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How I Learned to Be a “Real Man”: By Confronting My Child Sexual Abuse Head On

By Phil Goldstein

Looking back on who I was as a boy and an adolescent, I think it’s safe to say I didn’t do many traditionally “manly” or “masculine” things. I didn’t play a sport, except for two years of Little League and a short-lived attempt at cross country running. I wasn’t in the Boy Scouts. I didn’t know how to pitch a tent, make a fire, use a knife, shoot a gun, tie a rope. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t even get my driver’s license until just before I left home for college.

Instead, I did a lot of things that society largely coded — and to a significant degree, still does — as effeminate. I wrote poetry. I acted in plays and musicals. I loved reading and art. I wasn’t gay, but, if you were a product of the culture of the late 1990s and early 2000s, even in a relatively liberal part of suburban New York, one could be forgiven for thinking so. Even my mom asked me if I was gay, when I was a sophomore in college.

I don’t know if I was the way I was because my older brother had sexually abused me,or in spite of it. I like to think that it’s the latter, but it’s difficult to tell when you are abused during such a formative time in your life as a child and a person. My older brother molested me from the time I  10 to 12 and a half, a fact I kept hidden from every single other person on the planet until I was 30 years old.

Set aside the fact that according to statistics from CHILD USA, the average age of disclosure of CSA is 52 years old. Set aside the academic literature that details how shame, confusion, fear, and a lack of emotional vocabulary inhibits many survivors of child sexual abuse from telling others about the abuse — if they ever do. Growing up when and I how I grew up, in the 1990s and early 2000s, it would have been monumentally humiliating to admit to anyone that my older brother abused me. If I had told a friend, the friend might have told another friend, and then it would spread like wildfire. Even if I had told a trusted adult — a teacher, guidance counselor, parent of a friend, rabbi, etc. — the odds are that, at some point the news would have leaked out to my peers.

What middle school boy is going to willingly admit such a shameful thing, and subject themselves to the humiliation that would likely follow? To have it be known that my older brother made me perform oral sex on him and that he performed oral sex on me would have been the most mortifying thing imaginable. What girl is going to want to go out with such a boy? How is that boy going to ever be able to go into a locker room at school and not have every other boy stare, gawk, harass or worse? The social stigma around abuse — that it would mark me as “not a real man”— were just some of the factors that inhibited me from saying anything to anyone. So, I didn’t.

As I grew older, after the abuse stopped, I pretended like it had never happened. I wanted to will it away, out of existence. But the insidious effects of abuse kept surfacing in embarrassing and harmful ways, even if I didn’t recognize them. Most significantly, in my 20s, I started experiencing erectile dysfunction. It was profoundly embarrassing, and let to the dissolution of a relationship and the end to several dating endeavors. But I never connected the ED to the abuse, at least not consciously.

I grew more desperate to figure out a way to address the ED. I started taking Viagra. Then Cialis. None of it seemed to work. Then, when I started dating the woman who would later become my wife, the ED issue reared its head again. I tried, at first, to downplay my history of ED because I was afraid that we’d break up if I told the truth (a lie that would come to haunt me). Eventually, she persuaded me to seek out a therapist to try and resolve the issue.

The intake  form for that first therapist asked whether I had ever been the victim of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse. I checked yes next to sexual abuse because I didn’t want to lie and then have it come up later in the sessions. I assumed I’d get in trouble — which shows how little I knew about therapy.

I brought up what happened in my first session, and the therapist thanked me for trusting her with that information, but I said I didn’t want to talk about it, because that’s not why I was there.

A few months later, when she left her practice, she told me that, in her experience, someone who has been sexually abused as a child is bound to have that ripple out into all facets of their life, including their intimate relationships. She urged me to start widening the circle of people who knew.

Shortly thereafter, I started seeing a new therapist who specializes in helping those who have experienced trauma, who I am still working with today. I gained more courage to tell others, including my then-girlfriend, my friends, family members and my parents (who, thankfully, believed me but expressed no interest or ability into delving into how and why this happened in our family).

