I received an email from a reader, whom I will call Grace, that I really think warrants a longer and more thoughtful response from me, and when I say longer, I mean longer, so grab a coffee. Please do stick around, though, because you might be able to help us out at the end.
This particular email hit me hard, because it pulled up old memories I have often wanted to write about but have resisted. Some things are hard to lay out flat and look at even 20 years later, but I'm taking this email as the push to do just that.
Here are the last two paragraphs of said reader's email, republished with her permission:
But I wondered what your thoughts are on how to forgive yourself for the hurts that you've caused the people you love the most? Maybe you've already written about this, I can't quite remember, but I feel like the thing that holds me back the most is my regret and sorrow over hurting (and losing because of it) the person most dear to me. How do I put that on the table and own it?
I have to say it terrifies me to send this email. It's quite scary in fact that I've even written it in the first place. I hope I don't seem like some kind of crazy! The thing I wanted to communicate more than anything was how thankful I am that you do what you do and in doing so touch my life and I'm sure so many others. I am on this journey and STAY on this journey to my better self in part because of people like you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart on the other side of the world. Keep doing what you do! Thanks.
Because I don't know any specifics, I'm going to make sweeping generalizations that I hope help in this situation. There are two roads that could have lead you to this point. The first road involves other people being the assholes who reject you, and the second road involves you being the asshole.
Road #1: You did something like come out to your family or make some other kind of revelation that showed who you really are and your loved ones rejected you. Please know that you are good and whole despite the pain of losing them. If you are feeling guilt about their terrible reactions, work on getting down with the goodness that is you as a whole person who can live honestly, because laying down the honest truth about who and what you are does not make you responsible for another person's decisions based on that truth; it only makes you responsible for continuing to grow into the fullness of who you are.
Road #2: You were the asshole and did something like cheat on your partner or become a destructive alcoholic. I really feel for you. Both of these are subjects about which I have 20 years of intimate experience — I was that asshole — which is why I mention cheating and alcoholism specifically. Particulars may vary.
Here's my story about cheating in a nutshell. I fell deeply in love with a man when I was 19 years old. I was young, mentally unstable, living on my own for the first time, alcoholic, and I'd had the sum total of one boyfriend I didn't even really like. I was not great relationship material. I dove in anyway, because my feelings were so strong, and I treated him horribly. I cheated on him with two different people, tried to cover it up, got engaged to him anyway, continued to cheat on him, and then ended our relationship in a cowardly letter that confessed few of my sins.
Despite all my terrible behaviour, I really did love him, and I beat myself up for hurting him for over 15 years. I still sometimes do when I'm in a bad place, because no one wants to see themselves as the kind of person who does those sorts of things. I had destroyed something that was good and beautiful, and I had dragged a loved one into a lot of pain because of my actions.
I have learned a few things, though, Grace, and I am hoping that they can be of help in some way.
Your power to heal lies in your acceptance of the fact that you did what you did for no other reason than you chose to do it.
This part is the hardest. After I cheated and lied and broke my love's heart, I told myself for a very long time that I had been too young, too crazy, too naïve, and too confused about what I wanted from life to handle that relationship properly, but knowing all of that didn't help me come to terms with it. Do you want to know why? Because I still did what I did. I — me — I did it.
No matter what the chain of events was that lead to me making terrible decisions that unravelled my life and the lives of others, I made those terrible decisions. I made them repeatedly, and I was not helpless. I made those decisions on purpose, and there were conditions under which I would actually make those choices. Ooph. That's a hard truth to swallow.
Here's the thing, though. Once you can look at it head on, once you can put all the pieces aside that explain away your culpability and really stare at what you did, you will see that you had agency. You chose those things on purpose, and, whether for good or for bad, you still have that agency now. Not only can you make choices, but you can also make powerful choices, effective ones. You have painful but irrefutable proof of that.
You maybe can't choose to fix what your earlier choices broke, but you can make choices now that will shoot for better outcomes. You can be more mindful of what you are choosing and why.
You are smarter now, and, if you choose to try, you will find that you are better equipped to act as a force for good.
Beating yourself up does no one on either side of the pain any justice.
In the early days following the end of my engagement, I reminded myself of my sins constantly. I felt worthless and tired. I withdrew emotionally. I kept other people at arm's length. I ended up furthering the fracture between me and my family and pushing away a lot of friends. My pain grew to push itself into other people's lives.
