Thursday, March 25, 2004

Forgiveness: Letting go of the Past

Healing not only includes self-love and self-acceptance, but perhaps more importantly, forgiveness. Clinging to old hurts and grudges and harboring resentful feelings toward people who’ve wronged us are destructive behaviors. We do great harm to ourselves by not forgiving. Much illness we suffer is caused by the inability to forgive and the retention of resentments.

I thought I had forgiven many people (mostly men) from my past, but as I continued to examine my history, I realized that I had not. Too much of my identity has been invested in holding onto the memory of past relationships and scrutinizing how those relationships were beneficial, or detrimental, to my personal growth. In addition to discovering that I had not forgiven my transgressors, I discovered I had not even forgiven myself. Actions that have proved harmful to myself include: reliving past relationships, analyzing the reasons they failed, convincing myself of all the positive aspects regardless of the negative ones, and then, either repeatedly falling for the same type of guy or shunning the dating scene altogether. I finally reached the point where I didn’t trust my judgment when it came to men.

As I wrote in the I’m Enough essay, there have been many people from my past whom I allowed to hurt me and to inject—consciously or unconsciously—their toxic actions or words into my psyche, thus eroding my self-esteem. I am encouraged, however, because I have forgiven the little girl who abandoned our friendship once she was a cheerleader, I’ve forgiven the old lady who made the “homely child” comment, and I’ve even forgiven the guy who made fun of my nose, which led to a lifetime of obsessing about that facial feature. These people and their actions were relatively easy for me to forgive. It has proved more challenging to forgive those who broke my heart.

For a woman in her late 30’s, there have only been five guys with whom I’ve had a significant romantic involvement, though these were not necessarily relationships. (There have only been two involvements that I would consider “relationships.”) I don’t date much. Okay, I’ll be truthful because I can hear my friends’ voices in my head. I don’t date at all—at least I haven’t for many years. Most of my friends think I am too picky, and part of it is pickiness, I suppose, but if the truth were to be told, I don’t want to get hurt again. As much as I love being in a romantic relationship because it can be so joyful, I’ve been willing to live without that joy in order to escape the pain that inevitably seems to accompany it. Anyway, I was always focused on my acting career, so the last thing I needed were romantic distractions. At least I convinced myself for a while that this was the case.

However, as I have observed more and more people around me dating regularly, getting married, and having children, I’ve begun to realize there is something missing in my life. Many nights I’ve found myself tossing and turning in bed while reliving past relationships and feeling achingly alone. There is one relationship I have idealized over the years, and as a result every now and then, find myself wallowing in self-pity, haunted by the past, unable to move forward.

One day in January, at The Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, I was receiving red blood cells, sitting in a comfy, dark, blue, leather reclining chair, and listening to a 70’s CD my sister Karen had burned for me as a Christmas gift. I was writing in my journal when Joe Cocker’s You are so Beautiful started playing. My breath caught and I released it slowly. You are so Beautiful always reminds me of Robert,* whom I consider to be the only real romantic love affair in my past.

We began dating the summer of 1987. While I stayed in Bloomington to attend summer classes, he went home to Detroit to work. One night I had gone to bed early and was nearly asleep when the phone rang. I reached for it, on the nightstand next to my bed, and groggily said, “Hello.” It was Robert. Soon we were talking and flirting. Then he said, “Listen to this, this song reminds me of you.” I could hear You are so Beautiful in the background, and I smiled. To this day when I hear that song, conflicting emotions arise—albeit not as intense as they once were, which is progress after eleven years. I know, pathetic, but I’m a very sentimental person.

When Robert and I fell in love, it was the way I had always imagined it—effortless. It was so easy being around him. We laughed and flirted, there was no second-guessing of motives or game playing. It was merely two people enamored with each other and experiencing the pure joy of falling in love. Since Robert, there has been way too much drama with men. The drama factor is how I’ve come to recognize the wrong man. This is exactly what I tell my friends, too, when they’re involved with someone who’s making them crazy because he or she hasn’t called or they can’t interpret his or her intentions. At the beginning of a relationship, it shouldn’t be difficult, it should be magical. Emotional distress and frustration at this early stage in the game should signal this is not the right person. Of course, this rational thinking is easier when it’s not your own heart entangled in the drama.

