Like many Catholics, I learned of the gravity and scope of the latest clerical sex abuse allegations on the feast day of the Assumption of Mary. As I sat quietly in reflection waiting for morning mass to begin at St. Michael’s Cathedral here in Toronto, I couldn’t help but imagine the tears of our Mother looking down on us as she takes in the full breadth of the current disarray that has befallen our Church. What a mess we’ve made of what was so lovingly bequeathed to us through divine grace.
No doubt, many of us within the Catholic community feel a deep sense of betrayal, and to a larger degree, a feeling that we have been abandoned and set adrift on our spiritual journey. I think it’s safe to say that when the architects of Vatican II addressed how the Church must intersect with the “modern world”, they had no idea of the turbulent seas that lay ahead. The latest statistics indicate that fewer than 25% of North American Catholics attend mass regularly. Yet, it is within our churches that we receive the sacraments, hear the liturgy, and reconfirm our faith amongst community. The growing clerical sex abuse scandal is by far the greatest exigent threat facing the Catholic Church today, so how each of us chooses to respond to that threat will have a direct impact on the lifeblood of our Church going forward.
For the purpose of complete transparency, I should disclose that my relationship with the Catholic Church is “complicated”, to say the least. But having said that, I feel that my relationship with the Church is separate from the communion I have with the faith that runs through me. And I say this because I, too, am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, albeit not by a member of the clergy, but I do believe it allows me insight into the catastrophic aftershocks of sexual abuse.
When a child or youth is sexually abused, two things invariably occur. First, the physical violation leads to a dramatic deadening of the natural course of one’s psychological development and wellbeing. And second, the profound breach of trust that has taken place mars a child’s innocence and results in great emotional disequilibrium. Perhaps the most toxic legacy of sexual abuse is that the self-protecting behaviours enlisted at the time the abuse took place and immediately afterwards—the self-imposed withdrawal, avoidance, and emotional numbing—become the same protection strategies that inevitably morph into the self-destructive behaviours that continue to derail the survivor of abuse throughout his or her life. In my case, my never-ending attempts to numb the corrosive shame and unworthiness bubbling up inside me resulted in years of drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention severely compromised mental health.
Despite being raised in a very Catholic home and being afforded the luxury of a Catholic education, I decided to leave the Church in my mid-teens. In the ensuing years, I justified my withdrawal from the Church as tantamount to a condemnation of all the hypocrisy and denial taking place in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandals and the preachings of the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church that, to me, felt grossly out of step with the changes taking place within the community at large. In other words, what I viewed to be the failings of the Church echoed the discord I was so desperately struggling with as the result of the trauma I had yet to compassionately address.
But then two years ago, after an absence of more than 30 years, I decided to reconnect with my faith, and that meant a return to mass. The irony is that it wasn’t until I again opened my heart to the beauty of the mass, that I was finally able to fill that aching emptiness inside me and find a place of divine inner stillness. So today, when I read about the widespread depravity of clerical sexual abuse, my heart goes first to those who endured the unthinkable at the hands of the shepherds entrusted with their care. I also believe that although it may be initially jarring and disruptive, shining a light on the darkness and evil that exists within our Church’s ministry and those whose negligent actions protect the predators, is the only true path back to the sacred mystery of our God. Today, I choose to remain steadfast with my church and reaffirm my faith because choosing not to, only allows evil to win, as it takes me further away from my relationship with Jesus Christ.
At every mass, the priest invites the faithful to the Penitential Act when he declares: “Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” The greatest impediment to receiving those “sacred mysteries” is the workings of the Devil who continues to live among us. Acknowledging that evil may reside in some members of the clergy and the hierarchy that protects them is not to acknowledge the inevitable demise of our Church, but instead, it is evidence of the continued battle we must undertake to receive the riches of our Catholic faith. In fact, I’m reminded of this each day I attend mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral. At the end of every service, the celebrant leads the congregation in reciting The Prayer to St. Michael:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
I hate to admit it, but it has always been there in the background, like the dull drone of a refrigerator’s compressor, recognizable only in its sudden absence. And I felt so defeated this past week when the silence in my head burst, and into the emptiness of that void thundered depression, no longer mute, but rattling and unsettling.
And even though 20 years have passed, how could I ever forget sitting in the shaded room of my psychiatrist’s office on a sunny summer’s afternoon. Below, the rhythmic rumble of the passing streetcars created the perfect dissonance to the melodic Scottish accent that delivered my diagnosis. “You have bi-polar manic depression, and cognitive impairment from chronic alcoholism.”
And as those piercing words lay hanging in the suffocating air, a harsher pronouncement was yet to come. “You may think you’re terminally unique, but you are of no mystery to me. In fact, the only thing I’m not sure of is whether you will drink yourself to death, or if your next suicide attempt will kill you first. But what I am absolutely certain of is that your alcoholism and your incessant lying leave me with no viable way of helping you hold onto whatever life you have left. And, until you get honest enough to face these two facts, there is absolutely no way I can work with you.”
