I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it arrived. Possibly, it had gradually washed over me like a steel grey bank of dense clouds. But in either case, I was left remembering a feeling I had long forgotten. The book I held in my hand no longer a quiet refuge, but now nothing more than page after page of words that shifted, evaporated, and distilled no meaning. As the book fell into my lap, I felt a weight settle not so much on my chest, as in my chest. A constriction, an immense coarseness that forbade breath deep into my lungs. My shallow breaths confined to inhalations of mere existence and as they were denied the luxury of slipping deeper into the bellows of life-affirming sustenance.
This was not just another panic attack that had washed over me. There were no accompanying symptoms of tingly fingers, waves of nausea, and that tell-tale sign of needing to escape. No, this was different. This went on day after day for almost a month before I finally accepted what I had suspected all along. My mind had betrayed me yet again; or maybe it was simply following its ancient script. It had been nine years since its last visit, but here it was pounding on my chest, its sinister and tormenting suitcases in tow… Bipolar depression had arrived in my life again, and there was no hope in hell that I could deny it the oxygen and life it bled from my life.
People who have never experienced depression imagine it be an overwhelming sadness, a temporary life derailment, an escape from which, an individual need only look inward to gratitude, and reach outward for meaning, love, and purpose. If only it were that simple—a tweak here, a recalibration there, and now you’re good to go.
But here’s the thing, clinical depression has nothing to do with being “sad” or feeling “down”; sure, you might hear people describe it using those words, but that’s because depression escapes our vocabulary. It transcends feelings altogether and leaves an individual adrift in a state devoid of feelings. It’s no surprise that as far back as we can see, depression has been described as an enveloping “darkness”. To be depressed is to inhabit a world of faded colours and muted sounds; and all the while, you sleepwalk through your life equally compelled to seek out community, with the full knowledge that the mere thought of sharing space with another repulses you.
This is now my third visit with bipolar depression, and it has found me in a place much different from where I was on its previous incantations. There was a time I would fight it, deny it, and starve it of the oxygen it needed to course through my mind and body. I pretended it was not accompanying me through my day. I drank and drugged myself through it, around it, and over it. To my mind, there was nothing good that could come of it—a malignant mass that needed to be cut out of my body. There was no need for a biopsy because there was nothing to be gleaned from its shadowy presence. And that’s the way I lived through my previous experiences with bipolar depression. I suffered alone as I drifted further and further away from the “real” me. I saw it as a weakness, a silent genetic mutation that occasionally sprang into action and stole my sanity, my sense of worth, my time on this earth.
But today, I’ve come to see my visits with bipolar depression not as blinding incriminations, but rather as extended moments of stillness and reflection. It reminds me of the little brass Tibetan singing bowl that sits on our dining room table. Before a meal, we strike the metal bowl with a tiny wooden mallet, and for 30 or 40 seconds, the bowl comes to life and emits a gentle ringing. And as that ringing begins to subside, it gives way to a precise moment where there is no longer sound, just an absence of sound. It’s meant as a moment of reflection, an entry point into a deeper communion with yourself and the divine. And to me, that’s the “gift” of my depression; beyond the exhaustion, beyond the fear and frustration, lies a chasm of dark primordial silence. At its core, depression is a conversation with facts. When you realize that all the outside layers of contrived security and comfort have been stripped away by depression, what you are left with is a terrifyingly authentic conversation with self. As the poet Seamus Heaney so eloquently breathed to words:
“You are neither here not there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
My prayer for today is that I not rile against the loneliness and frustration of my depression. Instead, I will mindfully traverse this temporary darkness, and when it asks of me to rest, I will rest. But deep in my soul I know that I have been graced with an opportunity to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” Onwards…
We’ve become conditioned not to trust what we can’t see, touch, or feel. And that may hold true for most things in life, but when it comes to love, we willingly surrender to its mystery. So why are we so less inclined to grant ourselves that same freedom when it comes to professing our faith? Is it simply the fact that we have the eyes to see our mortal wounds, yet are hopeless at finding the words to articulate our mortal healing? Live long enough, and love hard enough, and you will invariably reach a point at which your mortal wounds will be revealed to you, and along with that understanding comes a degree of acceptance that despite your best efforts, some wounds will never heal.
