I'm sure you've been in a room full of people when someone brings up the topic of cancer. You may have noticed the word “cancer" is whispered, said almost under the breath. It's a frightening word that no one likes to talk about. It's something we choose not to think about because we are all vulnerable to it touching our lives. It is with almost superstitious fear that we hesitantly broach the topic lest we invite it into our own life. But the reality is that we do talk about it. We raise money to find a cure, we honour those who have battled through it, and we seem to do everything within our means to banish it from our society.
That being said, there is another disease eating away at the fabric of our families, our communities, and our countries. It's something that no one is immune from. Next time you find yourself sitting on a bus, sitting in a crowded movie theatre, sitting amongst your neighbours, or even gathering with family, look carefully at the many faces, and realize that a staggering number of those individuals carry a secret that eats away at their lives like a cancer. Yet, it's a topic that few have the courage to give a voice to--childhood sexual abuse.
I’m someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s father, and possibly your neighbour. I’m also a member of a taboo society no one likes to talk about—One that includes one in three girls and one in six boys. At the age of nine, sexual abuse entered my life for the first time, and for almost the next four decades, I sat amongst you feeling alone, ashamed, dirty, and less than. If I wasn’t willing to talk about what happened to me, how could I expect that society at large would engage in a dialogue about what’s happening to an alarming number our kids?
I won’t begin to bore you with the train wreck that served as a metaphor for my adolescence and most of my adult life. I did everything possible to cut away that ugly “stowaway” buried deep inside me, but ironically it oozed out in my addictions, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Four months ago, with the help of my wife and therapy team, I did something I never imagined I could do—I walked into the police station and made a video deposition against one of the men who sexually abused me when I was a trusting child. If truth be told, my voice in that deposition was a shaky truncated whisper, but I now realize that I added my faint whisper to a chorus of whispers finally coming to life in the air around me. When I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the police station and entered the claustrophobic video recording room, I knew that my life would never be the same again. I also knew that the road ahead would not be smooth, and that my resolve would be tested. Yesterday, after a long conversation with the investigating officer about the procedural hurdles before me, I felt gutted, afraid, and alone. I know that I have only two options—face this head on, or bury it and permit this to steal the rest of my life. After a day of much soul-searching, I’ve come up with three guiding principles to help me push through this terminal discomfort.
1. I need to step back to move forward.
I’ve never subscribed to the belief that it’s better to leave the past in the past, and simply move on. Yes, our past is indeed a minefield, but within that minefield lies an abundant orchard waiting to be harvested. I know there are parts of me I need to reconnect with and bring forward into a better place today. Inspirational speaker, Iyanla Vanzant articulates this perfectly: “Until you heal the wounds of your past, you are going to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex. But eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds. Stick your hands inside, pull out the core of pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.”
2. If I wait for all the pieces to fall into place, I’ll only end up falling to pieces.
Last year when I first disclosed to my wife that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, we quickly realized that this was a problem that we were ill-equipped to handle, so we started looking for professionals and resources to help us get through this together. It didn’t take long to discover that childhood sexual abuse resources are primarily allocated to children, and to a much lesser extent, women. When it comes to treating men who are seeking help, there is very little available. This harsh reality has fuelled my desire to become a full-time advocate for adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. At this point, I’m struggling with what this “mission” should look like, but in so doing, I risk being overwhelmed and not taking any action at all. I’m reminded of a quote I heard recently: “It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than think yourself into a new way of acting."
3. Whenever my spirits waiver, I need to remind myself of these essential truths:
I’d like to leave you with a precious reminder from Cynthia Occelli. “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. the shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
One of my fondest childhood memories is munching on Ritz crackers while lying stretched out on the marigold shag carpet in my friend’s living room as we eagerly awaited the reruns of Batman and Mission Impossible. To this day, I still hold my breath and get goose bumps when I hear the opening sequence to Mission Impossible—“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” As a 7-year-old boy, I was entranced by the possibility of adventure that lay at the doorstep of all the adults around me, but only if they “choose to accept it.”
