extra:ordinary – Able to Breathe

(Our first submission for the extra:ordinary project (community stories of recovery, resistance and resilience) is from Neil in Canada — so grateful for his willingness to share this story about grace and the ways we keep ourselves alive. Thank you, Neil, for these good words.)

Able to Breathe

For me one of the hardest things was the aftermath. I was sexually touched as a five year old, sexually photographed at six. From seven to twelve I was mercilessly terrorized by a group of school yard bullies. All of these people were known to me. Most lingered in my life for a long while.

One of the strategies I developed to cope with these was the ‘face’ I offered the world: hard working, responsible, never complains, laid back. It got me through to some extent, allowed me to make it to the point where I could look back and start to embrace the hurt and fear and rage and hate. It kept me alive long enough that I could finally heal.

But oh what a cost.

There are few air holes in a mask such as this, not much that lets light in to touch the skin. It’s lonely and distant and, after a while, I came to believe this was how I had to be in order to be loved, valued, accepted. So often, though the most obvious abuse was decades behind me, I felt like I was dying. There were even times when I believed myself already dead.

But I’m not dead – and there’s resilience for you. Here I am, up way too late, letting a reply to Jen’s stunning offer unfold. Here I am writing a bit about what I’ve been through and where I am now. How did this happen? How did I come to a place – after years and years of silence – where I could do this? A lot of hard work and no small amount of grace.

Grace. Let me tell you about grace as I have known it.

Another coping strategy for me has been sex addiction. This has taken me into Twelve Step rooms, where I have sat for many hours listening to “Hi my name is _____ and I’m a sex addict.”

Only recently did I begin to speak in these places of the abuse I endured as a child. One day, after sharing my experience being photographed, another member approached in tears. He had collected such images, it seems, and done jail time for this offense. He now wanted to apologize for what I had gone through. “And if there is ever anything I can do,” he then offered.

It took me months to take up this offer. I eventually called, though, and asked if we could talk. And talk we have: one afternoon a week for the last six months. Both of us sometimes look at one another and wonder what the heck the two of us are doing speaking like this. Both of us are oftimes so exhausted by our interactions that we turn off our alarms the following morning, Both of us have been deeply affected by this experience. Healed in way we could not have imagined.

I have, in many ways, had a tough life. Things have happened to me that no person should have to endure. Sometimes I feel I will never find my way wholly free from this history. Other times, I can feel the shackles loosening bit by bit, day by day. That there is still a life force in me that desperately wants to dance, this does at times shock me. That I can experience the grace of an usual friendship with another who knows very well what I have gone through – well, this makes me thankful and gives me hope.

None of this shows up in any media I am aware of. Yet it is headline news to me. When I find myself able to say a bit more about my past, be a bit more in my present, open a bit wider to those around me – trust! – these unreported occurrences are life changers for me. When I find myself able to breathe or to feel the gentle caress of sunlight on one cheek, these are life givers. Life givers.

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If you want to contribute to the extra:ordinary project, check out the call for stories here.

3 responses to “extra:ordinary – Able to Breathe

  1. neil, wow; thank you for your willingness to share. especially to remind us that some past perpetrators are willing to deal with their histories of addiction and participation in oppressive behaviors, and that survivors can try opening to new relationships with them. if we’re all willing to do hard work and have hope, grace can happen. and you’re a great writer. thank you for sharing in group, and with whatever communities you dare to consider yourself part of. with love, seeley

  2. What a profound story! Thank you so much for sharing it. I have been through similar terribly dark times where I felt like I was dying, where I wanted nothing more than to die. But, like you, there was a life force deep inside me that shone through such pain. Like you, this life force longs to dance. And it is starting to… now that I have woken up and begun to surrender to the rivers of love that flow inside me.
    Wishing you the deepest healing,
    Jennie

  3. Neil….so beautiful and hopeful in the face of such deep pain and experience. Thank you for sharing your writing and life.