By Nina Mahlangu*
I first took my daughter to counselling when she was five years old, I was 29.
Before that I had been abusive towards her since she was six months old. At the time I was unemployed. The father didn’t want anything to do with his daughter since the pregnancy. My baby and I were going from relative to relative until we found ourselves in a church that assisted us with shelter for a few months. The other challenge was to provide food and medication, my baby was often sick and didn’t have a good appetite. In trying to force her to eat the little I could bring, I turned to abusing her physically and emotionally little by little until it became a routine. For this or that reason I would turn violent towards her. I would stop for a while and start again. I hated what I was doing, seeing myself as an unfit mother I was willing to give her away to a rich couple. She was visibly traumatised under my custody. This went on until she turned five.
Following a huge campaign against child abuse on TV, I ended up taking her to a social worker. At that moment I also opened my eyes to my own history.
I was abused as a child for an indeterminate period. Because I was too young to understand what was going on I only had flashbacks from age five to eight years old when the abuse stopped. Then from 10 to 19 years old I had to face frequent bullying from family members and I escaped several times from being sexually abused again. During that period I developed cruelty towards my pets. I had frequent nightmares and would wake up at night to torture the cat or hit the dog and go back to sleep again. At 20 I left my parent’s home, went into prostitution to support myself and pay the fees at university. Unfortunately with that lifestyle I was subjected to more humiliation and violence.
After getting my degree I started working but was sexually harassed by my boss. I couldn’t report him with little physical evidence. He got me fired when I rejected one of his advances.
When I told my daughter’s counsellor about this episode in my life, she recommended an organisation that specialises in trauma counselling for abused women. While there I met a woman who had experienced different types of abuse and overcame them all. Now she’s a counsellor with 20 years’ experience.
I approached her, she was kind and ready to help. The process was tough because I had to share with her the painful details of my experience.
She was very supportive but also firm about my daughter’s situation and my lifestyle. The more we worked together the less pain and anger I felt. The kinder I became towards my daughter. Until my lifestyle and living conditions changed radically.
When we reached the stage of forgiveness I thought about the option of forgiving my perpetrators. It’s interesting that the dictionary definition for forgiveness says nothing about condoning or accepting evil behaviour, only: “Letting go of resentment.” Forgiving does not mean condoning the betrayal, it means rising above the harm done so the survivor of abuse no longer continues the suffering.
Further reflection: forgiveness means not keeping anger; not thinking about revenge; talking about my experience for a good and useful cause; opening my heart again for true love, tenderness, understanding and compassion towards others who have nothing to do with the abuse; not paying attention to whatever is said against me and focus on my destiny. Yes, I could forgive.
I then decided to forgive all my perpetrators, to get peace of mind. Not to excuse them from the damage they’d done to me or excuse myself from abusing my daughter.
Of course some would say there’s no peace without reconciliation and no reconciliation without justice, that’s why many nations go from one war to another. But my best revenge on my perpetrators was to stop myself from turning into them, to be on my feet and stabilise my life, to work on my emotions and set myself and daughter free from abuse.
I begged my daughter for forgiveness. I wrote her a letter for when she grows up. The trauma of childhood could come back in adulthood, she might need support on any warning signs. I committed myself to taking good care of her, to preventing her from making bad decisions like I did, and the most important thing, giving her all the love and tenderness she needs.
If I could go back in time I would prevent myself from abusing her but I wouldn’t change the fact that I fell pregnant. I wouldn’t change the abuse I’ve been through because that is what makes me a survivor today, engaged in the battle against abuse. I have learnt to accept my history, what didn’t kill me made me stronger.
I feel strong enough to keep a positive attitude, live my life independently from abuse and appreciate motherhood more.
*Not her real name