Unfinished business: how do you forgive yourself for not forgiving others?

Last Friday I learned, through Facebook of all places, that a former friend – one of my best friends through Junior High, High School, college and a few years after that – had just died. It was sudden and unexpected, considering his age (46); I suspect an asthma attack was the cause, though I still don’t know.

My reaction, after shock, was and is intense remorse and anger, turned both outward at him and especially inward at myself.

For the sake of this post I’ll call him Mark, though really anyone who knew him will know whom I mean.

As I said we were very close for many years. We had a sort of tempestuous friendship, mainly due to Mark being… well, to put it nicely, kind of shallow, at least as a young guy. We were both into theater and performing and so on, and in school Mark tended to gravitate toward whoever the leads of the latest play/musical/opera were. For operas, it was me; for musicals he’d drift away from me, since I wasn’t usually picked for lead roles. (Too pudgy, so I was usually the “mother” or spinster role.) This hurt me, but I was a desperately lonely kid and when he’d finally drift back (we did share a sense of outcastness, a sense of humor, a love for the arts, and so on) I’d gratefully take whatever friendship he offered.

We spent tons of time together, just driving around, talking, singing, whatever. Despite Mark’s inconstancy, the core of our relationship was love. I was the first straight person he came out to (though his being gay wasn’t exactly a surprise to me); after my mom died the summer of my sophomore year in college, he was the first person I called, and despite it being like 7:30AM, he sped over from Queens to my house to be with me.

The dynamic of our friendship naturally changed after we graduated and our career paths took different directions. I put performing aside and worked at arts nonprofits as a fundraiser; Mark was a stage manager for various shows, eventually on Broadway. But his lifestyle, where he began taking drugs and partying fairly recklessly, wasn’t one I felt comfortable with, and being rather prudish I couldn’t just say “woohoo, good for you” when Mark told me of his exploits. I didn’t lecture him or anything, I just told him I wished he were more careful and less reckless. In some ways, I think he enjoyed shocking me; Mark was, at his heart, always a performer and looking for a good audience.

Anyway, despite our drifting apart, there was always that bond.

One night Mark called me, obviously shaken, and said that he desperately needed money–$3K, which first he claimed was due to a hospital or medical bill related to his asthma, but later he said it was to pay back a drug dealer who was now threatening him. He promised he’d pay the money back to me, he just didn’t have it now. Obviously I was dubious, but he did sound genuinely worried, and… frankly this was precisely the sort of situation I could well imagine Mark getting into. Also, well, he was my friend, almost family.

But I was working at a nonprofit, and not exactly flush enough to lend him anything. Mark sounded so desperate that I did something I would later regret: I went to my father and told him the situation. Pop and I had a difficult relationship at the time, and I knew he didn’t really trust Mark in the first place, so it took a lot of chutzpah for me to ask a favor of him. But to my surprise Pop gave me the $3K, and I echoed my friend’s promise to pay it back. Pop wasn’t, um, liquid, financially speaking. That $3K was a stretch for him as well, but obviously he sensed my fear for my friend. And I’ve also secretly wondered if he felt empathy for Mark’s situation – not that my father took drugs, but he did some sports gambling and I just suspect that he’d been in a similar situation… owing money to not-very-patient people, shall we say.

Anyway, you probably know how this story is about to go. I gave Mark the money, he wrote a letter thanking me and my father profusely, promised to pay the money back, saying I was a lifesaver, etc. We decided on a $50 per week payment schedule, which considering his salary shouldn’t have been a big problem. I received about $60 in total, and then Mark started avoiding me. To make a long story short (too late for that, I fear), he not only stopped paying, he began to flat-out lie about having promised to pay the money–in fact, at one point he denied even borrowing it in the first place.

Well, I was mortified and furious. I felt like a betrayed fool enough on my own, but having brought my father into it made this so, so much worse. I couldn’t let the matter rest. I was determined to get that money back somehow. I did have the letter he’d written indicating that he’d borrowed money, so that was proof of some kind. At one point I even had a coworker listening in on a phone conversation I had with Mark, taking notes as I asked Mark to be honest and admit that he’d borrowed the money and promised to pay it back. This ridiculously melodramatic scheme actually worked; he said exactly what I’d hoped he’d say, my coworker typed up her transcript of the conversation and signed it, we got it notarized, and armed with this document, the letter Mark had written a few months earlier, along with the check stubs from the two payments he’d made, I went to civil court and sued my one-time best friend for the money. Surreal, huh? If it had been just my own money, I wouldn’t have gone this far, I don’t think. But my father was involved. I couldn’t abide his having been used, through me as a proxy.