The Buddhists believe that much of humanity is cast adrift in a world of illusion, caught in an endless cycle of “samsara”—birth, a flow through mundane existence, and a return to death. The belief is that at the root of all human suffering is mistaking the illusion of our everyday existence as the essence of life itself. But for me, as a Catholic, the notion of suffering is not something to be dismissed as an illusion or barrier to self-actualization, but rather, as the very means for which I transcend the mundane and touch the divine.
What do we do when catastrophe strikes, or when pain and grief become too heavy to bear? Many of us respond to pain by seeking sanctuary, and for hundreds of years, that solace took the form of a temple, a church, or a mosque. It’s hardly surprising that faith is often referred to as a “spiritual practice” because for the vast majority of us, it is not something natural to us. In fact, everything in our society teaches us to avoid surrender, and instead to wage battle and vanquish our weakness. There are no gimmicks or shortcuts to a spiritual life, and it is only through sustained ritual and practice that our eyes become open to God’s will and grace.
There appears to be less tolerance for the practice of faith in our modern world, a world in which scientism increasingly tells us that all in our way can harnessed and exploited, often at our own peril. No doubt, science and technology have extended our physical, and to a lesser degree, intellectual reach. But an over dependence on human mastery has not come without a great cost. The further we reach into the cosmos, the more likely we are to recognize that it is our faith—our spiritual practice—that allows us to extend our internal reach, thereby strengthening our conscious contact with God and ulltimately, our connection to one another. My faith is akin to mining for spiritual resources hidden deep within me. God lives within each us, and thus by professing our faith, we not only delve the depths of that spiritual mineshaft within us, but by being of service to others, we invite them to embark on that same spiritual exploration.
It’s certainly not easy being a practising Catholic today, and at times, the Catholic faith is seen at best as “quaint” and at other times, a “threat”. When friends ask why I choose to attend mass every day, I struggle to put my faith into words. I do believe that behind the veil of all certainty lies the fragile pulse of vulnerability. And for me, the certainty of my faith arises as I kneel each morning in the church pew, and I’m simply one among many. Each of us has committed in that moment to take that blind leap of faith. But above all, it is that communal fall towards uncertainty that allows me, for the briefest of moments, to feel the presence of God. So asking me to describe that God is like asking me to put words to the depth of joy I find in my wife’s eyes, or that breath that flows through me when I hear the fluttering of an Éric Satie melody, or the way my heart opens when I witness the weightless synchronicity of a pas de deux. My faith feeds me so much more than mere consolation. It awakens me. It challenges me. And at times, it arrests me. In “Verbum Domini”, Pope Benedict says that our faith commands all of us to ministry, and that: "It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers.”
One of the great criticisms the Church faces is its adherence to dogma which, at times, seems counter to the social norms. But at the other extreme, a life devoid of faith, lies the religiosity of the individual, a deference to an individual‘s sacrosanct dominion over his or her life. Were we to take that to its extreme, what we are left with is a community of siloed individuals, none willing to sacrifice for the other. But is there another path, another way to bridge our innate desire to conquer and compete with that of a quiet surrender to the call of the divine?
At times, it is my faith that allows me to heal, to strive to bridge that gap between what I want versus what I need. But more often than not, it is my faith that allows me to find strength in quiet surrender. Faith politics not in the language of reason but in the breathless language of awe and prayer. And it is not until I reside in that still point of quiet surrender that I find freedom in my suffering and an affinity in divine grace. And here I find myself once more with my words escaping me, so I will leave you with the evocative lamentation of T.S. Eliot:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
As Mary-Anne and I made our way to the only Starbucks open at this ungodly hour the morning after Christmas, we cut through a back alley behind one of the many condos casting its shadow over our little Victorian house in Toronto’s city core. And then amongst the “urban tumbleweed”—that accumulated mix of condom wrappers, needles, and random pieces of clothing—we caught sight of an abandoned Christmas tree, which only a few hours before had been decorated and aglow, yet now sat wedged beside a back doorway in the dimly lit alley.
