The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Shack

Popular stories of "instant" forgiveness always concern me. The Shack, by William P. Young is no exception.

When I began reading The Shack, the author captivated me with a compelling story that began by briefly outlining a tale of family violence and estrangement. Mack, the central character, left home at the age of thirteen after spending two days tied to a tree while being beaten by his father for telling the "family secret" to a church elder.

Mack adapted to life on his own quickly, and journeyed forward by "burying" his past. As an adult, he opened his heart to create a new loving family with his wife and children - only to have an unspeakable tragedy strike again - the kidnapping and murder of his six-year old daughter.

Young eloquently captures the human spirit in Mack's questioning of how God could allow such a tragedy to befall His innocent children. He further questions if he can open his heart and trust his Heavenly Father, when his human father hurt him so deeply.

The author held my interest with the mysterious letter from Papa (God) inviting Mack back to the shack where he experienced the darkest moment of his past; the shack where he discovered confirming evidence of his daughters murder. Was this a sick joke? A trap set by the murderer? Or, a message from God?

Once inside the shack however, the story took on a "New-Age" detour that offered Band-Aid type platitudes and simplistic catch-phrases, rather than surgery for the soul.

The author does share some "pearls of wisdom" - especially in the messages of God's love for His people. Much of what he says in this regard is true; however, he dismisses any notion that God is just, fair, or has any rules, laws, or expectations; when in fact, our God of the Bible is both loving and just.

Which leads me to forgiveness: Again, the author offers some "pearls of wisdom" in that forgiveness is not about excusing, forgetting, trusting, or even necessarily reconciliation. Nonetheless, the god of The Shack sidesteps any prerequisites such as confession, repentance, restitution, and justice (Luke 17:3 - Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive).

After more than a days worth of conversations with Papa (God), Jesus, and Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) on the general principles of love, Sarayu heals Mack's human eyes so that he can see as God sees. As Mack looks out over a sea of God's children in the form of beautiful color and light, he notices one agitated light. When Sarayu reveals that light as Mack's dead father, he runs to embrace him in joyous forgiveness and reconciliation.

A few chapters later, Mack repeats this "magical" sort of forgiveness for the man who murdered his daughter even though we see no evidence of Mack working to heal his loss or deal with the injustice. Further, the murderer was never identified, caught, or tried for his crime.

Yet, within the space of a short conversation with Papa (God), Mack traveled the emotional distance from his desire for revenge to forgiveness:

Papa to Mack: "...You already know what I want, don't you?" (Kindle version, location 3573)

"Papa," he cried, "how can I ever forgive that son of a bitch who killed my Missy. If he were here today, I don't know what I would do. I know it isn't right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me...if I can't get justice I still want revenge." (Kindle version - location 3576)

After Papa and Mack engage in a discussion on the power and necessity of forgiveness, Mack says out loud:

"I forgive you. I forgive you . I forgive you." (Kindle version - location 3629)

Then, Mack asks, "So, is it all right if I'm still angry?"
Papa was quick to respond "Absolutely!..."
(location 3634)

This sort of inauthentic forgiveness places an unrealistic burden on those who are unable to forgive by "magic." In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance." Additionally, it cheapens the journey for trauma survivors who have done the hard work to heal and possibly even forgive. (See Forgiveness and Abuse).

While it is true that forgiveness is made manifest by the love and grace of God, forgiveness requires our participation in the process. One of the dangers of encouraging premature forgiveness is that it usually doesn't last; thereby impeding genuine healing and forgiveness. Another danger is using premature forgiveness as a method of avoiding the truth, and feelings, or emotions that are too painful to "examine."

If we follow Christ's example, even Jesus expressed 27 verses of anger in Matthew 23:13-39 before going to the cross. If we hope to permanently forgive, expressing anger is an important part of the process. Additionally, it is interesting to note that Jesus did not utter the words, "I forgive you," Himself, but rather, He asked His Father who remained all powerful to forgive the unrepentant. ("Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34)

The true gift of forgiveness is in the spiritual and emotional growth we experience during an authentic healing process. God's power is truly fulfilled when the offender repents, the victim forgives, and both participate in the process. In the absence of repentance, forgiveness is not an obligation on the part of someone who has been harmed, but can take place with adequate healing.

As an abuse survivor, I for one, wouldn't trade the lessons I've learned by creating the space necessary to heal. Lessons about trusting others to validate my pain, anger, and sadness; trusting myself to safe-guard my own well-being; to respond appropriately to betrayal and injustice; to remain present with my feelings; to set boundaries; practice self-care, and take responsibility for my life. Through it all, I have experienced proof of God's love for me. All these "gifts" and more would have been lost with "false," premature, or instantaneous forgiveness, as well as undercut tangible, realistic, long-term solutions for real human suffering.

