I don’t remember much of my childhood – and that’s probably a good thing because it’s a landscape better not traversed. Adult emotions and experiences flooded into my world at a time when I was far too young to process them. My childhood was punctuated by violence – first physical, and later sexual. And throughout all of this, it felt as though I was taken further and further away from myself. And later, as the trauma compounded upon itself, the familiar landmarks guiding me back to ‘me’, gradually faded as I became ever more distant.
There is one childhood memory that feels less like a ‘memory’, and more like yesterday. My childhood was governed by secrets and fear, and the place I felt the most afraid was lying in bed as the darkness began to envelop the room. For many years, I used to rock myself to sleep. Kneeling in my crib, and later in my bed, I would rhythmically rock back and forth as I pushed my head down repeatedly into my pillow. I would quite literally rock my bed across the room – desperate to find a way to self-soothe or quiet the fear that oozed out of me and worked its way across my skin in the form of chronic eczema. The palms of my hands and the bottoms of my feet looked like cracked and bleeding road maps to a frightened soul.
But there is one memory from my childhood that lies forever etched on mind, and now indelibly marked on my arm. There was one way I could make the fear go away … all I needed to do was to take myself away. When the secrets of my childhood became too overwhelming, I would find a quiet place, close my eyes ever so tightly, and then I would push the palms of my hands firmly against my closed eyes and keep them there for as long as I could. When I eventually opened my eyes, the most beautiful and magical white spots danced before me. And for that moment in time, no one could hurt me as I floated among these hypnotic white stars.
So here I am today, a middle-aged man looking back on all the years lost to addiction, depression, and isolation – the vestiges of childhood trauma, left unaddressed and unattended, for far too long. My story does not end here, as I now believe adversity to be a gift I never asked for. It has awakened me to an inner resiliency that I believe we all possess, yet rarely tap into. And those stars – well, I carry them with me today wherever I go. They are tattooed up and down my arm to remind me that perception and faith can deliver me from the darkest of fears.
As the author and poet C. JoyBell C. has said: “I think that we are like stars. Something happens to burst us open; but when we burst open and think we are dying; we’re actually turning into a supernova. And then when we look at ourselves again, we see that we’re suddenly more beautiful than we ever were before!”
As I suspect is the case with many other people across the country, I am closely watching the Jian Ghomeshi trial; however, I should probably add, with a guarded degree of optimism. There were times yesterday when I found myself holding my breath, wishing that this very public trial might be a pivotal moment in our society –
one in which we can finally begin to openly, and honestly address the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities.
But at the same time, I temper any expectation for a new tone in the dialogue about sexual violence because I am well aware that as each witness steps forward to tell her story in court, she is bound to be eviscerated by the calculated cross examination by yet another high profile defense attorney. I should add that I, too, am a survivor of rape – and up until three years ago when I went public with my own disclosure, it was a secret that I had lived with for over 35 years.
With so many people watching this trial, it's highly likely that more women and men will come forward to share their own experiences of living with the trauma of sexual violence. One of the greatest fears that any survivor has is that by making a public disclosure, she or he loses perhaps the last vestige of ‘control’ in his or her life – the control of the narrative. This is indeed a real fear, and it is something that keeps many survivors from not only reporting the crime in the first place, but also seeking the subsequent therapy and support they so desperately need. It is with this in mind, that I thought I would share with you five things that I have learned being a survivor of rape.
It's a cluster bomb.
One of the disarming facts about sexual violence is that even though it may be perpetrated on one individual, its aftereffects can ripple out, and have an impact on a primary relationship, on a family, and on a community. Sexual violence is ensnared in the rudiments of ‘shame’ and ‘power’, and without a doubt, it is these elements that contribute to sexual violence having a toxic resonance.
It's a tattoo.
I’ve come to believe that as a survivor of rape, I will go through the rest of my life with an ‘invisible tattoo’. Others may not see it, but despite the endless therapy, medication, and the passing of time, it is something that cannot be erased from my being. Sure, I may be able to cover it up, but that too comes with a deep personal cost. The sooner I learn to accept it as a part of me, but not all of me, the better I will be able to go through life.
