Friday, December 30, 2011

Finding the Way Forward Through Self Forgiveness: A Survivors Journey to Healing

We all abuse ourselves more viciously than anyone else does. Too often we repeat to ourselves, over and over, the criticisms and complaints others have directed at us, bashing ourselves and paralyzing ourselves with self loathing.

 I still remember my mother’s words said to me 40 years ago when I was a child because I’ve repeated these words to myself so many times.

 “Your father spoiled you.”

For years I thought of myself as spoiled and unpleasant, and didn’t my life and friendships, or lack of friendships, validate that point of view? Where were the friends I didn’t seem to have? Where were the invitations to dance that never came while I sat on a folded chair along the wall. Obviously there was something unattractive and unlovable about me because no one was attracted to me and no one loved me. It took me years to understand that my mother was speaking from her pain and anger at my father and not from some self evident truth about the five year old me. It was much harder for me to forgive myself for being alone and unloved than it was for me to forgive my mother for saying such wounding words to the five year old me so many times. I had to come to terms with being sexually abused as a child and discover that very often child survivors of abuse struggle with relationships and withdraw from these relationships to avoid pain we’ve experienced in interpersonal relationships. It took years for me to see the patterns of my behavior in avoiding opportunities for friendships and relationships and for choosing relationships that could not possibly work. I am still working on changing those patterns. 

Only in my mid forties, during a spiritual retreat on resolving conflict through listening, did I begin to understand how I was abusing myself with my self criticism and self doubts. The relationship I was working on changing at that time was my relationship with other Catholics. The priest who baptized me Catholic at age 41 was revealed to have abused boys. This revelation caused me to examine both my own past as a child sex abuse survivor as well as what had transpired on the issue of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. As I read newspaper articles and press releases from different places and times, I came to realize that the leadership of the Catholic Church had known about this particular priest's abuses for more than 20 years before he was removed, and that he had almost certainly abused many boys during that 20 year span. I set on a path of sharing my newspaper articles with other parishioners to try to inspire them to take action for change in our Church. About one-third of the people I gave my articles to were sympathetic, about one-third were more ambivalent about my course of action, and about one-third were angry at me for passing out what they considered to be scandalous and untrue newspaper articles. I was puzzled by why most people didn’t seem to care so I gave out more articles -- provoking the leadership of the church to throw me out of the parish. They also told many parishioners that I was mentally disturbed and to my distress, most people did not question what they were told. 

Fortunately there were a few brave souls in the parish. One stood up and advocated for me before the parish council. When a new priest became pastor, he welcomed me back into the parish. I took the opportunity to hand out even more newspaper articles and to tell anyone wether or not they wanted to listen, about how badly I was treated by the leadership of the Catholic Church. The response I received was that most people found me very annoying.

 Many survivors of clergy abuse have thanked me for being brave enough to stand up for truth and justice in a Catholic Church and have condemned the Catholic parishioners for acting more as cult followers than as genuine Christians. But my intense actions of handing out lots of newspaper articles and passionately advocating for survivors through passionate personal encounters and lots of long angry e-mails did achieve my goal of inspiring other Catholics to care and act on the issue I felt so intensely about.

To help me keep on advocating for survivors of abuse inside the Catholic Church, I welcome your donations:


On my path of trying to figure out what to do, I ended up at that spiritual retreat on how to listen compassionately to all sides in a conflict. I was still trying to get the Catholics to listen with compassion to the survivors who were angry at the Catholic Church. In order to listen to someone with whom you are in conflict, you have to learn how to have compassion for them, in essence how to forgive them for disagreeing with you or for wounding you. But it turns out that you have to forgive yourself before you can forgive others.

 The self criticism I was struggling with at the time was related to my mother’s words that I was spoiled but different at the same time. I wanted so badly to connect with other Catholics but could not. Over an over I was told that I was mentally unstable or too intense. I knew I wasn’t mentally unstable. That was an easy excuse for other people to dismiss my message, but the too intense criticism struck a nerve because it was true.

