Bitter Or Better? The Choice Is Ours
In 2004, I received a call from my brother in Canada telling me that our stepfather was dead. He had stabbed himself twice in the heart. He must have been in such great pain to have taken his life in this way!
I delivered my stepfather¹s eulogy.
With care and compassion, I spoke of what he had meant to others. I did not speak of the pain he had inflicted on me.
When I was five years old my stepfather took me to the empty house that he and my mother had just sold to pick up a few things that had been left behind. On the way there, he told me had a little surprise for me; he had invited a friend to come over and "play" with us. I was struck with fear and anxiety, because I knew what that meant.
My stepfather had been "playing" with me, with my body, since I was three years old. On this day, both he and his friend, two grown men, were going to "play" with my body. I was used to my stepfather molesting me, it had become as familiar as eating breakfast in the morning. But now someone else was going to be touching my body. How could this be happening to me?
I remember entering the house, emotionally shut down, like a zombie, knowing what was about to happen. The house was empty except for a hard wooden chair sitting in the middle of the room, waiting for me, for my naked little body. Cold and terrified, I was given a white sheet to drape over myself to keep warm as I sat on that chair, waiting for my soul to be broken, again.
Keeping warm was the last thing on my mind at that moment. And how ironic, upon reflection, the colour of the sheet. White reminds me of purity and innocence, something that had been so viciously taken from me at such a young age.
As it turned out, my stepfather's friend was not able to attend. My fear dissolved slightly. It was only my stepfather who was going to molest me that day; I was used to that.
Every day from the age of three I was abused by my stepfather. I was drugged, manipulated, and controlled. Children are meant to live feeling safe, being trusting. Every experience I had with my stepfather supported my feelings of being unsafe and unable to trust; I learned not to trust anyone or anything. I learned to not feel safe. When I turned 12, and my body began to change, my stepfather took my sexual abuse to the next level. He raped me, in his and my mother¹s bedroom, in broad daylight.
I remember feeling his heavy body on top of mine and feeling sick. I will never forget the scent of his body, a scent like no other. I remember how firm the mattress felt beneath me, and I remember wondering how this could be happening to me. I wondered if anyone would come into the bedroom and see this happening to me. I was terrified; I wanted it to be over.
I kept asking myself, "Why was I born into this crazy family? God must have made a mistake. How could he allow children to be treated this way?" For not only was I sexually abused by my stepfather, I had an alcoholic mother who physically and emotionally abused me.
The sexual abuse continued until I was 16 years old and I told my stepfather he could no longer touch my body. This was a huge declaration and it took every ounce of courage I had. I didn't know what he would say. I didn't know what he would do. I didn't know what would happen. But I took a stand for myself, and in so doing realized I could no longer continue to live with him. I had to leave in order to create a new life for myself. I wanted to thrive and I knew I could.
While my childhood experiences had happened to me, I did not have to let them determine who I was going to be in the world. I knew that in order to create this new life I envisioned, I had to take responsibility for my life. I could not blame anyone else, I could not ask God "why?" or hold God accountable for what had happened in my life. I had to let go of the belief that I had no choice but to continue in my old life and become like "them". This I was sure of.
I moved into my own apartment and began to do "the work". This meant choosing to look my childhood experiences straight in the face, all of it, the dirty and the ugly. I found an inner courage that I imagine a warrior going into battle might possess. I made my way down memory lane and saw all the snapshots of my life I could remember. I cried and grieved for the little girl I had been.
I bought a beautiful blue journal, the colour reminding me of freedom and symbolizing the freedom from shame and anxiety I knew one day I would feel. With the words I wrote in that blue journal I spoke to the wounded, fearful, vulnerable, raw little girl, the child who did not have the capacity to trust anyone, not even herself. I met her as a loving mother would, with compassion, encouragement, and love.
I also met a counsellor who seemed magically to appear in my world; funny how that happens! With her help, I was ready to face my past with every bit of strength I had within me. There were times I would leave her office exhausted and depleted because I had just belted the crap out of a mattress with a tennis racquet. This process felt strange at first, but I came to find deep release and liberation in it. I stopped hiding and everything that was buried deep inside of me came out; it came fast and furious.
