One of the privileges of being a high-profile athlete is that I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people, and more often than not, they want to talk about what it’s like training for, and competing in extreme endurance events. For many years, I was more than happy to have this conversation, but all that changed three years ago, when my world quite literally came crashing down around me.
At that point of my life, I’d battled back from alcohol and drug addiction, clawed my way out of suicidal depression, and through it all, running had become my salvation – my sanctuary. I’d been clean and sober for 15 years, had a wife and son who loved me, a career I excelled at, and a long list of athletic accomplishments… but I was living a lie, and I couldn’t go on that way anymore. For the first time in over 35 years, I had found the courage to say my secret out loud – “I am a survivor of sexual violence. I was sexually abused by my hockey coach when I was 9, and I was violently raped by two men when I was 12.”
I am a man, and little boys, who later become men, are not brought up to talk about these things. In fact, very few people in our society feel comfortable talking about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. As a survivor of sexual violence, I can honestly say that this situation is isolating, shame inducing, and it needs to change.
Today, when I’m speaking to large groups about my endurance running, I no longer shy away from the life circumstances that shaped me into the man I am today. I believe we are not the sum total of ‘what happened to us’, but rather, we are defined by ‘how we strive and thrive as individuals through the challenges of adversity’.
A few weeks ago I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon three times in the same day (126.6 km) to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. My run generated lots of media attention, and the outpouring of support from the international running community was phenomenal. To pull this off was a physical and logistic challenge, to say the least. I went out just before midnight and ran the marathon course twice before the official marathon, and then lined up with the other athletes to complete my third marathon of the day. On the surface, what everyone saw was an incredible feat of endurance, but what they didn’t see was the ‘story’ that lay behind this, and to me, the ‘real heroes’ of this story were the people who brought me to a place where all of this could happen. I thought I would share two photos taken during that day because I believe they perfectly illustrate how we as a society could best address the issue of sexual violence in our community.
Hold on to someone who needs you.
My dear friend, Frank, a man I’ve known since kindergarten came out to run with me during the dark chilly night. Here is a picture of Frank embracing me at the finish of my second marathon. This is a man who knows how far I’ve come, and he represents someone who loves me unconditionally. Can you imagine how things may have been different if I, as a little boy, could have reached out to Frank all those years ago? Can you envision a world where children don’t have to retreat into the isolation of shame? Just think of the years of residual trauma that would never need to metastasize.
It's coming up to the one-year anniversary of the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign, a grassroots Twitter movement that was launched in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal last fall. It all began as a simple tweet - an impassioned response to the notion that "Unless a sexual assault is reported to the police, it probably wasn't that scarring or that serious to begin with." Suddenly, from all around the world, survivors of sexual violence were stepping forward with their own disclosures of past sexual trauma, and sharing how they too, never reported the assault to the authorities.
As a survivor of a violent rape, something that took me over 35 years to find the courage to publicly disclose, I immediately added my name to the growing chorus of survivors who had #BeenRapedNeverReported. As one of the few men willing to step into this discussion, I was able to use my connections as a high profile athlete to write articles for various publications about my experience with sexual trauma, as well as respond to requests for interviews from media outlets all across North America and Europe.
I have a sense that we arrived at the tipping point with the breaking of the Jian Ghomeshi story because it forced us a community to become 'sensitized' to an issue that for far too long we had become desensitized to. It's ever so tempting to envision a sexual predator as that evil dark figure, that 'boogeyman' who lurks in the bushes and back alleys.
But all that changed as each new allegation against Jian Ghomeshi came to light - we as community were compelled to put a 'real face' on sexual violence. Here was somebody we had welcomed into our homes; someone who had become a part of our day, someone who we thought embodied the diversity and strengths of our country. Now we had a face, a persona to place on that violence. The very dissonance that this created challenged the stereotypes and misconceptions that had prevented us from having a substantive dialogue about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. The bitter reality is just as survivors of sexual assault and harassment encompass every conceivable demographic, so too do the perpetrators of that violence. In fact, it is just as likely that the face of sexual violence could be that of your father, your mother, your siblings, your neighbors, and your colleagues, as it could be that of a complete stranger.
As an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, I welcomed this long-overdue discussion, yet from the very beginning of the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign, I could sense that for all the momentum the campaign had, it lacked a coherent direction, something I believe is critical to enact a shift in societal norms around the taboo of discussing sexual violence. But let me be perfectly clear when I say this - I am in no way diminishing the significance of survivors, many of whom for the first time, are disclosing that they too have lived through the trauma of sexual violence. We are all defined by the 'narrative' we assign ourselves, and I as a survivor of rape, know how critical it is for our healing journey to reach the point at which we no longer allow our present to be dictated by what happened to us in the past.
