Shaming myself into silence?

I have been in a contemplative place lately. I’ve stepped back from a lot of things to organize my thoughts, needs, wants, and realities. Part of it was an intentional rest from years of writing and marketing my books, part of it was because I found myself falling into old patterns of not having good boundaries by not speaking up for myself when it was appropriate. And part of it was because I was trying to figure out how I wanted to continue to use my voice to de-stigmatize living with PTSD.

I have been in a poetic place. It’s been easier for me to express myself in poetry vs journaling style. It’s a way to get at the meat of my feelings. I absolutely love the creativity of poetry. It feeds my soul, it takes me to places where I say to myself, “If I could paint a picture, this is what it would look like.” But, I found that I was holding my feelings at a bit of a distance, and it caused me to pause.

I wondered if I was falling into a place of shaming myself into silence. If I was becoming fearful that some of the messages of  (let go of the past, it happened a long time ago, can’t you just get over it, you can decide to be happyyou don’t look sick) were beginning to seep in, and I was pushing play on my tape of shame that I live with complex PTSD.

I’m not ashamed of my past. I’m not ashamed of my story. It is the truth of what happened in my life, to me. I didn’t choose it; the people in my life made those choices to traumatize me. 

What I find I struggle with, is living with the effects of the trauma. It manifested in ways that affect my life, probably for the rest of my life. I have found the past four years when I began to speak publicly that I am not alone. A lot of people struggle with mental health issues directly related to trauma.

The good thing is that there is a tremendous amount of research being done to help trauma survivors right now. There have been some fantastic treatment options to help alleviate or extinguish symptoms. But, not all symptoms can be extinguished. They can be managed, and quality of life can improve to a level that wasn’t thought possible even five years ago. Some people depending on their symptoms of PTSD can absolutely be cured. Some of us may struggle for many more years to come. 

I had to re-evaluate that if I’m one of the people who have persistent and pervasive symptoms do I stay silent?  Do I watch as I see people struggling, repeating the lines and trying to live up to the many memes of, just do (or think) this and your life will be better? No, I just can’t do that. It goes against my nature because of all the survivors I’ve met along the way. Yes, there is a place for the feel-good memes, but it can shame us into silence if we don’t self-regulate.

I’m the most obnoxiously optimistic person I know. I love affirmations, I love mindfulness, I love yoga, meditation, dharma talks, and I really do get out of bed and say, “Today is a brand new day.” But I also have to make sure I am living with my feet firmly on the ground. When I’m sick, I’m sick. When I have symptoms I need to talk to my support system about them. I do not want to shame myself or watch others feel shamed into silence.

The other day one of my most trusted friends said to me, “You seem to be very calm about everything unless you aren’t telling me what’s really going on inside.” The reality was, I was calm and at the same time, I wasn’t being completely honest about how I felt. I was calm, I was numb! I didn’t realize it until I went home and thought about how I was feeling. Right now, numb is an okay place to be. My brain and body are resting after being very ill, and experiencing a recent trauma.

I will continue to use my voice to bring awareness and help de-stigmatize living with PTSD. I think it’s extremely important to create a community where people can relate instead of hiding and feel ashamed for having an illness. I continue to work on creating boundaries and will keep learning to speak up for myself, and I will not allow myself, to shame myself into becoming silent again. I’m grateful and acknowledge how far I’ve come in my healing that I recognized that may be happening and reaffirm my tenacity to stay the course on the long, winding road of healing.

Thank you for reading my books:  If I Could Tell You How It Feels,  and  Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph

Self Doubt: My Unwanted (but invited) House Guest

A familiar knock on my self-esteem’s door seems to happen when I’m making a big change, taking a risk, sharing my writing, speaking in front of groups, or accepting another layer of learning to live with the limitations of PTSD.

I would like to say that self-doubt comes uninvited to my self-esteem’s house during these transition times, but that wouldn’t be honest. I don’t believe Mr. Doubt (as I call it) would come calling unless it was invited. It may be unwanted, but since it arrived with hat in hand, I ask it to come in for tea and tell me what it thinks of me.

