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

Monday, March 31, 2008


I was 35 years old in 1992 when everything in my life came to a head and I began to really face my past. My therapist provided me with the first safe environment in which to grow. I’m grateful for the people who have helped me heal. It is interesting for me to remember “what it used to be like.”

This is a passage from my 1992 journal:

For a long time, I haven’t realized how much I am learning from Thomas (Therapist). Nor have I understood the power of what Alice Miller calls an “enlightened witness.”

I’ve told Thomas many horrifying things from my childhood. Most of the pieces are well organized in my head. However, I have walked around with them forever and the information hasn’t done me any good because I haven’t been able to feel it. I’m not learning facts in therapy – I’ve already known most of them. It’s easy to learn what is tangible. It is a slower process to learn what you can’t see.

When I hear the details of someone else being abused, my stomach tightens and I feel overwhelming empathy for their pain. But, for so long, if I take the same facts and I apply them to my own life – I have felt absolutely nothing.

I was punished for trying to share my feelings with my family for so long that my feelings haven’t existed anymore.

I told Thomas a story today:

“A hungry mouse runs through a maze in search of much needed food. She comes to a crossroad. The passage to the left has visible cheese. The passage to the right has no food. She goes to the left and receives an electrical shock that sends her flying back. She turns around and goes to the right.

The mouse comes to the next crossroad. Again - cheese to the left - nothing to the right. She goes for the cheese, gets shocked and heads right again.

In time, Miss Mouse chooses the path to the right every time. She knows there is cheese to the left, but after a while, she doesn’t even realize she is hungry. She keeps running through the maze, starving herself to death. She recognized other mice need to eat cheese, but not herself.”

When I see Thomas, I know the facts, but I have been terrified of the feelings. After rattling off story, after story, Thomas has made a single comment, or sometimes he will pose a simple question that validates the feelings that the years have erased. Often I am uncomfortable with his questions and comments. Not because they are untrue for me, but because I am glad that he said it and not me. If he said it, I am free to feel it without fear of “the electrical shock.”

I’m beginning to not only say and hear what happened, but I’m starting to feel it as well.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rewiring My Brain / Viewing Life Through a New Lens

When my children were little, we had a large cedar tree in the back yard that became caught in a wire fence. After removing the deeply embedded wire from the cedar, the tree continued to grow. Once the tree became large enough that it threatened our house, we cut it down in segments. While examining each section, we could see the perfectly round growth rings in the portion from the base of the trunk; however, the section caught in the fence had a disturbing pattern of contorted growth rings.

In time, the tree re-grew normally above the area where we removed the fence. That odd shaped pattern in the tree remained a part of its wiring, but it did heal. Of course, the longer the fence stayed in the tree, the longer it wired itself “wrong” and the harder it was for it to set itself “right” again. The same was true for me.

Research affirms that when we are children, our developing minds are programmed both psychologically and physically.

According to Martin Teicher, M.D, Ph.D., director of the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at Mclean, “A child’s interactions with the outside environment causes connections to form between brain cells. Then these connections are pruned during puberty and adulthood. So whatever a child experiences, for good or bad, helps determine how his brain is wired.”

In other words, because my psyche was constructed in large part by my abuse, I often viewed my life through the lens of my mistreatment. In the early part of my recovery, I responded to the world the way I learned in childhood. For the better part of the last two decades, I have endeavored to rewire my psyche and to create a new lens through which to view my life.

For instance, because as an abused child my perceptions were often blatantly denied, I needed to learn to stand firmly in my own reality, without permission from anyone else.

Although I argued as a child that it wasn’t “right” to burn my tender hands, to rub my brother’s nose in spilled milk on the floor, or to otherwise beat and betray us, everyone I knew told me that my perceptions were wrong. Therefore, I constantly sought validation, trying to develop a frame of reference from others as to what was “right” and what was “wrong.” Consequently, I had difficulty as an adult identifying what was and was not acceptable behavior. If I felt betrayed, and the “offender” defended himself or herself, although I argued that it wasn’t “right” to betray me, deep down I questioned whether something was wrong with me and I worried that it was indeed okay to betray me. I desperately searched for validation that I had a right to the way I felt.

Un-doing a life long mechanism is very difficult to do. Needing permission to “feel” was so deeply ingrained in me, that even if I accidentally smashed my thumb with a hammer, I needed consent to accept my pain. In other words, if I was with someone who said, “Oh, it’s no big deal,” I’d either try to “power” through the pain, or I’d argue that the injury was indeed painful, focusing on the other person’s perceptions of my experience rather than my own.

Rewiring a strong internal parent was necessary to assure my inner child that I had a right to my hurt, anger, sadness, and fear, without arguing for that right.

