January 6, 2022

Remember, You are Not Alone

This story was written by Ian Leighninger. Thank you Ian, for sharing your powerful story and using your voice to impact the lives of others.  

Some days it does not feel real. I wonder if it really happened, surely I should feel a lot worse than I do right now. How is it that some take their own life after assault, abuse or rape yet here I am working hard to create a bright future? Why do I not fear the touch of others? How am I so happy? Why am I able to share my story so openly? Why can I not just be a little bit more private about my past? I know the openness in which some words come out of my mouth makes many uncomfortable.

On the other hand, some days it feels as if the world is resting on my shoulders.There are days when I open a DM from another person who is walking through sexual trauma, by themselves and I wonder “why am I not doing more to help them?” The vivid memories of my own experience seem to keep popping up throughout my day. The people sitting next to me in my classes or the teammates I share a lane with in the pool seem a bit distant from me, as if I am in my own little world, just trying to make it through. Luckily these days are becoming fewer and further apart. I have been walking down my own path to healing for nearly three years now. The ongoing sexual abuse by a babysitter as a young boy no longer consumes my everyday “thoughts” like it once did. Speaking the things that I once kept within my mind and heart has been one of the greatest tools in my healing journey and I hope that the things that I share with you can be an encouragement to you as you learn to walk through sharing your own story and breaking that silence. 

Growing up was not easy for me but throughout all the struggles the goodness of God prevailed. My dad was out of the picture from the time I was born;alcohol, pills and porn got a hold of his life. Despite all the craziness, my mom continued to lean into a God she could have been mad at. She set an example for my brother and I that would serve as a beacon of hope during my own struggles. 

There were a lot of moments that should have had a worse outcome than they actually did, however, despite serious financial stress and several medical emergencies that my mom had to walk through, God remained faithful and present. There were many moments throughout those seasons where life was so crazy it seemed like a blur, but now when I look back on those times, I acknowledge I was just trying to do anything as a young kid to help keep my mom’s stress down, which required me to grow up fast.

The water acted as my home throughout a lot of the craziness and hardships of my teen years and continues to be a place that helps me heal. Swimming in high school gave me opportunities I would have never had otherwise. It gave me a chance to push myself physically and mentally on a daily basis while being surrounded by some of my best friends. Swimming gave me a place to escape from whatever was going on, and just be. Most days swimming gave me many laughs and happy memories, while other days the pool became a place where my tears were diluted. Swimming would have never been possible without the generosity of so many people’s time and money, so when doors began to open for me to swim in college, I was over the moon. Committing to a school the spring of my junior year of high school was an even more ecstatic feeling, what a relief! Life was finally starting to look good- I had committed to swim in college, finances seemed to be finally settling, and I was almost done with junior year. However, that relief did not last too long because little did I know that one day, while driving to swim practice, a song would play that would unearth the moments and darkest memories that were suppressed deep within my mind. Memories that would come out to haunt me. 

I was not sure how I was going to tell my mom. The past two weeks had consisted of crying in the hallway at school and having to run to the stall to hide my tears. I was drowning in my own thoughts as I attempted to sleep and shut out everyone. Insecurities and fears of what people would think kept me from not sharing earlier. To be completely honest, I was not even sure I could speak out loud about what had happened to me to another person, let alone my mom.. 

Yet there I was, in the little green chair in the corner of my mom’s room gasping for air as I cried while telling her what the baby sitter had done. It must have taken me an hour that day to recall the ways that person had violated me as a young boy. Despite the raw emotion that I presented her with that day, she listened. Not once did my mom try to solve my problems or dig deep into the details, she simply made it clear that she would love me the same regardless of the things that had happened or the emotions that I was dealing with. 

That conversation between my mom and I was three years ago. It was one of the first moments where I began to come to terms with what had happened and where I realized I was going to be okay. Some counseling, some time, some patience and the grace of God has gotten me here today. I have learned a lot as a person, and as a male, wrestling with the reality of my own sexual trauma but I have also learned what it means to heal. 

I have gone through a lot over these past three years. My emotions were real. The fear and shame I felt was real. The tears I cried were real, but can I tell you something? You are not alone. You are stronger than you realize. You will be okay. Your trauma does not define who you are and the pain that you are feeling right now is not permanent. True healing is possible. It might not be an easy journey to get there, but it is possible! Getting to where you want to be is going to be a process you will never regret. Seeking help, in whatever capacity that may be for you, will be a step forward in your life that you will be proud of. It shows so much strength and humility to ask for help, to open up to a counselor or try new different writing exercises. One day you will look back at where you are today and be shocked at who you have become. The process of healing is never linear but it is always worth pushing onward for. 

Practically, I have learned a lot of things that have helped me on my journey to healing.  Journaling, dressing nice, and my weekly forty-five, are all tools that have helped me and are the three things I want to share more with you about. It would be impossible for me to share these without sharing about first finding my identity in Christ. Seeing how the Lord used broken men in the Bible, like David or Moses, allowed me to take a hold of my faith in a personal way and pursue a relationship with Jesus that was not confined to the walls of a church. A personal relationship with Jesus has allowed me to see that even in my brokenness, God has a plan. Many try to use the Bible and Christianity as a shortcut around the hard things in life but Jesus has allowed me to see it as a lifeline through the messiness of sin and pain. Diving into the word, I have come to realize that Jesus often seeks out the outcasts, the broken, and the lost, and uses them for the glory of Him. He rewrites their stories, gives them a new name and new purpose; this is exactly what He did for me. Jesus is the source of my peace and the reason why I am alive today.

