Given the choice, I would choose struggle over the softer, easier way each and every time. Now before you accuse me of insanity, permit me the chance to invite you to reframe the way you approach adversity in your life.
As an elite endurance athlete, I’m accustomed to brushing up against physical and psychological thresholds—the uncomfortable feeling that comes knowing that the difference between success and disappointment lies on that razor-thin edge bridging the gap between self-exploration and complete annihilation.
Like many athletes competing in extreme endurance events, I arrived to the sport well honed in the skills necessary to successfully navigate the landscape of adversity. A childhood tempered with physical and sexual violence fostered in me an unbreakable will to survive, something that I continued to draw upon well into my thirties in order to weather serious issues with addiction and precarious mental health. Today, it makes no difference if I’m giving a talk to a group of students or delivering a keynote at a conference, I always return to the same refrain: “I would not wish my life experience on anyone else, yet at the same time, I would not wish for another life because it has delivered me to a place of immense self-knowledge and inner fortitude.”
I think it’s safe to say that as a society, we are rather risk-averse. We are eager to walk a smoother path, and are naturally drawn to life hacks, shortcuts, and workarounds. But are we doing ourselves, and more importantly our children, a disservice by sidestepping the lessons of adversity? Friedrich Nietzsche referred to what he called “the discipline of suffering”, something he credits with propelling most human advancements and enhancements. He talked about the lesson of strength that can be mined in the discomfort of adversity: “That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness—was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”
I’m currently at work on a book about resilience, and part of the research for this project has involved interviewing a broad cross section of individuals from around the world who exhibit and possess sustained resilience in their lives. One of the questions I hope to answer in this book is whether or not it is possible for someone to nurture and ‘default to resilience’ even though (s)he has not experienced trauma, devastating loss, or extreme adversity in life. Not surprisingly, the responses from the people I’ve interviewed vary greatly on this point, but one theme appears to be reverberating throughout these interviews—an acceptance that there are indeed practical steps each of us can take to become more resilient.
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever wondered what separates those rare individuals who are able to step forward after trauma and adversity from those of us who are stunted, derailed, or in some way consumed by similar life circumstances or events? As a society, we tend to gravitate to the ‘bounce back’ narrative so often espoused in the media, and one that is particularly true of the stories most commonly shared on social media. There is something about heralding the underdog or championing someone’s arduous climb through adversity that resonates deeply within us.
Despite being a public figure, I’ve never been one to shy away from talking openly about my own struggles with addiction, depression, and childhood trauma; and as a result, I have noticed that whenever I give a talk, the question of resilience is inevitably raised. Most recently, I’ve come to believe that our obsession with the ‘bouncing-back-from-adversity’ narrative tells only half the story, and I would suggest that it might in fact be the least interesting part of what is actually taking place during this personal transformation.
I am currently working on a book about resilience, and part of this process involves interviewing 30 individuals--resilience exemplars—people from around the world who exhibit an incredible and sustained level of resilience. I set out to write the book with the conviction that resilience has little to do with weathering the storm, or what we like to refer to as ‘bouncing back’, and everything to do with using that storm as a demarcation point.
I am approximately halfway through the interview process, and at this point, a number of recurring themes have appeared—some of which, I thought I would share with you:
Resilience is elastic.
Instead of talking about people who wholeheartedly weather adversity as being bounceable, I would suggest that it is resilience itself that has an ethereal elasticity to it. And in that light, we can begin to move away from the common misconception that being resilient has much to do with adopting strategies and mindsets that insulate us from the pain and uncertainty of adversity. In fact, the interview data suggest that resilience rises from an ability to be present with, and thereby process the scope of the adversity. The key is to avoid being consumed by it.
Resilience exemplars neither ‘artificially’ compartmentalize their adversity, nor negate the residue or resonance that trauma has throughout a lifetime. There is most definitely a period of processing and making sense of trauma and adversity, but there comes a pivotal point at which the individual makes the decision to move beyond ‘stuckness’ and towards personal growth and understanding.
Resilience resonates in the spaces and pauses we create.
