Nineteen Voices: Finding Forgiveness
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See you back here soon. - Em
Nineteen Voices: Finding Forgiveness
Being hurt = my heart cracking, my entire world stilling & falling apart, and my head feeling battered, confused, and full of questions. There are a few instances in my life that have felt this way. Moments when I’ve felt so powerless in choice, any freedom ripped away, when “moving forward” and “getting over it” are foreign, impossible concepts. In my life, those moments have come in the form of words directed at old wounds. Wounds that I didn’t think existed in the first place, wounds that sat dormant, and fresh, still bleeding wounds that haven’t begun to heal.
Forgiveness is harder when it involves someone I love. They know my pain better than anyone else. They should know what makes me hurt. They love me, so they shouldn’t do anything to hurt me… But. I know their pain, too. I know what makes them hurt. I love them and know in my bones I would never do anything to intentionally hurt them… But I have.
More so, the only person who I’m around constantly, the only person who I experience life with 24/7... I can’t forgive or allow her to forget.
I haven’t forgiven myself for lying to Cason for three years. I haven’t forgiven myself for yelling at my sister to “get help.” I haven’t forgiven myself for failing her in our childhood, for failing to see her pain. I haven’t forgiven myself for lying to my parents for years about my mental health. I haven’t forgiven myself for the shame and hurt I brought to so many people I came into contact with during that dark, ignorant time. The judgement, the negativity, the hatred. I haven’t forgiven myself for the physical pain and shame I forced my body through.
I haven’t managed to forget or forgive any of my mistakes.
Sonja, Sophie, and Carolyn talked about forgiveness. Talked about moments in their life when they had to step back, see the person in front of them, and say, “I forgive you, I love you, let’s move forward.”
Leaving me wondering if, one day, I’ll be able to do the same with myself.
“My belly expanding is a beautiful, tangible reminder that I am here, I am alive, and I am well.” -- Sophie Levy
Sophie started yoga and hasn’t looked back since. She’s charismatic, confident, and makes everyone around her feel like they deserve to be on their mat today, too. Sophie also has the most intense breath. “Yoga is the first time in my life where I've felt like my body can do something. That was huge. It goes back to playing sports in middle school, always being chosen last, being embarrassed to be on the field because I can't run enough.”
When I started my interview with Sophie, she said, “This came at a good time, because I recently had a revolution about my body and about food.” But let’s start at the beginning. “I was always a little bit chubby in elementary school. Which is a formative time, so you're going to get attention. [My mom and I] have dealt with depression our whole lives and both use food to emotionally regulate… I'm having these really negative thoughts and thinking that was a normal thing.”
I’ve been there. I am there. Cruel thoughts in my mind normalized by the cruel things my friends say about their own bodies. Finding a sense of community in hating what we look like. So isn’t that normal? My answer: Yes, it’s perfectly normal. Yes, it’s a valid way to cope with strong emotions (like shame) when we don’t have other tools to heal. And there are emotionally healthier ways to cope (see Resources).
“I wished that I had seen something in the middle where it doesn't need to be so positive or negative. My dad’s dad died pretty young of heart disease. He doesn't want that to happen to him, so he started controlling even more.” We talked about how hard it can be when family members model food behaviors that you inherently absorb, but then you’re criticized for eating that way. I have a stark memory of my mom asking me, “Are you sure you want another?” after I went for my third slice of banana bread that day. Safe to safe, I flipped a shit, screamed, banged on countertops, punched cabinets (I was an angsty teen, can we tell). But Sophie remembers the exact same thing happening to her: “I've literally done that, a hysterical meltdown because my mom would be like, ‘Are you sure you want to eat that?’” Solidarity.
Sophie headed off to college, and she says her depression came in waves, especially freshman and senior year. “So, the same thing. I would emotionally regulate with food. But both my parents would say, ‘You just have to like eat right and exercise.’ But that's obviously really hard to do, and hard to hear.” Again, how many of us have people in our lives who thought they were helping by giving us weight loss advice, or telling us the solution is “simple.” Without meaning to, exacerbating the hurt.
“I was really, really depressed and I had given up on eating in a healthy way. So I was eating tons of sugary things, and there was a point when my boyfriend tried to gently be like, ‘Hey, I've noticed that you're gaining a lot of weight. Are you okay?’” Sophie knows her boyfriend meant to help, but, “Of course that hurts. Just to be like... you're noticing. So it got to the point where I was eating healthily in front of him, in front of my friends, and then going home and eating candy. There was so much shame. Sugar totally controlled my life. I was always thinking about the next time I was going to eat something sugary. It was a very real addiction.”
