The forgiveness tour: How letting go of a grudge healed me

After a betrayal, I had to seek new sources of insight to let go of my anger

Published January 2, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Hands protecting burning candle candlelight in darkness (Getty Images)
Hands protecting burning candle candlelight in darkness (Getty Images)

Excerpted from "The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology" by Susan Shapiro (Skyhorse Publishing, January 2021). Reprinted with permission from the author.

I needed a new shrink to get over my old shrink. After a heated falling out with Dr. Winters, my addiction specialist for 15 years, I couldn't work, eat, or sleep. I was afraid I'd never be able to trust another confidante. Then, at a charity event, I met Vatsal, an Indian-born psychiatrist. I was intrigued by his Eastern aura. He seemed more cosmopolitan than Dr. Winters the WASP. Vatsal had a higher degree than Winters' Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He'd finished a doctorate of medicine, internship, and residency, like my father. Although Vatsal focused on medical consultations, he agreed to a talk therapy session, a week later. There I spilled the details of the triangle with Dr. Winters that led to our rupture, hoping Vatsal could untangle the estrangement before I relapsed, or worse.

"I can't figure out why he lied about treating my student when he promised not to," I said, still distressed about his deception six months later.

"It sounds like he made boundary mistakes," Vatsal offered, adding "But if you build up a man inappropriately, he has to fall."

"Is that an Indian saying? Sounds Yiddish. You're saying Winters is just human?" I liked that Vatsal was respectful of Winters as a fellow professional, recognizing that I'd revered him. Googling, I'd seen that Vatsal was married with two kids, like my old head doctor. Neither had pictures up, so patients were freer to project whatever craziness they wanted.

"When he helped you quit smoking, drinking and drugs, you imbued him with supernatural power." Vatsal spoke slowly, paternal, though we were both in our forties.

"Yes, it seemed like magic," I conceded.

I hoped this new doctor could unravel my hurt. Yet I felt like I was cheating on Winters, whose cozy Greenwich Village office was filled with embroidered pillows and paintings. Vatsal's sterile midtown space had no artwork or soft light, just a bright fluorescent overhead. "You need a lamp with a dimmer switch," I suggested. Then I shared my recent nightmare of riding erratically in an orange Cadillac, Winters at the wheel. I couldn't get out of the car.

"Even your dreams have been in therapy," Vatsal mused.

I jotted that down in my notebook. "You know, my first car was an orange Cutlass that my dad got me for my sixteenth birthday. I bumped into two guys I was in love with at a party. Freaked, I totaled it on the way home."

"Were you okay?" Vatsal asked.

"Not a scratch. My father saw me and just said 'Thank God you're okay.' In Freudian dream analysis, driving represents sexuality. Did I tell you Winters was born in August, a Leo like my father? You into astrology?"

"You sure you don't have ADD?" Vatsal asked.

"I don't."

"I was joking. You speak so quickly," he explained.

"You speak so slowly." I laughed.

Good, he was chilling me out. I wanted the Winters saga to go back to being a swashbuckling fable about the heroic Addiction Doctor healing me. I needed it to be funny again, not scary and tragic.

That night at home, I received an email from Winters. It felt like male radar, the way an ex would call minutes after you meet their potential replacement. "Things are not how you see them. I have never wanted to do anything but help you," he wrote.

I didn't know how lying to me about seeing my student Haley behind my back could help anything. Catching her coming out of his office was a mind-blowing shock that led to our six-month fight. But his tone wasn't combative anymore. I scrolled down to see his email was responding to a question I'd sent in September: "Don't head doctors take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm?" I wished he'd just say "I'm sorry. I screwed up. I shouldn't have lied to you." Being trustworthy was his job.

I didn't know what I was seeing wrong. I imagined him rereading my old emails to discover why I'd disappeared. I'd hoped deleting him would help. But my blood still felt knotted inside my veins. I shared Winters latest message with Vatsal at our next session, confessing how I'd been so enraged at Dr. Winters' continual lies that I'd even put a Yiddish curse on him.

"Listen, you've lived through more emotional cycles with him than anybody else," Vatsal said. "You trusted him, loved him, idolized him, felt betrayed, hated him, killed him off. Now you're in mourning."

I scrawled that down, grateful Vatsal saw the intensity of the betrayal.

"It will be intriguing to learn the last chapter," he said.

"What if, after fifteen years, we never speak again?" I asked.

"This is not the ending," Vatsal said. "Here's a metaphor: a commuter was enraged when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the backseat, almost causing an accident. He didn't know the driver's infant was choking. Similarly, there is something you don't know about Dr. Winters' life that will shed light on why he hurt you."

My leg jiggling, I felt frustrated by what I couldn't see, wondering how Vatsal could be so sure something was missing. Was he psychic? "What religion are you?" I asked.

"My family is Hindu."

"Is that view Hinduistic?"

"Well." He paused. "I was an immigrant who came to America as a baby. When my parents settled in Tennessee, there wasn't even a Hindu temple there. So my outlook is informed by being an outsider. In Western medicine, there's often one established paradigm. With an Eastern bent, we''re open to more possibilities, to seeing a bigger picture."

"Do you think that's what Winters meant by 'Things are not how you see them?' Do you think he could tell me something that would fix us?"

"Is that what you want?"

"I want him to understand why I'm upset, explain the reasons he lied to me and saw Haley, dump her forever, and offer to return to being my shrink. Then I'll say no."

"The Rolls-Royce of endings," Vatsal smiled.

I hoped that didn't really mean: fat chance.

At our next appointment, I was thrilled to find an Art Deco lamp with a dimmer switch. "You've been enlightened!"

"It's not symbolic. I just needed better lighting in here."

