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.

Why Am I so Hard on Myself? (Part 2 of 2)

Back in the early 1980s, I saw a film called Ordinary People, for which Timothy Hutton won an Academy Award as the younger son, Conrad. Near the end of the film, Conrad faces his father, played by Donald Sutherland, and confesses that his brother, Buck, who died in an accident, got all the attention.

The father says Buck was irresponsible and took risks, and then goes on to say to Conrad, "I never worried about you. You were always so hard on yourself."

Recently I saw the film (probably for the fourth time) and I cried because I understood Conrad. In one sense I was Conrad—and so are many other survivors. While some give in and mess up their lives with bad decisions, we go the other way. Sometimes we're called uptight; other times we’re told things like "You really have your stuff together" (even though we don't).

I used to think, If only they knew. But instead, I smiled and thanked them.

A long time has passed with many struggles and failures since I started down the healing path. I've finally realized how hard I've been on myself. Too self-demanding, insisting on getting everything done right. Too obsessed with achieving results and rebuking myself for the smallest failure. Others could fail and I made allowances for them, but I held myself to a higher (impossible) standard.

Over the years, I've learned to feel more compassionate toward Cec. Now I remind him: This is who you are. You don’t need to prove anything to yourself. Now is your time to enjoy being who you are.

I used to be too demanding on myself;
now I enjoy being who I am.

Why Am I So Hard on Myself? (Part 1 of 2)

My friends used to insist that I was too tough on myself. I smiled and said something innocuous like, "Maybe you're right." I didn't believe them, but that was my way to avoid any discussion.

Why couldn't they grasp that I knew my responsibilities and my standards? If I didn't live up to them, why shouldn't I castigate myself? I knew the right thing to do and I didn't do it.

Like many men who were molested in childhood, I grew up with unrealistic expectations of myself. (I didn't realize they were unrealistic.) I needed to prove to myself that I was a moral and caring person. Too often, after I failed to live up to my exacting ethical code, I sank into a pitiful state, rebuking myself for failing. I had no idea how to show myself mercy—let alone think I deserved it.

As I look back, I'm aware that because of my wife and my best friend, slowly—very slowly—I was able to believe that I was worthwhile and didn't have to be perfect. My friend Jeff Adams wrote a maxim that helped me: "Demand perfection; accept excellence."

I'm not perfect,
but I like who I am, and that's enough.

Looking Backward

When I was living in Africa, early one morning I watched an African with his ox pulling a plow through his field. The lines were straight, and for the twenty minutes or so I stared at him his gaze never focused anywhere but straight ahead.

I thought of that after I read an inspirational message that urged us not to look backward. "Looking backward means going backward," the person implied.

Sounds like good advice in farming, but I'm not sure it's helpful with wounded people like us. We need to look backward. That's where our problems began. Unless we go back to the source, we stay so busy moving forward—but our childhood injuries stay unhealed and keep pace with us.

Going back to that damaged childhood isn't easy. And it takes courage—a lot of courage—to re-experience those wounds. But as one authority said, "The only way out is through. He meant that if we want release—true healing—we have to push ourselves to revisit that pain. The big difference is that we can accept our pain and let it help us move forward as mature adults.

We can learn to say things to ourselves like this:

* I didn't ask for that. I didn't want it.

* I was a kid with no way to defend myself.

* That bigger person overpowered me and stole my innocence.

* I felt unloved and unwanted and someone took advantage of me.

Those statements aren't cure-alls, but they can help us feel tenderness toward that isolated child. Here's a statement I've said to myself many times when I've revisited my childhood: "I did the best I could."

For me, that statement means that I took care of myself through innate childhood wisdom and survived. No self-blame or recriminations. Being a six-year-old kid with no one to help him, I remind myself that I handled myself the best I could.

Now I can walk—and run—along the healing path.

Instead of condemning my childhood, 
I say, "I did the best I could."

Loneliness

A frequent contributor, Mark, sent me an email in which he spoke about his intense loneliness, which I've paraphrased.

"I go to bed at night feeling a void that's been there since I was a child—a void that causes me either to fight illicit thoughts or give in to them. It's hard to believe that God isn't angry with me for the mess that's still a part of my heart, mind, and soul."

Loneliness is common to us survivors—and perhaps to most people. We yearn for those who can truly see into our hearts, know us, and still love us.

Maybe we need to reach out to others more readily, but that's not easy. We were the kids who trusted the wrong people. The theft of our childhood made us feel different, isolated, and unwanted. We didn't know whom to trust and the more we held back, the deeper our estrangement.

§

Loneliness has often intruded in my life, but most acutely since my wife died in the spring of 2013. On January 1 of 2015, the loneliness became so acute I went for a four-mile walk and kept praying, "God, help me embrace my loneliness. It's part of who I am. I'm tired of trying to run from feelings of isolation."

Nothing happened that day, but within a week I realized the loneliness was present, but I didn't fight it. That may not sound like much to others, but for me, it made feeling alone bearable.

I've accepted my loneliness. I don't know the cure for it and maybe it will always be there. Maybe that's simply part of what we call the human condition. But I also remind myself those are emotions. And my emotions fluctuate constantly. I know I'm loved by God, by others, and have finally learned to love myself.

When I feel lonely and isolated
I remind myself, "Those are my emotions. They aren't reality."

Healing and EMDR

A survivor named Phil gave me permission to post his email to me. In it he refers to EMDR. I heard about this only two years ago when I worked with Katariina Rosenblatt, a survivor of sex trafficking, for the book Stolen: The True Story of a Sex Trafficking Survivor. She found immense help in using EMDR.