Sophie describes how the emotions would surface: “‘I hate myself. Why did I do that?’ Which would make me want to eat more things.” It turned into spiral between feeling better from the food, but feeling worse because of the shame around eating, too. Eventually, Sophie went to see a dietitian. “She had me do a food journal, and I remember writing down all the normal meals I ate, but then leaving out a pint of ice cream at night. Just being too embarrassed to tell her.”
In dietetics, we’re taught that clients will “lie” to you, and that you shouldn’t “trust” what they write down. I’m calling bullshit. Clients don’t lie to you for shits and giggles. They don’t record food because of how ashamed our profession (and our culture) can make people eating outside of “healthy” feel. “Healthy” predominantly looking like a Eurocentric, culturally-insensitive diet (and body type). Talking about “unhealthy” choices is an intense form of vulnerability. No wonder people can’t be honest with dietitians. I wouldn’t be either.
The thing is, it doesn’t stop with our parents and dietitians policing what we eat. It runs into societal expectations, and especially, partner expectations. “Something that was really hard to work through, and hard to even talk about, is my boyfriend thinking he was helping. He would be like, ‘Maybe let's not eat that,’ or something. I mean, it almost broke us up, because I was like, ‘You're being a fucking dick.’ That's the point where I was like, ‘Listen, you're right, I'm really depressed and so I'm eating more, but I'm never going to be able to turn it into anything positive if you're giving me these negative thoughts.’ The current treatment isn't working, tough love is never going to work. You just need to be nice and love people.” I don’t know if Sophie realized at the time, but in that compassionate lens she took with her boyfriend (in which he came to understand her point of view and even asked, “So what did I do right? What did I do wrong?”), that was an act of forgiveness. Sophie told him, “You were right in recognizing that I was depressed, but you were wrong in insinuating that because of this, I was somehow lazy or unmotivated.”
I talked with Sophie about how I had to do something similar not only with my parents, but with friends and partners. I had to address comments on all ends of the body talk spectrum: “You look great, have you lost weight?” “Maybe you would be more attractive if you had abs.” “Are you sure you want seconds?” “Take these pills, they’ll help speed up your metabolism.” … on and on and on it goes. And yet, I didn’t kick these people to the curb. Sometimes, I let it go. Sometimes, I let them know how it hurt me. Sometimes, I asked them to change. “This is so validating,” Sophie says. “There is this whole facade that people have ‘perfect relationships’ and don't have any problems. I sometimes feel like no one else would ever stand for this. But of course other people will have things like this.”
But not only did Sophie come to terms with forgiving her parents, she also had a moment of asking for forgiveness from her boyfriend. Sophie kept a secret from her boyfriend for years, and it reached a point where the guilt and shame built to a crescendo so strong, it required sharing. “In that moment, I knew that ‘being happy’ was the courage to come clean, knowing I might lose my boyfriend. So I did, and it was terrible for one night. But, within 48 hours he forgave me for this huge thing. He found that in his heart. So I think I can work towards forgiving him for making me feel those ways about my body.” In that moment of deep, building shame and doubt, knowing that the entire world could come crashing down, Sophie trusted in love. Trusted in forgiveness. And I wonder, if in that, she forgave herself for the secret, too.
Sophie shared a journal entry with me (you can find it in the resources-- take the time to read it). She writes, “I used to feel my belly expand and hate myself for it...Now, I understand that that my belly expanding is a beautiful, tangible reminder that I am here, I am alive, and I am well.”
“Hold your head up. You’re beautiful. Your light is going to shine.” -- Sonja Robinson-Moore
It’s easy to love Sonja. Her contagious, authentic energy and love for life leaves me feeling more positive every time I talk to her. She serves to remind me that you have little to lose by being yourself, so I was so excited to hear what she thought about body image healing.
“You know, I guess before I got sick, [body image] was an issue, but after I got sick I lost the issue. Going to different hospitals, the EKG, you are exposing yourself.” Sonja has a pacemaker, and while I don’t know much about her heart condition, she let me know that her healthcare providers know how comfortable she’s become with that level of exposure. “That was my new norm. Even if I didn't want to accept it. I questioned myself for a long time because I was angry. I didn't want to accept it. It was really, really hard for me to say, ‘Hey, you have this problem.’ This is the reason why you keep passing out and this is the reason why you feel this way in your head, exhausted all the time.”
