5 Things on Self-Forgiveness

by Treehouse Editors

from Katie Miller, author of I Could Never Do a Cartwheel

Now, I’m not saying that you need to admit yourself to a treatment center in order to learn how to forgive yourself. But it certainly accelerates the process.

1. There is something I should get out of the way before I proceed. In learning self-forgiveness, there is no place to hide from cliché. Two years ago, I applied for graduate school on the premise that I wanted to build narratives that could be described as nuanced and genre-bending and unclassifiable; in treatment, I was given a binder full of worksheets offering to walk me step-by-step through the process of learning how to accept myself. This was difficult for me to accept.

Leslie Jamison, from her book The Recovering: “In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always been told about stories—that they had to be unique—suggesting instead that a story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again. Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.”

2. There will never be time; there is always time. I used to hoard excuses by the fistful: I have a job I have a cat I need to clean my bathroom sink I need to respond to an email or two or five this is not the time. I knew that forgiving myself would be, out of all of the internal processes that I could possibly attempt to undertake, a lengthy one. Easier to put it off. I will forgive myself when: ___________.

On the morning of my sister’s college graduation last month, I awoke early. In treatment twenty-six hundred miles and two time zones away, I imagined holding my past in my hands, rolling it between my fingers, pulling it apart like dough and holding it to the light that filtered through the branches of the palo verde trees dotting the endless desert around me. I imagined her walking across the stage, now; I imagined myself asking for help at fifteen instead of twenty-four; I imagined stretching time backwards and forwards at once; I imagined letting go. There was no time to forgive myself until it became the only thing I had time for.

3. Self-forgiveness can’t really coexist with shame. I carry(ied) a lot of shame.

Is it enough, here, to simply say: I have an eating disorder, and with every single day I am learning how to discard the myriad ways in which I detached myself from my body in order to distance myself from the pieces of my life that I couldn’t face? Is it enough to simply say: you may construct any narrative that you see fit, but ultimately it was the only way that I knew how to survive when life itself felt unendurable? Is it enough to simply say: I have outgrown it?

4. I’ve been told that to outgrow doesn’t mean to sever. I’m still trying to figure out the difference.

5. I used to worry that I wouldn’t recognize myself post-forgiveness. That I’d woven my refusal to forgive myself—for my illness, for where I am because of it, for where I’m not because of it—so thoroughly into my self-conception that if I let it go, there would be no narrative thread left to grasp.

But I’m learning that there is no post-forgiveness. There is no arbitrary point at which I can complete enough worksheets or sit through enough group therapy sessions and, suddenly, the pieces of my past will rearrange themselves like misshapen shards turned into stained glass, all cohesion where there was once only brokenness and empty spaces. It is, instead, a daily decision: to move forward even when I don’t know where the story will go; to move forward even when sometimes, it feels like there is no story at all.

Jamison again: “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.”