TOUGH ENOUGH TO TALK
AFTER EVERYTHING, it’s still hard to say it. But every time I do, it feels a little lighter.
I was sexually abused.
It’s a heavy line to write, even heavier to lug around for the better part of 20 years.
That’s where I need to begin. But this isn’t just about me.
One in six men are sexually abused as boys, according to multiple studies. But a much smaller number ever talk about it. Most suffer in silence. I want this story to reach those who have gone through any form of sexual abuse, from the teenager struggling with his own silence to the man who has suppressed his abuse and battled himself for decades. I hope my story adds to the growing conversation about how we raise boys in our society.
I also hope it provides another reason to support more progressive and well-rounded sexual education in schools — so that educators, like myself, can help kids learn what is healthy and appropriate, and what is not.
It’s also important for me to acknowledge the suffering of women, who are subject to much higher rates of sexual abuse and who must deal with the threat of sexual assault on a daily basis. I do not pretend to understand those experiences, nor the physical and emotional struggle that will affect so many women who go through this. I cannot tell that story.
I can only tell mine.
I was sexually abused between the ages of 11 and 12 years old. I’m not sure when exactly it began or when it ended. The timeline is blurry, but other details, such as the environment, the smells and sounds, are much easier — and more painful — to recall.
I remember the silence; I never said a word during the abuse. I remember his cologne — cheap and stale. It can still trigger feelings of guilt and shame when I smell it today. I remember the pictures of fruit baskets on the terrible wallpaper. I remember focusing on the repetitive design; anything to leave the moment.
It’s common for survivors of sexual abuse to have trouble remembering aspects of their abuse. This is usually due to the need to disassociate during the event, to limit the pain; to survive. You learn to escape the moment mentally, if not physically, so you can cope with the fallout.
This was true for myself.
I was preyed upon by an older, popular guy in the neighbourhood who manipulated me into satisfying his desires with the promise of money. The money was held above my head to continue the abuse as long as he could.
At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I was 11. I was naive. My understanding of sex came from PG movies. I had no vocabulary, context or experience.
So when this older guy, this popular guy, came to me and offered me money to do things to him, and let him do things to me, it seemed like no big deal. I thought of what I could buy: a playstation, hockey equipment, whatever I wanted.
The first time I remember thinking, “That’s all I had to do?” It didn’t take too long, and I made someone happy, someone I wanted to like me. I didn’t think of it as sexual. I had no idea what sex was. I was just doing what someone asked me to do. But even though I didn’t understand at first, I soon felt that I didn’t want to be there anymore.
His manipulation and the acts themselves grew worse. For every new thing, he would promise more money, money he’d never pay. I kept obliging. I remember making a list of his debt to me and thinking that what I was going through would at least be worth something in the end. I can no longer remember the exact figure but it was close to $1000 — more money than I could imagine at that age. But he never had any intention of paying me, of course. It was just his means of manipulation.
Later in life, I often thought about what sum of money would be worth the years of silent pain I’ve endured since then. No amount could be worth the self-loathing and self-destruction to which I subjected myself.
I’ve learned that the most severe consequence of this experience is that it snatched away the greatest happiness I could have in this life: my ability to have a healthy, loving relationship; to build a family.
While I don’t recall all the details of the abuse, I remember — vividly — how it ended. He did his normal routine: he would call the house and see if I wanted to hang out. At this point, I was always trying to find ways to refuse, but he would again offer more money. This time I brought over the paper with his debt on it. Like some kind of pathetic tax collector. He began trying to grab me, but I stopped and showed him what he owed me. He said he had it, he would give it to me after I kissed him once. The abuse never involved kissing before, so it jarred me. That’s what I understood as intimacy. The other stuff was confusing and uncomfortable, but I knew kissing was something you did with someone you loved. I know this because the moment he tried, I pushed him off. He grabbed me hard, harder than the other times. Something inside of me screamed and I threw him against the wall. I left him there and never came back.
