25th November 2020
Lis Cashin on guilt, shame and self-forgiveness
Marina Cantacuzino talks to Lis Cashin who as a child caused a fatal accident which cast an irreversible shadow over her life. Marina talks to her about trauma, self-forgiveness and finding meaning in pain.
Lis is passionate about unlocking potential and transforming mental wellbeing. She does this through speaking, coaching, training & workshops and through her self-help memoir This is Me: My journey to mental wellbeing. She works with individuals, organisations and schools/youth organisations.
“I was asked did I want to see a psychiatrist and as a thirteen year old I thought they think I am mad and then I will never be able to get a job and so I said “no” and then felt that I had to try to pretend that I was OK.”
“I went and asked for an assessment of PTSD and my GP actually apologised on behalf of the medical profession. He said, “I am so sorry nobody has thought to do this before”. That really meant a lot to me.”
“I realised that underneath everything I really believed I was evil and that I deserved to be punished and what I got to re-experience was actually that I was just an innocent thirteen year old going to school and she had just done what she was told and something devastating had happened.”
“I had been holding on to all of this blame and guilt and you know, punishing myself and self-sabotaging all that time in so many different ways. And, suddenly I thought I had a right to be safe at school that day. I wasn’t messing about. There was nothing I did wrong and yet Sammy was dead and actually I realised the school had a responsibility.”
“I think forgiveness was when I thought I had done something wrong and so then I forgave myself for that realising that I was a child who hadn’t meant it. And then another level was compassion, realising that actually there was in a way nothing even to forgive myself for. That was the level that I progressed to which was actually, you know, just real love and compassion for the child, me, on the school field that day.”
“I´d grown up in a Catholic environment and `thou shalt not kill´ – it doesn´t say it´s OK if it was an accident.”
“I think in the light of awareness with different perceptions you can always see the different sides to everything. That has been my journey and so I can forgive other people because I may not understand their journey, but I know how painful it has been on my own journey. There was so much going on for me that other people didn’t know about.”
“I was so ashamed of all the things that were really going on inside for me. I wonder if that’s why it was also very hard to forgive myself because I felt like I had some sort of ideal that I should be a certain way, because everybody else is. But of course they are not, I know now.”
“We all have got mental health and we all have got struggles and we really need to be talking more about it.”
“Acceptance has been key for my recovery.”
“I am not holding myself to any sort of perfectionist ideal anymore.”
Marina: Welcome to The F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino and in each episode I am talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
So, today I am talking to Lis Cashin and unlike all the other episodes of The F Word Podcast this is the first time that I haven’t actually met my guest before because all the other episodes in this series are conversations with people I have worked with over the years or I am telling them or sharing their story.
So Lis, it is wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much for being here.
Lis: Thank you for having me.
Marina: So, I wonder if perhaps we can begin. Well, let’s start at the beginning shall we.
Lis: Start very early I think.
My parents divorced when I was just eighteen months. Then my mum was a single parent and then she remarried when I was six and it became apparent over the next few years that this guy was quite emotional abusive and was drinking a lot. So my home life wasn’t really a stable place to be.
So I started already to internalise what that meant about me from that early stage. So, I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t lovable. I needed to try harder. There was something wrong with me. All of these sort of foundational beliefs were being sown.
Then I passed the 11 plus, went off to grammar school and yes, because I was not really in a very robust state of mind obviously I was a target then for other girls. So I was bulled a little bit in that because I did very well in exams I was then picked on for that so I started already trying to diminish myself a little bit, trying to stay under the radar at home and trying to stay under the radar at school.
Marina: So Lis went on to tell me how she coped with the bullying by putting everything into sport because this was something she was really good at. She joined the netball team, she played tennis, she loved athletics but really it was the javelin that she excelled in and it gave her the recognition she was looking for.
So when she was thirteen she was picked for the school team to throw the javelin and that year on sports day she was incredibly excited because there was a real possibility she might win a medal.
Lis: And that morning I clearly remember, it was a really…..blue skies. It was in July, July, the fifteenth 1983. I went to school really quite excited that day looking forward to the day. I remember the registration in the beginning of the day when our form teacher was asking anyone who wasn’t taking part if they would volunteer. One of my friends who had volunteered, Sammy, I know that she was called into the headmistress at lunchtime and I don’t know what was said, but I know that she was quite upset as a result of whatever that conversation was and then we went off into the afternoon.