Now that I’m firmly entrenched in that "adult world", I’m flooded by apprehension when faced with crossing that threshold to life’s next mission. To be honest, for most of my life, unlike Ethan Hunt, I became somewhat incapacitated each time an opportunity for change appeared, and most often, I was left staring at another lost possibility self-destructing in my hands.
Everything changed 18 months ago when I was on an extended medical leave for PTSD. After a lot of challenging work with a therapist who specializes in this field, I have slowly begun to dig into all the uncertainty and fear in my life. As you can imagine, it’s not that simple to reprogram your brain to embrace the things you spent more than 40 years running away from. In order to enact this seismic shift, I’ve initiated a three-pronged approach: acknowledge where I am in my life right now, identify where I want to be, and finally, nurture the buoyancy required to get there. Shifting my outlook in this way has allowed me to be more attuned to what I like to call “signposts” that help me along the way. I thought I would share with you a few of those “signposts” that I’ve stumbled upon this past week.
I was reading an interview with entrepreneur Jim Rohn in which he was quoted as saying: “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” I had never really thought about it like that before, but so much of my self-esteem and overall mood is a reflection of the people I open my life to. I’ve had to go through a social purge of late in order to distance myself from “Eeyores”, “energy vampires” and toxic relationships in general. I spent far too much of my life behaving like a social chameleon—adapting myself to the crowd I was with and morphing into what I believed others wanted me to be. I now understand that “friendship” and “love” are not defined by how much time you spend with someone, but by how authentic you can allow yourself to be when you are together. I’m also keenly aware that jettisoning the doubters and critics from my life does not mean that the “5 people I spend the most time with” should not be able to challenge me to be a better version of myself.
I enjoying listening to podcasts while I’m commuting on the subway, and just yesterday I heard two inspirational speakers on the Ted Radio Hour who really resonated with me. This first talk was with Diana Nyad, the long distance swimmer, who after four thwarted attempts, at the age of 64 finally made the 110-mile ocean crossing between Cuba and Florida. When asked what motivated her to keep going despite all the setbacks she faced, she said that she has always believed it’s important to “chase an elevated dream.” Like most people, I’ve had dreams and set goals, but I think I’ve been guilty of setting the bar a little low. Now that I’m building a “bigger life” for myself, like Diana, I am in hot pursuit of an “elevated dream”—one in which I can help other men rebuild their lives after coming to terms with childhood trauma.
The second TedTalk was delivered by Amy Purdy, who lost both of her legs below the knee to meningitis, but still went on to become a world-class snowboarder, model, entrepreneur, and even a contestant on the hit television series “Dancing With The Stars”. My favourite part of her talk was when she said that “Borders and obstacles can only do one of two things: stop us in our tracks or unleash our imagination.” What an incredible mindset for which to confront adversity in our life—something that doesn’t destroy us, but instead, is a springboard to unleash our “imagination” to do what Brene Brown refers to as “daring greatly.”
So, if you’re find yourself struggling right now, I invite you to look around at the “5 people closest to you” and ask yourself, “Do these people nourish my soul and challenge me to be better?” Consider building buoyancy into your life by looking upon adversity as a “mission you choose to accept.” In the words of the great Santiago from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, "Man is not made for defeat… A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
As a writer, I'm always looking for inspiration, and this can come from the strangest of places. My days are spent walking that tightrope between keeping my monkey mind quiet while simultaneously trying to be amped-up and creative. There's a great quote by Pablo Picasso that describes this artistic paradox, "Inspiration exists, but it has to find your working."
It really is an enchanted process because I've had to learn to get out of my own way and simply have faith that the next thing I want to write about will appear. I’ll give you an idea what this looks like—Yesterday I was meeting a colleague at a local coffee shop, and I noticed written in elegant script on the sandwich board outside the cafe the following quote attributed to reggae icon Bob Marley: "The truth is everyone is going to hurt you; you just have to find the ones worth suffering for." It resonated with me so strongly because lately I've been reading and writing a lot about resiliency and to whether or not it's even possible to nurture strategies and behaviours that, in some way, make us "bulletproof" or at least less vulnerable to life's challenges.
