When I was nine, I sat, afraid, in a confession booth in the church I had been unwillingly dragged to nearly every Sunday of my life. The same church where I had been forced to sit and listen to the prayers and preaching of people I thought were full of shit. I always felt alone in those hours, sitting among the prayers of thanks and trust in this imaginary sky person who had a plan for all of us. A plan that, for me, included sitting among the people who abused me while some soft-spoken man with terrible fashion sense preached about how much this God guy loved his children.

I did my best to be a good Catholic. I prayed as often as I could, believing that all I needed to do was ask and I would be saved.  And if I wasn’t, then it was my fault. Rescue never came, and if anything, the abuse I experienced increased.

So there I sat like I did every Sunday, trapped in a smelly dark booth while the soft-spoken fashion disaster waited patiently for me to confess what by now I’m sure he expected to be a very long list of the various sins I had committed. I could always hear the annoyance in his voice when he realized it was me. The kid who always asked questions and never just accepted things. That Sunday, I ignored my sins, and instead spent the next minutes explaining in detail the abuse I was experiencing and who was doing it. I don’t know what I expected. If I expected to feel better, getting it off my tiny shoulders, or if I expected the man on the other side of the dark booth to kick open the door in a fit of holy rage and avenge my pain. Neither happened. I felt smaller and smaller, as he sat in silence turning over in his mind what I said. A few tense moments went by before Father Worst-Dressed finally spoke. He leaned close to the window that separated us, and asked me to forgive him and the ones who hurt me because there was nothing that he or anyone could do to help me.

From that day on, I thought of forgiveness as a weakness. I felt I had accepted and agreed that it was okay to hurt me. That it was okay to leave me vulnerable and re-victimized over and over. Giving people who harmed me an invitation to repeatedly chop away pieces of the walls I was struggling to build — walls to contain the pain they kept causing.

It has taken me years to learn that forgiveness is many things, but it is never weakness. It’s something that I do every day. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, but often it’s automatic. It’s an important factor in how I manage relationships with the perfectly-flawed people that I love so much. Accepting and understanding that their malfunctions have little to do with me. It’s learning to forgive my nearly perfect wife when she forgets to call or text to tell me for the 100th day in a row to tell me she’ll be late, because if I didn’t I would always be frustrated and angry with her, even though everything she does is for our family. Or when she forgives me for the 102nd time for leaving my pants on the floor and not in the laundry even though I know when I drop them there that it drives her fucking nuts. She knows those things are weird coping mechanisms that help me feel safe in our home.

I don’t forgive people because I’m okay with the damage their personality glitches can sometimes cause. I forgive them because I love them, and because I’m selfish and it benefits me. Forgiveness allows me the happiness I deserve with the people I now call family.

I’ve learned the difference between forgiving those who love me and excusing those who intentionally hurt me. I don’t forgive that priest who left a scared little girl alone to face the monsters, just like I don’t forgive the monsters. Forgiveness, for that scared little girl in the smelly dark booth, is finally acknowledging and placing responsibility where it truly belongs. Wiping her hands of the idea that she was responsible for what happened at the hands of monsters. Her hard-won forgiveness is not for their benefit. Instead, it is the process of forgiving herself for ever thinking she had any role or choice in any of the abuse that happened to her or the people she failed to protect.

She deserves to be free of the guilt that has often been crippling and destructive. That little scared girl grew up to be the strong and obnoxious me that will never forgive or excuse any of them ever again.  They don’t deserve it. As far as I am concerned, they can all fuck right off the edge of a cliff.   She forgives me for all the time I wasted blaming her for the things that happened, and I forgive her for all the nights she refuses to let me sleep.

Forgiveness is a selfish act of empowerment, and a beautiful statement of self-love that I’m slowly learning I deserve.