There are stories I come across in the news that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and at times bewildered. But hearing the news that parole had been granted to Graham James, the disgraced former hockey coach convicted of sexually abusing young boys in his care, left a hallow ache of deep sadness in me. We have come very far in our willingness to begin to address the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities, yet there are days in which I feel the chasm that lies before us runs so very deep.
The news brings back a flood of memories, and I inevitably arrive at an evening I’ll never forget – sitting beside my wife on the couch, tears streaming down my cheeks, my breaths becoming shallower, as I quietly sobbed. Mary-Anne looked over at me, and had no idea what had brought all of this on. It was a night, like many others. We had just finished eating dinner and were relaxing in the living room for a quiet evening in front of the television. Except, this night was unlike any other – we were watching the CBC program “Battle of the Blades”, and staring right back at me from that television screen was the former NHL player Theo Fleury.
This was a man I had always admired for his sheer tenacity on the ice. I little guy, like me, who may have faced a league of players bigger and more skilled, but none with more heart. But tonight, here was this same man struggling to hold back his emotions as he talked about the charity he was skating for, and how throughout all those years as one of professional sports’ most iconic ‘tough guys’, he was not so quietly dealing with the demons from his past – He was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape.
Hearing about Theo’s life trajectory literally shook me to the core, as it so closely resembled mine. A natural athlete, a promising future, all derailed by the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. As a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, I too, know the weight of caring around that secret. Years spent numbing and burying that shame with drugs and alcohol. Add into the mix the confusion about sexual identity that comes as a toxic byproduct of being a young boy groomed, and sexually abused by a man. But by far the hardest part is going through all of this alone as those around you, those who love you and care deeply for you, helplessly watch your life spiral out of control.
That night as I sat crying, listening to Theo speak, something broke free inside me. Seeing this one man stand up and embrace the vulnerability of where he was at, and hearing how what happened to him as young man was not his fault – I finally understood that my own freedom and healing could only come by unearthing that shame I had been carrying around for over 35 years as an ever present toxic stowaway. The words didn’t come out immediately, but a few months after that evening in front of “Battle of the Blades”, I finally found the strength to tell my wife of 26 years, that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape.
It’s been three years since that disclosure, and during that time, I have undergone intensive treatment and therapy with trauma specialists and a psychiatrist. I am no longer ashamed of my past, nor do I wish to deny it presence in my life today. I am stronger for what I have lived through, and in moving forward in my life, I have become an advocate for other survivors of sexual violence to find their own peace and path forward. Every day, I receive messages from survivors around the world who encourage me to keep speaking for those who are, for whatever reason, unable to break the silence.
Childhood sexual abuse lives and breeds in silence and secrecy. Pulling back the curtain and shattering that silence creates the environment for more survivors to move out of the shadows of shame, and move beyond the media’s stigmatizing characterization of them as “victims”, when in fact, they’ve been “survivors” all along.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a post Theo Fleury put on Facebook yesterday as a response to hearing the news about Graham James. “Rape is common not uncommon. Helping is healing and healing is possible!!!! We need to create more advocates and by creating more advocates, that’s how you create change. Please share this to those who are still alone!!”
Within the beauty of movement, every runner will inevitably arrive at that mysterious point where he or she must brush up against the same artificial boundary – a space in which we valiantly try to quiet the mind, while at the same, trying to allay what at times can feel like incapacitating self-doubt and fear. This subtle negotiation, this dance with discomfort, is the birthplace of an inner fortitude that demands we keep moving even when everything inside is screaming for us to quit.
I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but running is somewhat like alchemy. Something inside us changes, adapts, or realigns when we lose ourselves in the rhythm of our stride. For my entire life, I’ve been on the run – at first it was as a child, ‘running away’ from the violent and daily physical abuse that took place behind closed doors in my home. Later, at the age of 9, it was trying to run away from all the shame that flooded in after I was sexually abused by a hockey coach; and once again at the age of 12, when I was raped by two young men in a ravine not far from our house in North Toronto.
From that moment onward, if you were to look at my life, it would be as though you were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I kept everything inside of me, and around me, off in the distance. And thus began many years of escape that came in the form of a destructive alcohol and drug addiction. Like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole, the further I fell into the world of addiction, the more I relied on self-delusion to insulate my ‘self’ from the brain’s warning signals of pain and self-protection. It feels so beautifully ironic to me that what almost killed me – my self-delusional ability to partition off part of my brain – is today, the same mental process I draw on to keep me moving forward in the hellish last few miles of a marathon or ultra marathon.
19 years ago, I finally decided to stop ‘escaping’ and to quite literally, begin the long journey of ‘running back into myself’. I entered a treatment program to address my drug and alcohol addiction, and it was there that I met two other gentlemen who encouraged me to join them on their weekly long runs. And it was through their support, that I ran my first marathon – the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
The only thing more stubborn than an addict, is an ‘addict in recovery’. I threw all my newly-sober confusion, frustration, anger, and hope into training for that race, and luckily it all paid off. I managed to qualify for Boston on the streets of Toronto in my first marathon! The rest, as they say, “is history”. I had traded a self-destructive addiction for a life-affirming addiction.
In 2013, I found the strength to finally tell my family and friends that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape. Since that time, I have become an international advocate for other survivors of sexual violence. In 2014, I ran the iconic Boston Marathon twice in the same day in a highly publicized campaign in order to raise funds and awareness for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In the fall of 2015, I brought that same passion to my hometown race, the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which I ran three times in the same day (126.6 km) to demonstrate the resiliency of survivors of trauma. I even managed to convince Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to come out and join me for the first 5 km of my third marathon of the day. So, what’s up next for me? In May, I’ll be running a “Double-Double” Ottawa Marathon (168.8 km), and later this fall, I’ll set my sights on a “Triple-Double” (253.2 km) once again at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
At this point of my life, I’ve now run over 120 marathons and ultras, and I honestly feel that I wouldn’t change one thing about my past because I believe it’s brought me to the place of deep joy in which I now find myself. How do I even begin to describe what running has brought forth inside me, and so graciously laid at my feet?
It’s been said that art is nothing more than reduction – the transcendent scraping away of veneers, the unmasking of the pillars of truth and beauty. In light of that, I would submit that running, in its purest form, is the fluidity of art in motion. I might even go as far as to suggest that a life given over to running is the purest form of reduction and self-reflection.
If you'd like to follow along on my journey of advocacy, or to donate to one of the charities I'm running for, please visit my site runjprun.com.
Like far too many children in my community, across this country, and around the world, I grew up in a violent household. I know that real life doesn’t resemble a “Norman Rockwell” portrait, but I don’t believe that precludes a child from feeling safe and loved in his or her home. For most of my life, I tried to rationalize the scars and the shame inflicted at the hands of my mother, behind closed doors in our ‘perfect’ middle-class Catholic home.
For as long as I can remember, I was terrified to be left alone with my mother. The youngest of five children, born to a marriage that was all but over, I bore the brunt of my mother’s isolation, frustration, and desperation – You see, to this day, I’m still desperate to rationalize, or at least make sense of, my mother’s violence. From my infancy right up until my mother finally left when I was nine, my skin was covered with chronic eczema – trips to the family doctor and dermatologist were carefully planned not to coincide with any traces of bruises left on my body. My cracked and bleeding skin had quite literally become the ‘canvas’ on which all of my fears and stress came to life. Magically, my eczema disappeared within a month of my mother’s leaving.
Throughout my teens and right up until my mid-40s, I desperately tried to earn my mother’s love. All I wanted was to hear that she was proud of me, and all that had happened in my childhood was something I would rather leave unsaid. Despite the superficial relationship we both fostered over the years, I never felt as though I had found a place in her heart. My other brothers and sisters, were raised by a very ‘different’ mother, who was most certainly less in crisis during their childhood. And thus, I’ve always felt like an outsider – the black sheep in the family.
After what feels like a lifetime of battling drug and alcohol addiction, and my own tenuous mental health issues, three years ago – at the age of 47, I finally found the strength to tell my wife and adult son that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Just so there is no confusion here… the sexual abuse was perpetrated by a hockey coach when I was 9 years old, and later by two young men who raped me when I was 12 years old.
But here is the part of my story that is unfortunately something else that sadly rings true for many survivors of childhood sexual violence once they decide to go public with their disclosure. I have lost contact with my mother and my siblings. It was as if the words that finally crawled out of me were too toxic for them to ‘sit with’. If you really want to know how to destroy an already fragile soul, take away the one thing that a survivor of sexual violence needs most – connection, which equates as validation and worthiness.
With everything else I’ve had to take on in attempt to unpack the trauma – hours sitting with therapists, and psychiatrists, along with continual peer counseling sessions – the part that has been the hardest for me to bear is the shame and bitterness that comes with being tossed aside by the person who brought you into this world.
Today, under the careful direction of my psychiatrist, I wrote a “goodbye letter” to my mother – one in which I openly shared what my childhood ‘felt like’ and the circuitous and troubled path I’ve travelled to arrive at a place of peace and healing. In the letter, I clearly state that I do not wish to cause my mother pain, nor do I wish to regain contact with her. I am simply closing a door on a chapter of my life that has felt raw and unfinished for so very long.
In writing this letter, I have come to the realization that the thing that shapes us most in our lives is the randomness of the family we are born to … but the thing that is most ‘defining’ in our life are the people we choose to call our ‘family’. Today, I am surrounded by the most loving and supportive family I could imagine – my wife, son, and daughter-in-law, along with countless others who make me feel whole… who make me feel worthy.
I’ve always been more comfortable living on the ‘margins’, an interloper, a social drifter. I’m one of those people who rejoice in giving presents, but cringe in abject discomfort when I have to open a gift in front of others. In a movie theater or crowded venue, I can’t bear to sit anywhere but in the aisle seat. My excitement of walking into a party or public event is quickly supplanted by my mind’s clicking into overdrive as it plans my furtive escape. If it’s a friend’s house party, I’m usually the one more comfortable quietly building Lego castles with the kids, or even better, directing all my attention to the dog or the cat. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t really mingle – I muddle.
I used to credit my social awkwardness, my physical aversion to crowds, to the fact that I am a recovering alcoholic. When you are no longer able to take advantage of the ‘social lubricant’ known as alcohol, it becomes increasingly more difficult to let your guard down in public. But it wasn’t until three years ago, that I was finally able to figure out why I’ve always felt so uncomfortable in my skin, an outsider in the crowd.
At the ripe-old age of 46, I had arrived at a crisis point, so I decided to bravely look back at my life as if through the wrong end of a telescope – I started with the broad focus of where I was at that moment: an elite endurance athlete, a recovering addict clean and sober for 15 years, someone who had clawed his way out of the darkness of depression and a recurring anxiety disorder, yet the further I went back into my past, the more laser-focused that image became, until it I eventually arrived at the memories of the childhood sexual abuse that had been a specter in everything I’d done, and in everything I’d become. As is the case with most survivors of childhood trauma, I sought comfort in the margins of society because in the subtle act of ‘disappearing’, I was able to numb the discomfort and shame that shivered inside of me.
It has taken me almost my entire lifetime to realize that what I thought was the “worst of me”, was in fact the “best of me”. And all those years I spent escaping to the margins of society have been a beautiful blessing in disguise. I believe that grace is found in the most unlikely of places, and is carried within the hearts of the most unlikely of ‘heroes’. There is no denying the many threats we face in this world, be it injustice, political instability, or environmental catastrophe, but to my mind, the most haunting danger of all is the fact that we have become so busy and self-distracted, that we are often are immune to, or at the very least, neglect to see the ‘grace’ that lies around us and within us.