 I was intense. I knew then and still know that I am right about the clergy abuse issue. I didn’t understand how others could turn their back on me, so I tried harder and harder to be heard as if speaking louder or handing out more articles could achieve what handing out only a few articles had not been able to achieve. I had sent long, passionate, angry and accusatory e-mails to people who had been my friends and supporters and they turned their backs on me. Writing long letters and leaving them unsent is a good way to cope with your pain, but in the e-mail age it is all too easy to press the “send” button. The reason we have to be trained to listen to resolve conflict is because most people don’t know how to handle intense anger or pain. It shuts them down. They aren’t bad people.  They’re just human.

Because I had pressed that “send” button too many times, some of my all too “human” friends left me, never to come back. I berated myself for being so stupid for directing so much of my anger and pain at people whose support I relied on. I berated myself for not realizing that they were human and broken like me and not able to take intense pain and anger any more than I was.

 I grieved, criticizing myself over and over.

“Virginia, you’re too intense; you drive people away.”

In the retreat the answer was easy. We had to turn those self criticisms around to a positive restatement. What was the restatement of my self criticism? I didn’t want to drive people away. I wanted to connect with them.

So I wrote on my exercise sheet, “Virginia, you want to connect.”

I say it to myself over and over, “Virginia, you want to connect.”

It was the positive retort to my mother’s criticism. The positive retort helped me start to feel better. Moreover, although this was not a part of the retreat, as I repeated the positive restatement of the criticism to myself over and over through the years, I realized that it was showing my the way where I needed to refocus my attention and action. The retreat, although it was not a healing retreat, helped me feel much more positive about myself.

I want to connect. OK, how do I connect? Unfortunately, relearning a new, more positive path can take years of self exploration. I didn't automatically connect the right way. At first, I simply changed from writing reams of negative e-mails to writing reams of positive e-mails. When I had already alienated someone, reams of positive e-mails did not help the matter. It took years of therapy and spiritual direction and lots of practice and some modeling from others before I replaced lots of long worded e-mails with short, sweet, concise e-mails that reached out to others is in small, easy to digest bits and pieces.

How to connect with others, making friends, co-workers and allies out of others is another subject, I will write on sooner or later. Before then I want to cover more self care issues. I’ve been leading a support group for survivors of abuse for a few years and learned a few things in the process. I tried just listening at first -- which survivors need, but I felt the need to help people move forward with their lives instead of ceaselessly talking about the pain in our lives.

One book I’ve found very helpful in shaping my support group is Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror by Judith Herman M.D. Dr. Herman is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She led support groups for survivors of child sex abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence for many years before beginning to work with colleagues who worked with veterans of combat and political terror. She noted the similarities in experiences with unsupportive communities as well as struggles with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Over the years she found that the most effective course she could take with her groups was to first help survivors work on self care. After self care, comes the sharing of stories in a safe environment. Finally after working on self care and sharing of stories, the final stage in healing is reconnecting with the community. Rejection from the community is not an experience unique to Catholic clergy abuse survivors. Stories of sexual abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence upend most people perceptions of their community and the respected people within it who may have abused or covered up abuse to protect friends colleagues and loved ones. Most survivors experience some degree of alienation from the community as do combat veterans. Veterans find that members of the community usually do not understand when their stories of combat do not match the opinions of the people back home. Reintegration into the community is an important late step in the healing process, one that requires the involvement of the community in the healing process.

In the meantime, as you try to heal, if you do not have access to a therapist or to a spiritual retreat or a support group, you can work on healing by yourself. Our old bad habits of interacting and thinking are ingrained in our neural pathways. To learn new ways of thinking and acting takes concerted effort over time. A therapist or a spiritual director or a can guide you and help find the way, but you still have to do the work of changing yourself. One very valuable way is to journal your feelings and experiences as you cope with difficult situations. I kept a diary for recording my feelings for many years without directing my feelings into positive change. Expressing my feelings in my journal was a positive action, but it was not enough on it’s own. Later I channeled my feelings into e-mails I should never have sent. Writing to someone can help you express yourself just think four or five times before you send long angry or sad e-mails. Perhaps addressing yourself to someone else is best used as a prompt for writing. What is most useful is to use prompts to help yourself focus your thoughts in positive directions and actions.