Forgiveness is not an event of immediacy. It's not a bolt of light that brightens the soul and burns the pain to ashes. Forgiveness is a slow transformational process. Hard earned life-lessons take a great deal of time and grueling work!

God doesn't promise to heal us by "magic," but rather invites us to trust that His Love and Grace will carry us through as we participate in our own healing journey.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

More on Life's Passages - Parenting

I don't think I have experienced a more joyous or frightening passage than moving into the season of parenting. The responsibility of raising children is not to be taken lightly.

Survivorship definitely has an affect on parenting.

A few years ago, a friend of mine confided that when she was young, she made the conscious choice never to have children. She said that she was positive she would damage her children the same way her parents had damaged her. She wanted to spare her unborn kids that agony. Now that she is past her child-bearing years, she has some sadness, but no regret.

I know another survivor who also decided not to have children. Although she loved kids, she didn't want to take the risk of harming them. After she married and became a caring teacher, many people marveled at her gift for nurturing little ones, and they encouraged her to have kids of her own. Still, her fear of parenting held her back. Ten years passed before she had healed enough to re-evaluate her position. She realized that she didn't have to be her mother. She is now thrilled to be the loving mother of two.

I didn't enter motherhood with as much foresight as these women. Young and newly married, I walked blindly into the decision to become a mother with a burning desire to create a new loving family. I sought to provide all the love and affection that goes with a happy childhood, along with the warmth and closeness that makes family life secure and content.

When I held my first-born daughter in my arms, joy soared through me and sang its very own special song of fulfillment and wonder. I looked at my daughter with awe. The baby was so tiny, so innocent and so vulnerable. Fear gripped me as I tried to fathom the vast responsibility, wise guidance and parental protection it would take to raise a healthy, whole human being.

I knew I had to make a conscious decision to learn a healthy method of parenting. I devoured parenting books, took parenting classes, surrounded myself with people whose parenting skills I respected and admired, and drew off of my earlier memories and experiences with my loving father.

Parenting is a lot of hard work. I tried to balance healthy parental guidance while I continued to navigate my own recovery. My daughters certainly illuminated my childhood losses. Each time I celebrated my children's triumphs, I felt the impact of my abuse and of my mother's emotional absence in my childhood and youth. As I celebrated with my girls all the important events and passages in their lives, I simultaneously experienced joy and sorrow. Joy at their milestones, happy to guide, advise and protect; I brimmed with pride and enthusiasm for them.. Then quietly, I mourned for myself.

Witnessing the mother-daughter relationship in others was especially sad. Watching mothers as they share life's passages - passing on love and wisdom to their daughters. This was never so apparent to me as when I witnessed the closeness of most mothers and daughters, where a mother guides her daughter through pregnancy, and shares the joy of childbirth. I mourned what should have been...what could have been...and was not.

Each day I journey further down the path of recovery, I discovered new ways in which my abuse affected my life, my relationships and my parenting.

Walking the fine line between the conscious choice I made not to be my mother and the less conscious choice not to be her polar opposite, kept me on my toes. After my children reached adulthood, I realized that I had leaned closer to "opposite" from my mother and had become overly involved in my children's lives. Fortunately, they were good about letting me know when I needed to "back off," and I did - for the most part.

What I didn't know as I was raising my children, was that just being the children of an abuse survivor would impact them. Although I watched over my children like a mother hen, my children were negatively affected by visits to my family members prior to our estrangement. The estrangement affected them as well. They witnessed me wrestling with my own childhood wounds. I unintentionally modeled for my children certain behaviors and responses in my adult relationships that resulted from my old wiring and abuse, such as reactions born out of PTSD.

Whenever I discover new ways in which my childhood abuse affects/affected my parenting, I tell my children and make a sincere effort to listen to what they have to say - even now in our adult-adult relationships.

I know I haven't done a perfect job; however, the good far outweighs the bad and I am always open to listening to my children.

Although my longing for a close mother/daughter relationship was never realized with my own mother, it is heartwarming to experience a loving mother/daughter relationship with my own children.

