If “patience is a virtue”, then you better count me amongst the sinners. I appear to be wired with only two settings – ‘full on’ or ‘sloth mode’. It’s probably not all that surprising that I gravitated towards extreme endurance running, as it aligns rather nicely with my binary defaults. And with the exception of a few speed bumps along the way, I had managed to navigate my way through life rather effortlessly, and relatively unscathed.
But all that changed two years ago, with the arrival of four little letters that contain such vibrato and dissonance – PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Suddenly, what I thought I knew, I no longer knew. The black and white world I had constructed had become a place of uncertainty, a palate of iridescent shades of grey.
I know what you may be thinking, because I used to think it too … “PTSD, is that a real thing?” I have to admit that it’s easy to brush it off as pop psychology’s latest catchall phrase; that is, until the day your mind decides that the past is actually your present, and in the blink of an eye, you find yourself living in a no man’s land absent of time, a place in which you have become an unwitting pawn subjected to a viscous trauma reel that loops over, and over again in your head.
Now that I’m two years further along this process, and thankfully guided across this uncertainty by way of a caring support network, I’m beginning to feel that PTSD is another example of how we can choose to grow through adversity. Patience is still a daily struggle, yet if I pay attention to the dissonance within the shades of grey, I am rewarded with what I like to call ‘the lessons of trauma’. I should add that these moments of self-awareness don’t appear as complete, or succinct understandings distilled in faith, but rather as subtle whispers of truth that land within me gradually over time.
For me, the catalyst to the most substantive growth came when I decided to sit with the discomfort inside me instead of burying it, numbing it, or ignoring it. I believe there is a deep wisdom in our body that we can all tap into if we allow ourselves to brave the turbulence of uncertainty. I’m reminded of a quote that a friend recently sent me by the English author and spiritualist, Jeff Foster: “True healing is not the fixing of the broken, but the rediscovery of the Unbroken.”
There comes a turning point, a crossroads at which you are faced with the harsh reality that, “What got me here, might not necessarily get me there.” It’s a jarring feeling of re-evaluation, an acknowledgement of having to take those first tentative steps out of the familiar, away from the security of the path you are on.
We seem to be programmed as a species to grab onto what we know, even if by doing so, we are taken further away from our authentic self. I’ve begun to have faith in change, and I no longer mourn what I leave behind. In so doing, I believe you respect and honor who or what brought you to this point of your life, and at the same time, you create the space to grow into where you are going.
There definitely was a time when I wanted to expunge the trauma from my past – build a sarcophagus around the PTSD, and deny its existence. I now realize what a losing prospect that was from the start. Today, I’m arriving at a place of acceptance, a place where I can provide space for past trauma, but it is a sacred place in which I am no longer tormented by the memories anymore.
There is little doubt in my mind that trauma has an afterlife, and denying this fact lies at the heart of so much of the unhappiness in our world. The thing about trauma is that it is malleable; it can be either an anchor of self-destruction or a catalyst for growth. But the greatest lesson of all has been realizing that the more comfortable I become bringing my ‘past’ into my ‘present’, the less dominion it has in my life.
So, is there a lesson in PTSD for all of us – yes, most definitely. If abandoned in fear, past trauma has a way of writing itself into your future like a voracious virus, but if you are willing to face it head on, you may find yourself attuned to the lesson of growth within its whisper.
Two and half years ago, I publicly disclosed that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape. Since that time, I've become an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, and I've used my position as a high-profile athlete to keep this issue front and center in the media. What many people do not realize is that the real reason I'm still standing today is that for the past 29 years, my wife, Mary-Anne has supported me wholeheartedly and unconditionally. In a special blog post, you will finally get the opportunity to hear Mary-Anne's side of the story as she writes candidly about her experience in supporting me through the disclosure process.
The following article originally appeared in Her Magazine.
I have been married to my husband JP for 28 years. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, rape and is a recovering addict. As part of his recovery, JP has documented his journey and shared deep personal insights on his popular blog Breathe Through This. People often ask how I survived those tumultuous years. Here is my story.
We married young; I was 20, JP 21…
I was starting in my career and JP was still attending university. I swear in those early years I thought he would never leave school. When he got close to finishing an undergrad program, he would switch his major which required new courses.