Another critical component of resilience appears to be the ability to create a ‘buffer’ or space that allows someone the time to evaluate, process, and prioritize a given situation. Resilience thrives in the grey zones of insecurity and ambiguity; thus, finish lines and task outcomes take a backseat to daily ritual and a need to prioritize self-care, as these become ballasts against the paralyzing waves of self-doubt and uncertainty. Moreover, it is the importance of stressing ongoing self-care that leads to a high degree of self-awareness, which thus permits resilient individuals the ability to zoom the lens out from their own engagement with trauma or adversity. In so doing, they gain both time and perspective, which in turn gives them the sense that they are not alone in this discomfort.
With resilience, comes an opening of ‘self’.
Resilience exemplars are more likely to be ‘soul-driven’ than ‘passion driven’. Instead of being consumed or incapacitated by the intensity of a given situation, they zealously nurture an evolving degree of self-awareness predicated on building empathic connections within their community. Both Elizabeth Gilbert (in her book “Big Magic”) and Angela Duckworth (in her book “Grit”) caution against the often-touted advice of following your passion because by its very nature, passion is all-consuming and fleeting at best. Therefore, it’s not surprising that people we think of as resilient are generally in it for the ‘long game’, and that might also be a factor in their ability to be seen as community leaders and agents of change.
Resilience has a lot to do with embracing past scars and the dissonance of lived experience as a road map forward, and ultimately, as a bridge to connect with others in your community. As the Pakistani writer Moshin Hamid once said: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” I couldn’t agree more, and I would also suggest that resonating in those echoes is the connection we all seek that in turn, permits the resilience to grow within us and beyond us.
If you, or someone you know, is a ‘resilience exemplar’, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at email@example.com.
If you drop me, I bounce. In fact, as crazy as that sounds, for much of my life, it certainly felt like that was true. As is the case with far too many children around the world, I grew up in a violent home, and it was within this violence, that a nascent spirit of resilience began to germinate, something that became further honed amidst the trauma of sexual violence and addiction later in life.
Yet, here I am today—not on the other side of trauma, but rather, standing along side it, mining it for its whispers of hope, and staring within this aching cavern of blackness for the glimmers of strength that despite what many believe, continue to softly resonate in the shallows of this darkness.
As an elite athlete and public figure, I have the privilege of addressing many groups, and inevitably after a talk during the Q & A period, the issue of ‘resilience’ comes up. I have to admit to feeling somewhat like the main character in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—I’m the last to see what sits in plain view of everyone else around. People want to know about the path I took that enabled me to wade through the trauma and come out the other side somewhat ‘whole’. Unfortunately, it is something I am not able to articulate primarily because I’ve yet to recognize this change within myself. And the more I began unpacking what resilience might mean, the more I began to suspect that the question that people are really trying ask has very little to do with ‘how I managed to survive something’, and everything to do with what happens after the ‘bounce’.
I’m currently working on my next book, an exploration of resilience as manifest through the lives of a diverse group of community leaders from around the world. During the interview process with each of these individuals, I’m attempting to tease out qualities, behaviors, and pathways that highly resilient individuals default to. And surprisingly, as I sit down for each of these interviews, the discussion quickly diverts from what typically comes to mind when we think of ‘resilience’—surviving, enduring, and withstanding—states which can be summed up as static, and the further we progress into the interview, each person begins to talk about a more fluid response to adversity.
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin resiliens, meaning to rebound or recoil—an elastic response. And herein lies what interests us most when we look to those who have weathered adversity for inspiration in our lives. Let’s be honest, there is nothing unique about being present for trauma, hardship, or adversity… If we live long enough, it will befall us all many times over.
At this point, which is most definitely the preliminary stage of the writing of this book, I have noticed that these resilient individuals share a few notable, and I would suggest, enlightening qualities. I thought I would share these with you now, in the hope that you may be able to apply them to any adversity you might be facing.
Learning to be present for the lesson within the adversity
When facing a traumatic or adverse experience, our natural inclination is to recoil, to turn-away from, or to numb ourselves. There is no doubt that at times, this serves as a vital self-protection mechanism, but there comes a time when learning to ‘mine the adversity’ allows us to become in tune with the lesson or intention that lies below the surface of the pain and trauma. A good place to start is by asking yourself, ‘how would my life be better with less?’ In so doing, it clears the space we need for an acceptance free of critical self-judgment to arrive.
