So many of us, at one point or another during a summer vacation or trip to the beach, have learned about rip currents. This little summer surprise is when seawater begins to channel from the beach out through the surf, making anything caught in the current move out to sea. If you end up in one of these water treadmills, the harder you try to swim or paddle towards the shore, the more exhausted you become. The trick to managing the rip current, as counter-intuitive as it seems, is to swim parallel to the shore, separating from the channel and then riding the surf in to safety.
As a survivor of seven years of sexual abuse as a child, and an author of a book chronicling my recovery, I often get asked what recovery from childhood sexual abuse is like for a man. It's a pretty complicated question.
Just getting to the point where you can say to yourself in a mirror that you were molested, much less stepping foot into a therapy office is complicated and incredibly challenging. For me, it took over a year to see a professional once I acknowledged my past.
My problem was I'm a man. I'm a proud man. I'm proud of how well I chop wood. I'm proud of how quickly I can open a jar of relish for my wife. Showing distinctive value every now and then in this world of uber-equality makes us feel good about ourselves. So, uncovering the truth about a sexually abusive childhood, and the hours of crying and snotting and shame that go along with it, is not exactly something we jot down anxiously on our weekend to-do list.
Dealing with these memories feels like something that will chip away at our value as men.
But, for me, after over 12 months of self-therapy, which is as effective as it sounds, I finally made the decision for the sake of my sanity and for my marriage, to pick up the phone and dial a therapist for help.
So, what is therapy for childhood sexual abuse like? It's like swimming in a rip current. At first, your male instincts kick in. Run. Avoid. Find cave. Shut down. This is the panic part, when you start to swim aggressively towards the shore while the current keeps you firmly in place. The harder you fight, the more exhausted you get. At some point in your therapy process, you realize that you have to make a decision. Are you going to give up? Are you going to keep swimming full speed and attempt to out-muscle the current? Or, are you going to drop a little bit of the macho-man, admit that you're human, and do the right thing for your life?
Once I figured this out, which I have to admit took a while, my recovery from childhood sexual abuse improved. I began to drop the wood-chopping, relish-opening junk, and I started to just be human. I began to accept things that felt a bit awkward. I began to cry when I had to. I began to tell my wife when I felt weak. And through all of this counter-intuitive behavior, I began to love myself for the first time in decades.
I'm still on my long road to recovery, but I'm taking the right steps. Some of them forward, some sideways, and every now and then one backwards. The Penn State sexual abuse allegations and other sexual abuse scandals at other institutions have made me feel less alone, in a sad way, and it has given me more hope that other men will feel strong enough to talk about their personal stories. One out of every six men in the U.S. has some form of unwanted or abusive sexual contact in their past. The more men who choose to take a deep breath and do the right thing for their lives, and swim parallel to the shore out of the rip current, the better we all will be.
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