Unsurprisingly, Mark didn’t show up for the court date and I got a default judgment, for all the good that did. I needed to find him and locate him in order to have him served with papers demanding the money, or to have his wages garnished or whatever the deal was (don’t remember now, it was 17.5 years ago for pete’s sake). But Mark was as slick as oil and was never where I thought he was, and eventually I gave up trying. The judgment was good for twenty years–good until 2014. So of course, I had time.

Also of course…no. I didn’t have time.

About two years ago, Mark contacted me on Facebook out of the blue. He messaged me along with a Friend request, “I know you probably don’t want to hear from me, and I totally understand why, but I’d like to talk to you again.”

To my shame now, I didn’t respond. He’d reached out to me and I didn’t respond, too unforgiving, too hurt, too fucking stupid to realize life is short and throws surprises at you all the time, and there aren’t always second chances. I should’ve remembered this after my mom died after a long illness, and after my father died very suddenly after an accident. Death of loved ones is something I’ve experienced many times, but the lesson never gets through my thick head.

And now Mark, this man whom I still think of as the kid I went to school with, is dead and there’s nothing I can do with what I’m feeling. I know it wasn’t just the money but the betrayal that angered me. I also know I had a right to be angry; he’d used me and my father and that was a bad thing.

But it was nearly eighteen years ago. Why couldn’t I let go? Obviously I had no way of knowing what would happen. But I had nothing to gain from holding onto my anger and rejecting Mark’s attempt to reach out. Apparently he’d cleaned up his life; he became a producer and a talent agent and, looking at his Facebook timeline filled with reactions to his death, he seemed to have tons of friends who loved him for his humor, his talent, his warmth… all the things I once loved about him too. I’m truly glad he was able to turn his life around and create such a circle of friends. I doubt he really needed me, but for whatever reason, he did reach out. I was too small and petty and ungracious to let him back into my life.

I’m sorry for the bloggy length of this post. I guess I’m just… I’m a mass of roiling emotions. My anger and lack of closure are bleeding into everything I’ve been doing. I’m even acting like a shrew in the Mafia game here, for chrissakes. I know it only just happened, but I just don’t know what to do with this combination of remorse, grief, guilt, anger… it’s a cocktail of emotions that’s filling almost every moment of my day. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the funeral yesterday, and I’m angry at myself for that, too.

Maybe some of it is related to my parents’ early deaths, and unfinished business with them is eating at me along with the unfinished business with my friend.

All I know is that there’s nothing I can do anymore. I can write–that’s what I do best these days. But somehow I have to get past these emotions because it’s all too easy for me to turn self-anger into self-destruction, and as someone suffering with depression and panic disorder anyway, it’s hard enough to live my everyday life and struggle with stuff that most normal people do with ease. This could send me backwards into an abyss of self-loathing and I’m terrified of that.

Anyway… I don’t even know what I hope to accomplish by writing all this here. I guess I’m seeking advice on how – or maybe the question should be if – I should forgive myself for not forgiving Mark. I know others have experienced such abrupt deaths of people that bring up mixed emotions. How did you deal with it? How did you let go of your anger, remorse, or whatever feelings you experienced… assuming you did?

And if any of Mark’s thousands of friends read this and know who he is… I’m sorry if this feels like an awful thing to write about so soon after his death. I don’t mean to harm his reputation or anything. His behavior was that of a twentysomething immature guy. By the time he wrote me to apologize, I was a grown woman who by now should’ve known how to behave graciously. As far as I’m concerned, I’m the ‘bad guy’ in this scenario.

Ugh, I apologize for the length of this. I really do need to get a blog so I don’t let my emotions bleed all over the SDMB. Sorry.

You need to forgive yourself, and that will take time.

First of all, you need to remember that even though you were hurt and angry about the way Mark treated you, you were mostly hurt and angry about the way he treated your father. You went waaaaay out of your way to help him when he needed it…and he took the money and ran. You can’t possibly blame yourself at all for being upset about that.

There is an old saying: “Mule kicks you once, shame on the mule. Mule kicks you twice, shame on you.” It sounds like your friendship with Mark resulted in you getting quite a few small kicks. When the big kick came, it is completely understandable to not trust that person again.