Being open to ideas that you currently don’t hold
By holding steadfast to a belief system that has always governed our thoughts and actions, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity for things to ‘look’ and ‘feel’ different in our life. One of the most unpleasant truths of personal growth is that it often arrives after a prolonged exposure to dissonance. People, who are considered more resilient than others, appear to be able to stand within this prolonged period of ‘dis-ease’. Eventually, they arrive at a crux moment at which point, they insert one change or one correction into their lives, and it is this modification, which allows them to move beyond that feeling of ‘stuckness’.
Awakening to a greater sense of empathy
We often hear people who have weathered adversity in their lives describe the experience as a ‘gift they never asked for’. Having said that, I’m conscious of the fact that by choosing to describe a traumatic experience as a ‘gift’, I in some way demean the importance of what someone has gone through. Moreover, a ‘gift’ is typically used to describe something external that arrives in our life; whereas, adversity does not so much bring something to us, as it reveals something we’ve always had within us. In listening to the people I’ve interviewed for my book, the greatest ‘take-away’ for all of them has been a heightened degree of empathy—something that they describe as an awakening that allows them to be more present for others living in discomfort.
I’d like you to try something—Close your eyes and imagine you’re all alone, standing in front of a mirror looking at your naked body. What’s going through your mind? What are the stories you tell yourself when no one else is there to listen? Chances are you’ve been carrying around negative echoes from your childhood and adolescence. And even though the teasing, taunts, and bullying has long receded, over the years this reverberant soundtrack has become deeply ingrained as it accompanies you throughout your life.
As an elite athlete, I’m hyper attuned to my body and what it’s trying to tell me. One of the privileges of being a high-profile athlete is that I have the opportunity to speak to many organizations, school groups, and fitness classes. I’m often asked what motivates me to sacrifice so much in order to train at the level I do. Inevitably, I mention that running has always been my faithful companion. There were indeed times in which I felt I was running away from personal trauma and later, my subsequent battles with addiction, but more recently, it feels as though I am running towards what scares me most, a type of ‘knowing surrender’, predicated on the belief that no matter what kind of day I’m having, I always find a better ‘me’ waiting on the other end of a workout.
There is something transcendent about running, in that by placing one foot in front of the other and by making contact with the ground below our feet, we engage in a subtle dance of connecting and disengaging. And for me, it is within the rhythmic cadence of these footfalls that I begin to silence the negativity and self-doubt that has lingered and accompanied me for as long as I can remember.
We are a society obsessed with ‘beauty’, and as someone actively engaged in sport, I am all too aware that increasingly, more and more people are drawn to running as a means to lose weight, become fitter, and in essence—look more ‘beautiful’. The thing about beauty is that it is transient, so sooner or later it hollows and dulls. As a community leader and as someone who has found inspiration in running, I am passionate about encouraging others to awaken their joy through sport. I’m also keenly aware that despite how enthusiastic people are to the idea of embracing a new fitness regimen, their enthusiasm often wanes, and all they are left with is further disappointment and negative self-talk. In light of this, I thought I’d share with you three strategies to ensure your passion for wellness becomes a life-long companion.
“What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?”—Jacqueline Novogratz
I’m entranced by the haunting nature of this question, and by how it speaks to what I believe to be a new lens from which to look upon how we approach sport and fitness in general. Instead of taking up running, crossfit, or even yoga, as a means to look fit and beautiful, consider how this activity makes you ‘feel’ rather than how it makes you ‘look’. Does it bring you joy, or do you leave your workout feeling depleted and inadequate?
“The people you surround yourself with influence your behaviors, so choose friends who have healthy habits.”—Dan Buettner
Whatever you do, don’t dismiss the importance of ‘community’ as an essential factor in fostering a sustained wellness program. I know from my own experience, that running can feel rather isolating at times, so being engaged with other athletes through social media allows me to feel connected to something greater than myself. And more importantly, it is through this broader connection that we begin to nurture empathy, and that in turn allows us the distance we need to ‘right size’ our own successes and disappointments.
