You Are Not Alone
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.” - Flannery O’Connor Once upon a time, there was a boy who was neglected and sexually abused. My parents divorced when I was one year old. I have memories. Mom carries me into the kitchen, sets me down on horrible gold-flecked linoleum. Dad sits at the table by the window and eats his dinner. My diaper is full. My mother stands over me, yells and screams, her voice a tapestry of anger and rage and regret. Why doesn’t she change me? Why doesn’t she love me? I have more memories. I am six or seven or eight, and my sister tells me that if I have to pee, it’s okay to pee inside her. My sister teaches me to play five minutes in the closet. Confusion and fear and disgust fill the dark space. She teaches me other games. She threatens suicide. On one occasion, she brings her friend over to play with me. Years stretch on. I wish they would end, wish I would end. On a vacation with dad, she and I share a room, a bed, her on top of me again as she’d done too many times to remember. That dark, dreadful feeling in my stomach. She cries, stops, apologizes. I roll over, utter the only words my pre-adolescent, people-pleasing mind could find. “It’s okay.” My sister leaves for college. I am 12 or 13. I think it’s over. Every day, the boy would find ways to numb his pain and avoid the constant question in the back of his mind: “What’s wrong with me?”. I saw very little of my sister in the ensuing years. She would come home for the holidays, that dreadful time of year filled with constant conflict. Our overbearing, controlling mother would kick into overdrive, tripling the ever-present tension. Visitation with my father was always a point of contention, but especially so in December. While I never really knew him as a drinker, my father was an alcoholic, something my mother would never let us forget. In a twisted dance of wills, she would simultaneously push him away from us, yet keep him roped in to her life. Having my sister come home for the holidays just made everything so much worse. I started smoking somewhere around 13 or 14, and I’m only now realizing my long-time battle with nicotine is probably rooted in my abuse. I started drinking occasionally around the same time. And smoking pot. I floated through high school with only a few friendships, many of which revolved around drugs and alcohol. I kept my head down. At home, it was just my mother and I, and I did everything I could to avoid being there, to stay out from under her control. I got decent grades, stayed out of trouble (mostly). I hid my shame, my sorrow, my secret. I hid myself. Freshman year of college I lied, told the school I was living at home to avoid staying in the dorms. Too many people. Too many possibilities for my secret to spill. Instead, I lived with two friends in a crappy duplex a mile north of campus. I worked hard, attended classes, maintained appearances. I drank a lot, learned to be highly functional. We snorted coke, dropped acid, thrashed on our instruments at all hours. My secret faded fast, neglected, but not forgotten. During Christmas break that year my roommates went back home to spend time with their family. I drank wine by myself, watched TV, thought about ending it all. By chance, my two best friends from high school showed up at my door in time to keep those dark spots from consuming and obliterating me. I was still too close to home, too close to the pain. The following year I moved to another college a few hours away, abandoned the hard drugs, but the alcohol and cigarettes traveled with me. Five years later I left with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. My secret lay buried under a mountain of grief, denial, self-hatred, and hard work, so far out of view as to be invisible. I had successfully tuned out the background noise of my abuse. I moved on, still hating myself, still hiding myself. I worked, married, had children, got a second master’s degree, excelled at my career, lived a seemingly reasonable and successful life. I drank sometimes. I smoked all the time. I forgot what I could. Somewhere in that life the overwhelming feeling of always being in the wrong room became unbearable, and I sought therapy. My first therapist told me that everyone hated their job and that I should just suck it up. I stopped seeing him, but I took his advice. I sucked it up, held it in. After my children were born, I realized I needed to try therapy again. How could I help my children if I couldn’t even help myself? My next therapist was much more compassionate. She helped me as best she could, but without the context I’d buried deep under those feelings, her help only took me so far. But, one day, many, many years later, the boy’s mother died. My mother passed away in July 2017. I was there, along with my brother and two sisters. She didn’t go quietly. My siblings would say she went out trying to sing. I think she suffered