Healing Perspective - Childhood Abuse
After a childhood scarred by abuse, 'Sarah' shares her
story of recovery, moving through pain towards forgiveness and
Sarah. I love you. I ask you to forgive me.' I whispered to the
motionless old woman, lying in her hospital bed. I leant over
and kissed her and a shudder went through her whole body. Then
I sang Milarepa's 'Song of Meeting and Parting'. The next day
the hospital telephoned to say she had died in the night. I had
visited just in time.
old woman was my grandmother. The moment I said the words 'forgive
me', I felt everything that had ever troubled me about our relationship
was resolved. It was as if the word itself had ritual power. Faced
with her death, I had realised what was most important.
years previously, three years after I'd become a Buddhist, I had
been sitting in my flat having just given up an almost-life-long
habit of smoking cigarettes. I was replaying a recurrent memory,
a television programme I had seen as a child showing a man sexually
abusing a young girl. With an overwhelming dread I realised that
no such thing would ever be broadcast. I rang a Buddhist I knew
who was also a psychotherapist and he recommended me to a female
therapist, who gave me exercises from a workbook to do.
few nights later I woke up with a series of memories. The first
was my grandmother showing me a newspaper picture of the Prime
Minister bending down to speak with a young girl. At the same
time she was violently manipulating my genitals. 'This is what
he'd really like to be doing,' she said. 'This is what men are
like.' The second was of being held up high and dropped onto the
bed. It wasn't a fun game, I knew she wanted to frighten me, to
give me a sense of her power. Another particularly distressing
memory was of being in a disturbing physical condition, like being
drugged or drunk, and the one I hate most was of her holding me
onto the bed with my knees against my chest. I was saying I wanted
to go to the toilet but she wouldn't let me. Looking back I find
this particularly sadistic.
course when my parents had come to fetch me from my grandmother's,
she was totally different. Then it was all sweeties and cuddles.
When you see this you just know other adults would not believe
the person to be capable of such things. You begin to doubt yourself.
A voice in your head whispers, 'You're lying.' This is how we
forget. For me it is the fear of not being believed, or of actually
not being believed, that causes the most pain. In talking about
my experience this was far worse than re-living the actual events.
as an adult, I told my mother about these memories she said that
after one particular extended visit to my grandmother I came back
changed. I walked with my head hanging down and had nightmares
in which I talked about photographs. I was two-and-a-half years
old. I remember at that time I was really scared of a particular
tree in our garden. It had died of a disease so it had no leaves,
only spiky branches sticking starkly out. I hated when the curtains
were opened and I had to look at it and I would never play in
the back garden where it was. Looking back I see this tree as
an image of my damaged trust.
period of time after having the memories was very difficult. I
did regress to childhood behaviour: I was crying to go home and
crying for my mummy. I remember one particularly horrible experience
of going into a cafe and it resembling a vision by the artist
Hogarth. Every time someone moved an arm or a leg it seemed to
me sexual. The whole world had become sexual.
put a lot of trust in my therapist and in the literature she gave
me to read. I knew I was in pain and I wanted to be healed. The
therapy made a strong link between anger and healing. I was encouraged
to recover my anger and I tried my best to be a good client, beating
the cushions or whatever. I am not saying that I wasn't angry.
I felt a boiling rage that I could not enjoy my sexuality. Until
this point I thought I was a sexual pervert that was even
how I introduced myself to my therapist. I thought I had been
born that way, just as some people are born physically handicapped.
encounters made me freeze up. The first time I spent the night
with a boyfriend I ended up sleeping in the bath. Then I discovered
I could go through with sex if I withdrew into my own world of
fantasy, but this made me feel ashamed and abnormal. Until I went
to therapy I felt depressed, and resigned to the fact I could
never be normal. Therapy helped with this. My therapist would
repeat to me that I was not abnormal, that she (my grandmother)
had done this to me.
I think, especially where relatives are involved, we can feel
a mixture of emotions, sometimes anger and sometimes love. If
we focus on anger and vengeance as the only way of healing, then
we leave out love and forgiveness. But the literature I came across
suggested that forgiveness was a weakness or, worse, could militate
against the healing process. In one book there was a whole chapter
on challenging whoever had abused you. So I wrote a curt letter
to my grandmother, demanding an apology, or I would cut off all
contact with her. I felt uneasy afterwards, but the book said
to expect that.
only acknowledgement I had was via my sister who told me my grandmother
said she'd received a letter from me full of lies. So I stopped
visiting her and, as I am the eldest, most of my family followed
my example. My grandmother was in an old-people's home and I knew
full well how keenly she would have felt this. As well as cutting
off contact with my grandmother I also rejected other family members
who didn't believe me.
because I was also practising meditation and cultivating spiritual
friendships, it gradually became clear to me that cutting off
from people did not work; it made me feel worse. At the time I
had told myself that my actions empowered me. I'd convinced myself
of this, so in a way they did. But in other ways I was deluding
myself. Firstly, if I'd thought deeply about it, I would have
known the letter to my grandmother would never get a response.