“Perfection is not pretty, it is not exciting, and it limits us in every area of our life. It is only in our mistakes that we truly gain glimpses of our potential.”—Petra Kolber
Who doesn’t want to be ‘perfect’! The best mom, the best employee, and the best athlete… The problem with being obsessed with perfection is that it sets us up for a lifetime of feeling deflated and disengaged. When we think about the most inspiring people we know, chances are we were drawn to them not by their status or because of their perfectly polished image, but rather, it is their story of overcoming that engages us. We are drawn into their ability to wade through adversity—it inspires us, and it empowers us. So, the next time you’re fighting negative self-talk, consider whether you have allowed that toxin known as ‘perfection’ to creep back into your story.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”—Pema Chödrön
Somewhere along the way you are going to face the decision whether to continue your commitment to your wellness program, or to allow complacency and inactivity to take root. It’s at this point that I invite you to allow your curiosity to speak much louder than your fear and your boredom. It makes no difference whether you are an elite athlete or a relative newcomer to your sport or fitness program; in both cases, you are facing the same struggle—making a decision to navigate the discomfort of a new threshold, knowing that personal growth always lies just beyond your comfort zone.
A little over a year ago, my wife and I did the unthinkable—we sold our little dream home in a leafy residential neighbourhood just north of the Beaches, and bought a big old Victorian house with our son and daughter-in-law right in Toronto's downtown core.
As you can imagine, the transition took a little getting used to. Upon moving into the neighbourhood we were excited at the prospect of living ‘car free’ and being nestled amongst quaint little urban parks, soaring buildings, boutique shops, not to mention restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine. What we hadn’t taken into account was the presence of the residents who were here long before gentrification and the condos arrived.
At first, I tried to ignore the sex workers standing outside our front door, the homeless men and women mingling on the sidewalks near the shelter down the street, and those struggling with drug addiction, who to be honest, at times look both menacing and lost. Part of me wanted to pretend these people didn’t exist—to walk around them, see past them, as if turning my head away would somehow magically make them go away. I’m not proud to say that, but it’s true. Part of me wants to live in a neat and tidy, predictably calm neighbourhood, but guess what? Life is not ‘neat and tidy’.
What I haven’t told you yet is that I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, myself. And those sex workers I was talking about, well many of them, like me, have a history of sexual violence in their childhood and adolescence. So not long after moving into our new neighbourhood, I came to the realization that if I can’t find empathy for these individuals I pass on the street every day—the marginalized, precariously-housed, addicted, and traumatized—how can I feel good about myself when I put my head down in the comfort of our home every night?
That was the point at which I truly planted myself in my new neighbourhood and began to see everyone who shares it with me. My wife and I started making eye contact with the sex workers outside our house, and gradually they began to trust us and to open up to us. And I can tell you that many of their stories are heartbreaking, but I can also say that there is a quiet dignity and at times a routine mundaneness in how they interact with their clients and other sex workers.
A few months back, I was invited to the premiere of Lowdown Tracks, a powerful documentary by Emmy award winner Shelley Saywell that profiles a few of Toronto’s precariously-housed individuals and the role that their music plays in their daily joys and struggles. I left that screening feeling jarred and uncomfortable—not so much overwhelmed by the scale of the homeless population within our prosperous city, but more so about all the lives and unlived dreams that comprise those ‘faceless’ statistics. What struck me most was listening to one of the artists profiled in the film describe what a typical day looks like for him. Having to leave the shelter before 8 AM after another restless night, and then having to face hours and hours of alone time wandering the downtown with no place to go and nothing to do.
Just last weekend my wife and I were walking past a large men’s shelter around the corner from our house. The shelter is located on a busy downtown street and is situated directly across from a large park and community center. There are always crowds of men mingling outside the shelter, and there is typically a lot of garbage and abandoned food containers scattered across the sidewalk and all over the grass outside the community center. I turned to my wife and I said, “This is disgusting… why doesn’t the shelter staff clean up all this mess?” That’s when my wife pointed out, “There are no garbage cans available outside the shelter, so what are these men supposed to do? If you don’t give people a sense of dignity and ownership of their space, how do you expect them to treat it?”
I hate to admit it, but my ‘default reaction’ is always to judge others, distance myself, and to avoid the hard conversations. You know what the ironic thing is? I thought living in the frenetic hustle of downtown would make me less patient and desensitized—the truth is since moving down here, I’ve become more empathetic and aware of the marginalized population and my role in that marginalization.
