How Forgiveness Healed My Life

Emily J. Hooks
8 min readNov 30, 2016

On April 10, 1979, my father called my mother and asked if I could come to Boston for the Easter holiday. I was seven years old. Despite the request being a little out of the ordinary and quite last-minute, my mother agreed. I hopped on a plane. Several days later my father left a message for my mom telling her she would never see me again.

I don’t remember leaving the country, and I did not know I had been abducted. My father told me my family didn’t want me, and that my mother was too busy to call. I spent the next three and a half years being moved from place to place, always trying to get my bearings and adapt to a new environment. My father was an emotionally and sexually abusive man with a violent temper and no capacity to care for a child. So, at the age of seven, I started fending for myself.

On my twelfth birthday, the US Embassy in London called an investigator in my hometown back in the US and informed him that I was living in England. My mother flew to the UK in early July of that year to take me home. She arrived unexpectedly at my best friend’s house in the late evening of July 4, 1982, and whispered, “Do you want to go with me?” For the second time in my short life I left the life I knew with the clothes on my back and faith in someone I could not trust.

These events had a significant impact on my family. I came home to a very different life. My half-sister had moved across the country to live with her father and his family. My mother was deeply affected by the years of struggle and emotional torment my father and his family had put her through. Many years later, I came to recognize that I spent the ten-plus years following my return in the daze of trauma. I adopted the coping strategies of those around me and did anything could to numb the pain and confusion.

In November 1990, I gave birth to my son. This initiated a period of learning how to trust and love another human being for the first time. Despite my youth and unpreparedness, I was a natural mother, and we were easy companions. I worked multiple jobs while attending college during the first seven years of his life. I found comfort and security in school. Through my studies, I could escape the chaos in my mind and heart. But the relative harmony did not last.

As graduation approached, the fear of not knowing what I was going to do next threw me off the balance beam I had been teetering on since my son was born. I felt lost as a mother for the first time. Zach was becoming a little boy of the age I had been when I was abducted. I knew nothing about how a seven-year-old might experience life under normal circumstances. These changes stirred in me a paralyzing fear, and I began to self-destruct.

I turned to the tools that I’d learned earlier in life. In 1998, I embarked on a four-year journey through hell. By the end of it, I had lost everything, including custody of my son to my mother and stepfather, who, despite their flaws were better for him than I was at the time.

Much of the time, I lived in my car, sleeping in dimly lit parking lots hidden under trees and praying for safety on the warm nights when I had to keep the windows cracked to let the breeze through. I met many broken souls adrift in the chaos of generations of trauma, doing their best yet leaving paths of destruction that often included me. I will always cherish these fallen angels for teaching me the meaning of true empathy.

Empathy is one of the most important aspects of forgiveness. As human beings, we like to draw lines in the sand between us and them. “I am empathetic but I would never . . .” One of the gifts of this time was my discovery that those lines are illusions. All of the hurtful things we do are cut from the same fabric: suffering and responding to suffering. Given the same circumstances, we are all capable of the unimaginable.

In 1999 and 2000, after losing custody of my son, I made two attempts to end my life. On August 10, 2000, I drove to a secluded spot on the Paluxy River and tried to end my life. As I lay on the dry limestone riverbed, I saw the clichéd white light quickly moving from the horizon toward me. As it approached my feet and my body began to dissipate, something happened. In my unconscious state yet more vividly than this very moment, I had a “conversation” with “someone” standing over my right shoulder. In a single moment, I saw everything that ever was and ever would be. I knew why everything was the way it was, and for an ephemeral moment, I experienced no suffering. My body did not ache. My mind was clear and free. Everything made sense. My heart was filled with love. I woke up again with a jolt. I believe this experience laid the foundation for my eventual healing although it took years to integrate. Knowing the human potential for no suffering is why I do the work I do today.

Something strange and ironic happened as a result of my failed suicide attempts. Rather than being imbued with a deep sense of purpose and gratitude, I felt helpless in my suffering. I felt like I had failed yet again. I continued to try to end my life by placing myself in extraordinarily dangerous situations. I resolved to make the most of the life I was forced to live by getting tougher and meaner. The colder I became, the more my intuition beseeched me to yield, to soften. I spent the next two years continuing to act out of my suffering and causing unfathomable pain for those around me and those who loved me.

In 2001 and early 2002, I experienced the “dark night of the soul,” a crisis of faith in which I felt utterly abandoned by God and life. During this time, existence became meaningless, hopeless. I had no sense of what was true and what was illusion. I often regressed into a state of repeating “Everything is as it should be” over and over again as the only anchor I could find, but I did not believe the words, nor did I understand what they truly meant. I experienced love as suffering. My spiritual and psychological pain was the only thing I could see or feel.

In late 2002, my wish to no longer suffer almost came true. In the early evening of a fall day, I argued passionately with the man I had been dating. The scene turned to slow motion in my mind when a rage I had never seen in another human being arose from him. His violence, which very nearly killed me, created a shift that shook me from the trance I had been living in. This was the beginning of the end of this era in my life.

A few weeks after this man tried to kill me, I overheard him bargaining with another man to sell me. Through a locked door, I heard, “How much will you give me for her?” The other man responded, “Nothing. She’s not worth it.”

I speak about this moment as an awakening that spurred a change that the many tragic events leading up to it did not. My perspective shifted; I saw my life from afar as if witnessing a heartwrenching, but distant life unfold. I realized I was going to die having only lived a tragic life. My family was going to bury me, and the only thing they would have to say was how sad my life had been. At that moment, a compassion for self I had never felt emerged. The darkness pulled back, and an awareness of my torment peeked through. Then and there, I resolved to survive. I determined to liberate myself from suffering and live a life filled with the joy and gratitude that broke free in me.

Everything began changing in my life very quickly after that day. I left the city I was living in. I found a job and a place to live. My son came home. I began studying spiritual and religious texts. I studied well-known recovery books and practices. I adopted practices that were consistent with my understanding of non-resistance and our inherent divine nature. And, I started systematically forgiving everyone who had ever caused harm in my life, including myself.

Now, I wake up grateful almost every day. On most days, I know that there is nothing to forgive because the past is a projection of my mind and to believe that things should have been other than they were is to believe I am other than I should be. Sure, I still struggle with relationships and living but my existential anguish, for today, is a distant memory.

So, what happened? How did I get from a series of tragic events to the blessings of gratitude each day? What transformation took place to so fundamentally change the way I see my life and the story I have about it?

One of the many gifts of my suffering and my stubborn resistance to feeling my psychological and spiritual pain was that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only way to heal was to allow my pain to move through me. This is the essence of forgiveness. Forgiveness takes place when we embrace our hurt and respond with compassion and self-love. Jesus said, “Love heals all wounds.” The Buddha said, “Love transforms suffering.” I believe they meant this quite literally; That in the presence of love — the experience of it, not the concept — our suffering is transformed into gratitude and joy.

This non-resistance to our hurt is the first step in the healing process. From here, we learn the power of non-judgment and empathy for other human beings, including the harm-doers in our narrative. We recognize that as we heal our story will change. With compassionate eyes, we will come to see the difficult things that have happened as the very foundation of our strength and our peace.

The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness offers a framework we can all use to become more forgiving, compassionate people. It is a comprehensive and practical guide accessible to all who are willing to see their part in the unfoldment of their lives.

This story is adapted from the book, The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness.