I’m coming up to my 19th anniversary clean and sober, and this time of the year for me is typically a moment of reflection – a chance to be grateful for all the beautiful messiness my life has become. I’m still not sure how I went from standing alone on a subway platform with the intention of taking my life twenty years ago, to standing in front of an audience of 200 people looking to me for guidance and hope.
With each year that passes, I’m more inclined to accept the fluidity of uncertainty and all of its slippery elusiveness. I now define transcendent beauty not by how far I’ve come, but as an ephemeral strength woven into the texture of every moment – a space that is quite often etched in suspicion, euphoria, and longing. For far too many years, it was my inability to coexist with the discomfort of uncertainty that fueled my addiction. And today, it is not as though I’ve made peace with this discomfort as much as I’ve softened its edges and muffled its storm.
I was reading Marsha Lederman’s column in the Globe & Mail this past weekend, and something she said certainly struck a chord with me. “We spend so much time in our social and occupational echo chambers, insulated. Venturing out may be a shock to the system, but it also seems essential for discovery.” When it comes to an addict’s journey back from the self-annihilation of addiction, the one thing every addict is longing for is ‘connection’ to community. And how ironic that the further (s)he travels down the rabbit hole of an active addiction, the more tenuous that connection to love and support becomes. It is a bitter truth to swallow; yet, I’ve had to acknowledge that it was my fear of connection that brought me to the edge of that subway platform.
I believe that I am one of the ‘lucky ones’, in that my addiction delivered me to a place where everything else in my life had been laid bare, and I was forced to confront my greatest fear – the belief that I was unworthy of love and self-respect. As is the case with most addicts in recovery, it didn’t take very long for the ‘pink cloud’ of early sobriety to wear off, and for the real work to begin. I was no longer drinking or drugging, but I was yet to excavate and unravel all those feelings that took me to a life on the margins. Sobriety has been a process involving the internal work of making sense of, and at times room for, depression, anxiety, and childhood trauma. There has also been what I would refer to as the ‘external work’ – learning when to reach out for help, and when to jettison toxic relationships from my life.
During the past 2 years, I’ve entered a new phase of my life, one in which I have taken on somewhat of a leadership or mentoring role. I have to admit, for a natural introvert like me, it’s a position I’m reluctantly allowing to grow on me rather than one I’m wholeheartedly embracing. In order to feel more comfortable in this role, I’ve started to see myself as a ‘shepherd’ as opposed to a leader. It may simply be a matter of semantics, but I really do identify with the core responsibility of a shepherd, and that being, by maintaining absolute communion and attention, (s)he avoids losing anyone traveling along the same path.
From the very beginning of my sobriety, I’ve tried to steadfastly follow one guiding principle – to simply ‘do the next right thing’, whatever that may be. And now that I’m no longer the person standing on the edge of that subway platform, but am the person standing in front of an audience, I am trying to embrace, and hopefully model, three core practices, so I thought I would end by sharing those with you:
I don’t remember much of my childhood – and that’s probably a good thing because it’s a landscape better not traversed. Adult emotions and experiences flooded into my world at a time when I was far too young to process them. My childhood was punctuated by violence – first physical, and later sexual. And throughout all of this, it felt as though I was taken further and further away from myself. And later, as the trauma compounded upon itself, the familiar landmarks guiding me back to ‘me’, gradually faded as I became ever more distant.
There is one childhood memory that feels less like a ‘memory’, and more like yesterday. My childhood was governed by secrets and fear, and the place I felt the most afraid was lying in bed as the darkness began to envelop the room. For many years, I used to rock myself to sleep. Kneeling in my crib, and later in my bed, I would rhythmically rock back and forth as I pushed my head down repeatedly into my pillow. I would quite literally rock my bed across the room – desperate to find a way to self-soothe or quiet the fear that oozed out of me and worked its way across my skin in the form of chronic eczema. The palms of my hands and the bottoms of my feet looked like cracked and bleeding road maps to a frightened soul.
But there is one memory from my childhood that lies forever etched on mind, and now indelibly marked on my arm. There was one way I could make the fear go away … all I needed to do was to take myself away. When the secrets of my childhood became too overwhelming, I would find a quiet place, close my eyes ever so tightly, and then I would push the palms of my hands firmly against my closed eyes and keep them there for as long as I could. When I eventually opened my eyes, the most beautiful and magical white spots danced before me. And for that moment in time, no one could hurt me as I floated among these hypnotic white stars.
So here I am today, a middle-aged man looking back on all the years lost to addiction, depression, and isolation – the vestiges of childhood trauma, left unaddressed and unattended, for far too long. My story does not end here, as I now believe adversity to be a gift I never asked for. It has awakened me to an inner resiliency that I believe we all possess, yet rarely tap into. And those stars – well, I carry them with me today wherever I go. They are tattooed up and down my arm to remind me that perception and faith can deliver me from the darkest of fears.
As the author and poet C. JoyBell C. has said: “I think that we are like stars. Something happens to burst us open; but when we burst open and think we are dying; we’re actually turning into a supernova. And then when we look at ourselves again, we see that we’re suddenly more beautiful than we ever were before!”
As I suspect is the case with many other people across the country, I am closely watching the Jian Ghomeshi trial; however, I should probably add, with a guarded degree of optimism. There were times yesterday when I found myself holding my breath, wishing that this very public trial might be a pivotal moment in our society –
one in which we can finally begin to openly, and honestly address the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities.
But at the same time, I temper any expectation for a new tone in the dialogue about sexual violence because I am well aware that as each witness steps forward to tell her story in court, she is bound to be eviscerated by the calculated cross examination by yet another high profile defense attorney. I should add that I, too, am a survivor of rape – and up until three years ago when I went public with my own disclosure, it was a secret that I had lived with for over 35 years.
With so many people watching this trial, 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 keeps 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 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 aftereffects can ripple out, and have an impact on a primary relationship, on a family, and on a community. 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, but despite the endless therapy, medication, and the passing of time, it is something that cannot be erased from my being. Sure, I may be able to cover it up, but that too comes with 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.