I did long jump, high jump and did OK but I wasn’t really expecting to get the medal there and then it was the javelin event. Sammy, my friend and a couple of other friends had been put into the field to mark the javelin throws. So they were just thirteen themselves as was I, and when my name was called I went. There was just like a white box that you take you throw and then there are two white lines that come out onto the field. If you throw lands within there it’s a valid throw. If it goes outside it’s not.
One of my friends had just gone off to get an ice-cream and so Sammy had just stepped in as well as another girl, Sarah and they were both standing just by the white line to the right of me. So, I did as I was told, waited for my name, took my run up and threw the javelin as hard as I could because I really wanted that medal.
At first it was going straight and just at the last minute it just veered off to the right almost as if the wind had taken it although I was told later there wasn’t any wind, but that is how it looked. Sammy was distracted for some reason, maybe from the earlier conversation or I don’t know what but she wasn’t looking and there was this moment of horror realising it was heading towards her.
Marina: Did you cry out?
Lis: We all screamed her name. I know I did and a few others and she just turned and so there was a moment of relief when I thought, “Oh god she has seen it” and then the moment of real horror when I saw it strike her in the head just above her left eye. She stumbled forward there was a lot of blood and the shock for me was just so overwhelming I just literally collapsed on to my knees. I had my head in my hands I just remember saying “Oh my god, oh my god” I couldn’t process it. It was just …
Marina: you knew it was a serious injury?
Lis: I thought I had blinded her and of course that was bad at that point because as a thirteen year old something so horrific and feeling so responsible even though I knew I had just done what I had been told to do. On another level it left my hand and it hit her and so I just blamed myself completely for that.
Marina: What happened then? What was the immediate response of the school and ….
Lis: Well, I remember really just wanting to go and get help. We were quite far from the school building and there was no mobiles in those days so I just remember really wanting to run for help. What actually happened apparently was I was just running around in circles on the field in shock until somebody realised actually I needed some help as well.
So, I was taken inside and everyone kept telling me it was OK, it was going to be OK and I knew it wasn’t OK. I was shaking quite violently. My mum was a teacher in another school and they rang her and said I had been involved in an accident but it wasn’t serious and so she asked for me to go on the phone which I did and she said then she realised something was wrong because I just wasn’t saying anything.
Marina: Total shock
Lis: Total shock. I was sent home and mum came home and found me upstairs. I was just shaking so violently. I just said to mum can we go and see her. I just had this overriding need to tell her I was sorry and that I didn’t mean it. And so mum said “yes”.
So I was wrapped in a duvet because I was so shaking and the lady on reception when we told her who we were, she said, “I’m sorry she has been transferred to the neurological hospital” and I really knew then. So mum went off to find a doctor and I was left on my own in A&E.
Mum came back and we went outside. There was a plastic chair just by the exit and I sat down and I said to her, “is she going to die?” and mum said “Yes, I think so”. And then that was everything just collapsed really for me. It was so defining in that moment. Nothing could ever be the same.
Marina: Did you have love and support around you?
Lis: My mum and my sister loved me very much. Obviously my stepdad does but it was very different. On the way back from the funeral he said “we are never to mention her name in our house again”.
Marina: So, you went to the funeral. Were you invited? How did the parents..?
Lis: Her parents were incredible. I mean compassion on a whole different scale right from the beginning. They never blamed me.
Marina: Did they tell you as much?
Marina: Early on?
Lis: Right from the beginning. They wouldn’t let my name be in the press. Wanted to see me. But of course for me the feelings of guilt were just so much. I just kept thinking, “I killed your daughter”
Marina: Did it help having their compassion or would their fury have been better in some weird way?
Lis: I don’t know, actually. I know many, many years later when I really started to unpack it all I was so grateful for their compassion and I don’t know if actually I would still be here alive without that because I think that would have been a whole different story.
Marina: Well that makes sense because you were unable to be gentle to yourself and they, somehow, are extraordinary people.
Lis: Extraordinary, yes.
Marina: It could be, I imagine, that they thought it could have been the other way round. It might have been their daughter throwing the javelin.
Lis: It is exactly what they said and apparently, I didn’t go to the inquest later that year because the police thought I would be in the media and everything, but I never got to hear other people’s versions until much later. But, apparently there was another parent there that said we shouldn’t be here. You know they were saying that my daughter shouldn’t have been involved in this, another girl who witnessed what had happened and they said it in front of Sammy’s parents who said it could have been the other way round. They were saying it could easily have been anyone of us the other way round. I am so grateful.
