Some names and identifying circumstances may have been changed for the sake of those involved. (If you don’t read it all, scroll to bottom for the most impactful photo project I’ve ever been a part of.)
Three: Uncovering more debt
In the middle of the week, we had this morning where we worked with a horse for equine therapy. (For the record, I felt like it was B.S. I still do.) You go into a corral with a horse, and based on how you interact with the horse, your group – it’s group therapy – and a couple of therapists kind of pry and make suggestions about “oh, do you ever respond to your wife/husband/father/etc the way you just did to the horse?” I didn’t want to do it because it felt fake, like a fortune teller. Before I stepped into the ring, I knew they were going to conclude that the horse was John. I was extremely closed off and defensive before I even began.
At the end of my time in the ring, I was facing the horse, petting him with one hand and had my other hand on him as a “boundary hand” as the trainer had shown those who’d gone before me. You’re supposed to use it when the horse starts to lean into your space — you push him back to show him that this is your space.
So I was petting him, and quickly he started to step toward me. I pushed back with my boundary hand, but before I knew it, someone had grabbed me and yanked me backward. I looked at the trainer and yelled “what the heck!?”
“You were about to be trampled because you wouldn’t let go!” She said in a harsh, scared way. I could tell she was shaken.
But I was pissed because I hadn’t been trying to pet him, I was trying to use my boundary hand to push him back. And I told her so. She was still flustered, and I was defensive and emotionally absent, so she had me be done. I went to the edge of the ring, and there my therapist and group members were waiting, watching.
“Would you be willing to hear some observations your group has?” My therapist, Jim, asked. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say because I already knew it would be B.S. stuff about John… but I said “sure.” So I listened, and that’s exactly what it was. The only response I could feign was: “Thanks. So am I done now?”
Jim said, “Sure,” and as I was turning to leave the ring, he just said, “You sure looked small there standing next to that horse.”
And without missing a beat I said, defensively, “I don’t feel small!” and I threw up my hands in a kind of “bring it’ way like I was going to fight him.
And I’ll never forget this. He said, “Wow, maybe that’s the problem. Let me rephrase. You sure are small next to that horse.”
And then the tears came as the full weight of that realization settled onto me.
It was later that afternoon that I recalled the first time John had later told me he’d first thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo.” I was 16 and we were on a mission trip. I’d remembered this admission a couple months before. But it was in group room 4 in a small town in Tennessee that I realized that the night he thought “I’d like to kiss Jo” was the day before he changed the dynamic of our relationship forever. We’d been talking about love languages, and he’d said he thought mine was touch.
“Yeah, I could see that, but it’s never come out as my top one on the test,” I said. He was convinced it was touch — “that’s what we’re doing the rest of the week!” He said proudly in front of my friends, “guys, we’re gonna help Jo embrace her touch love language.”
I distinctly remember sitting in the middle seat of a front bench seat in the truck, with John on my left driving, and one of my younger guy friends to my right. John grabbed my hand, laced his fingers through mine and instructed my friend to do the same with my right hand. I squirmed incredibly uncomfortable, but everyone in the truck was laughing like it was a funny joke, so I laughed, too. “I’m not going to let go until you like it,” John said. While my friend let go of my hand as soon as we got out of the car, John continued to hold mine tightly as we went into Starbucks, as we drove to the next stop, as we went into a store. And that was it. The beginning of it all. He didn’t stop until I liked it. One night he thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo,” and the next day he changed the entire dynamic of our relationship.
When I realized this, I was livid. It was the first time I could see how clear the answer was to the question I had asked myself over and over through the years “How did this happen? How did I get here?” The multiple therapists from multiple places were right in what they’d told me all along. I could finally see it. I was groomed.
For some reason, I have never realized that I am small. I was 16 when this started with John. And I look at other 16 year old girls now, and I think, there’s no way I would hold them responsible for this. I look at other 23 year old girls and think the same.
But I’ve always carried myself like I was big and strong. I’m sorry to myself, to his family, to everyone that’s been hurt in this that I didn’t recognize my weakness and vulnerability.
As a result, I played the part I did in allowing for this to continue for as long as it did. I am endlessly sorry for that.
I never thought to run away or yell for help. I thought I was big enough to use my boundary hand and push back.
I was not.
To admit that I had been taken advantage of, that I was a victim, it deflated me. It made me so angry, and so full of grief to accept this reality. But it wasn’t until I could do that that I began to make significant steps forward in my healing journey, and also in my forgiveness journey.
I went into Onsite feeling like my life had shattered and that I’d lost all of the broken pieces so I had nothing to rebuild with. I came out of Onsite feeling like I had found enough shards to start rebuilding something new.
But first, I had to get angry. Really angry. And distrusting. As I was healing and moving forward in many ways, I was also uncovering more and more of the ways that John had hurt me, duped me, manipulated me over the years, and the more I demonized him. This commenced months of nightmares with him as the star villain.
Come the fall of that year, people started to ask me if I had forgiven him. “No,” I’d always reply bluntly. I was not willing to be challenged on the matter. I’d forgive the mother-fucker on my time frame. Not theirs. And I refused to play the “Ok, I forgive him, Oh wait I’m so hurt and mad again, ok I forgive him again” dance for ages. I would be firm in my un-forgiveness until I was certain that it had arrived, that I had summited that large mountain I’d decided to climb.
Then came the “You need to forgive him,” comments once in a while, “if not for him, than for yourself,” which I respected, but still disagreed with. “I’m not ready,” remained my answer.
