During the final 3 months of the sociopathic relationship, my daughters, then 15 and 16, did not know where I was or if I was alive or dead. Every day they waited for the police to arrive at the front door with the news that my body had been found. I had disappeared when the sociopath fled the province in an attempt to evade capture by the police. He’d promised to let me go once he reached the States. I didn’t care what he did. I wanted the pain and suffering and horror of my life to end. I wanted to die. And then one day the police walked in and arrested him and I was set free.
One of my first thoughts in freedom was, “I will never forgive myself for what I did to my daughters”. That was my victim speaking. To ask for my daughters’ forgiveness, I had to forgive myself, otherwise I was lying when I asked for their forgiveness. And so I began the process of forgiveness.
Last week, my eldest daughter was sharing her experience with a counselor at college. “They couldn’t believe what happened to me,” she said.
Within me, my fear awoke. “What did they say?” I asked, keeping my voice calm as inside I felt my anger and pain and shame start to writhe.
“They were just shocked. Had trouble believing it.”
“What did you tell them about me?” I asked. No matter how hard I tried to push it back, my pain and anger leaked out.
“It wasn’t about you,” she said. “I was telling them about what happened to me.”
“I hear you,” I stiffly replied. “So, what did they say?”
My daughter is very wise and insightful. She knew I was digging for her to absolve me of what I’d done without my spelling it out. “See, I can’t talk to you about this stuff. You just get angry,” she threw at me.
“I’m not angry,” I lied. “I’m just asking questions.”
She gave me a look that only a twenty-year old daughter can throw at her mother and stormed from the room.
I was hurt. Of course she can talk to me about it, my inner voice cried. I’m caring, and open to hearing what she has to say. Why does she always have to be so dramatic?
Insight comes in unexpected places
A few days later I was coaching at a personal development seminar and the facilitator was interacting with one of the participants. “You may have to ask for forgiveness for the next five or ten or fifteen years before your wife truly trusts you again,” she told a man who was struggling with his relationship.
I stood in the back of the room and listened and learned and felt the sorrow of having missed an opportunity to get more of what I want in my life with my daughter. When she started to tell me about her session with her counselor I had an opportunity to listen with an open heart and mind. I had the opportunity to step into her circle, to wrap my arms around her and apologize for what I did to hurt her so badly.
Instead, I wrapped my mind around my pain and closed my heart off to her suffering because I let the pain of knowing what I’d done back then overwhelm my love for her in the moment.
But, says the little voice of self-defeating games inside me, When is enough, enough? I’ve apologized lots. It’s not like I haven’t asked for their forgiveness. I wrote an entire book about that experience so they could understand what I went through. What more do they want?
I put the voice gently aside and lovingly ask myself, When am I going to be willing to listen to what they went through? When am I going to be willing to hear them? To not judge myself because they felt pain through that relationship? When am I going to let go of my guilt?
I choose to apologize
Forgiveness is a decision. It is a gift. In asking my daughters for forgiveness, I am not doing it only for me. I’m doing it because I love them and know that forgiveness is necessary for all of us to live loving, full and peaceful lives. They need to hear from me that I acknowledge their pain. That I recognize my actions caused enormous upheaval in their lives and that I betrayed their trust. I don’t know how long it will take for them to trust me again, but as long as I scurry away from opportunities to create more closeness between us, trust will not be built.
Once upon a time, I deserted my daughters and caused enormous pain in their lives. It is possible that it will take a lifetime for them to truly forgive me. It is possible it will take a lifetime for me to truly forgive myself. If I want be open and vulnerable to create closeness with them, if I want them to heal, if I want their lives to be rich and full and loving, and our lives to be filled with joy and laughter, making a commitment to ask for forgiveness in those moments when they find the courage to speak of their pain is worth it. Every time I ask for forgiveness, we all have an opportunity to heal.
Rebuilding trust takes time. It is not something I control. It is not something I can will into being. If I continue to run away from opportunities to hear them because I feel such fear when they speak of their pain, then I will never find true healing, for myself and for them. If I am willing to apologize only when I feel ready and prepared, then I am meeting my needs, not theirs. Ultimately, who am I to decide when my daughters have healed? Who I am I say, “I’ve apologized to you enough. Forgive me now.” Asking for forgiveness does not hurt me. It heals me and creates an opportunity for my daughters to heal as well.
Stepping back to move forward
That night, I came home from the seminar and went into my daughter’s room. She sat in her bed reading.
“Can I have a moment?” I asked.
She looked at me warily and put her book aside. “Okay, but I’m studying for an exam, I don’t have long.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed, looked deeply into her beautiful brown eyes that were trying to avoid looking at me and said, “I acknowledge that the relationship with the sociopath and my disappearing caused you great pain. I apologize. I will always love you and I commit to listening with an open heart and mind when you choose to share your experience with me.”
My daughter started to cry. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know if I can ever forgive you.”
I wrapped my arms around her as she started to sob. “I pray one day you will. I pray you step joyously into forgiveness so that you can live the beautiful life you deserve. I love you. Always have. Always will.”
“I love you too,” she whispered through her tears.
Connecting the circle of love
Most days my daughters and I live in harmony – or as relative a harmony as three women can get living in a home with one bathroom! Somedays, they use the past as a weapon to keep from feeling their pain. When I apologize, when I lovingly open my heart to their pain and ask for their forgiveness, we all have an opportunity to let go of some of the deep hurt that lives in each of us. And when we stretch beyond that pain, when we move through our fear into our courage, we fall into the love that sustains us. When I am willing to be open to hearing them speak of their sorrow, I grow beyond my fear and anger and the little voice in my head that likes to whisper, ‘you’re a bad mother’ transforms itself into the voice of love that accepts me in all my beauty, pain and laughter, warts and all.
Once upon a time I did something that caused my daughters great pain. Having the courage to lovingly apologize opens us all to the limitless possibilities of forgiveness and the joy of life lived in love.