I love the subtlety and ambiguity of words, and that no doubt had a lot to do with why I taught English for 23 years, and why I am now pursuing a career as a writer. I was reading an article in today’s Globe & Mail by Alan Cummings, a name you may not know, but a face I’m sure you’d recognize from his various theater performances and his recurring role as Eli Gold on The Good Wife.
In the article, Alan refers to the difference between the English expression, “I miss you” and the French expression, “Tu me manques”, which literally translates to “I am being missed by you.” The lifelong grammarian in me immediately honed in on the lexical construction of the two expressions, and how the French passive voice, although somewhat ‘clunky sounding’ to the English ear, intones much more resonance and depth of loss.
I may just be falling prey to lexical gymnastics, but I couldn’t help but feel that when it comes to the tender emotion of ‘missing’, this unassuming semantic change in perspective can have profound meaning. It was Oscar Wilde who said, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” When I look back on my life, and all that I have loved, lost, and sustained, my mind naturally travels to what was taken from me, and the unsettling hollow that left inside of me. I know what you’re thinking—cue the pity parade—but that’s exactly my point.
Romance lies within the ‘newness’ of something, that tenuous dance with uncertainty, possibility, and discovery. It’s in the unfolding, or evolution of connection, that beauty reveals itself to us as love or romance. And wherever that might lead, it’s an intoxicating dance that can leave you feeling either breathless or worthless.
Depending on how you look at it, I’ve been blessed or cursed by three great loves in my life. By far the most resonating love I have is for my wife, Mary-Anne. We were so young and naïve when we were married 28 years ago. I’m often asked what the secret is to the longevity of our relationship, and I usually respond by saying that the “person” I married is most definitely not the “same person” I am married to today. As Oscar Wilde said, “romance is uncertainty”, so leaving the space required for each of us to grow into the people we needed to become has been essential to prolonging that romance. We’ve danced, not always gracefully, but beautifully through a lot of uncertainty over the years. And in that salsa of fluidity, we’ve come to understand the difference between ‘being there for the one we love’ and ‘being there with the one we love’. The latter is by far the most difficult because our natural tendency is to try to fix something that feels uncomfortable. The truth is, some things can’t be fixed—they simply need to be endured together.
The second pronounced love of my life has been my love of drugs and alcohol. Although you may think you know what addiction ‘looks like’, it’s almost impossible to explain what addiction ‘feels like’ to someone who isn’t an addict. An active addiction has little to do with a euphoric escape, and everything to do with sabotaging self-negation. I never picked up a drink or a drug in order to feel different—the only thing I was looking for was not to feel at all. My romance with alcohol and drugs had an ever so brief honeymoon period, and sadly there was no Hollywood ending in my future, except maybe the speeding car driving off the cliff at the end of Thelma and Louise. I’ve been clean and sober now for over 18 years, and not a day goes by where I don’t miss the chaotic uncertainty of my addictive romance. Maybe I need to reframe my thinking a little and adopt the French “Tu me manques.” It certainly is a lot more liberating and empowering believing that my addiction misses me more than I miss it.
And with that, I have arrived at my most ephemeral love—my love affair with long distance running. For me, running has been a not too subtle reminder of the palette of life’s richness and undulation—prolonged episodes of monotonous ambiguity, punctuated by flashes of soul-crushing agony, and the sweetest yet most fleeting moments of euphoria. I disappeared into the world of drug and alcohol addiction because I was afraid—not of you, not even of something outside of me, but of the ache of the unknown inside of me. My romance with running has been a tumultuous dance played to a soundtrack of tenacity and uncertainty. Somehow within the motion of running, I’ve arrived at a sacred stillness inside—a place that has birthed the best of me, and the worst me, but in either case, the beauty lies in the dissonance of the arrival.
You know what—maybe the French are onto something… Perspective, is everything.
You’re dirty. You’re disgusting. No one is going to want you now. It’s your fault. You shouldn’t have been there in the first place. You’re an idiot. Why didn’t you fight back? Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you think. Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone what happened.
No matter how difficult it may be to read those words, I really need you to hear me—in fact, my life, or the life of someone you love, depends on it. When I was 12 years old, I was raped by two young men in a ravine. The attack took place in the light of the afternoon, right in the middle of a big city. I’m no longer that 12-year-old boy. I am now a middle-aged man, but those thoughts and those feelings continue to echo inside of me.
Whether we’re talking about sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, or date rape, it’s important we don’t get caught up in the semantics or the nuances of the language we choose. Let’s agree to cut through all the crap and call it what it is—a heinous violation that can rip the heart and soul out of another human being; an act of power and control that leaves its fingerprints on the lives of its victims long after the physical and emotional evidence starts to fade.
Pause for a second, and notice how I began this article by using the pronoun “you” and not “I”. One of the less discussed consequences of sexual assault is that in order to shield someone from the trauma of the event, the brain literally ‘fractures’ at the time of the assault, and what you are left with is a ‘victim’ and a ‘survivor’. It’s as if the brain cannot process the trauma without first gaining a safe distance by projecting a different personality—that of ‘the victim’.
I know from my own experience, and from my discussions with other survivors of sexual assault, that one part of the healing process, and I would venture to say the most important step, is to reach a place where we see these two fractured pieces of us—victim and survivor, reunite as one. I am slowly learning, and let me stress that word, ‘slowly’, that whenever I align myself with, or identify myself solely as a ‘victim’ or as a ‘survivor’, my mental well-being is in jeopardy.