JP’s drinking was evident from the start of our relationship. What started as binge drinking on the weekends developed into regular intakes of large amounts of alcohol. Nine years into our marriage, I started to notice his slow and steady withdrawal from life, from me. He stopped reading, something he loved to do, he no longer held my hand or wanted to be close and he drank each night until he passed out.
I am the type of person that puts her head down and powers through difficulty, not wanting to face the issue head-on until it’s over. So that is what I did until the day he called and asked to meet me at work. We walked to a nearby park and I knew he had something bad to tell me, maybe our marriage was over, and maybe he was leaving me. Never in a million years did I think he would say, “I just spent the morning on a subway platform trying to throw myself under each train that came into the station.”
The Roller-Coaster Years
My world came to an end and the next 5 years were a roller-coaster through hell. JP was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and manic depression. The doctor prescribed medication and instructed him not to drink, but he did. He went to a number of psychiatrists, many of whom fired him because he wouldn’t participate in therapy. He was up for a wild adventure one day and darkly despondent the next. He often stopped taking his medication and wouldn’t tell me until the depression hit with a vengeance. So I started to monitor his medication intake, a role we both despised.
We had started a family two years after we got married. Our son was turning 6. JP’s unpredictable behaviour and my crazy attempts to control the situation were taking a toll on all of us. I remember meeting a friend for dinner and tearfully confessing, “I think I have to leave.” It was one of the darkest moments of my life because I love this man with all my heart and I could see how lost and hurt he was. But then things slowly started to get better. JP entered AA and went to regular meeting. He started to run each morning, and for the first time held down a full time job.
Fast Forward 20 Years
Fast forward 20 years and life today is pretty good. We continue to have the ups and downs associated with surviving childhood sexual abuse (CSA), but we both recognize it for what it is now. Our 25th wedding anniversary was spent in training learning how to facilitate discussion groups for CSA survivors and their partners and it struck me that on the day that I promised “for better for worse” I didn’t realize that it would be the worst that made us better!
Childhood Sexual Abuse – The Disclosure Process
Bread crumbs… looking back, this is how I would describe JP’s disclosure process. We had more dialogue on the issue of CSA than most couples because I worked with children then and often spoke about incidents of abuse that I encountered and training that I attended. JP mentioned once in the early years of our marriage an interaction with a hockey coach that was inappropriate, but never disclosed details and to be honest I didn’t ask for any.
Unable to verbalize the trauma himself, I think he was leaving clues, waiting for someone to ask the question, but never once did I or any of the professionals working with him ask if he had experienced childhood sexual trauma. Everyone focused on the addictions and the mental health, never looking for the root cause.
Two years ago a seemingly innocent conversation with his sister broke something inside him. He told me the details of the sexual abuse he experienced as a child that night and we cried and held each other. The next day he announced it to the world via social media – he had kept the secret in a box for so long, it was a way of making sure the lid never got put back on.
With the skills and strength that he had developed over the years struggling with addiction and mental health, JP was able seek the support he needed. Entering The Gatehouse program, one of only two programs for men in the whole country, was a turning point. In a room without the assistance of clinicians, survivors shared their stories, just one man supporting and listening to another. It was incredibly healing for him and gave him the strength and tools for the next disclosure.
Rape – The Next Disclosure
Almost a year after the initial childhood sexual abuse disclosure, JP had developed a large following on a blog that he was using to process his journey and was often approached by reporters to share his story. One such invite asked if he felt he had anything to contribute to a podcast on rape. He told me about the request and I thought it an odd match, but again I didn’t question. The difference this time was that after he did the interview, HE was able to ask if I wanted to know why his experiences contributed to the issue of rape. That evening he told me that two years after the initial sexual abuse, he had been raped by two young men in a North Toronto ravine.
Disclosure doesn’t happen the same way for each survivor, and I am not sure if learning about what happened bit by bit was easier or harder than hearing it all at once. It was just the way JP was able share the story with me.
The Impact of the Disclosure on Me
Learning about the CSA was not as devastating to me as the disclosure that he had tried to kill himself. I was scared for him and worried about what impact the disclosure would have on his stability but I was also proud of him, for being brave and strong enough to face his past.