Seeing that tree brought back a flood of memories of the first Christmas after my mother had left. All day long my dad had stoically managed to reign in his emotions and bury his shame, but as soon as we got up from the dinner table, my dad roared into the living room, grabbed ahold of the Christmas tree, stand and all, and tossed it out onto a snowbank, leaving a trail of tinsel and colourful bobbles in its wake. To this day, I can still hear the sound of my dad sobbing behind the closed door to his bedroom, as he faced the reality that his wife of 30 years, the mother to his children, was spending Christmas in the arms of another man. Now here I am, over 40 years later, and I, like my father before me, battle those same demons every year at this time, as I long for the comfort of a family that used to be, a family that more than likely never was.
The Welsh have a word for this melancholic feeling, “Hiraeth”, which loosely translates as “homesick”, yet the Welsh word encompasses a breadth and depth of emotion far more nuanced than its English counterpart. Hiraeth is a deep longing to reconnect to the place where your soul resides, an insurmountable heart sickness to somehow find that place that no longer exists, a place that perhaps, never really existed at all.
The closest I can come to recreating this ethereal place of warmth and belonging is to recall the afternoons I spent alone with my nana in her little brownstone apartment, just down the street from my elementary school. As we shared sugary cups of milky tea and warm bowls of soup, my nana would smother me with love and speak to me in her soft Scottish brogue. Alzheimer’s had already taken hold of her by this point, but in addition to stealing her memories, the disease magically stripped away any pretence and awkwardness, so all that was left was the purest unadorned love. It wouldn’t be long before my nana would be forcibly removed from her apartment to spend her remaining days behind a locked door in an institution. As I visited my nana in the nursing home each week, her cloudy blue eyes betrayed that her body would far outlive her mind.
We all grow up learning that Christmas is a time to reconnect with family and friends and with the things that ground us to our life. But for many people, like me, those who for whatever reason have grown apart from family, this is a season of deep sadness and regret. Over the years, I have learned to find refuge from this darkness by surrounding myself with the people who may defy the traditional definition of family, but who have become my family, nonetheless. And when it comes to defining what family really means, what better role model than Jesus himself, someone who betrayed by his own community, sought out the company of sinners, thieves, and the forgotten, those living on the margins of society.
One can hardly be blamed for being sidetracked, or in some cases sideswiped, by family drama during this holiday season; however, it is also a healthy reminder that Christmas is a time of abundant blessings. It's also a reminder that to be blessed has little to do with happiness, for happiness is far too trivial a word to use when we talk of blessings. To speak of blessings is to evoke a degree of fulfilment and the simplicity of grace. Once again I’m reminded that some of us are blessed in that we get to take our family along with us on this journey, while others are equally blessed in that they have come to realize that sometimes family must be left behind in order to open our hearts to the arrival of others. And so, I believe the Welsh have indeed landed on the perfect word—hiraeth—to describe that place of longing that recedes further and further away from us with each passing day. Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, I wish you comfort in the blessings of the family and friends who grace your life.
The season of joy is upon us. . . if only we could slow down long enough to witness its birthing. I’ve always thought it was no coincidence that the diminishing daylight in the days leading up to Christmas framed a perfect metaphor to the darkness that envelops us during this supposedly, joyous time. It’s also the time of the year when I’m reminded of how the circumstances of my life have left me adrift of my birth family, leaving me longing for the type of nostalgic childhood portrayed in our popular culture. It’s no wonder I see myself in need of a compass, very much a vagabond traveler desperate to quiet the vestiges of emotional disconnect.
But the gospels of this season also remind me that Advent is the time that God calls upon the blessing of the wretched, the disenfranchised, and the wandering. And it is within that disconnect between what we strive to become and where we are found, that we arrive at the place in which we start to perceive the echoes of a soul for which we can holdfast. The Advent season is meant not as a time of fretful anticipation, but instead, one of joyous expectation. It’s a time to immerse in, and savour the hope of becoming. This type of quiet waiting seems to be at such odds with the way we live our lives today—as we go about fashioning a life of extrinsic validation, an accelerated path of accumulation devoid of faithful meaning.
I’m discovering that all the inadequacy that the Christmas season roils up inside me is not something to be ashamed up, but rather something to unwrap and discover. When we fall with gentle surrender into those times of deep uncertainty and fear, we start to divest ourselves of that immense weight of unworthiness that binds us to an aching sadness. And within that lifting, we are bestowed with a degree of certainty of what truly matters. These moments of clarity serve to align us with our soul’s “North Star”. It brings to mind what Mark Nepo says about our collective addiction to the pervasive noise of destruction and of all things falling apart, an addiction that is very much fed by the 24-hour news cycle that permeates our lives. The key, according to Nepo, is recognizing that just as many things come together as fall apart, except, it all takes place at a much quieter level, one that often escapes our perception. I believe there is a beauty in that stillness and a divine grace in that gentle awakening.