I see little merit to being “bulletproof” or walking in a self-constructed “invisibility blanket” because donning that protective armour comes at cost—isolating or distancing myself from others. After spending almost 40 years burdened by the secret that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and all of the energy involved in shielding that part of me from public view, I no longer have the desire to live in the shadows of a protective veil. I don’t necessarily find a solution in communion with others, but I do find a reprieve from my isolation. Ultimately, it is in this space of connection, that personal challenge may ultimately be a bridge to transformation.
I’ve begun to make a subtle distinction between being resilient, which has its roots in the 17th century Latin word “resilire” meaning “leaping back”, versus being buoyant, derived from French and Spanish meaning “to float”. To me, the metaphor of being able to “float” through the tumultuous seas of life’s stormy periods is something to which I aspire. It accurately reflects many times in my life where I’ve had hardships wash over me, but at no time have I allowed them to push me completely under. Unlike “resilience” which conjures up battling through crises, “buoyancy” entails living life on life’s terms without succumbing to the rough patches.
I’ve put together a list five guiding principles that I rely on to nurture buoyancy in my relationships and in my overall outlook on life.
1. Be motivated by choice ~ Not manipulated by voice
Substantive personal transformation is definitely not for the faint at heart. What sideswipes a lot people who seek to make changes in their life is the backlash they receive by those closest to them. This is often coming from a place of fear in those who lack the fortitude to make necessary changes in their own lives. The great Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is only through labour and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.”
2. Surround yourself with a tribe ~ Don’t let your family prescribe
For years, I sought out my family’s validation for what I am and what I do. The sad reality is that I was continually left feeling unsupported and insecure. The more I speak out about my “distance” from my birth family, the more I hear from others who share a similar toxic relationship with their family members. I now realize that “family” can be whatever I choose it to be—and today, my family is composed of primarily my wife and son and friends who support me wholeheartedly for who I am. As Richard Bach says, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but or respect and joy in each other’s life.”
3. Align with the unafraid ~ Not a pity parade
It’s very tempting for me to retreat when life gets a little complicated and scary, but that leads to only one place—the “poor me-s”. Misery really does love company, and having more people join into the “tragedy play” only makes everything worse and creates an even bigger hole to dig yourself out of. I choose to surround myself with survivors who turn into the wind and keep the shadows at bay.
4. Let go of anger for this day ~ Why risk being caught in its fray
I discovered very earlier on in my recovery from drug and alcohol addiction that holding on to resentment was a one-way ticket to a relapse. In the words of Catherine Ponder, one of America’s foremost inspirational authors, “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.”
5. Bring out the best in your worst ~ Perfection’s bubble is yours to burst
Maintaining the illusion of perfection is definitely a fool's game, and one that will surely sap you of all your energy. If I want people to forgive my “life blemishes”, I need to embrace everyone else’s “niggly bits” too. One of my favourite scenes in the movie “Shirley Valentine” is midway through the movie when Shirley, in the throws of a midlife crisis, is being rhapsodized by a swarthy Greek sailor who much to Shirley’s dismay, while lovingly kissing her stretch marks declares: “They show that you are alive, that you have given life; don’t be ashamed of these marks. They are beautiful.”
There is a mysterious force underlying everything in this world, and it has an unseen hand in all parts of our life from our job, to our relationships, and even our health. It is a force that is beautifully predictable in its unpredictability. What I’m speaking of is entropy, a term adopted from physics used to describe the process of inevitable social decline and degeneration when things are left unattended. Simply put, if something is neglected indefinitely, it is destined to wither, die, or fall into disorder.