Outwardly, to others, it appears I have no problems learning, growing, changing, taking risks, writing books, writing articles, speaking in front of groups about living with PTSD, and working very, very hard on living with the deficits that often plague my mental health. Outwardly, I look strong and determined.

I am strong and determined; But as self-doubt sips its tea and begins to play the old tapes and drones the familiar chants of, “You’re not good enough, not worthy, not well enough, smart enough, you’re a poser,” and lists all the reasons I shouldn’t try or that I should give up, the smell of fear and rejection hang in the air between us.

Somedays I listen with respect, compassion, and a loving ear because I know self-doubt doesn’t come uninvited. But, there are other days when I’m tired or triggered and have a lot of symptoms. I can feel the sinister dark-dread begin to blacken and shred the self-esteem I have worked so hard to foster. The grasp of my thinly held mantra, that my inner beauty, strength, and talent, far outweigh any deficits I may have, begins to fade as self-doubt tries to extend tea time into a meal and a nap.

I’ve eventually heard enough, felt enough, and acknowledge that this is a pattern. Self-doubt comes when I’m on a precipice, and I can choose to entertain it longer or thank it for the visit. It usually doesn’t take me too long before I  tell Mr. Doubt that, “We’re done” and show it the door.

As soon as it’s gone, it’s easier to take control of my internal thoughts about myself and how I’m navigating the world around me. I give myself room to breathe, change, grow, share my experiences with others, and emerge from the shadows of the shame of living with PTSD. It’s often not very comfortable, but that isn’t because I’m the terrible (fill in the old-tapes) person. It is simply because that is where I am at this time in my life, this day, or even for this moment.

As this bout of self-doubt fades onto a distant shore, I understand that I may hear this familiar knock on my door again, and if I do I’ll invite it in for a cup of tea and listen with a loving, compassionate ear. Because I know, self-doubt does not come uninvited.

Artwork: Janet Rosauer

Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph      

 

 

What Would You Suggest?

I have the privilege of presenting to a  Human Services class at a local college in a couple of weeks.  I’m extremely grateful and also honored to be asked to talk to these students, because some of them may become (or already are) professionals in the mental health field. I’m determined to help destigmatize mental illness, particularly PTSD, by speaking and writing openly about living with this disorder.

I’ll be talking about the definition of PTSD, some common symptoms, how I’m able to live a full, and purposeful life, even though I sometimes still struggle with multiple symptoms, resources, etc.

I’m really excited about two topics that I have been asked to address during my presentation.

  • What to say and/or not to say to someone with PTSD (or mental illness)?
  • How professionals can better help people who they work with? 

I definitely have my ideas, but I thought about how wonderfully interactive and positive the blogging community is when it comes to comments. I would love to know how you would answer these questions. Either of the questions.

Your input is greatly appreciated!

Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph    

The Healing Power of Movement and Connection

I have always liked to move. I was in dance classes by the time I was six years old. I couldn’t wait to turn 18 and quit ballet so I could take jazz classes. I just really wanted to do Jazz Hands! I love to dance and I danced into my thirty’s. Then I discovered health clubs. I became an aerobics instructor, a certified personal trainer, and health club manager. To this day, when I walk into a health club and smell sweat, I’m happy.

A little more than a year ago, while working out, I noticed a poster promoting a new class. What caught my eye? The word Dance! Since I love to dance my natural curiosity and endeavor for a new form of exercise class were peaked by the poster. Little did I know that stepping into that first dance class would begin a healing connection, and a place of refuge for one hour a week.

My PTSD symptoms can be debilitating sometimes.  I feel exhausted, ungrounded, and triggered by too much stimulation, or I’m hypervigilant and stressed by being around a group of people. Even though exercise is an integral part of my self-care practice, it can be an enormous struggle to go to the gym. But I really wanted to try this new dance class.

