I used to believe that people who preached forgiveness were full of shit. There is no way anyone could be that gracious, I thought. I would listen to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” and feel sorry for her. Poor thing. She has to pretend to be grateful to her former abuser in order to sell records.
But a funny thing happened to me in the last five or so years. Well, actually, a lot of things happened to me. Yo, some crazy shit happened to me! At 27, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At 29, I experienced sexual and emotional violence and criminal stalking that forced me to flee my hometown. And at 31, I lost my sister to suicide. At the time I was working for a psychologically abusive boss who docked my pay for the time I took off for the burial.
It’s been some bullshit. But I can honestly say now that I forgive it all.
Cancer was terrifying and very sad. I felt dehumanized during that time as my body was constantly poked, prodded, needled, sliced, irradiated, medicated, and photographed on repeat. I felt de-feminized as the shape of my breast changed; as the very meaning and purpose of my breasts changed — temporarily. I felt scared about my future, about my risk of dying or of experiencing a recurrence later in life. I cried many tears and felt that life was unfair. But eventually I got better. The scars healed. The radiation treatment ended. I recently finished my five-year sentence of medication. My diagnosis is five years behind me. I’m more or less considered out of the clear now.
Losing my sister was deeply painful. What can be said? I felt and still feel the burden of her sadness that led her to take her own life. I wonder if I could have or should have done something differently, and if it would have mattered. I feel the loss of her presence in my life. I know I’ll never hear her laugh again, and she’ll never celebrate any more of my life milestones with me. It just feels wrong that she’s gone. She was too young to have died. But, she did. And it was her choice and her right to make it, just as it’s my right to feel sad about it.
And then there was the rapist-abuser-stalker. It’s still crazy to me that all these labels can describe one person. This was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever dealt with. And it’s been the most difficult to forgive.
Until that point in my life, I was fairly naïve. I had compartmentalized in my mind “good people”, who existed in real life, from “bad people”, who existed only in fiction. Cerebrally I knew that there were real people who did terrible things, because I’d read about them in the news. But somehow I maintained a blind faith in all of humanity not to be jerks.
Which is why, when the abuse started, I didn’t recognize it. I assumed it was me. I blamed myself, at first for the small things, and later for the bigger things, until finally I found myself blaming myself for my own rape.
In the aftermath, I was disoriented and paranoid. I went from a confident, self-assured woman to a shattered ball of insecure and jumpy sadness. I remember going out for pizza with my niece one night. We were seated at a communal table and there was a guy to our left reading a newspaper. Rationally, I knew he was a complete stranger who had no interest in our conversation. But I also felt at least 50 percent positive he was there to spy on me and report back to my abuser, who lived several large towns away. At one point, I also believed my abuser might be hiding in my attic. In my mind, he was everywhere.
I think that’s the part that drove me the craziest and stuck with me the longest. With cancer, my body turned against me. Now my mind was now doing the same thing. It tortured me constantly, especially after it was all over: after the restraining orders that he violated; after the court dates that made my body twitch and my voice waver; after the out-of-state move to escape him. It was after all had quieted down on the outside, that I fell into the deepest, darkest place on the inside. I began spending more and more time on the fire escape at my new job on the 22nd floor. I visualized violent scenes with every bit of free time I had. I suffered nightmares nightly, and even experienced sleep paralysis for the first time. This is what happens when your mind wakes up but your body stays asleep. You can’t move, and to make sense of that impossible situation, your mind starts conjuring up images within the physical space, usually an intruder of some sort. It was absolutely terrifying.
As friends grew tired of listening to me, and I grew tired of trying to make them to care as deeply as I needed them to, I turned more and more inward. I sought counseling a number of times but quit each time after a maximum of three conversations. It was in the middle of all this that my sister died. So I began drinking wine – two or three glasses – or a shot or two of bourbon every time I hurt, which was every freaking day.
But slowly and surely, I got better. My life got better. Two years ago, I moved and now finally feel more or less past it all.
I don’t have a prescription for overcoming such pain and trauma. I can’t tell you the steps I took. But I can tell you a few things that helped me through it all: I have always had had an optimistic attitude, a belief that things will get better. And I have always been ferociously stubborn, which has served me well. My doctrine is: You will not stand in my way. I need to get things done for myself and for others, and I don’t have the time or energy to stay stuck in one place.
Right now, I find myself in a really good place. I keep a gratitude journal, and, this week, was finally able to acknowledge my abuser:
Look at this calendar full of gratitude. Look at all of these joyful moments, relationships, places, vistas, morsels, events... that I get to have in my life because of you.
I have always loved this city dearly. And I have always wanted to live here. Finally, you gave me this opportunity.
If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have this job where I'm earning more than I ever have before. I wouldn't have this relationship that is the healthiest, happiest, and sexiest I've ever had. I wouldn't live in this fabulous apartment with a doorman, an elevator, laundry, a swap shelf, a gym, and a freaking rooftop deck, if it weren't for you.
I'm in a really good place, you know? I know myself. I love myself. People love me. They think I'm exemplary now. Can you imagine how they'd feel if they only knew half of what has transpired? That's right. Most people in my life now don't know my past. It doesn’t define me, although you tried to make it so. They know me now. They see the strong, smart, kind, friendly woman I am, and they gravitate towards me because of who I am. Who I am is partly thanks to you.
You have always known me to be into volunteering. My life here is no different. In fact, do you know what I do now, inspired by our time together? I volunteer as an emergency room advocate for survivors of rape and domestic violence who are at a point of crisis in their lives. I am fortunate enough to have a role in their lives for a short time. To be there for them. My time with them feels especially deepened by my experiences with you. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have the same perfect understanding of what that feels like. I am able to truly hear them and advocate for them and comfort them and help them start down their paths to recovery and healing. I am able to do this well because I was able to do the same for myself.
Most of the anger and pain has gone from my heart and soul. It's been replaced by love. I'm not saintly enough to be able to say I have love for you now, and I'm not sure I even have compassion just yet. But what I do have is gratitude.
Thank you for this beautiful new life.
Two closing thoughts. One — now the only time I spend up high is on the rooftop deck of my apartment, from which I take in the sights of the city and feel deeply moved and grateful for its beauty and that I’m alive to enjoy it. Two — right now I’m listening to “Unstoppable” by Sia. Yes, I am.