Below are a list of journal prompts I have compiled for the issue of self forgiveness as well as a few of my brief restatements. Please don’t feel you need to be brief. I was brief merely to keep my statements easy to read and understand. However, distilling longer reflections down to one or two sentences will make them easier to act on.

Journal prompts:

1. What self criticisms do I repeat to myself over and over?

Example: I am so intense I drive people away.

2.  What are my hopes and dreams underlying this criticism?

Example: I am longing for connections with other people.

3.  Restate the self criticism in a positive way.

Example: I want to connect with other people.

4. What can I do to find the way forward to heal myself?

Example: I can work on ways to connect with others.

People interested in clergy abuse will want to know if I connected with other Catholics on the issue. I have succeeded in quieting criticism of me as too intense or mentally unstable in my own parish. Many people who used to repeat these criticisms about me, now view me much more positively. I haven't persuaded people to care about the issue of clergy abuse or to act on it, and I haven't managed to connect to other interested people in part because the people I work with remain afraid of criticism from other Catholics to reach out, and no one with good connections has chosen to advocate for me and my cause, and I don't have those connections myself. One Spirit, One Call, the Catholic women's reform group here in Portland, which is struggling with dwindling interest, received it's big break because well connected priests and parishioners shared e-mails with friends and acquaintances in many parishes advocating for One Spirit, One Call. As a single mother, I can't join every Catholic group I want to in order to connect with other Catholics. My children need me at home. I have volunteered with a homeless shelter hosted by my Catholic parish, but that connects me more with homeless, non-Catholic families than it does with Catholics. I've been working on connecting with other interested Catholics by attending some One Spirit, One Call events and Call to Action meetings, but breaking my elbow this last year and having surgery and going through extensive Physical Therapy made my attendance at these events, as well as everything else in my life, much harder.

Truthfully, it has been a struggle to remain positive. I've had to work hard on self care to keep going through all the bad things that have come my way, but I've managed to keep moving forward despite being repeatedly wounded. But that is life. Sometimes lots of bad things come our way, but rarely do only bad things come our way. If we stay mired in our misery, if we think only negative thoughts and take only negative actions, we don't move forward, we stay wounded. It is possible to focus on the good things that happen to us as well as positive thoughts and actions and opportunities. By doing so we can move forward through daunting challenges.

Please check back for future blogs to find out about more steps forward to healing, including how to connect with others more successfully.

If you want to attend a support group that will take you through these steps and you live in the area of Portland, Oregon, please contact me, Virginia Jones, at 503-866-6163 or

This is the challenge that I've had to remain positive about this year.  I fell and broke my elbow.  I needed a surgery to repair the elbow that cost $42,000, but I had no health insurance.  Through perseverance and unimaginable patience, I obtained funding for the surgery.  The surgeon inserted a metal hinge in my elbow held in place by these pins for 6 weeks after the surgery.  I had to clean and change the dressings on these pins twice a day for weeks.  But this was not the end of my ordeal.  To obtain about 90% use of my arm, I had to go through incredibly painful physical therapy lasting three to five hours a day for about five months.  To maintain use of my arm, I will have to maintain that therapy for about an hour a day for the rest of my life.  The physical pain I've had to cope with is horrible, the circumstances daunting.  I received little help from the few family members I have, and I had to care for two children while going through this.  I did receive vital help from my clergy abuse survivor partner, Elizabeth.   She cared for me and my children the night after I was discharged form the hospital -- the night I was in most need of help.  Fr. Armando Lopez, OFM, also sent me $500 to help me pay for Physical Therapy and other medical costs.  A few other Catholic friends have given me rides to medical appointments and to the grocery store.  One helped me with self care the week after my surgery and right after I fell.

I can use your help to help me move forward to keep advocating for all survivors of abuse and to provide a support group.

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