The Time I Forgave my Perpetrator

I was living a hell on earth. I had literally never been so miserable in my life (which is saying something)! The hellish misery went on and on…from hours to days to weeks. On a level so deep that words don’t form, I didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive.

Words we use to describe what I was experiencing include, “mental breakdown,” “hitting rock bottom,” “hitting a breaking point…” You get the idea. Notice the words, “break,” and “hit.” They aren’t fun words when you’re talking about your emotional and mental stability. Usually the major breakdowns we humans experience come after a prolonged period of what feels like unbearable mental torture. That was the case for me. My PTSD and the stress caused by reactions to my abuse disclosure finally caught up with me, and I couldn’t function anymore. I felt extreme anxiety ALL my waking hours…except for maybe 30 seconds when I first woke up in the morning. I would stare at food and be unable to get it from the plate to my mouth. So I ate baby food instead from those new-fangled spill-free bags you suck the fruit and veggies out of…or whatever. Turns out, those aren’t very fattening, so the pounds dropped away. Watching Winnie-the-Pooh movies helped distract my mind, but of course, those are for toddlers.

Anyway, perfect time to try to forgive my perpetrator, right? I mean, I didn’t have anything else to think about or deal with, so why not go ahead and forgive the one causing all this unnecessary pain?! The one who is NOT experiencing the consequences of the abuse, and for all I knew, was happily trekking about in the sunshine.

But alas, I woke up that fateful morning with a seven words inserted into my brain, as if by some outside force or Being: “Are you ready to forgive your [perpetrator]?” Well, good morning to you, too! Dang. Harsh, right?!

But there I was, lying on my back, enjoying those 30 seconds of relative peace before the horror story continued. And the words were unmistakable — almost audible and clear as shattering glass. I couldn’t figure out whether it was my therapist or God asking me, but in a since, it didn’t matter. My therapist was the person in my life at that time who most clearly channeled God’s love to me, anyway.

So I took in a breath, thought a moment, and said yes. I said the words, prayed the words. The words of forgiveness. Forgiveness even for abusing an innocent, sweet little girl. Oddly enough, it felt great! Really great. It’s like the 30-second period of peace was comfortably frozen for me, holding me for a bit. Like someone hit the pause button on my anxiety.

And then. Then that voice in my head asked about the other stuff: the more recent abuse by the same person. The abuse of being told you are making it up, that it didn’t happen at all, that you are the crazy one, the messed up one. It’s a heinous kind of abuse that will mess you up like none other. Forgive this, too?

No, I said.

Not even. Not interested. Not yet. Not ready yet. Nice try. Thanks for asking. Answer’s no.

Now this is the part where I’ll lose some of you, and where some of you will nod your heads in sympathy. I couldn’t let it go! The nudge to forgive even the recent jabs from my abuser wouldn’t go away and leave me alone! If you were raised in a Christian home, or similarly religious home, you’ll understand. Some of us emerge from our childhoods with seriously sensitive consciences. [Insert inappropriate expletive here] tender consciences! There is no escape! (Hashtag, christianproblems.)

Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. But believe me, the internal battle that morning was no joke! Hurt-and-abused-Anna versus hurt-and-abused-Anna-who’s-being-nudged-to-forgive. Wanna guess which “side” won? Yeah, I pretty much said, “Fine! I forgive that stuff, too!” 

And it was truly a relief. Was that moment a turning point in my healing? Yes, I think so. Did it mean that I was miraculously saved from my anxiety? That I didn’t have to go into intensive treatment a few weeks later? That I never experienced again the dark thoughts of a desperate soul? I wish.

To be honest, life-shaping moments like this one remain burned into my soul’s memory, but exactly how they change me moving forward? It remains a mystery. I only know the journey I’ve walked over the last year and a half since that morning. I don’t know the journey I would have walked if I’d said, “no, no, and no” to that maddening voice. Maybe it would have been pretty much the same. Maybe it would have been really different. I just don’t know.

I like to think I made a good choice. I also think I would have been given many more chances to forgive. And because forgiveness is usually a process, every day offers a chance to continue to forgive, I suppose. Tune back in when I’m a grandma and maybe I’ll have something to say about that.

thawingout

I am a Texan-born Bostonian who wants to understand how we get through hard things in life (aka trauma) using spirituality, meaningful work, life-giving hobbies, connection with other trauma survivors, friendships with non-traumatized people, animals, etc. I am a hospice social worker (LCSW) and I have a bunny named Nadia.

