By Bradley O
This confession is not easy for me, but I share because I care. If you or someone you know has struggled as I have, may you find hope as I did. This is my story.
I have a name, but no identity. Actually, I’ve had many identities. Most aren’t really me. For example: Scapegoat. Lightning rod. Surrogate spouse. A tool or a toy but never a boy. I’ve swum in my own darkness and soared in my own light. Still recovering, I’m discovering bits and pieces as Life patiently reveals who I am and may become.
As far as I know, I’m not ashamed of having been abused and molested. Maybe that’s denial. However, I routinely feel confused, depressed, and alienated by difficulties caused by that abuse. Simple activities other people take for granted can be overwhelming for me. Not always, but unpredictably, and at inconvenient times. I’ve also felt victimized and thwarted by limiting cultural stereotypes that discouraged me from reaching out. I don’t need sympathy or coddling. However, consideration and understanding are greatly appreciated.
My body may be male, but does that make me a man? Prevalent stereotypes saturating my childhood say no. A man is supposed to be impervious to insult or injury. I’m not. So, not a man? I’m not strong or tough or outgoing. So, not a man? I don’t care about sports or hunting or fishing. So, not a man? I don’t think with my “little head.” So, not a man? Though I think some men are handsome, I’m not gay. Though gentle and empathetic and emotionally expressive, I’m not a woman either. I’m something other than. Beyond anonymous, I do not exist. Or maybe I do … scattered shards of shattered glass … just another mess to clean up. But since I’m supposed to be a man, I must fix it all myself! So I believed for anguished decades. Not anymore.
Call it culture or conditioning, I was force-fed lies that couldn’t, didn’t, and will never apply to me. No one asked who I was. They imposed who I was supposed to be, usually with anger, often with violence. Nearing age fifty, I’ve finally begun to realize that I don’t have to comply with the lie. The lie of what constitutes “manly” may not apply to you either.
So what?! Why aspire to an illusion?
Was I molested as a child? Yes. Am I a child molester? NO! Despite statistics, the prevalent stereotype says otherwise. That’s yet another obstacle male survivors must hurdle to start healing. And no, my smile is not a proposition nor do I consider yours an invitation. Of course I want intimacy! But that doesn’t mean sex, at least not at first, usually not ever. Some have called me guarded and distant. But I’m extremely discerning, you see. Experience compels me. Otherwise, I might disappoint you when I least expect it and really don’t want to.
The closer I feel to someone, the more cautions flare with concern that I’m missing potential threat. As such, a fraction of doubt can unexpectedly become instant, absolute dismissal. Those doors, once slammed, are very hard to reopen. The adult me is willing; the child me balks. Somehow, sometimes, we reach a compromise. It’s nice when a woman realizes that I really just want to talk. If it’s OK, after we’re acquainted, maybe we can hug, but that’s not expected. Being friendly and attentive is natural to me. But if someone seems unexpectedly interested, suspicions swirl. If they’re “too” eager to be close, panic ensues. My heart and soul speak freely to long-distance pen pals — beautiful, intelligent, extraordinary women. But I won’t introduce myself to anyone in person.
When it feels purposeful, insightful details of my abuse and recovery process flow freely with articulate candor. But a “normal” conversation seems impossible. So I don’t casually socialize. I’m loyal, caring, respectful, and sincere. Though liked and likable, I’m likely not wanted. The personal ads say: “Goal-oriented. Emotionally stable. Financially secure.” I’m none of these. So how can I ever be loved? I may be the most intelligent, sensitive, articulate “pathetic loser” you’ll ever meet. Knowing this, I’ll give only my best and spare you the rest. Counselors might say I’m clinically depressed. In my mind, I’m just being considerate and honest. I now know that these negative perceptions aren’t really me, but I was taught thus from birth. They’re the “default” definition. Despite my efforts, without help, they’re often invisible.
How did I get this way? I was adopted at birth by a hardworking, non-drinking, non-smoking, pillar of the community, rural family. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Pray for those who hate you and do good to those who spitefully use you. Hell awaits the wicked. Deviation demands discipline. At least mother “loved” me enough to let me choose the switches she used for spanking. Let’s see … what today? Thudding ache or stinging welts? Oh gosh, those knots are going to hurt either way. The hug and caring explanation I needed was out of the question. Somehow, I was supposed to know without being taught. Impossible though those demands were, repeated failures fostered hopelessness.
For years of my childhood, when not working, Dad bellowed a barrage of colorfully denigrating remarks. Otherwise, he didn’t want to be bothered. During his eulogy, I sat poignantly stunned, wishing that I had met the man they so avidly praised. How could he be so kind to so many but never act nice to me?