Marina: So rewinding a bit you mentioned that your step-father said you shouldn’t mention Sammy’s name. Do you think he was doing that to protect you and the family because I can see what a deeply unhelpful thing that would actually be?
Lis: Knowing the bigger scenario, I don’t think so. I think he just didn’t want the attention on me.
Marina: And therefore on him?
Marina: It is not helpful is it to go into a place of silence?
Lis: No. There wasn’t even counselling back then. In fact the GP said it didn’t even need to go on my medical record. I was asked did I want to see a psychiatrist and as a thirteen year old I thought they think I am mad and then I will never be able to get a job and so I said “no” and then felt that I had to try to pretend that I was OK.
I think I am so resilient to be here because I think I just split off that part of me in order to keep functioning but I never really felt fully alive. It was like I was kind of straddling, a sort of zombie for a long time.
Marina: Did your sister and your mother also go into this place of silence not talking about Sammy or what had happened?
Lis: My sister was only just a bit older than me so she was very loving and supportive but the guilt I felt I wouldn’t have talked about it with her. I did try and talk to mum sometimes but she would say wait until your stepdad’s gone out. So I got really angry with my mum because I wanted to talk to her then.
Marina: When Lis talks about her stepfather telling her to never mention the name of Sammy again it really reminds me of another Forgiveness Project story, that of Kelly Connor, similar in many ways.
Kelly was seventeen when she accidentally ran over an elderly woman and killed her. When I spoke to Kelly she told me about how her mother’s way of dealing with what had happened was to lay down the edict that they would never talk about it again, so that for nearly two decades she didn’t speak about the accident at all. Like Lis, she too was easily forgiven by the family of the person she had killed and like Lis, she discovered over the years that whilst silence may defend and protect you for a while in the end it will only serve to isolate and immobilise you.
Lis: So I would just go into my room and lock myself in and I used to write letters to Sammy. I used to ask her questions about things……
Marina: It is difficult going back there.
Lis: ….just things I didn’t know about her that I would have liked to have known. Had she ever kissed a boy? Was she happy? Lots of different things really. Also then, I was then telling her how sorry I was and I knew obviously I would never post those letters but in a way they gave me great comfort even though I didn’t get the answers.
Marina: That’s really interesting and you thought to do that yourself. Because, there is plenty of research to show that writing down feelings around trauma can be very helpful and build resilience and help people cope with the aftermath of something very traumatic. But it was just instinctively, it wasn’t like you thought this might help?
Lis: No, I think because I used to love to write anyway so for me I think it was probably a natural thing just to write my feelings. It was only much later when I went eventually went for some professional help that they said how great that I had been for me to express it in some way. Because I was told that all the teachers were keeping an eye on me but nobody was talking to me and so I felt like there was some sort of goldfish bowl. It was horrendous. It was just amplifying the guilt that I was feeling.
Marina: Yes, I think we have learnt a lot since then how to help children through things like this.
Lis: I think now you would probably get a whole army of counsellors for the school.
Marina: The school probably had to go the inquest as well did they? Were they reprimanded?
Lis: They were and their version of events was very different to mine and the girls and I never got to read that until I was much older, but they very clearly had been told what to say by lawyers, I think.
Marina: Yes, typical.
Lis: Typical, but yes it was death by misadventure and that meant it could have been prevented and the school had responsibility. A thirteen year old girl should never have been on the field in the first place marking the javelin throw.
Lis: But I never thought I would be able to let go of this guilt and blame because it left my hand and it hit her and I never thought I would ever be able to change that feeling but…
Marina: You have. How have you? I mean did it take years?
Lis: It has taken many years. In fact it was just four years ago and I am now fifty that I started to speak about my story and I found I was being re-traumatised in doing so.
Marina: When you said speak about it, publicly or to friends?
Marina: Because you felt the need to talk?
Lis: Yes, I had learned an awful lot up to that point, things that had helped me, more in a more holistic sense, a lot of it, but I just wanted to share those learnings I think, so I started to speak but then with being re-traumatised and I thought well this can’t be right, it can’t be so painful for me even if it is helping other people, there must be another level I can get to. So I went to my GP and I had read a book called The Body Keeps the Score.