I walked to the elevator in stunned disbelief. I was just fired by my psychiatrist, and I could taste the rage bubbling in the back of my throat. I fucking hated everything about her cold, sterile diagnosis. I hated her ability to look me directly in the eye as she tore apart every justification and fabrication I erected. But what caused me even greater angst was knowing that as I sat across from her and I stared down at my feet feeling the shame and rage washing over me, her piercing eyes were locked like lasers, stealthily waiting for me to regain eye contact.
I’ve never met an addict who doesn’t score off the charts when it comes to taking full advantage of the coy, charm offensive; but the longer you tumble into your addiction, the more that charm starts to wane, until eventually, like a grifter, there is more con than cunning in you. I’d spent a great deal of my life drinking and drugging to numb out the violence, violation, and abuse of my childhood; and to be honest, for a time it worked; but then, it didn’t. Looking back, I had no idea that the price of getting high would be so high. I never drank or drugged for euphoria, or even for a sweet escape. I was chasing and elusive absence, an all-consuming nothingness, the fastest way to take me out my life, without taking my life away. Walking around with an active addiction is like carrying a swollen pustule of grief. It’s a grief that haunts you, and one that eventually robs you of faith and connection. I was never sure if my addiction caused my mental illness or if my using was simply a perverted attempt to plug the gaping holes of worthlessness and pain inside my mind.
I was one of the lucky ones. I eventually found my way into a treatment program, and got clean. But in clutching on to that early lifeline sobriety gave me, I was forced to let go of the illicit substances that masked the shitstorm of my bi-polar brain, and so began my reluctant dance to pharmacological sanity… Lithium was prescribed to stabilize my mood, antidepressants to address the suicidality, and Lorazepam to manage the waves of anxiety. It was an unsettled time as everyone close to me spent the next three years trying to save my life, while I did everything in my power to sabotage, subvert, and push back. I was sick and tired of being seen as a “patient”. The drugs that were keeping me alive made it feel like I was encased in a rubber body. Living a sober and medicated life felt like drifting through murky water. There were no lows; there were no highs, just day after day of soul-destroying sameness. After a while, I started lying about the fact I had stopped taking my meds, only to be found out as my erratic mania began to roar back to the surface. I continued to lie to my new psychiatrist about the trauma from my childhood. And I lied in my 12-step addiction meetings, as I pretended that sobriety was one beautiful group hug.
But then… I found running. I found a way to score that ‘hit’ I was missing, but really all I had found was a socially acceptable way to physically and psychologically beat myself up. And over the next 15 years, through pure willpower, I wrestled back control of my own mental health, as I literally ran myself off of all my bi-polar medications. Running upwards of 200 km per week allowed me to huff on the biggest serotonin pipe on the planet. And that bi-polar depression, well… that fell away too. Or so I thought…
Until… these past two weeks taught me that depression cannot be exorcised or vanquished like a menacing ghost; instead, its vestiges linger in you. It marks your soul, and it waits. If you’ve ever been caught in the debilitating undertow of depression, you know that depression has little to do with feeling sad, and everything to do with feeling nothing. You face wave after incapacitating wave of inertia, and you are surrounded by an overwhelming weight of emptiness.
As I sit here writing this, I feel as though I have arrived at the other side of this most recent wave of depression, yet still, every part of me aches as though I’ve been holding my breath day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. It’s the most terrifying feeling when your mind betrays you, and it takes every ounce of the energy you don’t have to try to ignore the shouting echoes of depression.
There’s simply no reprieve. It’s a constant battle not to surrender to that nothingness. Thankfully, it’s been years since I’ve been to such a haunting place inside myself. But today, I feel more awake to the depths and lessons of that darkness. Like a traveler who has arrived safely after wandering a little too close to the edge of the cliff, I feel more alive in knowing just how near the truth that abyss lies.
With so much in the media recently about celebrities and media personalities being accused of sexual violence and creating a 'toxic work environment', it's highly likely that more women and men will come forward to share their own experiences of living with the trauma of sexual violence. One of the greatest fears that any survivor has is that by making a public disclosure, she or he loses, perhaps, the last vestige of ‘control’ in his or her life – the control of the narrative. This is indeed a real fear, and it is something that prevents many survivors from not only reporting the crime in the first place, but also seeking the subsequent therapy and support they so desperately need. It is with this in mind, that I thought I would share with you five things that I have learned being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape.
It's a cluster bomb.
One of the disarming facts about sexual violence is that even though it may be perpetrated on one individual, its aftershocks can ripple out, and have an impact on the survivor's primary relationship, on other family members, and on the community, in general. Sexual violence is ensnared in the rudiments of ‘shame’ and ‘power’, and without a doubt, it is these elements that contribute to sexual violence having a toxic resonance.
It's a tattoo.
