‘You just need to forgive.’
I hang my head as shame courses through me again. I wish I hadn’t said anything. I wish I hadn’t asked for help. Because this is where it always lands: that it’s my fault. I’m only traumatised, Irene says, because I haven’t forgiven my abusers. If I would just forgive them, her theory goes, the flashbacks and dissociation would simply melt away.
Even as the shame nags at my guts, part of me is dubious. Part of me wants to look her in the eye and tell her that she’s wrong. But she’s powerful, and I’m not, and years of abuse taught me not to stand up to people more powerful than me. So I retain the self-protective shame posture of submission, and I mumble an apology, and promise myself silently that I will never initiate another conversation with Irene again.
I was a few months into my breakdown when this conversation happened. It was only one in a series of similar conversations that I’d been having with people for some time. I didn’t understand what was happening to me – my symptoms, my multiplicity, the flashbacks, the dissociation – and the only answer that ever seemed to be offered to me was that I needed to forgive. That my symptoms were evidence, only, of my unforgiveness.
And so for weeks I tried desperately ‘to forgive’. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know how to ‘do it’. I would journal about it, writing the words out meticulously and with no conscious awareness of their futility: ‘I forgive x’. When that didn’t seem to change anything, I concluded that my forgiveness hadn’t been deep enough. I journalled at greater length, with more detail. ‘When x did x to me, it made me feel x. It caused me x. But I now forgive x for the hurt and consequences I have suffered, and I discharge all debts and I choose not to seek revenge or recompense.’
My paragraphs become more and more ridiculous. But if this was the answer – if this was the solution to my ever-increasing suffering and torment – then I was quite prepared to write a million ridiculous paragraphs in order to ease it.
And of course nothing changed, because forgiveness wasn’t the issue. Trauma was.
‘If someone had shot you in the arm,’ my therapist later explained, ‘you would have a bullet in your arm, and damage to your bones and muscles and blood vessels.’
I nodded, not understanding where she was headed.
‘That damage would be there whether or not you ‘forgave’ the person who shot you.’
Aah, yes. Of course. Why hadn’t I seen it like this before? She had a knack of saying profound things simply.
‘So forgiveness doesn’t matter?’ I asked, flipping straight from ‘all’ to ‘nothing’.
‘What do you think?’
Good question. What do I think?
I realised, after much thought, that I had no idea what I thought. I thought what I was supposed to think: that had been my strategy for surviving life. I tried to figure out what the ‘right’ thing to think was, and then I thought it. When I was trying to get help from Irene, when she unwittingly stepped into the role of attachment figure and activated my primal need for someone ‘stronger and wiser’ than me to rescue me from my pit, I automatically adapted my thinking to whatever she thought, in order not to alienate her: she wasn’t going to help me if I disagreed with her. Naturally I didn’t realise that this was what I was doing: I just assumed she must be ‘right’.
But now, in this therapy session, is a new attachment figure who’s playing hard to get. She won’t tell me what the ‘right’ thing to think is. She wants me to figure it out for myself. She wants me to find my own truth. She wants me to think for myself.
And it strikes me, at just this moment, that forgiveness is a uniquely controversial issue, where so many people try to impose their views on so many others. You can support your football team of choice, your political party of choice, and even your Strictly or X-factor star of choice – you can disagree with everyone else about your choices – but you must forgive, and if you don’t you’ll deserve everything that’s coming to you.
We explored it further in another session.
‘What is forgiveness all about?’ I say, trying to sound nonchalant. Maybe I’ll catch her out and she’ll tell me what she really thinks.
‘What do you think it’s all about?’ Damn. Didn’t work. Now I’m stuck, because I started this train of thought, and I don’t know what to say. Because I really, actually, don’t know what it’s all about. I stammer in silence for a little while.
‘Everyone says you have to forgive,’ I say. ‘And it sounds like a good idea. Because no-one wants to end up bitter and twisted. But …’ I’m risking something now, but in for a penny, in for a pound … ‘Do they tell us to forgive for their sake or for ours?’
Predictably, back comes the answer: ‘What do you think?’
Something is stirring in me now, so I go for it.
‘It always strikes me that as soon as you mention to anyone that you’ve been abused, their response hinges on forgiveness.’ I’m aware, as I’m sure my therapist is, that I’m generalising, but I let it go, and so does she, because something is emerging from the depths. ‘They don’t tend to respond with shock or horror or even sympathy or compassion that you’ve been abused. They just bang on about forgiveness.’
We have a tacit agreement, right now, that ‘they’ is not everyone; ‘they’, right now, is Irene.
