Although the arrest of six Baltimore police officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray demonstrates that the course to justice has, indeed, begun, there is another more difficult ethical path that the family and citizens will need to consider – forgiveness.
I was recently contacted by Melissa (Mel) Coulson. “Throughout my life I’ve experienced mental health problems, and over the years I’ve come to understand how people’s reactions to my admission of suffering can really differ.”
I asked her to share her story.
A background in the health sector, training and working in the mental health field has given Mel the understanding and compassion to help those who are struggling with issues similar to hers. After taking time off to raise her two girls, she has returned to work as a writer and editor. She and her husband volunteer with several mental health charities.
“Many people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol have one defining moment they felt changed their course of life forever. In my case, it was the loss of my Dad, when I was 16.
“Dad died in a car accident, just two blocks away from my home. He was on his way to pick me up from a party I insisted on going to, despite the fact that both Mom and Dad had objected, since I had a big exam in a couple of days and they thought I should stay home studying.
“Dad meant everything to me; he was my pillar and my guide. I remember so many nights sitting on the front porch with a hot chocolate, talking to him about everything. Most girls my age were closer to their sisters or Mom, but my soul mate, was always my Dad. That night, an inebriated driver took his life, and my life changed forever.
“Everything I had planned on achieving was inspired by Dad. He was a pediatrician, and I dreamed of continuing his legacy by taking up Medicine in College.
“On that fateful night and every night afterwards, I blamed myself. If Dad had not been on his way to pick me up, he would still be here. Mom never said it out loud, but I felt that she blamed me for Dad’s passing; she grew distant and would cry herself to sleep every night. I needed her support and wanted to give her mine, but felt too guilty to approach her and let her know I was there for her. My sister, Linda, didn’t leave me guessing. The night of Dad’s passing, she straight-out told me that if it hadn’t been for me, Dad would still be alive. I began partying more than ever and soon, I began experimenting with drink and drugs, thankful for the sensation of numbness that overtook me when I was high.
“I got terrible grades in my last two years of high school, definitely not anywhere near what I needed to enter pre-med. I worked at a local veterinarian’s office as an assistant and was lucky I wasn’t fired, since I would show up late and tired; luckily, my boss was an old family friend.
“The second most significant event in my life was the night that I had a special talk with Mom. It was the fourth of July and everyone was out for celebrations. We sat on the porch, in the special spot Dad and I used to call our own, and began talking. She told me she was worried about me, that she noticed I was out late and hanging out with a wild crowd and she asked me if I was on drugs too. All the pent up sadness and rage erupted and I admitted my addiction to her. She asked me why I had turned to drugs, when I had always been an exemplary student and daughter. I shared my deepest fears with her – that she may hate me or blame me for Dad’s passing. She took me in her arms and cried, saying she had never blamed me, that she loved me more than anything else and that she was worried she would lose me, too, this time to drugs and alcohol.
“Mom’s support and love gave me the strength to enter rehab. There, I discovered one amazing and beautiful thing that marked a real turning point in my recovery: all of us, despite the hurt we may have caused, despite how worthless we feel, are worthy of grace. It is not until we accept that there is a Higher Power that can help us when we feel unable to help ourselves, that it becomes possible to forgive ourselves, for we are all worthy of love. This is one of the tenets of The Twelve Step Program, which I followed during my inpatient rehabilitation stay.
“At rehab, my therapist, Ruth, taught me useful techniques, including the use of imagery exercises, to learn to forgive those who had hurt me. She asked me to imagine that I was speaking to my sister, Linda (who has since apologized for her outburst the night of Dad’s passing). In the imagery exercise, I was to tell Linda why I was finding it hard to forgive her. I was then to listen to Linda and let her explain why she said what she did and why she avoided me in the months after Dad’s death. Finally, I was to send her my forgiveness in the form of a big pink cloud. This cloud would cover her entire body and dissipate into nothingness.
“I loved this exercise and to this day, still use it when I am struggling to forgive someone for past wrongs. One of the most important things Ruth taught me, was that forgiving others does not mean belittling the wrong they have caused or condoning their actions; the focus is actually on ourselves, since through the act of forgiving, we let go of harmful emotions and negative thought patterns that keep us stuck in a rut.
“I was in rehab for various months and soon after, I began rebuilding my life. I went back to school to improve my grades and finally began my studies. I now work as a doctor though funnily enough, I decided to forego pediatrics in favor of psychiatry, specializing in trauma and addiction. I am also a mom of two lovely girls, who are especially fond of their Grandma. On my days off I usually take the girls to my Mom’s house and all four of us sit on the porch and build memories together.
“I remember the words of wisdom Dad shared with me and try to raise my children like he raised me, though I have never stopped missing him.”
South African leader Desmond Tutu writes: “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”