"You could be my new shrink," I proposed.

"I barely do talk therapy," he said. "Being a diagnostician is what interests me."

"I could feign narcolepsy?"

Perhaps pitying me, Vatsal offered to be a temporary consultant for six sessions. During those, he was non-judgmental, asking about the good Dr. Winters had done, readjusting my focus. He reminded me that things could coexist: Dr. Winters could be a brilliant, generous, kind person who helped me for fifteen years, while also hurting me for reasons that I — and he — didn't yet understand. I could tell Vatsal felt whatever Winters did was pardonable.

I asked my colleague Puloma more about Hinduism's take on forgiveness. Pulling strings through her Hindu mother's Canadian Vedanta chapter, I felt honored to be granted a phone conservation with her Swami.

"I heard that forgiveness is a cardinal virtue for Hindus," I said.

"There are many schools of Hinduism," he answered. "Truth is One, but the wise speak of it differently."

"If someone offended me but won't apologize or repent, would you advise forgiving him anyway?" I asked.

"For us, God is imminent in everyone—even the person who offended you. Holding resentment against him — and thus God — keeps you stuck in what we call the Veils of Maya, which we see as ignorance and delusion, away from enlightenment."

"So I can't see the whole picture?" I repeated Vatsal's theory.

"Yes, we are often mistaken about what we think we are," he said. "Holding onto anger is poison; forgiving is nectar. An angry grudge is like lighting a fire that destroys the place where it's lit. It burns your own heart first."

I was moved by his words. My heart was still burning. To fight my ignorance and delusion, I had to douse the internal flames and undo the Yiddish curse I'd cast on my doctor in September. I lit a salt flower candle, placing it atop "The World's Religions" paperback on my desk. Swaying to Macy Gray's "On How Life Is," I read aloud Eastern karmic principles of ricocheting goodness and Confucius's reminder to hold onto kindness more than wounds. I thought of the Jewish and Christian concept of the Book of Life, where all deeds were recorded, hearing Dr. Winters say, "You can be very right and very alone." I decided his past kindness outweighed his desertion, deeming our bad blood over.

I willed my memories back to the best of my one-time advisor while whispering goodbye. After six months of feeling enraged, I didn't need him — or my anger towards him — anymore. Regardless of whether I'd ever see him again, I forgave him, surpassed him, and left him to move on.

The Veils of Maya were lifted. Or maybe male radar struck again, letting him know I was totally out the door, because right after my forgiveness dance and last Vatsal session in March, I received another email from Dr. Winters.

"I'm sorry, Sue," he wrote in a different tone. "I never meant to hurt you."

Tears stormed my eyes as I read: "Obviously I screwed up. But I would welcome the chance to meet with you one more time to share important thoughts."

My heart pounded as if demanding six months of pain be released from the prison of my chest. The good Winters was back. Like an addict glimpsing free heroin, I had a manic urge to see him again. But I was afraid, not trusting my instincts. Before I succumbed to his spell and ceremoniously forgave him to his face, I emailed my loyal shrink chorus, double checking.

"Listen to what he has to say, then decide," Vatsal suggested.

"Different tone, more contrite," my Michigan psychotherapist friend Judy texted. "Something shifted."

"The huge importance of his thoughts is familiar," sniffed my Jungian astrologer, a.k.a. Stargazer. "But hear the guy out."

When Aaron came home, I showed him the email I'd printed and read eighty times.

"I'll come with you," he offered. "Or wait outside if you want."

That night we watched "Damages," a legal thriller on TV, holding each other for an hour on the couch without speaking, as Winters once mandated we do to calm me during withdrawal symptoms from nicotine. After a gut-wrenching scene where a terminally ill father doesn't get to say goodbye to his son, Aaron whispered. "You have to forgive him in person."

"For closure?"

"Because he was kind to you for many years." He kissed my forehead. "We probably wouldn't be together without him." Something about the father's farewell on television had moved him. Aaron had never recovered from losing his dad five years earlier. Compared to the enormity of that loss, forgiving an apologetic, still-living paternal figure was a no-brainer.

"I'll go see him alone." Then I had second thoughts about seeing him at all.

"What if he argues why it's important for him to treat Haley and wounds me all over again?" I asked Vatsal.

"At the least his words will unlock the mystery," Vatsal answered. "And you hate mysteries."

I did. I was the type who read the last page of a thriller first, to get rid of the agony of not knowing. I'd scan reviews of TV and film whodunits before deciding if I'd watch, which drove Aaron insane. Vatsal implied that truth equaled healing. What if it was the opposite?

"Is it real forgiveness if I only say I forgive him after he says he's sorry?" I asked Stargazer.

"Sue, forgiveness is overrated," he repeated. "Holding grudges can be smart and self-protective."

"I know," I nodded. "And if it's a fake or confusing apology, it could undo all the progress I've made. I've been fine without him for six months."

"You haven't been without him at all," Stargazer argued. "You punched him when you kick-boxed, injuring yourself. You scrawled about him in your journal, fought him in your head, analyzed him with other shrinks, priests, rabbis, and gurus. You were with him more than you were before."

Damn. I'd almost convinced myself that living without Winters for 180 days meant I was over him. Seeing him again could be risky. It might be impossible to get what I craved: an apology that would make sense of it all. I heard Vatsal's voice reminding me there was something I didn't know, an essential puzzle piece missing. I waited several days to answer the email — an eternity for a recovering addict. I'd finally learned impulse control. Only quitting Winters could teach me how to manage my fierce addiction to him.

By Susan Shapiro

Writing professor Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author/coauthor of “Unhooked,” “Lighting Up,” and most recently "American Shield." She’s working on a new essay collection about sex, love and addiction.

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