"I will accept myself unconditionally."

written by Daniel Straw

I raised my right wrist with the “survivor” temporary tattoo proudly displayed. I had just completed a half marathon on behalf of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that provides education, support, and advocacy for abuse survivors and their allies. In the process of training for the race, I raised over $1,000.00, but more importantly, I shared my experiences on social media and thereby dispelled much of the shame that I was carrying around with me. By sharing one of my worst secrets, it lost its power over me.

My parents divorced when I was five years old. My mother got custody of me and my two younger siblings. However, since my mother had a high school education and my dad was a flake, life was challenging to say the least. From the time I was five until my mother remarried when I was about 10, we moved frequently, staying with friends or family mostly. The first time I was sexually abused was when I was about six years old. A male babysitter coerced me, my two younger siblings, and two other younger children in the household to perform sexual acts on him and each other. As far I as I can remember, this was a one-time thing, but I’m pretty sure he was never caught. Fast forward nine years. By the time I was 15, my mother had been remarried for five years, but I had little in common with my stepfather. He isn’t a bad guy, but he was a jock in high school and I am much more introverted and bookish. In addition, my siblings were much better at being squeaky wheels while I just flew under the radar most of the time. I was a good student, active in church, and generally the good kid. If I did get busted for something, which wasn’t often, I usually didn’t get in too much trouble.

It wasn’t until years after the abuse ended that I realized how vulnerable I was to being exploited. I had been previously abused, there was no meaningful male figure in my life, and I was unable to compete for attention with my siblings. I learned early on that my role in the family was to make everything as easy as possible since everything was so chaotic. I needed to do my best to manage things on my own because the adults in my life only had so much energy to go around. Add in a healthy dose of hormones, and you have a recipe for disaster.

My step-grandfather first molested me the summer before my sophomore year in high school. At the time I found it exciting. Someone was paying attention to me! Someone thought I was attractive! So what if he was a dirty old man, I would take what I could get. I think one of the biggest roadblocks to my recovery was processing just what my role in perpetrating the abuse was. Of course, I know now that I was in no way at fault for what happened. I was a child, no matter how smart or mature I thought I was. The abuse continued for three and a half years. He lived nearby, so we had frequent encounters over that time and even took a few vacations alone. It wasn’t long after the first time that I didn’t want it anymore. But who could I tell? If I told someone, I would be at the center of a shit storm that could wreck the family and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I decided to stick it out until I went away to college. Then I could run away, it would be over, and I wouldn’t have to tell anyone.

Off to college I went, but when I came back for Christmas break, my step-grandfather made it adequately clear that he didn’t think it was over. I did the only think I could think to do. I left a note for my mom, which she wouldn’t find until I was on a plane back to school. She found it just as I planned, and most of the fallout occurred while I was at school. The police called me, but I was in no shape to deal, so I never called them back. Despite all this going on, I did not tell my friends at school what had happened. At the time, I was living in an all guys dorm, which was great in some ways. It was like having a bunch of new brothers. But, I didn’t think they would understand or like me if I told them about the abuse. I mean, what kind of guy lets himself get molested? And by an old man? These things just don’t happen to real men, or so I thought then. So I had friends, but I had little in the way of moral support at school.

Of course, when I came home for the summer, I had to endure endless rounds of the “why couldn’t you tell me” conversation. In some ways, these conversations were more painful than the abuse. According to my mom, I “didn’t show any signs” that anything was going on. I realize now that she was trying to absolve herself of her guilty feelings. At the time we had this conversation, I believed her. I figured, “Well, yeah. I’m so smart and sneaky, there was no way she could have figured it out.” It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I truly understood out how oblivious she was. In hindsight, I think her comment hurt me so badly because it felt like victim blaming. It was my fault she didn’t figure out that I was being abused because I wasn’t showing any signs. As if somehow, even if I couldn’t tell her, I should have been able to send out signs for her to pick up on. Bullshit. The signs were there and she was too wrapped up in other stuff to notice. After therapy and reflection, I realized there were signs that a parent should have noticed. I had been in honors classes since junior high, but the year the abuse started, I bombed out of honors English and did poorly in Geometry. I wore jeans no matter how hot the day was and kept myself covered up. I can’t tell you how many times I got busted for having porn in the house. I drank heavily and came home obviously smashed a few times. The drinking was chalked up to typical high school shenanigans. However, given the extensive history of alcoholism in my family, this probably should have raised some warning flags.

For you other survivors out there, if someone tells you that you weren’t showing any signs or otherwise tries to excuse themselves for not figuring things out, don’t buy it. For you others, if someone discloses to you, for heaven’s sake, don’t ask them why they couldn’t tell you. They are talking to you now, listen to them. Don’t redirect the conversation back to yourself and your issues.

Recovery has been a slow and painful process. I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and alcoholism, just to name a few challenges. As a guy, I’ve had to deal with my sexual identity and masculinity. In many ways, I don’t identify with stereotypical “male” behaviors and thoughts. Nevertheless, it is impossible to totally ignore how American society traditionally defines manhood. Men should be strong, decisive, and forceful. A real man would never let himself be molested by another man, and he would be lucky to be molested by an older woman. Of course, this is bogus. One of the benefits of working through recovery is that I’m feeling more comfortable being me. I’ve been in therapy for years, but it wasn’t until I got a therapist that knew what he was doing that I made any real progress. After a year of treatment with him, he helped me realize that my drinking was interfering with my recovery. I could only go so far if I was drinking. So, I got sober on February 2, 2016.

I realized that part of my recovery would require me to share my experiences and try and dispel some of the secrecy around the abuse. This was a scary thing for me. I had told very few people about the abuse. I mean, it’s not like it comes up in casual conversation with coworkers or friends. I was also afraid that some members of my family would not appreciate me airing the family’s dirty laundry all over the place. But ultimately, this experience is mine. I own it. I have the right to tell who I want and I have the right to tell it however I want to. Fundraising for the Joyful Heart Foundation was the perfect opportunity. Through my fundraising, I shared my story with as many people as possible, and I was blown away with the response. I received nothing but positive feedback and comments. I didn’t hear much from my family, but that’s okay. My self-worth and esteem no longer rely on things outside of me. It sounds dorky, but for the first six months of my sobriety every day I looked in the mirror and said “I love myself. I will accept myself unconditionally.” Today, I believe that. When I think about that little boy that was hurt, the man I am today imagines holding him close and safe. I tell him he is okay now. I understand what hurt and scared him, but that I am here to protect him.

As I held up my wrist for the photo, the next runner in line said to me “You made it!” I still get choked up thinking about it. More than anything up to that point, for some reason, those words brought it home for me. I made it.