More than just a photograph

Chris and myself are doing a 30-day challenge that focuses on letting go of material items in effort to free ourselves from clutter, whether it be physical or emotional. Today brought up some emotions for me that I felt were worth expanding on.

One of my items today is very personal. Years ago, I was at a trauma conference and came across a photographer whose work affected me greatly. She took photographs of the female form and cross-processed them with other images. One in particular was of a woman’s naked body covered in flames. I was immediately drawn to it, and purchased it from her. Through conversation, I learned that the woman in the picture was the photographer herself.  Her self-portraits were a way of reclaiming her body after years spent in an abusive relationship. When she was finally able to leave her abuser, she burned the mattress that he’d raped her on and photographed it. The two photos together were a way to express her pain and release it; to literally burn it away. It’s a compelling image with an even more powerful message.

When I met this woman I was very early in my own recovery, traveling around the country and in the thick of trauma work. I would surround myself with visual reminders that I was not alone, that my pain could not be silenced. I felt like I needed people to see it, to talk about it, to acknowledge it’s existence, my existence.

Today, while I was searching for my items to purge, I came across the photograph in a pile of old pictures and commemorative plaques of the past. It made me both sad and grateful. It’s still a beautiful picture, it stills has meaning. I realize now that I no longer need it in my life as a reminder of how far I have come, or my experience passed. I don’t relate to it in the same way, and I feel that by letting it go, I’m taking one more step towards healing.

Maybe by letting it go, someone else will find it and walk a similar path. Which to me, makes gifting it….invaluable.

photo(90)

Advertisements

The Holidays

Thanksgiving is the time for family.  Regardless of how we feel about holidays we are inundated with the holiday spirit.  It’s almost as if you don’t spend time with your family you are in the wrong.  Yet if you are survivor of abuse from family members or family friends, you have a difficult choice to make.

Your abuser may be a father, mother, brother, or sister and they may be at the family gathering.  Do you want to put yourself in that situation?  Will you even be able to enjoy it?  Even if your abuser isn’t present.  The presence of judgmental or defensive family members could make it a tense situation.  If your abuser is someone close to them, they may take the opportunity to defend your abuser.  They may attack your character.  They may reiterate how they don’t believe you.  They may blame you.

What is supposed to be a time for celebration with those we love the most can often be a tense ordeal filled with seething anger and resentment.  This is why survivors isolate during the holidays.  We aren’t getting together with family, even the one’s we want to see.  Thanksgiving and other holidays seem false to us.  Their promises feel hollow.  You turn on the television and you are hit with commercial after commercial reminding you of everything that the holidays aren’t in your life.  Even walking down the street and seeing all the houses with their holiday lights can be overwhelming.

The holiday season pushes many of us to deal with issues we aren’t ready for.

Getting together with family is compelling and when we choose not to we are judged and questioned.  We feel outcast.  But there’s something you should know.  There are millions of survivors out there just like you, feeling the same mixed emotions.  We just don’t talk about it.

I am a survivor of abuse and an advocate for others.  I have the same choices to make during this time of year and they never are easy.  I try to focus on who I really want to see.  I focus on who can support me emotionally.  The people that know my truth and accept it.

You do have a choice.  If it means sharing a turkey dinner with that one true friend who stood by you in tough times then you are truly lucky.  If you brave that get together knowing your abuser is there, no one should judge you and the choices you make.  If you end up alone on Thursday evening, don’t be so hard on yourself.

Surviving the holidays is about getting through to the other side.   Try your best.  You and your well-being matter most over any holiday.

If you know a friend or family member who has a difficult time and isolates, give them a call.  Your call may be the one that matters most.

We wish you a healthy and supportive Thanksgiving!

 

How Should A Survivor Behave? New Vid Blog!

Some recent discussions have brought to light about what it means to be a survivor.  How should survivors behave?  What is the role of the advocate in helping survivors heal?  What things should we take into account when speaking to other survivors?  Leave comments and questions when you have them.

Turn The Car Around

A couple of years ago, I remember driving home from a camping trip.  There was something in the middle of the road.  As we came closer I could see that it was a deer.  It didn’t move an inch as our car came closer.  We circled around it and kept driving up the road.  As the road curved I took one last look in the rearview mirror at the body and right as the deer came out of view, it lifted it’s head up from the ground.  It sent chills down my spine.

