July 15, 2012

First Acceptance—Then Forgiveness.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

~ Buddha

I wrote this piece about my brother’s childhood abuse last year as the holiday season and its ensuing cheer approached, a mocking counterpoint to my dampened spirits. Filled with a growing dread and consumed by anxiety over my brother’s sudden need to know my whereabouts, I spewed forth my fears in my writing, unleashing my demons under a pseudonym, unreasonably panicked over ever using my real name publicly again.

The immediate aftermath of rejecting my brother’s overtures was horrific; my mother took my refusal personally—a deliberate slap in her face. Her anger over my defiance grew and swelled, eventually exploding, her naked opinion of me and my myriad failures drenched in words so starkly unfiltered and raw that they had to be true. Then followed her icy silence, even more hurtful than her words, ripping through the remaining shreds of my heart.

With her silence, my mother clearly made her choice between my brother and me.

It wasn’t me.

In the past, to avoid the pain, to divert my mother’s anger, I would have quickly yielded to her demand that I accept my brother back into my life. But this time, for some reason, I did not.

Instead, for months thereafter, I lived a life saturated in sorrow, drowning in the agony of my mother’s rejection. I’d burst into tears in the most innocuous situations: waiting at stop lights or brushing my teeth or answering emails. I’d curl into a fetal position and cry into my pillow late into the night until I choked, gasping for air, helpless, needy, scared, alone. Sleep-deprived, my days and nights dimmed and blurred.

My yoga and meditation practice, of which I was so arrogantly proud, didn’t sustain me during this period. I couldn’t push past my mother’s pointed, extremely well-chosen, deliberately cruel words; I couldn’t understand her choice. My ego—my damned ego—silently and continually wailed, “But I’ve always been the good child! What did I do wrong? Why don’t you love me?”

I couldn’t turn off my thoughts.

So I turned to leftover pain medications to help me drift, to forget the pain of rejection, to lose myself in a blanket of fogged white nothingness. Ashamed, I told no one about the desperation that drove me to seek artificial solace. I was excruciatingly aware of my slide down a treacherously slippery slope, but I was so frantic to silence my brain and my tears that I had lost all control.

When I finally downed the last of the pills, I experienced a secret and profound relief that there were no more.

I was, again, chemical-free and on my own.

Chastened and humbled by my brief but dramatic descent into darkness, I pulled the shards of my shattered ego around me and began to crawl cautiously back toward the light, toward my yoga practice, toward my salvation and sanity.

As I began my emotional recovery, a different family emergency brought my mother back to me as though nothing had transpired. She began speaking to me again, her need to keep abreast of the crisis overriding her anger.

Then she asked me to visit. I did.

We reverted to our games of the past. “Now make sure you write to your brother and tell him how proud you are of him,” she said to me.

“Yes, mom,” I answered dutifully.

Both of us knew it was a lie. But it allowed us to co-exist in uneasy peace.

Fast forward to present.

My mother’s health is failing, her decline so rapid and unexpected that my sister, brother and I were notified that it might be time to say our goodbyes. Tangled in the overwhelming array of emotions over potentially losing my mother was the fear of possibly seeing my brother again for the first time in many years, and more importantly, for the first time since beginning to fully deal with my past.

My mother’s caretaker, wisely sensing the looming emotional disaster, eventually decided my brother should visit after my sister and I left my mother’s side. Crisis averted.

Reports on my brother’s visit have been glowing. My brother, by every account, is a changed man, having recently paid a steep price for at least a few of his misdeeds. Even my sister, his sworn arch-enemy, has slightly softened her stance after hearing tales of his newfound maturity.

It seems that I, once the meek acquiescing mouse, am the lone holdout when it comes to forgiving my brother.

My anger, tightly repressed for so many years, is still too raw and new. It sits bitter on my tongue and I can’t bear to swallow it yet.

But I don’t like living in this place of cold hard fury and unforgiveness.  When I examine my anger closely, it feels tinged with righteous indignation and smacks of self-pity. Yes, it’s honest and real, but it’s also tired and worn out. Holding onto the past—my old hurts, hates, and grudges—saps my good energy and prevents me from moving on completely.

Paramahansa Yogananda said: “Have only love in your heart for others. The more you see the good in them, the more you will establish good in yourself.”

So I’m attempting to look beyond my doubts and judgments to find the good in my brother. I’m trying to bury my demons…not for his sake, not for the sake of my family, but for mine.

My mother’s rejection unwittingly hastened my journey, for it forced me to visit the scary dark places—ones sublimated since childhood—so I could begin to put them behind me. I finally opened the door, facing my past, no longer discounting the lingering sadness, anger, and pain, no longer dissociating from and ignoring the trauma of my youth.

Ignorance was not bliss.

Acknowledgement, while not blissful, has been healing.

Two months of hard tears taught me I cannot mold others to my desires. My mother will never love me the way she loves my brother or protect me the way I wish she would. I can retaliate now and choose to reject her as I feel she rejected me. Or I can choose to show compassion to a dying woman.

I chose compassion. I sat by my mother’s bedside, held her hand, and stroked her hair when she grimaced in pain. Sometimes she recognized me and was glad I was there. My presence mattered to her. And for me, that was enough.

As for my brother, I also choose compassion. Unconditional love, at this juncture, seems too much of a stretch.  But acceptance—then forgiveness—is at last within reach.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”

  ~ Unknown


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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