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Columns   |    
Personal Accounts: Forgiveness: Moving From Anger and Shame to Self-Love
Amy Johnson
Psychiatric Services 2012; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.20120p311
View Author and Article Information

Ms. Johnson lives in Norwalk, Connecticut, and works for the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (e-mail: ajohnson110970@hotmail.com). Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H., is editor of this column.

Copyright © 2012 by the American Psychiatric Association.

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I have schizophrenia. Living with schizophrenia can make you mad. I have to endure discrimination, stigma, and all of its exclusions, like being excluded from family holiday gatherings and being neglected by my medical providers. To get some assistance with rent and food and health insurance, I must fill out reams of paperwork and meet impossible deadlines and requirements from unyielding organizations. I am forced to do incredible amounts of extra work without help—case managers generally are not knowledgeable in Medicare and Medicaid rules or in recovery-oriented, person-centered support. I feel like a bother. I feel like I am worthless because I can't hold a normal job because I have a hard time keeping focus. I get angry at myself for not being able to support myself and for having to take handouts from others; I have pride, too. I get angry at the doctors and clinicians for talking down to me and for ignoring the fact that I have feelings just like they do.

All this can make one feel that life is unfair, that one is being personally victimized. One can become very angry at the unjustness of it all, at the tragedy of having schizophrenia. How, then, is one to live in peace? How is one to release the rage and be able to relax and enjoy the talents one has? I propose forgiveness as a way to decompress, as a way to calm the temper and the mind in order to think clearly in high-stress situations.

You may ask, What about acceptance?—given that most of us are taught that we must accept our mental illness in order to begin our recovery journey. I think forgiving oneself for being ill is a better solution than accepting the illness. The definition of forgiveness is “to give up resentment of, pardon, absolve.” The definition of forgiving is “allowing room for error or weakness.”

Forgiveness allows for the human element of unknowing error. Forgiveness implies compassion and implies softness in “allowing room for weakness.” My recovery has been all about allowing and making room for me and about including me in my life. My childhood contained much abuse, and I learned how to take myself out of the game before the game even started. Over and over, I was told that I was no good and no one, and I got it into my head that I was too stupid to figure out how to solve problems and take care of myself. This belief that I can't learn how to take care of myself is a source of great frustration for me; I am an adult now, and no one is going to take care of me but me. I want things, but I don't want to try to learn how to get them because I don't think I can learn the skills that would bring me to what I want. It's a setup for frustration that I am in control of, a double-bind of my own making.

It is hard for me to admit this out loud, but sometimes I have done things that I know will sabotage my recovery—missing appointments, purposely not eating, refusing to keep a journal. These days I know what I should be doing and I do so without asking myself whether I want to or not. I did not cause my schizophrenia, but I learned that I have choices in its treatment—I can do or not do things that would make me feel a little better or a little worse. By accepting the fact that I consciously do things that keep me ill, and by forgiving myself for the very human fears that hold me back from the next steps toward recovery, I can hold compassion for myself. This self-compassion is what gives me the courage and strength to take the risk to try something new—to try a coping skill that I'm told is better than the one I'd been using.

Forgiveness gently reminds me that I have a right to be a part of society and that I am okay the way I am. Forgiveness reminds me that I am only human and that I am doing the best I can. Forgiveness tells me it's okay to slow down and take time out for me. Forgiveness allows me to take the time I need to process, because I tend to be very impulsive and act without thinking. I tend to compare myself harshly to others and to set standards that are impossible to reach. Forgiveness helps me to remember who I am and what I've been through; it helps me come up with realistic goals for myself, goals that I can actually achieve and feel good about. Acceptance doesn't move me into self-care the way that forgiveness does.