In therapy, I unpacked what had happened to me. I sketched in the details of a childhood I had kept deliberately hazy, to avoid confronting the painful truth of what had happened to me. And I realized that I had not done anything wrong — before, during, or after the abuse. I had been betrayed by someone who I trusted, someone older and stronger than I was. I was afraid and scared of what was happening, so I disassociated during the abuse. Most significantly, I was a just boy and should have been doing things that boys from 10 to 12 normally do. I was robbed of my innocence and of discovering sex and my changing body my own.

I decided to go public about the abuse because I didn’t want to live with the shame of what had happened — to continue thinking, believing and acting as it was something I should be ashamed of — and I didn’t want others to, either. And I started writing poems, dozens of them, about the abuse, which eventually became a book.

Speaking out about the abuse, being public about it, and talking about it in interviews and podcasts, is something I have been proud to do. I do it because I hope it will help others. People close to me in my life have told me that they think speaking out is courageous, something for which I probably don’t give myself enough credit for.

To me, being a “real man” means being vulnerable. It means not shying away from difficult truths about your past and who you are as a person. It means dealing with messy, complicated emotions. It means going to therapy if that is what is right for you (I highly recommend it!). It means standing your ground, calling out abuse and abusers, and not caving to the demands of those who would prefer to sweep abuse under the rug at the expense of the emotional wellbeing of survivors.

There are a lot of things that our society still ascribes to masculinity. I hope, over time, that image of masculinity changes to reflect the aforementioned qualities. It’s starting to. And the more it happens, the more that abuse survivors, and men in particular, will have the room to heal.

Surviving Childhood Abuse

By December Rose

Do you ever lie awake at night staring at the ceiling? Wondering why your life hasn’t turned out the way you dreamed? Why everything you get yourself involved with has to just get complicated? Do you ever just find yourself sad and distant in environments where you should be happy, and routinely letting the monster in your head run wild?

I’m grateful that five-year-old me dared to dream, and kept a hopeful heart even when she was sickened with grief and torment watching her mom succumb to depression and destruction. Learning to change her baby sister’s diaper while hearing her mom wail in agony because of life’s misfortunes, five-year-old me was getting groomed to put everyone’s needs before hers; to be a people pleaser seeking approval and validation, and worst of all, believe she wasn’t enough to keep her mother happy. She walked on eggshells to be on her best behaviour to avoid reprimanding beatings, but her best could never be enough. How could it ever be, when a parent-child love can’t transcend depression of an unwell mother who had lived through domestic violence as a child?

Going home day after day from school well into my late teens was going home to the same chaotic, name-calling, hoarded, nightmare environment I wished I could just wake up from. Seeing your parent (someone you love who’s supposed to love and protect you) suffer, and realizing that you’re on your own to fend for yourself, be your own cheerleader, and be your parent’s emotional, mental, and physical outlet, is overwhelming to say the least, especially when there’s no one you can talk to who can help. Even when there were people that could help, I was too afraid word would travel back home and make an already toxic situation even worse. When the anguish officially began tanking my health and entire life (being in and out of abusive and manipulative romantic relationships that triggered anorexia, self-destructive habits and thoughts), I started seeing a therapist.

Having a healthy space to vent to someone completely objective of the situation helped give me clarity, answers that I longed for, and a path to recovery. I got to a place where I started to feel okay. That despite everything, my future didn’t have to be a reflection of my past; but deep within me nothing had truly healed. A friend once told me “a plant can’t ever bloom to its fullest and most beautiful potential in bad soil”. My soil was poison.

At twenty-two, I was sexually assaulted on what was supposed to be a friendly date. I couldn’t bring the news home because no matter what “it was my fault”. Things had been my fault since I was five. Why would now be any different? I became angry, bitter, frustrated that maybe I had become so broken that I would never be able to harvest healthy relationships in any capacity, and that happiness wasn’t on the horizon for me.