Now to dive into some practical tips. First off, journaling is a super broad term that can seem a bit overwhelming at first. I want to encourage you to write when you feel like your mind is racing, it has helped me a ton to manage my anxiety. Studies have shown that the process of turning your thoughts into writing helps to slow down our racing thoughts to produce coherent and meaningful emotions. Write when you feel angry at what you have experienced. Write when you feel alone. Write when you are having a good day, learn what you did that day and try to discover positive patterns as you heal. Another great thing about journaling is that it is just for you. No one has to read it so it does not have to be perfect. If you have to cross out a mess up or you miss punctuation, it does not matter. One of my favorite things to do now that I have been journaling for a bit is to look back at what I wrote a month ago or even last year. So often we beat ourselves up and are so hard on ourselves that sometimes we just need to take a step back to truly reflect on all the ways that our hearts have healed and developed. Journaling also helps us to keep our thoughts captive as the Bible instructs us in 2 Corinthians 10:5. It is important to remember that invasive, self-destructive thoughts do not come from the Lord, therefore they must be interrupted through an action like journaling. Sometimes when journaling and seeing words written out it can become easier to identify the lies that we are proclaiming over ourselves and realign them with the truth, His truth. 

Dressing nicely is probably something you will not hear too often in the world of healing from sexual trauma, but to be honest, one of the things that I struggled with was feeling “gross” and guilty. At times I hated my own skin but finding my style in clothing has helped me reclaim my creative spirit and confidence. As a guy, some try to say that caring about style is more feminine but it has just been a fun way for me to see myself more positively and fashion also has given me thrifting clothes as a hobby. 

Last but not least, is a tactic called “the weekly forty-five,” This is a very simple technique where I simply start my week off with forty-five minutes of being outside, no phone. Sometimes I go fishing or get my lunch to-go and enjoy a nice picnic. It really does not matter what you do as long as it brings you joy. Find something that gives you rest and find time for it every single week because during the healing process it is so important to find that sense of rest because your mind and thoughts can be everywhere, so simply taking this time to step back and be still is vital. It is important during the healing process to learn that while life is crazy busy and hectic, the state of your mind and heart determine how well you will be able to handle all the stress of daily life, therefore, little things that help allow you to slow down and take care of your heart and mind matter. I have learned that there are times when it is necessary to push through a bad day for the sake of productivity and other days when you must be okay with setting things aside and doing something for you, ideally something that will help shift the trajectory of your mind. Like I said, healing isn’t linear so have grace towards yourself through the process and understand bad days don’t mean your digressing. It’s okay to have days where you feel emotional and unproductive- but what does matter is what you do after, will you choose to dwell or surrender it to the one who holds it all. It takes practice and discipline but from my own experience these three habits have worked really well together.

This is “Speak Your Silence” after all, my story would be incomplete if I did not stress the importance of sharing your experience with others. You do not owe it to anyone to share your darkest moments and remember that everyone does not need to know everything. However, there may be a time when a friend goes through something similar and you will be able to relate to them in a way that they really need in their moment of sexual trauma. Sharing your story may not necessarily get easier but seeing first hand how your story helps someone else through moments they feel overwhelmed and broken by is really life changing. Your story has so much value. Oftentimes, when we bring our story to light that is when real breakthrough comes because it can no longer thrive in darkness. The enemy loves to make us feel alone and isolated so don’t let the enemy win- we know when two or more gather in His name He is present, so when we bring our story to light- the enemy no longer has that stronghold.

If there are any guys who have experienced sexual trauma and are reading this right now I want to encourage you. I know that society seems to forget about us sometimes. The numbers say that one in six men deal with the effects sexual abuse or assault and it is believed that it is likely much higher due to the societal norms that often silence many men from speaking. If you feel alone in a world where it seems like only women talk about this trauma, know that I am here. I am talking about my trauma because I do not want another guy, or girl for that matter, to feel as if they somehow messed up because they have been abused or assaulted. I know what it’s like to sit outside a counseling office in tears, so scared to go in. I know what it is like to wonder if people actually believe me. I know what it is like to be in a world where it is expected that men appear strong all of the time, where emotional guys are often seen as weak men. I get it. You are not any less of a man because of what you have been through. A lot more men struggle with sexual trauma than you realize. 

Walking through sexual abuse or assault is a challenge, I would be lying if I said it is easy but it has been a journey that I am proud of. I am proud of the process and what I have come from. I am blown away by the goodness of God and His mercy. I am excited for the ways you will grow in your own life. Remember to keep your head up and if you cannot fight for yourself then fight to be the person you wish you had in your life when you were at your lowest. There is someone out there whose life will be changed by your story. Speak Your Silence.