I hurt for a long time because of childhood sexual abuse. Now I want to provide a safe place for hurting men to connect with other survivors of sexual abuse. Talk to us. You don't have to use your real name to share your experiences or ask questions.

You’re Responsible

In an adult Sunday school, I’ve been teaching a series on our bodies are God’s holy temples. (The Bible calls them that.) What surprised me was most class members remained passive about their physical health.

If you have a headache, take an aspirin. Aleve keeps it away for 12 hours. Restless leg syndrome? There’s a pill for that. Heartburn after eating spicy food? TV screens show several over-the-counter liquids and pills to remove the discomfort.

I noticed the TV ads for prescription medications. Many of them end with these words, “Ask your doctor for . . .”

I’m not against medicine or doctors. But I’m against being passive about our physical health.

I am responsible for my health. I have the right—the duty—the responsibility to take care of myself. Too often the sick passively put themselves into the hands of a professional and look for pills or surgery to take away their symptoms.

Instead of immediately seeking a professional, why not start by asking yourself: What is going on inside me that makes me ill? For example, instead of taking Tums or Nexium for acid indigestion, why not avoid spicy foods? It’s often that simple.

My reason for stressing responsibility is simple. If we truly want healing and to rise above our abuse, we have to work hard at it. Too many men give up and medicate themselves with frenzied activities or anti-depressants, or seek the therapist who can set them free.

As an illustration, I’m a professional writer and have taught in more than 200 writers conferences. One of the benefits to conferees is that they are able to set up appointments to talk with the professionals on staff.

Rarely have I gone to a conference without at least one writer showing me a manuscript that’s been rejected countless times. Instead of trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong, they keep seeking. One woman said, “I know that one day I’ll find exactly the right editor, and I’ll sell this book.”

It works like that with healing from our traumatic childhoods. I am responsible.

I am responsible for my own healing from abuse.

Being Ignored

As a child I was beaten by my father, sexually assaulted by a female relative, and verbally abused by both parents. The worst part of my childhood, or so it seems to me now, was being ignored.

Mel was two years younger and died from alcohol abuse at age 48, but he was clearly my parents’ favorite child and we other 6 siblings knew and accepted it. Mel did no wrong. Ever. When he got into trouble—with regularity—they didn’t punish or rebuke him.

The result for me was being ignored. I’ve tried to think of one rule my parents gave me such as when to go to bed, get up in the morning, what subjects to take in school, or restrictions about behavior or friends. None. I learned to make all those decisions on my own. As a boy I decided to be in bed at night by 9:00 and Mel sometimes stayed up until midnight (and was regularly “too sick” to go to school the next day).

The time I contemplated suicide (mentioned in my previous blog), I did think about being missed. I distinctly recall thinking, my mother would cry a little, but within days everyone would have forgotten me. I truly believed that.

Perhaps because I was the good boy—the one who didn’t get into trouble, who did well in school, and didn’t demand attention—it was easy to ignore me.

I didn’t ask for attention, probably because I didn’t think it would do any good. That reality helps me understand why I was such a prime target for a pedophile. Whenever anyone showed me attention or interest, they had me. I was a ready-to-be-victimized child.

That was a long time ago, but those memories aren’t gone. I don’t need to be the center of attention; but I do need to be cared about and loved.

Like any normal person.

I’m grateful for those special people in my life who expressed genuine love and affection for me. They (with God’s help) enabled me to be who I am today.

Defining Abuse (Part 2 of 2)

“A strong component of childhood sexual molestation becomes a systematic tearing down of boys and interferes with their development.” I don’t know where I read those words, but I copied them a few years ago. Another statement reads, “Abuse assaults the boy’s self-understanding and makes him feel unworthy of love and affection.”

Those two quotations nicely expressed my self-concept. I felt unworthy of love and affection. That’s such a terrible burden to impose on a young boy who’s trying to navigate the murky rivers of life.

Unworthy. I don’t know that I ever used that particular word, but that sums up my childhood. Unworthy of love. Unworthy of being accepted. Because I had no one to whom I could confide, it meant I had to face those struggles on my own. No wonder I always felt different and unlike other boys.

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One thing we need to face is that we don’t “just get healed” or grow up healthy. It’s hard work. We survivors start at a distinct disadvantage unless we have a support system. We need other people and perhaps we know it—we just don’t know how to ask for or receive their help.

Looking back, I’m sure there were adults with whom I might have entrusted my secrets, but I didn’t know how to talk about my feeling different. Most of all, however, I honestly didn’t think anyone cared. That’s the damaged self-image.

When I was 12 or 13, my life hit such a low point I decided to commit suicide by jabbing myself repeatedly in the stomach with a knife. (I’d seen it done that way in a film). At the last minute, however, I couldn’t do it. I cursed myself for being a coward.

When our self-esteem is so skewed and twisted, we blame ourselves for everything, even when we’re unable to complete the most self-destructive urges.

Looking back, I can’t pick an Aha! moment when my life changed. For me, it was a gradual movement. I credit most of that growth to the love and patience of my wife, Shirley, who didn’t give up on me.

So it comes down to this. If you want healing from your childhood abuse, face one harsh reality: You can’t do it yourself. You can’t heal without the loving, accepting help of others.