On the first day of class, the instructor immediately engaged with each person as we were walking in. Welcoming us and talking about the class with passion and excitement, explaining that we were just going to dance. It didn’t matter if we got the steps, or what we looked like, we were in this together as a group, a community.

I’m the type of exerciser who doesn’t really engage when I go to the gym. I come in, work out, and leave. But there was something different in the way we were greeted that stopped me for a moment. I felt included, equal, and that all of us who were in that room were more than just bodies to fill a class. I didn’t care that I didn’t know the steps or the songs, I just moved with the music, knowing that maybe I would catch on sooner or later, but more importantly, I felt fully in my body. Something else was different, I wasn’t anxious, hypervigilant, or bothered by any symptoms of my PTSD that can often plague me during my workouts.

A week later, I had to force myself to go to class.  I had a very difficult morning and wasn’t sure I would be able to cope and have control over my emotions. I thought that I would stand in the back by the door and if I had to leave I could quietly exit. When I arrived, we received the same warm welcome, the same passion, excitement, and the message that we are enough. We are okay and worthy, and that we are just going to dance. Together! I didn’t stand in the back which is my typical go-to spot. I moved to the front. I felt safe, secure, present. I let the music move my body. I skipped and twirled with inner-child lightness and stomped with empowerment. I smiled, sweated, and felt that something had shifted in me.

After class, without giving it any thought, and trusting my instincts, I went up to the instructor and introduced myself.  In uncharacteristic self-disclosure, I told her, that I struggle with PTSD, her class is fabulous, and I’ll be back.”  I typically would never disclose my illness in this setting, but I knew that I was feeling different and that the class was having a profound effect on me.  I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to communicate this to her.

After a year and a half, I no longer question how this class affects my well-being. I have enough internal data to know it helps. Even though there have been many, many times that I am struggling with my symptoms, I no longer need to force myself to go. For me, this class is as important as any other self-care, grounding technique that I have learned to use along the way.

Trauma survivors can often feel invisible, alone, and disconnected from our bodies. This class has helped me trust my ability to stay connected in my body. That it’s safe, and I am okay. Not only am I okay, but I am also worthy of how it feels to move my body and stay in the here and now, present, fully connected. I feel secure in my ability to move in a safe and easy environment without the fear of crushing PTSD symptoms.

I look back on that day that I introduced myself and risked the vulnerability of self-disclosure. I was moved by the way my instructor listened to what I was saying and the next thing I knew, in a spirit of unity, we were standing there, two sweaty strangers hugging heart-to-heart forming a bond of acceptance and connection.

That power of connection through movement that brought the two of us together has forged a bond of mutual respect and hours of deep conversation. I will forever be grateful for my empowered, yet willing to be vulnerable heart-to-heart sister/teacher.

Photo by Bruce Christianson on Unsplash

Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph    

Dear Symptoms, Please Go Away

There is a saying: “PTSD: It’s not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.” That saying is a simple way for me to understand that try as I might, there are reasons my PTSD symptoms sometimes still have a firm chokehold on me. The list can be long depending on the time of year and triggers.

Autumn is beautiful and just started here in the Midwest. Blue skies and Vermillion colored trees often coexist with 70 degrees temperatures. This time of year, from late August until it snows represents trigger, after trigger for me. While I can appreciate the wonderful weather, the long season can be challenging with prolonged symptoms and what can seem like constant symptom management. If only my PTSD understood the calendar, and I could time my flashbacks to happen on certain calendar dates, instead of seasons. That would be awesome!

There are days when the triggers and symptoms management leave me exhausted and feeling like I’m a burden to my family and close friends. I spend most of the time finding ways to work on distress tolerance, and grounding when the autumn winds blow. I was feeling terribly guilty one day about my level of functioning, until my wonderful boss said to me, “It’s okay that you’re feeling this way right now.” Suddenly, I felt less guilty and more accepting of what was happening to me. I could roll with the symptoms instead of feeling like I was failing myself, my family, my friends, and my boss.

