Respect Yourself — And Never Forget

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Reader’s Question

I suffered abuse at the hands of my brother, including a three-year period of sexual abuse from the age of about six to age nine. All other abuse was verbal, emotional and physical, which lasted until he moved out of the house.

I am 34 now and he is 40. We do not live in the same town, and I have no involvement in his life. I have forgiven his trespasses for myself to go on but I have always numbed myself to whatever was going on in his life.

My parents told me yesterday that he has been diagnosed with cancer and that he is coming to their house for Thanksgiving. My parents and I do live in the same town, and this is causing some internal conflict as to how I should handle it.

My father was angry with me for not ‘reacting’ as he thought I should to the news of his illness, and I am conflicted. How exactly am I supposed to ‘react’? Honestly I have no feeling toward this news, and I don’t know whether it is right or wrong, but it is how I feel.

My parents have been upset with me for many years because they agree that I should, ‘forgive and forget’, we were kids, and they claim that I don’t know him anymore, and he has changed. I have always been of the mindset that I do not have to change how I feel toward my abuser because of time passage.

I have spent a great deal of time angry with my parents for their attitude toward this issue, and I think it is none of their business, they weren’t there, and they didn’t experience it firsthand.

Is there something wrong with me that I don’t feel anything toward this personal tragedy of his or am I entitled to feel however I want to regarding this?

Psychologist’s Reply

What a very difficult question you ask. There are two sides of this issue — moral and psychological. What is right or wrong is entirely up to you to decide. You have advisors and clearly you have other people to give you their opinion. Still, the decision about such things is yours and yours alone. You are in control of your life, your moral decisions, and your body. No one is making those decisions for you any more.

Regarding the psychological, again there are two concerns. One is the numbness you feel and two is the issue of forgive and forget. The numbness suggests to me that the pain you felt when you were being abused was horrible, and you still may not have worked it through. You may never work it through, and that’s OK. If the pain doesn’t intrude in your life in the present tense, you may choose to leave it buried. If it starts to surface on its own, then that would be the time to get some help with it.

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Regarding ‘forgive and forget’, it’s my opinion that people skip over some very important steps in their rush to forgive. Yes, forgiveness may represent a state of grace, and yes it may be a condition to which we aspire. However, skipping over your honest emotions denies your own experience and your self. If you are angry, if you are numb, then that is honest. It doesn’t matter if you are entitled to it or not. That is simply the state of things for you at this time, just as it is the state of things for you to feel numb toward his tragedy. If there comes a time when you work through the issues, then you may feel moved to confront him in one way or another. He may be alive at that time, or he may not. There is sadness at every turn in this; yours is just a choice of sadness.

I suggest that you respect yourself and your feelings. Do what is best for yourself. Perhaps someday your parents will appreciate, as we do, that the difficulty you have with these present-day issues is simply a reflection of how badly you were hurt in the past. Perhaps they will find compassion for you as you respect yourself and never forget.

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