I have been front and center in this issue for the past year, and I've come to believe that 'disruption' - and for me, this involves generating a candid and substantive dialogue about the prevalence of sexual violence - this disruptive dissonance is not likely to begin as a huge groundswell of public involvement. But rather, it is more likely to take root as each of us acknowledges that we all play a role in accepting responsibility for addressing this issue.
So, what would I like to see the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign become? Before any meaningful change can occur, we need to work towards pulling back the layers of stigma around having those initial discussions about sexual violence. If we are unable to talk openly about this with our friends and family, and even in the broader realm of the media, how can we expect survivors of sexual violence to come forward with their own experiences with trauma? Second, the more 'faces' we can put to both survivors and sexual perpetrators, the more likely we will acknowledge how widespread this problem really is. Next, it's time we all stopped being 'bystanders' and started being 'upstanders' - If you witness sexual violence or harassment, speak up, and speak out.
And finally, it doesn't hurt to remember that at times in our life, we will all need a 'lifeboat', a 'parachute', a 'soft place to land'. As someone who continues to work through the repercussions and trauma of sexual violence, it is my belief that we are all blessed with a deep reservoir of resilience that lies inside each of us, waiting silently until we need it most. Part of my moving forward has involved a willingness to reach out for help when I need it, and more importantly, a desire to be there for someone else who is longing for that connection, that quiet presence, and that gentle empathy.
The word courage has its roots in the Latin word ‘cor’ – meaning ‘heart’, so for me, describing someone as courageous has little to do with his or her being brave or facing adversity. Courage is not about public manifestations of resilience, and has everything to do with navigating that place of vulnerability that lies inside your heart. It’s having the faith to reside in, what at times, can be a very lonely place, one haunted by echoes of self-doubt and reverberations of debilitating fear and shame.
This is a place I know all too well – over the years, these echoes have derailed and horrified me, yet today, they awaken me. I am a survivor of sexual violence, not a ‘victim’, but a ‘survivor’. It may be a subtle distinction, a semantic slight of hand, but it’s a critical distinction to make if one ever hopes to move through trauma rather than be ensnared by it. I don’t believe that trauma is ever something that you can ‘get over’ or ‘put behind you’, nor do I believe that it is something that gets imprinted on you – an indelible stigma to be carted around for the rest of your life.
A life that is touched by trauma is a life that is forever changed. From that moment forward, a survivor must now navigate his or her life with an ever-present companion in tow, a constant reminder of what once was, and of now what must be. Ignoring the presence of this ‘companion’ is not only futile, but ultimately, self-destructive. You can neither drink it into silence nor drug it into oblivion, so the sooner you get comfortable with its shadow, the better your chances are of navigating the landscape of the unknown.
I want to be perfectly clear when I say this – At 12 years old, when I lay alone on the muddy ground, having just been violently raped by two young men, I felt as though my world had ended, something had been taken from me. I saw myself as broken, and worthless. But here’s what I want you to know about me today… In a strange way, it was that very ‘brokenness’ that granted me access to that divine place of courage inside of me. It has taken me more than 35 years to embrace the echoes of vulnerability that reside in my heart. And that menacing stalwart ‘companion’ that trauma thrust upon me is no longer something I try to silence, but now, it’s my constant reminder that I am indeed alive – that I am not broken.
As an author and as a high-profile endurance athlete, I came to the decision that I had a responsibility to engage my community in an honest and open discussion about the prevalence of sexual violence and the norms and culture that perpetuate this trauma. On October 18th, I will be running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon three times on the same day (126.6 km) in support of the #ItsNeverOkay campaign, a governmental and media campaign that reminds us that we all have a role in speaking up when we see situations of sexual violence or harassment.
By engaging in this feat of endurance, I will demonstrate how resilient survivors of sexual violence are. But my greatest hope is that the media attention generated by this event will help initiate a long overdue dialogue about how each us has a role in building the nurturing society we want our children to grow up in. It will take me around 12 hours to run this distance, and there will be times when I will feel that I don’t have the strength or the willpower to carry on. Those will be the times I will remember that 12-year-old boy lying in the mud… Those will be the times I will hear the voices of others whose lives were forever altered by sexual violence … Those will be the times that I will see the look in my wife’s eyes – because it was in that loving gaze that I was reminded of the strength and goodness inside me that for far too long I could never recognize.
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence, or if you are a partner or friend of a survivor, and you would like to send me a message of support – and remember, these are the voices I am running for… You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on Twitter @runjprun