I’m reminded of an interview I was watching with the author and activist Dr. Marta Vega. In the interview, Marta recalls an incident that occurred when she was a teenager. She had walked past an old family friend on the street without acknowledging him. The young man had struggled with addiction and was now living on the streets of New York City, and Marta felt too embarrassed to make eye contact with this young man. Marta's mother took her daughter aside and sternly said: "That could be you, that could be your brother, that could be your sister, that could be me... Don't you ever not recognize yourself in somebody else."
I was recently asked by a friend to share a few of my thoughts on ‘courage’ and how it operates as a presence in my life. Truth be told, for me ‘courage’ is an intangible essence that defies definition. I believe it is ever-present and available to us all, yet is only breathed to life when we choose a path forward, one which is not absent of fear, but is in some way governed by faith – A belief that even the most unbearable can be endured when we accept that within every experience, and encapsulated in every moment, is a lesson that reveals something greater lies beyond the scope of each of us.
In no way am I suggesting this broader essence is of the religious or spiritual realm, but simply a faith that there is a current of interconnectedness that runs in and through us all – or in the words of John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." And what is ‘courage’ other than the faith to move forward in the midst of fear? As we dig deeper and deeper into the genesis of all our fears, we discover that invariably our fear is driven by our belief that we are alone, disenfranchised, or set adrift in an achingly reverberant hollowness.
As a motivational speaker, I attempt to connect with my audience by returning to places of adversity in my past as touchstones, or catalysts for personal growth. I have come to see the ‘scars’ of my life – borne of trauma and great discomfort – not as blemishes to be hidden away, but rather as evidence of a personal roadmap of how far I’ve traveled in my life. What others often define as ‘courage’ in me, I see as nothing more than a belief that my ‘scars’ do not define me… but rather, they reveal me.
So again, I return to the essence of what it means to be courageous – a deeply rooted faith in our human interconnectedness. I find such comfort in the words of Viktor Frankl: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
Where many of us get lost is in the act of comparing our suffering to that of others, and in the process, we diminish the impact, or resonance it has in our life. And in negating the presence of this suffering, we thereby deny any opportunity to embrace this discomfort as a lesson or opportunity for personal growth.
Our muscles respond to stress by becoming at first strained and later stronger, so too do we build up our tolerance for withstanding adversity by allowing it space in our life. Courage rises to the fore when we adopt a new mindset, a new lens from which we approach our life. I was listening to an interview with John O’Leary, someone who despite a devastating fire that burned 100% of his body, has become a tremendous source of inspiration and hope to many. Given the obstacles that John has had to face in life, he has chosen to embrace a ‘victor’ rather than ‘victim’ mindset. He points out that ‘victims’ tend to ask the same questions: Why me? Why now? Why bother? What can one person possibly do to change this situation?
Yet, O’Leary reminds us if we take those same questions and approach them from a positive mindset – one in which we see adversity as a lesson or an opportunity for growth, we begin to align ourselves with belief in our role in a greater connectedness with our community. “Why me?” becomes what makes me special to carry a message of hope and resiliency? “Why now?” reminds us of the importance of living in the moment. “Why bother… What can one person possibly do to change this situation?” provides, in my opinion the greatest possibility for us all to unearth the courage that lies within. It is a conscious choice to walk towards the bridge that connects us to everyone in our community, and in so doing we step away from the fear of isolation and into a wellspring of hope.
I take a lot of pride in the fact that at one time, I was what you would call a ‘technology maven’ – an early adopter, a pioneer of the virtual world. I was the guy friends would call to program their VCR, teach them how to burn a CD, or explain how to download an iTunes podcast. Yet somewhere along the way, I was left behind, and now cutting edge technology that used to amaze me, simply confounds me.
I hate to admit this, but I’m getting old, and not in a dignified fine ‘aged wine’ kind of way, but more along the lines of your favorite blue jeans that are becoming a little too threadbare and risqué to wear out in public. Speaking of jeans, I long for the good ol’ days when you could walk into a department store and buy a pair of Levis without having to consult a flowchart describing what best suits your ‘fit profile’. Gone are the days where your only decision was “blue jeans” or “black jeans”?
