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Finding Forgiveness After Trauma

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Four years ago I went through something that forever changed the course of my life. A surgery that was designed to realign my upper and lower jaw went horribly wrong. It was more than my body could handle and my surgical team was negligent and unprepared. To my attending I was just another case in thousands. To the resident I was a statistic, a learning opportunity during a worst case scenario.

• What is PTSD?

But to me, it was everything. They spent 12 hours that night trying to piece my face back together with plates, screws and grafts. They weren’t successful and so I’ve worked every moment since then to piece back together my life, my faith and spirit.

A month after my surgery I began to write about my experience. Initially, it was a way to process what had happened to me. I was facing another series of surgeries and so my blog was driven by my need for catharsis and by the huge support system I found in the online community. Four years later and I’m still writing about it, but now it’s mostly to help others learn to cope with trauma and loss. What I’ve learned during my recovery is that you will feel a whole spectrum of emotions — and that’s OK. There’s no magic formula when it comes to dealing with grief. There’s no timeline for when and how you should deal with the emotional aspect of your recovery. When it comes to my facial reconstruction I am by nature an eternal optimist, but that doesn’t mean that everything I’ve felt has been positive. It’s been four years and I would be lying if I said I didn’t still have bad days. The PTSD still lingers and occasionally I still wake up in the middle of the night to a panic attack. The bad days exist, but with enough time, the good days have come to outnumber them. It took work, but eventually I remembered how to be happy again. True optimism isn’t possible until you’re faced with what feels like insurmountable loss. It’s a choice and I make it every single day.

The first time I was shown a mirror after my surgery I couldn’t stand to look at myself. What I saw was more monster than human. My features swollen beyond recognition. There was dried blood and surgical glue still covering parts of my face. I had two black eyes and bruises forming around my neck. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, but I could do neither. I was trapped behind my own mangled face. My broken jaw wired and splinted together and unable to form words. The residents piled in to assess the damage, forgetting that I was a person. To them I was tissue that wouldn’t heal, teeth that couldn’t be saved, a graft that wouldn’t take. To me it was my identity. It was my smile, my laugh, my ability to communicate. I felt stripped of my humanity. It was months before I could truly face the disfigurement and when I did, what I experienced was a sense of loss so profound and so all encompassing, I forgot there was good in the world. l couldn’t speak, all I could do was silently let the grief consume me. Now, when I look in the mirror I don’t see the girl I used to be. I never will, but I don’t see a monster anymore either. Instead, I make a conscious effort to see the courageous woman who replaced that girl. It’s not always easy. Pictures of my new face are especially hard to look at, but I try to overcome that feeling by reminding myself of the memories and the people who are tied to those new pictures and that new face. It’s a work in progress and something I still fail at sometimes but that’s OK. I have the rest of my life to work on accepting it.

It took me a long time to realize there was no shame in my anger, my grief or my fear. Something awful happened to me and I had every right to feel what I did. Looking back, I can say with absolute certainty I didn’t numb out one second of the trauma I endured. I lived it. Fully and without restraint I let myself feel every moment and I’m grateful I did. I know what it is to suffer and because of that I know what it is to love, to feel pure, unadulterated happiness and to have hope. It has reinforced in me a sense of compassion and empathy that drives my career. It has helped to set the foundation for the type of person I want to be, and it reminds me above all else to be kind.

I lost a piece of myself with each surgery, but during that process I discovered that it was up to me to replace those pieces with something better — something stronger. I lived my grief but I never once let it make me bitter, instead I chose to grow from it. It took work but I had to learn how to compartmentalize my feelings. I didn’t let the negative emotions regarding my surgery take away from the rest of my life. I refused to let it take away from the love I have for my family, my friends and for myself. I didn’t take it out on the people who are close to me. I still wake up every day and make the decision not to let yesterday’s pain ruin today. My physical recovery was out of my hands but my emotional recovery was something I had power over. It wasn’t easy but I chose to let go and to heal. Now, four years later, I’m choosing the hardest thing of all: to forgive.

I have always been a person who feels everything deeply. There were moments when I was completely overcome with sadness and loss, but they eventually passed, and when they did I allowed myself to laugh and feel happiness with the same intensity and entirety I allowed myself to grieve. Now my hope is that the anger I once felt can give way to an equal amount of forgiveness. I used to think that if the person who did this to me truly showed remorse, that if he would just apologize in a way that felt enough for me, then I could forgive him. That apology never came and I’ve accepted the fact that it likely never will. He has never taken accountability for what he did, never recognized the damage he caused. There’s nothing I can do that will change that. I’ve cried, rationalized, screamed, told him all the ways in which he ruined my life, but in the end none of it made me feel any better. In fact, it made me feel worse. No amount of yelling could make him feel what I felt because we have no control over how other people process the ways in which they hurt us. The only thing we have control over is if and when we choose to forgive. When we put contingencies on our forgiveness we are essentially giving up our power. I won’t allow his refusal of accountability to hold me hostage to my anger. I need to let go. Choosing to forgive him even when he has not asked for it gives me more power, not less. I have a right to be angry. In fact I have the right to be angry forever if that’s what I want, but why would I want that? What good does it do for me to hold on to negative emotions? It doesn’t hurt him and it certainly doesn’t help me.

It’s hard to move forward without a sense of justice. I wanted an assurance that this would never happen to anyone else again. When that never came I sought legal recourse. If he wouldn’t hold himself accountable then a judge and jury would. When that failed I had nowhere to put my anger, so I wore it like armor. But the thing about armor is, it’s heavy — and now I’m tired and ready to lay it down. It’s time to find peace again.

Trauma will change you and it’s unrealistic to expect you will emerge from it the same as you were — and that’s OK. You can still come out stronger. You can take from it a depth most people will never know. The memory of feeling like less than a person has instilled in me a combination of vulnerability, strength and an appreciation for life I wouldn’t trade for anything. This experience has made me more human, not less. We are not defined by the trauma we endure, we are defined by how we endure it. The grief you feel does not make you weak. Let yourself feel it because one day you will use that memory to measure exactly how far you have come, and it will feel incredible.

Getty image via Good_Studio

Originally published: April 29, 2018
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