It was Carroll Bryant who said: “The shattering of a heart when being broken is the loudest quiet ever.” I spent over four decades screaming in silence as my heart was shattered first by the childhood trauma, and later by my vain attempts to numb the parasitic shame buried inside me. That deafening silence was shattered last year when I declared to family and friends that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. From that moment forward, I unlocked a dormant part of me that has become a sacred beacon for personal healing, and most notably something I never expected—The calling to be of service to others still living in the deafening silence of childhood trauma.
I believe in serendipity, as I have witnessed its mystery at various times in my life. There are undeniable occasions in which the right person, those I call parachuting angels, appear when I need it most. The arrival of the incredible woman, who would eventual become my wife, set my life on a very different trajectory, and without her steadfast love and support, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not be alive today. 17 years ago, I lay ravaged by addiction and depression. Walking out of yet another AA meeting feeling abandoned and hopeless, I was approached by a young lady from the meeting who sat down beside me on a park bench, and she gave me the one thing I so desperately needed--hope. That lady would go on to become my sponsor. Hidden under the mask of my addiction issues was the core issue of childhood trauma, something I never expected I would be able to address. The truth is that I was sober, but I was not free. Hearing the former NHL tough guy, Theo Fleury publicly disclose that he too was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, gave me another lifeline to cling to—A seed had been planted in my mind that one day I could step forward out of the shadow of the abuse.
Most recently, another angel has parachuted into my life, giving me the confidence I need to continue on my healing path. Through this angel, I was introduced to Glori Meldrum, who is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In 2007, Glori formed Little Warriors a charity dedicated to “preventing child sexual abuse through awareness and the promotion of adult education.” Glori has worked tirelessly to raise millions of dollars to open the “Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch”, located just outside of Edmonton. Beginning this fall, this incredible space, created entirely without government funding, will become a reality as the ranch opens its doors as a “a spiritual oasis where neglected survivors can find the tools they need to heal their bodies, hearts, spirits, and minds.”
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Glori and some of the countless individuals who have selflessly spearheaded this transformational movement. The culmination of the weekend was a charity fundraising banquet attended by some of the most influential Canadian power brokers and philanthropists. Towards the end of the evening, something so raw and beautiful unfolded. A gentleman stood at the front of the room and openly declared in front of his peers that he too was a “Little Warrior”, and he invited other “Little Warriors” in the room to step forward and join him. You could have heard a pin drop in the deafening silence of this grand dining hall—That’s when the magic happened. Among the survivors who stepped forward were I and two other men looking directly into the faces of those still sitting in the room, and declaring simply by our presence that we will no longer be enshrouded by the shame of childhood sexual abuse—These few steps towards the front of the room represented our “walk to freedom”.
Two days after the event, as my wife and I drove through the majestic Rocky Mountains on the way back to the Calgary airport, I became acutely aware that all the struggles I’d overcome in my life had prepared me and delivered me to the precipice in which I was standing. I had come to that moment where I knew for certain that my life would never be the same again. My mission, or my calling, lay before me—I need only to trust in the uncertainty and embrace the freedom of possibility. In the process of letting go, we have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. We need to let go of the idea of the “control” that we always equated with safety. My path forward is clear, as I now know that I am to act as a beacon for other men enmeshed in shame, fear, and rage—Together, we can change the dialogue and build authentic relationships between men, and men and their partners. I must always remember that “hurt people, hurt people.” Freedom comes through healing and acceptance. I’d like to end with the guidance of Rumi. “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
In her TedTalk, acclaimed writer Isabel Allende said the art to fleshing out characters for her stories involves layering them with frailties and passion. As she puts it: “Nice people with common sense do not make for interesting characters. They only make good former spouses.” She goes on to say that she inhabits her stories with a sprinkling of “mavericks, dissidents, adventurers, outsiders, and rebels.”
This got me thinking that the one thing we are most afraid of in ourselves—the piece of us we bury and cloister deep inside—may indeed be the most attractive part of us that when exposed, acts like a beacon attracting the goodness and love from those around us. Since making a very public disclosure last year that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I’ve been struck by two reactions: the incredible love and support that has filled my life, and the realization of the overwhelming pain that so many people carry in their soul.
