Today marks 16 years since my dad died.
Which also means that it has been 16 years of trying to forgive myself for the way I treated him when I was an early teenager.
My dad died as the result of a car accident right after my 13th birthday. I don’t know what you were like at 13, but I wasn’t an easy teen. My life read a lot like any low quality blockbuster about your typical 13 year old girl – angry at the world, more concerned with what my friends thought of me than anyone else, hung up in a messy “love life” and resenting any and everything my parents did. The fall I turned 13 was especially tough on me. I moved from my childhood home and had to start at a new school in 8th grade & then my cheerleading coach quit, taking half of our team with her. I was bitter, I was angry, and I took most of it out on my family.
When my dad was struck by another driver, at first he was ok. He was in the hospital because he had to get surgery on his leg, but he was fine. I remember being with him in his room the night before he was supposed to come home. As someone who never considered herself religious, I took to talking to God for the first time since my first communion. I promised that if my dad came home ok, I’d be the best daughter he could ask for. I apologized for the way I treated both him and my mom and told God that I got it — this was my wakeup call. I would be kinder and more patient. I would be less of an asshole. With my dad set to be released the next morning, I left the hospital full of optimism and with a renewed energy. Since the next day was Veteran’s Day, I’d be home from school and able to take care of him. I couldn’t wait for our new chapter to begin.
Then my mom woke me up in the middle of the night and asked for me to join her in my brother’s room. She told us my dad died. I asked her if she was joking because my brain couldn’t possibly catch up to what I just heard. He was fine. He was supposed to come home today. I was going to get my storybook second chance.
Every therapist, teacher, friend, family member, stranger – you name it – has tried to get me to forgive myself for how I treated him as a teenager. I’ve gotten to the point of forgiveness a few times. But I always, always, always slip back to being angry again. To wishing I had been more patient and kind. To wishing we had more time.
I finally decided to stop trying to forgive myself. It’s honestly draining.
Do I hate myself? No, of course not. I was a thirteen year old girl. OF COURSE I acted the way I did. OF COURSE I know he understood that. I don’t hold any of that against me, and it doesn’t impact my self-worth. But I don’t waste my time trying to be at peace with our fractured relationship.
Because I didn’t get the time to repair our own relationship, I’ve been able to have deep and earnest relationships with others I love. I don’t waste time being angry at the ones that are closest to me. I let people know, right there and then, how much I care for them. How much they mean to me, how much they taught me, how much they lifted me to be a better person. Because I spent so much energy being angry with my parents, I’ve learned to take a step back and ask myself if maybe I’m on the wrong side of an argument. If what I’m getting worked up about is a reflection of who I’m directing my anger toward, or if it’s circumstantial. I love hard and earnestly and all of that is because I still hold some resentment towards the thirteen year old who was an asshole to her parents.
When I learn to live with the parts of myself I’m not proud of, I find it much easier to love myself than trying to force forgiveness that isn’t genuine. It’s ok to admit when we were wrong. When we were the ones at fault. Those imperfections are where we learned our biggest lessons. They made us better. Coming to terms with the fact that I’ll never forgive myself completely makes me more powerful. It allows me to stop wasting my time forcing a feeling that just won’t come and instead lets me redirect it. I ask myself why I’m still angry at the decisions I made back then. I took my anger out on people I love? Great. I won’t do that again. I refused to open up about what really hurt me? Awesome. Let’s be honest. I was immature and my brain wasn’t developed enough? Wonderful. I’ll be more patient with the young teens in my life when they dismiss me.
I’ve found that letting go of the pressure of forgiveness lifts a huge weight from my shoulders. It lets me get angry and pissed off if I need to be. Feeling that anger lets me remember what caused it in the first place, and ensures that I set myself up to prevent it from happening again. It doesn’t rule me, but I don’t force it into hiding like a toddler behind a sheer curtain. Where we can all see it, but to make it feel better we just pretend it’s not there. It’s there — that version of me wasn’t my shining moment of life. And I didn’t get a clean slate no matter how much I prayed or bargained with a God I didn’t believe in that night. And I think it’s ok to not get over that. It makes me a better person, a more gentle, kind and loving version of myself. I feel freedom when I can look at parts of myself that I’m not proud of, yet still love myself through them.
We’re all imperfect. We make mistakes, we get things wrong. When we can learn to live alongside those parts we didn’t get quite right, and try to learn from them, we can move forward and progress. Don’t let your past rule you, but don’t pretend the ugly parts didn’t exist. It’s a disservice to sugarcoat your own reality. When we allow ourselves to remember the mess we created, we allow ourselves the ability to do better.