.
As a mother I experience unconditional love for my daughter and son and a gut-level need to protect them with a ferocity that would lead me to unthinkable violent acts should somebody try to hurt them. Why then, wasn’t that done for me? What if I have to protect them from each other? What is normal?
I don’t see forgiveness as my ultimate goal in healing anymore. I want answers to my questions that have haunted me for the past 30 years. Perhaps then, ironically, I will be able to forgive.