Forgiving those who caused PTSD

The only way you can go on living is to forgive.” -Desmond and Mpho Tutu in The Book of Forgiving

Suddenly my life made sense. The nightmares, the flashbacks, the hypervigilence, all of the things I thought just meant I was weird and crazy and overly anxious now had a name. I usually don’t like labels, but this label brought such a sense of relief and community to me. As soon as my psychologist gave me this diagnosis, I no longer felt like I was the only one with these problems. I no longer felt isolated in my “craziness”. If I had PTSD, I had something that thousands of other people had. I wasn’t alone. I had a group now. Even if I never met anyone else with PTSD, I knew they existed.

But with this diagnosis, I also felt an increase in the anger that had been my constant companion for longer than I could remember. I was abused as a child, and the injustice, the pain, the hurt, had created an immense ball of anger and bitterness within me. I believed in forgiveness, but I felt like my abusers were unforgivable. In the beginning, I hated them so much I wanted them to suffer too. I wanted them to be miserable. And I wanted them to burn in hell. I didn’t like these feelings, and prayed for help to forgive. I studied forgiveness in the scriptures, in books, and online. I talked about it with friends. Over the years, the anger had decreased and I felt the desire for my abusers to suffer decrease as well.

But then I was being told that what they had done to me was equivalent to what soldiers go through in the war zone. Despite being told countless times by them that what they were doing was “not that bad” and that I should feel lucky that “worse things didn’t happen”, what they had done had caused me to develop a psychological disorder. That IS “that bad”.

For awhile, my progress in forgiving slowed down. But as I worked to get this un-sought-after mental illness under control, and as I continued to pray and seek for help to forgive, I began to make progress again. I still haven’t forgiven completely, but my feelings have softened, and I have moved closer and closer to full forgiveness over the years.

I don’t want to forgive for their sakes. I have not seen them in years, and do not plan to have them in my life in the future because it is too dangerous. I want to forgive for my own peace and well-being. Anger is not an enjoyable feeling. It has a place, of course we should be righteously angry for the travesties individuals and groups inflict on the innocent. But when anger lingers, it just disrupts the peace and happiness of your life. At least it has done so to me.

I wanted to share some thoughts that have helped me on my earnest journey to forgive and leave the past behind. Some of these thoughts are from a great book by
Desmond Tutu and his daughter who learned a lot about forgiveness living in apartheid South Africa (I highly recommend this book, its called “The Book of Forgiving” Other thoughts are from church, scriptures, friends, and just insights that have come to me.

I really appreciated something James E. Faust, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, once said. He taught to keep a place open in your heart for forgiveness, so that when it comes you can welcome it in.

For me, forgiveness did not seem like an option in the beginning. But because I believed forgiveness was important, I left a place open for it, and soon I was able to begin the process towards it.

I’m an earth science nerd, and thought of an analogy that really fits with me. Anger and unforgiveness are kind of like a volcanic eruption. Within us, these feelings are sometimes explosive and red hot like Mount St. Helens. Other times they are just seething like the constant flowing magma from Kilauea. While a volcano continues to erupt ash and magma, the earth beneath the volcanic fallout is a desolate place. Similarly, while anger and unforgiveness continues to seethe in our hearts, our souls remain desolate.
But for those who know about earth sciences, the areas of earth once devastated by volcanic materials can become extremely fertile soil, which is why historically so many civilizations have settled near volcanoes.
As the anger and unforgiveness in my soul have slowly dissipated, progressing from explosive, to steady flow, to now just a trickle still remaining, new growth has begun to spring up out of the desolation, growth that couldn’t occur while the anger was still hot and steadily flowing.

Its not a perfect analogy. Its not from anger that new growth comes, for example. But it helped me to see that growth cannot occur while anger continues to flow like the magma.

I hope that one day my soul, once scarred by abuse and then further damaged by excessive a prolonged anger, will become a beautiful, living, growing place.

Another thought that has helped me is that even if my brain and body continue to experience the memories, thoughts, and sensations of anger/unforgiveness, my spirit can choose to forgive, and eventually the mortal part of me will catch up and get with the program. Despite how my body feels or my brain thinks, my spirit wants to forgive and can choose to, and I just need to not worry about how my body hasn’t adapted to this change yet, it will eventually. I just gotta keep ignoring those signals and keep choosing forgiveness with my spirit.

Its mainly my body that still produces those angry feelings, and then those feelings trigger those reminders and those angry thoughts. But I can forgive. I can choose it, and my brain and body will learn to no longer produce those thoughts and feelings about that person. Really, in a way, my brain and body are just trying to protect me from being hurt by them again
We’ve got to train our brains and bodies that anger and unforgiveness isn’t necessary for protection, they just don’t know better yet, and part of life is teaching and training our bodies to become helpful to us in the ways God knows are really right and good.

They did things that hurt me, and some did many things that hurt me, but that isn’t who they are. They are children of God, He does still loves them, and they still have the potential to be like Him if they repent and change. Its satan that influences me to think of them as all bad because of their weaknesses and wrong choices. I am not all bad because of mine, and neither are they.
It is satan who tells us people, including ourselves, can’t repent, thats one of his lies, while God says people can. When my mind is clear from my body’s automatic responses and satan’s destructive influence, I can see them in a compassionate light.