I’ve often heard that the first step towards healing is recognizing there is a problem, and that you need help. When your parent recognizes there is a problem, but chooses not to do something about it, forgiveness wouldn’t seem like the obvious choice. However, I finally realized, forgiveness wasn’t for my parent. It was a gift from me to me, to set myself free from the bondage of a dark past. The horrors remain in the shadows, and creep up all the time. The insecurities are hard to squash, but with situational perspective, context of suffering, and determination, it can be kept at bay.

Since being able to physically remove myself from the place I had long called “home”, I have finally started to make peace with the past, and work at creating the life five-year old me never stopped dreaming of; writing, singing and sharing a piece of my heart with every listener, one song at a time.

Why Survivors of Repeated Traumas Carry So Much Shame & Secretly Blame Themselves

By Marie McCarthy

There are many parallels amongst trauma survivors.  Whether the trauma is sexual assault or domestic violence, which often includes sexual assault, certain aspects, such as, shame and self-hatred permeate the survivor’s experience.

I’m a survivor of multiple violent sexual assaults from the ages of 4 to 13. My perpetrators were strangers and a gang of teens.  I’m 54 years old now and I’m thriving as a healthy adult, an author and a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma recovery.  My memories were repressed until my early forties when they surfaced as drop-to-the-floor, fight-for-my-life, flashbacks!

During my healing from trauma journey, I became aware of hidden shame that caused a devastating self-hatred because my child-self blamed herself for being repeatedly raped.

Little Marie, my child-self, believed if I keep getting hurt by someone, it must have something to do with me.  I must be defective.  I must be causing this or bad things wouldn’t keep happening to me.  Can you relate to this flow of self-destructive thinking?  Can you see how this thinking exacts a sentence of pain and a self-imposed prison that a victim of interpersonal trauma does not deserve?

Did you know shame is the belief that something is wrong with you or that you’re defective in some way?  If I’m defective then it must have been my fault and if it was my fault, then I hate me!  That self-hatred festered and spread like a cancer within me for 40 some years.

I had to get to my self-hatred with the help of therapy and other healing modalities in order to know it was there, and once I looked at it, I realized that I wasn’t to blame.  The men who chose  to commit a crime  and rape me were to blame!  No behavior on my part made my child-self deserve to be raped.  They saw vulnerability and they chose to take advantage of my vulnerability and act out their own deep wounds.  SUCH COWARDS!! 

Perpetrators like domestic abusers and rapists look for someone they know they can overpower and hurt.  It’s not what you were wearing or a word you uttered or the way you set down your plate on the counter.  It’s about how the abuser was feeling inside themselves from their own deep wounds, along with your vulnerability in their presence at that moment.  It wasn’t your fault and it wasn’t mine.  It wasn’t that we were defective or deserved it.  However, what we did choose was to survive by whatever means we needed in order to get through those horrific moments and LIVE.

I say “thank you” for doing what you needed to do in order to survive.  I forgive us for mistakenly believing we were at fault, for hating ourselves, and for living in shame.  May you and your strength to live be blessed with healing peace.


Are We There Yet?

I must confess that for part of my healing journey – no, wait, let’s be honest, pretty much all of it so far – I have been somewhat of an unwilling participant. I have been in and out of therapy more times than I can count over the past decade and each time, I go in with the idea that “I’ll just sort out this one abuse-related issue that’s been bothering me and then I’ll get back to my real life”. I just want the pain to be over with already. I’m like the kid in the backseat of a car on a long road trip, endlessly asking “are we there yet?”

The first time I went to see a therapist, I told her a summary of the problems I was experiencing, and she told me she didn’t expect I’d be seeing her for longer than ten months to a year. “Great!” I thought. “If I have to do it, then I’m gonna kick this healing crap’s ass. I’ll go at it like a maniac, and at the end of the year I’ll be a completely different, much happier person. My life = sorted.”