Sometimes I wonder how much of the leukemia was caused by my refusal to let go of the past, of certain memories—not only memories of Robert but also memories of other liaisons I’ve held onto. Robert and I were together for six years. The first two years were heavenly, the third was good, but by the fourth I should have said good-bye. I started to have a roving eye, and though Robert and I had discussed marriage, I was never ready to commit. Looking back, if I'm honest with myself, I ended the relationship long before he did.

About a year before we broke up, I was in my hometown for Schweitzer Fest, the annual festival that celebrates the town’s Swiss heritage. Imagine a quaint little town, population 8,000. The city is laid out in mostly blocks separated by wide streets and well-manicured curbs. During the second weekend every August, there are four days of festive reverie around the old city hall building and grounds. A carnival company sets up rides for both adults and children and local organizations organize food and game booths. But the best—especially when I was not of age to consume alcoholic beverages—was the beer garden, or brau garten as the Swiss-Germans refer to it. A city street spanning the length of a block is fenced off to prevent minors from entering. The beer and ticket booths and numerous tables are set up inside this enclosure. Port-a-lets are stationed at each end of the block. A stage for the bands is erected on the city hall grounds, outside of the fence, overlooking the beer garden.

By 1992 I was of legal age and no longer required a fake ID. Robert had decided to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan to see a friend. Once my Tell City weekend was over, I was heading to Cincinnati for a couple days, and then on to Ann Arbor. From there the plan was to drive to Traverse City to visit his parents.

I went to the beer garden with a couple of girlfriends and ran into my ex-boyfriend, Scott.* Robert and Scott were complete opposites. During our two years together, Scott was emotionally unavailable, would neither hold my hand nor kiss me in public, always kept me guessing about our relationship, and never once said I love you. I never truly felt secure in that relationship. Robert, on the other hand, was attentive, unafraid of public displays of affection, held my hand all the time, and expressed to me exactly how he felt. Even before we were officially a couple he told me he loved me. I was astonished by his openness.

At this point in the story I must digress for a moment to provide some necessary background. Scott and I dated on and off during my last two years of high school, which were his first two years of college. It wasn’t until I was a freshman at Indiana University that he realized he wanted our relationship to be exclusive. He arrived at this conclusion after a jealous tiff one night.

It was a Friday night in the fall of 1984. All my girlfriends had gone out for the night. I had decided to stay in because I didn’t feel like partying—I needed a bit of alone-time. So I was sitting in a chair in my dorm room, watching MTV, when there was a knock on my door. I opened it, and standing there were three guys I had befriended, stopping by on their way to a party. I invited them in for a while. We were hanging out and talking when the phone rang. It was Scott. I asked him if I could call him back because Nick and a couple of other guys were visiting. He said okay. The guys stayed for only about fifteen more minutes and then I returned Scott’s call.

“Who’s Nick?” he snidely asked.

“He’s a friend,” I replied somewhat offended by the insinuation in his voice.

“Yeah, right,” he responded accusingly.

“Hold on. Where is this attitude coming from? You’re the one who insisted we see other people,” I challenged.

There was a pause, and he sheepishly admitted, “Well…maybe I’ve changed my mind.”

Woo-hoo, victory for me! So, at that moment we agreed that our relationship would be exclusive. After hanging up, I jubilantly leapt around the room. I had been so in love with this guy for years, and now he was finally feeling the same about me.

We dated exclusively until the end of my sophomore year, when, due to his suspicion and jealousy (which was unwarranted, by the way), the relationship disintegrated. However, for several years afterward, it was always a boost to my ego when he saw me in public with Robert, or he would flatter me with compliments such as “there aren’t many women like you.” I felt quite smug knowing that I was in a relationship and he wasn’t and that he’d finally realized how wonderful I was. This was his loss, right?