Hindsight is always 20/20 (I’m just full of cliches’, aren’t I). It’s easy to kick yourself now that your former friend is gone. You had no way of knowing if your friend had changed - and you were protecting yourself from the person who hurt you. I’m very much the same way - if you hurt me once, you’re not going to get the chance to do it again.

Don’t beat yourself up over this. In addition to the fact that you were only protecting yourself, beating yourself up over it will not change a damned thing. It will only make a sad situation worse.

Let it go. Maybe have a private memorial…listen to some music from shows you did together, remember the good times you had. Learn from it…and let it go.

I don’t think it’s an awful thing to write soon after his death. Your love for him is completely obvious as is your pain. I’m sorry for your loss and even sorrier that you’re being so hard on yourself.

When someone dies we tend to feel like we have to forget their faults and misdeeds, I think that’s natural. You were a good friend to him over many years after many slights and you extended yourself beyond what anyone should expect so that you could help him with the money. So many people would have turned him down. Hell, I’m sure a lot of people DID.

You weren’t being unreasonable to want the money back. I’m sure it hurt to take him to court, but although you work in non-profit, you are not a charity. Mark should have treated you better. Do you think that part of your guilt is that you think he should have treated you better and you feel wrong to believe this now that he’s gone? I ask that only because I know that’s how I would feel.

But the fact of the matter is that he really should have done better by you and didn’t. Not paying you back was bad enough, but to lie and deny that he even asked for or got the money is just insulting and hurtful in a big way. No wonder you were so upset and didn’t answer him on Facebook. I believe most people here wouldn’t have answered him either. You didn’t do anything wrong.

I’m sure he had his own reasons, right or wrong, for what he did. If he was an addict he was suffering all while causing others to suffer so although I’m sorry for his situation and what he went through, I hope you can see you did all that you could do.

If you should want or need to rant at a total stranger, feel free to send me a message.

I honestly don’t think there’s anything you need to forgive yourself for. Mark was a jerk to you and your response to that was quite justified. That doesn’t mean everything about Mark was terrible, and you’re obviously able to see him for the full person he was - good points and bad.

If anything, I admire you for being able to see the good in someone who did something bad to you.

He fucked you over, you were justified in cutting him off. You can also pursue a claim against his estate, if he has any money left after living the way he did.

For what it’s worth, I would not have responded to his most recent attempt at restoring contact either, unless it was accompanied by repayment of the debt in full, plus interest.

I get that it’s about the betrayal, not the money, and I would feel the same. But fixing the money is necessary, in my opinion, to begin working on fixing the betrayal.
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Would it make you feel better to file a claim against the estate and donate the money to a charity in his and/or your father’s names? Your father would be “paid back,” in a way, and it might help you to let go of your feelings about Mark.

Your pain is very evident and it is inspiring me to contact someone that I haven’t talked to in awhile.

But you know, Mark had some options too. He could have paid the loan back at some point. He could have contacted you sooner. He could have apologized to you when he messaged you.

I hope you will be able to let this go and be gentle with yourself. I’m sure Mark is not angry with you.

The trick, to the lesson of compassion, is that we tend to think about it being about compassion for others. That’s the easy part, as you’re discovering. But that’s only half the lesson. The harder lesson of compassion is having it for yourself.

Your feeling, of being betrayed by a friend, is entirely justified, I think we can all agree. Your actions, very reasonable given the circumstances. Certainly don’t fault yourself for any of that, it would be terribly misguided to do so.

Sure, you can beat yourself up for not having found forgiveness for him, over those 18 yrs. But you couldn’t really find forgiveness for him, because you couldn’t forgive yourself, for having been taken in. Likely because it involved your Dad, that one step makes it all the harder. And I think, learning how he rallied later in life, causes you regret on that front.
I think you need to recognize there is no resolution here for you unless it comes - from you. Forgiveness isn’t for the one who betrayed you, it’s something you do for yourself. But first you have to see yourself as worthy. If, and I think you already have, you can sense or feel that, just maybe, you could have found some forgiveness for him in your heart, if you’d tried a little harder. (Certainly your description of your mixed feeling regarding his reaching out to you would indicate that possibility to me!) Then you ought to be able to manifest a little forgiveness for yourself.

We are all flawed beings, often missing opportunities for making things right, when they present themselves. They only become clear to us in hindsight sometimes. This ties you to all of us, since there is not a person, on this earth, who hasn’t regretted an opportunity missed to have acted as the person they believe themselves to be.