My understanding is that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) emphasizes opening up and healing the disturbing memories of PTSD. The theory is that those traumatic memories have (obviously) not been processed and are stored in the brain.

If you have used EMDR treatment, I'd like to hear your response to the treatment. At best, it's called a "powerful new process" and at worst, it's said to work as well as cognitive therapy. I've read nothing that says it's been harmful. 


Cec
* * * * *

I was referred to your blog by another survivor. I have been struggling with recovering my own childhood for 10+ years. I discovered after EMDR that abuse had happened, but to this day, 10 years later I have been unable to recover the memories.

People ask me "why would you want to even have those horrific memories?" I tell them that along with those memories, I shut out a significant part of my self (the child inside me that has not only fear and anger but also compassion, empathy, and longing to connect in a deep, meaningful way with other people).

I have twice built my life to a point of apparent success (job, wife, house, circle of friends) and twice had it crumble to the ground. I both pick the wrong people to be close to but also run when things get too close. I am now divorced with two wonderful teenage kids (one in junior college and one in high school). I put everything I have into being the best dad I can to them. Yet I know I am not complete and it is not possible right now for me to bring my entire being to my relationship with them regardless of how hard I try.

I know I will not be able to have a fulfilling life going forward without knowing who I really am.

If you have any recommendations about how I can recover that younger part of myself and the memories of what happened, I would like to hear them.

I loved reading your blog and really appreciate your open approach to talking about these tough issues.

Secrets

In our family, sexual abuse wasn’t the only thing we didn't talk about, but it was the most important. Although no one ever instructed me, outside the house we were an average family with normal problems—no worse than anyone else.

We were also liars and frauds by our silence and cover-ups. And yet had anyone said that to my parents, me, or any of my siblings, we would have been aghast, even angry. The hidden reality was so deeply ingrained in my family of origin we didn't know a different way to behave.

I broke the silence and brought my sexual assault out into the open. After talking to my wife and friends about my childhood, I gained the courage to talk to my surviving siblings. It was the most difficult conversation I ever had in growing up.

To my amazement (and delight) they were open to me. In addition, and even more important, we no longer had to guard the family secrets.

Secrets trapped us in the past;
now we're free to live without secrets in the present.

"It's Not Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood"

I first read those words in a book by Claudia Black and I scoffed. "More psychobabble," I mumbled. But the words stayed with me and it took me at least a decade before I grasped what she meant.

Obviously, I can't re-do my childhood; I don't want to rewrite my early experiences. But I can emotionally embrace that crushed, beaten down, pain-stricken part of me from my childhood.

I've learned to show myself compassion and to understand my defenselessness. Instead of hating that part of myself, I'm able to emotionally hold that wounded boy tightly.

Because I'm a strong believer in self-affirmation statements, here's one thing I say several times each morning: I like who I am; I like who I used to be; I like who I'm becoming.

If that's what Black meant by it not being too late to have a happy childhood, I now agree with her.

I like who I am;
I like who I used to be;
and I like who I'm becoming.

"Why Do You Keep This Blog Going?"

"You seem pretty well put together," one of my friends said, "so why do you keep your blog going? You don't need it, do you?"

"Because I want to offer hurting men the help I needed when I was in deep pain." Those words flew out of my mouth before I had time to think about the answer. They were right. After I reflected, I came up with other reasons.

This is my way to give back. My best friend, David, and my late wife, Shirley, were both available to me when I finally—at age 51—confronted my sexual and physical assault. Without them, I probably would have made it, but the road would have been bumpier and slower. Both of them embraced me (emotionally and physically) when I could only cry and words wouldn't come.

I can't be there in person for all survivors, but I can hold out my arms through my words. Many of you have responded and done the same thing. Which leads me to another reason: In the giving is also the receiving.

Here's how I arrived at that statement. At the church I attend, nine elderly widows sit in a single pew. I can't remember how I started, but each Sunday I walk up to the "sunshine row" and hug every one of them. "I love your hugs," one woman said on Sunday.

"And I need yours," I answered. "Here at church are often the only hugs I get that week."

I was the giver, but in the giving of myself to them, I was able to receive their expressions of compassion and affection.

I wish I'd thought of that when my friend asked me why I kept this blog going. I've finally put my response into two simple words.

I care.

Permission to Heal

(This is an encore post from John Joseph.)

Do you remember having to raise your hand in school to get permission to go to the restroom or sharpen your pencil? As children, we knew the rule and lived by it the best we could. As we’ve grown we’ve forgotten about it. We take a lot of our freedoms for granted because we rarely have to ask permission from anyone.

But what if there’s a part of me that is still raising its hand, asking for permission to heal?

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I’ve come to face a part of me that is still sitting in that small wooden desk. He’s squirming a bit and has his little hand in the air waiting for me to recognize him again.

He’s the wounded child, the neglected boy who got lost in the family system. Tears streak his face and fear is in his eyes. He wants badly to gain my permission to heal from the wounds inflicted upon him by older boys and men.

He needs my help. Will I see him? Will I notice the strain in his arm from waving his hand for so long?

Some dismiss the idea of an “inner child.” I know that I'm not separated from the little boy I was when the abuse occurred. I’m the same person.

The little boy was me. That little boy is me.

Sometimes I have to go back and sit with him to help him know I see him, that I recognize he's hurt, and give him permission to heal a little more.