‘So is it a way of avoiding our pain?’ I ponder, and there’s a little tremor of anger stirring on the inside of me. ‘Is it a way of controlling us? Because what right do they have’ – I’m getting upset now – ‘what right do you they have to tell us how to respond? It’s none of their business! What right do you they have to jumpstart the process we’re in and tell us that we should be at point D when actually we’re only just at point A? We’ve got A, B and C to go through yet. It’s like they’re saying it because they can’t handle it. They don’t want to have to sit with us while we work through A, B and C. So in effect they’re saying, ‘Please can you sort out your trauma quickly so that I don’t have to be disturbed by it? Please can you fast-forward to point D, because I really don’t want to be bothered by all your hurt and pain as you work through A, B and C.’ Is that what’s going on?’
I look at the therapist and she’s with me. I’m afraid she’s going to answer my question by asking me what I think, so I fill the gap with more of my rant.
‘It pisses me off,’ I say, unnecessarily, as everything about me now is expressing my outrage. It seems to have come out of nowhere, but in reality it was a bomb waiting to go off. ‘Terrible things happened to us. Appalling trauma. Criminal acts. Unbelievable stuff. Literally unimaginable. And rather than acknowledging that, or going ‘ouch’ at it, people like Irene …’ (I become more honest as the anger takes hold) ‘… just blame us for it. They’re insinuating that it’s our fault, somehow.’
There, I’ve said it. I wait for the blowback, but there is none.
‘What would you want to happen instead?’ asks the therapist instead.
Unexpectedly, this question brings with it more emotion. Because just for a moment, there I am, the lost child, walking back to the farmhouse after being raped, full of the longing for comfort and care and understanding and acknowledgement. But instead I get in trouble for having mud on the knees of my jeans. I hadn’t made the connection with my rage before. But I see it now, suddenly: the child who wasn’t acknowledged and instead got into trouble for being raped, ends up as the adult who isn’t acknowledged and instead gets into trouble for having been raped. Because she just needs to ‘forgive’.
What I wanted to happen is obvious, but it sears through me like a hot skewer.
‘I want them to drop the forgiveness agenda,’ I say, quietly, the pain blunting my rage. ‘I want them to actually notice what it is that happened in the first place that needs forgiving. I want them to get angry with the person who did those things, not with us – not with me – for not having forgiven them. I want them to notice. I want them to care.’
I sit and quiver with the pain and the rage and it’s a comforting silence for a while as the therapist sits with me. She doesn’t need to say anything. I just need to know that she is with me, and that she is for me. I know that she sees. I know that she cares, and that is enough.
Eventually, I speak.
‘You can’t fast-forward to forgiveness,’ I say, talking almost to myself. ‘You can’t let go of something that you haven’t yet taken hold of.’
It’s one of those moments where what I say doesn’t hit me until I’ve said it. And I realise, at that moment, that all my life I have tried to push it away, to disavow, to dis-remember, to deny what happened. I’ve tried everything in my power to not take hold of it. I hadn’t even got to point A, let alone point D.
‘Forgiveness is too easy,’ I say, and I’m not quite sure what I mean, so I wait for more words to come to explain it to myself. ‘It’s easy to forgive when you haven’t really acknowledged what happened. I’ve spent my whole life forgiving them. I wanted to forgive them. I did forgive them. You get abused, and you don’t want to cause a fuss. You don’t hit back. You don’t lash out. You just take it. You blame yourself, rather than them. You don’t want to hate them. At the end of the day, you just want them to stop hurting you. And you want them to love you …’
I trail off as sadness wraps itself around my throat. There are moments in therapy, and this is one of them, when the pain is unbearable. If it were not for the empathic presence of another human being, supporting me, holding this space open for me, giving me hope, I genuinely believe I would die. She doesn’t even have to say anything. This is the fruit of a multitude of sessions: the ‘with-ness’ of another human being, which makes the unbearable bearable.
‘Forgiving them is easy, because it’s not real forgiveness,’ I explain. ‘Because you’re not really blaming them. You’re blaming yourself. Forgiving yourself is so much harder. That’s what’s impossible … nearly. You blame yourself for the abuse, so it’s not really about forgiving them. That’s not the big issue. So all that tells me is that people like Irene don’t get it. They don’t get it at all.’ I feel surly and teenage-like and part of me wants to kick the coffee table by my feet.
‘They’re telling us to forgive because it makes them feel better. They’re controlling us. But if forgiveness is about cancelling a debt …’ – I make this leap out of nowhere and I’m not sure of the logic, but it feels right, for the moment, so I press on with it – ‘then surely you need to know what that debt is first. Surely there needs to be a bill. Surely you need to know who owes what.
‘And there is a bill!’ I cry, getting impassioned again. ‘It’s like the Irenes of this world are saying that the debt is only five pence, so we’re being churlish not to cancel it. But it’s not true. The debt is millions – it’s billions!’
I look up, away from my rant, to see the therapist nodding slowly, willing me on. She wants me to follow the thought through, because it is my thought.