I often find solace in the words of Carl Jung, and this occasion is no different. “We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them.” The shadow self was Jung’s construct of the part of us that we conceal and deny existence to. As society becomes increasingly superficial, dominated by the cult of celebrity, news in sound bites, and social media self-promotion, we further distance ourselves from our shadow, comprised of our fears and uncertainties, the nuances so beautifully misshapen—the hidden gears that lie beneath all our social interactions and personal reflections.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to interpret my disclosure of childhood sexual abuse not as a letting go of a toxic soul-destroying secret but as a journey into the shadow that has been my constant companion for so many years. It’s this very journey into that with which we we are most afraid to examine that Jung believed holds the key to our personal freedom. By reintegrating our shadow self, we embrace all parts of us, even those which cause the greatest discomfort. I view the process akin to an oyster enveloping an irritating grain of sand, and eventually delivering a magnificent pearl to the world.
Before embarking on those first trepidatious steps into your shadow, you might consider the following:
1. You have to discover who you are before you can show the world who you can be.
Ask yourself, What am I most afraid of exposing to those around me? If you dig deep enough, your bound to discover that shame lies at its core. Remind yourself that you’re turning towards your shadow, and like any shadow, the faster we move, the faster our shadow moves—Start with where you are, and give yourself time to peel back the scar tissue that has become a veil to keep others from truly connecting with you.
2. Perfect being perfectly imperfect.
When I stop comparing myself to others and instead begin identifying with others, I begin to build bridges where there once were walls. Just like Isabel Allende, I see the joy in populating my life with “mavericks” and “outsiders”. When my back is against the wall, it’s authenticity in myself and in those around me that will ultimately guide me.
3. Allow some space to grow.
Meaningful transformation happens when we allow ourselves and others to slip in and out of different skin until we find the one we're most settled in. Walking into my shadow this year has meant questioning everything and everyone in my life. It’s been an elastic year of regression, progression, resistance, and ultimately freedom.
This intrepid journey into our darkness is not for the faint at heart, and as Jung would lead us to believe, this journey to the “shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. Consider for a moment what it means to grant the right of existence to what is unreasonable, senseless, and evil! Yet it is just this that the modern man insists upon. He wants to live with every side of himself-to know what he is. That is why he casts history aside. He wants to break with tradition so that he can experiment with his life and determine what value and meaning things have in themselves.”
I spent the first eighteen years of my life living with a stranger—my father—and since the birth of my son 24 years ago, I’ve been slowly getting to know that “stranger”, as I am gradually becoming him. Sadly, my father passed away only a few months before my son was born, yet his presence appears stronger with each passing year, as I see my father in almost everything I do. With Father’s Day quickly approaching, once again I have cause to connect the dots in my life and reminisce about how my relationship with my father has cast such a wide shadow over my life.
I am the youngest of five children, and there is gap of 17 years between my eldest brother an me. After my mother left when I was nine, I was raised by father at a time when single-parent families, let alone ones headed by a father, were not the norm. My memories of my dad are very different from the memories of my older brothers and sisters—It’s as if we were raised by a different parent entirely. I thought I would share with you a letter that I wrote to my father containing three important life lessons I learned from him.
Not a day goes by where I don’t feel your presence in my life, and ache at your absence. I see you in me when I look at the prominent veins in my hands, wrestle with my thick head of salt and pepper hair, or even catch a glimpse of my pronounced French-Canadian nose. When I was sorting through some of your things after your death, I found your hidden stash of Aqua Velva cologne tucked away on a shelf in your closet. I can vividly remember giving you each and every one of those bottles for Father’s Day, and how year after year, you received my present like it was a gift from the Magi.
I’ll never forget the day I broke your heart. It was the night of the year-end hockey banquet, and I was receiving an award from the league president. Once again, you managed to escape from work for a couple of hours just to be with me. In my childhood self absorption, I chose to spend the evening sitting with two of my friends, and left you sitting surrounded by people you didn’t know. The morning after the banquet, mom took me aside and told me how upset you were. That was the first time I realized that even a little boy like me could could wound a big man like you. It’s a lesson I never forgot, and one that I took to heart with the birth of my own son.
