In my first blog, I remarked how much advice I received from so many well-meaning people early in my journey. One of the most consistent and popular messages was to forgive myself.Let the past go. Focus on the future. All I wanted to do was change and find peace and so I set out to follow this advice of self-forgiveness. Moreover, honestly it made sense. It would also be a relief.
I hated myself. I had done horrible, unspeakable, things which hurt the people I loved so very much. While I fully understand that substance use disorder is a disease which has drastic effects on one’s brain and judgment, I could not reconcile even that acknowledgement with an abdication of the things I had done to hurt others.
So I set out to master the task of self-forgiveness, acceptance, and love. But like chasing a butterfly, the more diligently I pursued self-forgiveness,
the more elusive it seemed.
Because my default cognitive response is rumination, I became obsessed with self-forgiveness. I attended meetings, read dozens of books, completed steps, made apologies, changed, followed any and all advice about forgiving myself and letting go. None of it worked. Not even remotely. In fact, in some ways, the inability to forgive myself increased my self-hatred.
Here I was being told they key to recovery is forgiving oneself and I cannot even do that. I felt doomed to fail and was losing hope. I read books about forgiveness and acceptance and even decided to read the Bible cover to cover because I thought where better to lean about forgiveness. None of this searching shed light on how I could let go of my past. How could I ever forgive myself for hurting and disappointment so many people I loved and who loved me?
It was a dark night, I still was not allowed to see or speak to my children and my parents, with whom I lived at the time did their best not to show their disappointment and pain, but I could sense it. I felt so lonely. So afraid. I felt as though I would never again feel the love and respect of my family again, and frankly, I did not feel like I “deserved” it. I remember hating myself and realizing that if something did not change, I would likely repeat behaviors of my past. I did not think I could take another day trying to achieve the unachievable. I wept. I wept for the pain I had caused my children. I cried for the hurt my family endured. And for the first time, I cried tears for myself too. While the pain I caused others was atrocious, I destroyed myself during those years too. The proverbial scars from some things that happened to me during that period, some of the things I did, are still evident today. I could not stop crying. That night, ever so slightly I realized that my past was a part of me and always would be. There would be no magic wand of forgiveness and healing. There would be no successful blocking it out and focusing on the bright horizon. I had to learn to let the present, my past, and my hopes for the future occupy my brain and my heart compatibly. I still hated every single thing I did but I learned to appreciate all the results of my actions and not only focus on the bad that came from my past. Likely you just had to reread that’s sentence. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but in fact, out of the most horrible actions, came the most necessary, painful, yet beautiful growth.
There was no way to not acknowledge that who I was today was based on who I was yesterday. Balancing has never been (and likely will never be) a strong suit of mine. But I had to learn how to have who I was, who I am, and who I want to be peacefully coexists with all parts be accepted. There were days when too much of my brain and heart were filled with the negative parts of the past, and that was where the work needed to be completed.
I needed to not to forgive myself for my past, but learn lessons, and use my past as motivation and a reality check at times. I needed to thank my past too. This realization about not having to forgive myself provided me so much peace, so much contentment. It has taken years, but I realized so slowly that self-love has to be unconditional and genuine. So while I do not love what I did (in fact I still hate it) I love myself. All of myself and that includes the past.
This is how I have reconciled hanging on an letting go. Learning and living. And most of all, continuing, always to grow.
Follow up questions for groups:
What can you identify with from this reading?
If you are willing to share, what are some things you are working on when it comes to forgiving yourself?
What can you personally do today to work on self-forgiveness, letting go and increasing your ability to forgive and love yourself and who you are today?