I’m sharing my three most frustrating symptoms. Perhaps some of you will relate to them, and for others, maybe they can provide an understanding if you know or have heard of someone with PTSD. I bank on the fact that how the symptoms look today, will not be how they look in the future. As I continue the process of healing and acceptance, I have already noticed that my symptoms are not as powerful as they used to be, but they are definitely still part of my life.

Flashbacks-The most frustrating of my symptoms. They can come at any time, although I have learned that certain things will trigger them if I’m not being mindful. For instance, I was looking at a photo album I had come across on my shelf one day and realized that the images I was looking at were most probably guaranteed to trigger me.  The photos quickly drew me in and I found them compelling and validating, but then realized I was heading down bad-memory lane and put them away. My flashbacks are also triggered by the time of year and anniversary dates of trauma. Certain seasons, full moons, specific dates of traumatic events, the smell in the air, and the temperature, or the cool mist emanating as low fog hovering over the ground can bring on flashbacks.

I know I need to be patient with them. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, that I understood that I had been having flashbacks for about 30 years. I was casually telling my therapist about an incident I witnessed every night after going to bed. I was telling him how I would wake up each night and witness an event happening outside my window. I described how every night I looked out the window and saw men dressed all in black with army gear, running silently through the woods, guns aimed and ready. I was telling him this because I thought it was so unusual that my boyfriend and roommate slept through this every night. He looked at me quizzically and said, “You were having flashbacks.” He went on to explain that I lived in a very quiet, safe suburb and what I was describing couldn’t possibly go unnoticed by others. Especially if it happened more than once.

I was stunned. I just never thought I was having flashbacks, I just thought it was extraordinary that I had such heavy sleepers in my house. I learned that since I have been experiencing flashbacks for most of my life, I need to be patient as my brain slowly rewires and knows that it’s safe.

I was with a friend a few nights ago, and suddenly fireworks began to go off in the far distance. It’s the time of year that we just don’t expect fireworks to be going off, and I was in a strange place by the woods, so I was already on high-alert.  My friend noticed my anxiety begin to rise. She immediately understood that I was getting triggered. She calmly said that we were hearing fireworks, and took me outside to show me we were safe, there was no danger, and that she was here with me. Just having someone who understood what was happening and intervened in such a positive way, I believe staved off a flashback. This is a huge lesson that when I trust my support and let my friends and family help take care of me (as I would of them) that I can stop a trigger from becoming a flashback in certain situations.

Unable to Work-Unfortunately, the severity of my symptoms has left me with the inability to work full-time, well, even part-time. I’m cleared to work 2 hours a day if I’m having a good day. I simply can’t concentrate. My brain shuts down. I went from having a wonderful job with fabulous benefits to disability.

I’m extremely grateful that I have been hired by a wonderful person (in fact the same person I described in the above paragraph that helped stave off a flashback) to help with her with her business a couple of hours a week.

I can’t be in an office setting. My startle response is off the hook sometimes. While doing some work in a massage business, I would startle and yelp when someone walked through the door for their massage appointment. I felt so unprofessional! The customers who are coming in for a relaxing massage are starting their wellness experience by apologizing for scaring me. Awkward for both of us. Granted I live in the Midwest and we apologize for everything, it was still awkward.

If I push my brain and don’t listen as it starts to shut down and do just one more thing, it can start a chain reaction of symptoms that can render me down for the count lasting a couple of days.

Becoming Overwhelmed: The inability to concentrate can be overwhelming for me. I know what I want to do, and what I want my brain to do but I’m simply unable to do it. I’m too overwhelmed. Making choices at the grocery store, menu choices from a restaurant, even jumping in the car to run errands can feel daunting. There’s just too many moving pieces.

Sometimes the approaching of the night feels overwhelming because I know it’s highly probable that sometime during the night I will have nightmares. I practice good sleep hygiene. I’m mindful about what I read or watch on T.V.  I set my intentions, find and acknowledge the perfect moments I had during the day, use all the tools in my bag of tricks, but the nightmares still come.

And sometimes it’s nothing… I’m overwhelmed because I’m a survivor of trauma and have PTSD and that’s just the way it is, even though I wish it was different.

