Part 2 continues in this 2 part guest article by Pam Witzemann. Please read part 1 “The Process of Forgiving…” for additional information and helpful context.
My Reckoning Journey on the path to Forgiving my Parents by Pam Witzemann
Being able to forgive my parents for abusing me, as a child, came at the conclusion of my healing journey. I found the ability to forgive at the end of a long reckoning process which enabled me to forgive from a position of power that was not dependent upon any action on the part of my parents.
During the reckoning process, which must take place before forgiving an abuser is possible, offenses are named and counted. Damage caused by the abuse is assessed and culpability assigned to those responsible for the abuse. The amount of damage sustained and the number of years that healing requires, determines the length of that process. My process began when I was nineteen. Now, I’m 56 and though I believe myself to be healed, there were many plateaus, during which I believed I had conquered my past. There were many times that I thought I’d forgiven what needed to be forgiven only, to have another layer of trauma and damage revealed.
The first abuser I dealt with was me. It was through my faith that I was able to stop abusing myself, by stopping my self-abusive behavior. Of all my abusers, I think I did myself the most damage but without their tutelage, I never would have thought to treat myself, as I once did. Even though I stopped my outward, self-destructive actions, it wasn’t until I confronted the truth about the other abusers in my childhood, that I was able to stop emotionally and psychologically, abusing myself, by blaming myself for their actions. This didn’t begin to take place until about six years ago. After stopping my self-abuse, I had to assess the damage.
In my twenties, my PTSD was severe and I didn’t even understand it as emotional illness. My depressions were so immobilizing that I thought I had some terrible disease and was dying. My emotions were so divorced from reality that the depression seemed to come out of nowhere, by its own volition. Like-wise, my hyper vigilant anxiety, was perceived as premonitions of bad things about to happen, rather than worry about the past repeating itself. When my husband and I lived in the city, I would dress myself as a boy when I had to go out alone. I couldn’t be alone by myself, at night. I convinced my husband to move me far into the country and when I went into town, I would slip in early in the morning, do what I needed to do, and hurry back home. I was terrified, depressed, and very, angry and I had no idea why because I thought that everything that happened to me was my fault. There was little that I considered as abuse because I had been convinced that I had earned what happened to me.
With time, the love of my husband and my faith, my PTSD became more manageable but I didn’t learn that I suffered from clinical depression until I was almost forty. Then I found myself on a lot of prescription drugs (that I didn’t really need in the long-term). They made me certifiably, insane and I came close to losing my life. Finally, it was the process of raising my children that caused me to confront myself and my past. This led me to do a lot of reading and studying and I found my way to Emerging from Broken. I had already begun to connect the dots and understand why I was depressed and anxious. I’d realized that I had been sexually abused as a teenager and that it wasn’t my fault. I had been confronting my family about the sexual abuse and their reactions caused me to read about various family dynamics and how they affect behavior. When I began to read about the structure of narcissistic families, I was literally, sick at my stomach because it was such a strong dose of truth. I googled “narcissistic relationships mothers daughters” and that led me to EFB.
As is the common reaction here in EFB, I was amazed to find people who understood what I was talking about when I described my family and my life. Darlene’s writing and coaching led me into a much deeper understanding of how the abusive treatment in my childhood, shaped me and my life. I learned names for behaviors that I was too ashamed and confused to confess. I continued to try and reach my family and was met with continual, rejection and disregard.
Finally, I drew a simple line; I told them that my love for them was unconditional but relationship with me, no longer was. I told them they had to treat me with respect and that had to begin by acknowledging that I was sexually abused as a teenager and that my parents were guilty of criminal child neglect when they knew where I was, what was happening to me, and did nothing to stop it. The law was on my side but still, they continued to deny that I was a victim of any kind of crime or that my parents had any responsibility in it. I replied by requesting that they not contact me, in any way, until they could honor the boundary I set for relationship.
The reaction on the part of my family was that I had to forgive them and the men who raped me. This while denying that anything took place that required forgiveness. I wanted to forgive them. There will always be a part of me that wants to reunite with my family and for a long time, I thought they had to take responsibility for the things they’d done to me before I could forgive them. I thought forgiveness meant that reconciliation would automatically, take place but I couldn’t do as I’d done in the past. I couldn’t swallow the truth and sacrifice my self-respect, in order to keep a relationship with my family.
Choosing to simply allow the offenses to ride, is forgiveness from a position of weakness. This kind of forgiveness doesn’t have the power to heal anyone and it is no foundation for reconciliation. I didn’t want to lose my relationship with my family. They are my family and I love them, unconditionally. I still love them even in the face of all the things they’ve done to hurt me. However I couldn’t sacrifice the returned dignity that my reckoning had bought me. It was too hard won and too valuable to surrender. I had to stand with and on the truth. I had to maintain the boundary I set. I suffered so much over the course of my lifetime and I couldn’t do as they have always required, pretend that nothing serious had happened and hold myself solely, responsible. Keeping the boundary I set, honored the undeserved suffering I endured.
However, I also, wanted to forgive them and leave my painful childhood behind. I didn’t want to prosecute them for the abuse. I didn’t want them to suffer and I didn’t want to exact revenge. What I wanted was to have them take responsibility for their actions. Then, I wanted to forgive them so that we could be a real family. I couldn’t do their part or force them to take responsibility. However, I could do my part. I told them that I did forgive them but if they wished our relationship to be restored, they had to do their part by acknowledging the truth of what happened to me and how their neglect contributed to the sexual abuse.