We didn’t go back.  We had all kinds of reasons not to.  We had a long drive to get home.  The area was too remote.  Someone else will stop and help it.  We didn’t have a gun or a knife to put the deer to rest.

As the miles accumulated between our car and that poor dying deer I felt tremendous guilt well up in me.  It’s just an animal.  It’s probably already dead.  Right?

When I first heard about the allegations of abuse against Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky the first thing I thought about was the deer.  A graduate student saw him sodomizing a 10 year old child in the showers.  He told Joe Paterno, the winningest football coach in college football history.  The longest tenured and most influential figure on the campus and in the community.

Joe reported the story to a Penn State official.  Then he moved on.  Jerry Sandusky continued doing what he had been doing for years.  Grooming little boys and sexually abusing them.  Joe wouldn’t have known of course, because he did the bare minimum to keep himself out of trouble.  Maybe that was enough to assuage any guilt he would have had.

I understand Joe.  After driving 100 miles, I had my friend pull to the side of the road.  I got animal control on the phone.  Reported to them that I saw a deer on the road which seemed to be alive.  I told myself that I did my best.  It is now in their hands.  What more could I do right?  I did my part.

For some reason, I have never been able to forget that split second.  Seeing that scared and vulnerable creature lift it’s furry head off of the bloody concrete.  In that moment we made a choice.  Keep driving.

It was a choice.  Much like Joe.  If there was anybody on that campus who could have put a stop to Sandusky’s horrific exploitation it would have been Joe.  You don’t say no to the biggest man on campus.

He never followed up.  He never made sure the police knew what was going on.

He didn’t turn the car around.

Holidays and Suicide

I just wanted to mention something because I know if I think of it during the holidays then many other survivors probably do.  When Thanksgiving would come around, for too many years, I would think of suicide.  This stretch of time, from Thanksgiving all the way up to New Years, has always seemed so hard for me to get through. 

My life has changed quite a bit now.  I have more reasons to be living than at any time in my life.  My beautiful wife and daughter.  My friends, including all of you here who know personally why we think of suicide.  Even with all of that, my heart still pulls toward that feeling.

About ten years ago, I used to scramble alone to the top of mountains and, if there was a cliff, I would stand on the edge and think how little I had to live for.  I wondered who would really care if I fell here.  Sometimes I would climb down cliff faces to ledges.  I told myself that if I fell then I was just meant to.

So I scrambled to the top of Mt. Higgins.  It was known for having a high precipice at the summit.  When I got to the top, I was alone.  So I stood at the edge of the precipice and did the thing I always do.  Wonder if I mattered.  I think that was the closest I ever came to just choosing to fall.  I heard some low yelping behind me.  It was a dog.  My dog Scout.  It may sound weird but I think he sensed what was going on.  I had forgotten he was even there.  But I didn’t have the heart to leave him alone.  So we hiked back down together. 

Before we left, I took a picture of old Scout, at the edge of the precipice.  Ironically it’s one of my mothers favorite pictures.  She blew it up and put it prominently on the mantle of her fireplace.  Scout has long since passed away.  But every holiday, when I come home I look right at it.  It reminds me that no matter what there is always someone who loves me and will miss me if I leave.  It’s something all of us should remember.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Chris

I Came Forward…On Oprah.

 

She turned to the teleprompter, looked out into the sea of men in the audience.  Each of us held a large childhood picture in our arms.  “It’s hard to see all of your pictures,” she told us as she wiped the tears from her eyes.

Then taping began…

For the next three hours I grieved amongst a group of 200 men who were all survivors of child abuse.  Some at the hands of strangers, most by adults we knew and trusted.  Most of the men here today, and Oprah, were abused by more than one adult.  Some were abused by other children, and some went on to be abused into adulthood.

Many of our abusers lived complete lives, free from incarceration.  Free from having to answer for their horrific acts.   They live in your communities.

When I wasn’t crying I was trying to stay present, in this moment.  But I often did what I do whenever my trauma approaches.  I disassociate.  I felt myself watching the studio of men from a safe distance even as I was sitting in the middle of it.

Oprah began the discussion with Tyler Perry, a film producer who recently disclosed his personal history of abuse.  I could see this audience of 200 men collectively unhinge itself.  I saw men all around me crying and exhibiting incredibly pained expressions of grief.  I felt like I was at a funeral for a close friend.  I saw old men crying inconsolably, just like the little boys who died in their hearts.