I had to learn and keep reminding myself that I am working hard to heal, and it’s not anything I did, or am doing, to cause these symptoms. I’m not perpetuating them, I am living with them. When I catch myself pressing play on the tape of negative self-talk, I make myself stop, sit down, reflect, rest, and try to focus on the goal of what I want for my life.

I’m assuming next Autumn will be less triggering; I must assume that, because why not? Why not continue to believe that these symptoms will lessen their choke-hold…After all, I’m asking nicely; Dear Symptoms, Please Go Away!

PTSD

Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph    

And then I found peace

I risked and shared
I gave, I received
I stood up, resisted
and then I rested.

I listened, I learned
My mind cleared
my breath became
deeper, slower.

In the sometimes uneasy stillness
I listened to the silence.

My body became
light and floaty
while still feeling the earth
firmly under my feet.

I slowed down
took the time
and leaned into
what felt like a snail’s pace.

I learned it’s okay
even when it feels like it’s not.

I put my hand over
the gnarly scar of my soul
and with tender self-compassion
I felt peace.

The impermanence of feelings
of adventures, of moments in time.
The highs, the lows, the neutrals
will never dull that moment
that smile of recognition
when I said to myself, “I get it!”
It was that exact moment
that I found and made peace with my past.

©Alexis Rose, photo source: Google images

Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph    

 

The Tender Ground of Acceptance

Years of muscle straining, oxygen deprived, mind exploding, grief-laden work to manage the grip of the skeleton hands of the past.

The rocky terrain and deep crevasses that held the traps of programmed words ready to pull me down into oblivion.

Deafening winds, echoes of the past knocking me down, pushing me sideways, making it hard to grip the rope.

The storm passes, allowing time to pause, to rest, to catch my breath.

So many times, wanting to give up, and give in to the beast of symptoms.

Instead, I chose to trust.  knowing, that I would be guided through the sharpest peaks and deepest valleys.

Summiting many times, thinking there were no more hidden mountains. Then catching glimpse of the last, gnarly climb looming just around the bend.

Everything inside me screams, “No, leave it,” but I realize that climbing all but that last steep incline would leave me stuck, and breathless. Allowing just enough space for the blinders of denial to slowly creep back into place.

I push through. One last climb to release the locked, cold grip of the past.

Then quietly, I make a gentle descent. The thick, foreboding, dangerously tricky mountain range looming steadfastly behind me.

Scar tissue begins to replace open wounds.

I work to accept my abilities in the wake of my past. A sense of accomplishment for not giving in to the siren call of hopelessness that still tries to fill my sometimes fragile, yet strong whole-self.

The arduous climb, my trust in the process, the quiet, gentle descent. The exhalation of living fully in the truth. My truth.

I have slain the beast, and with the Warriors’ call of accomplishment, I rest on the tender ground of acceptance.

©Alexis Rose, Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph      

 

So what’s the message I’m trying to convey…

I’m preparing to give a presentation next week. I was hired to talk about living with PTSD. When I asked for what specific talking points they wanted me to cover they gave me three: How I became aware that I had PTSD, How I decided to write books about it, and How I’ve moved forward in my life with the PTSD.

This is a great jumping off point, and I’m glad they had some specific ideas of what they would like the audience to hear. As I began to prepare for the talk, outlining what I wanted to say, I sat back and asked myself, what message am I really trying to convey?

I am clear about why I write and speak. I’m passionate about bringing awareness to, and to help end the stigma of living with a mental illness. But that seemed like the broad stroke message to me. I’m trying to figure out, what’s the message within that broad stroke.

I’m not an expert on PTSD. I have it, I live with it, I pay attention to it, but I don’t know the latest research. So with that in my mind, what do I want the audience to think about as they are driving home from the presentation.

As I find myself getting involved in more opportunities where I’m in a position of speaking my truth, writing openly and honestly about living with PTSD, and trying to live a more authentic life, I’m struck by the notion that I need to control the volume that I want for my voice, and how I want to represent myself within the ever-growing community of mental health public speakers.

