I'm sure you've been in a room full of people when someone brings up the topic of cancer. You may have noticed the word "cancer" is whispered, said almost under the breath. It's a frightening word that no one likes to talk about. It's something we choose not to think about because we are all vulnerable to it touching our lives. It is with almost superstitious fear that we hesitantly broach the topic lest we invite it into our own life. But the reality is that we do talk about it. We raise money to find a cure, we honor those who have battled through it, and we seem to do everything within our means to banish it from our society.
That being said, there is another disease eating away at the fabric of our families, our communities, and our countries. It's something that no one is immune from. Next time you find yourself sitting on a bus, sitting in a crowded movie theatre, sitting amongst your neighbors, or even gathering with family, look carefully at the many faces, and realize that a staggering number of those individuals carry a secret that eats away at their lives like a cancer. Yet, it's a topic that few have the courage to give a voice to -- childhood sexual abuse.
I'm someone's son, someone's husband, someone's father, and possibly your neighbor. I'm also a member of a taboo society no one likes to talk about -- one that includes one in three girls and one in six boys. At the age of nine, sexual abuse entered my life for the first time, and for almost the next four decades, I sat amongst you feeling alone, ashamed, dirty, and less than. If I wasn't willing to talk about what happened to me, how could I expect that society at large would engage in a dialogue about what's happening to an alarming number our kids?
I won't begin to bore you with the train wreck that served as a metaphor for my adolescence and most of my adult life. I did everything possible to cut away that ugly "stowaway" buried deep inside me, but ironically it oozed out in my addictions, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Four months ago, with the help of my wife and therapy team, I did something I never imagined I could do -- I walked into the police station and made a video deposition against one of the men who sexually abused me when I was a trusting child. If truth be told, my voice in that deposition was a shaky truncated whisper, but I now realize that I added my faint whisper to a chorus of whispers finally coming to life in the air around me. When I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the police station and entered the claustrophobic video recording room, I knew that my life would never be the same again. I also knew that the road ahead would not be smooth, and that my resolve would be tested. Yesterday, after a long conversation with the investigating officer about the procedural hurdles before me, I felt gutted, afraid, and alone. I know that I have only two options -- face this head on, or bury it and permit this to steal the rest of my life. After a day of much soul-searching, I've come up with three guiding principles to help me push through this terminal discomfort.
1. I need to step back to move forward.
I've never subscribed to the belief that it's better to leave the past in the past, and simply move on. Yes, our past is indeed a minefield, but within that minefield lies an abundant orchard waiting to be harvested. I know there are parts of me I need to reconnect with and bring forward into a better place today. Inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant articulates this perfectly:
Until you heal the wounds of your past, you are going to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex. But eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds. Stick your hands inside, pull out the core of pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.
2. If I wait for all the pieces to fall into place, I'll only end up falling to pieces.
Last year when I first disclosed to my wife that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, we quickly realized that this was a problem that we were ill-equipped to handle, so we started looking for professionals and resources to help us get through this together. It didn't take long to discover that childhood sexual abuse resources are primarily allocated to children, and to a much lesser extent, women. When it comes to treating men who are seeking help, there is very little available. This harsh reality has fuelled my desire to become a full-time advocate for adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. At this point, I'm struggling with what this "mission" should look like, but in so doing, I risk being overwhelmed and not taking any action at all. I'm reminded of a quote I heard recently: "It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than think yourself into a new way of acting."
3. Whenever my spirits waiver, I need to remind myself of these essential truths:
- If I exercise my body, I exorcise my mind. My running and my yoga practice help clear my mind, and that opens the space I need to process adversity.
- Passion is contagious. By lending my voice to this issue and advocating for a serious public discourse, I act as a beacon for other men, women, and children to find their voice and their way through this pain.
- It doesn't require a doctorate degree, it just requires "me". I've been attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings now for more than 17 years, and I believe AA's success lies in its core belief that healing comes from the simplicity of one alcoholic talking to another. I want to be perfectly clear that I'm not discounting the role of treatment professionals and therapists, especially considering I've found much relief in them, but I don't care how long you've been in school, until you've experienced the terror and confusion of a child who has been sexually abused, you will never understand what it feels like to be a foreigner in your own body.
- Like a lotus flower, beauty can appear from a murky place. Many of us harbour a part of us that we believe is ugly or broken in some way. In truth, that piece of us that we hide from the light, may in fact be the most beautiful part of us.
I'd like to leave you with a precious reminder from Cynthia Occelli:
For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn't understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.