Despite the initial pain and frustration, Sonja has a powerful outlook on life: “If you breathing, you achieving.” Not only that, but she knows her purpose. “My purpose is so much bigger, and I didn't even know that I had that purpose before I joined Shakti.” For Sonja, joining Shakti required courage.
“It was different for me to come through that door. I've always been in situations where it’s predominantly white. I've always been like that. By myself. Because I'm that type of person that can relate to a lot of people. But yeah, it was intimidating. But I set a goal for last year and that was one of my goals.” Sonja and I proceeded to get super excited because she recently celebrated her one year anniversary at Shakti, and I asked her more about what it felt like to be a black woman walking into a predominantly white studio.
Her thoughts look like this: “Oh God. Oh shit. What the hell am I doing? Everybody's in here looking at me and saying, ‘Oh shit. What is she doing here?’ Okay, Sonja, keep pushing. Keep pushing. Don't worry about it. It's okay. There are some nice people in here. Remember your motto: There's always good in this world.”
As a white woman walking into a predominantly white yoga studio, I didn’t have those same thoughts. Owning my own privilege here, too, there have been very few instances where I’ve walked into a space and had to talk myself up in that way. I told Sonja as much, and a lot of my own work around white fragility has been admitting that I have no idea what it’s like to live as a person of color in America, let alone a black woman. And that the best thing I can do is let my ego take a back seat and listen.
“I don't want somebody to see me out in public, and think, ‘Oh my God, why are they with this woman who's being loud and laughing?’ Some people, you can see, they shun away from it. Sometimes they don't talk directly to me. They'll talk and they'll be looking at somebody else. It's a certain image that's bestowed on, I hate to say this, white and black. I mean that's real. That's honest. A superior being, and we're right here. If you’re brought up that way, that mentality, you're going to learn that.”
I told Sonja that there are moments in my life where I’ve done wrong in that way. Where my inherent biases act in a way that leaves me feeling ashamed. But all I can do now is commit to dropping my ego, commit to doing better, and commit to listening. “You make yourself beautiful because of that,” Sonja says. And I agree. “But you know how I feel? I walk in [to Shakti] and I see Molly’s face. I’m like, ‘I'm safe. I'm okay. This is family now.’ I know every soul in there, so I feel good.” I do know that we are grateful that Sonja is here, and that there is far more I can do, we can do, to make her feel safe in Shakti’s space.
Sonja’s idea? In-class pairings and partnerships. Have people talk to each other, see each other, and look out for another person even if you don’t interact past the initial conversation. Sonja’s reasoning is gold: “That means everybody's in the soup and getting stirred.” At a Creature Comforts event with Shakti, Sonja attended and was nervous about the bigger setting. “Who's going to stand around and talk to me?” Initially feeling alone, Sonja was paired up Hannah. “She was right there next to me, and we were laughing the entire time. She made me feel so much better. Sometimes it matters. I know everybody's trying to get their minds right, but it helps.”
As a teacher and a student, I see how valuable sharing and vulnerability is within the yoga class. And after talking to Sonja, I made a pact with myself to get my students to share more. To support each other. Because you never know who really needs it that day.
Sonja and I moved into talking more about her specific body image struggles. “I always had an image of my legs at one time, because they were really spotted. I think I had the measles; it was before they had the vaccine. So you can tell I'm ancient.” Pause for our laughter. “But they'd laugh at the spots on my legs, and I grew up like that. But that was the only thing. Otherwise, I was considered as one of the cute girls.” Sonja later talked about how much the guys loved the gap in her front teeth. Not to mention she was also in a beauty pageant. “The thing I thought about was what was on the inside more than the outside. My insides were more broken than out.” I can only imagine how powerful Sonja was at that age: grounded and on the path to self-inquiry. High school Emily could’ve used high school Sonja.
“It's so funny you're interviewing me now because I think it's meant to be. I believe in fate. I literally wanted to have a conversation with that girl.” So I asked Sonja, what would you tell your high school self? “Don't worry about it. Hey. Keep going baby. It's okay, baby. It's okay. Just hold your head up, keep pushing, do a little something for yourself. Breathe. Have confidence in yourself. Hold your head up. You’re beautiful. I’m not talking about the outside. Your light is going to shine.” I need Sonja to talk me up every. damn. day.
