This past weekend I learned a very painful lesson—If you spend most of your time standing up for other people, you might very well be neglecting the muscles required to stand up for yourself, only to find those muscles atrophied when you need them most. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here; allow me to backtrack.
This is one of my favorite times of the year because for three weeks, I like many others around the world, get to immerse myself in the majesty and drama of the Tour de France, arguably the most grueling endurance event on the planet. This all sounds rather innocent, doesn’t it? Well, apparently I made the mistake of posting on Facebook that I had been enjoying Lance Armstrong’s daily Tour de France recap podcast, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Now granted, Lance Armstrong’s history of doping certainly makes him a polarizing figure, and so I was expecting the usual vitriol in the comments to my post, but what I wasn’t expecting was to read: “Hey, J.P. I guess when you got buggered up the ass as a kid, it screwed up your thinking as an adult.” And just like that, my innocent Facebook post had turned into yet another minefield I had to navigate as a survivor of sexual violence.
Over the past four years, I have used my platform as an elite athlete to advocate for those whose lives have been impacted by sexual violence. And in order to facilitate this important dialogue, I’ve had to make myself, and my past, as accessible as possible. I believe in engaging with people wherever they are; and today, that means having a broad and dynamic social media presence. Although some people may look up to me and be inspired by my story, I think it really pales in comparison when I weigh it against the incredible individuals who have come into my life simply because they have been courageous enough to reach out to me, a complete stranger, to share their struggles and triumphs.
But with a public presence comes the inevitability of the trolls, the online abuse, and an exposure to the uglier side of our human nature. Every day, I spend far too much time, blocking people and deleting hateful comments directed at not only me, but also others in my community. And to be honest, it really starts to wear you down. This past Saturday I had reached my capacity to take this on, and I posted on Facebook that I would be withdrawing from social media in order to reevaluate how I could best keep doing the work I’m doing.
As people way smarter than me have said, “I’m just another bozo on the bus.” Sure, you might have heard of me, or seen me on the news… that guy who runs his body to the boundaries of human endurance, the guy who talks openly about being a survivor of childhood trauma, a recovering addict, an alcoholic putting the pieces of his life back together. And for the majority of you, I may be something that just passes by your radar, another news story quickly forgotten. However, the reaction is usually quite different if you are someone whose life has been impacted by sexual violence or addiction. To that person, I represent hope, a way forward even if it’s just for one more day.
I was sexually abused and raped when I was kid. You see, I can say those words aloud today, and my world doesn’t come crashing down all around, but that was not always the case. For almost 40 years, those words sat quietly inside me and leached their way through every piece of me, and directly or indirectly impacted every relationship I had. Sadly, my story is not that unusual. In Canada alone, one in three girls and one in five boys are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. So when a public personality or an athlete like me comes forward and says those words out loud, people take notice.
I’m very open about the fact that I don’t have a PhD in trauma, and I’m not a licensed therapist or life coach, but I am an expert in that unmistakable stench of self-loathing, that feeling that comes from never taking a deep breath year after year. I know what it feels like to lie awake at night and think about taking your own life. I know what it feels like to be so alone with your fear that you can quite literally taste the acid making its way from your stomach to the back of your throat. But this is the shit I talk publicly about because I’m convinced that not doing so will kill me.
Unless you’ve traversed this landscape of your soul, you have no idea what the language of this space inside of you feels like, sounds like, and looks like. But every single time I speak at an event or am interviewed by the media, others whose voices may still be but a whisper, come up to me quietly after I finish speaking, or send me a private message that simply says: “Me, too.” I’m here to tell you that I’m not a superhero, but right there in that very moment, I’m the only other person on the planet who speaks the same language as that individual who is being swallowed by an unfathomable and unnamed darkness.
People who have been impacted by sexual violence aren’t looking to get fixed… They just want to be heard, and so that’s what I do, I listen. I know from my own experience, and from talking to countless others who have a similar lived experience, that the only way you’re going to find your way forward through trauma and exploitation is to have a sense of what encompasses your own dignity. The shitty thing about having your life explode is that you find yourself shattered into millions of pieces all around you, but the gift inside of that is you quickly discover who’s there beside you as you begin to pick up those shards of yourself.
So despite what people who look up to me may believe, I am not a superhero. And as a friend so eloquently pointed out to me, that superhero cape people think I wear may in fact be the most naked thing I’ll ever own. For a period of 24 hours this past weekend, I planned to collapse my social media presence, and quietly go about my life on a much more low-key scale. But that’s just what the online trolls and haters want us to do—They hope we silence our voices and allow intimidation and exploitation to continue their ugly reign. I’m here to tell you that I’m not playing along. If my talking openly about being vulnerable makes you feel uncomfortable, then tough shit… You’re going to have to get used to it. Superhero capes are not made for one person, but they are fashioned out of thousands and thousands of once-quiet voices that have risen to join a chorus of “Me, too”.