Here’s a little trick that might help move you along the path to resolution and self compassion. It’s a big, big world, with zillions of flawed creatures, someone, somewhere, right now, is suffering just as you are suffering. Seeking resolution, wishing for forgiveness, but unable to find it within themselves. Sit very still, close your eyes, empty your mind, focus on how you physically feel your pain, (in your heart, your chest, your gut, your head), then feel that other person’s pain. It should come easily, you know how it feels - almost exactly. Now, manifest compassion for that persons suffering, with all your focus, send out your feelings of compassion to them, wherever they are.

This takes only a few moments to do, you should practice it a few times a day. I know it sounds silly, but it will work. When you manifest compassion for another you trick your subconscious into having a little compassion for yourself and your suffering.

And a little self compassion will go a long way to slowly moving you along the pathway to healing. Tiny little baby steps can make all the difference. I do hope you’ll give it a try.

No need to apologize for the blogness of your post, communicating is how people work out their shit, we all understand that. And this community, in my experience, has pretty broad shoulders, so don’t hesitate to share what you need to, in this wide open space.

We’re all pulling for you, and you’re not alone in feeling how you feel.

Wishing you nothing but the best of luck, and sending you a tsunami of good vibes!

Hi everyone… God, thank you all so very much. This has been a rough week. Your support is extraordinarily kind and extremely needed, coming just at the right time; I got through Monday (the day of his funeral) just barely, then felt better on Tuesday and Wednesday because I had a project to deal with (and also uplloaded a boatload of pictures on Facebook of all the shows and stuff we were in along with the other kids, and that put me in contact with them and helped tremendously too. And then for some reason this morning it began to sink in again. I can’t bear to look at that monograph I posted before, but I don’t remember if I mentioned that he’s the first one of my peers–agegrou-wise–to die, at least anyone I knew. So there’s that mortality thing also that’s staring me in the face.

Also, I’ve learned a little bit more from those who knew him about what might have led him to contact me; Apparently a couple of years back he had a very very bad health issue, double pneumonia that led to collapsed lungs and a coma; he was apparently near death at one point, but amazingly he recovered from that and I can well imagine he took stock of things at that point. (This also gives more credence to my theory that it was an asthma attack that caused his death; obviously his lungs were in bad shape, even worse than when I knew him.) AnywayI think that’s what made me especially remorseful. Someone who’s genuinely in fear of his life is likely reflective of the wounds he’s caused and may want to heal them. Mortality makes things more urgent, obviously.

I am immensely touched by your responses and advice. Thank you all so very much, including the more tougher folks who advised to go for the estate. Even though it’s not something I’m comfortable with, I really appreciate the practical advice and the reminder that this was a real debt, not something I was making too big a deal over considering we were friends.

The reason I don’t think I could go after his estate, as it were, is that it’s just his family, and I know them, and I can’t imagine going after him through them. If anything I’ll donate to the causes Mark’s family suggested (the Actor’s Fund and Broadway Cares), and maybe I’ll do a parallel donation to someting my father felt strongly about… and yipe, I can’t think of a particular charity. Maybe something to do with spinal cord injury research, since that’s how he died. And hell I might as well toss something toward lung cancer research too for Mom. Get the whole trifecta of dead close people out of the way. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound flip.

This also inspired me to contact another friend I haven’t spoken to in a while; no bad blood or anything, it’s just that I tend to cocoon myself for a while (depression issues) and it’s so easy to lose touch. I’m going to contact everyone who matters to me and resurrect our relationships. Obviously it won’t directly help the Mark situation, but having a bigger support system might help me heal.

While recording a monthly podcast I do, I ended the show with a goodbye to Mark, and am looking forward to doing the music cue to fade out with. Maybe I’ll look for a tape of one of the shows we were in together where we had a duet. We played opposite each other romantically only once (that’s usually where you get duets!) so that kind of creative tribute would be very appropriate. Either that or pick Jonathan Coulton’s “When You Go,” which is beautiful and sweet and sad, and also has very pertinent lyrics toward the end:

Some things you always remember, some things you forget
No way to make it up now, no room for regret
That’s no good for anyone
And so I come undone
Now I am less than what I was
Whatever’s left is yours now

So fold my heart up small
Or break it into pieces
Find somewhere and keep it there
Take it when you go

From When You Go by Jonathan Coulton (creative commons so it’s okay to post the lyrics)

Many many thanks again to everyone. I know eventually I’ll heal, and being productive in some way will definitely help me do so – as you guys already have, for being so kind even though you don’t even know me.

I’m glad you’re finding some measure of peace, choie.