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The Freedom of Forgiveness

Not only was I robbed of my 20s -- not to mention a "normal" childhood -- but I never got any return on my emotional investment. My mother couldn't show me or tell me that she loved me back. How could I forgive her for that?
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Photo via iStock/Martin McCarthy

I was 18 months old -- at the apex of attachment -- the first time my mother was institutionalized. That was just the beginning.

Throughout my childhood, I witnessed the barbaric treatment my mother received -- from the attendants who put her in a straitjacket and from my father who used me as an unwitting accomplice ("Let's go get ice cream!") to trick her into returning to the hospital that terrified her. These are things a child should never experience.

The parent-child roles were reversed in our relationship. My mother wasn't emotionally strong enough to protect me and, from an early age, turned to me to defend her. "Don't let Daddy take me back to that place," she would wail. "No... no... no... keep them away from me!" she would cry in anguish as the men with the white coats came into our house to restrain her and take her away. These are things a child should never hear.

Growing up, all I wanted to do was save my mother. I wanted to rescue her from the people that kept taking her away from me, I wanted to protect her from my abusive father and I wanted to cure the schizophrenia that the doctors back then had misdiagnosed in her. (Many years after she died, having her complete file and a contemporary psychiatrist to diagnose her, I found out that my mother actually suffered with bipolar disorder -- a disease that did not exist during the years she was diagnosed. She would have readily been treated at home with medication and not have spent her life institutionalized, succumbing to shock treatments.)

When I turned 21, I became my mother's legal guardian.

At long last, I was finally legally able to impact and influence my mother's care. I remember the day like it was yesterday, because I left college to come back home to Chicago for the day to "save my mom" and legally check her out of Elgin State Hospital (now known as Elgin Mental Health Center) and into a senior retirement center. When I graduated a few months later, I rented an apartment across the street from the facility so that I could visit with her daily and keep close tabs on her treatment.

"This Was My Life"

It wasn't easy. I was expending a tremendous amount of time, energy, money and emotion taking care of her. It was a huge responsibility for any one person, let alone a young 20-something. Yet I did it without flinching. I loved my mother dearly; this was my life.

When my mother used to ask, "Where's Daddy?" or tell me she wanted Daddy there instead of me, I chalked it up to her illness. When she criticized me for not wearing lipstick, or for wearing slacks instead of a skirt "like all the other girls my age," I let it go.

And then, as if life hadn't been cruel enough to my poor mother, she developed breast cancer. At 24 years old, while my peers were focusing on Rush Street bars and climbing the first few rungs up the corporate ladder, I became my mother's primary caretaker as her physical health also began to decline.

It wasn't until she died five years later that I began to process it all.

Once my mother was gone, I finally had the freedom to experience the emotions that I had to suppress up to that point in order to survive.

When the anger set in, it set in with a vengeance. What I felt transcended the anger that is a normal, expected -- and healthy -- phase of the grieving cycle.

Not only was I robbed of my 20s -- not to mention a "normal" childhood -- but I never got any return on my emotional investment. My mother couldn't show me or tell me that she loved me back.

How could I forgive her for that?

Forgiving Allows Us to Move Forward

I let myself indulge in the rage and self-pity for only so long. Holding on to the anger was serving no purpose, other than making me miserable.

One day, I picked up a framed photograph of my mother. It was my favorite, taken when she was about 18 years old. In her eyes, I was able to see her beautiful soul. I felt a deep sorrow for my mother; she was like a caged bird, never really able to fly into the world to reach her potential.

What I do know is that my mother wasn't able to stand up for herself; even in an environment that was toxic for her soul, she did the best she could.

I found it very soothing to accept that truth. Through that acceptance, I was able to forgive my mother, for all the things that she could and couldn't control -- and to allow myself to love her for the beautiful woman she was.

Forgiveness releases pain, and honors the person and circumstances that caused it. The act of forgiving allows us to move forward without carrying the burden of unresolved issues.

It is one of most emotionally freeing choices we can make.

Forgiving does not mean shutting off memories. The hurt that I experienced as a child and young adult will never go away, but in hindsight, I recognize it as pivotal in helping me develop some of my greatest strengths.

Since then, maturity and perspective have helped me cultivate the ability to find forgiveness on the other side of hurt and anger in countless relationships in my life quickly, deeply and without residue.

Letting go of the rigid mindset of what is wrong/right, good/bad is the key that unlocks the space to forgive -- and to find the profound peace once you allow it into your life.

Jody Michael is CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates, a Chicago- and Atlanta-based company that specializes in executive coaching, career coaching and leadership development training. She is a Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and University of Chicago-trained psychotherapist with over 15 years of corporate experience in the finance industry and more than 20 years of experience coaching individuals, teams and organizations.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the NationalDomestic Violence Hotline.