If you’ve ever felt like you're fighting an uphill battle, or that as soon as you clear away one obstacle, another quickly fills the void, then it’s safe to say you’re brushing up against the universal law of entropy. Not a day goes by without me at some point, wishing to bury my head, or coast for awhile. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, so it's probably natural that I long for a feeling of security, something that was absent from much of my childhood. And here in lies the problem—chasing this elusive presence of security is self-limiting, and I would even go as far as to say, self-sabotaging. Helen Keller knew a thing a two about overcoming obstacles in life, and that’s why it’s rather humbling to hear her say: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “If nothing changes, nothing changes”. Well, it turns out, the reality is much worse than that because if nothing changes, the status quo, even if it’s palatable right now, will slowly erode into a chafing discomfort or unpredictability. We witness this every day in relationships that have run their natural course and no longer are being nurtured by either person. I look upon my 27-year marriage to my wife as being in a life raft together. If we are not willing to keep putting in the effort to address issues that come up in our relationship, in other words to bail out the water, it's not long before a subtle distance quickly becomes a great divide between us—We find ourselves sitting in a raft that once offered us safety in the storm, now precarious and waist-deep in water.
As a recovering alcoholic, I cringe when I hear an addict new to recovery saying that he or she is a “recovered” addict. 18 years of sobriety has taught that the foundation of my recovery is only as strong as my vigilance and gratitude. I remember hearing a speaker in one of my first 12-step meetings say that his addiction was always waiting in the wings doing push-ups and getting stronger ready to pounce the day he let down his guard.
Even though the law of entropy acts as such a driving force in our life, it doesn't mean we are powerless in its midst. Whatever we want in life comes at a cost. If you desire to make things better, you’ll have to pay the price of “uncertainty”, and if you’re incapacitated by fear and retreat from change, be prepared to pay the price of “inferiority”. But all is not hopeless because there is one thing we can do to make ourselves a little more immune to the risk of uncertainty—and that is cultivating a wellspring of resiliency.
I thought I’d share with you my three habits to forging a foundation of resiliency in your life.
1. Rewrite your history ~ Reframe your mentality
So many of us are prisoners of our past and the “story” we’ve constructed around that. To initiate substantive change we must first learn to embrace a new history, and the easiest way to do that is to adopt a new vocabulary because in so doing, we craft a different, and hopefully, more empowering self-narrative. In the words of Joel Osteen, “You're going to go through tough times—that’s life. But I say, 'Nothing happens to you, it happens for you.' See the positive in negative events.” Most recently I’ve witnessed this in my own life through a subtle shift in vocabulary when I chose to no longer identify myself as a “victim”, but as a “survivor” of childhood sexual abuse.
2. Open the door to mentors
When you listen to people saying how “resilient” they are, they typically describe themselves as independent and strong willed. That may indeed be the case, but I would venture to add that they are setting themselves up for potential future crisis. Instead of hunkering down to weather a storm isolated and alone, wouldn’t it be a lot easier and more comforting to have others around you as you face the adversity? The challenge is to invite those people into your life before you are in the midst of turmoil. Throughout the past year, I’ve been actively seeking out mentors in my life. I look for people who have built careers, personal lives, and a community presence based on integrity and commitment. These individuals challenge me to question my “default” way of thinking, and they provide a pathway for growth and connection. The resiliency enters the equation in that these mentors serve as a buffer, or sounding board, that helps me push through periods of great uncertainty and self doubt.
3. Dare yourself ~ Don’t compare yourself
I have a tendency to set myself up for failure when I attempt to copy what someone else has or does. This has a lot to do with the emptiness I am often left with when I compare myself to others. It leaves me open to the negative self-talk of “enough”—I’m not handsome enough. I’m not rich enough. I’m not generous enough…and on and on… Although imitation is the highest form of flattery, it could also be said it’s the killer of integrity and originality. When we “imitate”, all we do is copy or mimic someone else, but when we “emulate” we pattern ourselves after others and we adapt, and to some degree, attempt to surpass their behaviour. In the words of American entrepreneur Tim Fargo, “Don't envy what people have, emulate what they did to have it.”
I make no secret that I am an addict in recovery, and this has meant devoting myself to, in the words of the AA literature, “clearing away the wreckage of my past.” Compared to many other addicts who are recovering from addictions like gambling and sex addiction, drug and alcohol addicts who embark upon an honest recovery experience an almost immediate improvement in their quality of life. In fact, you’ll hear many addicts in 12-step meetings say: “I got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” Even now that I’m over 17 years clean and sober, I’ll never forget how liberating it was to wake up in the morning not feeling nauseous and hung over, and not having to apologize for the chaos I caused the night before. I jumped head first into recovery and did all of the do things recommended to maintain my sobriety—I got a sponsor, went to meetings daily, and began actively healing the relationships around me. Another important part of the puzzle for me was to get physically active and start addressing years of neglecting my body.