Okay, back to the beer garden. Scott and I talked and after leaving the beer garden, a group of us proceeded to Braunie’s (a little dive bar on Main Street pronounced ‘Brownie’s). I drove with Scott in his red jeep. He had taken the top off the jeep, so the summer breeze caressed my skin and blew through my long hair. It felt heavenly. At Braunie’s we had one drink and then decided to go for a drive in the country. We ended up on the bank of the Ohio River. We sat on a picnic table, talking for a long time and then he leaned over and kissed me. I kissed him back. I must tell the truth: it was very exciting. All we did was kiss, though, it went no further than that, but I had betrayed Robert with this action. The next day I left for Cincinnati.

There is one more bit of background information that needs to be provided at this point in the story. In June 1992, I began journal writing. The journal writing was inspired by my being cast as Aurelia Plath in the play, Letters Home, adapted from the book, Letters Home. The book was based on the letters Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother, Aurelia, from the time she entered Smith College in 1950 until her suicide in 1963.

One June afternoon, I carefully perused the bookstore with the goal of discovering the perfect journal in which to commence my writing adventures. The journal I selected had a hard-back cover decorated with George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It was gorgeous. A red, cloth page marker was attached to facilitate the ease of locating where subsequent entries were to begin. I wrote about the encounter with Scott, without censoring myself. I can’t censor myself in my journal. I’m human and I want to be honest about myself, even when I exercise poor judgment. However, during my travels, the journal was discretely tucked into the bottom of my suitcase. Okay, back to the story…

Robert and I were in Traverse City for about two weeks. Two days into my stay there, I was watching the Republican convention on television. I already knew I’d be voting for Bill Clinton, but I wanted to be informed of both parties’ platforms. Robert wanted to go to bed, so I told him I’d only be a little while longer. About thirty minutes later, I turned off the TV and went down to the basement bedroom. I opened the door and he was sitting up in bed with his back leaning against the wall. In that instant, before one word was uttered, I knew he knew about the Scott incident.

Initially I was furious—how dare he read my private journal?! In his defense, he explained that he’d been looking through my suitcase to see if I’d brought any lingerie with me. He saw the book, it looked interesting, and so he opened it to see what it was. Because of the trusty bookmark, he opened the journal right to the Scott entry. He told me he did not read it, but when he saw the word “Scott” and “exciting” he threw it back into my suitcase. Needless to say, there was an enormous, dark cloud hanging over the remainder of our vacation. Actually, this cloud hung over our relationship for the next year, even after I relented and allowed him to read the entry in its entirety in order to appease his curiosity—which seemed to help for a while. However, when trust is shattered, it is usually impossible to repair. My indiscretion was small, or at least that’s what I told myself, but this indiscretion hurt him deeply. The ego boost I received from my liaison with Scott was short-lived as I watched the man I cared about suffer because of my betrayal.

That last year Robert and I were together, we swiftly began heading down diverging roads, and with the trust issue still smoldering, we broke up June 13, 1993. Actually, he broke up, and in such a gallant fashion. I was in bed when he called from Ann Arbor at 8:30 in the morning. I spent the next four days in Indianapolis with my friend, Maria, crying and trying to determine where my life was headed. I wanted to try to work things out, but Robert was deaf to my pleas.

I returned to Bloomington, where soon, with the help of a new friend, Matthew, I proceeded to get on with living. I’d wasted two months indulging in self-pity, smoking way too much, subsisting on diet cokes because I had no appetite for food, going for long walks to clear my head, and crying. Now I found myself interested in someone else—Matthew. Matthew saved me that summer. I believe God put him in my life because I needed him. His girlfriend was still living in Boston, and had he been a free man, something deeper than friendship may have developed between us. Matthew made me feel good about myself again, reassuring me that I was a good person despite my mistakes. He encouraged me to keep acting, which I’d contemplated giving up because I had the idea that no guy would want to be involved with an actress, dealing with the demands of an acting career.

Yes, Matthew saved me from the darkness of despair, and it was despair. Suddenly my outlook was so sunny. I decided that after summer classes ended I would move to Cincinnati, where both my sisters were residing. Karen was looking for a roommate because she was planning to return to school to pursue a PhD in Political Science, so she and I searched for an apartment. When Robert arrived in Bloomington at the end of August to move his furniture out of the house, he encountered a very different Deborah. I was no longer begging for us to get back together and we had a really good time. I told him about Matthew and my plans to move to Cincinnati.

