“The truth is this: sometimes we display good qualities and sometimes bad. Sometimes we act in helpful, productive ways and sometimes in harmful, maladaptive ways. But we are not defined by these qualities or behaviors. We are a verb not a noun, a process rather than a fixed “thing.” Our actions change—mercurial beings that we are—according to time, circumstance, mood, setting.”
– Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff
For the first time in therapy I talked to my therapist L about the biggest mistake I have ever made. The long and the short of it is that I was abusive to my little brother, when I was 14 and he was 3. I was looking after him, and I couldn’t handle it. I screwed up, massively, and no matter how much I tried to make it up to him it felt as if I had a black mark on my soul, a stain on my character, a piece of me that was nothing short of evil. When he died 6 years later in a drowning accident, I felt as if I had failed him as a big sister in every possible way. I had hurt him, I had abandoned him when I left home, and I hadn’t protected him from the harms of my parents and their neglect. I pushed his memory to the side as much as I could, but despite my best efforts the memories began to resurface after I had my son, A.
My brother and A look similar: dark caramel hair, blue-green eyes, and a shining wickedness of mischief in their faces. I was filled with sadness, panic: seeing my brother “overlap” with my son when we went swimming, I imagined my son drowning. As my son got older, reached 3, then 4, I compared their lives and burned and raged inside at the unfairness of it all. My son is happy. Healthy. He’s safe, whole, growing, adventurous, explosive, and with a sense of humour that has us all laughing nearly every day. My brother was happy too, shining and bright in the midst of abuse, chaos, and terror. He was always smiling, despite his hand always bleeding from his obsessive finger-chewing, despite the bruises that always peppered his body. I think the neglect and abuse came from a lack of ability, a lack of control, a lack of support. I did what I could to look after him, and so did everyone else. We all failed at it in some way.
As I got closer to my therapist L, the black mark of my abusive behaviour towards my brother gnawed at me. I felt so ashamed, so guilty, and no matter how much I reassured myself that I am a totally different person now, that I regretted it, it fed upon me more and more. Finally, I crashed. Crying, I told her what I had done, feeling as if my body would just be swallowed up by the ground, as if my entire soul and heart was sinking deep into an abyss of guilt and pain. Steadily, she reassured me. She gave me a way through, a new way to look at the situation. I’m processing it, finding ways to discover the voice inside myself that says: “You did a bad thing, but you are not a bad person.” It feels horrible to try to reassure myself, as if I don’t deserve to ever feel better. I tell myself “Honey, you were 14. You were just a kid yourself. You and him were both in a horrible situation, together. He’ll always be your brother. Connect with him, don’t turn away from him anymore.” I’m still figuring out how.
It’s strange to admit: so often I apply a victim narrative to myself, a narrative of helplessness, hopelessness, abuse and harm committed against me. It’s true. But I have also acted as the perpetrator, the abuser, the harmful person, exerting power and control over someone much smaller than me, someone innocent. I know I did something wrong.
I have been reading a lot about how to process this, how to accept it, and how to keep moving: for the benefit of my partners, my kids, and everyone else who is still around me today. I work on myself to improve as best I can. The key thing I am discovering is that I can continue to choose healing over harm in every action I take: to the best of my abilities I can try not to harm others, and I can try not to harm myself. Yet, still beat myself up after nearly 20 years for my actions as a 14 year old. Why? I found Kristen Neff’s book “Self-Compassion” helpful in my attempts to find a way forward that is connecting and kind; I can focus on the now, rather than the past. She explains:
“Rather than getting lost in thoughts of being good or bad, we become mindful of our present moment experience, realizing that it is ever changing and impermanent. Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness. They are merely part of the process of being alive.“
The more that I think about these ideas, the more I can move. I keep reminding myself we are all wounded in some way, and we have all wounded others. It is not the wound that we create or that is within us, it is how we deal with it, and we are all in this life dealing with these things together.