I felt her annihilating rage. When would my mother strike me again with the heart-piercing, flaming arrows she launched with the accuracy of a trained sniper? I dreaded waiting for the next outburst of her random anger. Her indiscriminate rage bombarded me anytime, anywhere, without warning. She punished to the fullest extent for the slightest real or imagined mistake. After an outburst or screaming session, she behaved as if everything was fine.
I sought security and hoped for a mother who loved and cared for me the way a mother should. But repeatedly she launched annihilating rage and shattered my soul. My senses became attuned to every word, expression, and tone of her voice. Always alert for the onslaught of her rage I wanted to hide but had nowhere to go.
Today was no different. I went into my room, crawled into my dark closet, and piled as many plush animals as I could on top of me. It worked to hide the E.T.™ movie character and maybe it would work for me too. I heard her coming: STOMP STOMP STOMP. I waited with eyes wide open, my heart stopped, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Was she coming for me again? My bedroom wall already had a hole after she slammed the door open repeatedly at all hours of the night on the hunt for me. I held my breath. Maybe if I didn’t breathe she wouldn’t be able to detect my presence. Her stomping faded. I took a tiny breath. I was safe. Safe for the moment, but never for long.
This highly charged environment often erupted into angry outbursts, but usually my mother and I were alone. Typically no one witnessed my experiences. When we were in public, no one apparently noticed, heard, or saw, and no one rescued me or intervened. No one validated what happened.
As a young adult I remained shattered and didn’t realize my need to forgive my mother. How could I? I was justifiably angry. Sometimes I was so angry I screamed into my pillow for a bit of release. At other times I tensed my muscles wanting to implode. Nothing worked.
Others saw the Gibraltar-sized chip on my shoulder. I was brusque with people and short tempered, but I attempted to please others and fought to be a good daughter saying and doing all the right things, but to no avail. I tried to achieve self-acceptance and acceptance by others, but others noticed my lack of smile and short answers sensing what brewed inside me. What brewed was hate.
However, I was not free from responsibility as I continually contributed to my unforgiveness. After all, I had a right to my anger so I held onto it with a death grip. I was determined to never let my mother see me weak or hurting again. I was determined to move away and never come back again. I was determined NEVER to have a relationship with her, ever. Also, by replaying the memories and re-telling the stories I perpetuated my anger, stoking it with each new rendition ensuring the angry fire would not extinguish. I validated myself and my cause. My anger was out of control, and my feelings controlled me.
However, the side effects of my unforgiveness were headaches and damaged relationships. Also, by not forgiving my mother, I inadvertently repeated the cycle as I projected my anger for my mother and myself and spewed it out onto anyone nearby.
Thus, I faced strained relationships at family events and said and did things I regretted. Whether I wanted to or not, I contributed consciously and unconsciously to my unforgiveness constantly, one angry minute at a time.
Beyond tense on the way home from college for a weekend visit, every fiber of my being shouted, as I writhed in emotional torment. I prayed as I drove at seventy-five miles per hour on South Highway 5 between Sacramento and Stockton. I hadn’t prayed in years and I didn’t understand the ramifications of my desperate prayer: “This has to stop. I do not know what it’s going to take, but do whatever you must to take this anger away.” That was it. No Amen, no nothing but this marked the beginning.
Several years later my prayer was answered as I realized my need to forgive others, even my mother as St. Matthew told me to forgive those who injured me. But it didn’t say how and I did not know how to forgive. I realized I am forgiven, but asked, “How do I forgive my mother who should have loved and cared for me?” I didn’t know how to forgive nor who to ask, but I was determined to learn. I knew what lack of forgiveness did to me. What I didn’t know was how to start forgiving and just how long the journey would be.
So first, I learned what forgiveness is not:
- Forgiveness is not understanding or explaining someone’s behavior. I knew my mother was abandoned and abused as a child, but that didn’t justify her actions toward me. She had a responsibility to find healing for herself and not perpetuate and continue the cycle.
- Time does not heal all wounds. The passage of years did not heal me; untended wounds festered and became infected with hate and bitterness.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean denying I was hurt. Forgiveness is not denying my pain. It is not minimizing my pain.
- Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Even when I have forgiven, it does not make everything okay. If someone repeats a hurtful cycle, I need not set myself up for repeated injury or failure.
Then I learned what forgives is. Forgiveness accepted my lost childhood I could not get back. My childhood was not all misery, but all I seemed to remember was: pain, anger, and fear. I did not enjoy the mother-daughter relationship I desired, needed, and realized I may never have. Forgiveness meant I dug through my memories for good nuggets, sifted through the bad, and discarded the things I would not repeat. It meant seeing my mother as a person with a past and accepting the fact that hurt people, hurt people. In this case she hurt me. It also meant I stopped holding out the hope that she would one day become the mother I so desperately wanted. By giving up this hope, I freed myself to accept myself. I allowed myself to make mistakes, be imperfect, laugh, be silly, and have fun spontaneously.
Forgiveness meant taking responsibility for myself and no longer using my childhood as an excuse for the present. My childhood taught me a connection between pain and love, but this did not authorize me the right to avoid loving others in appropriate ways. I chose not to lash out at others, blame my past, and say I didn’t know any better. Forgiveness meant taking full responsibility for my actions and the enduring the consequences.
The forgiveness rollercoaster jarred me with its constant ups, downs, twists, turns, and loops. Forgiveness is often harder before it gets easier, and may require repeated attempts, highs, lows, and course changes. I asked myself, “Is the pain of staying the same less than the pain of change?”
I found some tools helpful. They included: time, a journal, drawing, rest, solitude, and a safe professional counselor who walked through this journey with me. She was one I talked with openly without judgment and who served as an accountability partner. Forgiveness required patience with myself, grace, and specific goals.
Forgiveness was a process of healing because it is not a one-time experience. For smaller, non-recurring hurts a one-time forgiving worked, however, the process of forgiveness for the deep wounds of my past coupled with present injuries took years. What complicated the process was seeing and/or talking to my mom as expressions on her face, tone of voice, etc. brought up painful emotions and memories.
In order to mend completely, I allowed myself adequate time for the injuries to heal. I chose to let go of my pain and hurts. I no longer expected payment for the pain and gave up my right to get even. This freed me from the control of others, especially mom, and allowed me to learn to love and be loved.
I never thought I’d forgive. I never thought I’d be able to forgive. I never thought I’d be able to have a relationship with my mother once I was an adult and out of the house. It took nine-teen years to complete the forgiveness process from beginning to end. However, the unthinkable happened: I chose to forgive and forgave. I chose a path of freedom which freed me from the past and all the burdens once there. I am even free to have a relationship with my mother on new terms leaving the past behind, looking towards the future.