11 Replies to “The Time I Forgave my Perpetrator

  1. I agree that forgiveness is a process and takes time. I am there now (and have been for several years.) One forgives but doesn’t forget….and learns from the experience. Sometimes the one we’ve forgiven is the one that needs to be avoided? (love and pray from a distance, but not by association) In my case….my brother. He has hurt many people.

    1. Yes, Ann! I agree 100%! Forgiveness does not equal reconciliation because to be reconciled to someone requires some level of trust…and trust only comes through experiencing a person as safe and honest. Sounds like that is not your brother – and it’s also not my perpetrator! I’m sorry for the pain you’ve been through.

    1. Thank you, Sally! Healing little by little…and I am indeed thankful for the way forgiveness can be a piece of my healing.

    1. Oh, Sheri! Thanks for getting in touch! I think I do have your number. Will try to text you and see what happens. =)

  2. This is a great topic for discussion. I’ve found a lot of healing, but I’m over working to forgive my perpetrators. I hear a lot of talk about the value of forgiveness, and for other things in my life, forgiveness has been and is a great thing. I’ve gotten back together with a lot of people through genuine forgiveness.
    But, I don’t forgive my perpetrators. It wouldn’t help anything. These are sick people that make me feel sick still. Plus, they molested me when I was a child, so bluntly, it’s unhealthy for me to take what should be their first step on their long road to recovery and mental health.
    I think forgiving is overrated and used for brownie points. People will say they’ve forgiven the most heinous things, when they really haven’t — they still hurt deeply, but they just want to think of themselves as pious or spiritually evolved so they can avoid their feelings. I did that for a long time so that I wouldn’t feel my pain, I told myself that this was all a gift that made me spiritually stronger, and my abusers were just the means of getting to the destination. But, not allowing ourselves to NOT forgive is just one more thing we the abused punish ourselves with, yet another abuse our perpetrators heaped upon us, and a means for denying how profound the pain really is.

    1. Dave, when I read your first sentence, “This is a good topic for discussion,” I knew I should buckle up! And I was right…haha. Truly, though, thanks for the feedback. I am going to ponder your points a bit before replying more fully…

    2. Dave, I am sobered by your comment and words. I’ve been thinking about what you wrote, and since I am happily your friend, would be interested in discussing this more in person! For the purposes of this blog post, though, I think you make some great points about how supposedly forgiving a heinous crime – especially right after it happens and especially if the survivor is pressured to do so by others – can be harmful to the slow healing process. So, far be it from me to pressure you or anyone else to forgive! Not helpful!

      Did I forgive for “brownie points,” to think of myself as “pious” or “spiritually evolved,” or to escape and deny my feelings? It probably goes without saying, simply by the fact I wrote this post, that I don’t think this is the whole story for me. But God only knows exactly what my intentions and motivations are and were – back when I forgave and in the present as I wrote this blog post. I’m certainly on a process myself!

      I’ve been thinking about writing a post about what forgiveness is and what it IS NOT. So maybe we can continue this conversation along the way!

  3. Very interesting discussion on forgiveness. It has baffled me of late, as victims have come forward with talk of forgiveness immediately after horrific events. I wonder if it is actually forgiveness or just a total inability to fathom the event and letting go of any decisions. With so much out of one’s control, perhaps this forgiveness is the one thing we do have control over.

    Having said that, I’m not sure I am able to forgive a perpetrator who continues to show no regard for human beings. I guess I feel like forgiveness shows a softness for the perpetrator, an understanding and a willingness to reach out. And that forgiveness is not something I can do in a vacuum, that it somehow includes the actions of the perpetrator.

    1. Sally, thank you for your further input and thoughts! You can see above for a follow-up comment I wrote to Dave, if you want.

      What you said about forgiveness being perhaps the one thing we can control in the face of horror is interesting! Might be the case for some people.

      I agree with what you said about softness, understanding, and reaching out to a perpetrator being something that can’t happen in a one-sided way or in a “vacuum.” Touché! I think that’s a great point, because that understanding of forgiveness would surely just set us survivors up for further harm, pain, and confusion! I’ve come to understand what you are describing as “reconciliation,” instead of forgiveness. And from a Christian faith perspective, reconciliation is NOT expected or demanded of survivors! The last thing any of us need to do is enable further abuse of ourselves or of other potential victims.

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