There was a man sitting across from me.  His face was bunched up so tightly and he hunched over again and again sobbing.  All I wanted to do was walk across this studio and give this boy some reassurance.

I looked down at the picture sitting on my lap, then turned it face down.  It was too painful to see that boy’s false smile.  Like a pulse, the words of Tyler Perry kept slicing through my heart.  “I felt like I died as a child.”

If Oprah would have allowed us to hold up a picture of any child I wouldn’t have held up my own.  I’m still alive.  I can look into the eyes of my baby daughter.  I have a beautiful and supportive wife waiting for me at home.  No, I would have held up a picture of my best friend Eddie.  When he died, the police report indicated that he hung himself with a bed sheet.  They said he “suffered from depression” or that “drug use contributed” to his death.  The newspaper never says “he died from child abuse.”

Eddie had a beautiful daughter of his own.  She was just a child when he passed.  Now we are both the caretakers of his memory.  I will never have the priviledge of having his quick wit and infectious laughter fill up my soul with life.  We were once just two abused kids, just trying to make it through.  Now he is gone and I am here.

The studio was filled with lights and cameras.  The film crews shuffled around, doing many things all at the same time.  Oprah was the calming presence in the middle of it.  She looked us in the eye and in her eyes I could see an underlying message to all of us men.  Just stay with me a little longer.

I struggled to keep my eyes open.  The exhaustion was so great my body was shutting down.

Twin brothers, about my age, got up from the front row and joined Oprah in the center.  They began to disclose the story of their abuse.  Molested by priests for 13 years.  I felt this anger and rage fill my body, every hair rising up.  I looked around at the other men in the audience and saw a reflection of outrage.  These boys told their mother, but they weren’t believed.  So the abuse continued.

I looked up, from time to time, at the cameras around me.  One camera stood directly at me for the entire taping.  I wondered if my face would be broadcast.  I wondered about all the people in my life who didn’t know.  Imagine the shock if you just turned the channel on the Oprah Show one day and saw your son, brother, nephew, friend, or uncle sitting in that audience.  Would you mourn for him?  Would you wonder who his abuser was?  Would you believe him?  Would you reach out to him and offer support?  What if you were his abuser?

Towards the end Oprah opened it up to questions.  My body became a tangle of pins and needles.  I had something to say.  We all had something to say.  I saw a man in his 50’s stand up to speak and wondered how many decades he had waited to finally say something here.  There would never be a moment like this again for any of us.

We filmed two shows that day and were only barely scratching the surface of all that went on.  I think Oprah saw this so she let us speak.  The Q&A session was never aired.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

Before I knew it I was in a bus heading to the airport.  There were so many guys I wanted to say goodbye to but never got the chance.  But I had nothing left to muster.  So I buried my head into a pillow on the flight back.

From flying to Chicago, filming two episodes of The Oprah Show, and flying back to Seattle, it had all happened in less than 48 hours.  Even now, i’m still recovering from that short and great impact on my life.

One thing I realized is that when we hold secrets we hold back a piece of ourselves.  We deprive our friends, family, and spouses from the true joy in our hearts.  They can never know our stories unless we tell it.  So many men and women went to their graves having never told anyone.

So I think of all the people in the past who weren’t given the opportunity to grieve.  I think of my abuser.

I am not sure what happened to him.  I don’t think he will ever tell us.  I know what he took away from me.  There were men his age in that audience.  These men were born from a generation even further entrenched in the silence.  Their presence brought me hope.

I do believe that men who tell are the exception, not the rule.  That is what made this Oprah special a very unique experience.  We have always been told that boys don’t cry.  Yet they always do.

These men stood together, in front of millions, despite our society.

These men stood with a powerful female advocate.

I am not sure of the long term impact of these shows, but what I do know is the extraordinary effect the show had on the lives of the men.  We are telling our family and friends for the first time.  We are confronting our abusers.  We have started campaigns to combat abuse.  We are going into therapy.  We are telling our stories.

200 of Oprah’s Men.  I am proud to call myself one of them.  They say that one motivated soul can affect change on an entire society.  Imagine what 200 can do.  Imagine if we all finally woke up and began to really talk for the first time.