Forgive Yourself for the Things You Couldn't Control

by C. Imani Williams

Trigger warning: Graphic depictions of sexual violence

As women, we all have a little girl inside of us who deserves to be heard and honored. My inner child deserves to know that the "grown-up" me loved her (and still does), even though I didn't always show it.

Growing up, I was well loved and cared for by my parents.  However, there were some scary and “WTF?!” moments as well.  My father and "Cool Cat" was the best… except when he was dealing with a manic or depressive episode due to what I now understand was bipolar disorder.

For all the times I was scared, lonely, and confused as a little girl, I offer my younger self a letter of forgiveness. This writing exercise is deeply healing. It is cleansing. It encourages self-forgiveness and provides the opportunity for personal growth.  Anyone can do it, so I invite you to try for yourself after reading the following letter to my “tween” self.

* * *

Dear Middle-School Self,

Girl, you have a lot going on. I see you, listening and trying to figure out what is going to become of our family. Mommy is about the business and needs your help. I know it’s crazy as heck, them making you go to your Daddy’s father’s funeral. I get that it is still hard for you to connect the endearing term of “grandfather” to the man who molested you.

You changed during the trip from Detroit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to bury him. Ten hours of hearing him being revered took a toll on you. I ached with pain watching you try to figure out why he wasn't locked away for touching you—fingering you with his nasty touch and peculiar odor. You were just five years old. I watched you struggle with the decision to tell Mommy and Daddy. I know it was hard, and I was so proud of you. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to give better reassurance that you’d be okay, and that you were still special and very much loved.

I saw you at 12, struggling when Daddy had the first breakdown. He was hardly sleeping and Mommy had already given you a warning to keep quiet. He hadn't slept in three days.  You didn't know then, that Mommy wasn't sure what would happen when he woke up. Would he be sad or happy?

That's what confused you most about Daddy getting sick. He didn't have aches and pains like people in the hospital, or even like Mr. Webster, who had all kinds of physical things wrong. Like Mr. Webster, Daddy also took a lot of pills. His were to keep him from getting sick inside his head. He wasn’t supposed to drink with them and he didn’t… usually. But holidays and barbeques were different.  Grown-ups drink. And Daddy did too on those occasions, even though alcohol and lithium don't mix.

For a long time, you hated the word “depressed”. Nobody would talk about it. Mommy didn’t, because she had to stay strong and stand in for Daddy. You didn't know she had already had her fill of mental illness with her eldest sister. Sweet as pie, Auntie was diagnosed with schizophrenia before you were born, and would spend most of her adult life in halfway and three-quarter houses.

But Auntie also spent time with us. You looked forward to her visits. She could press a head, and never burned your ear—not even once. Her spirit was sweet. She didn't seem sick; just quiet. Auntie and Daddy (her brother-in-law) got on fabulously, even after the divorce.

Watching Auntie and Daddy was when you first understood that this illness was on both sides of the family and hit two generations back-to-back.

I remember that one time when you were confused. Daddy got sick and you helped Mommy pack suitcases. You left for almost three weeks. She wanted to make sure you would be safe while Daddy was in a manic episode. He was drinking a lot and not sleeping, driving with the music up, spending money like water, and messing around with a girlfriend. (Yeah, we both know the last two was probably what put a wrap on our parents’ marriage.)

Staying with friends and relatives during the manic part of Daddy's sickness was always hard. People were always nice though. And Mommy being there, made it better. You still worried about Daddy, though. Was he safe? Was he okay? Had he taken someone he just met at the all-night diner back to our house? Had he gone home with this “new friend”, who was still really just a stranger?

Is he safe? Is he safe? Is he safe? Is he?

Those long drives out Seven Mile to Northville Hospital or down Woodward to Lafayette Clinic were sad. You'd sit next to Mommy as she drove, with the radio low on 1440 AM WCHB and her cigarette glowing. You were en route to the mental hospital. I know it seemed like the scariest place on earth: the ugly building, the ugly tiles on the institution floor, the nurses who never smiled. All those patients that shuffled tiredly, talking nonsensical rhymes or muttering to themselves. The putrid smell of ammonia and piss hitting you in the face as soon as you walked through the door. 

The only good parts were seeing Daddy and watching him bite into the foot-long chili dogs you would pick up on the way. Sitting in the hospital courtyard and watching Daddy tear into those foot-longs after he spread mustard on yours wasn't too bad, huh?

By the time you were 12 years old, Mommy and Daddy divorced. Daddy was fine again and things were back to normal. Except Daddy moved a short ride away.

I watched you, little “fast” girl at 13, when you decided to ask Daddy to come over so you could talk to him and Mommy about birth control. I yelled, “Slow down, little mama!” But you turned up the radio, grabbed your Bonnie Bell Lip Smacker gloss and tuned me out. I needn't have worried; I knew that one wasn't going to fly. 

You waited a year before having sex, but didn't get birth control until a year later. I've always had a problem with that. So 14 and 15 were rough because you did it all your way. I should have pressed harder for you to slow your roll, and I'm sorry for that.

You put yourself at risk far too often for my comfort, but I'm so glad the angels were looking out. When Mommy shared with our grown-up self that a neighbor boy had warned her a “train ride” had been scheduled for you, she went and found you. Thank God.  I honestly don't know how you would have recovered from that.

You were not listening to anyone. You were mad at the world and understandably so. Molestation causes confusion. Sexual feelings emerge too soon. You were not prepared emotionally for what your body was craving. And a gang rape would have been more than you had bargained for. That neighbor boy may have saved your life.

You have always had the ancestors looking over you. Believe that.   

I sensed from you the feelings of not being good enough, of being damaged, of not being loveable. I watched you give yourself away in the most intimate ways to people who did not deserve your gifts. I wanted to scream, “Hey, stop! Please stop!”

Your hurt became my hurt as an adult. Thankfully, I've learned to deal with the indigo by writing about my feelings instead of locking them away. Sister-friends and support groups help me see things through a variety of lenses. People have shared that our stories are similar in nature. I have found sisters to bond with, heal with, and to help me learn to re-think the behavior not suited for our highest good.  We're sassy, soulful black women who find ways to celebrate our unique gifts. We know the stuff that goes down in our community and we're working to be our best selves, so that our communities are healthier.

Dear Self, we are okay. I love you.


Photo: Shutterstock 

 C.  Imani Williams is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Her work has been published in Between the Lines, Tucson Weekly, The Michigan Citizen, Harlem Times, and with various popular culture, health, news blogs and magazines.

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