I have a confession to make, and even though I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded liberal thinker, I am still rather embarrassed to discuss this publicly – You see, I’m a ‘stay-at-home dad’ with an empty nest; I’m what is affectionately known as a ‘house hubby’, a ‘kept husband’, a defunct “Mr. Mom”. Despite all my best attempts to spin a better narrative, I am at a loss when it comes to finding ‘empowering’ vocabulary to describe how I spend my days.
When I’m out at a social function with my wife and people ask what I do for a living, I squirm and I stumble as I tell them I’m a writer and professional speaker. Truth be told, having recently put my latest book ‘to bed’, I feel more like a floundering vessel than an up-and-coming writer. After the perfunctory introductory exchange comes the inevitable question, the one I dread most – What is your book about? This is quickly followed by my futile attempt to encapsulate what feels like a lifetime of work into one succinct eloquent sentence, and that more often than not just comes across as standoffish evasiveness. Little do they know that I’m secretly terrified to encase what I have written with words, for fear that by labeling a still yet unborn work, I inadvertently clip its wings before it can truly fly.
Prior to finding my way to a life of words, I’d always envisioned the world of a writer to be vastly more romantic, and to some degree, more tortured than it actually is. As an ex-smoker and a recovering addict, I knew my days wouldn’t be spent sitting at my laptop with an overflowing ashtray and a bottomless glass of the cheapest, raunchiest scotch I could find. Nor was I expecting my days to resemble those of a 1950’s – pardon the dated, politically incorrect expression – ‘housewife’.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that my path to becoming a modern-day wordsmith included not only hours spent writing and researching but also a healthy dose of grocery shopping, laundry folding, meal preparation, not to mention a never-ending list of household chores. There was most definitely an adjustment period in which I resented these mundane intrusions on my writing time; however, now I’ve come to see them as things that bring me much joy. Arranging words on a page can be frustrating and downright soul-destroying, but the moment I grab hold of my Dyson and start chasing down dust bunnies from under the bed, all the self-flagellation and artistic inferiorities begin to slip away. Having spent the first 27 years of my married life watching my wife prepare every meal, I’m now proud to say that I'm not just the ‘writer in residence’ but also the 'chef de cuisine'.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Tess Felder discusses the erosion of men’s grip on what were once considered traditionally masculine roles, particularly in the workforce. She cites a study out of the Brookings Institution by Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill: “The old economy and the old model of masculinity are obsolete… Women have learned to become more like men. Now men need to become more like women.”
It’s a belief that resonates strongly with more and more families, and it is a message that lies at the heart of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement, in which the Chief Operating Office of Facebook encourages women to step forward into the ‘driver’s seat’ of their careers. It’s a belief that you can indeed have it all – a powerful career and a rewarding family life.
Juxtaposing this ‘Holy Grail’ of having your cake and eating it to, is a somewhat infamous 2012 article in The Atlantic Magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Ms. Slaughter moved from her position as Dean at Princeton University to the top U.S. State Department official, and based on the backlash she was encountering at the highest echelons of Washington’s power elite, Slaughter had serious doubts about whether or not we, as a society, are doing a disservice by convincing women that maintaining a powerful career, while giving as much care and attention to the demands of family is something that is even attainable within the current social climate. Slaughter believes that it is not simply a matter of shifting societal norms governing a woman’s role in the workplace, but rather, it’s a discussion that need also touch upon the gender roles that men have traditionally been held captive by.
When it comes to reversing the gender roles of our parents, it’s a dance Mary-Anne and I have been doing for quite some time. I was still pursuing my university degree when our son was born 26 years ago, so in order to keep a roof over our heads and our son in diapers, Mary-Anne went to work each day while I stayed at home with the baby. I would hand him off to Mary-Anne when she arrived exhausted from work so that I could attend my university lectures in the evening. I can still remember having to negotiate with our local YWCA so I could take our son to the “Mom and Me” programs, and having to change in a utility room because there were no change rooms for men at the YWCA.
Now here I am, all these years later, still battling the stigma of not being the primary wage earner for our household. We’ve come a long way towards gender equality in the workforce, but I’d have to agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter that dispelling entrenched stereotypes around what we value as ‘meaningful’ work in our society, requires not only embracing Sheryl Sandberg’s rally cry for women to “Lean In” but also giving men the option to “lean back” and value their contribution to family life outside the marketplace.
I’m going to tell you a story today, and sadly it is a story that plays out time and time again, not only in this community, but also across the country and around the world. In order for me to tell you this story, I’m going to ask you to imagine that each of you is holding a plain white envelope in your hand, and inside this envelop you will find three photographs – simple snapshots taken at three various points throughout a lifetime.
As you hold each picture in your hand, you will make assumptions… You will attempt to make sense out what you see before you, but I ask one thing, and only one thing of you – reserve that opinion until you have seen each of the pictures… until you have the whole story.
Mine, is a story of a pearl. It’s the story of taking that one thing inside of you that causes you the most unimaginable discomfort. The thing that you have spent an entire lifetime covering up, burying, and fashioning into a pearl. But just as a pearl begins its life as a grain of sand, so too can that which we carry around hidden from view become the most beautiful gift once it sees the light of the world.