I’m glad there was some part of me that wasn’t numb — that was fed up and decided to fight back, to resist. He was bigger and stronger than me, but the survivor inside of me reached down and refused to submit. That basic instinct helped me survive the next 20 years of my life. That part of me held it all together so I could succeed and not fall the way of so many who endure sexual abuse. I didn’t flunk out of school, I didn’t delve into drugs or alcohol (that came later), I didn’t experience crippling depression.
I finished high school with multiple scholarships to choose from. I was an athlete of the year, won academic awards and had a great social life. The survivor inside helped build strong walls and stood guard since the day the abuse ended. I carried on this way through university. I had no problems making friends or connecting with truly wonderful people I cherish to this day. I could always make quick friends, across many social groups, and I fed off that warm embrace. I knew I never had to be alone, and — really — I couldn’t be.
I was so ashamed of being abused that I vowed never to tell anyone for the rest of my life. Whenever I did think about it, I would withdraw and beat myself up. I believed I was complicit. That it was my fault. I remember the internal battles I had with myself when I was a teenager. I was so angry and I couldn’t tell anyone. This sowed the seeds of self-loathing and deep rage.
There was always this anger; this rage inside.
As a boy, growing up in a large family full of boys, I felt I could only express myself with anger, the only socially acceptable male emotion. You did not talk about your emotions, you used them to display strength.
Fortunately, most of my anger was taken out on inanimate objects. Ask my parents about the folding doors that used to lead into our family kitchen. Or the various shelves and dressers that got in my way. The other outlet for me was hockey.
It was a place I could unleash my anger and others would value me for it. I could hit, fight and channel my rage to help my team. Then I wouldn’t hate myself so much. But it was only temporary.
Eventually, I started to drink.
This dealt with my shame, like the anger, but it also made me feel happy.
I started drinking to be present. To numb the shame. A therapist later in life would use the analogy that my drinking “allowed the gorilla inside to stop rattling the cages.”
It was alcohol that allowed me to smile again.
But I was hiding.
As for relationships, I never had trouble meeting women. I was the fun-loving guy with whom you could have a good time, with no strings attached. I became a performer, and I didn’t need to worry or wonder about how easily I could detach my physical self from my emotional self.
Alcohol helped. I was present in the moment, it felt good, then I could leave. I believed this was normal. I was good at it. I felt validated, and useful. Looking back, this was also a twisted consequence of the abuse. I saw no connection between sex and love.
Everything that helped me cope was an obstacle to intimacy.
It is nearly impossible to explain to someone who has not been abused, but the true damage from childhood sexual abuse is the rewiring of my brain’s understanding of trust and intimacy. I trusted casual sex and was terrified by someone trying to love me. I learned to shield any chance of pain, so the most intimate moments that should have brought closeness would cause me to self-destruct.
At 25, I had been teaching for three years and finally obtained a permanent position. My career was stable. I purchased a small, but sturdy house. I had my home. I believed I had created a strong foundation of a life, but another relationship had fallen apart. The cycle continued. It was time to acknowledge something that was bubbling inside. I needed to say out loud that I was abused.
It was something I spent so many years unwilling to acknowledge — even to myself. I refused to think about it, to let it bring me down. I needed to succeed. I needed to make my parents proud of me. They supported me fully and raised me right. I couldn’t let that go to waste. I also wanted my brothers to think I was strong and smart.
But simply acknowledging my pain wasn’t enough. I continued to live the way that allowed me to survive to that point. I’ve always busied myself with as many things as I could jam into the day. I’m a highschool teacher, I play in a band, I play and coach multiple sports.
I built a life full of amazing distractions to keep me from confronting the demons behind the walls.
Whenever those dark thoughts came to me, there were always friendly faces and alcohol to numb the pain and keep me in the moment. If the pain began pounding on those walls, I just drank more. I went to the places where I didn’t feel ashamed.
Because every time I began to build a relationship with someone, I would break away and destroy it. Alcohol only helped build distance from my healing. It numbed me to all the pain I was causing the ones trying to love me.