A common theme in most early recovery is to introduce stability and regularity into your life—something that is sorely missing in the realm of an active addict. I’ve been employed as an English teacher with one of the school boards in the city for over 20 years now, and sobriety has allowed me to build up trust by both dependably showing up for work every day and fulfilling the commitments asked of me. I am immensely grateful for everything sobriety has brought into my life. In fact, I had the word Gratitude tattooed on my arm, so it’s with great trepidation, that I make the following public declaration—Despite the success I’ve had in my career, I find my job neither challenging nor soul-affirming. It feels almost sacrilegious to tinker with success, but like every other piece of my life, if I’m not growing, I’m regressing.
I’m currently at the precipice of a substantive career change, and coupled with all the excitement of taking on new challenges and pushing my limits, comes the inevitable anxiety and self-doubt, in other words, the ugly face of fear. The late Maya Angelou said: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” It’s worthwhile to note where she starts from--liking yourself. I have a tendency to beat myself up for not making a career jump sooner, but maybe I was just doing more of the groundwork involved in “liking myself” before I felt ready to look beyond myself.
There has been a lot of talk around our house lately about career burnout and to whether or not it’s even reasonable to expect a sense of fulfillment from a career. Through these challenging conversations, I’ve been able to crystallize in my mind what I want in a new career by making the distinction between a job in which you sacrifice yourself and a job in which you offer yourself. The teaching profession for me has been a career in which my success is realized in the success of my students, but it has been a “sacrifice” in that it is a job that does not nourish my soul. I’m in the process of crafting a new career that will allow me to be of service to others, but in a way that feeds my inner passion—and it’s in this space, that I make the distinction between “sacrificing” and “offering”. I thought I’d share with you the following checklist that I devised to help frame the next chapter of my working life.
1. Is your career aligned with your passion in life?
There is an ongoing debate about whether you should do what you love or learn to love what you do. I’m not naive enough to believe in some kind of divine alchemy that will magically transform my passion into a lucrative career, but I am convinced that aligning my career with my core values allows me to be open to the possibilities of where that passion can lead me. The one caveat I would add is the importance of self-directing this passion based on your skill set, and in so doing, your new career becomes more about exploring your passion than about exercising your hobby. Through this lens, I’ve identified that I am comfortable talking openly about the uncomfortable, and that throughout my life, I’ve been able to harness adversity as a stepping stone to growth.
2. What’s the composition of your tribe?
Our ability to find our tribe is critical in that it offers us a sense of validation and can relieve us from the isolation and alienation of modern life. I like what American writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin says about tribes. “Instead of focusing on arguing with people who say no, it might easier to get near the people who like to say yes.” I spent almost 40 years of my life hiding the fact that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and as a result, much of my behaviour involved pushing people away or masochistically seeking out people who made me feel unworthy and ashamed. Since publicly disclosing that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse last year, I have been actively cultivating a soul-affirming tribe in my life. I’m surrounding myself with those who are supportive, those who I aspire to be like, and those who challenge me to step back, reevaluate, and lean-in.
3. Has your comfort zone become a smothering zone?
By staying risk averse, I become growth inept. Escaping the comfortable for the possible has a lot to do with who your tribe is and whether or not they push you towards growth, and as you encounter inevitable setbacks, provide you a safe place to land. In the words of motivational speaker Chris Murray, “Allowing yourself to be a conduit for opportunity requires a brand new outlook on life. Lady fortune cannot enter a locked door, you know. And contrary to that well known saying, she has rarely been known to knock.”
4. Are you doing what you “should” do rather than what you “ought to” do?
If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that being authentic in my interactions and writing has opened a door to like-minded individuals who have reached out to me as supporters or fellow travelers. I've have begun to evaluate the parts of my life that involve the most “uncomfortable” interactions, and then I determined whether I was allowing my authentic self to be present in those interactions. By doing nothing more than being present and honest about how I felt, the negative people have turned away, and this has provided space for the right people to find their way into my life.