So, for a year, I went at it like I was building Noah’s ark and the flood was due in three months. (Which is probably quite an accurate analogy; now I come to think about it.) I went to three-hour therapy sessions every two weeks. I cried. I screamed. I wrote unsent letters and burnt them ceremoniously. I bought a punching bag and beat the crap out of it on a regular basis. I journalled. I meditated. I lit candles. I drew. I fell asleep to relaxation CDs. I bought and devoured every book on healing and self-development I could get my hands on. I pretty much LIVED therapy. The only other things I was doing (somewhat sporadically) were a) going to work, b) eating and c) sleeping.

Ten months to a year came and went. I was still in therapy.

Two years came and went. I was STILL in therapy. What the?!

Three years came and went.

It seemed that neither I, nor my therapist at the time, had accurately guessed how deep the rabbit hole went. I was still uncovering buried memories of trauma, and what’s more, they seemed to be getting worse and worse as I became more skilled in dealing with them. It was almost like I was levelling up in some horrific computer game I didn’t recall purchasing but was now stuck playing against my will.

And I was getting tired. I finally thought, “Sod this, I’ve had enough therapy”. I quit, moved interstate, and took a job that allowed me to be close to nature. Externally, life was better for a short while. Internally, though, I didn’t feel much better.

As it happened, the game was far from over.

That summer I had my first flashback. Then I had my first panic attack. I realised in one horrifying instant the truth I had known all along but had previously been unable to face: that my father had sexually abused me. My father, whom I had always idealised and placed on a pedestal from a young age. I thought he was so smart, kind, wise and caring. No. I didn’t want to believe what my body was telling me. No. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.

Therapy was supposed to improve my life. Not blow it up.

But in the end, that’s what it did.

All of the stories I believed about my happy childhood, where I was loved and had a normal, healthy family, were false. I had made them all up. They were a fiction I told myself so that part of me could remain innocent and survive.

I felt like I had taken the red pill and woken up on the other side of the Matrix.

This was NOT what was supposed to happen.

Damn therapy. I wanted a refund.

Four years came and went.

Now therapy was different. Now I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was getting flashbacks all the time, and learning in therapy how to deal with them; grounding techniques, comforting myself, imagining figures protecting my child self from harm. All the while I was thinking, this is nuts. None of this actually happened. What the hell is wrong with me?! Reading literature on PTSD, trying to convince myself I wasn’t actually going crazy even though that’s what it felt like. Coping with that weird involuntary trembling and body shaking that occurs after a flashback. “There was a study done on deer who have been traumatised. They shake and tremble in order to recover,” my therapist told me. “Your body is just doing the same thing.”

But I didn’t want to be a traumatised deer. I wanted to be a completely normal happy average human being, who could get by just fine without therapy, thank you very much. I didn’t want any of this to be happening.

Five years came and went.

The denial lifted, and I finally began to believe what the flashbacks were telling me. I cut both my parents out of my life, and felt a huge sense of inner relief and peace. I decided to quit therapy, again, as the flashbacks were settling, and in any case, I now knew how to deal with them when they arose. By that time I had an army of self-nurturing tools at my disposal from journalling, drawing, posting on isurvive, to calling friends, etc. I had a lot of support around me. I had lost two abusive parents but somehow, amazingly, managed to escape the cycle of abuse and heal. I felt incredibly lucky.

I took a couple of years off from therapy and tried to just get on with my life. For the first time ever, I felt young and happy and free. For the most part. Memories of the abuse would crop up from time to time, but I would deal with them as they arose. I started to believe I had “made it”, I had reached the mythical end to healing that I had hoped for so long ago. Life was better. I felt a deep sense of peace at having finally accepted and believed the truth.

Which brings me to the present.

Now, there is a new memory knocking at my door. Frick. Just when I thought I was done.

It has been coming back in bits and pieces over the past year.

Now, the Game is back on. And boy oh boy have I levelled up now. It is a new and improved sequel with dramatically better special effects, surround sound and more vibrant 3D characters. This memory is far worse than any of the previous ones, and they were terrifying enough to start with. This one is more violent, more horrific, and just plain bizarre to boot. I can’t get it out of my head, and like some kind of debt collector from the past it won’t leave me alone. It keeps sending me letters with big red writing on the front and increasing the interest I owe on my payment. If I don’t deal with it soon it’s gonna come knocking at my door, empty my bank account and cart me away to the law enforcement agencies.