I’ve begun to see rape as a ‘cancer’. You can knock it into remission by treating it with therapy, psychiatry, and medication (self-prescribed or that prescribed by a physician), but the dis-ease keeps coming back and rearing its ugly head. The only cure for this societal disease is to break the silence, to flood as much light on the issue as humanly possible.
But here in lies the most challenging issue we face as a community—The sad reality is that for many survivors of sexual assault, the ‘cure’ is quite often worse than the ‘disease’. As I’ve already mentioned, the fingerprints of sexual assault appear to have an infinite shelf life, as they insidiously twist their way into every part of a survivor’s life.
When I read the news stories about the accusations against Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, I shudder at the fact that for many of us, our first reaction is to dismiss, or question, the assertions brought forth by the ‘alleged’ victims who after years of isolation and devastation, have finally arrived at a place where they feel they can speak out. I am reminded of a quote by the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” I think we can all agree that love is a nurturing emotion; while hate is a destructive emotion. They are but opposite sides of the same coin, forged of intensity.
Indifference is strikingly different in that it is a complete absence of connection, emotion, or intensity. When it comes to the cruelest forms of torture or punishment, we can’t help but be reminded that the ultimate punishment we as a society can inflict is depriving someone of his or her humanness, and this is meted out through segregation or isolation.
If we are serious about putting an end to ‘rape culture’, objectification, and sexual exploitation in our communities, then the answer most certainly lies in dialogue not in indifference and isolation. The statistics of sexual violence in our society are not only alarming but also horrifying. It turns out, the simplest solution to this problem may in fact be the hardest for us to put into practice—the willingness to listen.
As a high profile endurance athlete and as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, I live a very public, and at times, messy life. Over the past few years, I’ve written extensively about, and on many occasions have spoken candidly of my struggles with addiction, mental health issues, and sexual violence. With over half a million readers/subscribers, my blog, Breathe Through This, has been the primary forum for this discussion.
From all the messages and comments I receive, what strikes me most is how many of us feel that we live on the ‘margins’ of society, moreover, how desperate we are to find the resilience inside that gives us the strength and courage to keep moving forward despite what lies at our feet. I find it even more surprising when people tell me they see that resilience in me, when truth be told, I feel somewhat of a fraud because to me, all I’ve done is to literally hang on for dear life.
I have grown to believe that the greatest antidote to fear is honesty, and it’s with this in mind, that I share the following with you. For the past few months, I’ve engaged in a convoluted relationship with time. It all started out rather innocent. I would be sitting on the subway or in a coffee shop, when suddenly I would awaken back into the moment and have absolutely no idea how I got there, or what I was doing even 5 minutes before.
At first, I simply dismissed these incidents as my being preoccupied or distracted, but as they became more and more frequent, they became of greater concern. The closest I can come to describing this feeling is to compare it to the blackouts I experienced when my alcoholism was at its worst. Hours were once again slipping away from me, and I had absolutely no idea how to account for that lost time. The one saving grace in all this has been that, unlike the black holes of alcoholism, I was not awakening from these time voids with an impending feeling of doom, or a deep sense of remorse. But I assure you, it’s equally terrifying to feel that your mind is fracturing before your eyes.
Despite knowing about my brain’s ability to shield me from past trauma, it wasn’t until last week that I found the courage to speak with my doctor, and later my wife, about my experiences with ‘losing time’. I should also mention that I am currently seeing a psychiatrist at a PTSD clinic here in Toronto who is helping me navigate my way through some the more tenacious residual effects of trauma. As a consequence of having to nurture resiliency for so many years, I have become increasingly aware of the convoluted and ingenious ways my mind has adapted to the repercussions of surviving trauma.
Truth be told, I’m absolutely terrified of being locked up in a psych ward, so you can probably imagine what was going through my mind as I witnessed my relationship with time becoming more and more distorted. Once again, it was my choice to abandon fear for truth that proved to be my way out of isolation and trepidation. My doctor assured me that what I was experiencing was a condition known as “disassociation”—something that is extremely common in people working through complex PTSD. Terrifying though it may seem, by creating the sensation that the current situation is unreal, and temporarily depersonalizing us from our body in an almost dream-like state, our brain is merely enacting yet another ingenious coping mechanism to create the ‘safe space’ necessary for it to adequately process unresolved past trauma.
Whenever I ‘come to’ from one of these episodes, it’s as though I’m just like Hansel and Gretel and I have awoken in a fairytale—I vainly search for the breadcrumbs in order to find my way back. I’m reminded of a quote by the writer Caroline Myss: “The journey of life is the unification of fragmentation. Fragments are units of power that are out of control. We make agreements to come and collect ourselves.”
When you think about it, that’s a perfect metaphor for how we go about living our lives—tripping, pirouetting, and stumbling upon those fragments we discover along the way that make us whole. I now trust that ‘healing’ has less to do with repair, and everything to do with the ‘return’ to self and to community. It’s a conscious decision to move from the place where your wounds define you towards a place where those same wounds begin to guide you.
No matter what you may be struggling with in your life at the moment, chances are the solution will not be found in isolation, but in connection. The South African word ‘ubuntu’, which loosely translated means “I am, because of you”, speaks to the heart of our interconnectedness, and suggests that everything we go through in life, once shared, serves as a lesson or opportunity for the entire community’s growth. Healing lies within a community, and that healing starts with a conversation.
At its truest essence, healing is not the absence of pain, but rather, the faith to give oneself the permission to unravel into the messiness of life—its glories, sorrows, and heartaches. In the words of Caroline Myss, you achieve the greatest peace by learning “how to endure and transcend when unreasonable events come your way.” In essence, “learning to defy gravity in your world.”