Instead of looking to be inspired by rainbows and demigods, I need to be reminded that grace and beauty are just as likely to emanate from the darkness of loss or within the quiet of the unadorned. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons… With those for whom there is no room.”
And so, this is where I am today – reaching out to those for “whom there is no room”, and all the while quietly feeling an affinity with the whispers of grace found in the most unlikely of places.
This article originally appeared in "Her Magazine", so I encourage everyone to visit Her Magazine to check out this incredible resource.
I sat down to write this article as an attempt to set the record straight – to literally pull back the covers on my marriage. It’s a relationship that to many people defies convention; while for others, it belies plausibility. As an elite athlete, and as an international advocate for survivors of sexual violence, I live a very public life, and it’s a life that I’ve written about and spoken about extensively.
My 28-year marriage to Mary-Anne has been a canvas on which my inner demons have exploded, and writ large. There have been my prolonged battles with drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and more recently, the aftershocks of coming to terms with childhood trauma. And throughout the narrative of this personal journey, I have come across, at least to those at a distance, as someone who has bravely weathered the storm – almost mythically, as though I have enveloped myself in some superhuman cloak of resiliency. But guess what… nothing can be further from the truth, as it in no way sheds light on the unbreakable thread that underlies everything we have travelled through as a couple.
When I first met Mary-Anne, almost 30 years ago, I was not looking for a ‘savior’ or a ‘mother-figure’, and that’s probably a good thing because as it turned out, Mary-Anne is neither of those. Instead, she is the strongest person I’ve ever met. Yes, that’s right… my wife is intelligent, career motivated, and unflinchingly loyal to friends and family, and as her husband, I don’t find any of that intimidating in the least. In fact, all of that inner passion is what I’ve grown to love about her most.
I really take exception to that dichotomous mold that has been pervasive in our society for far too long – an attempt to place women into one of two distinct camps: nurturers and power-seekers. Along with being a patently inaccurate portrayal, it leaves women in an untenable position, one in which they are seen as either ‘weak’ or ‘overly-aggressive’. Although in recent years I may have had more of a public profile, Mary-Anne has had much greater success when it comes to a career, entrusted responsibility, and financial remuneration.
So, what’s it like being the partner of such a well-respected, career-driven corporate maven? For almost our entire marriage, Mary-Anne has been either the sole or primary wage earner, and at times, the ‘adult’ in our relationship, the one who held it all together. Despite all of the cultural and sexist bias borne of my upbringing, I have never felt intimidated or ‘emasculated’ being married to such a powerful, confident partner.
A misconception that derails so many relationships is the belief that one partner’s success comes somewhat at the expense of the other partner – in other words, leaving no air or space for that person to thrive. And this is the point at which I take so much exception to the media and cultural backlash towards women who embrace Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In Movement”. Years of systemic patriarchy is not something that is easily undone, so as a husband, and more generally as a man, I need to be vigilant in reminding myself that my wife, Mary-Anne, is not the exception, but the general rule. When our daughters, wives, and mothers excel in their careers, it in no way is at the expense of men’s success.
The longevity, and I would venture to say ‘the beauty’ of our marriage has stemmed from the complete absence of a power dynamic in our relationship. If you recall during the Financial Crisis, there was a belief that some banks and large corporations were simply “too big to fail” – the entire system was dependent on their weathering the economic storm. What definitely pains me most is knowing that over the years, there have been times when Mary-Anne felt an enormous ‘weight’, the pressure that comes with having to ‘be there’ for our family emotionally and economically – in essence, she had become “too big to fail”.
So, if I were to return to that question, “what is it like being married to a strong woman”, I would have to say that I have been graced by the power of example – the opportunity to be present as the one you love pursues her career with a sense of unencumbered joy and elegant passion. But more importantly, Mary-Anne has given me her unconditional love, and at times, that has entailed giving me space to grieve, to fall apart, and to have the faith to put the pieces back together again. And more broadly, as parents, we are a living example to our son that love thrives when we don’t shy away from the discomfort and messiness of uncertainty.