As you hold each picture in your hand, you will make assumptions… You will attempt to make sense out what you see before you, but I ask one thing, and only one thing of you – reserve that opinion until you have seen each of the pictures… until you have the whole story.
Mine, is a story of a pearl. It’s the story of taking that one thing inside of you that causes you the most unimaginable discomfort. The thing that you have spent an entire lifetime covering up, burying, and fashioning into a pearl. But just as a pearl begins its life as a grain of sand, so too can that which we carry around hidden from view become the most beautiful gift once it sees the light of the world.
I’d like you to reach into that envelope and take out that first photo. It’s a picture of me taken almost 19 years ago. In fact, looking at me today, you probably wouldn’t even recognize me in that photo. It’s a picture taken early one morning after my wife has left to drop our son off at the daycare on her way to work. It’s a picture of me sitting on the edge of our bed, my head in my hands, and my heart nowhere to be seen. I am absolutely lost, and feel so achingly alone. There is only one thought going through my mind – Should I leave note, and if I do, what should I say?
Ten minutes after this photo was taken, I walked the few blocks to the subway station near our apartment. As I rode the escalator down into the bowels of the subway, everything felt like I was in a dream – walking underwater. I headed towards the front end of the platform, and made my way closer and closer to edge of the platform. I could feel the breeze of the still unseen train pushing its way through tunnel. A few seconds later, I saw the lights of the oncoming train breaking through the darkness. As I leaned forward, I felt nothing. I was nothing.
The next thing I remember is looking up at a group of people looking down at me as I lay on the subway platform. I shouldn’t be here today – but I am. So, what was I doing sitting on the edge of the bed that morning before standing on the edge of that subway platform?
I don’t believe I was born a drug addict, or an alcoholic, but I certainly became one. The shitty thing about being an addict is that it literally takes a lifetime to realize you can never get enough of something that almost works. Being ensnared in an active addiction is a tortuous death spiral. It has nothing do with escape, but everything to do with self-destruction.
There was a time when the drugs and the alcohol worked magic for me. They allowed me to numb out everything inside me, and everyone around me. They kept me safe. The kept me insulated… but eventually, they only kept me sick. My alcoholism had descended to such a point, that it had become the rocket fuel of my depression. Before I knew it, I was under so much medication not only could I not feel my body, but I couldn’t feel anything. I walked around in a lithium fog, and I escaped deeper and deeper into my alcoholism – except now, it no longer gave me any reprieve from the ache that I couldn’t quiet inside. I felt like Alice tumbling backwards down into the depth of the rabbit hole, and instead of the branches and rocks knocking me about on the way down, each drink and drug knocked me further and further away from the man I was meant to be.
Let’s pause for a moment, and take a deep breath. Forget everything you thought you knew about addiction and depression, and instead… I ask that you again reach into that envelope and take out the second photograph. You can see by the discoloration and worn edges, that this is a photograph taken quite some time ago. It’s a picture of me at the age of 12. Again, you will see that I am sitting on the edge of a bed late one afternoon, but this time on the floor by my feet are the clothes I have ripped off my body – They lay on the floor soiled and covered with mud. But what you can’t see is how soiled I feel inside.
I have just come home to an empty house. I have just come home from a deserted ravine not far from this house. I have just willed myself to stand up from the muddy ground in that musty, dark ravine. I have just had my life forever changed in that ravine. I have just been violently raped by two older boys in that ravine.
I sat on that bed trying to make sense of the senseless… trying to find my way back to myself, but all the familiar landmarks were gone, erased. How could it happen again? Three years before that afternoon in the ravine I was alone in a basement with my hockey coach. To this day, I can still smell his acrid sweat. I can still feel the coarseness of his hands inside my underwear… and I can still hear his voice as I finally broke free saying, “No one. No one, will ever believe you.”
What is a child supposed to do with such adult emotions? How is a child supposed to sleep at night knowing that his world has been forever shifted, a part of him forever lost?
I need you to take another deep breath, but this time, I want you to hold onto that breath a lit bit longer, and I want you to keep that image in your mind of that little boy sitting on the edge of that bed, all alone in that empty house. And as you are holding that image in your mind, I want you to think about this same story touching the lives of 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys on your street, and in your city, and all across the country.
Now, reach into the envelope and take out the final photograph. It’s a photo taken of me one month ago, and this time, you’ll notice that I’m not alone in the picture. Standing, with her arms wrapped around me is the Premier of our province, Premier Kathleen Wynne. The picture was taken just prior to the start of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and the Premier has made a special trip to come out to join me for the first 5 km of my third marathon of the day.
In the hours leading up to this photo I had run 84.4 km through the cold, dark streets of Toronto, and now I had another 42.2 km left to go. I decided to run the marathon three times, that’s 126.6 km, to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities and to demonstrate the incredible resilience each of us has deep inside, waiting for us until we need it most. The Premier and I were also running to raise awareness of the government’s #ItsNeverOkay campaign – a campaign that reminds us that each of us has a role to play in standing up and speaking out against sexual violence and harassment wherever and whenever we see it. What you can’t see in this picture is the Premier looking me dead in the eye and saying: “What you are doing today for our community is amazing – thank you so much.” Nor can you see the faith in my heart and the love in my soul – something that had lay dormant for so many dark years.
Now that you have all three photographs in front of you, I want you to see the ‘real’ me – a man who has been running his entire life, a man who has traveled so far, only to come back to himself. My name is Jean-Paul, and I am a survivor of sexual violence, but I am so much more than that. I am husband. I am a father. I am a writer. I am an elite athlete. I am advocate for survivors all around the world.
I am here to tell you that YOU can make a difference. If you see something, SAY something. If you feel something, BE something. Be that person who reaches out and holds onto someone who is lost, someone who is suffering. We’ve all traveled through adversity, and it’s inevitable that more lies ahead of us. And if you are struggling, try to remember that as a pearl is borne of time and irritation, so too is the beauty we all have waiting to be brought forth into this world.