I’d like you to reach into that envelope and take out that first photo. It’s a picture of me taken almost 19 years ago. In fact, looking at me today, you probably wouldn’t even recognize me in that photo. It’s a picture taken early one morning after my wife has left to drop our son off at the daycare on her way to work. It’s a picture of me sitting on the edge of our bed, my head in my hands, and my heart nowhere to be seen. I am absolutely lost, and feel so achingly alone. There is only one thought going through my mind – Should I leave note, and if I do, what should I say?
Ten minutes after this photo was taken, I walked the few blocks to the subway station near our apartment. As I rode the escalator down into the bowels of the subway, everything felt like I was in a dream – walking underwater. I headed towards the front end of the platform, and made my way closer and closer to edge of the platform. I could feel the breeze of the still unseen train pushing its way through tunnel. A few seconds later, I saw the lights of the oncoming train breaking through the darkness. As I leaned forward, I felt nothing. I was nothing.
The next thing I remember is looking up at a group of people looking down at me as I lay on the subway platform. I shouldn’t be here today – but I am. So, what was I doing sitting on the edge of the bed that morning before standing on the edge of that subway platform?
I don’t believe I was born a drug addict, or an alcoholic, but I certainly became one. The shitty thing about being an addict is that it literally takes a lifetime to realize you can never get enough of something that almost works. Being ensnared in an active addiction is a tortuous death spiral. It has nothing do with escape, but everything to do with self-destruction.
There was a time when the drugs and the alcohol worked magic for me. They allowed me to numb out everything inside me, and everyone around me. They kept me safe. The kept me insulated… but eventually, they only kept me sick. My alcoholism had descended to such a point, that it had become the rocket fuel of my depression. Before I knew it, I was under so much medication not only could I not feel my body, but I couldn’t feel anything. I walked around in a lithium fog, and I escaped deeper and deeper into my alcoholism – except now, it no longer gave me any reprieve from the ache that I couldn’t quiet inside. I felt like Alice tumbling backwards down into the depth of the rabbit hole, and instead of the branches and rocks knocking me about on the way down, each drink and drug knocked me further and further away from the man I was meant to be.
Let’s pause for a moment, and take a deep breath. Forget everything you thought you knew about addiction and depression, and instead… I ask that you again reach into that envelope and take out the second photograph. You can see by the discoloration and worn edges, that this is a photograph taken quite some time ago. It’s a picture of me at the age of 12. Again, you will see that I am sitting on the edge of a bed late one afternoon, but this time on the floor by my feet are the clothes I have ripped off my body – They lay on the floor soiled and covered with mud. But what you can’t see is how soiled I feel inside.
I have just come home to an empty house. I have just come home from a deserted ravine not far from this house. I have just willed myself to stand up from the muddy ground in that musty, dark ravine. I have just had my life forever changed in that ravine. I have just been violently raped by two older boys in that ravine.
I sat on that bed trying to make sense of the senseless… trying to find my way back to myself, but all the familiar landmarks were gone, erased. How could it happen again? Three years before that afternoon in the ravine I was alone in a basement with my hockey coach. To this day, I can still smell his acrid sweat. I can still feel the coarseness of his hands inside my underwear… and I can still hear his voice as I finally broke free saying, “No one. No one, will ever believe you.”
What is a child supposed to do with such adult emotions? How is a child supposed to sleep at night knowing that his world has been forever shifted, a part of him forever lost?
I need you to take another deep breath, but this time, I want you to hold onto that breath a lit bit longer, and I want you to keep that image in your mind of that little boy sitting on the edge of that bed, all alone in that empty house. And as you are holding that image in your mind, I want you to think about this same story touching the lives of 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys on your street, and in your city, and all across the country.
Now, reach into the envelope and take out the final photograph. It’s a photo taken of me one month ago, and this time, you’ll notice that I’m not alone in the picture. Standing, with her arms wrapped around me is the Premier of our province, Premier Kathleen Wynne. The picture was taken just prior to the start of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and the Premier has made a special trip to come out to join me for the first 5 km of my third marathon of the day.
In the hours leading up to this photo I had run 84.4 km through the cold, dark streets of Toronto, and now I had another 42.2 km left to go. I decided to run the marathon three times, that’s 126.6 km, to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities and to demonstrate the incredible resilience each of us has deep inside, waiting for us until we need it most. The Premier and I were also running to raise awareness of the government’s #ItsNeverOkay campaign – a campaign that reminds us that each of us has a role to play in standing up and speaking out against sexual violence and harassment wherever and whenever we see it. What you can’t see in this picture is the Premier looking me dead in the eye and saying: “What you are doing today for our community is amazing – thank you so much.” Nor can you see the faith in my heart and the love in my soul – something that had lay dormant for so many dark years.
Now that you have all three photographs in front of you, I want you to see the ‘real’ me – a man who has been running his entire life, a man who has traveled so far, only to come back to himself. My name is Jean-Paul, and I am a survivor of sexual violence, but I am so much more than that. I am husband. I am a father. I am a writer. I am an elite athlete. I am advocate for survivors all around the world.
I am here to tell you that YOU can make a difference. If you see something, SAY something. If you feel something, BE something. Be that person who reaches out and holds onto someone who is lost, someone who is suffering. We’ve all traveled through adversity, and it’s inevitable that more lies ahead of us. And if you are struggling, try to remember that as a pearl is borne of time and irritation, so too is the beauty we all have waiting to be brought forth into this world.