It was such an irrevocable deed. All I'd achieved was a release
of my own feelings at her expense. Secondly, I was, in effect,
punishing members of my family for not giving me their support,
belief and apologies. But these things cannot be demanded. When
you aren't psychologically integrated you only feel your own suffering.
You cannot consider the other person or even your own long-term
needs. I saw that I had to allow people to make their own minds
up and that I couldn't usefully issue them with the ultimatum,
'If you're not for me, you're against me'.
this realisation I decided to engage in the process of forgiveness.
Here I had another insight. I had used to think that forgiveness
was a once-and-for-all action. Now I saw it was a process, and
that the most important thing was my intention. My intention now
was to get back into relationship with all those I had cut off
from. With an attitude of forgiveness genuine communication becomes
possible. It's not that I felt sexually healed and whole again
and so could forget about anger and blame. In a way it was the
opposite. I saw that the only possibility of healing was through
now I still feel pain and am still affected sexually, but that
no longer gets thrown at someone else. I don't want to blame anyone.
I see now that some of what I was doing was trying to take revenge.
I called it healing, but the deepest healing can never come by
that means. It may be important to experience fully difficult
feelings around sexual abuse, but it is equally important not
to see those feelings as the final stage of the process. When
the Buddha declared that we need not feel angry even if we are
being hacked limb-from-limb, he's not demanding the impossible.
He's trying to tell us, 'If you think you have an excuse to hate,
you have not understood my teaching'.
began to think about my grandmother's own life. She had been born
illegitimately, and at the age of two she was abandoned by her
mother who sailed away to a new life in Africa. She was passed
onto a foster mother whom she grew to love, only to be snatched
away by her maternal aunt who discovered the foster mother drinking
in a public house, which she thought immoral. Then, to her delight,
her real mother called her to Africa. She set out full of hope,
but she later said that she must have been a disappointment as
she was sent away after only two weeks.
also thought about what I'd gained from her. She made everything
around her beautiful and was an exquisite needlewoman and cake-decorator.
She also played the violin. I'm sure she passed on some of these
aesthetic sensibilities to me. Reflecting like this I felt much
more sympathy for her. It must have been terrible to have been
treated like that and to have no family. In the end I concluded
that she'd had a worse deal than me.
we only care about things that affect us. But as I tried to understand
the conditions that made up my grandmother's life, I began to
forgive. I had heard the aphorism, 'to understand all is to forgive
all' many times, but now I started to understand it. Happy people
do not act cruelly. If someone has done a cruel thing, they were
not happy. Although it may go against all our instincts, there
is no sense in adding more hate to that equation.
also reflected on the Buddha's teaching that none of us escapes
suffering. If we've been treated badly then we can often feel
that someone must be to blame. Defining myself as a victim gave
me a sense of identity that had previously been absent, and that
made me feel stronger. Some of the therapeutic material certainly
encouraged this line of thought, but it was not so clear or passionate
about what might lie beyond it. The danger of this approach is
that it can lead to a vicious circle, in which to maintain that
sense of identity, the anger and hatred must be kept alive.
contrast, the Dharma tells us that life is like this, and the
most important thing is to realise we are not alone. There is
so much grief and suffering felt by all of us and caused by all
of us. We can tend to stereotype people who sexually abuse children
as evil monsters, and certainly not imagine that they could be
women, who are meant to be caring and nurturing. But now I can
see that they are ordinary human beings.
although my grandmother caused me so much pain, when she lay dying
it was me who asked her for forgiveness. If anyone had suggested
when I'd just had the memories, or in the several years following,
that this was the way to healing, I'd have thought it outrageous
and probably got angry. It took patience and consistent practice
to reach that point. Forgiveness is a process that cannot be forced.
key practice for me is the Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness)
meditation. It has been crucial to cultivate compassion and forgiveness
for myself. Another aspect of this meditation involves developing
metta for someone you don't like, or who has hurt you. Sometimes,
especially early on, I could not put my grandmother in this stage.
But I kept doing the practice and it began to work in its own
way. I still struggle with forgiveness and with giving up grudges.
But in my heart of hearts I know that holding on to resentment
means holding on to my own pain.
from - www.DharmaLife.com