Oddly, it's a gift.
As an international advocate, I do a lot of public speaking around the issue of childhood sexual abuse and rape, and the question that most often arises from the audience is “How did you learn to get through, or over, the trauma?” My response is always the same – I would not wish my past on anyone, yet I would not wish for another past. The trauma I have experienced has allowed me to discover a wellspring of resilience and strength that I never knew I had. In some way, trauma as been a ‘gift’ I never asked for.
It's a semicolon, not a period.
Although there have been many days when I did not think I would be able to continue living with the pain and stigma of being a survivor of rape, the fact is that I have found a life on the other side of the trauma. If you, or someone you know, is currently struggling with coming to terms with sexual violence, trust that life can continue. There may be times when you will pause, and quite possibly retreat, but have faith that it is not the end of your story.
It's perfectly imperfect in its messiness.
So, what does life look like after sexual violence? I don’t believe there is one universal answer to that question. Everyone’s path is different, yet a path does lie before us. I wholeheartedly believe that it has less to do with surrendering, and everything to do with embracing the perfectly imperfect messiness of what it means to live an authentic life.
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!!”
Within the beauty of movement, every runner will inevitably arrive at that mysterious point where he or she must brush up against the same artificial boundary – a space in which we valiantly try to quiet the mind, while at the same, trying to allay what at times can feel like incapacitating self-doubt and fear. This subtle negotiation, this dance with discomfort, is the birthplace of an inner fortitude that demands we keep moving even when everything inside is screaming for us to quit.
I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but running is somewhat like alchemy. Something inside us changes, adapts, or realigns when we lose ourselves in the rhythm of our stride. For my entire life, I’ve been on the run – at first it was as a child, ‘running away’ from the violent and daily physical abuse that took place behind closed doors in my home. Later, at the age of 9, it was trying to run away from all the shame that flooded in after I was sexually abused by a hockey coach; and once again at the age of 12, when I was raped by two young men in a ravine not far from our house in North Toronto.
From that moment onward, if you were to look at my life, it would be as though you were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I kept everything inside of me, and around me, off in the distance. And thus began many years of escape that came in the form of a destructive alcohol and drug addiction. Like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole, the further I fell into the world of addiction, the more I relied on self-delusion to insulate my ‘self’ from the brain’s warning signals of pain and self-protection. It feels so beautifully ironic to me that what almost killed me – my self-delusional ability to partition off part of my brain – is today, the same mental process I draw on to keep me moving forward in the hellish last few miles of a marathon or ultra marathon.
19 years ago, I finally decided to stop ‘escaping’ and to quite literally, begin the long journey of ‘running back into myself’. I entered a treatment program to address my drug and alcohol addiction, and it was there that I met two other gentlemen who encouraged me to join them on their weekly long runs. And it was through their support, that I ran my first marathon – the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
The only thing more stubborn than an addict, is an ‘addict in recovery’. I threw all my newly-sober confusion, frustration, anger, and hope into training for that race, and luckily it all paid off. I managed to qualify for Boston on the streets of Toronto in my first marathon! The rest, as they say, “is history”. I had traded a self-destructive addiction for a life-affirming addiction.
In 2013, I found the strength to finally tell my family and friends that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape. Since that time, I have become an international advocate for other survivors of sexual violence. In 2014, I ran the iconic Boston Marathon twice in the same day in a highly publicized campaign in order to raise funds and awareness for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In the fall of 2015, I brought that same passion to my hometown race, the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which I ran three times in the same day (126.6 km) to demonstrate the resiliency of survivors of trauma. I even managed to convince Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to come out and join me for the first 5 km of my third marathon of the day. So, what’s up next for me? In May, I’ll be running a “Double-Double” Ottawa Marathon (168.8 km), and later this fall, I’ll set my sights on a “Triple-Double” (253.2 km) once again at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
At this point of my life, I’ve now run over 120 marathons and ultras, and I honestly feel that I wouldn’t change one thing about my past because I believe it’s brought me to the place of deep joy in which I now find myself. How do I even begin to describe what running has brought forth inside me, and so graciously laid at my feet?