People refer to the “terrible twos.” I remember. In a rage one day mom violently shook me. Terror froze my soul. I was about to die. Age appropriate it may have been, but I could NEVER EVER say “no” to momma again. A few months later, dad’s job took us to a strange city far from home. A teenage babysitter molested me over several months.I didn’t dare say “no” to her either. Still today, I shower when I must, but refuse to take a bath.
Imagine a sprawling playground harboring vicious dogs. Unpredictable attack is imminent. That was elementary school. A nightmare for a gentle, naive little boy with no defenses, no savvy, no support. Older boys routinely bullied me. But one was the worst. He tormented me from second to fourth grades and molested me in the tall weeds behind the gym. Despite urgent pleas, nothing was done to stop him. I was repeatedly tossed back into the crocodile pit. No wonder I first threatened suicide at age nine. Laughing, mom replied, “Go ahead.”
Ashamed of me though they were, at my urging, my folks took me to a psychiatrist at age fifteen. After telling him my story, confessing drug use and suicidal thoughts, he said, “Sounds like a perfectly normal teenager to me.” That ended that! I was drinking chronically at age 16. Hundreds of self-inflicted cuts, three untreated overdoses, and other failed treatment attempts later, I was ready to give up by age twenty-three. I recall no one asking if I’d been sexually abused. After all, the stereotype says boys don’t get abused. I was a just an ungrateful problem child. Of course, all that “stern discipline” was supposed to make a man out of me. How ironic. How insane! I still cringe to think of it. How does beating anything down encourage growth?
Again contemplating suicide, Life had other plans. A spontaneous spiritual awakening interceded at age 24. A coworker (imagine Yoda as a grandmother) took me under her wing and mentored me. She was the first person that I felt genuinely cared and understood me. Over several years, she helped me develop a spiritual foundation that still supports me today.
A slideshow of molestation memories began emerging in my mid-twenties. No feeling. Like it was somebody else. About five years ago, those memories resurfaced. A local therapist said they were probably real. Dissociation is an amazing mechanism. Apparently invisible emotion isn’t unusual. I couldn’t afford therapy, so didn’t pursue it. It didn’t seem to affect me, so I forgot about it. I had NO IDEA about my degree of denial.
Lonely, depressed and longing for some sense of connection, I attended 12-Step Meetings in January 2012. Not quite a fit, but anguish was growing, and there seemed nowhere else to turn. One day, several men adamantly expressed anger. Rationally, they couldn’t have been angry at me. Yet anxiety clenched my heart, scrambling my thoughts. As I left the meeting, it hit. A concussion of overwhelming shock, horror, terror, helpless, hopeless, and humiliation exploded inside me. The slideshow blazed like a strobe. Now it was VIVID. Now it was REAL. Undeniable. It HAD happened to me. I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t think. Not sure how I drove home, heart palpitating, short of breath, skin crackling with static.
I remained in that state for days: numb, frozen, staring into space, and yet, screaming, screaming, screaming inside. I’ve effectively applied numerous growth and healing tools in the last 24 years. But in that space, everything I knew was GONE! I was an empty shell in an infinite void … utterly helpless, completely alone.
Shame and fear discouraged reaching out. They won’t understand. Besides, I’m a guy. Why would they care? Guys aren’t supposed to need help anyway. In this culture, only women are expected to ask. Publicly, at least, only women are applauded for doing so. Fortunately, I found Abused Boys by Mic Hunter and Beyond Betrayal by Richard B. Gartner, Ph.D. Later, Invisible Heroes by Belleruth Naparstek provided relieving PTSD insights. My quirks finally made sense. At malesurvivor.org and 1in6.org, I learned unexpected facts and fallacies about abuse trauma. The actuality of my difficulties began to sink in: You aren’t defective (shame). You’re broken (traumatized). You didn’t break yourself, and you can’t fix yourself alone. And that’s OK.
RAINN.org directed me to local support. Still, agonizing weeks passed before I reached out. I’d read that face-to-face support is crucial for healing. I didn’t believe it. Still denying, trying to go it alone. But I recalled comforting rapport with recovering survivors. Without explanations, they inherently understood. I longed for some valid sense of connectedness. Compassionate counselors accelerated my recovery. With them, it was OK not to be OK. With them, I didn’t have to sell my soul or my body for a little kindness. When the time was right, EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing) was my rope out of the pit. More like teleportation. As many others have said before me, regardless of gender or orientation, we don’t have to go it alone. Real strength, not bluster, is what survives overwhelming indignities. Real courage reaches out, while false bravado hides in the shadows. It isn’t easy, but the rewards are definitely worth the “risks.” We have options. Recovery is possible.
A survivor of childhood sexual and other abuse, Bradley O shares his experience and insights into the nature of abuse trauma and recovery to promote greater understanding and encourage hope and healing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To ensure reply, please include WNCW in the subject line.