I’ve had a remarkable, and I would even venture to say, transformational week. My life got so busy that something incredible happened—I didn’t have the time nor the energy to over-complicate my life by rationalizing, interpreting, or rejecting people and circumstances confronting me. Instead, the usual noise and clutter of my day no longer incapacitated me in a sea of conflicting choices. It’s as though I’ve been able to shift the focus of my telescope so that first time in my adult life, everything has a crystal clarity. With the simple act of being present in the moment, I was awake enough to witness the following lessons of guidance that dropped in my lap from a variety of sources.
1. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.
As a recovering addict, I have a litany of regret that given too much self-reflection, can germinate into a festering cesspool of toxic negativity destined to sabotage my current wellbeing. As is the case with most addicts, lurking underneath my addiction are the twin pillars of anger and inferiority. Drugs and alcohol were my futile attempt to sever the painful part of me that I couldn't face looking at. This is a rogue’s game from the outset because no amount of drugs or alcohol will ever be able to remove that part of you. I was reminded of this truth on the weekend when a character in a movie said: “I don’t want to get rid of it, I just want to find a better place for it.” So much of my journey in recovery has been about learning to live beside my discomfort not without my discomfort.
2. You’re not worn and battered—You’re calloused and stronger.
I’ve been thinking recently about what strength and bravery look like, and I think it has a lot to do with my coming to terms with the sexual abuse in my childhood. The greatest growth has been a shift in my mindset from “victim” to “survivor”. This subtle lexical distinction has enormous repercussions because I’ve been able to reframe my life story from something that “happened to me” into something that “shaped me”. Today, someone posted an inspirational poster on Facebook that said: “I’m thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.” I’m beginning to believe that my emotional scar tissue and callouses of adversity have knit themselves into my superhero cape.
3. You may not have made it, but now you own it.
I had the opportunity yesterday to hear former NHL tough guy, Theo Fleury, speak about the childhood sexual abuse he lived through. He beautifully articulated what every survivor of this childhood trauma has to come to terms with at some point in life. The pain of the trauma continues to cascade throughout a survivor’s life because it becomes enmeshed in shame because the child, and later the adult, feels somehow responsible for the abuse. As Theo Fluery put it, “The childhood sexual abuse was not my fault, but it’s now my problem.” This was like a lightbulb moment for me because I’ve been able to accept the first part of the statement—that what happened to me as a child was not my fault, but what I’m left with is figuring out how to deal with it and react to it in my adult life. Before me lies the onus of responsibility for my actions and reactions, and I need to remind myself that the lack of blame doesn’t give me a “free pass” to act out irresponsibly as an adult.
4. Sometimes blood ties need to be cauterized.
I am the youngest of five children, yet I feel like an orphan. I haven’t spoken to my mother in a few years because I had to distance myself from her because it was a toxic relationship that made me feel physically ill and emotionally worthless. Last year when I disclosed that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, all but one of my siblings broke off their ties with me. I should point out that for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the greatest fear is that by revealing your “secret” others will turn their back on you—This is the element of shame that echoes in our mind. Hearing Theo Fleury talk yesterday about his family having the same reaction to his disclosure gave me a sense of comfort that I so desperately needed. I was consumed by a sense of guilt and anxiety because I can’t have the relationship with my family that I want, or need. The life lesson here is that even blood ties have to be “cauterized” when the relationships are destructive. The moral of this story is that I get to choose who my family is, and genetics doesn’t have to have a damn thing to do with it!
5. A lot of people leave before the last act.
The most important lesson I’ve learned this week came to me when I looked into my wife’s eyes and I saw, or should I say felt, the love and intense pride she has in me. We’ve been together for 28 years, and during that period, she’s persevered through my battles with addiction, mental illness, and most recently the underlying issue, my coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse. She had me in tears the other day when she said I was the “strongest person she knew.” I’ve spent 17 years in 12-step meetings, and add to that this year my time in discussion groups with fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Throughout that time, I’ve heard accounts of thousands of relationships destroyed by trauma and addiction. Having said that, some of the greatest people I’ve ever met are people who have gone through hell and come out the other side stronger and more empathetic. Driving home last night, I turned to my wife and said, “One of the greatest tragedies in life is that we often, for whatever reason, don’t stick around to see the “magic happen.”
I’d like to leave you with the words of the improvisational violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch who talks a lot about creativity and learning to embrace the accidental mystery of life. This quote resonates with me because it reminds me to take my foot off the gas, slow down, and pay attention to what my life is trying to tell me. “The harder we press on a violin string, the less we can feel it. The louder we play, the less we hear…If I try to play, I fail: if I race, I trip. The only road to strength is vulnerability.”