Self-flagellation does not win back what was lost, it does nothing to actually help those you hurt come to terms, and it does not help you grow into becoming greater than you were.
In times of struggle, everyone needs what will help them journey through the pain to a better place, and self-imposed punishment does not do that.
If you really feel like you are the worst person ever, think about it: does the world need the worst person ever to become even worse, or does the world need the worst person ever to become a better person?
The pain of this situation is an invitation to growth and renewal.
Work on being awesome. I know this seems too simple, and it probably is, but it helps to know that once you've fallen this low, there are more positive options available to you than negative ones, on a relative scale. Take them.
You are not only the measure of the worst things you have ever done.
They can sometimes grow to tip the scale a bit, but they are not all that you are, and time allows you to tip that scale back. You maybe can't fix what you broke, but you can build new things to rebalance the equation.
You loved well for a time, so you know that you have that capacity already. Use this knowledge and what you've learned from this experience to trust that you are more well-equipped and motivated to do a better job with your love now than you were before.
You've lost faith in yourself, and it will take time for you to regain it.
Don't forget to include yourself in the body count of the people you've hurt.
The last night I was in town before the Palinode's and my wedding, who walked into the pub where I was saying goodbye to a friend? My ex. We had not spoken in over seven years, and he had moved clear across the country at that point, but yet here he was in the pub I was in on the last possible night before my wedding. I had told myself that I would never feel right marrying another man unless I had somehow made things right with my ex-fiancé, so imagine the luck!
We had drinks together, and he wished me well, but, despite this brilliant stroke of cosmic coincidence at the eleventh hour, I didn't feel much of the relief I expected. It was only then that I started to figure out what the real ongoing damage was to my life: I had lost faith in myself, and, to an extent, it was still missing.
I was not who I wanted to think I was. I was one of those people. I was that bitch who broke my friend's heart and that guy who lied to my cousin. We all have the capacity to do terrible things to people, but I had actually done them.
The only heart I'd broken that I truly had the capacity to mend was my own, and it was still broken over seven years later.
Once that sunk in, I put myself to work. I committed to my marriage with the Palinode less than two days later with my whole heart. I volunteered in the new city I moved to. I worked to become greater, and, by the worth of my own actions, I slowly grew back the faith I needed to have in myself.
The faith in myself I have grown so far has helped me to create a beautiful marriage with the Palinode, it has given me the strength to forge my own career path when I thought I might have none, and it has given me the power to confront my alcoholism and to take on sobriety.
Faith lost can be regained.
Be the change you want to see, and your faith will come to you.
I want you to know that you can and will heal. You are faulty and wounded, and you might have wounded others, but we are all faulty and wounded. You are not alone, and although it is terrible and hard to confront the harsher and more objective reality of yourself, it is also a gift and an invitation. All endings are the first stages of beginnings, and, even though that might sound like the most trite bullshit you've ever read, it is not the most trite bullshit you've ever read. It's actually true.
It took me well over 15 years to figure some of this stuff out and learn to live my life with power and while owning my integrity — I'm still learning this, and I think I will always be learning this — so I am thrilled that you reached out to talk about it, to express that you're in need while you struggle. That's a step I did not have the courage to take 20 years ago.
Good things can come from hard places. My life is an example. I have come a long way from the person who made the decisions she did, and it's brilliant to find myself on the other end of all that excruciatingly hard, soul-searching work and know that, even though life is never perfect, it was worth it, every bit, to get here. It's still not fantastic to have those ugly pieces of my history there, as it likely won't be for you, but I no longer measure my worth against them. They do not define me, as yours do not truly define you, even now.
I hope that what I've written here helps you in some way, whatever it is that you are dealing with, even if it is just to make you feel less alone.
All my best, Elan.
Everyone who is still here who made it to the end of this long entry, if you've been through a hard time where you hurt people, let us know if you've found ways that helped you heal. What worked for you? What didn't? How did you learn that things would eventually be okay again?
And don't hesitate to tell us if you understand this, even if you don't have any answers.
Yes, we're crowdsourcing healing. We've got a good pool to fish from here, and, if I can speak for Grace, we want to know what you've got. I'm sure more than a few of us do.