All Newsletters : March 2003 : A Personal Reconciliation
A Personal Reconciliation
“The Courage to Change the Things We Can”
People who have suffered abuse in childhood very often carry through their adult lives the deep feelings of outrage and anger about what was done to them. Their reactions are totally justified, but sadly this often means that their lives are contaminated by negative feelings long after the abuse has ended and the perpetrators are dead. It is an insult to victims of abuse to blithely tell them that they should forget the past, drop their righteous anger and get on with their lives. To do this is an enormous challenge requiring great personal courage. This is one person’s story.
Bill was prompted to seek counselling when a long-term relationship was on the verge of breaking down. He had been grossly abused in institutional care both in the UK and Australia. At sixteen he had vowed revenge against those who had abused him and this feeling was still very much alive when he finally felt ready to confront the problems in his life. His statement that "I've been angry for sixty years" summed up the situation.
After a profound dream a couple of years previously in which he had witnessed himself as both a victim and an aggressor, he had begun to reflect on the way he related to the people around him. In counseling he focused more closely on this and realised that in his teenage years he had actually adopted the style of the person who had most abused him. "I applied his strategy myself because I knew it worked. I became violent. Everybody else was going to feel like a dog in the dirt as I had."
In adulthood Bill had largely abandoned raw physical violence. He lived a very moral life but still with a harsh and rigid approach. The legacy of his abuse experience made it extremely difficult to trust others or to open up in relationships. "I keep people at bay…It protects my vulnerability to say 'I don't need you." And if a friend crossed him: "I would sever the relationship, as if he was dead."
Bill sensed that his tough front was now costing him a great deal more than it was worth. And his very early memories told him it was at odds with his true nature. "I was born to be a soft caring person with an easygoing personality." As the counselling work progressed, Bill came to the point where he realised: "Basically I'm fed up with the sham." However he doubted that the personal style he had adopted in response to abuse could ever be changed. He saw it as a pattern stamped in metal and never to be erased.
Despite his doubts, Bill found the courage to start experimenting with different ways of dealing with people in the workplace, in social situations and in personal relationships. He worked at this over many months and people responded positively to his new approach. Many commented that he was much more relaxed and easy to be with. This encouraged him to push the boundaries further. As Bill reflected on his progress, he realised: "My fear was I might not be able to handle the change. I might be more vulnerable."
He described how previously the very thought of rejection would have him cutting people off and driving them away before he had time to make any conscious choice.
Now he was training himself to watch his reactions to others and choose a response more to his liking before the old habits could take over. And on the odd occasion when the old pattern got the better of him for a moment, he would take steps to repair the damage as soon as possible. He was tuning in to others without being forever on the lookout for possible affronts. "I listen to what a person says. There's a million things I could take umbrage with, but I choose not to."
During this period, Bill was also able to share, for the first time with a couple of key people, the truth of his childhood abuse experience and the emotional reactions he had been carrying for up to sixty years. "I used to have in my mind this constant barrage of memories of being abused." He now found "the turmoil in my mind is nowhere near what it was." The personal discipline which he had developed over the years was a great asset in his battle with negative thinking. He decided: "You just have to change the way you think and think along a different line. An old negative idea comes into your mind and you say -“No! I won't think like that. I'll look at this positively.'" In fact, this required a huge effort but, after some months of work, Bill was able to report that he had begun to feel “at peace with myself and my surroundings."
These efforts set the stage for the most important step Bill would take in his work of self-healing. For years he had been writing an account of his early life, setting out in detail the injustices he had suffered. While this would be a faithful record of actual events, Bill realised that it was driven by hate and bitterness, emotions he no longer wanted to live with.
In a recent letter Bill recounts how "an inaudible voice suggested I throw the manuscript away. I was experiencing freedom in my mind; I was changing, I no longer cared what happened so many years ago. I came to see that my childhood experience also developed character traits much needed in life: that I was looking not at the positives but at the negatives. When I finally threw away the manuscript my mind uncoiled like a released spring. I see things in a different light. At the moment my mind resembles an open doorway ablaze with light, without stain or smear."
by Patrick Howard in conjunction with “Bill” (not his real name)