pain and torment and sorrow. I think she knew. Her funeral was not well attended. She was a creative person who likely had the creativity beaten, perhaps even molested, out of her as a child. She never asked for the help she needed, help that may have changed everything, and so she treated the world as if it were her enemy. I read some of her poetry at her funeral, and as I did so, I cried, my tears a blend of grief and relief. She was gone. I was glad. Because of that, the boy’s secret shame began to claw its way out. In the following months as we settled my mom’s estate, I spent more time around my sister than I had since she first left home for college. My anxious, restless shame stirred, clawed at my consciousness. I sucked it up, held it in. My sister left again, and I thought it was over again. I continued therapy. The progress was slow, as the work always is. I attended a writer’s conference in May 2019. These were people I was eager to be around, to grow existing friendships and make new ones. But the secret had begun burrowing out from under a lifetime’s worth of self-hatred, anger, and malaise. I should have been socializing, but instead I bought a couple bottles of liquor and hid myself away in my room. I drank. I smoked. I tried to keep on forgetting. The secret finally unfolded, a poisoned flower, and showed me in a mirror of bourbon that I can’t expect anyone to like me if I don’t even like myself. Because of that, the boy’s mind shattered, and his thoughts scattered in all directions. I could no longer ignore the memories, treat them like a bad dream. The drive home from Grand Rapids to Columbus was perhaps one of the longest of my life. My head exploded with fear, confusion, doubt, shame, and more shame. By the time I arrived home, I was so full of irrational thoughts I could barely function. I shared with my wife what had happened, shared my craziness, and she comforted and supported me, for which I’m eternally grateful. I phoned my therapist and made an appointment for later that day. I broke again in her office, spilled a staccato version of my story, a rush of half-spoken sentences between rib-cracking sobs. She met me with the compassion I’d come to appreciate. Because of that, the boy looked for help wherever he could find it. I was, unfortunately, sitting squarely outside my therapist’s area of expertise. But she took time to help me find another therapist who works with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I made an appointment with the new therapist, scared of sharing my story, dreading what would be found there. Would my wife leave me? Would my sons be ashamed of who I am and what was done to me? Would I lose family, friends, my career? Until finally, the boy found more help than he ever thought possible. Despite my anxiety, I met my new therapist, and was relieved to find the same deep sense of compassion I’d experienced with my last one. He was kind and patient and supportive from the minute I walked in to his office. Through working with him, I continued to uncover myself and let go of the weights of shame that have been holding me down most of my life. I shared my story with others close to me. In June 2021, I attended a Weekend of Recovery, which in and of itself was a life-changing event. I joined a local support group as well, who welcomed me with a degree of love and kindness and openness I’ve rarely experienced. Over the past four or so years, he’s also provided me with a wealth of resources, including book recommendations and sites like MenHealing and 1-in-6. Slowly but surely, I’ve explored these resources, spending time reading, and listening to or watching stories of other survivors. The utter sense of isolation and all the feelings that came from are starting to lift. I open myself up a little more every day. I find courage in small acts and joy in being present for my partner and children in ways I could not have been before. I still hurt, but the pain is different somehow. There’s grief for the little boy who never got a chance to grow and be joyful. There’s anger, unexpected and unwelcomed, but I try to recognize it for what it is. I don’t suck it up and hold it in, I validate it and let myself cry. There’s tremendous comfort in knowing that we are survivors, not victims, and we are not alone. And, ever since then, the boy continued on his journey of recovery. In most stories, there’s an end. The plot wraps up, all questions are answered, and no more problems exist. That’s not how this works. I know my story is ongoing, that recovery is a process, not a solution. Trauma, all trauma, strikes deep and is enduring. It is not a problem to solve or a question to answer, it is a reframing of ourselves in such a way that we can move from surviving to thriving. We continue to work with ourselves and with others who have suffered abuse to heal and grow and once again become fully present and playful and joyful in our lives.