Changing the Narrative of Abuse and Guilt

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Reader’s Question

I was an adopted child as a boy, and my adoptive mother was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to me. When I was 12, my oldest sister, (my parent’s biological daughter), died from diabetes at the age of 24. After the funeral, my mother cornered me and said that I should have been the one who died and that I had ruined the family. Of course this hurt, but I never talked with my mother about that day until I was nearly 40 years old. When I did, it was the year before she died, and I asked her if she really meant what she had said all those years ago. Her basic response was that she had, that she had only really enjoyed me when I was a baby.

I feel that I have relationship issues because of my past. I’ve been married twice, been in many short term relationships, and generally just don’t have much self value.

I suppose I wanted some validation from my mother and that’s why I confronted her, but it did not happen. As a sidebar, twenty years ago I found my biological mother hoping that perhaps she could be that mother figure I did not have. And while she is a wonderful woman, she had her own struggles in life and I simply didn’t grow up with her or other children.

Where do I start to try and heal?

Psychologist’s Reply

I can only imagine how much these experiences might have shaped how you view yourself and others. The courage you have shown in approaching such a difficult, painful part of your life story gives hope that you might now begin to rewrite it in a way that supports and perhaps even empowers you. Finding your own story may also help you discover what healing might look like for you, and how you will know that you are on that path.

First, let’s explore ways in which people can examine and rewrite their own narrative. Some people who have experienced significant trauma, loss, and unfinished business find it helpful to write an “unsent letter” to the person with whom they feel stuck or a lack of resolution. Since the person won’t receive it, you can feel free to express the full range and intensity of your feelings without concern about the impact on the recipient. After that, I often encourage individuals in similar situations to write two more unsent letters:

  1. A letter from the recipient as if she had just received and read the first letter, followed by
  2. A letter from the recipient as you would hope it would be — perhaps as if the recipient has felt somehow enlightened.

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Reviewing and processing both can be helpful in sorting through the feelings we have about that person’s responses to us. In your case, I wonder if it might be helpful to try these letters with your adoptive mother, your birth mother, your sister, or any of your previous marriage or short term relationship partners. It may also be worth considering writing birth or adoption stories from your biological mother’s perspective and/or your adoptive mother’s perspective, or perhaps sharing the experiences from their childhood and what it was like to grow up with their parents.

After spending as much time as you like with the first part, you may want to then think about what healing means to you.

  • What would it look like to be “healed?”
  • How would you know that you are on your way to healing?
  • Who would be with you?
  • What would you be doing? How would you feel about your life?
  • How would your life be different?

Because you seem willing to begin reflecting on these painful experiences that have deeply affected you in your life, it seems as if you have already started along the path of integrating them into your life in a more gentle, supportive way. I would encourage anyone in a similar situation to explore talking with a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional to work through the complexities and relational issues that such significant life events have influenced. Finding that support and validation could help with whatever healing process you seek.

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