Mary, New Jersey
Mary had to learn to forgive herself when her second child, Michael, was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome
My pregnancy with Michael was much more of a surprise than my first pregnancy with Stephen. When I received confirmation during the first trimester, I assumed I could stop daily alcohol use for the sake of this child the same way I had two years prior. Alcoholism had ambushed me in the meantime. I wrestled with relentless mental obsession, denial, and bouts of depression with suicidal thinking and planning. I knew from my physician’s training the potential for damage to the fetus from alcohol. This added to my shame, self- hatred, and extreme secrecy. My sanity seemed long gone in the losing battle to protect my baby from further alcohol induced damage; I was powerless to stop on my own and too terrified to get help.
Michael was born beautiful and whole. It became obvious that he had feeding problems and he was diagnosed with Failure to Thrive and then Developmental Delays. He attended Early Intervention and was then classified in our school system as Pre- School Handicapped. I struggled to get sober at home his 1st 21 months of life. Then I had medical catastrophe. I was hospitalized, went to short term and finally halfway house treatment. Mike’s younger sister Christina was born and I was away for surgery for kidney cancer. By the time Mike was almost four, he was dealing with many challenges: special education for alcohol induced brain damage; losing his mom multiple times; two siblings who were always faster and smarter. He was started in school in a Multiply Handicapped Program with mental retardation and visual, hearing and communication impairment. Amazingly, he was cheerful, funny, agreeable and loving. And he finally had a sober mom.
Once sober, I could be a responsible and creative wife and mom. I worked hard in a 12 step recovery program and in therapy with an addiction medicine doctor and a psychiatrist. It was with their therapy, guidance and unconditional love that I started to heal physically, mentally, and emotionally. Michael started in excellent therapy for his impairments. My relationships with my husband and 3 children began to flourish. I modified my professional career. I reconciled with my family gradually. I asked for forgiveness for harms done and forgave harms done to me. As Michael became more self- aware, his frustration with his disabilities increased. I talked to him about how alcohol had damaged his brain; it wasn’t his fault, there was nothing wrong with him, he wasn’t in the wrong family. I told him how sorry I was. Those discussions seemed to relieve his anxiety and frustration somewhat. All of that served as a foundation for a new life for my family but I was still haunted by shame and self- hatred. I couldn’t imagine self- forgiveness and this blocked spiritual healing and growth.
One day while Mike and I were driving to yet another medical specialist and reviewing what had happened to him prenatally. At the age of eleven, after years of trying to understand, Michael finally understood. He asked me in a shocked voice “Do you mean you drank alcohol while you were pregnant with me?” I answered yes in tears and hoped that someday he would be able to forgive me for this. He asked if I was really sorry. Then he smiled gently at me and said quietly “I don’t mind. I love you mommy”. Time stoped for an instant. I heard a voice somewhere, “If he can forgive you this, who are you to not forgive yourself?”
Self forgiveness settled into my heart with Michael’s informed acceptance of what I had done. I also needed the experiences of forgiving others and being forgiven by others first. Mike didn’t get tangled in definitions of forgiveness, he avoided those complicated discussions. He saw how he had been harmed and his love and acceptance of me washed away any resentment, confusion, judgement, or past frustrations. He considered the present moment. He didn’t see me as “other”. He didn’t see himself as victim. He saw our love and wonderful life now uniting us without differences. The only thing my shame had accomplished was giving us both a sense that we were people to be ashamed of.
Obviously, there can be no question of “forgetting” or being absolved of responsibility for this harm. He has needs that shape the pattern of our days. His forgiveness has empowered me to not only see to my family’s needs, but to educate others using our story. His courage enables me to share this gift with you. I think we all starve for adequate language when it comes to describing our experience with any type of forgiveness, especially forgiving ourselves for irreversible harm done others. The results speak for themselves- we who experience self-forgiveness have gratitude, joy, peace, and willingness to share with others. Shame was transformed to grief and then serenity.
NOFAS (National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome)