On three separate occasions recently, I have found myself writing about apologies. I wrote about how my Partner always apologizes for hurting me in an argument – even when we have both said hurtful things – because he knows that wasn’t something I ever heard growing up. Then I wrote in another post how abusers never truly apologize. (Saying “I’m sorry you took it that way” doesn’t count!) Never receiving a true apology – even when I begged for anyone to understand just how badly I was hurting – is part of my personal abuse history. Heck, it’s part of my abuse present. I haven’t yet met an official from the 9th Circle of Hell who gives a damn about the hurt that has been done to my sibling and to those of us who have to deal with the guilt of not having been able to stop it. I’ve only met abusers, bullies, and officials who wanted to sweep the issue under the rug as quickly as possible.
But, there’s another side to talking about apologies that I haven’t written about until now. I haven’t written about how I was never allowed to truly apologize. I made mistakes as a kid – of course, I was a lonely, neurodiverse, traumatized kid – and I learned early on to respond to others using all my weak spots against me by trying to do the same to them before they could hurt me first. If someone had shown they’d go for my jugular, I tried to go for theirs first. (Spoiler alert: it’s actually virtually impossible to truly hurt those who are willing to do that to you, so it never did much good.) I’ve also said stupid, impulsive things just because I have ADHD, I’m hyperactive, and rejection sensitivity hurts like Hell. I’ve responded to my Partner like he was part of my past because arguing itself made me forget my present.
My current therapist would say that I didn’t really need to blame myself for the hurtful things I said to people who had a history of saying hurtful things to me, especially when there were rather large age differences and power dynamic differences. But, when I truly decided I did not want to recapitulate my own family dynamics in another generation, it felt like I had to at least try to reach out my hands. It felt like maybe the first one to show vulnerability could make the change. We were a family broken by The System, and, thus, maybe – since we hurt each other because outsiders had hurt us first – we could find our way to healing once we understood trauma dynamics.
Another spoiler alert: showing vulnerability just made going for my jugular easier. It just opened me up to another long list of all the ways I’d screwed up over the years – dating back to age 6 at least – and how all of my failings justified anything that “might” ever have happened to me. Maybe vulnerability might have worked with one family member who is no longer with us (or maybe not) – I’ll never know – but it didn’t work with one with whom I tried it.
I’ve never received a genuine apology while growing up, but I also was never given the chance to offer one, either. I wrote in a previous post about how I was upset and triggered by some things another blogger wrote about ADHD. It hit me in a lot of the “it’s okay to hurt you because you should be normal but aren’t and it’s your choice” abuse buttons. That blogger apologized. She broke the cycle. She saw that I was upset, and she cared enough to write. That really was enough for me.
I also know the legacy of my past is that – even if I try to no longer allow others to hold past mistakes for which I’ve attempted to make amends over me – I’ll hold mistakes over myself forever anyway.
I’ve written a lot about fighting internal stigma within the chronic physical, mental, or developmental illness communities, but I initially forgot to include the most important caveat when we do so:
It’s important to call out internal stigma, but it’s equally important that we forgive mistakes within a community of people for whom just communicating at all is often fraught with fear and memories of years of failed attempts. Point out mistakes, then welcome their makers back into the community with open arms immediately as soon as they make a genuine attempt to correct them. If we continue ostracizing our own internally long after they have apologized, then we risk becoming abusers in yet another way.
That’s ironic, given that the very earliest journal entry I ever wrote was about the right to be forgiven. It’s likely naive and dangerous to forgive those who hurt us intentionally – they’ll take it as permission to keep doing it – but it’s cruel not to forgive those who hurt us unintentionally. It risks making us into the voice of the bully-in-someone-else’s brain. I wrote in my earliest journal entry how I didn’t want to ever be that again. My subconscious thus thinks that I should post that earliest entry to make sure that I’m always truly keeping myself honest to advocating for calling out stigma in a way that opens arms, not closes fists, since I know too well how easy it is to wield a litany of past mistakes against yourself for years.
The Messages in a Bottle blog post below is the very first homework I ever completed in my leather-bound journal in my very first twelve-week CBT course at student mental health services. It is the earliest Messages in a Bottle I will ever post unless, by some miracle, I find something buried on Dropbox that has survived transfer across literally every external hard drive in every state in which I have ever lived.
The song is by The Animals. There are a couple of their songs that hold personal meaning for me. Maybe I’ll write about the others eventually, but, per my notes, this is the one I was listening to when I wrote this first entry that I have never actually shown anyone until now.