I have had a huge learning curve and learned a lot since I emerged from the shadows. I know what I will and won’t do as far as speaking engagements, book signings, writing opportunities, and advocacy work. I let myself use the past two years as a learning experience and rarely turned anything or anyone down. I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities that have come my way, and I’m grateful for the enormous support I’ve received.

I’m comfortable with the volume of my voice right now. I don’t aspire to be the biggest voice in the world of mental health support/advocacy. I do, however, feel that my low, steady volume is what suits me the best. I’m a believer that a ripple is what affects the change. I want to continue to be a ripple.

I have one week to prepare for my presentation. They have hired me for two hours, and I believe I will speak for a total of 1.5 hours, leaving plenty of time for questions at the end.

I believe ultimately my message is, “When you know that someone has a mental illness and they are open to it, ask questions. Have a curiosity for knowledge and people’s experiences. Most importantly lets, keep the conversation going.”

 

 

 

Getting Triggered by the News

I make a conscious effort to try and stay off certain news outlets and watch what kind of posts I read on social media. It’s a tricky line to walk sometimes because I’m inherently curious and interested in what is happening in current events around the world. I don’t want to live in a bubble. I want to know what’s happening, I want to be able to critically think about things so I can form my own opinions and have thoughtful conversations.

While I was going through the throes of processing my memories, my therapist had me follow the “puppy and kitten rule,” meaning I could watch anything as long as it included cute puppies and kittens.  My symptoms were at their worst. I was in and out flashbacks, my anxiety was almost constant, along with panic, fear, and a complete lack of feeling safe.

I stayed away from the intense news, was mindful of what I watched on tv and what movies I saw. I watched lots of comedy. There were times when I broke the rule. I watched a movie with violence that in some way mirrored my own abuse, or there were sensationalized cases in the media that I couldn’t avoid, and I would get triggered.

As I began to manage my symptoms, felt some sense of safety and was not living in a constant state of panic, the puppy/kitten rule was lifted. Because I had been so careful about what I ingested from media outlets for so long, I developed an avoidance for watching or seeking out certain information because I knew it may be triggering.

Recently, there has been a story in my newsfeeds that I have done my best to avoid. No one around me is talking about it, because in reality, this story would not be on their radar. It wouldn’t interest them. But because my trauma is sort-of similar to this continuing story, I am on high alert when I scroll past it. I have a definite curiosity about the details but haven’t read anything besides the headline.

Until today!

Today when I logged on to check my email, the headline had changed. It caught my attention and I read it. Because I haven’t read any other details I was kind of lost in the information, but I got the gist of it. I understood and could relate to what happened to the victim that was speaking out. I felt sick that this kind of trafficking still goes on, and in my mind, will probably continue to exist in the underbelly of our society.

Then I got triggered.

I’m not used to those kinds of triggers any longer. There is plenty for me to navigate in my daily life, and anniversary times of the year, and I thought I was far enough along in my healing journey that I would be okay. But PTSD doesn’t operate that way. It doesn’t care that I was just reading an article, and it doesn’t care that this organization had absolutely nothing to do with me. I have never heard of it, and don’t know anything about it. PTSD simply understands that my sense of safety and trust is altered because of the trauma I experienced, and my brain and body will go into the memory and protection mode automatically.

After reading the article, I could tell that something was awry in my body/mind/spirit. I could tell things were stirred up in a way that I could spiral down the cycle of panic, fear, and shame.

I closed the computer, went to yoga, had lunch with a friend, and also reached out to my therapist, who helped me understand that today I fought the tiger. Making sure I understood that not only did I fight the tiger, but that I won. Any shame I was feeling dissipated with that fabulous metaphorical support.

I know I can’t just forget about what I read. I am trying to stay with the feelings, gain perspective, and use my tools to stay grounded. It’s been a difficult day. I’m irritable as I fight the flashbacks, and I’m upset with myself that I read the article. I’m also forgiving myself for having a natural curiosity, and an interest in the subject matter because it hits so close to home for me.