It’s been said that art is nothing more than reduction – the transcendent scraping away of veneers, the unmasking of the pillars of truth and beauty. In light of that, I would submit that running, in its purest form, is the fluidity of art in motion. I might even go as far as to suggest that a life given over to running is the purest form of reduction and self-reflection.
If you'd like to follow along on my journey of advocacy, or to donate to one of the charities I'm running for, please visit my site runjprun.com.
Like far too many children in my community, across this country, and around the world, I grew up in a violent household. I know that real life doesn’t resemble a “Norman Rockwell” portrait, but I don’t believe that precludes a child from feeling safe and loved in his or her home. For most of my life, I tried to rationalize the scars and the shame inflicted at the hands of my mother, behind closed doors in our ‘perfect’ middle-class Catholic home.
For as long as I can remember, I was terrified to be left alone with my mother. The youngest of five children, born to a marriage that was all but over, I bore the brunt of my mother’s isolation, frustration, and desperation – You see, to this day, I’m still desperate to rationalize, or at least make sense of, my mother’s violence. From my infancy right up until my mother finally left when I was nine, my skin was covered with chronic eczema – trips to the family doctor and dermatologist were carefully planned not to coincide with any traces of bruises left on my body. My cracked and bleeding skin had quite literally become the ‘canvas’ on which all of my fears and stress came to life. Magically, my eczema disappeared within a month of my mother’s leaving.
Throughout my teens and right up until my mid-40s, I desperately tried to earn my mother’s love. All I wanted was to hear that she was proud of me, and all that had happened in my childhood was something I would rather leave unsaid. Despite the superficial relationship we both fostered over the years, I never felt as though I had found a place in her heart. My other brothers and sisters, were raised by a very ‘different’ mother, who was most certainly less in crisis during their childhood. And thus, I’ve always felt like an outsider – the black sheep in the family.
After what feels like a lifetime of battling drug and alcohol addiction, and my own tenuous mental health issues, three years ago – at the age of 47, I finally found the strength to tell my wife and adult son that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Just so there is no confusion here… the sexual abuse was perpetrated by a hockey coach when I was 9 years old, and later by two young men who raped me when I was 12 years old.
But here is the part of my story that is unfortunately something else that sadly rings true for many survivors of childhood sexual violence once they decide to go public with their disclosure. I have lost contact with my mother and my siblings. It was as if the words that finally crawled out of me were too toxic for them to ‘sit with’. If you really want to know how to destroy an already fragile soul, take away the one thing that a survivor of sexual violence needs most – connection, which equates as validation and worthiness.
With everything else I’ve had to take on in attempt to unpack the trauma – hours sitting with therapists, and psychiatrists, along with continual peer counseling sessions – the part that has been the hardest for me to bear is the shame and bitterness that comes with being tossed aside by the person who brought you into this world.
Today, under the careful direction of my psychiatrist, I wrote a “goodbye letter” to my mother – one in which I openly shared what my childhood ‘felt like’ and the circuitous and troubled path I’ve travelled to arrive at a place of peace and healing. In the letter, I clearly state that I do not wish to cause my mother pain, nor do I wish to regain contact with her. I am simply closing a door on a chapter of my life that has felt raw and unfinished for so very long.
In writing this letter, I have come to the realization that the thing that shapes us most in our lives is the randomness of the family we are born to … but the thing that is most ‘defining’ in our life are the people we choose to call our ‘family’. Today, I am surrounded by the most loving and supportive family I could imagine – my wife, son, and daughter-in-law, along with countless others who make me feel whole… who make me feel worthy.
I’ve always been more comfortable living on the ‘margins’, an interloper, a social drifter. I’m one of those people who rejoice in giving presents, but cringe in abject discomfort when I have to open a gift in front of others. In a movie theater or crowded venue, I can’t bear to sit anywhere but in the aisle seat. My excitement of walking into a party or public event is quickly supplanted by my mind’s clicking into overdrive as it plans my furtive escape. If it’s a friend’s house party, I’m usually the one more comfortable quietly building Lego castles with the kids, or even better, directing all my attention to the dog or the cat. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t really mingle – I muddle.