Marina: Just in case you are interested, “The Body Keeps the Score” it’s subtitled “Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” and it’s by Bessel van der Kolk whose one of the world’s leading experts on trauma. It is probably the most respected book published in recent years on PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Yes, I know it. It’s brilliant.
Lis: And the first chapter was about a solder with PTSD and I thought, “Oh my god”. It was like it was me.
Marina: You had never thought about PTSD before?
Lis: No. I had heard it but not really understood it. It just felt like I could have written the chapter. So all these things I had been living in chaos internally for many years, although looking outwardly competent. People who knew me had no idea. I had managed to hide it so well but it was exhausting for me and it had a lot of destructive impact on my mental wellbeing.
So I went and asked for an assessment of PTSD and my GP actually apologised on behalf of the medical profession. He said, “I am so sorry nobody has thought to do this before”. That really meant a lot to me.
Then I had some trauma CBT compassionate focused which was very painful because I had to relive the whole experience but it really helped me to shift. I realised that underneath everything I really believed I was evil and that I deserved to be punished and what I got to re-experience was actually that I was just an innocent thirteen year old going to school and she had just done what she was told and something devastating had happened.
Marina: So, did you find the adult Lis was able to forgive the thirteen year old child?
Lis: Definitely, definitely. It was almost like my heart was breaking for myself. Because I had been holding on to all of this blame and guilt and you know, punishing myself and self-sabotaging all that time in so many different ways. And, suddenly I thought I had a right to be safe at school that day. I wasn’t messing about. There was nothing I did wrong and yet Sammy was dead and actually I realised the school had a responsibility.
Marina: So, does that mean the self-compassion that you found for yourself meant that the blame shifted from yourself to the school?
Lis: I think, rather than blame, because I had done so much processing by then it was more of a responsibility. So, I was angry at first with the school. I think that was a natural reaction. I just had it too late. So, I had some anger thinking this was so preventable. Why did it happen?
Then amazingly how life works but in my work over the years, I ended up in lead safe-guarding roles and so I realised how even with the best will in the world sometimes things happen. Fortunately they didn’t happen on my watch because I was so good at it because I was mitigating all the risks but it could have. So, I thought, you know, the teachers weren’t malicious, the school wasn’t wilfully neglectful. It was an accident. There were things they could have done and there was a responsibility around that. I don’t blame them. So, it was like compassion for myself, forgiveness for myself and then also for them.
Marina: Did you use the word forgiveness? Did the forgiveness come into your mind or was it about compassion and empathy for yourself? A gentle way of dealing with the trauma finally.
Lis: Yes, I think it started with forgiveness and then it became compassion.
Marina: And what does forgiveness mean to you?
Lis: I think forgiveness was when I thought I had done something wrong and so then I forgave myself for that realising that I was a child who hadn’t meant it. And then another level was compassion, realising that actually there was in a way nothing even to forgive myself for. That was the level that I progressed to which was actually, you know, just real love and compassion for the child, me, on the school field that day.
Marina: Did you have people sort of saying anything along the way to you when the realisation that came to you finally it was an accident, “We all make mistakes”? Did people try and tell you that but you just were just unable to listen?
Lis: Yes. From the beginning I think people said it was just an accident but with no help to process that I just thought you don’t know what you are talking about. It left my hand and now she is dead and that’s it. There is no way you can tell me anything other.
The police interviewed me after she had died and I remember one of them saying “Had you argued with her that morning?” And I thought, “Oh my gosh, they think I’ve done it on purpose” and when I did get to read the inquest notes much later with my statement it just said “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it just like I was trying to ….
Marina: It is quite extraordinary to think that they could have asked you that. It must have been blatantly obvious that this was just an awful accident that could have happened to any child that day.
Lis: I thought I was going to prison. I honestly thought, “This is it. I am going to prison. I am going to be punished”. I had grown up in a catholic environment. Thou shalt not kill. It doesn’t say it’s OK if it is an accident. It just says thou shalt not kill and so I thought, “Oh god”. Actually in a way perversely it saved my life because I didn’t feel I could take my life because there would be retribution and the after world and so I was stuck in a way just living in hell. I didn’t need to die to go to hell. I just created it.
Marina: And that kind of frozen state is very much about PTSD isn’t it? You can’t move on, you can’t flee, you are stuck.
Lis: Stuck. It felt like I was in some sort of glass box just completely disconnected for many years. I’d never been married. It impacted on me in many different ways,
Marina: Was that a conscious thing not being married and maybe not having children?