I’ve come to believe that as a survivor of rape, I will go through the rest of my life with an ‘invisible tattoo’. Others may not see it; and despite the endless therapy, medication, and the passing of time, it leaves a mark that will never be erased from my being. Sure, I may be able to cover it up, but that too comes at a deep personal cost. The sooner I learn to accept it as a part of me, but not all of me, the better I will be able to go through life.
Oddly, it's a gift.
As an international advocate, I do a lot of public speaking around the issue of childhood sexual abuse and rape, and the question that most often arises from the audience is “How did you learn to get through, or over, the trauma?” My response is always the same – I would not wish my past on anyone, yet I would not wish for another past. The trauma I have experienced has allowed me to discover a wellspring of resilience and strength that I never knew I had. In some way, trauma as been a ‘gift’ I never asked for.
It's a semicolon, not a period.
Although there have been many days when I did not think I would be able to continue living with the pain and stigma of being a survivor of rape, the fact is that I have found a life on the other side of the trauma. If you, or someone you know, is currently struggling with coming to terms with sexual violence, trust that life can continue. There may be times when you will pause, and quite possibly retreat, but have faith that it is not the end of your story.
It's perfectly imperfect in its messiness.
So, what does life look like after sexual violence? I don’t believe there is one universal answer to that question. Everyone’s path is different, yet a path does lie before us. I wholeheartedly believe that it has less to do with surrendering, and everything to do with embracing the perfectly imperfect messiness of what it means to live an authentic life.
And most of all, remember that you are not alone. There are days where it will feel as though you're floating away from yourself. There will be days where it will feel that the weight and the darkness are suffocating your soul. But, there will also be days when you feel yourself climbing back, reclaiming the pieces of you that you've left behind. And there will come a day when you will be sitting quietly by yourself, and out of the solitude will arise the voice inside you that will say, "I'm worthy of goodness and love, and I may not always feel this way, but right now... in this very moment, I'm doing okay."
This past weekend I learned a very painful lesson—If you spend most of your time standing up for other people, you might very well be neglecting the muscles required to stand up for yourself, only to find those muscles atrophied when you need them most. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here; allow me to backtrack.
This is one of my favorite times of the year because for three weeks, I like many others around the world, get to immerse myself in the majesty and drama of the Tour de France, arguably the most grueling endurance event on the planet. This all sounds rather innocent, doesn’t it? Well, apparently I made the mistake of posting on Facebook that I had been enjoying Lance Armstrong’s daily Tour de France recap podcast, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Now granted, Lance Armstrong’s history of doping certainly makes him a polarizing figure, and so I was expecting the usual vitriol in the comments to my post, but what I wasn’t expecting was to read: “Hey, J.P. I guess when you got buggered up the ass as a kid, it screwed up your thinking as an adult.” And just like that, my innocent Facebook post had turned into yet another minefield I had to navigate as a survivor of sexual violence.
Over the past four years, I have used my platform as an elite athlete to advocate for those whose lives have been impacted by sexual violence. And in order to facilitate this important dialogue, I’ve had to make myself, and my past, as accessible as possible. I believe in engaging with people wherever they are; and today, that means having a broad and dynamic social media presence. Although some people may look up to me and be inspired by my story, I think it really pales in comparison when I weigh it against the incredible individuals who have come into my life simply because they have been courageous enough to reach out to me, a complete stranger, to share their struggles and triumphs.
But with a public presence comes the inevitability of the trolls, the online abuse, and an exposure to the uglier side of our human nature. Every day, I spend far too much time, blocking people and deleting hateful comments directed at not only me, but also others in my community. And to be honest, it really starts to wear you down. This past Saturday I had reached my capacity to take this on, and I posted on Facebook that I would be withdrawing from social media in order to reevaluate how I could best keep doing the work I’m doing.
As people way smarter than me have said, “I’m just another bozo on the bus.” Sure, you might have heard of me, or seen me on the news… that guy who runs his body to the boundaries of human endurance, the guy who talks openly about being a survivor of childhood trauma, a recovering addict, an alcoholic putting the pieces of his life back together. And for the majority of you, I may be something that just passes by your radar, another news story quickly forgotten. However, the reaction is usually quite different if you are someone whose life has been impacted by sexual violence or addiction. To that person, I represent hope, a way forward even if it’s just for one more day.
I was sexually abused and raped when I was kid. You see, I can say those words aloud today, and my world doesn’t come crashing down all around, but that was not always the case. For almost 40 years, those words sat quietly inside me and leached their way through every piece of me, and directly or indirectly impacted every relationship I had. Sadly, my story is not that unusual. In Canada alone, one in three girls and one in five boys are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. So when a public personality or an athlete like me comes forward and says those words out loud, people take notice.
I’m very open about the fact that I don’t have a PhD in trauma, and I’m not a licensed therapist or life coach, but I am an expert in that unmistakable stench of self-loathing, that feeling that comes from never taking a deep breath year after year. I know what it feels like to lie awake at night and think about taking your own life. I know what it feels like to be so alone with your fear that you can quite literally taste the acid making its way from your stomach to the back of your throat. But this is the shit I talk publicly about because I’m convinced that not doing so will kill me.
