Content warning: trauma, abuse, death
I wake up and feel exhausted. I read the news and feel exhausted. I go to work and feel exhausted. I try to write a blog post, or an email, or simply a tweet, and feel exhausted. I’m exhausted all over, from the tips of my painted fingernails to my skin that hurts to touch. I’m exhausted in my bones, deep and aching.
I’ve been reliving my trauma more days than not. Words come tumbling out of my mouth, jumbled, uncontrollable, mashed and bent, and the only cogent thing I can come up with sometimes is “I’m exhausted.” It’s true, and I am, and it still doesn’t feel like enough. This exhaustion is miles wide, unrelenting, unforgiving.
I’m exhausted from many things: being constantly reminded of the trauma I carry in my body, my social media feeds filled with survivors’ stories without any content warnings, not being able to escape this barrage of abusive men wherever I turn.
But right now, I’m most exhausted from the expectation that survivors should be thankful that abusers are starting to “apologize.” That we should be endlessly grateful. That we should see all of this as a step in the right direction. And to me, the worst one: that we should forgive them.
I’m exhausted. But I am not thankful or forgiving.
I have a complicated relationship with forgiveness. I do not forgive my abuser. I do not particularly care that he died after our relationship ended. But it wasn’t always this way, staunch and unforgiving. It was excruciating and confusing and frustrating for a very long time.
I was with my abuser for four years. When it ended, I knew something bad had happened to me, but I didn’t yet have the language to name it as abuse. Sex education had failed me: I only knew abuse as physical, not emotional, sexual, or financial, and only knew sexual assault as rape, not coercion. How could I know myself as an abuse survivor if my story didn’t fit the narrow narrative I’d been taught?
Fast forward a year and a half. I was in college, thriving in feminist and queer circles, beginning a deeper dive into social justice, autonomy, and consent. I was in a museum in Washington, D.C. when I got the call: frantic breaths through the phone. Car accident. I needed to call you first. Where are you? He’s dead. Are you coming home?
The hours, days, and weeks following that phone call are blurry. I only have disjointed, underdeveloped snapshots left now. Images of my body, tactile sensations: what my hands touched, who I gripped tightly, how it felt. My body, crumpled on the museum floor. My hands, glued to the steering wheel. My arms, wrapped around my mother as we cried. My fingertips, touching the casket. My feet, stepping lightly on the grass in the graveyard in the cool November air.
Only one thing from that time is still exceedingly clear: all the progress I made in that year and a half vanished. The small steps I had taken to heal were buried with his body. I’ll never know for sure, but I think I may have been close to saying “That was abuse.”
I felt exposed and vulnerable and scared.
Two years later, I actually said “That was abuse” for the first time. I was sitting in my therapist’s office, talking about how a new relationship I was in was drastically different from my old one.
In the few weeks I had been dating this new partner, repressed memories began flying to the surface: things my abuser did, things he said, what he would and wouldn’t let me do, how he manipulated me, the ways he used my queerness against me. Both with my therapist and on my own, I started to explore the trauma my body remembered, the collection of painful memories sitting on my chest like an invisible, menacing lump, frozen in time since my abuser’s death.
I began to realize that the healing progress I lost after my abuser’s death wasn’t simply because I was mourning. I was devastated and suffering because I was having a trauma reaction. I was immediately thrown back into what felt like our relationship, just without him. I saw his family and his friends, all of whom shared he “never stopped asking about me” even after we broke up, which to them was an indication that he still cared about me until he died. Everyone expected me to go the funeral, to the family gatherings, to go into his house and retrieve gifts I had once given him, to bring flowers to his grave, the list goes on and on. And I did. I did all of those things.
One repressed memory snowballed into a dozen repressed memories, and that massive snowball turned into an avalanche. Suddenly, I was dealing with this giant trauma monster, trying to figure out what was what: is this trauma from the abuse, or trauma from his death? Both? Neither? Something else entirely? How do I heal? Where do I even begin?
Very quickly, I grew cold toward any memory of my abuser. I decided that I do not forgive him, and while it’s not his fault he’s dead, I don’t care too much about that either. I don’t believe he deserves my forgiveness and I am simply unwilling to invest any emotional energy into getting a single bone in my body to think otherwise.
Survivors never need to forgive our abusers. We don’t need to accept any apology, no matter what others think about its strength or veracity. We don’t need to be thankful or grateful or appreciative. We can be as angry and disgusted and unforgiving as we want to be.
Not forgiving my abuser is simply not forgiving my abuser. There’s no hidden meaning here. I’m not stuck, I don’t “need help,” I’m not holding onto a mountain-sized amount of resentment—all things people have said to me when I told them I didn’t forgive my abuser. (If you’re stuck, needing help, or holding onto resentment, that’s okay too. Everyone’s path is different.) I’ve done nothing wrong. My abuser is the one who did something wrong.
Healing from trauma and abuse is not one-size-fits-all. Forgiveness can absolutely be an important part of some people’s healing journey. It’s simply not part of mine, and it’s certainly not required.
I am exhausted. I am unforgiving. I am a survivor. My journey is valid.
If you are a survivor, you are not alone. Please know that you are loved and supported. You matter because you are here in this world, and you matter to me.