Four years ago I met someone who made me happy. I began to plan the life I’d always wanted to live. I was hopeful that the pain from my past would subside.
I felt I could tell her everything, and I did. I told her about my abuse, that I had seen a therapist about it, that I believed I was ok now.
That first year with her was incredible. I still had my busy life, but I also began to allow myself to love, and be loved. We were building a life together.
But as we grew closer, she ran up against the walls inside me. They may have receded a little, but they still stood strong. There were moments when a touch or feeling would trigger me and I would withdraw without any explanation. I would refuse to talk about it, or worse, blame her.
Instead of accepting the support that was there, I chose negative coping strategies that had helped me survive before: drinking, overeating and isolation.
Right before I could fully commit to a healthy relationship, I sabotaged it.
I broke up with her in July. I was exhausted. I couldn’t reach out to her, even when she reached out to me. I pushed her away and went back to the only life I thought I could live.
I drank, again, to escape. I did everything I could not to face the shame and guilt.
Running away worked for a while. I was happy to numb my pain with whatever I could. Then in September, at the suggestion of my therapist, I joined a support group for male survivors.
At the first session every guy told his story. The details varied, but the painful aftermath was always the same. We all struggled with drugs, alcohol, anger and shame. We all struggled with intimacy.
I told my story then and I’ve been telling it ever since. Sharing my pain has forced me to stop avoiding it.
Something I had been avoiding, though, was a book left by my ex-partner on the bedside table. It’s called “Allies in Healing,” by Laura Davies. She bought the book after I told her about my abuse. It’s meant to help partners of survivors navigate the chaotic world of loving someone who has been sexually abused.
Throughout the entire book she had scrawled notes in the margins, drawn stars beside bullet points and underlined sentences. It killed me. She was tackling all the issues I had been avoiding. She was doing all the heavy lifting and I was numbing myself with work, sleep and booze.
As a survivor, one of the greatest consequences of your abuse is the wake of pain you leave behind you. Often, this pain is felt by those who deserve it the least — the people who try to love you.
My ex-partner spent three years of her life trying to help me through this silent struggle. She was the only person in my life who knew about my abuse, so she was suffering in silence as well. She tried to hold me together with constant love and support, while I struggled to return it.
It wasn’t just me that was battling this trauma. She was with me every step, focusing on my positive attributes and the worthwhile parts of our relationship. She was trying to build me up, while she was also hurting.
I’ll never truly understand what it was like to be a partner of a survivor of sexual abuse. It is a story I cannot tell, but I know that the struggle is a shared struggle. Our experiences and feelings may differ, but we shared in the pain.
I hate the person I was to refuse her love. The guilt is devastating. But part of my healing process has been acknowledging the worst version of myself. Only when I faced that painful truth could I create the space for the best version of myself to thrive.
I brought that well-worn book over to my ex-partner’s place and I tried my best to articulate all my remorse. But saying sorry can only do so much. Sometimes it isn’t enough.
A couple of weeks later, in late November, she asked me to come by, that she had things she needed to tell me. I had a recurring thought in my head: “For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
I sat across from her, ready to listen.
After years of being tirelessly loving and supportive, she needed to express her own pain.
As she spoke of the suffering I caused her, it felt like my rib cage was ripping open. It smashed all the walls I had put up. When she finished, I tried to speak but couldn’t say a word. I could only weep.
Whatever part of me had been holding it together all these years finally let go.
I cried from the deepest part of myself. I didn’t hold anything back. For the first time in my life, I didn’t try and keep it together.
Her telling me, with love, about all her suffering, I finally could acknowledge that I was broken. That I needed to face all that pain and the pain I had subsequently caused her.
I cried deeply for the first time since I was abused.
I cried for the 11-year-old boy
who just wanted to play hockey
and learn how to play drums.
I cried to speak to him.
To tell him that I didn’t need him to be strong anymore.
That it wasn’t his fault.
That I’ll never blame him again.
That he didn’t need to hide it all away anymore.