It was important that I nurtured myself during this process, and I did so by changing my "self-talk" from judgmental and critical to more compassionate and understanding. With gentleness to my self, I acknowledged that this process I was undertaking was incredibly deep and profound. During this time, I also began "breath work", a way of going into a trance-like state of deep breathing, allowing me access to the darkest and dirtiest places stuck deep down inside my cells. It was a place I could only enter alone, and it scared the hell out of me, but I was determined and committed to healing myself and this was a necessary part of that healing.
It really was an incredible transformative process. I started to look at my stepfather with feelings of compassion and understanding. The anger that I had felt for so many years was replaced with empathy. I also began to practice meditation, although at the time I didn¹t know that was what it wascalled. I would go on long walks and be in a place of quiet and stillness with myself.
Those moments always brought me a sense of peacefulness; it was comforting and soothing. I was learning how to be fully present and aware of my feelings. I was learning that we do not have to be victimised by anything in life no matter what situation we are faced with.
When I was 21 years old, I saw the most fabulous commercial. "Come and feel the wonder of Australia." Being Canadian, living in Vancouver at the time, Australia seemed a world away. I can still hear the words echoing in my ears; those words spoke to my heart. I felt compelled to go and so I did. I moved to Australia and soon after met an incredible man who would, within the year, become my husband. I was 22, he was 24, and we adored each other.
When I became pregnant we were ecstatic! A year and a half later, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and within 6 months the disease had taken his life. He was 26 years old, and I was left in Australia with a young child to care for.
I was also left with one of the most extraordinary experiences of my young life. Being with my husband, loving him, as he prepared to die showed me for the first time in my 25 years of living what unconditional love was. It strengthened my understanding of how precious life is and how easily it can be taken away, and helped me to accept that while situations occur over which we have no control, we do have a choice in how we respond to those circumstances.
I could feel ripped off, or I could be incredibly grateful for the experience. I could embrace this process of dying with fear, or choose to move through it with deep love and tenderness. The choice was mine alone, and I chose gratitude and love.
One day just over four years ago, shortly before my stepfather killed himself, I was home, sitting alone on my sofa. It occurred to me that I hadn¹t spoken to my family in Canada for almost 20 years. I had an impulse to call my brother, which was strange, as up to that moment I had never had any real desire to contact my family. The feeling would not go away, and it compelled me to do a computer search for my brother¹s phone number. I found it easily and rang the number listed.
When I heard my stepfather's voice on the other end of the phone, I realized I had gotten the number confused. Hearing his voice, I felt only a sense of calm; there was no charge, no anger rising up within me. When he said he would put my mother on the phone, I told him that first I had something to say to him. I told him that I remember what happened all those years ago, and I told him what he had done to me was not okay.
And then I told him I forgave him. "I really forgive you", I said. There was silence on the line. He didn't know what to say and so said nothing. I spoke to my mother and felt forgiveness for her, too. In that moment, I knew she had done the best she could with the tools she had to work with. She simply had not known how to protect me.
Over the following months we kept in contact, and it was about 5 months after my initial phone call that I received the call from my brother telling me that our stepfather had killed himself, and I found myself on a plane going back to Canada to deliver his eulogy. I spoke with care and compassion. There was no reason to hang on to anger and hate, and my life is so much better for it.
The path of healing is not an easy one, but it certainly is a path that allows you to shine. From this place of healing, life becomes vibrant and alive. It has been my experience that life delivers so many weird and wacky things, and yet through these challenges we can bring out the best in ourselves. When we take complete responsibility for our lives, when we choose not to allow our experiences to determine who we are, when we can nurture our inner selves, we can become better, not bitter
©/Deanne Mathews/All rights reserved
Deanne Mathews is a Melbourne-based life and business coach, and the creator of Woman to Woman coaching. Her business tagline is "Dream Big and Make it Happen." This article is from a book-in-progress. For further information about Deanne, please visit: www.deannemathews.com.