Lis: Unfortunately I recreated the pattern of my stepdad in relationships for a long time and so thought I would rather be on my own. But with children I think I would have just been so worried all the time. It wouldn’t have been good for the child or for me I think. It wouldn’t have been a positive thing but I love children. I have children in my life but I don’t think it would have been healthy to have had children myself.
Marina: Now that you have been able to find compassion for yourself, self-forgiveness, have you had any people frown upon that in any way telling you that you have been too soft on yourself?
Lis: Not really. I think only when it actually happened my sister was walking down the street and somebody shouted “murderer” to her. I have never had it to me and nobody has ever publicly blamed me in any way. Sammy’s parents they never blamed me. I actually saw Sammy’s mum last year after a long, long time.
Marina: Did you?
Lis: I did.
Marina….and how did that come about?
Lis: I published a book last year, “This is Me” about my journey. I really wanted to share what I have learned to help other people and so I had a lot of press. I was in the media. That really kind of got a bit out of control, out of my control and I didn’t want them to think that I had been paid for any of these things. I just wanted to make sure that they were OK really so I reached out
It was really one of the most beautiful moving experiences. It was just me and Sammy’s mum.
Marina: What did she say? How has she been over the years?
Lis: Well you know it has been incredibly difficult for the whole family, Sammy’s sister and brothers and father who has now passed away, grandparents, cousins, all of them. Of course I was only realising the impact of that as an adult but they have all struggled, I think, not blaming me.
Marina: Were they supportive, the family supportive of your book?
Lis: Yes I in fact I got permission before I even wrote it. I would never want to do anything that wasn’t OK with them because they were so amazing with me. One of the most moving things last year was that Sammy’s mum, because I had said I had written a book in Sammy’s honour because I really wanted to do that and she said, “I think you need to live your life for you now”.
Marina: So touching.
Lis: Really moving. I felt like a release, somehow.
Marina: It really made a difference. Was it like permission you could do?
Lis: And I felt that on some level that I had been waiting for that, unconsciously and she said, “That’s all I ever wanted”. I mean, incredible.
Marina: One thing I have noticed from talking to a lot of people about their experiences and stories relating to forgiveness, it’s usually forgiving others, it seems self-forgiveness is harder.
Do you understand exactly why that would be?
Lis: That’s really interesting.
Marina: We are hard on ourselves.
Lis: Very. Because I can more easily forgive other people for things that have happened then I could for myself.
Marina: Guilt is a huge cloud that hangs over us.
Lis: It is so destructive and so unnecessary. I think in the light of awareness with different perceptions you can always see the different sides to everything. That has been my journey and so I can forgive other people because I may not understand their journey, but I know that how painful it has been on my own journey. There was so much going on for me that other people didn’t know about.
Marina: Yes and I sometimes think that self-forgiveness is really self-compassion by accepting that good people do bad things, that bad things happen to good people. Life is morally complicated and that we are doing our best, basically.
Lis: I think so and also I think we are living in this perfectionist society. I think I have always been holding myself to that perfectionist ideal. I was so ashamed of all the things that were really going on inside for me. I wonder if that’s why it was also very hard to forgive myself because I felt like I had some sort of ideal that I should be a certain way, because everybody else is. But of course they are not, I know now. Maybe that is part of it.
Marina: Yes, that makes sense.
Lis: And that is part of what I want to challenge. Challenge the stigma. Break all these perceptions around mental health. We all have got mental health and we all have got struggles and we really need to be talking more about it. I felt like I was this kind of split personality and instead of this integrated whole. Like you said, acceptance has been key for my recovery.
Marina: So the last four years you have really grown into being yourself?
Lis: Yes, and it’s an onward journey. Again I think that’s the thing. I am not holding myself to any sort of perfectionist ideal anymore. But I have more good days than I have bad days now and that’s good.
Marina: Well that is really good to hear. Well perhaps that is a good place to bring the conversation to a close. I just want to thank you so much. Lis, for coming in to The Forgiveness Project office and talking to me.
Lis: Thank you so much for listening.
Marina: Thank you.
Thank you for listening to The F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join The F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. And finally, all these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.
Next time on The F Word Podcast I will be talking to Paul Kohler, a British academic brutally attacked in his own home in London in 2014. It’s a story that asks can restorative justice help victims like Paul and where does forgiveness fit in?