I have been determined to replace the negative messages I received about myself as a child with positive messages, feelings and responses.

I have been placing new wiring on top of the old. Sometimes it still seems natural to go back to the “old” wiring. Then I remind myself to strengthen new healthy messages, feelings, and responses.

The world feels safer since learning to view myself differently than my mother taught me to view myself. I can view life through a new lens!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dietrich Bonhoeffer / Luke 17:3

German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

As an abuse survivor, I felt oppressed by pressure from other's to forgive my unacknowledged abuse. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why can't I forgive? Bonhoeffer’s words as well as Luke 17:3 offered me great relief:

Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.

In this verse, Christ is calling for preliminary conditions before forgiveness that lend themselves to acknowledgment and guarding against “cheap grace.”

From Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Rebuke: 1 a: to criticize sharply : reprimand b: to serve as a rebuke to 2: to turn back or keep down : check


the action or process of repenting especially for misdeeds or moral shortcomings


intransitive verb1: to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life2 a: to feel regret or contrition b: to change one's mind

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Accepting Estrangement

Accepting does not necessarily mean “liking,” “enjoying,” or “condoning.”
I can accept what is – and be determined to evolve from there.
It is not acceptance but denial that leaves me stuck.

~Nathaniel Branden, American Psychologist

It took most of my 14 years of estrangement to reach a place of accepting the loss of my entire family of origin. It is difficult to mourn the loss of the living.

No matter the condition of our family soil, when we become cut-off, our roots are severed from the garden of our origin.

Although the pain of estrangement did lessen with time, it was not easy to gauge any healing progress. On a scale from 1 to 10, my initial agony was certainly a 10. A few years later, I didn’t recognize that my hurt had diminished to a 6 and so on. My awareness was simply that I was still in pain, and I wanted the ache to go away completely. Sometimes the anguish did go away, and then I’d hear of my exclusion at a family event, or some words of judgment from a bystander. My wounds would grip me all over again and I’d wonder, “Will this pain ever go away?”

For many years, I worked at healing and filling the void where my family used to be. All the while, the lingering hope of reconciliation remained.

I’d wake up each morning to a feeling of on-going rejection and I had to learn to somehow live with the pain.

Sometimes, no matter how much we may desire peaceful resolution – reconciliation doesn’t appear on the horizon. We have no power over the emotional progress, healing, or choices of our family members. We can only control our half of the relationship and perform our own emotional work.

I found support to help me accept the reality of estrangement; to continue to heal from my abuse; to focus solely on myself, and to move on to live the best life possible.

Accepting what is – as what is - afforded me the opportunity to free myself from the bondage of the past, and fully experience the present.

The irony for me was, after healing sufficiently to accept estrangement, I did reconcile with my family. In an odd way, no longer needing my family left me in a stronger position to explore the possibility of reuniting. All of the love, acceptance, acknowledgment, and help with healing I used to yearn for from them, I had received from other people and from myself.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

What? I Can Feel This?

Not being able to feel is a common malady for abuse survivors. When I first delved into my recovery, I was frustrated with my inability to feel. Denial was one of my survival tactics. I pushed my anger, and grief down so deep, I was numb to my own pain. One of the first things I remember feeling was sadness that I couldn’t feel.

As I started healing, I began feeling. Slowly, I created safe environments to honor my pain and little by little, I stopped dissociating. My feelings didn’t turn on like a light switch one day. It was more like a dimmer switch over a period of many years.

I had conflicting emotions about learning to stay present with my pain. Pain isn’t fun. I was definitely out of my comfort zone while dealing with the agonizing emotions that I had always kept at bay. At first I wondered, “Can this be good?” Yet, it became apparent to me that it was good. Authentically honoring my pain eventually put much of the past to rest.

Pain has a purpose. It’s a warning that something isn’t right and we need to pay attention. For the last few years, I have felt empowered by letting my emotions guide me. Contrary to the past where I “powered” through each hurtful situation - which only served to allow more harm - I began using my pain as a useful tool to protect myself from injury.

For me, the up side to being able to cut off my emotions was that I always prided myself at being great in a crisis. Whether it was my five-year old daughter who fell off of her bike and broke her nose, my ex-husband who cut through his thumb with a skill-saw, a fire, or a car accident - while other’s around me panicked and became frozen with fear - I dissociated from my feelings and went into logical action mode. I didn’t feel the event at the time or afterwards. I just “powered” through.

All good things must come to an end. Okay, I realize that dissociation isn’t a good thing - but sometimes things that aren’t good - seem good.

In spite of all my work at staying present with the pain of past or current mistreatment, I still kept my emotional reaction to crisis turned off until the crisis was over. Rather than not feeling the crisis at all - I began feeling the crisis - after the fact.

