by Christina Enevoldsen
I started talking about my childhood sexual abuse when I was in my early twenties. I only told a few people that it was my father who abused me, but there was a common response: “Have you forgiven him?” I was from in a religious environment where forgiveness was mandatory. I was afraid not to forgive.
The abuse kept me living in fear— I was afraid of many, many things, but at the top of the list was the fear of abandonment. If I didn’t forgive, I would be disapproved of and rejected by my Christian friends, and more importantly, by God. Unless I wanted to spend eternity cast from God’s presence, I had to forgive. Unforgiveness was, after all, far worse than anything that was done to me. To refuse to forgive made me worse than my abuser. Or so I was taught.
I also thought forgiveness was synonymous with, “Pretend like it never happened.” In my definition of forgiveness, my dad didn’t have to suffer any consequences, I was supposed to stop talking about the abuse or if I talked about it, I couldn’t mention my dad. That would be “uncovering” him. Forgiveness also meant that I shouldn’t feel any negative emotions toward my dad and that our relationship would carry on as it had.
Even without the religious pressure, I wasn’t interested in breaking off my relationship with my father. I didn’t consider it as a possibility. I was just as afraid of being abandoned by him as I was by everyone else.
Through the guise of forgiveness, I stuffed my feelings and stuck a nice big smile on my face. I was supposed to put the past behind me when I forgave, so I denied my feelings. Forgiveness was supposed to be the path to healing, so I acted healed. I buried my anger somewhere deep, somewhere I hoped I would never find it.
The anger didn’t disappear. It was buried, but it was buried alive. It scratched and clawed and cried out. Its voice demanded attention, so I gave it expression through abusive acts toward myself. I continued my own abuse through all kinds of destructive behavior including dangerous sexual activity, over-working and abusive relationships.
Eventually, I wasn’t only hurting myself, but others. I thought the anger would shield me from the type of things I suffered as a kid. It was the illusion of being in control and more powerful. When I vented my anger, I felt bigger than I was. I secretly smiled inside when I recognized that people were intimidated by me. If I inspired fear, maybe they wouldn’t see how afraid I was. But it didn’t protect me. I kept getting hurt in the same way again and again.
I wasn’t happy. Anger was a mask I wore, but it wasn’t the real me. I wanted to feel real and let myself be the gentle, nurturing person I knew I really was.
To finally get rid of the anger that was pushing me, I had to take it out and deal with it. I had to face its source and look at all the pain associated with it. I had to recognize that the true target of my anger was my parents, not me. By then, I realized I was just as angry with my mother for protecting my dad, maybe even more so.
Also by then, my parents escalated in their abusive treatment. I refused to continue the sick patterns and, after setting boundaries they refused to honor, we parted company.
I had a new definition of forgiveness which didn’t include reconciliation, but in my heart, forgiveness represented a threat. Someone suggested that I forgive my parents and I reacted as though that person was locking me in a cage with a hairy beast with long claws, razor teeth and glowing, yellow eyes. In my mind, forgiveness would disarm me and leave me vulnerable to more abuse. I couldn’t be pressured into forgiveness or anything else related to a type of performance or measuring up. My forgiveness facade was blown and I didn’t care. I had to continue to sort out my feelings instead of covering them up.
I continued to write and talk about my anger, fear and pain. One day, after months and months of processing, I woke up and actually wanted to forgive my mom and dad. I was shocked. The day before, I hadn’t felt anywhere near being able to forgive. Suddenly, I was prepared to drop of the baggage of offense. I no longer wanted the responsibility of trying to control what they deserved.
Once I made that decision, I felt lighter, freer. I wouldn’t have believed how much of a difference it made.
Forgiveness didn’t mean the end of my pain. Actually, once I forgave them, I felt the most intense pain of my journey so far. Forgiveness opened my heart to remembering the good things about them and viewing them in a more balanced way. In my anger and hatred, I only saw them as evil people without any redeeming qualities. Since nobody is all good or all bad, that was one of the lies I used to try to protect myself. Once I admitted to myself that my parents actually do have good qualities, I started missing them and the pain of abandonment and rejection engulfed me. This is a journey of finding the truth, so even though the truth brought pain, I welcomed it since it also brings healing.
I’ve worked through that pain now. I don’t feel tied to the abuse like I used to. I always had the knowledge that I was stronger than the abuse, but the forgiveness process left me actually feeling stronger than it.
I still don’t have a relationship with my parents and I don’t ever intend to. Even over the relational and physical distance, they continue their abuse. Occasionally, more things from the past come to light and I’m challenged to sort out my feelings in that regard. My forgiveness has been a layered process. I don’t consider my parents much at all anymore, either with pain or longing. In many ways, they are a distant memory and are becoming more so over time as I continue to face my past. I’ll never forget what they did or failed to do, but there isn’t pain attached to the memories that I’ve worked through.
I don’t have gushy feelings toward them, but I also don’t have the desire for revenge. I divorced myself from the need to control their fate or determine what they deserve. That’s what I think forgiveness really is.
I don’t think those people who tried to sell me forgiveness were trying to hurt me. I’m sure they were only trying to help and were speaking from their own fears. They may not have intended harm, but it was harmful. Forgiveness is a personal issue and one of the most sensitive in dealing with abuse. Forgiving my parents was one product of my healing, not the means to it.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.
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