I’ll close by sharing something I recently heard in a podcast interview with Terry Tempest Williams, in which she posed a very thought-provoking question—one that I believe gets to the heart of what I have been struggling with for so long. Many of us go about our lives with blinders on, never questioning what we do and why we do it. Ms. Williams makes the point that next time you're at a get-together making small talk, instead of asking What do you do? consider asking What do you see? If we all paused for a moment, we might just be surprised by what we see and where it leads us.
If the purpose of life is to awaken, then we really have only two choices to make—We can make a conscious decision to learn from joy and freedom, or we can choose to be mired in pain and defiance. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression happiness is and inside job, and I would venture to say that seeking any type of substantive change in my life is bound to be more fruitful if I turn the lens on myself rather than trying to change all the other chess pieces on the board. I think Anaïs Nin said it best: “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
I believe in seeing the positive in every negative, and this is very clear when it comes to my addictive behaviour. Because I have an addictive personality, I focus on things, I obsess over things, and I take everything to the extreme. But on the upside, this addictive behaviour that plagued me for so many years as I struggled to come to terms with my drug and alcohol addiction—these potentially self-sabotaging character traits, are the same things that have kept me sober for the past 17 years, one day at a time. The longer I have stayed sober, the more addicted I have become to feeling healthier and clearer of mind.
My favourite AA slogan, and you'll hear it in meetings taking place around the world, is “Keep it simple.” Ironically, some of the most intelligent people I’ve met over the years in recovery are the same people who seem to struggle most with staying sober. Addicts are typically very ingenious when it comes to lying and deceiving those around us, but we forget, we are equally disingenuous when it comes to deceiving ourselves. There is always this soundtrack playing in the background of an addict’s mind with the dangerous refrain: “You’re different. You’re not like the rest of the addicts in this room. Just have one drink, one line, one pill…”
If I distill my problems with drugs and alcohol down to one basic premise, there is a greater chance I can stay sober one more day. Simply put, addiction is a habit—It’s a self-destructive behaviour that I default to. Like any habit, a drug/alcohol addiction is formed when the behaviour is repeated and a neural-pathway is established in our brain. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says that every entrenched habit involves three elements: the cue, the trigger, and the reward. He goes on to say most people fail when they try to get rid of a bad habit because they focus on the cue or the trigger. Therefore, as a recovering addict, if I simply tinker with the cues by isolating myself from certain situations and people, and remove the trigger, the drug or alcohol, I am not addressing the underlying “default” behaviour etched into my neural-pathway. In other words, willpower alone will only temporarily mute those cues and triggers. Instead, I will have better success if I focus on the perceived reward I get from the drug or alcohol. For me, the reward always came down to one of two things—numbing uncomfortable feelings inside or attempting to connect with those around me. In battling addiction, real success comes from displacing a destructive behaviour with something more positive that generates the same reward that the drugs and alcohol provided. By doing this, I circumvent the old “default” behaviour and create new neural-pathways.
Whatever bias you have against 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, they are incredibly effective for many suffering addicts. They can help establish routine and accountability in an addict’s life. More importantly, recovery meetings give addicts like me, the “rewards” we were seeking in the drugs and alcohol—It’s a safe place to make connections with others, and through sharing our struggles and fears with other addicts, we are given a cathartic release that quiets our restless mind.
It’s with all this in mind, that I have a heavy heart when I look at the fiasco of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. After a very disgraceful public implosion, Mayor Ford entered a two-month treatment program to address his drug and alcohol addiction. Having just been released from the treatment program, Rob Ford barely missed a beat when he resumed his position in municipal politics. If his current antics are any indication of what’s to come, I think it’s safe to say Rob Ford is primed for a relapse. I opened this piece by saying that change has to come from within, but all we are seeing from Mayor Ford is his lashing out at everyone and everything around him. The cynic in me sees his stay at the treatment centre as a charade to garner public sympathy for his run at reelection later this year. However, the addict in me, sees his behaviour as what is characteristically called white knuckling it. He’s hiding behind the clinical diagnosis of addiction being a “disease”, and thus, he’s but a victim of this disease who shouldn't be held accountable. I’ve seen this script play out so many times during my 17 years in recovery, and sadly it always has a tragic ending.