It’s very much like the analogy of placing a frog into a pot of water. Throw it into boiling water, and the frog will jump right back out, but if you put it into warm water and slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog is blissfully ignorant of the imminent danger. And that’s just how the aging process has been for me – it’s as if my night vision literally disintegrated overnight. How about driving at night when it’s raining… Forget about it! Those lines on the road mysteriously vanish.
And then there’s the inevitable stare down in the mirror every morning while I shave. Some days are better than others in that I manage to convince myself that my hairline is not receding, but there is no denying the huge mutant hairs growing out of my ears. I swear those furry ears happen while I’m snoring away – and trying to pull those mutant X-Men hairs out with your fingers… forget about it! Those hairs feel as though they are directly connected to your spinal cord.
I don’t consider myself ‘old’, but then again, I’m not sure if one ever does. Yes, I have more aches and pains than I used to have, and my scars and bruises may fade, but they never really completely go away anymore. I’m still a kid at heart… Who am I trying to convince? Alright, I’m still mischievously immature at heart! At times it feels as though I’m living two parallel lives – and believe me, it's a balancing act that is becoming increasingly more tenuous with each passing year. Take yesterday for instance… In honor of my 50th birthday, I decided to get a tattoo of the ‘Coyote’ on my calf. Now wait, before you judge me, I should add that I already have a tattoo of the ‘Road Runner’ on my other calf that I had done when I turned 40.
I walked into the downtown tattoo parlor feeling ‘hip’ and ‘cool’, and I made sure I peppered lots of ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ into my conversation with the 20-something tattoo artist who was inking me while heavy metal tunes thrashed in the background. I left that tattoo parlor with a youthful bounce in my step… Ok, my calf was killing me… Let’s just call it a ‘youthful hobble’. Walking down the street, I remembered I had to pop into the drugstore to pick up a few things on the way home – one of them being some cover-up cream for the age spots which are beginning to appear with growing frequency all over my face.
Later that evening I reached for this magical cover-up cream packed with retinol and vitamin C, promising to bring a youthful glow as it not only revitalized my skin but also revitalized my life! Another thing I’ve noticed is that the print on packaging appears to be getting increasing smaller and smaller with each year. I reached for my reading glasses so that I could read the instructions for my new-fangled-age-reducing cream, and that is when it hit me – suddenly, I’d become my father.
There is something about turning 50 that is freaking me out. Just do the math, and you’ll be alarmed too. Let’s just say you live to be 80, and that no longer seems all that old to me. 80 years x 365 days = 29,200 days, so that leaves me only 10,950 days, and when you subtract the time you spend sleeping and working, the time crunch really starts to hit home.
I’m trying not to think about it too much because it just leaves me feeling overwhelmed. I should really be doing something more productive with my waning time, but my achy back is killing me right now. I think I’ll just “Netflix and chill”… wait, scrap that.
I’m turning 50 in a few weeks, and for the first time in my life, I find myself reflecting more on how far I’ve come rather than on projecting what the future may have in store. I’m reminded of a poem by the Mumbai-based poet and writer Sanober Khan, and I can’t help but be deeply moved by her beautiful, yet utterly haunting words.
“The splendid thing
about falling apart
you can start over
as many times
as you like.”
I am fortunate to have reached a level of success both personally and professionally, yet surprisingly, the one thing which has had the most significant impact on the trajectory my life has taken has little to do with something I did, and everything to do with something that happened to me.
I am the survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and a violent rape. And sadly, that in of itself is an all too common occurrence here in Canada. In fact, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The statistics truly are sobering and frightening, but it is not until we look at the lives and faces behind those numbers, that we begin to see the ripple effect that childhood trauma has within a family and across a community. Even more alarming is the aftershock of that trauma that continues to reverberate throughout a survivor’s lifetime.
If childhood trauma teaches us anything, it most certainly attests to the sheer resiliency of children. When I speak of resiliency, I’m not limiting my definition to a inner strength or fortitude to withstand trauma, but instead to a broader scope of resilience that encompasses a variety of coping mechanisms that I and other children draw on to ‘make sense of the senseless’, and to find the will to carry on in the midst of unimaginable confusion, violence, and turmoil.
