If anyone ever had a good reason to claim that she was justified in refusing to forgive someone who had caused her enormous physical and emotional pain, it was Monica.
Beginning at the age of ten, Monica was frequently sexually assaulted for a period of more than six years. The assailant was her father. It wasn’t until shortly after her sixteenth birthday that the violations ended, and only because she fought back with all her determination and strength. From that point on, according to Monica, “he never touched me again. I think he knew that if he had, I would have killed him. Literally!”
Although the abuse ended at this point, it would be years before Monica could even begin to think about forgiving her father. Her feelings of shame and humiliation had made it hard to disclose to others the nature of the pain that she had endured, a few close friends and some family members had over time become aware of her experience.
Monica was also betrayed by her mother, who refused to defend her daughter because she feared that her husband “would turn on me if I confronted him.” The wounds that Monica experienced were not only physical but also mental and emotional. The person who for the first ten years of her life she had come to see as her protector had become the most dangerous person in her life and the one who was no longer a protector, but who now posed a continual threat to her sense of safety and security.
In addition to having lost her sense of being protected, Monica was now having to deal with the feelings of shame and guilt that victims of sexual abuse frequently experience as a result of believing (irrationally) that they are somehow to blame for their experience. She also became painfully aware that she had little if any control over her physical space, personal boundaries, and even her own body.
Everyone in Monica’s family lived in fear of her father’s unpredictable outbursts and abuse. Yet the fear of his rage and threatened reprisals promoted an environment of profound denial, in which the unspoken family code was to show a happy face to everyone outside of the family and pretend that things at home were always wonderful.
Whenever Monica failed to fulfill the family expectations by displaying pain or fear, she would receive threats and condemnation from other family members who accused her of being crazy or mentally ill. “I started believing that I was crazy and that everyone else was normal. It wasn’t until I finally got away from my family that I began to realize that my reactions to a very sick system were normal and even healthy.”
But leaving home was not enough by itself to end the suffering that Monica had endured for years. Her process of recovery didn’t end after she left the family; it just began.
Living as she did in a deeply dysfunctional environment for so long, took a serious toll on her sense of trust in others, in herself, and even in God. Because her parents were deeply religious people ,they attributed Monica’s pain to her as being God’s way of expressing his disapproval for her insubordination to the authority he had given to her parents to raise her strictly and correctly. Her complaints, they told her, were expressions of defiance and disrespect for their God-given authority.
“I really was trying to be a good girl and I couldn’t understand what kind of a God would be willing to cause so much pain to someone who really was trying hard to be a good person. It took me years of recovery work to finally recognize that I was not the guilty party and that God was not responsible for the way in which I was treated and mistreated in my family. Still it took me a long time to come to that realization. I knew that forgiveness would eventually have to play a part in my recovery but it took a while for me to get to the point where I was ready to forgive. For a long time, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do so, but eventually, I could, and I did.”
What Monica could imagine at the time was that someday she would be healed and healthy but she just didn’t have any idea how that would happen. She just knew that it was possible. “I knew that it would take a miracle but I believed in miracles because I had finally miraculously survived and escaped the nightmare of my childhood in hell.”
Monica’s road to recovery was far from smooth. It included drug and alcohol abuse and several failed relationships. It also included individual therapy, a troubled, but ultimately supportive marriage, participation in twelve-step programs, and membership in a group for survivors of sexual abuse that included perpetrators as well as victims. It was in this group that Monica came to understand that abusers aren’t monsters; they are hurting as well.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress continued to haunt Monica even after her father’s abuse stopped and it required years of healing work which included individual therapy, deep journaling and twelve-step work, in addition to her survivors of sexual abuse group.
Monica became convinced that the final stage of her recovery required finding a way to forgive her perpetrators (who she considered both father and mother) or else she wouldn’t have any family connections. Forgiveness took time and effort, but now she is able to visit with her family. She knows that she can’t be fully herself when she is with them, but she trusts that she has plenty of places where she can be her vibrant, honest, authentic self.
In Monica’s words, “I have many people who welcome my offbeat, outrageous, truth-telling self and they love me for it.”
Monica is an inspiration to those who may be concerned that what was done to them is preventing them from fully recovering. She now considers herself fully recovered and she enjoys a successful career, dear friends, and a fulfilling life. She worked long and hard for her recovery, and is proud of the life that she has created.
“Forgiveness has been a key element in letting go of the past. Doing so has helped me to free up energy to be more fully present in my life.” I’ve found that much to my amazement, there are people who are actually really trustworthy.”
Monica’s newly found self-confidence and self-esteem are hard-won, and the shame that she used to feel has been replaced with feelings of pride and self-respect. “I never imagined that I could ever feel good about myself again because of my past experiences, but that turned out not to be true. There are some things that it is really good to be wrong about!”
Stay tuned for Part 2 in which we offer the details of what Monica’s recovery process involved.
“Love experts Linda and Charlie shine a bright light, busting the most common myths about relationships. Using real-life examples, they skillfully, provide effective strategies and tools to create and grow a deeply loving and fulfilling long-term connection.” —Arielle Ford, author of Turn You Mate into Your Soulmate.