Growing up, Sonja lived in a big household. “There were secrets. And I hated that. That's been hard for me, you know, to have a mother that not only wasn't able to listen, but did not know how to process a lot of things. And it was the way she was raised. She came from a family of 14. So I can't really look at her and say, ‘Oh, I blame you.’ I had to move on from blaming anybody and just live my life and be happy. Where you at right now? That's what matters the most. Forgive and move on.”
Thinking about how crucial forgiveness has been in my partnerships, I asked Sonja about her marriage, and she talked about how so much of a relationship is based on communication, trust, and forgiveness. And the word forgiveness seemed to strike a nerve in Sonja’s heart. “That’s really something… forgiveness.” I asked Sonja what that was bringing up for her, and she took some time to think and feel.
“I had to learn how to forgive my cousin, because he killed my brother when he was 24. And it destroyed our family. My brother was the light. He was my kid brother. It did a lot of damage. But he's my guardian angel. It took me a long time to get where I'm at. About two years ago I wasn’t in that state of mind.”
For Sonja, that level of forgiveness “goes deeper than you can ever imagine.” And she’s right. I can’t imagine that level of hurt, that level of love you have to tap into. “[That forgiveness] didn't stop. Some years later, it resonated with my father. I had to learn how to forgive him for being such an asshole all my life. Because I literally grew up hating my father. So it wasn't hard for me to forgive my cousin; we'd grown up together and I knew that he was possessed or something, you know what I'm saying? Just to have him as the person to take my brother's life was really hard. My biggest thing in life is forgiving my dad for not being the father that I needed.”
So many things about Sonja’s life amaze me, but her resiliency in choosing forgiveness, choosing gratitude, amaze me the most. Creating blessings from the inside-out. And I think one of her greatest gifts is loving, deeply, everyone she comes into contact with. Seeing the unity and beauty in each of us. And that’s a gift.
“I feel like at the end of the day, I always have a win.” -- Carolyn
Carolyn started at Shakti through the 40 Days to Personal Revolution program. Basically, she hit the ground running with self-inquiry, vulnerability, and investing in the community. She hasn’t stopped since, and Carolyn’s ability to show up as exactly who she is, no more, no less, makes her a bit rebellious.
Growing up, food was a “thing” in Carolyn’s family. Her dad was always on a diet, talking about healthiness of foods and calories at the dinner table. When Carolyn moved out, “I kind of went crazy, because I could eat whatever I wanted. It took a really long time to realize this is just unhealthy for my body. There is a point where you need to exercise and be healthy.”
I asked Carolyn about what health meant to her, and she said, “Being able to go hiking and knowing my heart's not in trouble. Health, at first, meant a certain look. I lost a bunch of weight, and then I looked how I wanted to look and felt great. But I’m a fairly healthy person so my body gets used to stuff pretty quickly. Everyone is different and health is different for everyone, and that's what is important.”
But sometimes, the voice inside mixes with societal pressures of health, and looking and acting like everyone else seems imperative. “Not to be a Shakti commercial, but just being in that atmosphere... I see the changes. Just being able to do things I couldn’t do before, even stuff that nobody else can probably see. And the other day in class, everybody was doing something that I can’t do, and I looked around. The voice in my head... I would never say that to someone else.”
The voice can be so loud, that I forget to remember all of the people in the room that not only support me, but are likely thinking the exact same thing. “I ended up crying most of that class because [we] are so mean to ourselves. No one else can hear you, so no one else can even contradict you.” There’s a level of shame that creeps around my yoga practice. It’s gotten smaller since I started at Shakti, feeling like I have a space to move in a way that I really want to, and Carolyn made an interesting point: “I think it’s really good that [shame] happens in yoga, because eventually your body has to concentrate on something else, so it pulls you out of it.”
A big part of a woman’s concept of “shame” comes from societal and cultural expectations and how women are traditionally represented. For Carolyn, representation matters. Tess Holliday (a curve model) recently appeared on UK’s Cosmopolitan, and Carolyn read the interview. “I ended up in tears. If this woman had been on the cover of Cosmopolitan as a child, it would’ve changed my world, because you grow up seeing people who are nothing like you. If we’d had more of a variety of skin colors and sizes and if you just grew up thinking that was beautiful, just imagine all the hours you spent worrying about how you looked and did anything else.”