Mental illness is just too big; there are too many variables, too many things to pay attention to, and too many things that change. My moods can change at the drop of a dime. I have little control of the most basic issues in my life. My disability check, my section 8 housing eligibility, and my medical insurance are in the hands of a changing economy. All of this makes me incredibly anxious, given that I need a place to live and food to eat in order to stay alive. I could easily make my symptoms worse by worrying about what could happen. I use forgiveness to ward off the anxiety and anger that comes from living the powerless life of a person with schizophrenia.

Forgiveness is all about helping me; it's a purely selfish act. We usually think of forgiveness as a compassionate gesture toward someone else. I propose forgiveness as a compassionate gesture toward oneself, as an ultimate act of self-love. I forgive myself for being ill and for needing certain extra help. I forgive myself for being sad so often. I forgive myself for not being able to work along with seemingly everybody else. I forgive myself for being poor. I forgive myself for being afraid of people and for needing to spend a lot of time alone. I forgive myself for acting like a child and for being naïve. I forgive myself for believing those clinicians who lied to me when they said they were there to help me. I forgive myself for not initially forgiving myself. When I forgive me, I can love me, and when I can love me, I can support me and take care of me. I can hear my body when it tells me it's tired or hungry, and I can remember that I have friends and can call them and talk freely. Forgiveness frees me from the rage caused by the numerous powerless situations in which schizophrenia places me.

I think the hardest part about forgiveness has been the lonely part. I have to be able to forgive the world for not rewarding my gifts and talents. I have to be able to understand—to really understand—that most people are not mature and that they hurt others without any clear understanding of the repercussions of their actions. It is difficult for me to forgive these thoughtless folks because their ignorance can have dire consequences for me and can cause me personal suffering.

There are major pains involved in living with schizophrenia. Once one is diagnosed, everything is taken away—family, friends, work, money, rights, dignity, self-esteem. Left in shame and poverty, there is nobody to wipe away the tears or offer any sympathy. One can be consumed by rage at the extent of the loss, at the massive grief over losing everything due to something as pointless and senseless as stigma and discrimination. It seems so unjust and so unfair to lose one's life because of bad propaganda due to rumor. I use forgiveness as a way out of the hell that schizophrenia pushes me into. I use forgiveness as a mechanism to exercise my personal power; I wield forgiveness as my empowering tool.

It has also been lonely coming to grips with the fact that I have some real handicaps. I can work on some of them and see improvement, although I don't always know how much improvement is realistic. So, wanting more but knowing that I can't have it right now and knowing that I must work hard but may not get the benefit I want—and working hard anyway—and working hard alone, without anyone to champion me and without anyone to talk to about the hard job done and without anyone's shoulder to cry on when I fail—all of this has been especially difficult to deal with.

Living with schizophrenia requires that I be mature at all times; I may not have my sanity at all times, but I can certainly hang onto my maturity. No matter what crazy thing I do and no matter what unjust, unfair, ignorant thing other people do, I can still use forgiveness to exercise self-control. It is very lonely knowing that my symptoms can flare and that I can act without a clear understanding of what I am doing.

I also feel lonely knowing that the world is not really interested in me and my personal struggles and that I must conform and bend to the best of my ability to a disease that is notorious for not bending. I must be nice to myself and be nice to the illness when it refuses to bend. This means having respect for my illness. When paranoia demands that I hide out at home, I do it. When my fear is so large that I cannot count on my senses to tell me otherwise, like when I am sure I am seeing bugs on the walls or that I'm being chased by werewolves, it's best I wait out the storm in the of safety my apartment. My acute periods do not last forever; the severity of my symptoms is on a continuum, where they are sometimes worse or better. When I am hearing voices, I honor them by giving them time and by listening. They give me important clues as to how I'm feeling, and by listening to them, I can better understand my triggers and better watch my self-care.

In addition to being nice to the illness and to me, I have to be nice to other people if I am to receive the help they are able to give, for I know I am handicapped, and burning bridges is just not smart. It's a lot to deal with. Forgiveness helps me deal with all of this.

Finally, forgiveness helps me to see and celebrate the good things in my life.

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