But herein lies the problem – those same self-protecting coping mechanism essential to weathering childhood trauma gradually morph into self-destructive behaviors that derail many survivors as they enter adolescence and adulthood. For instance in my own case, my ability to distance myself and disassociate protected me as a child; however, in later years, led to chronic drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention a long line of fractured relationships.
Please don’t get wrong… by no means do I intend for this to be some sad tale of woe or years lost. In fact, I’ve come to believe that when we begin to process our trauma with the help of a therapist or psychiatrist, we open ourselves up to interpreting this trauma as somewhat of a ‘gift’ we never asked for, yet a gift nonetheless.
That being said, looking back on my childhood through the eyes of wisdom and years, I think the most heart wrenching part of it all is how ‘invisible’ I felt as a child and how easy it was for my mind to so subtly transform pain into shame. How does a child even begin to process such adult emotions? Not much has changed for kids like me in the past 35 years, but there are a few sparks of hope seen in the action of advocates working tirelessly to engage the broader public in an uncomfortable dialogue we as community have been so reluctant to address.
The thing about childhood trauma is that if it is left untreated, undiagnosed, it continues to metastasize over a lifetime. I can only imagine the trajectory my life would have taken had there been both intervention and access to a treatment program like that offered at the Be Brave Ranch, located east of Edmonton, Alberta. Children admitted to the program are given free access to long term treatment for child sexual abuse, and receive over 200 hours of therapy offered both on site and off over the course of a year. Still in its clinical trial phase working in conjunction with researchers from the University of Alberta, the Be Brave Ranch has demonstrated that children attending the program show significant improvements in symptoms of depression, self-esteem, healthy peer interactions, and to a lesser degree improvements in anxiety and PTSD.
Whenever I give a talk about my experience living as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I always say, “I am thankful for the life I have been given, but I wouldn’t wish that life on any other child.”
If you’d like to find out more about the Be Brave Ranch and the amazing impact their program is having on so many young lives, please visit: http://bebraveranch.littlewarriors.ca/
I’m a long distance runner, and I’m currently training for the Boston Marathon coming up in less than one month. Preparing for a challenge like a marathon requires making sacrifices, not to mention an unwavering dedication – and to a non-runner, a lot of this behavior seems ‘odd’ to say the least. Like this morning for instance, while most people were nestled in their beds buried comfortably under their warm blankets, I was slipping and sliding through the icy streets of downtown Toronto completing my 20 km run before breakfast. It’s behavior that doesn’t make sense to most people, but to another endurance athlete, it makes perfect sense.
I had so many important things to do today, yet something inside me compelled me to push it all aside so that I could make my way down to Old City Hall to hear the judge’s verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Sitting in the courtroom listening to the judge read his findings into evidence, I was overwhelmed by an immense sadness, expecting that in all probability, I would leave that courtroom feeling hollow and utterly alone.
You see, I am not just an endurance athlete and a concerned citizen, but I too am a survivor of rape. It’s a secret that I carried for over 30 years, and throughout that time, everyone around me witnessed that trauma metastasize into drug and alcohol addiction and suicidal depression. Being a survivor of sexual violence can at times feel like walking through a never-ending minefield of triggers, trauma, shame, and self-loathing.
So there I sat listening to Justice William Horkins say that the testimony from the three Ghomeshi complainants was unreliable, conflicting, and suspect. The trial had become more about the actions of these women after the alleged assaults than about the alleged sexual violence itself. Is it any wonder that survivors of sexual violence are so reluctant to step forward and seek their day in court? I can promise you that as devastated as these women felt with the verdict, it doesn’t even begin to compare with the powerlessness and isolation they have been living with for many years now.
After the verdict was delivered, I walked outside the courthouse and stood beside other survivors and advocates working in the field of sexual violence. As I stood in the cold misty rain clutching my sign that said “We Believe Survivors”, I knew that many people looking at us were unable to understand what was going through our mind. But how are they expected to? Unless you’ve had your life forever altered by sexual violence… unless you’ve woken up every day since the assault and had to whisper to yourself, “I am stronger than what happened to me, at least for today”… Unless you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that in all probability there will be no closure to that trauma… well, how could you understand?