Support diverse representation. Stop buying magazines that don’t support your values, support businesses that include diverse bodies, and, “Encourage young girls…they’re so amazing.” Support a movement. Support your own mental health. Feel the feelings, let them come and go, and ask, like Carolyn does, “How is this just going to affect today? It doesn't have to affect your life, but what are you going to learn through this today?”
Great advice for any woman who’s struggling with dieting and body shame. You don’t have to fix shame for good, or even at all. Just notice. Feel. How can you learn? For both me and Carolyn, it’s a work in progress. “I always used [food] as a punishment or reward. Like, if I wasn't happy in a relationship, I would blame it on that and then go on crazy strict diets and workout. I still am very aware of what I'm eating. Which is frustrating. Like why is this such an issue? Why does this even matter? Eat the cookie or don’t, who cares? Just make a decision and don't think about it anymore. It doesn't matter.” A cookie and all its parts (chocolate, flour, butter, eggs, etc.) don’t hold moral value... AND the emotions we’re tunneling into the food absolutely affect us. The anger and shame we feel after the cookie matter.
What if we let go of the fear around the emotions we’re told to stifle and just feel? “I have great instincts and great follow through and I get stuff done when I want to get it done. I love being in charge. Fear is that one speed bump. Once I get over that, I complete whatever I want to.”
Carolyn manages Pain and Wonder Tattoo and Piercing Shop, and one of her favorite parts of the job is seeing women get parts of their bodies they dislike tattooed. “Putting something beautiful for yourself on that part that you hate so much… You empowered the shit out of yourself. Well done.”
Carolyn (if you’ve never met her) has the coolest fucking tattoos. “Men love to tell me they don't think [tattoos] are attractive.” *eye roll* I wonder at the audacity, and it gives me a taste of the anger Carolyn must feel. But, the thing is, people in our lives do that sort of thing, too. “My mom said to me once--and she is the kindest, sweetest human--she was like ‘Maybe if you lost weight, you wouldn't be single.’ That is tough from your mom. [She’s] supposed to be flabbergasted that I'm single! I don't think I talked to her for a while, and we are very close.” I asked Carolyn how she recovered from that, if her and her mom ever discussed what happened, and she doesn’t remember them having a conversation. “I remember my feelings, and it gives me no feelings now.” And in that, it’s a peek into what true forgiveness can feel like. A removal from the original wound in a way that doesn’t pull back up feelings. I wonder if I will be able to reach that place with myself, with loved ones.
Since the interview, Carolyn has continued to feel the effects. Recently she mentioned to me how the interview felt like a catalyst for awareness. She’s beginning to understand her why of food and emotion. “I was always told that I’m too sensitive. I have decided that I like about myself. I feel strongly and dangerously. And I love that.”
HEALING AND MOVING FORWARD
I’ll keep this short and simple: Everyone I (deeply) love has hurt me in some way. It’s my choice on how I process and handle the emotions that come up with the pain. Maybe forgiveness needs to be a conversation, maybe it needs to be a deep empathy, maybe it needs to be a gradual fading back into normal, but someway, somehow, forgiveness needs to take form in my life. Not only with the wounds from others, but the deeper, entrenched wounds that I cut into myself every day.
The hurt is supposed to hurt. It teaches us about the resiliency of love. Hurt teaches us how to understand other people, to step into someone’s skin and see out. And processing, sinking into the hurt & the love that lingers somewhere impossibly far away, is the only way to heal.
But what can I do to process?
Talk to a therapist
Move in a way that feels joyous
Set up a buddy who checks in on you always. Looking @ you, Ginger (love you).
Read your favorite book
Seek out community
Lots of processing needing to happen around food and your body? Shameless self plug: https://clients.mindbodyonline.com/asp/main_enroll.asp?fl=true&tabID=8
Write yourself a love note (see Resources for an example)
A love note to myself: I love you, I forgive you, I see you -- before, now, and always. -Emily
Rachel Cargle, activist, writer, and lecturer: https://www.rachelcargle.com
Therapists in Athens, GA: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/ga/athens
Every single resource UGA offers for victims of sexual assault and partner violence: https://eoo.uga.edu/sites/default/files/sar_resources_chart_1.pdf
More information on the US’s government’s failure to protect Native women: https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/mazeofinjustice.pdf
A beautiful proclimation: http://hillarylmcbride.com/dear-body-im-sorry-i-love-you/
<— Sophie’s Journal Entry