‘Surely we’ve got to acknowledge that first,’ I say. ‘We can’t just write it off without knowing what we’re doing. We’ve got to count the cost of it.’
Something is still bothering me. There’s something I haven’t seen yet. I press on to find it.
‘And forgiving them doesn’t solve it,’ I say, edging closer. ‘It doesn’t change anything. It just means that we don’t stoop to their level. It just maintains our integrity, that we don’t become abusers like them. So whatever they’ve done to us, they can’t make us be like them. That’s what forgiveness does – it breaks the chain. So they can’t influence our behaviour. Because if they abuse us, and then we abuse them back – however justified we might feel doing that – then we’re becoming abusers like them. Forgiveness just means that we don’t abuse back. But it doesn’t change the damage that’s been caused to us.’
I pause for breath, but not for long.
‘The damage has been caused, and it still has to be fixed. We’re still traumatised. Forgiving them, writing off the bill, doesn’t miraculously fix the damage. It just means that we agree to pay it, because they won’t. So instead we focus on fixing the damage, rather than getting even. Because if we spend our whole time insisting that they pay the bill, we don’t heal. That’s all. Because there is nothing they can actually do, now, to make it better. They can’t undo the damage.
‘Forgiveness isn’t saying that the damage doesn’t need to repaired. It’s just saying that we’re not going to pursue them to pay it. We’re not going to go for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That might be within our rights, but it doesn’t undo the damage. It just continues the cycle of violence. It puts us on their level.’
I stop, overwhelmed with sadness again.
‘I don’t want to be on their level. I want to be better than that.’
Something like tears is trying to force its way out of me. It’s like being strangled. I’d be happy to cry, but it’s as if the tears can’t find the way to my eyes. They stick in my throat instead. So many feelings, and I don’t know what to do with them.
This isn’t an academic discussion, as so many debates around forgiveness are. It is pain and guts and suffering and shame. I feel split open.
‘Just breathe,’ the therapist reminds me, gently. Sometimes I’m irritated when she says this, like she’s being patronising or changing the subject, but for some reason right now I hear the compassion in it, and I realise that my chest is tight with the effort of not breathing.
I sigh it out, deliberately. And then the words come again.
‘No one has the right to tell me to forgive.’
‘No,’ she agrees. ‘It’s none of their business.’
I feel relieved, like a pressure has been lifted.
‘It feels like control,’ I explain. ‘It feels like someone is making me do something I don’t want to do.’
‘Like the abuse?’
‘That’s it, exactly. That’s what enrages me about it so much. Someone is making me do something I don’t want to do, without caring about my feelings. Just like the abuse.’
The someone, again, is Irene, but I can’t name her just now.
‘It’s not her decision to make. It’s mine,’ I add. ‘I don’t want to not forgive. Because I don’t want to be an abuser. But that’s a decision that I have to come to within myself. It’s personal. It’s my decision. It’s not something that can be thrust upon me. Otherwise it doesn’t count. It’s just forced. And forced forgiveness is no forgiveness at all.’
I sigh, in exasperation, angry again.
‘And anyway, I don’t know what she expects. It’s ridiculous. I’m not causing myself to be traumatised by not forgiving. It’s the trauma that traumatised me, not my response to it.’
‘It’s the bullet in the arm, not your anger at it.’
‘Exactly. And actually I’ve got every right to be angry at it.’
‘Forgiveness is scary,’ I say, as another thought occurs to me. ‘Because it feels weak. It feels like we’re saying that it’s okay. But it’s not okay.’
‘It’s definitely not okay.’
‘All I’m saying by forgiving someone is that I’m not going to become an abuser and abuse them back. But I’m not condoning it. I’m not saying it isn’t wrong. I’m not saying it didn’t cause damage. The way Irene talks about it is scary. It’s almost like it’s an invitation to abuse. It’s a free pass, a get-out-of-jail-free card.
‘And that’s how society treats it. It’s not doing anything about the damage that the abusers cause. It just puts the blame on us as victims. Like it’s our fault that we’ve got mental health difficulties. But the damage was caused by the abuse. And we’re just supposed to forgive and forget and move on. But no-one is holding them to account …’
My anger rises another notch.
‘And that’s what’s dangerous about cheap forgiveness. They should still be holding them to account. We have to be angry about what happened to us because it’s wrong. Anger is our way of saying no. If we’re not angry about it, maybe they’ll do it again?’
‘Anger is entirely appropriate.’
Suddenly, again, I’m confused. ‘Then why is everyone always trying to persuade us to let go of our anger?’
She smiles, softly. ‘What do you think?’ Inside, I groan.
‘Because it makes them uncomfortable? People are scared by anger?’
‘And I don’t want to be angry forever,’ I add. ‘I just want to be angry long enough for it to count. For it to be effective. I need to be angry enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I need to be angry enough to say no. But I hate being angry. I hate what it does to your body. I don’t want to live like that …’
I point out to myself, internally, that I am a bag of contradictions. It seems there is no other way.