Unless you’ve traversed this landscape of your soul, you have no idea what the language of this space inside of you feels like, sounds like, and looks like. But every single time I speak at an event or am interviewed by the media, others whose voices may still be but a whisper, come up to me quietly after I finish speaking, or send me a private message that simply says: “Me, too.” I’m here to tell you that I’m not a superhero, but right there in that very moment, I’m the only other person on the planet who speaks the same language as that individual who is being swallowed by an unfathomable and unnamed darkness.
People who have been impacted by sexual violence aren’t looking to get fixed… They just want to be heard, and so that’s what I do, I listen. I know from my own experience, and from talking to countless others who have a similar lived experience, that the only way you’re going to find your way forward through trauma and exploitation is to have a sense of what encompasses your own dignity. The shitty thing about having your life explode is that you find yourself shattered into millions of pieces all around you, but the gift inside of that is you quickly discover who’s there beside you as you begin to pick up those shards of yourself.
So despite what people who look up to me may believe, I am not a superhero. And as a friend so eloquently pointed out to me, that superhero cape people think I wear may in fact be the most naked thing I’ll ever own. For a period of 24 hours this past weekend, I planned to collapse my social media presence, and quietly go about my life on a much more low-key scale. But that’s just what the online trolls and haters want us to do—They hope we silence our voices and allow intimidation and exploitation to continue their ugly reign. I’m here to tell you that I’m not playing along. If my talking openly about being vulnerable makes you feel uncomfortable, then tough shit… You’re going to have to get used to it. Superhero capes are not made for one person, but they are fashioned out of thousands and thousands of once-quiet voices that have risen to join a chorus of “Me, too”.
What was left of the skin on her face and forearms lay bubbled and raw. I wanted desperately to look away in disgust, but at the same time, something primal compelled me to take in as much as I could. Little did I know that this would be as close as I’d ever get to having my very own “come-to-Jesus moment.”
By that time, the drugs and alcohol were still jolting through my bloodstream, and they made such poor bedfellows for the shame and self-loathing washing over me. That could have just as easily been me lying in that bed. And then came the flood of “what ifs”… What if I hadn’t decided to stay for just one more drink at the bar last night? What if instead, I had taken her up on her offer of a drive home from the bar? What if I had been sitting beside her when the car she was driving careened into the back of a propane taxi, exploding and sending a plume of fire in through the exhaust vents? And, what if I were the one lying in the burn unit right now…
I used to live in the moment, and that moment was usually an all-consuming desire not to just escape, but to annihilate—to numb everything inside of me. I was suicidal and wanted nothing more than oblivion. I can remember the morning I walked out of that hospital like it was yesterday, but in fact, it was 7,328 days ago, and I’ve been clean and sober ever since.
The only thing that stood in the way of my getting into the car on that fateful night was my alcoholism, that insatiable need to stay in the bar for one more, and with it, more self-destruction… more self-loathing… more…
It’s ironic that my addiction saved my life that night—It brought me to the bottom of my despair. I’ve been kicking around 12-step recovery rooms for over 20 years now, and I think I can safely say that there are as many definitions of what a “bottom” is as there are recovering addicts. But there is one I heard recently that really resonated with me. “I knew I had reached my bottom when I was going down faster than I could lower my standards.”
All these years later, I still attend 3 or 4 recovery meetings a week, not because I’m afraid I’ll pick up a drink or drug today, but rather because I have a tendency to forget. I forget what it was like to feel desperately alone in a crowded room. I forget what it was like to hear my wife getting our young son ready to go to the park, knowing that I was too hungover and shaky to get out of bed today. I forget what it was like to need the lubricating haze of drugs and booze in order to slip into my skin for another day. But most of all, I sit in those meetings to hear my story coming from the lips of a complete stranger; and it pierces my heart and cuts through all the platitudes and bullshit that I would much rather surround myself with.
I live in an old Victorian house on a leafy street in Toronto’s downtown core, and it feels as though each month another condo pops up, casting its ominous shadow over our little plot of land. The gentrification of Toronto’s downtown brings with it ever-escalating house prices, hipster bars and funky boutique shops, and yet one more Starbucks. But brushing up against this gentrification are those individuals who inhabit the margins of our community—the men dispersed from the homeless shelter at 6:30 every morning, facing the yawning tedium of the day ahead… I look out the front window of our over-inflated million-dollar home, and I see a sex worker flick her cigarette across the road as she tentatively walks towards the minivan that just pulled up. And then I watch as she slips into the passenger seat next to a complete stranger, and they drive off…
Everywhere I look, I see the ravages of active drug and alcohol addiction. It’s as though the more prosperous and ‘world class’ our city becomes, the more vulnerable people are pushed to the margins. I often think, what’s the difference between me and the addict shooting up in the alleyway behind our house? As much as I’d like to believe that I am in some way more deserving of recovery than that addict, there is no doubt in my mind that the addict with the needle in his arm is closer to grace than I am, 20-years sober, today. And it’s that startling truth that keeps me returning to my 12-step meetings.
