As a child, my favorite fall activity was going to local county fair. I loved the crowds, the smells, the sights, and most especially – the rides. My first stop was always the carousel, and then the Ferris wheel, followed by bumper cars. I loved all the rides but one – the funhouse. Every year I would stand in front of the funhouse wondering if I really wanted to go in. It always took some coaxing from my mom and friends, but would eventually go in. Trying to forgive during my husband’s addiction reminds me of finding my way through a funhouse. The process was full of distortions, uneven footing, and sometimes I was very confused and lost. I did find my way out eventually, but it wasn’t an easy journey.
One of the hallmarks of a fun house is a room with distorted mirrors. When you look into the distorted mirrors what you see looks nothing like what reality is. Sometimes you look bigger, and sometimes you look smaller than what you really are. The lens I had of forgiveness from the time I was very small girl was distorted like those mirrors.
Throughout my life I heard many lessons in my church and family life about forgiveness. As a child, teen, and young adult I thought I knew all that there was to know. It was simple. If someone did something to harm you, you were to never be angry or have any negative feelings, trust the person, and forget what had happened. Forgiveness was as easy as making a decision to forgive and everything would magically be better. Throughout my husband’s pornography addiction that is what I tried to do. Every time he would get caught or confess I would hide all of my feelings, try to trust, pretended that I had forgotten, and would never mention the incident again.
With counseling, my husband got to the point where he was no longer having relapses. It was a relief. In my mind, we had made it. Our journey was over. But I was wrong. I was still seeing the world, and forgiveness, through a distorted lens. I entered a funhouse room full of distorted mirrors blocking my way to the next funhouse room.
Years into recovery, after no relapses on my husband’s end, there were times when I would see or hear things and all of the past trauma from my husband’s addiction would trigger. (At the time, neither my husband nor I had any idea that I was suffering from trauma.) In our eyes my reaction must be due to some spiritual deficiency because if I had forgiven I wouldn’t be feeling the things I was. After years of this belief I suffered from major depression. Something would trigger, I would feel horrible for my feelings, and that I hadn’t forgiven, and I believed that God hated me because of it. I found myself crying all of the time.
I finally sought counseling for me. My counselor did not treat me as if I was crazy, bad, or unspiritual. He told me that my feelings were really very normal for what I had experienced. This was a HUGE relief. For the first time someone told me about trauma and trauma triggers. I will never forget the day we talked about trauma. I felt so much better after I left. I had a name for what was happening! Slowly we started unraveling faulty beliefs about forgiveness. My husband and I learned that:
- Forgiveness and trust are not the same thing
- Forgiveness does not mean approval of what happened
- Forgiveness does not mean I have to pretend that I am not hurt
- Forgiveness requires looking at the truth
The next phase we entered was not easy. It was like the funhouse room where the floor is moving and everyone is stubbing to get to the other side. The movement made me sick to my stomach and the emotions I had shoved down to my big toe were now coming out of me with a vengeance. I emotionally vomited and heaved over and over to get the venomous feelings out of me.
Fortunately, my husband learned how to comfort me in these times instead of turning away and judging me. This was very healing for me. During my husband’s addiction we had to come to terms with his humanity. It was now time for us to come to terms with my humanity. We both were in desperate need of grace.
I learned three important things in the process:
- In order to forgive, I needed to experience the depth of what had happened
- Continuing to believe that what my husband had done made me bad or unworthy made it almost impossible for me to forgive
- I needed to be forgiven too
It has now been four years since I entered counseling, and almost ten years since my husband has had a relapse. We are no longer in the funhouse, and our relationship is on stable -but not perfect- ground. We are transforming our home into a place of grace, where people can learn and grow. We are still learning and growing every day. I still have triggers every so often, but we have gotten better at knowing how to deal with triggers in a way that draws us closer together.
My recent forgiveness journey has been focused on forgiving family members and church leaders who inflicted wounds in their ignorance of not knowing what to do in this situation. I understand that like my husband and I, they need grace too. We all make mistakes in the journey of life. Slowly forgiveness in this arena is happening.
Recently I heard someone describe forgiveness as, “No longer wanting the past to be something different than what it is.” I can now say that I wouldn’t trade my life for something different. I wouldn’t ever want to go into the same funhouse again, but I don’t regret the lessons learned from my journey.