Yesterday, for the first time, I felt the crisis while it was happening. Okay, I know this is more progress, but – Yuck!

One of my employees had an accident yesterday (I’ll call him Jessie). He unintentionally stuck his hand into a food processing machine while it was operating. Everyone was in a panic, and as usual, I went into crisis mode. Jessie was in agony. He was light-headed, chalk white, and sweat poured from his face. He needed immediate care. Rather than waiting for an ambulance and then waiting in a hospital emergency room, I drove him to the Occupational Emergency Service's about a mile from the plant.

We wrapped his hand in a towel and loaded him into my car. In route, I called ahead to warn them of our impeding arrival. Blood oozed everywhere as Jessie peeked at his hand underneath the towel and whimpered, “Will I lose it? Please help me, Nancy.”

I have him a reassuring glance and said, "We'll get you some help. Don't look at it, and breath deep."

Then it happened. My emotions started creeping in right in the middle of a crisis! What? I can feel this? I fought to control my emotions.

As soon as we arrived at Occupational Services, they whisked Jessie past everyone in the waiting room straight back to a room full of doctors and nurses who worked efficiently and compassionately. At one point while the doctors worked on his mangled hand, they told Jessie to look away and breathe deep. I fought to ignore my stress and my feelings of empathy for Jessie. I breathed with him while he squeezed my hand to cope with the pain. For the first time in my life, I became light-headed. I was completely taken by surprise! With my free hand, I reached for a chair, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable that my emotions had gotten the better of me. Then I realized – this is okay. It’s just new to be fully present in the midst of a crisis.

All those years of not feeling gave me the facade of being tough. Yet, in reality, it was being tough enough to deal with the demons of my past that allowed me to feel this crisis.

I know I can still keep my head in an emergency. But I feel it now too. I did see Jessie through X-Ray, pre-op and surgery and fortunately, his prognosis is very good. I left exhausted, but feeling more whole than ever before.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Honor Thy Mother and Father?

For many years, I struggled with the "Honor Thy Mother and Father" scenario, because I no longer had a relationship with my mother. Other abuse and estrangement survivors have indicated this to me as well.

One day, I realized that I was honoring Mom even though I didn't have contact with her. I recognized that not engaging in the toxicity and living my life with dignity and integrity - did honor my Mother.

I've always loved my Mother. Even during the time that I did not feel safe enough to see her. Now that we have reconciled, I honor her by maintaining my boundaries, taking responsibility for my own well-being, respecting our historical bond, and accepting her for who she is.

This is an interesting article written from the Christian perspective:

Honor My Mother and Father?
By Nancy Ortberg

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Setting Clear, Respectful, Boundaries

Boundary issues are common in dysfunctional family systems. I have wrestled with boundaries most of my life. As some of my prior posts suggest, I wasn’t able to set and maintain clear, respectful boundaries until I learned to love myself.

I needed to recognize that not only did I have a right to my feelings – it was my duty to take responsibility for my own well-being. After a lifetime of treating myself the same way my mother treated me, I experienced a fundamental shift. I finally realized that I truly deserved the dignity I had always only desired. At that point, I began caring for myself with love, compassion and self-respect.

It was easy to set boundaries when a relationship wasn’t very important to me. However, when a relationship was central to my life – I had a hard time. The anxiety I experienced when setting personal boundaries came from my fear of losing relationships. In order to overcome this worry, I had to understand that I have no control over the behavior of others, and that I needed to become more invested in my own worth than I was in the outcome.

Before exercising appropriate boundaries, I had to clearly state my own needs. In order to do this, I must A.) Identify the behavior that feels inappropriate or injurious to me. B.) Express my feelings. And, C.) Clearly state my needs.

For example: A.) When you shout at me…

B.) I feel scared…

C.) I need for you to lower your voice.

When I began stating my needs clearly (the less said the better), others usually honored the space I created for myself. As I became clearer about respectfully stating my needs in relationships, I found that quite often, the relationship became stronger.

Other times, people have responded negatively to my needs. At that point, it is necessary to actually set a boundary. That is where I used to get into trouble. If the other person argued, I usually engaged in the argument and let them trample my boundaries. I have learned to set my boundaries by saying: “If you continue to shout, I will ask you to leave” (or – “I will leave” – depending on the circumstances).

The next step is to maintain the boundary by actually leaving (or asking them to leave), and maintaining this boundary in the future.

Sometimes, setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries can result in loss. Yet, for me, the pain of loss eventually gives way to the power of living a life of integrity.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


A friend of mine told me a beautiful story of appreciation after she attended a funeral. She said that a man stood in front of the Church to give a eulogy and said:

“Before I start my eulogy, I see a woman here named Carol that I haven’t seen since I was a child. I grew up in a very unloving home. My parents were mean to me. I was afraid to grow up because, I didn’t look forward to the day when I would have to grow up and be mean too.