What does the concept of self-forgiveness mean to you?
Self-forgiveness is still a very foreign concept to me. I’ve been taught that if I did something wrong, I have to own up to it and continuously work for it. Probably forever. But, I guess self-forgiveness should be recognizing and truly believing that my intentions are pure. It should be the ability to say, “whatever happened, happened” and not feel like I have to feel sick to my stomach thinking of the event forever. It should be the ability to view myself as not an aberration. It should ultimately be the ability to trust in my own judgments. I don’t believe it should mean never looking back, never taking responsibility for my mistakes. I believe it should mean being able to someday look forward without always and forever being chained to my past mistakes. It should mean being comfortable with being myself, trusting myself and maybe believing I deserve something good in the future. I do want to someday be able to forgive myself and let go of the belief that I can’t seem to let go of that I’m the reason that everything in my family and now in my relationships and probably in everything else has ended up in ruins.
Have you ever truly forgiven yourself before? What was the event and what did you learn from it?
Honestly, I don’t think I ever have truly forgiven myself. I give myself leeway in individual circumstances. I say, “well, it isn’t permanently ruined just yet, so if I work my ass off I can maybe recover and salvage it.” I do to myself what X [author’s note: a not-so-awesome person from my past] said I do to relationships: I create cracks in things wherever I go and even when things are “mended” I and everyone else still can see the cracks. Because cracks never go away even when patched. I look at the ever-spreading cracks and tell myself, “You can salvage this if you never push again, but one more tiny push and it will all shatter and then it will be all on you. Don’t screw up.” But, it’s like telling myself not to do it again ensures I will. And, then, I end up where I am now. I wonder if I was right to run far, far away from X and foolish to beg forgiveness for that running, but I also simultaneously hear that voice in my head saying that I broke us, that it’s all my fault, because I’m the one broken forever and this all happened because of me. That every relationship forever will be broken just the same way because I’m broken, and I should have done whatever it took to keep the only person who would have me. I want so badly to prove that I am not broken that I prove that I am broken anyway until I don’t know what to believe about myself.
Have you ever truly forgiven someone else before? What was the event and what did you learn from it?
Does it count if they didn’t accept my forgiveness, and I hated them for taking that offer and, instead, rehashing all of my failures until I finally gave them more proof of what I really am? My family didn’t forgive, so I don’t forgive. Forgiveness was never reciprocated. (Was that because I’m broken, or they were? How can the things I tell myself be cognitive distortions if more people believe them about me than don’t? Doesn’t the majority dictate reality? How does CBT account for the fact that history is written by the victor?) Nothing is ever forgiven. Nothing is ever forgotten. I berate myself constantly for my ugly code, for procrastinating, for being too sensitive, for being as crazy as my family says I am. For abandoning [my sibling] by leaving [the 9th Circle of Hell]. For letting others in my family chase me away because I can’t stay there, but I can’t forgive myself for leaving either.
But, I collect just as many detailed examples of everyone else’s flaws so that, when it inevitably comes to it, I’ll have weapons to aim back when they aim theirs. I want someone to not aim those weapons at me in the first place, but I don’t know how to forgive them when they keep doing it. I tried to out-do my family in the lack of forgiveness and the insults, and I never succeeded. I tried to out-do X, and I didn’t succeed. Somehow, I always still end up the one believing all the things said about me, but it’s like I can’t land a blow that gets through to anyone else. It’s like I never matter enough to even hurt someone with my words – when they can shatter me with theirs – because I’m that inconsequential. Is it weird to want to matter enough that your words can wound?
I wrote once as a child that my greatest revenge would be to get away and to be successful despite what everyone predicted. I wrote a secret letter to my future-self, hidden in the one place that could be locked, about how I would become entirely different from my family, from [the 9th Circle of Hell] and its horrors. How’d I’d learn to walk away and let the pain and doubt go for good? Of course, I know now for certain that I can never truly walk away because I can’t abandon [my sibling]. But, that being my reality wasn’t what hurt the most. It was the letter being found. It was having that letter ripped up in front of me while I heard casual laughter at the thought that I deserved forgiveness, as my letter was in and of itself all the proof needed of why I didn’t deserve any. How dare I be so selfish as to write something expressing my hurt when it might end up being used as ammo to hurt the person who actually mattered? My dream of a day when we no longer had to collect psychic weapons to use against the world – and each other – was just further proof that I was too selfish to care about anyone. I was laughable, but I’ve never found something to laugh at about [letter finder] that hurts them in the same way. Maybe because I really am as crazy as they say I am, or maybe because [the 9th Circle of Hell] or the entire world is.