I’d talked with God a lot over the course of the year, especially as I was alone much of the year. God and I, we have really honest conversations. I talk to Him like I talk to anyone. And I’d asked Him to be gentle with me, to help me, but that ultimately, I knew I’d need to forgive John at some point, but that I just wasn’t ready.
But one day in October (10 months after confession sunday), I was out running and I had thought about seeing if one of my friends wanted to hang out when I came into town the next afternoon, which led to me thinking, “Wait, maybe she’s busy because of helping with the youth group.”
Which led to, “Wait, does she even help with the youth group any more?”
Which was a thought that hit me like an arrow to the chest. I used to be the pastor of that middle school youth group and I didn’t even know if one of my old best friends helped there any more. I sat down right on the paved path and hung my head. “This is so hard, God,” I breathed heavily.
And then it hit me out of nowhere: “I bet John doesn’t know what’s going on in the youth group either.” And that thought broke my heart for him. I’d been demonizing him and hating him for months, and out of nowhere I had this pang of sadness for him and his probable disconnectedness from the youth group he’d pastored for a decade. After a moment, I realized that I was sad for him, and I brushed the thought away, and looked up to the sky, and thought, “God. Stop it. Step back. I’m not ready for this.”
But it was too late, with that one surprise moment, I felt my heart start to soften for him as a human again.
And then, two days before Christmas, he wrote me a letter that absolutely ruined me. It opened up new chasms of grief that I didn’t even know were there. For a man who had only ever written me one Christmas card, and one sticky note in the 12 years of knowing him, I received an 8-page typed letter.
And it said everything that I had written in my version of the letter I’d written through tears at Onsite — the letter I had accepted that I’d never receive.
To be completely honest, when I first read through it it both pained me and outraged me. I won’t share all the details of why, or what all it entailed. But I was bitter and ready to spew my pain back at him.
I sat down on Christmas eve for a couple hours with the intention of trying to just get down my scattered thoughts onto a page to organize later into a letter. But what emerged was a long, unrelenting letter. Along with apologizing and asking for forgiveness for all of the things, he had extended an offer to give a window into my life those days. I was not going to spare him the details, because my life was still very dark, very lonely, very muddled by the fuckedupness, even a year after confession sunday.
“I’m hesitant to write to you for many reasons. 1. I don’t forgive you…” I began.
And I went off on him in bitterness at first. But what ended up coming out of me was sharing what I’ve shared here: what happened at Onsite. How I first found myself mad at him, hating him. How I first realized and admitted that I’d been taken advantage of. And what I’d learned about forgiveness, and the way we’re prone to want to do it too quickly, without adding up the debt we’re canceling.
And in the process of writing all of that out, I found my heart softening in mounds toward a man I had once considered family. Once I had gotten to the end, I let it sit for a few more days.
Then Sunday, January 5, 2014 after church one day short of the exact one year mark from confession Sunday, I sat at a Starbucks in Rocklin, California, and I added an addendum to the letter:
…And true forgiveness has to involve adding up the debt so that we can know what we’re agreeing to cancel.
This past year I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the debt of pain you’ve cost me. And as new parts have been uncovered, I’ve added it to the ledger. I have been consistently forgiving you for new parts, but discovering others.
With this letter, though, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of the debt out onto the ledger. And I’ve found forgiveness for you for the things I’ve listed here. I don’t trust you. And forgiveness doesn’t erase the pain or the cost in my life. But it means I’m releasing the fact that you owe me anything for them.
I am hesitant to say I forgive you, because I am certain I will continue to discover new parts of your debt. As I am in relationships with men and sorting through my dysfunctions and insecurities. In my marriage as I struggle with trust. In the church if I ever get to return to ministry. I’m sure I will continue to stumble upon undiscovered corners of pain for years to come.
And knowing this is the case, this was the reason I planned to write to you telling you that I forgive you for the things so far, and I’ll continue to work on forgiving you as I know more in the future.
But as I sat there writing it, I just had a wave wash over me, a wave of visions of years from now, all the times I’ll stumble on new parts of the debt, and I realized I didn’t want to think of him in those times. I didn’t want him to owe me for those times. I was ready to move on and accept whatever pain I find later without any ties to him. And just like that, while the barista was walking by with the dust pan to go clean the bathroom, I let go. I forgave him for it all. Because that’s how forgiveness happens in my experience — in the un-monumental moments in the midst of real life. The decision may happen at an altar in a church service, or in front of the perpetrator. But the realization that forgiveness has come — that, wow, I’m finally at the top of this large mountain I’ve been climbing — it comes when it comes, it comes when its ready.
I forgive you for any future pain and discomfort or closed doors or lost relationships. I release you.
And for the first time, I think I know exactly the weight of those words, and I know that I mean them.
As I was telling a friend about the letter, and about the way I’d found myself unexpectedly forgiving John before I thought I’d be ready, I heard myself say this: “I’d been hating him for a long time, but I felt God start to soften me before I wanted him to. It’s been a year, and I’ve come full circle. Which is weird, because I thought I was just moving forward.”
I think forgiveness, like grief, is a path, a journey with many stages, and we have to walk them all, even if where we end up — at forgiveness — is where we tried to start. We have to walk through it all. We have to not simply decide to climb the mountain, we have to climb the whole damn thing.
*I asked a photographer friend of mine to take photos of me last year while I read parts of my letter to “John” aloud. Since I couldn’t deliver the letter in person, I wanted something to help me remember what it was like to be in that space – something other than a letter in the mail to capture the moments I found myself at the sad mountain summit where I both forgave and said goodbye.
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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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