I’m turning 50 in a few weeks, and for the first time in my life, I find myself reflecting more on how far I’ve come rather than on projecting what the future may have in store. I’m reminded of a poem by the Mumbai-based poet and writer Sanober Khan, and I can’t help but be deeply moved by her beautiful, yet utterly haunting words.
“The splendid thing
about falling apart
you can start over
as many times
as you like.”
I am fortunate to have reached a level of success both personally and professionally, yet surprisingly, the one thing which has had the most significant impact on the trajectory my life has taken has little to do with something I did, and everything to do with something that happened to me.
I am the survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and a violent rape. And sadly, that in of itself is an all too common occurrence here in Canada. In fact, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The statistics truly are sobering and frightening, but it is not until we look at the lives and faces behind those numbers, that we begin to see the ripple effect that childhood trauma has within a family and across a community. Even more alarming is the aftershock of that trauma that continues to reverberate throughout a survivor’s lifetime.
If childhood trauma teaches us anything, it most certainly attests to the sheer resiliency of children. When I speak of resiliency, I’m not limiting my definition to a inner strength or fortitude to withstand trauma, but instead to a broader scope of resilience that encompasses a variety of coping mechanisms that I and other children draw on to ‘make sense of the senseless’, and to find the will to carry on in the midst of unimaginable confusion, violence, and turmoil.
But herein lies the problem – those same self-protecting coping mechanism essential to weathering childhood trauma gradually morph into self-destructive behaviors that derail many survivors as they enter adolescence and adulthood. For instance in my own case, my ability to distance myself and disassociate protected me as a child; however, in later years, led to chronic drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention a long line of fractured relationships.
Please don’t get wrong… by no means do I intend for this to be some sad tale of woe or years lost. In fact, I’ve come to believe that when we begin to process our trauma with the help of a therapist or psychiatrist, we open ourselves up to interpreting this trauma as somewhat of a ‘gift’ we never asked for, yet a gift nonetheless.
That being said, looking back on my childhood through the eyes of wisdom and years, I think the most heart wrenching part of it all is how ‘invisible’ I felt as a child and how easy it was for my mind to so subtly transform pain into shame. How does a child even begin to process such adult emotions? Not much has changed for kids like me in the past 35 years, but there are a few sparks of hope seen in the action of advocates working tirelessly to engage the broader public in an uncomfortable dialogue we as community have been so reluctant to address.
The thing about childhood trauma is that if it is left untreated, undiagnosed, it continues to metastasize over a lifetime. I can only imagine the trajectory my life would have taken had there been both intervention and access to a treatment program like that offered at the Be Brave Ranch, located east of Edmonton, Alberta. Children admitted to the program are given free access to long term treatment for child sexual abuse, and receive over 200 hours of therapy offered both on site and off over the course of a year. Still in its clinical trial phase working in conjunction with researchers from the University of Alberta, the Be Brave Ranch has demonstrated that children attending the program show significant improvements in symptoms of depression, self-esteem, healthy peer interactions, and to a lesser degree improvements in anxiety and PTSD.
Whenever I give a talk about my experience living as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I always say, “I am thankful for the life I have been given, but I wouldn’t wish that life on any other child.”
If you’d like to find out more about the Be Brave Ranch and the amazing impact their program is having on so many young lives, please visit: http://bebraveranch.littlewarriors.ca/
I’m a long distance runner, and I’m currently training for the Boston Marathon coming up in less than one month. Preparing for a challenge like a marathon requires making sacrifices, not to mention an unwavering dedication – and to a non-runner, a lot of this behavior seems ‘odd’ to say the least. Like this morning for instance, while most people were nestled in their beds buried comfortably under their warm blankets, I was slipping and sliding through the icy streets of downtown Toronto completing my 20 km run before breakfast. It’s behavior that doesn’t make sense to most people, but to another endurance athlete, it makes perfect sense.
I had so many important things to do today, yet something inside me compelled me to push it all aside so that I could make my way down to Old City Hall to hear the judge’s verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Sitting in the courtroom listening to the judge read his findings into evidence, I was overwhelmed by an immense sadness, expecting that in all probability, I would leave that courtroom feeling hollow and utterly alone.
You see, I am not just an endurance athlete and a concerned citizen, but I too am a survivor of rape. It’s a secret that I carried for over 30 years, and throughout that time, everyone around me witnessed that trauma metastasize into drug and alcohol addiction and suicidal depression. Being a survivor of sexual violence can at times feel like walking through a never-ending minefield of triggers, trauma, shame, and self-loathing.
So there I sat listening to Justice William Horkins say that the testimony from the three Ghomeshi complainants was unreliable, conflicting, and suspect. The trial had become more about the actions of these women after the alleged assaults than about the alleged sexual violence itself. Is it any wonder that survivors of sexual violence are so reluctant to step forward and seek their day in court? I can promise you that as devastated as these women felt with the verdict, it doesn’t even begin to compare with the powerlessness and isolation they have been living with for many years now.