Shortly after I moved to Cincinnati, Robert wanted to reconcile. I suggested we take it slowly, visit each other, and see how things progressed. I didn’t want to deal with a long-distance relationship. Plus, I had discovered a vibrant social circle with many eligible guys in my new city. I thought my solution was reasonable given the hell I’d gone through that summer. Obviously that wasn’t acceptable to Robert because before I knew it, he was dating someone else, engaged to her five months later, and married six months after the engagement. Talk about a rebound—boing! Do I sound bitter? I was…

There are many aspects of this relationship, and its demise, that I’ve clung to over the years. I didn’t truly realize this until recently when I got sick. I must forgive Robert for the way he broke up with me, forgive him for marrying someone else so soon after our relationship ended, and forgive him for abandoning me. I had been financially dependent on him,even though I did work part-time while studying acting, and when we broke up, I was terrified. How would I survive? I was twenty-seven years old and I’d never been on my own. I’d gone from my parents taking care of me to Robert taking care of me.

More important than Robert forgiving me, I needed to forgive myself for the role I played in the relationship’s demise. Obviously, Robert and I weren’t destined to be together. Although intellectually I know he and I would not have been good in the long-term, I have held up that connection with him as the ideal, all other relationships, or potential ones, paling in comparison. So, I must release the memories of the past, and the idea that Robert was perfect and above reproach, while I was the villain. He is human, too. He was not perfect, and I deserve to stop punishing myself for a foolish action committed over a decade ago.

1987 was a beautiful year, and at least for that brief moment in time I’d experienced the type of love I’d dreamed of as a girl. That was a gift. I haven’t experience romantic love like it since, but I do hope to again at some point in my life. Every man that I consider significant in my romantic repertoire is married and has at least one child.

It’s time for me to move on, too. So, Robert, Scott, John*, and Dean,* enjoy your lives, your wives, your families. You all touched my life in some way for good and for bad, and now I am absolving you of any negative influence you’ve had in my life and on my self-esteem. You served your purpose—to make me sick. (I’m just kidding, but that made me laugh.) You entered my life for better or for worse and now I am ready to release you. Be free, I love you, you are no longer a detriment to my mental or physical well-being. The possibilities are endless now and I can let that special person into my life without reservation.

In truth, I’m not quite there yet, but at least this frame of mind is what I’m working to achieve. It’s a process of letting go, which will take time, but by being aware of the process, the necessary first step has been taken.

A friend of mine recently said that romantic relationships get in the way of your career. I half-heartedly agreed with him. Later as I remembered what he’d said, I thought to myself, ‘So what if my career is interfered with? It has been so long since I’ve been in love. While I lived in Cincinnati I declared I didn’t want to be seriously involved with anyone because I wasn’t planning to stay. But romantic love is an exhilarating experience. To be intimately connected mind, body, and soul to another human being, to me, is about as close as one can get to paradise. I want to feel that exhilaration and connection again, including all its messiness. I want the messiness—I want to wallow in it!’

I feel that I am now ready to take the leap and give myself unconditionally to another person. Though it’s been years, I still remember how wonderful it can be to be part of a couple, and I long for that connection. When I was first diagnosed with leukemia, I thought, ‘Thank God I don’t have a husband or children to worry about or them to worry about me.’ But as time passed I felt differently. During my fight against cancer, there were many nights, while lying in bed alone in the dark, I would’ve loved to have had someone next to me, to hold and comfort me, to make me feel safe and unafraid. But I don’t have a significant other, so I find comfort in God’s love, in the support and care of family and friends, and in my own inner strength.

I’ve made a long list of activities I want to do, places I want to travel, and goals I want to achieve. That list also includes falling in love again. True love has only happened once for me, but now I’m willing to take a chance. Part of that willingness requires letting go of and forgiving past injuries. The other part is forgiving myself and opening my heart enough to permit myself to fall in love again.

* Names have been changed to protect the guilty.