“I always looked forward to the evenings when my parents would go out and have Carol stay with me. She was so kind. Each time she babysat, she played with me, talked to me, and when she tucked me into bed, she read me a story, gave me a kiss and a hug, and said goodnight. She changed my life. When I was five years old, I realized that not all adults were mean. I decided that when I grew up - I wanted to be just like Carol!

“Every so often, people can literally change the course of our lives and they never even know it. Sometimes we don’t have the opportunity to tell them; now and then we aren’t aware of the impact at the moment; and other times we just didn’t risk the vulnerability to share. I’m grateful to have the chance to tell you Carol that you showed me a different way to live. Your simple gestures of love helped me pave a new way of life. Thank you!”

I share this story because, to me, gratitude is different from appreciation. I can sit and write in my gratitude journal all that for which I am grateful, but in order to appreciate - I must be in relationship.

For instance: I am grateful for sunsets, but I appreciate a sunset when I actually sit and watch the sun go down. I am grateful for my Aunt, but I appreciate her when I tell her how thankful I am that she is the only family member who didn’t abandon me during our family estrangement.

I often tell others, or write in my journal that I am grateful for my children, my aunt, or my friends, but a light bulb moment happened for me when I realized that I should tell them. I started telling my Aunt, - I am grateful that you drove out to sit with me during my PTSD episode. And my friend Nina, how grateful I am to her for changing my life by being the first person willing to "bear witness" to my abuse. Or my gentleman friend – I appreciate your support during the times when I haven’t been able to be fully present in the relationship. Or my children - I am thankful for your understanding while you've coped with the effects of being the children of a survivor.

Appreciation is more vulnerable. It is also more gratifying.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse

The Blog Carnival against Child Abuse is up at Enola with a variety of touching and insightful posts.

When I began blogging a few months ago, I was unfamiliar with Blog Carnivals. The Blog Carnival against Child Abuse was founded by Marj at Survivors Can Thrive, and is hosted on a monthly basis by a variety of bloggers.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Blog Carnival against Child Abuse, Enola has a wonderful description of the carnival in her call for submissions this past month.

Check out this edition of the carnival!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Many years ago, my therapist told me that it was important to mourn my losses. I didn’t even know what that meant!

It is significant to note my complete inability to identify how I felt when I was wounded. Before I could mourn, I needed to become present with my feelings. Grieving came after the long process of protecting myself, having my experiences validated, and expressing my anger. First, I had to heal enough to “hold” my own feelings.

Without bringing our injuries into the light, acknowledging them and feeling them, we are unable to mourn and move on to the life we deserve.

For me, this was no easy feat. When our feelings are denied as children, we develop an emotional disconnect. I became detached from my sense of self and self-compassion. In order to banish that which was too painful to endure, I dissociated.

Like many other victims of childhood abuse, I learned that my survival depended on being tough enough to handle anything. Although I was acutely aware of – and compassionate to – the pain of other people, I was blind to my own suffering. Long into adulthood, I “powered” through every situation just to survive. I never learned how to process my own pain. Undoing a lifelong mechanism is a very difficult undertaking. In order to grieve – I needed to “unlearn” the way I learned to ignore my agony. Then I needed to re-learn a healthy method of expressing my sadness. It was very important for me to learn to cry for myself and to share those tears with others.

Each time I thought I had finished mourning, another wave of heartbreaking losses emerged. However, as I peeled away each layer of pain, I grew increasingly stronger.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Validation was key for my recovery.

As a child, I constantly sought my mothers help and protection. When my mother refused to help me, I turned to others for aid. There was neither understanding nor encouragement whenever I tried to talk to outsiders of what went on at home. On the contrary, my pleas for help were met with denial, disbelief, minimization, blame, or the simple words, “Get over it.”

Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., explains this occurrence well on page 7 of her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books (1997):

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.

As children, our young brains have not developed enough to take care of ourselves. We are dependent on the adults in our lives to teach us how to process the information we gather from our experiences. I learned as an adult that when our childhood abuse is denied as if it did not happen or as if the violent behavior is excusable, our trauma becomes fused to us and stays with us until someone teaches us differently by validating our experiences. If our experiences are never validated, our trauma remains fused into adulthood.

Even if we are already aware of our childhood abuse, we often live in denial about the effect the abuse has had on us. It is necessary to have another party bear witness to our trauma. This allows us the opportunity to admit to ourselves the ways in which we were damaged by our abuse. Support and validation offered from others, dissolves our isolation and gives us the necessary strength to journey forward to the life we deserve.