‘And does it make a difference,’ I ask, thoughtful and serious again, ‘what form our anger takes? Because we think of anger just in terms of the fight response. We think of it in terms of rage, being out of control. But anger can just be energy for action, can’t it? We need anger to right wrongs, to stand up against injustice. Maybe people on the whole aren’t angry enough.’
My thoughts tumble against each other noisily. There’s not enough space to get them all out in one go.
‘Maybe the problem is that Irene isn’t angry enough?’ I ponder. ‘Maybe rather than trying to get me to forgive my abusers, she should be angry at what they are doing? Maybe she’s just scared of the reality of abuse? Maybe she can’t handle it?’
It’s an interesting exercise in mentalising. I might be wrong, but in the course of this conversation I’ve gone from feeling victimised by Irene to pondering her viewpoint. It’s progress.
‘I don’t think most people can handle the reality of the abuse of children,’ says the therapist, unexpectedly, and with a startling gravity. She seems deeply moved. It suddenly occurs to me that she is moved by what happened to me. It also occurs to me that she has never once pushed me towards forgiveness.
‘I’m full of contradictions,’ I say, articulating the thought I’d had moments earlier. ‘I’m offended at the likes of Irene wanting me to forgive my abusers. But I don’t want to not forgive them. I don’t want to be full of hatred and nastiness. I don’t want them to be able to influence my behaviour like that. I want to be who I want to be. I don’t want that to be determined by them. And if I stay all bitter and twisted and angry and rageful, then ultimately they’ve won. So I do want to forgive. And ultimately I do forgive them. But not in a sentimental, silly way. Just in a very pragmatic way. Because I’m not going to hunt them down. I’m not going to get my own back. I’m not going to abuse them as they’ve abused me. I don’t want anything to do with them, but that’s not the same as not forgiving them. That’s just sensible.’
‘Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to have a relationship with them,’ she says and she’s trying to be neutral but I know where she’s headed with this one.
‘I don’t want a relationship with them!’ I exclaim, suddenly terrified at the thought of it. ‘But I’m not going to do anything to them either. People talk about wanting to see their abusers rot in hell or pay for their crimes or die a slow, lingering, horrible death. I don’t want any of that.’ Suddenly, I’m quiet, because I don’t know what I want. ‘I don’t want to be the source of pain in anyone’s life, no matter how much they might deserve it. I don’t want to be that kind of a person. Actually’ – I look up, as what I do want occurs to me, ‘actually, I just want to get better. I want to heal the damage. And then I want to help other people get better. That’s what I want to do with my anger.’
‘That sounds like a good plan.’
‘The desire for revenge is normal, isn’t it? Because it’s that sense of justice that we’re born with. It’s built into us. We have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and abuse screams at us that it’s wrong. So we want to see that wrong put right. It’s a righteous thing really.’ I pause as the thought reaches deep down into my guts. ‘But I guess we get to choose how we exact our revenge. And we can get revenge by abusing back. But then we become just like them. And we can never, ever get even. There is nothing I could do to my abusers that would be as bad as what they did to me, because I was only a child. I can’t hurt them like they hurt me. There is no revenge big enough.’
Silence for a moment while I contemplate what I’m saying.
‘But there is a way to hurt them even more. By getting well. By living contrary to their values. By doing what they wouldn’t want me to do. They hurt children, they destroyed people’s lives. If I live contrary to that, if I help people now, adults who were abused as children, then that’s a kind of revenge, isn’t it? It’s repaying evil with good. It’s turning things upside down.’
I feel exultant all of a sudden, like I’ve found magic treasure.
‘Recovery is my best revenge,’ I say, bringing it all together.
The therapist nods and smiles. ‘Yes.’
‘Forgiveness is my choice, no one else’s. It’s my choice to live contrary to the values of the people who abused me. To live a different life. Not to become an abuser, like them. Not to stoop to their level. But to be free to be who I am, who I want to be.’
‘And who do you want to be?’ the therapist asks.
The question is too big for me, but right at this moment, I have a glimpse, and I latch onto it greedily.
‘I want to be free,’ I say, slowly and carefully. ‘I want to recover. And I want that to be my revenge. I’m going to get better, and then I’m going to help others get better too. Recovery is my best revenge.’
The rage has gone. In its place is a quiet hum of determination and energy. I feel energised. And I see the contrast – between Irene and the therapist: one who left me sagging, empty, disillusioned in shame, while the other allowed me to find my own truth. I have a clear vision of forgiveness now, but it is not Irene’s. It is not for her sake, but mine. I will not abuse them back, I swear to myself silently, on the inside. But I’ll still get a revenge, of sorts. I won’t be defeated. I’ll rise again. Recovery is my best revenge.