After the verdict was delivered, I walked outside the courthouse and stood beside other survivors and advocates working in the field of sexual violence. As I stood in the cold misty rain clutching my sign that said “We Believe Survivors”, I knew that many people looking at us were unable to understand what was going through our mind. But how are they expected to? Unless you’ve had your life forever altered by sexual violence… unless you’ve woken up every day since the assault and had to whisper to yourself, “I am stronger than what happened to me, at least for today”… Unless you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that in all probability there will be no closure to that trauma… well, how could you understand?
And as we stood in the cold outside that courthouse, a wave of journalists, camera crews, and microphones encircled us. Under the harsh lights of the cameras, we were prodded and pulled to offer our opinions, to render our judgments on the verdict. I looked around and I couldn’t help but think, “Where are all the other men? Why does the responsibility of advocating for a society free from sexual violence always have to fall on the shoulders of women?” And that was the point at which I was overcome with an immense feeling that can only be described as grief – knowing that when the lights of the cameras dim, when the trial is no longer part of the news cycle, and when Jian Ghomeshi puts all of this in his rearview mirror, the loss and trauma will continue to reverberate in the lives of these three incredibly brave women, just as it echoes in the lives of survivors across the country and around the world.
Today I celebrated 19 years of sobriety, one day at a time, yet even after all these years, I am still not comfortable with one of the tenets of most 12-step programs – the belief that anonymity is sacrosanct. In fact, in spite of the inevitable backlash I’ll receive for writing this, I feel that strict adherence to this principle may have outlived its usefulness in the field of addiction recovery.
A good place to begin is by looking at what Bill W., one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous says about anonymity. In 1945, he wrote: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.” Let’s not get sidetracked by that word, ‘humility’, which in and of itself is an elusive creature because the moment you speak of it, there is a great possibility you are no longer practicing it.
I should also clarify a few important distinctions in terms of the concept of ‘anonymity’ and how it relates to recovery. Tradition Eleven of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” And once again, we see ‘anonymity’ is discussed in Tradition Twelve: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” From its earliest roots in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous’ very existence has been predicated on the cornerstone of anonymity, as it serves two important functions – protecting the identity of individual members as well as creating a non-hierarchical structure within each group.
At no time do I condone breaking the anonymity of another individual without his or her permission; in fact, it is the fear of this happening that keeps many people away from attending a recovery program to begin with. Having said that, where I disagree with many fellow members in my 12-step program is the prescribed expectation that my decision to break my own anonymity is in some way contravening the unwritten moral code of recovery.
It is suggested that by breaking our anonymity at a personal level, we become de facto ‘spokespersons’ for the particular recovery program to which we belong– To me, the logic behind that statement makes as much sense as the belief that one’s membership at a particular gym or health club can be viewed as a direct reflection of the efficacy of that establishment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the argument put forth in meetings that ‘we can’t have all these people running around publically saying they are members of Alcoholics Anonymous… What if they relapse? What would that say about our program?’ I may not be popular for saying this, but guess what – people relapse; that’s a reality on the path to recovery. And if anything, over the years, I’ve discovered that the more people who know I’m in recovery, the more support I’m exposed to when I might be struggling and prone for a relapse.
The one caveat to being open about one’s participation in a 12-step program involves the thorny issue of keeping one’s ego in check. I opened this article by stating that I had reached another sobriety milestone, and that statement can be interpreted in one of two ways – either as a self-serving opportunity to ‘toot my own horn’, or as evidence that it is possible to imagine a life free of drugs and alcohol. As someone who has a fairly public profile, I’ve have tried to offset personal ego-inflation by being completely candid about my continual daily struggles with sobriety. One of the things I have to remind myself of is not to compare what, at times, feels like the ‘mundaneness of my life’ with someone else’s highlights reel.
Before walking into the doors of my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was fairly convinced what an alcoholic looked like, and it was safe to say, it didn’t look like me! I still had a job, a roof over my head, and family around me, however tenuous those things were. One of the greatest impediments for me not seeking help for my addiction issues sooner was the stigma associated with being labeled an ‘addict’. And therein lies my reasoning that strict adherence to anonymity, a somewhat ‘cloak and dagger’ secrecy at all levels of recovery, serves to perpetuate myths of addiction and adds to the stigmatization of those seeking recovery.
Despite what I used to believe, the opposite of addiction is not ‘sobriety’, but rather, the opposite of addiction is ‘connection’, and alongside of this connection comes an immense responsibility to step fully into my life and engage in both the joy and adversity that I face. Today, I am not only grateful for my sobriety but also grateful for the space that addiction has my life, for it has revealed a quiet strength within me. In the words of Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”