And what is grace? One of my favorite writers, a recovering addict herself, Anne Lamott, says: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” For me, sobriety and grace are inseparable. Grace is a gift of which none of us is deserving, but all are worthy of; and I believe that therein lies the mystery of sobriety—a daily acceptance that you are worthy of grace, worthy of change, and worthy of self-forgiveness.
If you kick around recovery rooms long enough, you’re bound to hear someone say: “Religion is for those people afraid of hell, and spirituality is for those who have lived through hell.” When I think about the spiritual path I’ve been on these past 20 years, I think the greatest change has been in the way I approach prayer. Early on in my sobriety, I “prayed for something”… for forgiveness, for things I’d lost, and for everything I so desperately wanted. As the years passed, I began to do what others around me suggested I do—I started to “pray to something”. I’m not only a recovering addict, but I’m also what you’d call a “recovering Catholic”. And so for me, it took a long time to arrive at place where I felt comfortable praying “to” something.
Prayer has continued to evolve in my life, and today, I find that I’m no longer “praying for something” or “praying to something”, but instead, “praying with something”. When you take away the drugs and alcohol from an addict, you leave a festering hole at the core of his or her being; and in my opinion, the only way to fill that gaping absence is with gratitude. And it is with this in mind, that I approach prayer with a heart that is grateful. I no longer pray for things, or pray to change the way I feel. Instead, I bring what is with me to prayer, be it a heavy or a joyful heart, the strength of certainty or the wavering fear that comes with uncertainty. If the destination of addiction is escape, than it’s safe to say, sobriety is all about being achingly present in your life—arriving at prayer with whatever you are sitting with at this time.
I’ll simply end by saying, if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, have faith, compassion, and a belief that each and everyone of us can change—Each of us is worthy to be met with grace.
Be honest… Did you wake up to Valentines Day, and wish there was some way you could close your eyes and wish it were already tomorrow. But alas, there is no escape, and all you are left with is your Facebook feed, and with it the inevitable introspection, projection, and self-flagellation that comes with having to measure up to that ever elusive standard of love, forever ingrained on our psyche by the inescapable romantic culture we are immersed in. The writer Alain de Botton has a beautiful, and what some might say—catastrophic, description of marriage to which he contends often “ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.”
My wife and I will be celebrating 30 years of marriage later this summer, and as you can expect, over the years we’ve seen far too many relationships crumble around us. And somewhere along the way, we have become that ‘old married couple’ that many of our friends aspire to be. People often ask me what’s the secret to staying together for such a long time, and more particularly, how can you still be so crazy in love with your wife after all these years?
To be honest, I really struggle with how to answer that question because neither one of us has ever thought of our marriage being predicated on happiness. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “If you’re not happy, why would you stay together?” But here’s the thing, if you’re looking to find your happiness in another person, you’re setting yourself up for constant turmoil, disappointment, and disillusionment. I’ve always seen our marriage as something that transcends the waxing and waning of happiness, and instead, it has more to do with the ephemeral landscape of faith. Even the phrase, ‘falling in love’ denotes a chaotic and unscripted tumble into the abyss. It’s only when we try to script that journey that we interrupt the natural flow that brought us into joyous communion to begin with.
So, I return to my previous statement—Am I happy all the time? No, but I am loved all the time, and therein lies what I believe to be the beautiful mystery of any successful long-term relationship. Even though I’ve been married to the same person for almost three decades now, I would say that we’ve had numerous marriages throughout that time, each delicately demarcated by the undulations of bending and growing as our partner relaxes into, and at times, challenges that space of being loved.
But overall, what I’m most proud of is not that we have remained together for so many years, but that we continually made the decision to love our partner in the darkest and most vulnerable moments. It was in these times of aching uncertainty that we had the greatest faith to fall towards love again, and again. As I close my eyes on yet another Valentines Day, I push against the weight of the current, and once again remind myself that love is not a revolution… It’s an evolution… And so, I will continue to tumble forward with you, my dear.
We live in uncertain times, but this much I know to be true—live long enough, and sooner or later your life will go off script, leaving you with an aching feeling of dissonance precipitated by an incapacitating trauma, adversity, or loss. And when you eventually emerge from that mourning, it will have everything to do with your beckoning the courage to somehow claw your way out of the suffocating darkness. Arising into a tumultuous sea of uncertainty, you might find yourself desperately clinging to that one person who will be your lifeboat… your safe harbor. And more than likely, you’ll begin to amass a menagerie of talisman to which you summon your nescient, and oh so fragile strength. Self help books and spiritual texts will increasingly find their way into your life; and perhaps, you will even choose to be so bold as to mark this journey with a tattoo—a forever reminder of how far you traveled only to get back to yourself.