Christmas reminds us that God meets us where we are, be that upon the matted hay of a manger, or on the frightening precipice of a new and uncertain path in life, or even in the soul-shattering silence of depression. Christmas is a time of reflection that invites each of us to consider who is worthy of witnessing the “birthing” of our purest and most radiant becoming. What would we take with us of our former life into this new beginning? Because when we are awakened to our soul, we become attuned to divine grace gradually being coaxed forth within us. The mystery of grace is that it gives us the courage and the strength to be fully present to the lives of others, as invariably, we begin to see the echoes of our own story being told in the voices and through the actions of those we fully witness around us.
And so once again, I invite you to think of this Christmas season, not as a time of commitments and of comparing, but as a time of joy, understanding, and affinity. A time to gather and distill the meaningful. A time to bring together those who bear witness to our own rebirth, ever reminding us that to will the goodness and love of another, is the greatest of all blessings we can bestow.
With a news cycle replete with environmental and geo-political crises, it’s hard not to feel as though the world we live in is broken and spiraling to ruin. And ‘yes’, that is a choice you can make. You can choose despair over hope, resignation over faith. Yet, it is also the season of spiritual renewal, a time in which we celebrate the juxtaposition of the frailty of the newborn, one with whom such vast hope and forgiveness lies.
Much of the fear we project onto the world today stems from our inability to contend with the brokenness and insecurities we each carry inside of us. We live in a time in which individual autonomy is sacrosanct, and with that, a belief that vulnerability and perceived difference is to be buried and shuttered away. In part, this fraud has been perpetrated by social media, a platform that has failed to deliver the authentic connection we so desperately long for. To make matters worse, during this holiday season, a time when sanitized-picture-perfect family posts fill our social media feeds, that sense of disconnection is further exacerbated. Those feelings of inadequacy are heightened as we compare our “low-lights” to the highlights of others. But what if we were to step back for a moment? What if we were to actively choose to sit with that discomfort bubbling up inside us?
Our physical and spiritual wounds—those parts of us we choose to forget—are in fact, sacred places of remembering. We so seldom open ourselves to lessons held within those places of discomfort because to rest within their echoes, requires a tacit agreement that some wounds are too deep to be healed, too resonant to be silenced, and too unwieldy to be neatly tidied away and forgotten.
I’m reminded of the work of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, someone who has spent much of her medical career counseling individuals living with chronic and terminal illness. In much of her writings, Rachel draws upon the wisdom she learned from her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar, a deeply devout man who taught his young granddaughter that the joys, sorrows, and wounds endemic to our life are the very things that inevitably come to be woven into the blessings and graces that serve to support us through our shared humanity. “Sometimes”, according to Rachel, “a wound is a place where we encounter life for the first time, where we come to know its power and its ways. Wounded, we may find a wisdom that will enable us to live better than any knowledge and glimpse a view of ourselves and of life that is both true and unexpected.”
And so, it’s as though each of us reaches a moment of reckoning, an arrival to a threshold, a liminal place rife with uncertainty, yet brimming with possibility. By entrusting ourselves to those brave individuals who have passed through this fragile space before us, we become awakened to the grace of self-forgiveness, a process whereby we begin to fully inhabit our life accepting that it is our vulnerabilities that make us whole. And perhaps it is our wholehearted embrace of our imperfection that binds us to a greater story that we are all very much a part of. To heal individually requires we reach outward towards the spiritual and physical wounds of others, and in so doing, bear witness to life’s divine purpose—the act of becoming.
As we move along in this holiday season, I invite you to revisit those liminal places within you, the spiritual and emotional wounds that continue to rumble and ache. So often in our quest to be resilient, we have chosen to ignore and forget, whereas in order to be radiantly resilient, we ought to revisit, embrace, and awaken to the vulnerability each of us covers in darkness. Our capacity to bless one another’s wounds with grace is the most sacred gift of this season.
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.