What I didn’t bank on was the disclosure’s impact on me, on my self-awareness. Soon after JP started attending the Men’s Group at The Gatehouse, I signed up for a pilot that wanted to reach out and support the primary relationships in survivors’ lives to help them understand the trauma and give them a place to talk about their reactions. The first night as we sat in a circle and each spoke about our experiences, I was overwhelmed by the wreckage and pain that child abuse had on not only the lives of the survivors but on the lives of their partners, parents, children and friends. I was taken aback by the anger of some of the participants. Anger at the abuser, I understood, but there was anger at their partner for not disclosing sooner, anger about what their lives could have looked like if this had been “dealt” with years before, anger at them for keeping such a big secret often for years.
I didn’t feel anger, I felt fear. I felt intense fear that when JP finally faced his true fears he would no longer need me – the person that had always fixed things for him. We had been married for 25 years, we had roles and JP wanted to change things up. What if those changes didn’t include me?
What I Learned About Myself
This process made me take a good hard look at myself. What need was I fulfilling inside myself by playing the “fixer” for 25 years and why was it so scary to relinquish “control”?
The universe has strange ways of revealing the path forward and 8 months after the initial disclosure I was out for an early morning run when a man grabbed me from behind, restrained me and sexual assaulted me. I had never experienced such fear and total loss of control. I always assumed that if something like that were to ever happen that I would punch and scream… but I just stood there, not able to make a sound. I have learnt that you cannot compare experiences and judge whose was worse, but my experience gave me a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be a child, to be so powerless, and to have no voice. It shook everything I thought I knew about myself.
For a few months I became the one who “needed” someone – a role that I was not familiar or comfortable with. I have always been a people pleaser and have since discovered that much of my self-worth was derived from figuring out what others need and being the one that provided it. JP and I were the perfect couple, each feeding the other person what they needed – for him – an escape from facing his truth, me – a way to feel worthy.
It was during this time that we realized that if our marriage was going to survive, we both needed to change. Maybe that is a benefit of marrying so young… we grew up together and are not the people we were when we married. Over the years there have been a number of incarnations and this is just one more. For me, I am trying to focus on being whole, not perfect.
Advice for Partners of Survivors
Patience, disclosure is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning of a narrative.
Listen deeply, to discover what truly scares you.
Forgiveness for not asking the question, for not speaking the truth.
For nothing other than the privilege of my birth, I was fortunate enough to be raised in a middle-class family in the 1960s and 70s in a prosperous liberal democracy.
As a boy, and later as a young man, I was taught to bury my feelings and to embrace everything that being a man afforded me. Further, as a gifted athlete, I was granted entry into that inner sanctum of testosterone fueled manhood known as the sports world. Unlike today, inclusiveness, fair play, and empathy we're certainly not the buzzwords of our generation.
Looking back on the formative years of my adolescence, I see how I was inundated with images and practices that objectified women, degraded women, and marginalized femininity as something to be avoided if I was to truly be a 'man'. Locker room conversation was rife with bravado of sexual conquests and overt objectification of women.
But what the other young men in the locker room didn't know was that hidden within plain sight was an interloper in their midst. You see, two years before I entered high school, I was the victim of a violent rape that took place a mere few kilometers from the football locker room I was now standing in.
From the moment of that assault, I chose to disappear, fractured into different people: the person I was afraid to let you see, the person I wanted you to see, and the young man who struggled with that internal turmoil every day for the next 30 years. I've heard that living as a survivor of rape is like living with a secret tumor. It metastasizes in the dark hollows of shame, and it continues to destabilize and corrupt every bond and every relationship in a survivor's life.
As I grew older, and my secret became buried deeper, I couldn't help but feel that not only was I living a lie but also our society was perpetuating this self-imposed silence. Fast-forward through 30 years and you’d witness my living with the rippling repercussions of sexual violence—addiction, sleep disruption, alienation, depression, hyper-vigilance, and thoughts of suicide.
Now as I’m about to turn 50, I honestly believe we have come to a point as a society where we are finally willing to have a serious dialogue about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. As a man, and as a survivor of sexual violence, I feel that I have a responsibility to help in any way I can to facilitate that conversation.
Here is what I commit to doing in order to work towards shaping a society free of sexual violence. I write this as a means not only for my own accountability but also in the hope that it will initiate your own thought process and suggestions.