Seeing things written, or in movies, tv, or media can bring a sort of validation. A sense of see? I’m not making this up!  When you are a trauma survivor you look for validation. My trauma is so “out of the ordinary” and so unrelatable that it’s extremely rare that I feel validation. It’s part of acceptance and knowing that my truth is validation enough. But that doesn’t come easy, and it ebbs and flows.

Today was validation that I can still be triggered by the news. With this information, I know I need to remember the puppy/kitten rule when it comes to specific topics, take good self-care and keep scrolling. I also need to remember to give myself validation daily, that I continue to fight the tiger and win.

My feelings about the Word forgiveness and trauma healing

My caveat: I understand that we all have our own histories and beliefs. These are my personal feelings about the word forgiveness. They are not meant to sway anyone’s way of dealing with their perpetrators or their belief system.

The conversation surrounding the word forgiveness came up again for me last week when I had a meeting with someone who was looking for ways to increase their client base, in an extremely crowded therapeutic community. It was going well until this person became adamant that the only way a client can heal is if they forgive their abusers. When I interjected that I believed that there may be other ways to look at forgiveness, the meeting went downhill and became uncomfortable for both of us. To be honest, I’m not sure how we went from talking marketing strategies to this topic, but it happened.

Forgiveness, what does that really mean in terms of healing? That word can be a hot-button for me and for many people I know that have been through trauma. There was a time I thought if I heard someone say “you can’t fully heal until you forgive your abusers” one more time, I would explode all over them. It sounded trite, and for me, increased the shame storm that was always brewing inside of me.

My perpetrators would never expect forgiveness. Why? They didn’t and still don’t think they did anything wrong. To them, I was an object, not a person.  Some abusers, torturers, and silent watchers do not deserve my forgiveness. In my situation, there is nothing that keeps them accountable. They don’t need or want forgiveness, as they move along to the next person, and their feeling of omnipotence grows. 

I came up with this thought: Forgiveness in healing does not have to be about forgiving my perpetrators. For my mental health and well-being, I changed the word forgiveness, to “understanding.”  The concept may be the same, but for me, it is emotionally less charged. I don’t forgive some of my sadistic perpetrators, but I do understand.

I understand what they did to me, and I understand it wasn’t about me personally. I could have been anyone, and in fact, I was one of many. I have learned to understand it is an absolute fact that I had no control over what happened. I’m learning to let go of the guilt, shame, humiliation, powerlessness, and the hopelessness.  

I have worked hard in therapy to understand that I didn’t do anything wrong and that I wasn’t to blame for what happened to me. Still, sometimes I  need to be reminded that it wasn’t my fault.

When I first started thinking and verbalizing that  I forgive myself for the grief, shame, or any other emotions, or feelings I had surrounding my past, I would get confused. Was I forgiving myself for being hurt? That didn’t make sense. 

That word, forgiveness was just too super-charged. The concept was getting mixed up with the definition of the word and it was becoming too convoluted in my head.  I needed to have a better understanding what I was forgiving myself for.

I learned to understand, that I forgive myself for believing the lies my abusers told my soul. That works for me! I believe that! Sometimes with a lot of reassurance, but, I believe that. Understanding that concept helped me take huge steps in the process of acceptance and healing. Forgiving myself for believing the lies my abusers told my soul is a simple concept for me to internalize and accept. 

I have healed enough and understand enough about my past that by now,  I don’t really think about my perpetrators as individual people. If I see them on the news, I hear their names, or someone brings them up, my mind creates more of a concept of who they are/were, not the ugliness of what they did to me.

My biggest coup was when I could let them go emotionally.  For some, that is what they would define as forgiveness. For me, that is what I define as my mental-health victory!

I understand that we all have our own paths to healing. Our belief systems play a large part in keeping us safe in our mind, body, spirit. I respect the language each person needs to use in coming to terms with their abusers. What matters most, is that survivors learn to accept their past, shed the shame and learn to live (and thrive) in their present.