But I can use my head to protect me, I can be wise and say “This person may not be bad (because no one is bad, they just make bad choices), but being around them isn’t healthy or safe for me so I am choosing to not spend time with them” and I can do that without malice in my heart, I can do it just with my head and with my sense. I can choose who I don’t need in my life, without judging or condemning them or generating hard, angry feelings towards them. I can choose to say with compassion “I need, for my own personal wellbeing and growth, to not have them in my life, but I hope they will have a good and happy life and become the best they can be through God’s help”.

I read an article in the Ensign, a magazine of our church, about a person struggling to forgive, and she learned some lessons in the process that I found really helpful too:

“ I realized that the Atonement covered ALL sins, and if my offender chose to repent, my withholding forgiveness wouldn’t halt his progress. It would however, hinder mine….When I did finally let go, I understood that my forgiveness did nothing to benefit the other person—he didn’t even know about it—but it did EVERYTHING to benefit me.”

Alma 4:11 says:

…they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.”

I applied this to my struggle with forgiveness—God is happier because He forgives. So we’ll be happier if we forgive. God doesn’t give us commandments just for fun, every commandment is an instruction on how to have a happier life.

In the New Testament, when Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, He showed them the wounds in His hands and feet. He didn’t erase the evidence of what had happened to Him.

2 Nephi 30: 17 says:

There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light…”

and Luke 12: 2-3 says:

For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

We can’t forgive something that we don’t acknowledge. We can’t fully forgive what we minimize. We need to be honest, and courageously name our hurts, so that we can forgive the real injury.
In the end, every secret act of abuse will be brought to light. But we can save ourselves some suffering by doing this now so that we can move forward in forgiveness.

In Desmond Tutu’s book, he wrote:

Forgiving does not mean forgetting or denying the harm, it doesn’t mean pretending it didn’t happen or that the injury was not as bad as it really was. Forgiveness can only be activated and completed in complete honesty and truth.”

He later wrote:

Tell your story for as long as you need to. Name your hurts until they no longer pierce your heart. Grant forgiveness when you are ready to let go of a past that cannot be changed. Reconcile or release the relationship as you need to.”

He also wrote about how when we hear that someone forgave their torturer, their rapist, or a loved one’s murderer, we don’t think they are weak, we are awed by them. Like the Amish people from Nickle Mines who forgave the milkman who murdered their daughters. We are awed by them like we are awed by those who go other great things because because forgiving is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of strength and a lot of persistence to do it.

I really recommend borrowing his book from your library or buying it, it is so worth it. Here are some other helpful ideas from Desmond Tutu that really helped me towards forgiveness:

We don’t give voice to our hurts to be victims or martyrs, but to find freedom from them building and festering inside us.

When we give voice to our hurt, it loses its stranglehold on our lives and our identities. It stops being the central character in our stories.

Others have experienced and survived what you are. You too can know joy and happiness again.

You may not have had a choice in being harmed, but you can always choose to be healed.

We choose to heal and to move forward by being brave and vulnerable enough to feel.

Earnest, sincere praying for those who we hold resentment towards is a powerful practice that opens the doorway to finding forgiveness.

We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts. It is how we move from victim to hero.

Tell a new story—be a hero rather than a victim. Tell it in a way that reveals how it had ennobled you rather than embittered you, how you learned and developed courage and compassion, and overcame the effects.

Forgiveness requires acceptance of what happened, rather than denying it or bargaining. It happened and cannot be changed. Forgiveness does not mean justice should not be served—actions have consequences. But someone “paying for their injustices” does not “make it right”. The damage is done, and irreparable. Them being punished doesn’t give back the peace, or the person, that was stolen. And the truth is that people will always live with the consequences of their actions.

There are evil and monstrous acts, but those who commit them are not monsters or evil. To say they are is to deny their ability to change and to take away their accountability for their actions because a monster has no moral sense of right and wrong and therefore can’t be held morally culpable.

No person is an island, acting solely on their own freewill. Outside forces, past and present, have strong influences on a person’s choices.

We recognize that no one is born evil (or a liar, or a rapist, or a terrorist) and that we are all more than the worst thing we have done in our lives. No one is born full of hatred or full of violence. No one is born with any less glory or goodness than you or I.
We want to divide the good from the bad, the saints from the sinners, but we cannot. All of us share the core qualities of fallen human nature, and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless, sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact.
We can easily be hurt or broken, and we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.

If we look at any hurt, we can see a larger context in which the hurt happened. If we look at any perpetrator, we can discover a story that tells us something about what led up to that person causing harm. It doesn’t justify the person’s actions; it does provide some context.

We are all part of a context that so often influences our actions and choices. This does not excuse them; it simply helps to explain them.

“There but for the grace of God go I”. Given the same pressures and circumstances, I am capable of the same monstrous acts as any other human being. I must accept my own human vulnerability and frailty, and must accept the vulnerability and frailty of those who have harmed me.

Compassion enabled us to recognize the unique pressures and singular stories of the perpetrator. It doesn’t let them off the hook, it just helps us understand them better, and see our shared humanity.

It is so important to remember that forgiveness for acts that produce PTSD or any immense pain and suffering cannot happen in a day or a week or a month. A year ago, I wasn’t ready yet for the thoughts from Desmond Tutu or many of the other helpful ones I’ve experienced and learned the past few months. I would have rejected them right away. But forgiveness is a process, and as we just keep moving forward, leaving ourselves open to it, praying for it, working towards it, forgiveness can slowly come a little at a time.

If you want more information on mental illnesses like PTSD, check out NAMI, an organization focused on education and advocacy for those with these disorders.


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