There are stories I come across in the news that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and at times bewildered. But hearing the news that parole had been granted to Graham James, the disgraced former hockey coach convicted of sexually abusing young boys in his care, left a hallow ache of deep sadness in me. We have come very far in our willingness to begin to address the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities, yet there are days in which I feel the chasm that lies before us runs so very deep.
The news brings back a flood of memories, and I inevitably arrive at an evening I’ll never forget – sitting beside my wife on the couch, tears streaming down my cheeks, my breaths becoming shallower, as I quietly sobbed. Mary-Anne looked over at me, and had no idea what had brought all of this on. It was a night, like many others. We had just finished eating dinner and were relaxing in the living room for a quiet evening in front of the television. Except, this night was unlike any other – we were watching the CBC program “Battle of the Blades”, and staring right back at me from that television screen was the former NHL player Theo Fleury.
This was a man I had always admired for his sheer tenacity on the ice. I little guy, like me, who may have faced a league of players bigger and more skilled, but none with more heart. But tonight, here was this same man struggling to hold back his emotions as he talked about the charity he was skating for, and how throughout all those years as one of professional sports’ most iconic ‘tough guys’, he was not so quietly dealing with the demons from his past – He was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape.
Hearing about Theo’s life trajectory literally shook me to the core, as it so closely resembled mine. A natural athlete, a promising future, all derailed by the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. As a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, I too, know the weight of caring around that secret. Years spent numbing and burying that shame with drugs and alcohol. Add into the mix the confusion about sexual identity that comes as a toxic byproduct of being a young boy groomed, and sexually abused by a man. But by far the hardest part is going through all of this alone as those around you, those who love you and care deeply for you, helplessly watch your life spiral out of control.
That night as I sat crying, listening to Theo speak, something broke free inside me. Seeing this one man stand up and embrace the vulnerability of where he was at, and hearing how what happened to him as young man was not his fault – I finally understood that my own freedom and healing could only come by unearthing that shame I had been carrying around for over 35 years as an ever present toxic stowaway. The words didn’t come out immediately, but a few months after that evening in front of “Battle of the Blades”, I finally found the strength to tell my wife of 26 years, that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape.
It’s been three years since that disclosure, and during that time, I have undergone intensive treatment and therapy with trauma specialists and a psychiatrist. I am no longer ashamed of my past, nor do I wish to deny it presence in my life today. I am stronger for what I have lived through, and in moving forward in my life, I have become an advocate for other survivors of sexual violence to find their own peace and path forward. Every day, I receive messages from survivors around the world who encourage me to keep speaking for those who are, for whatever reason, unable to break the silence.
Childhood sexual abuse lives and breeds in silence and secrecy. Pulling back the curtain and shattering that silence creates the environment for more survivors to move out of the shadows of shame, and move beyond the media’s stigmatizing characterization of them as “victims”, when in fact, they’ve been “survivors” all along.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a post Theo Fleury put on Facebook yesterday as a response to hearing the news about Graham James. “Rape is common not uncommon. Helping is healing and healing is possible!!!! We need to create more advocates and by creating more advocates, that’s how you create change. Please share this to those who are still alone!!”