I love my children unconditionally and they know it. I did succeed at breaking the cycle of abuse, and I am happy to be the proud matriarch of a new family legacy.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse

Marj, our carnival founder is hosting the May Edition of The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse at Survivors Can Thrive! The theme for this month's edition is:

Remembering "Veteran" Survivors

Please support the community by checking out the amazing array of posts in this months edition.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Guest Blogger

Michele Rosenthal of PARASITES OF THE MIND offers what is arguably the most comprehensive PTSD Blog on the web. She provides many informative posts, along with a wide range of PTSD Resources, a free Healing Workshop, and a weekly feature called, Survivors Speak.

I am honored that Michele invited me to be her guest blogger this week.

Thank you Michele!

My guest post on Survivors Speak is available here.


UPDATE: You can view Michele's follow-up post here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Remembering to Mourn

I've always had difficulty with mourning.

Often, when I find myself entering a new phase of healing, such as with my current life transition, I take note of the healing foundation I've already developed. I use my old ground work as a blueprint to guide me and a base on which to build from there.

It has taken a great deal of hard work to re-wire my brain, heart, and psyche in order to rid myself of my PTSD, dissociation and to change the old unhealthy internal messages, feelings and responses with new healthy internal messages feelings and responses. Although I am relieved that my abuse no longer feels present, I know that some of the effects of my abuse will linger for the rest of my life. I am after all, the culmination of all my experiences both good and bad, healed and unhealed.

In times of stress, it sometimes feels natural to go on "auto-pilot" and to fall back on old wiring and survival instincts, rather than remembering to "stay awake at the wheel" and to use my new tools. Of all the healing lessons I've learned - such as validating my pain, exercising self-care, expressing my feelings, and releasing my anger - mourning has always been the most difficult for me. Being able to mourn entails "remembering" to do what is unnatural for me; to remain "present" with my feelings (see What? I Can Feel This?).

After spending a few weeks carrying around unresolved sadness, I've been searching my healing toolbox to help me mourn the losses I'm currently feeling.

I've heard a number of times over the years about a technique that entails giving ourselves 5 minutes each day to mourn, and then to "drop it" and go about our day. I always thought that was a ridiculous notion. How can we mourn huge losses in just five minutes during a day?

For many years, I looked at this exercise as a "limiting," "get over it" sort of suggestion. That is - until I tried it and it worked! The difference is that when I tried it, I approached this exercise from a another perspective. I didn't look at it as only allowing myself 5 minutes a day, and then "dropping it," but rather committing myself to at least five minutes a day of "dedicated" mourning.

In other words, rather than carrying un-mourned sadness around with me all day, I sat down, and dedicated myself to mourning. I was amazed at how much this dedicated mourning helped to release my sadness and then I didn't carry it around all day.

Since I have difficulty mourning, I need rituals to help me mourn. The most helpful exercise for me is to tell myself, "It's time to mourn." I go into a quite room and choose music that lends itself to "touching" my sadness. Then I hold out my hand - palm up, close my eyes, and picture my heart gently cradling my loss in the palm of my hand (person, place, thing). I let the music and my feelings guide me as I cry, mourn, and honor this loss.......

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life's Passages - Transition to Adulthood -Becoming Un-Enmeshed

Last week, I wrote about "letting go" and how childhood abuse affects the later seasons of life. As I struggle to find a new rhythm at this stage in my life, I am reminded of prior passages that led to great growth. The first of course was my transition into adulthood. Boy was that a long and rocky transition! One that overlapped with other seasons as well.

I didn't understand at the time I entered adulthood that I was completely enmeshed with my mother. Or, that my enmeshment interfered with my ability to make adult choices that were not influenced by thoughts of her. For women like me, who grew up with an emotionally abusive and non-nurturing mother, healthy independence is a difficult place to achieve.

Long into adulthood, I failed to individuate from my mother. I was still a damaged child who felt responsible for her anger, blame, and hurt feelings. I couldn’t separate from my mother because, unconsciously, I kept looking for the love and approval that I never received as a child. So, I confused her needs, feelings, and opinions, with my own, rather than confidently making choices that were in my best interest.

Lucy Rose Fischer, Ph.D., in her book, Linked Lives: Adult Daughters and Their Mothers, writes: “For most daughters, it is the stability of the mothers’ attachment to them that allows them to go through the process of separation and develop a sense of independence.”

In other words, when we feel confident in the security of our home base - we are free to venture out and separate in a healthy manner. In the absence of this security, I remained negatively tied to my mother.

I had the normal "fight or flight" human survival instinct. For me, after a lifetime of fighting with my mother and remaining "stuck," I took flight. Our fourteen year estrangement gave me the space necessary to developed a new emotional foundation. Becoming un-enmeshed took years of physical separation along with hard work and complicated emotional growth - including learning to provide myself with the love and approval that I missed as a child.