You commanded so much respect from those around you, but little did they know that you had a poor, alcoholic upbringing. There is no doubt that you managed to build a life and a family even though the odds were stacked against you. You battled your own demons of depression and alcoholism, but at no time did you allow them to destroy you. One of the greatest regrets in my life is that you were not alive to help me battle those same demons. Even though you are no longer here physically, I draw on the strength of your lesson daily, as I’m reminded that I am not my past, and that I have a choice to build any life I want.
You were an incredible paradox because to many, you were a man of commanding power and authority, but to the few who knew you dearly, you lived a very “small” life—You were most at ease when you were home surrounded by your children, and so you rarely traveled far afield and seldom were a guest in someone else’s house. Maybe it was the simple fact that you came from “nothing” that served as a constant reminder that extravagance and comfort were not to be trusted. As you lay dying of cancer in a palliative care unit at the age sixty, you taught me one more lesson before your passing. I have come to treasure every moment I spend with my wife and son, and I’m ever so careful not to miss the opportunity to enjoy a “comfort” or “extravagance” with them while I’m still able.
I love you dad, and I carry you wherever I go.
Like many men of his generation, my father was an enigma when it came to deciphering the nuances of his moods. He appeared to vacillate between being a practical joker and a moody depressive. I can remember the frustration I felt as child trying to figure out why my father was in a bad mood, and more importantly, whether or not I was to blame. Having a relationship with my dad was like going on a archaeological dig—It took a lot of time and patience to unearth what you were looking for.
Now that I am the father of a young man, I see that I too an guilty of slipping on that skin of enigma that my father so steadfastly wore. The difference being, that I desperately want to cultivate an authentic relationship with my son, something I never achieved with my father. There is no denying that we are a product of our childhood, but I don't believe this fact relegates us to a carbon-copy life replicating that which was imprinted on us during our childhood. The definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result”, so if I’m eager for change to happen, conscious action will be required on my part to break this stagnant perennial father-son relationship.
Whenever we want to witness real change in our life, and I’m not talking here about “tweaking” or “tinkering” with breaking habits, we have to adopt the mentality that change does not come to us, but rather, we come to change. An awareness that a change is necessary is a critical first step, but it’s just that—a step, not a destination.
This past year has been transformation for me because it has been a period of intense introspection precipitating drastic changes in my life. As I step back and observe this process, I can note the few occasions in which I was able to bring about a significant change with the least amount of friction and the greatest possibility for success. The desire for a change typically comes from a place of inferiority—often enmeshed in shame or perceived inequality. I have found it helpful to put some positive thoughts, or self-talk, into my “emotional bank” before embarking on the process of bringing about a change in some facet of my life. The easiest way for me to approach change from a place of strength and confidence is to ask myself a couple of self-affirming questions. If you’re anything like me, you might find it helpful to write your answers down on a piece of paper. There’s some alchemy that occurs when we physically write something, as it allows us to internalize that which we write. Here are the questions I asked myself and the answers I recorded.
It’s also important to note that any meaningful change in life comes with an inherent cost—You are bound to meet resistance or friction in others who feel uncomfortable with your metamorphosis. Sadly, I’ve had to do a little people purging in my social circle, thereby surrounding myself with those who embrace my efforts and distancing myself from the naysayers. We often sabotage any hope of change before we even begin because we allow all that negative self-talk to take over our consciousness. If we are serious about making a change in our lives, the opportunity is always there for us to seize. In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you believe you can do or not, you are right.”
This past year it feels as though I’ve been moving parts of my life around on a giant jigsaw puzzle—Like any puzzle, some of the pieces just seem to slip in together logically, while others are harder to place, especially when I attempt to force them into where they don’t belong. Having already figured out most of the puzzle, I’m left with the last few challenging pieces, that when properly placed, will bring the entire picture into perspective.