As you step back from the chasm of darkness, you desperately try to make some semblance of the fractured pieces of your former life, now lying threadbare and scattered at your feet. ‘Just move on’ people will tell you. ‘Put it behind you’… ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ But what if that’s not true? What if some scars and losses in our life simply run too deep for us to untether and ignore.
People often tell me that I’m resilient—a quality that I find as elusive to define as I do to recognize it in myself. It’s likely that what others see as my moving forward in life coincided with my decision to stop trying to slip the noose of the trauma and loss I experienced, and instead, to compassionately begin to make space for all that pain and absence. It was as though without even being aware of it, I began to entertain the notion of ‘healing with’ something rather than continually trying to ‘heal from’ something.
Those who live with the insidious scars of trauma see themselves as forever changed, altered, or re-calibrated in some way. And for me, at times, it can feel like I have four garbage cans, and only three lids. It’s an intricate and exhausting stealth-like dance to muffle the less socially acceptable symptoms of my mental illness. It’s constantly living in a ‘grey zone’ in a world that only sees things as either black or white. It’s figuring out how to deny those vestiges of trauma the oxygen they need to breathe to life, while at the same time, searching in vain for the vocabulary to articulate their uneasy presence in my life.
The Christian pastor and poet, Eugene Peterson once said: “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around, and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself… Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” And to me, that is the essence of resilience—a conscious choice to transgress the fragile boundary we erect around our pain, and a faith to move beyond that, which is ‘cosmetic’ towards that, which is ‘intestinal’.
Resilience has very little to do with surviving, and everything to do with awakening into where you are at this very moment. When we distance ourselves from, or anaesthetize ourselves against trauma and loss, we inadvertently diminish the potential breadth and beauty of our life. Trauma has such resonance in our lives for the very fact that its arrival casts a shadow over parts of our mind that were once open to us. I was listening to a BBC interview with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay, in which she said, “We write to understand the things that are missing in our lives… I think we are also often shadowed in our life by losses… that kind of strange loss becomes actually a presence… and so, an absence becomes a presence in our life… Writers often write to grapple with the presence that absence makes.”
So, maybe that’s where truth lies—having the faith to wholeheartedly “grapple with that presence that absence makes.” Resilience is not that which keeps us safe and allows us to survive; but rather, resilience is unearthed in each of us as we wrestle our way towards the pieces of us that terrify us most. In the words of embedded war correspondent David Morris, someone who has written candidly about his own battles with PTSD: "The goal of every survivor is to try to resolve this failed homecoming, to try to be less apart.”
I am an elite athlete, and I’m known for running insanely long distances, and for brushing up against the limits of human endurance. But over the past 4 years, I’ve quite literally run myself into the ground, and the thought of stopping terrifies me.
I run to escape the woman who gave birth to me… a woman who beat the shit out of me until she walked out… the woman I vowed never to speak to again, that same woman I so desperately want back in my life. I run because I’ve simply replaced a ‘healthier’ addiction for the drugs and alcohol that tore a hole in my stomach and brought me to the darkest void of suicide. I run because it washes away that corrosive sense of worthlessness I’ve carried with me since being sexual abused as kid. But most of all, I run for that other kid out there who still feels he’s worthless… for that other addict who continues to sacrifice her future for the numbing oblivion of today. I run because I pray that the ache I feel inside just might be the resilience so many others see in me.
For the past 6 months, I’ve been working on a book about resilience, and that has involved interviewing people from around the world to hear how they have continued to move forward in life despite tremendous trauma, adversity, and loss. In well over 200 hours of interviews, I’ve sat with parents who have lost children to suicide and tragic accidents, and I’ve listened to the trembling voices as people describe what it is like to witness loved ones killed in genocide. I’ve seen first-hand the immutable will of former sex workers, and heard stories of people ravaged by addiction and eating disorders—those who live on the margins of society. I’ve listened in on the resilience found at the end life, and heard its echoes in countless voices as they attempted to describe what it is like being draped in hope even while living on the precipice of constant uncertainty.
As I’m nearing the end of the interview phase of this book, there most certainly are overriding themes that weave the ephemeral fabric of resilience. It is next to impossible to articulate something that lies beyond our own understanding. I would go so far as to suggest that resilience is something we only recognize in others, yet it is that very quality of recognizing it in others that allows us to entertain the idea that it may exist within us. If I had to sum up one word that described all the amazing ‘resilient’ people I’ve interviewed, it would be--But. People who are able to move through trauma, adversity, and loss are those who actively choose to be superior to their circumstance—those who continually decide to live on the other side of ‘but’. Yes, I became a quadriplegic in the accident, but I’m not going to let it stop me from living a full life. Yes, I lost my daughter to suicide, but I’ve got two other kids who need me right now and a lot of other children I’ve yet to meet who need me to advocate for them too. Yes, I carry the trauma of my childhood with me to this day, but I choose to move towards the vulnerability of discovering how that past still haunts me today.