I suggest there is still time to write a happier ending to this sad saga, but it will require the same actions that so many other recovering addicts have taken to rebuild their lives—Admit you have a problem. Own up to the chaos you’ve caused around you. Build your future by rebuilding yourself. And finally, give the gift of grace that you’ve received to others so that they too can live a life free of destructive addictions.
I’d like to leave you with the words of Eckhart Tolle: “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.”
Deep down, we all long for the feel of the warm sun on our face, a cool breeze on our neck, the undulating ground under our feet, a blue-filled sky, and the gentle songs of birds above. But a sense of place is not simply the landscape that surrounds us—It’s also the memories and experiences etched into the place, and the cherished people who anchor us even in times of unease. Sometimes a sense of place can leave a scent on your skin, or trigger a smile on your lips.
For many of us, we take a sense of place for granted. We associate our childhood home with fond memories of being loved, engaged, and sheltered. It’s a magical time of what seemed to be a string of endless summer nights and long lazy weekends. It’s this grounding in our past that tethers us to a future of possibility. Just as this story is true, so too is the tragic fact that many children living among us do not have the luxury of this secure tie to their surroundings. For them, their childhood lives are filled with fear, shame, and insecurity. The adult-child bond has been breached, and left to fill the void is a deep well of loss—a world of sharp edges and broken trust.
I can so clearly remember the afternoon that the trauma of childhood sexual abuse shattered my childhood innocence, and as everything was breaking inside of me, all my ties to a childhood home that had grounded me in a sense of place were severed, and I was let adrift like a balloon floating away from a toddler. Much of my adult life was spent vainly trying to reclaim that sense of place that I so desperately longed for. The years battling drug and alcohol addiction, and the subsequent depression, were mocking reminders of my futile quest to reclaim a connection to myself and, ultimately a connection to others.
A new study, funded by Little Warriors and conducted by Erin Martin and Dr. Peter Silverstone of the University of Alberta has shed a stark light on the prevalence of child sexual abuse, as well as the need for programs to help adults recognize the signs of abuse. It’s estimated that 95% of cases are never reported to authorities. What may be even more alarming is that 1 in 3 girls, and 1 in 6 boys experience an unwanted sexual act.
I invite you to take a moment to digest these findings. These are not simply statistics—They are our daughters, or sons, our grandchildren, our neighbours, our future spouses, partners, and friends—They could be you and I. This is a pandemic that is taking place in our homes, in our schools, in our locker rooms, everywhere in our community. So many of our children are walking around lost, afraid, no longer connected to a secure sense of place.
In the words of the writer Joan Didion: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” I would offer that this is what Glori Meldrum and the remarkable people behind the movement to build the Be Brave Ranch are doing. “The Be Brave Ranch, set to open its doors this fall, is a facility that will offer a family-oriented treatment program that combines multiple proven therapies for children ages 8-12 who have been sexually abused.” It’s a special place built out of love not to resemble an institutionalized centre, but rather a place infused with the warmth and comfort of a safe home. Within this sacred place, child victims and their caregivers will receive treatment and healing of the mind, body, heart, and spirit. As the young survivors of child sexual abuse are moving along their healing journey, the Be Brave Ranch program will offer the families affected by this trauma the space and the resources to move beyond the horror of child sexual abuse, a means to deal with grief, guilt, and profound anger so that they can be there to support their children.
It’s been well documented that a critical component in the successful recovery from early childhood trauma largely depends on “whether or not the family was responsible for the victimization, how the parents responded to the child’s disclosure, as well as the caregiver’s own history of trauma and psychopathology.” I know that from my experience with disclosure, that seeking the resources and professional support was but one part of my coming to terms with being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Bringing in support for my family has helped us heal and grow together.