I’ve known for quite some time that even though I’ve been working as a teacher for over a quarter century, it really was not my passion. I’m feeling stagnant, and the little nagging spark in my soul has now become an all-consuming fire urging me to scale the walls of fear I’ve built around me. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.” It’s now clear to me that the next chapter of my life is set to begin, as it’s time for my soul to grow.
I recently watched great TedTalk by Russel Redenbaugh about overcoming adversity in your life. For those of you unfamiliar with Redenbaugh, he lost his sight at the age of sixteen, and then went on to overcome severe poverty to graduate sixth in his class at the prestigious Wharton School. His journey has taken him to managing a 6 billion dollar investment firm, sitting as Commissioner on the US Civil Rights Commission, and even more remarkable, becoming a Jujitsu world champion. During his TedTalk, Redenbaugh professes that “adversity builds advantages”, and by learning to tap into that strength often interpreted as an insurmountable obstacle, we can shatter the boundaries that society puts up around us—Even more importantly, we can begin to tear down those self-sabotaging inferiority boundaries we erect ourselves.
Crucial to Redenbaugh’s philosophy is what he refers to as the “power of declarations.” When I look back upon this past year, every time I’ve successfully moved another piece of my jigsaw puzzle into place, it has always come on the heels of a personal declaration. In the words of Redenbaugh, “Declarations precede leaps.” My three core declarations this past year have been: No longer be afraid. No longer be ashamed. and Place passion and mission first.
If declarations are so life altering, why haven't more of us taken advantage of their power? I believe it comes down to the simple fact that most of us set our sights too low—and this is clearly evident in the vocabulary we choose. How many times in your life have you set yourself a “goal”? The dictionary defines a “goal” as an “objective” or “desired aim”. In other words, it’s the destination of a journey. What we fail to realize is that it’s a destination and not a “path” to that desire. Is it any wonder many of us get lost along the way to that goal. Another term that gets a lot of air time is the word “resolution”. When we face the clean slate of a New Year ahead of us, it’s so tempting to make a list of “resolutions”, but what is actually taking place when we make these? The dictionary defines “resolution” as “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” It’s very personal, and quite often, never spoken aloud. By their very nature, resolutions lack the failsafe aspect of accountability because no one else is there to monitor our adherence and transgressions. Compare these two words to a “declaration”, which the dictionary describes as “an explicit announcement of the beginning of a state or condition, a proclamation.” The author Kelly Corrigan expresses this beautifully by saying, “You have to speak your dream out loud.” Our words hold a power, and by giving our voice to them, we can initiate change in our lives—Where we often fall short is by limiting the scope of our declarations.
I sat down with a pen and paper a few days ago and came up with five categories of declarations, and drafted one personal declaration for each. By sharing these with you here, I am adding a “voice” to my declarations and putting faith in their ability to precede the next leap in my life.
One Holistic Declaration
Vulnerability is not weakness; in fact, it’s strength without wings.
One Physical or Health Declaration
I will escape from the vicious cycle of self hate that I initiate by gorging on food, typically sweets, only to beat myself up later with messages of self hate. Over the years I’ve used food to fill an emptiness inside of me as I’ve battled with the demons of depression and drug/alcohol addiction.
One Relationship or Family Declaration
As of today, I will now value “authenticity” in my relationships over blood ties and history. I am learning that “family” is not a construct of those with whom you are connected by birth. Family can construe anyone who nourishes my soul—Those who challenge and support me.
One Career Declaration
I will no longer settle for the comfort of being “competent” in my job. The next chapter of my working life with be a manifestation of that which “makes my heart sing.”
The Final Declaration: One “story” about you that you will “put to bed” once and for all.
For most of my life, I’ve viewed myself as “weak” because I didn’t have the courage to tell people that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, that I struggle with mental health issues, and that I have a history of drug and and alcohol addiction. The truth is that for the first time in my life, I am realizing that I am not weak—In fact, I’m resilient.
I invite you to find a quiet place and sit down and draft your own list of life-altering declarations—You never know where they may lead you. I’ll close by sharing the words of the award winning author Neil Gaiman: “The only thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”