And so begins the sixth year.

But I feel better now. To be honest; by now I feel like a warrior. I have been through a lot the past nine years, and I’ve learned a lot as well. I know that, no matter how painful they are, feelings eventually always pass. I am, finally, learning the importance of nurturing and being kind to myself. I know that I have people I can call and the support of those at isurvive to help me get through the dark places. I know that my mind will not show me anything before I am ready to deal with it. And I know that whatever trauma I’m about to face, I’ve already lived through it, survived and am safe in the present.

I still don’t know when, or if, this healing process ever ends. I don’t know how much more pain I’ve repressed and buried in my unconscious that still needs to come out. If there is a “there”, I’m definitely not there yet. But I’m a lot further along in my journey. I’ve reclaimed so much of myself during this process. I feel a million times better and more whole than I did when I first started therapy all those years ago.

It didn’t feel okay to start with. It felt scary and I just wanted to run away. I feel just as scared now, going into my sixth year. But I think maybe therapy always feels that way in the beginning. Maybe that’s how you know you’re learning, growing, changing, getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself. Maybe anything meaningful or worthwhile is scary at first. Maybe life itself is more about growing, changing, and learning how to love ourselves, than it is about racing through or avoiding pain to get to a happier place faster. Maybe there is no mythical happy “there”. Maybe I can just try to be the best me possible while I’m “here”, instead.

Why You’re Braver Than You Think

I am continuously in awe of all the brave souls who find their way to this website. The members here have endured atrocities beyond belief, experienced the very worst of human nature. Many of their stories have moved me to tears. Stories of heartlessness, cruelty and devastating betrayal, often at the hands of family members entrusted to care for them – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings. Stories of secondary betrayals as adult survivors speaking their truth to families who, in the majority of cases, refuse to hear, refuse to see, would rather risk losing their child than take responsibility for their crimes.

It is no wonder survivors of child abuse can be fearful of, or find it difficult to trust people. We humans can, and do, truly horrible things to each other. When the world has repeatedly taught you that trusting others leads to pain, why on earth would you want to continue doing so? Why wouldn’t you just give up, hide from others, not try anymore? When connecting with others feels so dangerous it brings on panic attacks if someone gets remotely close to you, where’s the incentive to keep trying?

If you’re a survivor of child abuse, you may not believe that you’re very brave. Should you be called, your answer may involve something along these lines:

“Me? Brave?! I’m not brave. Are you kidding? I’m terrified all the freaking time, of everyone and everything. I don’t want to come out of my house. I don’t trust anyone. I hate dealing with people. I get scared going to the corner shop sometimes, for heaven’s sake, in case someone talks to me. Every now and then I want to shut myself away in my room forever and never come out. I’m the last person on earth someone would ever call brave.”

I’m here to tell you, in the kindest possible way, that you’re wrong.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that, even if you don’t feel it, you are much braver than you give yourself credit for.

For starters, you are alive. As a child you survived the abuse, and you are choosing to remain alive now, even though you may be in a hell of a lot of emotional pain. You don’t know when or how this pain will end, yet you are still choosing to be here. That in itself is pretty huge.

Moreover, you are visiting isurvive and reading this blog post. Which probably means you are searching for answers, comfort, reassurance, hope, and support. The fact you are searching for these things means that part of you refuses to give up hope they are possible to find.

Given your past experiences, your willingness to keep trying is nothing short of incredible.

I sincerely hope you can believe that.

You see, some people may not understand how things like opening up to a new friend could be so scary. They would scoff, or laugh, or say “for heaven’s sake, just do it. It’s not that hard.”

They’re right. It’s not that hard. For them.

That doesn’t mean it’s not that hard for everyone.