In my interview with the former Canadian Olympic sprinter, Ben Johnson, I asked him why he is still widely beloved by his fans while Lance Armstrong appears to be denied that same redemption. Through Ben I learned that an important part of resilience involves creating strong and authentic connection with others so that when adversity arrives, you have a safe place to land. In the words of Ben: “When the ship sinks, there will be nobody there to help you because they will remember the way you’ve treated them. And that’s where [Lance and I] are different… generally people don’t say anything bad about me because of the way I treat people with respect, and in the way I interact with them. People saw that in me when I was running… Even when I was very successful and doing well, I would go back to my roots where I came from and talk to people. I would sit down and talk to people who didn’t have very much, and they would remember when I was a young boy. It’s important to never forget where you came from and the people who were there for you when you were growing up… These are the people who believe in you.”
One of the most beautiful conversations I had was with a young man named Dean Wardak. A few years ago, Dean was drinking with his high school friends at a party, and he made the fateful decision to get behind the wheel of his car. Dean wrapped his car around a tree, and the force of the impact left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It’s a tragic story that could end there, but Dean has chosen to find a ‘blessing’ in that story, and it’s a lesson he shares with other young adults. “When I give talks at high schools, that’s actually one of the main points I make. Even though I was in an accident, I am actually ‘blessed’ because I didn’t harm another life. I’m a very emotional type of person, so I know that had my actions affected another family, that overwhelming guilt would have changed my life forever. Let’s be honest, if you destroy another life, impact another family, that’s a horrible thing, so this is why I consider myself lucky, or blessed. This is the main message I share with high school kids… If you drink and drive, you may not be as lucky as I am… Your actions might destroy another family.”
Time and again, the people I’ve interviewed have shown me that resilience has nothing to do with being bulletproof, or discovering your strength forged in adversity. Instead what I’m hearing is that on the other side of that ‘but’ is fear, discomfort, and uncertainty. One of the most illuminating windows into resilience came from Dr. Carolina Vidal. Carolina arrived as a refugee from El Salvador, carrying with her a lot of trauma and loss. Today, Carolina is a psychiatrist and one of Canada’s leading experts in the field of P.T.S.D. Here’s what Carolina had to say about walking towards what scares us most:
“Resilience is the ability to embrace the fear. Fear is my best friend now in everything I do. If you change your attitude or the way you think about fear, it can be amazing. Especially when both you and your fear decide to jump together. I came here as a refugee from El Salvador, and although I was educated as a doctor, because of my English skills, I had a fear of speaking in public. And I even had fear of getting into relationships that may be hurtful for me. However, now for whatever reason, something has shifted inside of me, to the point that if you tell me I should be afraid of something, the more I want to do THAT thing—today, fear is my friend. I embrace fear because I know nothing bad is going to happen to me… Why would I say this? Because you either succeed at what you’re attempting to do, or you learn… In either case, you’re never going to lose.”
As the interviews for my book are drawing to a close, I feel at times as though I’m struggling under the weight of responsibility that comes with carrying the wisdom and beauty of these stories of resilience. I’m also left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, from a faith that resilience lies within each and every one of us. In the words of Bruce Barton: "Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.”
Look at me on the street, or scroll through photos of me clogging up your social media stream, more than likely what you’d see is an active, healthy, and smiling middle-aged man—an endurance athlete with an insatiable appetite for cookies. But here’s the truth… just like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s iconic poem, I feel as though I’m wandering around encumbered by the greatest of weights:
Ah! wel-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.
But instead of albatross around my neck, my toxic stowaway is something far less visible, and far more socially corrosive—fragile mental health. That smiling athlete you see on Facebook is the same person who at one time, tried to take his own life. He’s all too accustomed to seeing the fear in the eyes of the people who despite the struggle, love him deeply, even at his darkest moments when he can’t love himself.
I take little solace in knowing that like me, millions of others around the world, dread this time of year—not because of the shortened days and biting cold, but because they know that these conditions are fertile ground for depression’s talons to imbed firmly in our marrow. When it comes to living with a mental illness, it is the stigma that can take its greatest toll. Even though I currently find myself on the other side of depression, I am ever so aware of how thin that veil is between me and fragile mental health. It’s times like these, when I’m feeling my strongest, that I realize how important it is to bring depression to the fore—to engage people in conversations about what depression, anxiety, and PTSD feel like. So, how do you describe the aching cavern of mental illness to someone who has never lived through it? I’m not sure if I can, but I’m going to try…
Depression has nothing to do with feeling sad, and everything to do with feeling nothing. Imagine a total loss of direction, a complete disconnect from anything sound, comforting, and forward-looking. Depression is not here one day, and then magically disappears the next. I also believe that no one is ever “cured” from depression.
If you’re fortunate, you may get a blessed reprieve, a gradual clawing back to a life of normalcy, for we know that depression is not an endless blanket of smothering darkness, but rather, more closely resembles a mysterious series of shape-shifting, and what I would describe as quiet, internal seismic victories.
Sitting within the depression, you are forced to draw on a will buried so deep inside that ironically, many of us never get to witness its birthing. And often what this looks like is nothing more than the quietest, yet bravest decision that lies just on the other side of consciousness—a subtle grace that allows you not to take your own life for just one more day.