Defining Abuse (Part 1 of 2)

It’s hard to give a specific definition to abuse because it shows itself in a myriad of ways. Even if it’s “only” sexual abuse, it’s also emotional abuse.

It took me a long time to grasp that obvious statement. When Mr. Lee, the old man, sexually seduced me, in my childish way I thought he loved me. He said he did. He told me often enough how sweet and special I was.

Mr. Lee also assaulted my older, slightly retarded sister, and she told. When I came home later that day, I learned that Dad had beaten the man up and tossed his belongings out of the house.

I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t know whom to tell. About two weeks later I was walking along Sixth Street (we lived on Second). I saw Mr. Lee sitting on a large porch with several older men. I waved and yelled at him.

He didn’t respond. I started up the walk to the house and he got up and hurried inside. I stood on the sidewalk confused and deeply hurt, feeling he had rejected me. And I thought he loved me.

That’s an example of the emotional toll of sexual abuse: I felt rejected, unloved, and unwanted. And it hurt more than the lack of affection from my own family. Mr. Lee had given me hope, and made me feel good. Special. That day, as he hurried out of my sight, I felt the emotional effect of his lies, deception, and pretense.

The physical act from our perpetrators is only the beginning. The scars are there for the rest of our lives.

An Act of Power?

When I read anything about rape these days, it all seems to say, “Rape is an act of power. Dominion over another.” Maybe that’s right, but I don’t agree that we boys were chosen so that a bigger person could have control over us.

For me, the perpetrators were blinded by their own needs. I call it an addiction, even though many would disagree. I see our exploitation as a result of a compulsive, overpowering urge.

A few perpetrators have said, “I couldn’t help it. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway.” That sounds like an addiction to me.

For me, such admissions don’t fit with domination or control. It says to me that the victimizers were their own victims. Out of their own overwhelming lustful need, they seduced us boys.

I’m not excusing them; I’m trying to understand why they do such evil things. For me, that’s the only satisfactory solution. When they’re engaged in the sexual act, it has one purpose: to provide them with sexual gratification. And it works. They are satisfied—for the moment. And then the urges and the compulsion returned—following the pattern of an addiction.

I understand compulsion because I was a smoker for six years. Once I got hooked, I couldn’t stop. At times I was tormented and had to force myself not to think about cigarettes. Once I had that white stick in my mouth I was satisfied, although I detested the fact that I was addicted and realized that tobacco controlled my life patterns until I broke free.

During the past two decades, I’ve spoken with perhaps a dozen former perpetrators. None of them have ever spoken about power unless it was to say they felt powerless to stop.

The practical side of this is that it enables me to feel compassion for those who victimize. I remind myself that they didn’t seduce us to rack up trophies of conquest.

“I hated myself,” one former teacher told me. “I couldn’t stop even though I knew it was wrong—and I didn’t quit until a parent reported me.” He spent two years in prison and is today registered as a sexual offender.

Power? Really?

A Manly Self-image

What is a real man?

I assume every male survivor asks this question in some form. The answer comes largely from our personal enculturation. We Americans have applauded the strong, silent image of John Wayne, or the suave James Bond. These days theaters are filled with the exploits of those super-sized heroes from Marvel Comics.

All of us were exposed to stereotyped patterns of male images. Too often we assumed that true men were self-sufficient, the taciturn, no-nonsense individual who needed nothing. And then we can cry—but only at funerals of a parent or a spouse.

Despite all our images of the strong, resourceful male, this morning I thought about biblical heroes. Jesus’ first disciples heard him say, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God” (John 14:1). During that same time, he said he was leaving them his peace, “So don’t be troubled or afraid” (verse 27).

When Judas came with soldiers and betrayed Jesus, do you know what the 11 remaining disciples did? They ran away in fear of their lives. If you read the stories of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament, they were both fearful men and God had to keep telling them he was with them.

And yet those men are our heroes—a serious disconnect from the images around us.

Here’s a little of what I wish my dad or a caring adult male would have said to me: “It’s all right to feel your emotions. You don’t have to be strong all the time. To fear, question, and doubt are human feelings that only real men know how to express.”

I didn’t hear those words and I doubt that most male survivors did, but the message is still true.

I claim my right to feel.
I claim my right not to be ashamed of any of my emotions.

It Was a Crime

When we were exploited as children, we were the victims of a crime. Our perpetrators broke the law. Most of us understand that when we read about people like Jerry Sandusky and pedophile priests. And yet, most of us rarely think that way when we look at our own lives.

They robbed us of childhood. They stole a precious part of our lives.

To admit that reality can be a source of freedom. It’s like saying, “You victimized me and left me this way.” (That doesn’t mean we must stay the victim, but that’s where many of us need to start the journey.)

A reader of this blog, Roger Rowe, wrote to me privately, admitting that wasn’t his real name, which is all right. Here is a slightly edited version of what he wrote:
I underwent therapy and couldn’t seem to make any progress. I felt guilty and filled with self-condemnation. After about the 10th session, my therapist said, “The TV news reported a home invasion and the intruder shot and killed five couples. If they hadn’t lived in that house, they would be alive today.” 
“That’s crazy,” I said. “They did nothing to—”
“So how does it feel to exonerate your abuser? You’ve taken the blame on yourself.”
That was the turning point for me. I was blaming the victim (myself) for what was done to me.

Are you still blaming the victim?