People who don’t understand the fear you may feel are likely coming from a different, separate context to you. Perhaps they have not experienced as much trauma, hence their worldview is different; they view the world as a safe place and feel little fear of others. But courage is relative. It is not present where there is no fear, but rather, in those instances where fear must be overcome.

Give yourself more credit. If, for example, you happen to be terrified of people, and you then go and join a book club or meetup group with the specific aim of making new friends; that, in my eyes, is far more of an achievement than someone who has no fear of people doing the same thing.

Why? Because you had to jump over a lot of scary extra hurdles to get to that same point. If that makes sense. Once bitten, twice shy.

The fact that you are here, hoping for something better, wanting to believe in the goodness of people and the possibility of connection; looking for help, reaching out, perhaps sharing your story with others when past experience has taught you that you have no reason to trust anyone or believe things could be different in future…. that right there, my friends, is bravery. That is resilience, hope, and sheer determination. That is your abusers failing to crush your spirit. That is you refusing to let your pain consume you. That is your determination to live a life of your choosing, free of the chains of your past.

And you have every right in this world to do that.

August 25, 2014

Recovery from Abuse: the Search for Information/Validation

Hey there, fellow abuse survivor.

Have you been trawling Google lately, searching for terms like “abuse”, “narcissism”, “co-dependency” and “the rights of children”? Do you have an enormous thirst for knowledge of all things abuse-related? Do you scroll through pages and pages of web data, drinking in information like it’s clean water and you’re lost in the Sahara Desert? But no matter how much you consume, it never seems like enough? You’re up to page 10 of the search results already. Who goes to page 10 of the search results, for anything? Who even goes past page 1, for that matter?!

Who? People who want to do a thorough freaking job, that’s who.

The search for validation can become a compulsion. If web information on abuse were crack, you may now be considered an addict. You can’t help it. No matter how much you take in, it all seems to leak back out the next day. The waves of knowledge consumed are not strong enough to hold up to all those internal voices yelling at you that you’re wrong, that you’re making it all up, that your family was normal, that your parents loved you. Just shut up, they keep saying, stop creating drama and whining about nothing. You’re just as useless and stupid as they always thought.

But here’s the thing:

Maybe you’re not wrong.

Maybe this compulsion you’re developing is coming from somewhere. Perhaps this overwhelming need to understand is your brain trying to process and comprehend patterns in your life that do not otherwise make sense in any logical manner. Maybe this compulsion reflects your suspicion that there is another explanation for why you’ve been feeling so crap than that there’s something wrong with you, as those internal voices would have you believe.

The fact is: whatever part of you is searching hungrily online for information, help and alternative answers deserves support. To continue my starving-in-the-desert analogy (it seems apt so I’m running with it), in the early phases of abuse recovery that part is like a baby plant trying to take root – it needs a whole lot of sunshine and nutrients and probably a little water to help it along. If you are at this website because you were abused as a child, that plant is going to be fighting years of negative conditioning that could easily kill it off before it has a chance to grow. There is a heck of a lot of brainwashing that goes on during abuse. This needs to be inspected, seen for what it is and then dismantled in order to reduce its power.

Abusers always seek to offload responsibility for their actions onto their victims. They may say things like, “look what you made me do. If only you weren’t so stupid/worthless/attractive etc, this would never have happened.” Abusers often promote and encourage the idea that they abuse because of fundamental characteristics inherent within their victims, thus absolving themselves of all accountability. When viewed logically, this idea is blatantly ridiculous. In no way is anyone forced to treat Fred badly because Fred has red hair or sees himself as worthless. But in the absence of alternative support and information, and particularly when told to children by those in positions of authority, such lies may take root causing horrific and sometimes lifelong consequences.

So if you find yourself hungry for information, support, and awareness of abuse and what constitutes abuse; if you are Googling pages and soaking up information like there is no tomorrow: please be very gentle with yourself. At a deep level, you are likely fighting to break patterns that may have taken years to establish. You are analysing, reinterpreting and redefining your life’s events, piece by piece. This is no easy task. Your need for validation, support and accurate information is real, understandable, and deserves to be honoured.

June 1, 2014

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