I used to credit my social awkwardness, my physical aversion to crowds, to the fact that I am a recovering alcoholic. When you are no longer able to take advantage of the ‘social lubricant’ known as alcohol, it becomes increasingly more difficult to let your guard down in public. But it wasn’t until three years ago, that I was finally able to figure out why I’ve always felt so uncomfortable in my skin, an outsider in the crowd.
At the ripe-old age of 46, I had arrived at a crisis point, so I decided to bravely look back at my life as if through the wrong end of a telescope – I started with the broad focus of where I was at that moment: an elite endurance athlete, a recovering addict clean and sober for 15 years, someone who had clawed his way out of the darkness of depression and a recurring anxiety disorder, yet the further I went back into my past, the more laser-focused that image became, until it I eventually arrived at the memories of the childhood sexual abuse that had been a specter in everything I’d done, and in everything I’d become. As is the case with most survivors of childhood trauma, I sought comfort in the margins of society because in the subtle act of ‘disappearing’, I was able to numb the discomfort and shame that shivered inside of me.
It has taken me almost my entire lifetime to realize that what I thought was the “worst of me”, was in fact the “best of me”. And all those years I spent escaping to the margins of society have been a beautiful blessing in disguise. I believe that grace is found in the most unlikely of places, and is carried within the hearts of the most unlikely of ‘heroes’. There is no denying the many threats we face in this world, be it injustice, political instability, or environmental catastrophe, but to my mind, the most haunting danger of all is the fact that we have become so busy and self-distracted, that we are often are immune to, or at the very least, neglect to see the ‘grace’ that lies around us and within us.
Instead of looking to be inspired by rainbows and demigods, I need to be reminded that grace and beauty are just as likely to emanate from the darkness of loss or within the quiet of the unadorned. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons… With those for whom there is no room.”
And so, this is where I am today – reaching out to those for “whom there is no room”, and all the while quietly feeling an affinity with the whispers of grace found in the most unlikely of places.
This article originally appeared in "Her Magazine", so I encourage everyone to visit Her Magazine to check out this incredible resource.
I sat down to write this article as an attempt to set the record straight – to literally pull back the covers on my marriage. It’s a relationship that to many people defies convention; while for others, it belies plausibility. As an elite athlete, and as an international advocate for survivors of sexual violence, I live a very public life, and it’s a life that I’ve written about and spoken about extensively.
My 28-year marriage to Mary-Anne has been a canvas on which my inner demons have exploded, and writ large. There have been my prolonged battles with drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and more recently, the aftershocks of coming to terms with childhood trauma. And throughout the narrative of this personal journey, I have come across, at least to those at a distance, as someone who has bravely weathered the storm – almost mythically, as though I have enveloped myself in some superhuman cloak of resiliency. But guess what… nothing can be further from the truth, as it in no way sheds light on the unbreakable thread that underlies everything we have travelled through as a couple.
When I first met Mary-Anne, almost 30 years ago, I was not looking for a ‘savior’ or a ‘mother-figure’, and that’s probably a good thing because as it turned out, Mary-Anne is neither of those. Instead, she is the strongest person I’ve ever met. Yes, that’s right… my wife is intelligent, career motivated, and unflinchingly loyal to friends and family, and as her husband, I don’t find any of that intimidating in the least. In fact, all of that inner passion is what I’ve grown to love about her most.
I really take exception to that dichotomous mold that has been pervasive in our society for far too long – an attempt to place women into one of two distinct camps: nurturers and power-seekers. Along with being a patently inaccurate portrayal, it leaves women in an untenable position, one in which they are seen as either ‘weak’ or ‘overly-aggressive’. Although in recent years I may have had more of a public profile, Mary-Anne has had much greater success when it comes to a career, entrusted responsibility, and financial remuneration.