At that point, I understood that my suffering was more than enough to pay the penalty for the crimes committed against me and it was time for my suffering to end. It was time for me to come down from that cross of suffering and bury the dead past; not with the pretense, lies, and deception that I buried it under, for so long; but instead, give it an honorable burial with remembrance of the price I paid in suffering and all that I had to overcome. As long as I continued under the family system of lies and pretense and as long as I was met with disregard whenever, I tried to get them to face the truth, I remained nailed upon my cross and I suffered.
Finally, I gave up the ghost of trying to make my family understand what they didn’t want to understand. They didn’t want to change and would never choose to unless, for some reason of their own they decided they would benefit by it. I required them to honor my choice and I honored theirs. I knew my reckoning work was finished. It was time for me to rise from the ashes of my childhood, walk a new path, and live a new kind of life.
As long as my family refuses to acknowledge my suffering and how they brought that suffering about, they will never be able to enjoy the forgiveness I earned for them or apply my forgiveness to themselves. Our relationship from that moment forward was fully, severed and can only be restored, if and when they embrace the truth. In the same way that Christ paid for my sins, my abuses, my suffering was enough to pay for the crimes they committed against me. Just as Jesus was sacrificed, paid my penalty, and laid the way open for me to be reconciled with God, I forgave and opened the way for them to be reconciled with me; but in order to do so, they must honor the price I paid in suffering by acknowledging their crimes against me.
As I write this post, they remain lost in their abuses and continue to cling to lies in order to deny their crimes. The only thing that can save them and our relationship is for them to reckon with the truth, as I reckoned with the truth. It’s been nearly two years and I’ve not heard a word from them but I know the stand I made was the correct stand. I did what was right and it was the best thing I can do for them as well as for myself. I presented the truth clearly and I stand firmly, upon that truth. That is the only hope I have to offer them. They made their choice and though the way to reconciliation remains open to them, so far they still choose to deny the truth.
I am at peace because I followed the truth to its end. I forgave and then walked away. The reckoning process and my suffering are finished and now I have full closure on the past. If at some point, they do decide to acknowledge the price I paid in suffering for their actions, the real work between us will begin. Forgiving an abuser, isn’t a simple decision that magically, restores broken relationships, in full, but it does open the possibility for working out a new relationship that is healthy, equal, and free of abuse.
I’m not sure where I am in the reckoning process of forgiving the men who raped me, as a teenager. I haven’t seen them in decades and since there is no relationship to restore, I’m not sure what forgiving them will require from me. Perhaps, I’ve given enough. I’ve thought of hunting them down and prosecuting them but I haven’t pursued this even far enough to know what I can and can’t do, according to the law. I’ve only recently allowed myself to feel anger toward them and mourn what they took from me; because I thought for so long, that it was my fault. Right now, I’m happy to be free of the self-loathing and confusion about myself that imprisoned me for so long. Right now, that is enough. I know that as long as I pursue and live in truth, I am on the right path and it will end at the best destination for me.
My reckoning journey on the path toward forgiving my parents, my childhood abusers, was a long one. Part of that is because of the silencing of victims and attitudes toward mental health care. I’m hopeful that abuse survivors today may enjoy a shorter journey. My hope is in survivors speaking out and exposing child abuse for what it is. In the past two years, I’ve been amazed as the most painful, darkest secrets in my life have become a light for others. Six years ago, my voice cracked when I tried to tell my husband about the sexual abuse. I wrote to my family of origin and then shivered under a blanket for hours, after I sent the letter. I couldn’t imagine telling my children or talking publically about what happened to me. It’s powerful to be able to accept the little girl (who was me) who was battered in such a way, back into my life and fearlessly, acknowledge and share the truth about the degrading, soul-shattering abuse she (I) endured.
I know that the choices I’ve made in reckoning with my past and then forgiving my parents were the right things to do. Even though that forgiveness didn’t bring reconciliation because they still refuse to do their part, my forgiveness marks the burial of my painful childhood. It also, marks the beginning of my new life. I now enjoy self-acceptance and freedom from the self-loathing, shame, and guilt that my abusers created in me.
My suffering is finished and I am free. I am enjoying a life in which abusing me isn’t okay. There are no more shameful parts of my life to hide and the demons that haunted me for so long, no longer have any power to torment me. All the lies they used to oppress me have been exposed and there is no guilty, darkness left within me, where they can hide. It’s wonderful to embrace all the broken pieces of me, in one, more complete, human being. It’s amazing to be able to love myself, in the same way that God loves me. These are the things that I have earned by completing the reckoning process that ended with forgiving my parents; my childhood abusers.
Please share your thoughts with Pam about anything in either Part 1 or Part II of these articles about the difficult subject of forgiving parents who are childhood abusers or who contributed to the child abuse that was perpetrated by others. ~ Darlene ~ founder of Emerging from Broken
Pam Witzemann was born in Santa Fe, NM and is married, has raised two boys and has two grandsons. Pam and her husband have had their own business for over twenty years. Pam is a painter and a writer and hopes to make these pursuits more than a hobby in her later years. Pam authors the blog Boomer Back-Beat; a place where baby boomers find inspiration in the process of aging.
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