For me, it was finding that place nestled within the architecture of my being where I unearthed the faith that allowed me to believe that the next moment of my life would arrive with less pain than I was in now. When you are on the outside of depression and are looking in, you will be baffled because depression does not play by the rules. It is a wily, and at times, vicious animal that has slipped its snare and has entrapped someone you love.
From a vantage point on the outside, it’s as though we are looking through the wrong end of a telescope. From the perspective of the individual ensnared in the depression, what is needed most is not the decree of the sane, but the empathetic presence of those who bear witness to that of which they have an absence of vocabulary, yet an abundance of caring.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that hope, and by that I mean a faith in our resilience, lies within authentic conversations about uncomfortable topics such as depression. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem entitled, “The Gates of Hope” by Victoria Safford because within her beautiful words, I find solace in knowing that resilience comes when we sit with the uncomfortable—when we begin to see ourselves in the struggles and joys of others.
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
I’m coming to the end of the 6-month research phase for a book I’m writing on resilience. Over the course of these many months, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over 100 individuals who have demonstrated sustained and remarkable resilience while weathering tragic loss, trauma, and adversity. And in each and every one of these interviews, we reach a point at which, for perhaps even the briefest of moments, I am able to convince the individual sitting across from me that in fact, (s)he is resilient. There is something about resilience that cloaks it from our awareness, an ethereal quality that lies forever beyond our purview—the moment we try to grasp it, or define it, is the moment it recedes further from our understanding.
I was recently listening to an interview with Bruce Springsteen on the program “Desert Island Discs”, on BBC Radio 4. While reminiscing about his own childhood, Bruce said: “I believe every artist had someone who told them that they weren’t worth dirt and someone who told them that they were the second coming of the baby Jesus, and they believed ‘em both.” I couldn’t help but think how those words echoed so much of what I had heard time and again during my resilience interviews.
If what I believe to be true, that resilience is something that lies within each of us, why is it the case that some people appear to be able to move forward in their life after adversity and trauma, while others become disillusioned, untethered, and overwhelmed? I think the answer lies, at least in part, in those words of Bruce Springsteen—a choice, whether conscious or not, to see ourselves not as destitute, but rather, as ‘the second coming of baby Jesus’. Because it is within this place of worthiness and love, that we enlist the fortitude needed after trauma and adversity, a blind faith that allows us to take those tentative steps towards the unknown. Resilience is not a matter of withstanding or surviving something; instead, it’s a decision to let go of what you always believed your life to be in order to reawaken to what life is moving you towards.
We often think of resilience as a manifestation of the human spirit’s ability to survive the unfathomable—those grand disasters and tragedies that populate news headlines and our social media feeds. It’s as though we don’t believe resilience could possible be at play in the midst of our own ‘mundane’ life. A clear example of this arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago, a message from a young mother named Natalie Doyle, a message that quite literally took my breath away with its vulnerability and honesty. The message began, “To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m even emailing you. I don’t even think this is a story for your book… I am no known athlete, actor, or doctor. I am just a mom…”
The letter details the struggles that Natalie and her husband have faced these past five years. She describes being pregnant 5 times, and shares that she has “3 beautiful babies, and 1 angel baby who I was able to hold and at least say goodbye.” She shares that 10 days after her second child was born, they discovered that he has Cystic Fibrosis… She talks about feeling as though a part of her “had died” and that “from there, our lives changed forever… I wanted to give up.” A subsequent pregnancy brought her ‘angel baby’, and now they have a third child who is almost 11 months old… She too has Cystic Fibrosis.
Towards the end of each interview, I always ask the following question because I believe this question elicits the most wholehearted responses—It’s a question that forces us to wrestle with our demons of inferiority and aloneness, and somehow in that process of responding to the question, each person manages to transcend that most painful of human conditions, and in so doing touches the divine within each of us.
So here is Natalie’s response to the question: What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
“For me, it’s making sure that my children are bathed… I’m reading stories to them at night… and trying to teach them strength. To try to teach my kids how to deal with the struggles that you and I have faced in life; and unfortunately, I’m having to teach them this at such a young age… where I don’t think you or I were ever exposed to this kind of struggle so early in life.
I know that I’m not perfect, but most of the time I feel as though I’m doing this. Sometimes I may fall apart, and they see my cry, but what I want to teach them is strength, and I want to teach them that nobody is perfect… and I want to teach them that life is going to throw us curveballs, so we will need to learn how to deal with them.”
And that brings me to the central question of my quest to find the essence, strands, and embers of resilience—Is there hope and redemption in mining our painful past, or is the cost of such a journey too great to embark upon? I believe that our greatest strengths are often found in the stories others see in us rather than in those threadbare delusional stories we tell ourselves, those we have carried around inside of us for far too long. Resilience resides in communion, not in isolation. I can think of no better way to express this than in the closing words of Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.