So, what’s it like being the partner of such a well-respected, career-driven corporate maven? For almost our entire marriage, Mary-Anne has been either the sole or primary wage earner, and at times, the ‘adult’ in our relationship, the one who held it all together. Despite all of the cultural and sexist bias borne of my upbringing, I have never felt intimidated or ‘emasculated’ being married to such a powerful, confident partner.
A misconception that derails so many relationships is the belief that one partner’s success comes somewhat at the expense of the other partner – in other words, leaving no air or space for that person to thrive. And this is the point at which I take so much exception to the media and cultural backlash towards women who embrace Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In Movement”. Years of systemic patriarchy is not something that is easily undone, so as a husband, and more generally as a man, I need to be vigilant in reminding myself that my wife, Mary-Anne, is not the exception, but the general rule. When our daughters, wives, and mothers excel in their careers, it in no way is at the expense of men’s success.
The longevity, and I would venture to say ‘the beauty’ of our marriage has stemmed from the complete absence of a power dynamic in our relationship. If you recall during the Financial Crisis, there was a belief that some banks and large corporations were simply “too big to fail” – the entire system was dependent on their weathering the economic storm. What definitely pains me most is knowing that over the years, there have been times when Mary-Anne felt an enormous ‘weight’, the pressure that comes with having to ‘be there’ for our family emotionally and economically – in essence, she had become “too big to fail”.
So, if I were to return to that question, “what is it like being married to a strong woman”, I would have to say that I have been graced by the power of example – the opportunity to be present as the one you love pursues her career with a sense of unencumbered joy and elegant passion. But more importantly, Mary-Anne has given me her unconditional love, and at times, that has entailed giving me space to grieve, to fall apart, and to have the faith to put the pieces back together again. And more broadly, as parents, we are a living example to our son that love thrives when we don’t shy away from the discomfort and messiness of uncertainty.
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.
One of the privileges of being a high-profile athlete is that I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people, and more often than not, they want to talk about what it’s like training for, and competing in extreme endurance events. For many years, I was more than happy to have this conversation, but all that changed three years ago, when my world quite literally came crashing down around me.
At that point of my life, I’d battled back from alcohol and drug addiction, clawed my way out of suicidal depression, and through it all, running had become my salvation – my sanctuary. I’d been clean and sober for 15 years, had a wife and son who loved me, a career I excelled at, and a long list of athletic accomplishments… but I was living a lie, and I couldn’t go on that way anymore. For the first time in over 35 years, I had found the courage to say my secret out loud – “I am a survivor of sexual violence. I was sexually abused by my hockey coach when I was 9, and I was violently raped by two men when I was 12.”
I am a man, and little boys, who later become men, are not brought up to talk about these things. In fact, very few people in our society feel comfortable talking about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. As a survivor of sexual violence, I can honestly say that this situation is isolating, shame inducing, and it needs to change.
Today, when I’m speaking to large groups about my endurance running, I no longer shy away from the life circumstances that shaped me into the man I am today. I believe we are not the sum total of ‘what happened to us’, but rather, we are defined by ‘how we strive and thrive as individuals through the challenges of adversity’.
A few weeks ago I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon three times in the same day (126.6 km) to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. My run generated lots of media attention, and the outpouring of support from the international running community was phenomenal. To pull this off was a physical and logistic challenge, to say the least. I went out just before midnight and ran the marathon course twice before the official marathon, and then lined up with the other athletes to complete my third marathon of the day. On the surface, what everyone saw was an incredible feat of endurance, but what they didn’t see was the ‘story’ that lay behind this, and to me, the ‘real heroes’ of this story were the people who brought me to a place where all of this could happen. I thought I would share two photos taken during that day because I believe they perfectly illustrate how we as a society could best address the issue of sexual violence in our community.
Hold on to someone who needs you.
My dear friend, Frank, a man I’ve known since kindergarten came out to run with me during the dark chilly night. Here is a picture of Frank embracing me at the finish of my second marathon. This is a man who knows how far I’ve come, and he represents someone who loves me unconditionally. Can you imagine how things may have been different if I, as a little boy, could have reached out to Frank all those years ago? Can you envision a world where children don’t have to retreat into the isolation of shame? Just think of the years of residual trauma that would never need to metastasize.