CW: sexual violence.

The topics I avoid the longest are the topics that desperately need to be written. It's usually just a matter of time before I get to that point of physically putting my thoughts into a cohesive piece, which, is always hardest on these particular subjects.

Today's topic is forgiveness.

I grew up Catholic, so I think I've always grown up with the concept in my head that forgiveness is, ya know, important. The only problem is, I never knew how to forgive exactly. It's probably why for a large portion of my life up until the last year or so, I had suffered from crippling anxiety and panic disorder, but that's probably another topic for another day.

So... forgiveness. How do you forgive? Is it always needed? Is it always possible? These are questions that I could've never told you the answer to six months ago. These are questions I am still learning the answers to, but the point of this post is to share what I have learned thus far in my forgiveness journey. Here are the five most important lessons regarding forgiveness I have learned.

In the therapy sessions following my second assault when I was 21, I often felt extreme guilt for not taking part in the forgiveness process. Part of this was because my assailant was a friend of mine. How could I not forgive my friend? He probably didn't mean to, right? ...Right? Unfortunately, that isn't how sexual assault works and that also is not how assailants think. First and foremost, assailants have no regard for how you will feel in the aftermath of their poor actions - it's why they're assailants. The road to forgiveness was long and arduous because so much of me believed that forgiving meant forgetting.

Lesson 1: forgiving and forgetting are not one in the same.

Just because I wanted to forgive my assailant did not mean I had to forget what happened to me. It did not erase the circumstance. It did not mean that what I went through wasn't real. It was real. It happened. And it was at this point that I had to assess the choices presented to me. Forgiving led me to peace. Forgetting was not an option.

Before I ever decided to forgive my assailant -- because forgiveness is always a choice, especially when we're speaking about sexual violence -- I lived in a lot of fear and was engulfed in the pits of grief. To put it in simpler terms: it was like something came down and slapped me in the face, telling me that forgiveness would set me free. I'm not sure what initially started this. When I graduated from college, I was "comfortable" knowing that I would never forgive my assailant. I knew it, I took it in stride, and I tried so desperately to not let it bother me. Let's just say I'm not very good at faking it.

On the one year anniversary of my rape, I wrote a letter to my assailant. My therapist from college had suggested this assignment, and I figured it would be a good little experiment to see if it made me feel any better. I was instructed to write a letter, put all my thoughts down, and then burn the letter. Note: don't do this in the backyard of your boyfriend's house where there happens to be straw all over the place. It's a miracle I didn't burn down his home.

The real miracle, though, is the weight that was lifted by this seemingly simple activity. August 25th didn't seem like such a dismal day anymore. It seemed like a day that could, eventually, be just like another day. Or, in other words, it seemed like a day that could be filled with hope. I did not want to forgive because forgiveness felt like I would be nonchalant to the fact that someone violated me in the most intense way possible. I know better now. Forgiveness allowed me to move on. Forgiveness allowed me to realize that every single step of my healing had to be done for me, not for anyone else. And forgiveness was (and is) just another step in that healing.

Lesson 2: forgiveness is a miracle.

I think it's worth noting that forgiveness wasn't just something that magically happened. It took a series of events to get me to the point of understanding that forgiveness was what I needed, including Googling "should you forgive your assailant?" (I wish I was kidding). I've read basically every self-help book you can think of, all of which led me to discover that the healing was my job, my mission to accomplish. I once read something that said, "the wound is probably not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility." I remember gasping the first time I read that. What happened to me was not my fault. But taking my life back and assessing the options available to me that would allow me to live the best life possible was entirely up to me. I had to somehow reclaim a sense of hope in my existence. Forgiveness was my hope. And because of that, forgiveness, of myself and of my assailant, had to be apart of my journey.

Lesson 3: forgiveness is a series of events.

Another portion of forgiveness to understand, especially when speaking in terms of survivors, is that forgiveness is not a linear process, nor is it for everyone. I know plenty of survivors who will not forgive their assailants and that is just the way it is. They live happily knowing that. They live with hope knowing that forgiveness is not in the cards for them. And that's perfectly fine. That is their choice. Again, forgiveness is an option you have to consider for yourself. Sometimes forgiveness is apart of the journey, sometimes it's not. It should also be noted that forgiveness can continue to happen. I forgive everyday. And it sets me free each time.

Lesson 4: forgiveness is not one size fits all.

A task even harder than forgiving my assailant was forgiving myself. See, I've spent a few years in therapy. I've forgiven bullies from middle school who ended up causing severe damage to my self-esteem, I've forgiven my parents for not buying me a Barbie Jeep, I've forgiven two assailants who took advantage of my body and left marks on my life that I wasn't sure would ever be healed (note: they are). But nothing compared to the grueling undertaking of forgiving myself.

I had to know, deep down, that this particular event that had taken place in my life was not solely because of me. I had to know that I did the best with the information I had at any given point in my life. I had to know that I handled situations to the best of my ability. I had to know that I was worth the healing process. I had to know that I was worth forgiveness. Because there is nothing uglier than a nasty battle with yourself over if you could've, would've, should've prevented circumstances from happening.

Lesson 5: forgiving yourself is the hardest, most worthwhile battle.

Forgiveness meant moving on. Forgiveness meant seeing past the fact that all my assailant could give me was a half-hearted apology; it meant learning to accept the apology I never got. Forgiveness meant understanding that I could no longer wallow in the horrible thing that had happened to me. Forgiveness meant fulfilling a purpose that was and is much bigger than me. Forgiveness meant letting go. Forgiveness meant being free.

I want to drive home the point that forgiving is not synonymous with forgetting. What has happened to me, and what has happened to millions of women and men across the globe, is not something we can or should forget.

But forgiveness helped me when nothing else could.

Forgiveness set me free.

And forgiveness was the best thing that has ever happened to me.

"Do not forget that even the trees shake the snow off their branches from time to time; do not forget there is no shame in refusing to carry a weight any further." -Tyler Knott


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