It is through this healing process that I have come to discover who I really am—not a boy afraid in his home, not a teen embarrassed of who he was, not a man ashamed of who he had become. With the love of family and friends, the guidance of professionals working in this field, and a life-affirming embrace from other survivors, I have been able to reclaim my sense of place in this world. My dream is that the Be Brave Ranch is the spark that will ignite others to reach out to a lost, scared child and help supplant the pain of trauma with a comforting sense of place. It’s through this sense of place that we anchor ourselves to the connections we need to thrive, and by which we orient our inner compass in our quest of humanity, our search for greatness.
I stumbled upon this quote from the British writer, Brian Aldiss that is brilliant not only for its biting sarcasm but for its frightening truth. “When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults, and they enter society, one of the politer names of hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them, they show us the state of our decay.”
Those of you who have been following my posts throughout the past year are well aware of the extent to which I have been delving into the trauma I experienced in my childhood and its resonating impact on my adult life. If I asked you to close your eyes and to imagine the word "play", most of you will construct an image of a playground, or an open field filled with laughter, and I’m fairly certain that those images will be populated by children, not adults. But why? If play is so intrinsic to the life of a child that withholding it is often used as a punishment, why as adults are we so hesitant to allow ourselves the luxury of play?
Psychiatrist Stuart Brown says play is akin to oxygen—“It is all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” One of the most constructive pieces of advice given to me came from an old-timer in a 12-step meeting early on in my sobriety. This wizened gruff man, who reeked of coffee and cigarettes, took me aside and said: “You’d better stop all that intellectualizing… It’s your thinking that got you drunk in the first place. Keep it simple and get back to the basic rule of eight—8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work, and 8 hours of play. If your life starts to feel uncomfortable, chances are one of those 8s is out of whack.” I’ve been clean and sober now for over 17 years, and I’ve sat through hundreds of 12-step meetings, and to this day, I’ve never heard better, more practical advice.
All of this got me evaluating the role of play in my life, and what I discovered is that I have a guilty association with it as something I use as a vehicle to escape from the real problems in my life, or as just another activity that I have to throw myself into in order to master it. As you can probably surmise, I’m a classic Type A competitive individual. If my year of self-discovery has taught me anything, it is that when I venture down a path to where I think I know the destination, invariably I’m left wandering in a place I hadn’t expected, with that cloying feeling of discomfort yet again. In this case, it was no different—I’d always assumed play for me meant release, but truth be told, it was just another “project” in my life.
In his TedTalk “Play is more than just fun”, Stuart Brown offers some incredible insights into the significance of play in adult life, and how important it is in not only the obvious boost to creativity and relaxation but also as a medium of social regulation and personal growth. In fact, there have been many studies documenting that adolescents who are denied the opportunity to play become more aggressive as adults. He makes an interesting point by saying that the opposite of play is not “work”, but “depression”. When you frame it that way, you begin to understand that the Holy Grail of inner peace we are all seeking may be eluding us in our denial to release ourselves to the beauty of play.
In this TedTalk, I was introduced to my new “favourite” word--neotony. The Oxford Dictionary defines neotony as “the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal.” Many evolutionary biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould, believe that our ability to retain some “juvenile” features into adulthood has played a critical role in human evolution. Play begins when a baby responds to a parent making googly eyes, and it stays with us as we explore our the playgrounds of our childhood and later in life when we enter mating rituals when selecting a life partner.
For me, this past year has been a constant process of peeling back the layers of an onion, trying to get to that authentic part of me that for years has been wrapped in layer upon layer of shame, a toxic byproduct of childhood sexual abuse. The antidote to this shame is joy, and I believe that this joy can be found in play. As we all know, joy can never be held in or tethered—It can only live if we release it, and it is within this release that my freedom will be found.
I invite you all to close your eyes and go back as far as you can in your life to a happy memory you associate with play. What you may discover is that rooted in that memory is the key to unlock the passion in you as an adult. Passion is rocket fuel for joy, and a wellspring of joy will feed your soul, especially when adversity and vulnerability arrive. We can all benefit from a little less structure in our life, and play by its very nature is uncertain. I never thought about it this way before, but maybe that’s why I’ve always been so attracted to the unstructured flow of jazz. In the words of the immortal Miles Davis, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”