And as we stood in the cold outside that courthouse, a wave of journalists, camera crews, and microphones encircled us. Under the harsh lights of the cameras, we were prodded and pulled to offer our opinions, to render our judgments on the verdict. I looked around and I couldn’t help but think, “Where are all the other men? Why does the responsibility of advocating for a society free from sexual violence always have to fall on the shoulders of women?” And that was the point at which I was overcome with an immense feeling that can only be described as grief – knowing that when the lights of the cameras dim, when the trial is no longer part of the news cycle, and when Jian Ghomeshi puts all of this in his rearview mirror, the loss and trauma will continue to reverberate in the lives of these three incredibly brave women, just as it echoes in the lives of survivors across the country and around the world.
Today I celebrated 19 years of sobriety, one day at a time, yet even after all these years, I am still not comfortable with one of the tenets of most 12-step programs – the belief that anonymity is sacrosanct. In fact, in spite of the inevitable backlash I’ll receive for writing this, I feel that strict adherence to this principle may have outlived its usefulness in the field of addiction recovery.
A good place to begin is by looking at what Bill W., one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous says about anonymity. In 1945, he wrote: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.” Let’s not get sidetracked by that word, ‘humility’, which in and of itself is an elusive creature because the moment you speak of it, there is a great possibility you are no longer practicing it.
I should also clarify a few important distinctions in terms of the concept of ‘anonymity’ and how it relates to recovery. Tradition Eleven of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” And once again, we see ‘anonymity’ is discussed in Tradition Twelve: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” From its earliest roots in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous’ very existence has been predicated on the cornerstone of anonymity, as it serves two important functions – protecting the identity of individual members as well as creating a non-hierarchical structure within each group.
At no time do I condone breaking the anonymity of another individual without his or her permission; in fact, it is the fear of this happening that keeps many people away from attending a recovery program to begin with. Having said that, where I disagree with many fellow members in my 12-step program is the prescribed expectation that my decision to break my own anonymity is in some way contravening the unwritten moral code of recovery.
It is suggested that by breaking our anonymity at a personal level, we become de facto ‘spokespersons’ for the particular recovery program to which we belong– To me, the logic behind that statement makes as much sense as the belief that one’s membership at a particular gym or health club can be viewed as a direct reflection of the efficacy of that establishment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the argument put forth in meetings that ‘we can’t have all these people running around publically saying they are members of Alcoholics Anonymous… What if they relapse? What would that say about our program?’ I may not be popular for saying this, but guess what – people relapse; that’s a reality on the path to recovery. And if anything, over the years, I’ve discovered that the more people who know I’m in recovery, the more support I’m exposed to when I might be struggling and prone for a relapse.
The one caveat to being open about one’s participation in a 12-step program involves the thorny issue of keeping one’s ego in check. I opened this article by stating that I had reached another sobriety milestone, and that statement can be interpreted in one of two ways – either as a self-serving opportunity to ‘toot my own horn’, or as evidence that it is possible to imagine a life free of drugs and alcohol. As someone who has a fairly public profile, I’ve have tried to offset personal ego-inflation by being completely candid about my continual daily struggles with sobriety. One of the things I have to remind myself of is not to compare what, at times, feels like the ‘mundaneness of my life’ with someone else’s highlights reel.
Before walking into the doors of my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was fairly convinced what an alcoholic looked like, and it was safe to say, it didn’t look like me! I still had a job, a roof over my head, and family around me, however tenuous those things were. One of the greatest impediments for me not seeking help for my addiction issues sooner was the stigma associated with being labeled an ‘addict’. And therein lies my reasoning that strict adherence to anonymity, a somewhat ‘cloak and dagger’ secrecy at all levels of recovery, serves to perpetuate myths of addiction and adds to the stigmatization of those seeking recovery.
Despite what I used to believe, the opposite of addiction is not ‘sobriety’, but rather, the opposite of addiction is ‘connection’, and alongside of this connection comes an immense responsibility to step fully into my life and engage in both the joy and adversity that I face. Today, I am not only grateful for my sobriety but also grateful for the space that addiction has my life, for it has revealed a quiet strength within me. In the words of Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”