I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, and that probably has a lot to do with my having to close myself off to people for so long as a coping strategy to get through daily interactions as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve recently returned from a speaking engagement in Ottawa, and once again I was reminded of two things—One being the prevalence of childhood trauma in so many families. The statistics in Canada are that one in three girls, and one in six boys are directly affected by childhood sexual abuse. And the second thing I was reminded of is how uncomfortable we are as a society to openly and honestly discuss and confront this issue.
It was clear from the questions that we panelists faced that there was a shared sense of outrage and anger amongst the audience about how we can protect our children from this trauma. It would be so much easier, and I believe more palatable, were we able to demonize an abuser as some evil “stranger” to be avoided, and ultimately eradicated from society. The stark truth is that 95% of victims of child sexual abuse know their perpetrator. We all like to delude ourselves that we are raising our children in “safe” neighborhoods, but the overwhelming danger comes from within our so-called “safe” communities and families.
As is typically the case when I speak openly about this issue, after the event, I was approached by some of the participants who disclosed the trauma they had lived through as children. I feel so drained and deflated after speaking or writing about my childhood experiences, but I know that I have to somehow find the courage and energy to “be present” to listen to someone who openly shares with me. There are never words to adequately articulate my understanding to a fellow survivor, or a partner of a survivor, but I know from my own experience that the words “I’m sorry”, though well meaning, only serve to perpetuate feelings of shame and inadequacy. I think our deep-seated desire to try to “fix” everything and everyone is a by-product of our post-modern society in which we expect there to be a cure or a “quick fix” for everything. My wife and I often talk about how sometimes the “best thing” is doing “nothing”—simply being witness to someone else’s pain and acknowledging that pain as being “real”.
Despite being surrounded by family and friends who care deeply about me, I left Ottawa feeling an intense loneliness, that to be perfectly honest, has blindsided and derailed me. I was reminded of something I read by F. Scott Fitzgerald, another tortured soul who battled addiction throughout most of his life. “There’s a loneliness that only exists in one’s mind. The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” The tragedy of childhood trauma lies in its disempowerment, and subsequently, its tenacious ability to reverberate and sabotage an individual’s life from childhood through adulthood. There has been much written about how by disclosing childhood sexual abuse, an individual gains his/her voice—thereby a sense of empowerment. But what is seldom discussed is what happens when there is no one there to acknowledge that “voice” or to process all the emotions that come with that disclosure.
During the speaking event in Ottawa, I had the opportunity to raise an important issue that I continue to struggle with daily. As a community, we tend to look at past childhood trauma “theoretically”, something that holds less impact once an individual is older and out of “immediate” danger, and this is why most resources go to helping children who are in crisis, or recently removed from crisis. What we fail to acknowledge is that more often than not, these children, even those who received intense therapeutic intervention, grow up to be “struggling” adults, who enter relationships in which the underlying issue of childhood trauma continues to reverberate. I know far too many alcoholics, addicts, and people with anger issues, who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. From my own experience, I am aware of the futility of treating the symptoms associated with being a survivor of abuse, rather than addressing the self-esteem and shame issues that lie beneath the surface.
Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, I too am feeling very alone, and all I can do is “stare blankly.” Not a day goes by where I don’t get messages from people all over the world telling me how “brave” I am, and how they admire my “resilience”. But as I write this, I can’t help feeling like a “fraud” because the “hope” I profess, and attempt to exhibit, feels like it is definitely in short supply.
Whenever I’ve struggled like this before, I’ve always found it helpful to simplify what I’m facing in order to find a way through it rather than around it. I stumbled upon my next “beacon” late yesterday when a friend sent me a picture with a simple message on it: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” Such a simple sentence, yet so profound in its wisdom—I believe you would have to search long and hard to come up with a better governing principle. As a child, all I wanted from the adults around me was unconditional love, consistency, and a “soft place to land” when things went wrong.
When I dig deep enough into any uncertainty or discomfort in my life, hiding below the surface fueling this pain is one thing, and one thing only--fear. If I “unpack” that fear a little bit more, I invariably find an absence of connection to those nearest me. It’s ironic that we are purported to be the most “connected” society in human civilization, yet all the text messages and social media, at times, only accentuate the loneliness that many of us feel. I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Christopher Poindexter. “Sometimes, I sit alone under the stars and think of the galaxies inside my heart, and truly wonder if anyone will ever want to make sense of all that I am.” As I end this post, my hope for each of us is that we connect with at least one intrepid traveler willing to take the time to explore, and make sense of, the wonder of the “galaxies inside [our] heart.”