I cried to reach out and hug the shame out of him.
Because he was a good kid, with a good heart.
I cried to let him cry.
I needed to sit and forgive that child who didn’t deserve any of it.
Only then could I cry for all the pain I caused this person that I love, the person right in front of me, holding me together.
So I could face the mistakes I’ve made and I could face the worst version of myself.
And so I could begin to forgive.
That night, she gave me the greatest gift anyone could give me.
The truth of how my actions had serious, painful, and ugly consequences. That I wasn’t just hurting myself but the people who loved me and least deserved it.
I couldn’t have asked for greater support from a loving partner and I refused her love because I could not tell the truth. I buried and hid, just like before. To try and survive. To keep it together.
Looking back, I have such a mountain of regret.
I wish someone could have told me what my perpetrator did to me wasn’t meaningless, that it would haunt me for nearly two decades. I wish I had talked about it. That’s the only way we can take the power away from our perpetrators, who try to silence us.
An 11-year-old boy should not turn into a man so embattled with himself that he pushes away and consistently hurts a loving partner who has already travelled through such darkness with him, and come through still fiercely in love.
No one should have to live with the regret of throwing away such honest love because there’s a demon yelling at your insides that you don’t deserve it — that you don’t deserve her, that you deserve your pain, that you were complicit.
I still have deep regret that occasionally gnaws at me. It’s hard not to dwell on your life’s big mistakes, especially when you were your own saboteur.
But I learned to be gentle with myself, and that talking about my suffering let some light in.
I’ve learned the value of talking authentically and telling my truth. That although it’s frightening, if you reach out, there’s so much support.
I’ve spent the past few months finally telling my story to my closest friends and family. It has been a difficult but amazing experience. I feel stronger now than I’ve ever been.
They have allowed me to stand and write this, to face the darkest fear that I’ve had since I swore never to tell this story. I’ve seen the wake of pain that is left behind when you bury and hide your darkest truths. I’ve seen the worst version of myself. I’ve lost my greatest happiness.
So I’m beginning to heal, to find a way to forgive myself, to face my truth, to stop avoiding painful thoughts, and to find a way to be the best version of myself.
I am grateful to that wonderful, amazing woman. Even after we parted, she has helped me believe I can heal.
I still have rage inside.
But now it comes when I see attempts to silence or censor sexual education in our public schools. Much of the debate about Ontario’s new sexual education curriculum is rooted in ignorance and an irrational fear that arming children with more information about sex will lead them to wild promiscuity.
I’m a living example that we need more dialogue around sexual health, not less. We need to encourage boys and girls to ask questions, or risk that they’ll bury them, like I did.
I believe that if I were exposed to this dialogue, to this curriculum, that I would have had a chance at identifying, addressing and confronting my abuse much earlier than I did. Perhaps it would have helped my abuser as well.
Parents also have a role to play. I grew up in a Catholic household where sex was never discussed. This was a mistake. But obviously our family is not alone. Talking frankly about sex can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to begin the dialogue from a place of knowledge and love. Kids should learn about sex in a safe and positive environment.
We also need to teach our boys there are emotions other than anger; that it isn’t a sign of weakness to tell your friends or family when you’re hurting; that reaching out to your parents, a teacher, or friends, isn’t weak; that it’s brave to ask for help.
We need to teach boys to see bravery as the ability to stand up and face their deepest fears. We need to teach them that “real men” don’t hide.
The worst version of myself was also the most cowardly. I did not tell my truth. I hid it from the most important people in my life. I lied to the most important person in my life. It is a mistake I will live with forever.
My abuse taught me to feel the shame of complicity. My shame taught me to keep silent. My silence taught me to hide away my pain. Hiding that pain caused me to believe I deserved that pain. This cycle caused me to live the worst version of myself, and to profoundly hurt the person I love the most in the world.
We have to begin rethinking how we educate and socialize our boys and young men, so that they understand and believe what true strength is:
To ask for help.
To take the power of silence away from those who have snatched away our voice.
To be tough enough to talk.