During our years apart, I broke free from my enmeshment, and could see myself as a separate individual. I learned to exercise great boundaries, and to make choices that were based solely on what was best for me.

For many years, I thought that reconciling with my mother meant returning to my enmeshed (and abusive) family system. And it did, as long as I was still enmeshed.

I "let go" of the old relationship and built a new one in which there are clear, distinguishable lines of emotional separation.

Today, my own internal parent watches over me and provides all that which my mother is unable to give. For me, having a strong internal parent is what constitutes adulthood.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day again tomorrow. So, I thought I'd share an older post:

Holidays are difficult for those contending with losses (See Holiday Stress)– especially those holidays that celebrate the person at the center of our loss. The symbolism of Mother’s Day can be particularly difficult for estranged mothers and daughters.

During my twenties, I shrouded myself in denial. I tried to “buy” my mother’s love by providing her a day of false praise and tribute. In the years leading up to our estrangement, I often anticipated Mother’s Day with anger or dread. I searched the rows of Hallmark Cards trying unsuccessfully to find an authentic and respectful card that said something other than “For the best Mom ever.”

During the beginning of our estrangement, I often faced Mother’s Day with ambivalence - joyful about my role as a mother and sad about my painful losses with respect to my own mom.

The holidays do get better with time. After a few years of allowing myself the space to mourn my loss, I filled my Mother’s Days by honoring my own internal mother; by sharing a joy filled day with my daughters; by honoring the women who have made a positive difference in my life, and by advocating for other motherless daughters.

In that vein, make the space to mourn your loss and to celebrate the mother in you, who nurtures herself and/or her own children: Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Estrangement Support Sub-Groups

Someone recently asked me if I knew of any support groups for "estranged siblings."

Estranged Stories, a fairly new ning estrangement support group just added six sub-groups including:

Siblings of Estrangement
Parents Estranged from Daughters
Parents Estranged from Sons
Adult Children Estranged from Parents
Resolutions and Reconciliations

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Letting Go...and...The Passages of Our Lives

I've always had a hard time letting go; letting go of my denial, self-blame, the old damaging voices in my head, my fears, my family, old roles, etc.....Yet, each time I have "let go" my life became better.

My old therapist once told me that I would be "recovering" for the rest of my life. I didn't believe him. At least I didn't want too. For decades, I have been healing at a deeper and deeper level; peeling away layers and becoming more whole. As I've peeled away each layer, I've rejoiced and said, "Yay! I'm in a great place! I'm done!"

By the time I reconciled with my family, I certainly thought I was "done" healing. The evidence was good. I no longer felt "triggered" by past events, and my abuse is more of a distant memory than a "present" reality. I'm able to view life through a "new lens" and the past no longer colors my day to day life.

Yet, here I am, once again finding myself struggling with "letting go," of something old. I think I finally figured out what my therapist meant nearly twenty years ago by "recovering for the rest of my life." It doesn't mean what I thought he meant. It doesn't mean I'll have nightmares about my abuse, or suffer from flash-backs, PTSD, or dissociation for the rest of my life. I don't. But what I think it does mean is that my childhood abuse will "have an affect" on the passages of my life.

As I pass through each season of life, I see where my childhood construction has been an important element to consider. We experience many seasons in our lives; the transition into adulthood; the season of parenting children; our professional years; the passage into the "empty nest" years; our season of retirement; the twilight years, etc.

At fifty-one, I'm trying to find a new rhythm in my life. It is time to shed the hectic, frenzied schedule I have kept since I was a child. Nonetheless, once again, I find that I am having a hard time letting go of something that no longer works for me. It is important for me to realize how I "got here" in order to get somewhere else.

As a child, no one took care of me. So, I took care of every one and every thing - except myself. Without realizing it, I've followed this pattern through every passage and every area of my life. Between work, home, and family, I have taken on sole responsibility for too much. It's time to "let go."

This doesn't mean an "all or nothing" sort of thing or simply "dropping" certain responsibilities. This means doing the hard emotional work to re-organize my life in a manner that everything still gets done - but not by me.

There is great value in examining the past. It can offer insight into where I am in the present and aid in forging new growth and making changes for a better future.

I'm on the healing road again......

Book Review

Samin Khan, a Postgraduate Philosophy Lecturer, just reviewed Heal and Forgive II: The Journey from Abuse and Estrangement to Reconciliation for Metapsychology Online Reviews.

I am profoundly grateful for his heartfelt and amazing review. You can view it here.