And, I don’t know, trying to win the insult game just makes me feel progressively worse. I want normalcy, yet every time I try to talk about the past or even just forcibly try to make someone see I’m hurting, somehow I end up feeling like the one out of control. Somehow I end up feeling even less than my less-than-normal. It is that way in [the 9th Circle of Hell], and it ended up that way with X. So, I guess I want to forgive, but I don’t actually know how, or how to know when someone really deserves it.
What did forgiveness look like in your family? How do you think it influences how you view forgiveness now?
Well, I have gone into a kind of spiral, so, um, that? I’ve basically been going round and round with this mood journal for the past few days because I’m not sure if I am desperate for someone outside my own life to exonerate that I deserve forgiveness, or whether I should just re-write this entire assignment to be more palatable.** I don’t want to go into my family relationships. I know what waits for [my sibling] outside my family’s protection. I know my relationship with my family is broken, but I also know that the person who shatters me most would at least do anything and everything to protect [sibling]. I know that protection is sorely needed, even when it means standing shoulder to shoulder with someone who reminds me continuously that I’m an aberration. The horrors outside my family are worse than inside my family, it turns out. I know that if I speak up about my own family dynamics, I might end up giving the damn state exactly the justification it needs to override our rights again, lock up [sibling] again, and throw away the key this time. I know that I’d rather sing the praises of the person who most hurts me to protect him rather than permit him to go back to [the horrible place I never was able to force to be closed]. So, yeah. I guess I’ll go back to being inconsequential. Because I’m safe here in [city that isn’t in the 9th Circle of Hell], and he isn’t yet. And, one of the ways I can prove I’m not the selfish person I keep hearing I am is not to say anything about anything that hurts me until I can finally ensure [sibling] is safe for good. I won’t be the betrayer I’ve been made out to be.
And, I’ll need all the ability to forgive and ignore the barbs I can ever learn myself to eventually convince someone who despises me that we must get [sibling] out, that what happened before will just keep happening, and I’m not just being my usual crazy to risk the devil we don’t know in another place after what the devil we do know did to him already. My story is nothing in the face of [that abusive place].
**Needless to say, I wrote something entirely generic and showed that to my generic off-the-shelf counselor instead of this post. Also, needless to say, it took years to convince that other person that the 9th Circle of Hell was abusive and rotten to its very core, and in the meantime, we ran smack dab into waiting lists and the brutality that appears to exist in other places, too. I still want my sibling out, but I could link to entire blogs that would demonstrate it probably wouldn’t end there. I still never have won the right to be anything other than a scapegoat to anyone, most brutally my own family, in the 9th Circle of Hell. I’m still working on opening up about my story – no longer viewing my personal story as “too inconsequential” in the face of the greater horrors of the 9th Circle of Hell. I also 100% meant what I wrote in 2010. One of the most difficult-to-reconcile parts (among many) of any trip to the 9th Circle of Hell, even in 2018, is that I have to literally sit beside the dichotomy that the family member who is my staunchest ally in protecting my sibling was also, umm, let’s just say “not an ally” to me. Within a severely traumatized family, different family members can have very different experiences. But, in the face of the entirety of an abusive social services system in the 9th Circle of Hell, the enemy of my enemy is always my friend, regardless of my personal history with the person.*** Maybe someday my sibling will be safe enough that I can unpack my own trauma memories.
At least I can confidently say that the whole relationship thing worked out. I look back on this post and thank heavens that I did run away from the person mentioned in it and ultimately end up meeting my Partner. I definitely brought my past into my relationships, but I at least learned to trust myself in that specific arena in time to meet one of the rare good ones later.
***My Partner, upon hearing that I’d written about a certain family member, just told me to go back and amend that last line to “the enemy of my enemy is the abusive asshole that sometimes is an ally of convenience because other abuses are more prominent right now, but a good Partner still wouldn’t ever leave you alone with.” I probably should note that I may not have survived that much time alone with the aforementioned family member this year with sanity intact if he hadn’t acted as a literal buffer. So, I’ll do what he tells me and write his words even though part of me still cringes to think my own experiences deserve such harsh language!