This guest blog post was written by our friend, Steven. His story is powerful and brave, and we are so honored that he is choosing to be a voice for others. Thank you, Steven, for speaking your silence.
Was I eight or nine? Childhood memory is a faulty mechanism. What is unforgettable is that during my childhood I was raped on at least two distinct occasions. Both rapes were by the same young adult roughly ten years older. One occurrence was in his bedroom. The other incident was in a church bathroom. Both events involved significant time and interaction. From what I remember, those two assaults were within weeks or months of each other. That family moved away before another opportunity was presented.
Those events have been stuck in my mind on an endless loop ever since. They were not immediately traumatic. He was not violent. And the episodes were confusing for me. I admired him. I loved his family. But the shame and guilt I secreted away for the remainder of my childhood and adolescence scarred me deeply.
Conservative evangelicalism was my cultural milieu. Also known as fundamentalism, the religion is not known for being sex-positive. I did not dare tell anyone that I had participated in a sexual act. Far lesser sins were met with strict corporal punishment. I told no one.
My thinking was skewed and irrational. What else would you expect from a child?
Three discernible spirals have been pivotal to my journey. My first spiral was tied to puberty. I remember the night and the place where I was triggered into re-living my rapes. That period of darkness lasted for a while as I transitioned into my sexual identity. Suicidal thoughts and hopelessness were temporarily banished by a spiritual renewal. I thought I was at least okay with God. Still I remained silent.
Cycle two happened during my junior year of college as I contemplated engagement to my long time friend, girlfriend and eventual wife. Crippling guilt over my sexual experience versus her naivete caused me great anxiety. After several weeks of agonizing, I finally confessed my secret. She encouraged me to tell my parents and others. I started opening up to a few people. Fear of being stigmatized slowly gave way to relief as I was met with sympathy. After a brief flurry of activity, however, I was left alone. Everyone returned to their lives, while mine was mostly unchanged. Processing did not occur. Healing was not nurtured. The secret was buried again.
Marriage triggered me in ways I never imagined. Then my career path took me back to my old church as the lead pastor. I used the same restroom where one of the rapes took place. The tile was unchanged, the paint still the same. Memories haunted me. Busy with ministry, I stepped into the pain of others, lived in the shadow of death and pushed myself to the breaking point.
Then I broke – the third spiral. I had an affair. I quit my church. I left my marriage. I lost everything. My whole life caved in, and the PTSD hit with full, brutal force. Night terrors, tremors, short term memory loss, and emotional outbursts had everyone confused. I was deeply emotional and could not stop crying for months. My wife took our kids and moved out of state. I eventually followed. Breaking the bonds of my unhealthy marriage and the ties to my conservative evangelicalism took time. I had to reset everything.
How long has that journey taken? I am eight years in and finally starting to find solid ground on a consistent basis. Every facet of life has been dramatically affected: social, spiritual, emotional, familial, financial, sexual, psychological, even physical.
In 2014, a series of unexpected events introduced me to Matt and Speak Your Silence. I took a risk with my career moving from Columbus, Ohio to Boise. Working with a small team, I helped to launch a marketing company. On my way, I connected with a woman on a dating app. We met the second night I was in town. Immediately, we became friends. Through my relationship with Shannon, I met Matt and was introduced to SYS. Shannon arranged a breakfast meeting. Matt and I shared our stories. I appreciated his openness. My own transparency was slowly being cultivated.
I greatly admire Matt and the work of SYS. My vision is to write a book and to speak publicly in order to educate loved ones on how to help their suffering family members and friends.
Here are a few takeaways that have been helpful to me, and I wish I had known when I opened up twenty-two years ago.
Find your safe space. Safe space is the opportunity to speak without editing yourself. You may experience that openness with a therapist, a friend, a mentor or a family member. Safe spaces can be found in some churches, educational institutions or healthcare organizations. As quickly as possible, identify the people whom you can trust, the ones who will listen without judgment and love without condition. Alone, you will probably fail to make much progress. With support, you may find your life completely renewed and transformed. Fellow survivors may be particularly helpful. So connect with support groups whether online or in-person. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment. While transparency and connection hold risk, the rewards are far greater. When I finally started sharing my story more openly (2013 and on), I began to receive the support and love I so desperately needed. I was hurt at times and still am, but I have zero regrets. I remember the darkness, and I will risk sunburn for the sunlight.
Seek professional help. Do not be dissuaded by financial concerns. If you find the right therapist, you can figure out how to cover the expense. Perhaps an organization like SYS will be able to help. Maybe you will only attend therapy occasionally. Something is better than nothing. Ask for help. Be willing to do your part. Something will come together. I had an amazing counselor in Boise. Again, Shannon was instrumental in making the introduction. Paula was patient, gracious and wise. She accepted whatever I could give and met with me at no cost for a couple of months at her insistence. I am forever grateful to Paula and Shannon.
Make a playlist. Music is a powerfully therapeutic tool. Choose the songs that make you feel your best. While there is an appropriate time to allow music to express your negative emotions, beware lingering in the sadness too long. Utilize the sounds that will take you to happiness as well, the melodies that will soothe your spirit and the beats that will energize your body.
Become intentional. I spent a lot of time wandering around waiting for healing. This is why help is so important. Without direction and intention, you may get stuck. The progress I have made in the past few months has come from a renewed intentionality assisted by a course on leadership and emotional intelligence. That course also allowed me to connect with friends who are keeping me accountable. Declare your intentions to the people who will lovingly remind you to keep moving forward.
Persist. With all of the challenges of life, I have not given up on healing. At times, I have slipped into survival mode. And each time, symptoms have reminded me that I cannot stop. I must not assume that latent symptoms equal healthiness. Instead, I must keep working on myself.
This brief account, these few words, cannot express the breadth of my experience or the depth of my empathy for you. All of these bullet points deserve thoughtful development and discussion along with other crucially helpful suggestions. Regardless, at whatever stage of the journey you find yourself, a way forward exists. You deserve to be heard. Your story matters. Your healing is essential. Do not give up on yourself. The best is yet to come.