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.

The Best Words


My healing journey was slow and painful (or so it seems to me) and part of that may be because I live in a culture that expects miracle makeovers. I worked at my healing. I read everything I could find on the topic. I attended conferences where they had breakout groups to deal with sexual issues. I connected on the Internet with men all over the country and a few overseas. I joined a small group of men—I was the only admitted survivor—and the other five men affirmed me and loved me.

Nearly three years later, my wife and I were with another couple and Shirley said, “I don’t know Cec anymore. He used to be predictable, but he’s changed so much. It’s like having a different husband.” She held my hand, smiled at me, and said, “And I love the new man even more.”

Those were the most affirming words I heard during my healing journey. The woman with whom I lived every day saw and affirmed the difference.

She asserted what I had begun to feel.

We all need the outside witness—someone else to notice and appreciate the change. When that happens, we’re able to move farther and faster down the healing path.

Stealing Second Base

I don’t remember the first time I heard or read this truism: you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.

The impact of those words is that the healing journey is risky. Any healthy survivor will echo those words. Once we open the door to our painful childhood, we never know what’s going to come out.

For example, I hadn’t cried since I was 11 years old; I started my healing journey 40 years later. Then I cried—almost every day for weeks. I’d see something about mistreatment on TV and the tears would flow. Or read a scene in a book.

More than the tears, I began seeing things about myself I didn’t like—things others could see but had previously hidden from me. It hurt for me to face them and say to myself, “Yes, that’s true.”

Hard. Risky. The safer, easier path is denial. I had lived in that community too long.

The acute responses to my self-knowledge (i.e., the intense pain) lasted months. But I prevailed. I can only thank God, my wife, and my best friend because they were there when I needed them. Even so, it was my pain, my traumatic past. And as one wise survivor said to me, “The only way out is through. You’ll never be free of the pain until you re-experience it.”

Today I’m healthier. I love being who I am—something that didn’t seem possible 10 years earlier. I took my foot off first base. I risked being hurt, humiliated, and misunderstood, and I just kept going.

So can you.

Move your foot off first base. Take the risk.

“I Emotionally Abuse My Wife”

A lengthy email came from a man who had gotten in touch with his abuse in his early 50s. He confessed to emotionally abusing his wife. “How can I stop doing that?”

I don’t know the answer, but I offered him a suggestion: start by being compassionate to yourself.

Whatever is in our hearts comes out in our actions. Long ago I realized that the people who criticize and speak harshly of others are really letting us peak inside themselves. The way we treat others reflects the way we treat ourselves.

I suggested the emotionally wounded do what I did when I realized some of the terrible effects of sexual, emotional, and physical assault: I admitted I couldn’t be truly kind to others until I was genuinely compassionate toward Cec. That meant loving and accepting myself.

I wrote several statements on three-by-five file cards and repeated them several times a day.

Here are examples:
  • I am loveable.
  • I am worthwhile.
  • God created me lovable.
  • I like who I am and accept who I am.
  • I lovingly embrace every part of myself.
Weeks passed before the truth of those new messages slowly sank in. Today I can say those words with a smile on my face. I truly like Cec.

The residual effect has been that as I’ve become more accepting of myself it shows up by my being more compassionate and less judgmental of others.

Collateral Damage

The term collateral damage began as a military term to refer to damage done to civilians or unintended targets in warfare. Today, most of us understand it means the undesired consequences of horrific events. For survivors, it’s the harm done to those within our circle, especially family members.

In my own journey, I can think of nothing more difficult for me than speaking to my family of origin about the abuse during my childhood and then informing my own children. The first was more difficult because I assumed they, like me, lived with denial. To my surprise, my three older sisters either said, “I knew” or “I suspected.”

My own children, again to my surprise, handled it well. The thing about which I’m grateful is that I never took my molestation to the next generation—that is, did to them what was done to me.

I’m grateful I caused no collateral damage for my children.

The Worst Abuse

The worst abuse to any boy can be stated in one word: incest. My online dictionary defines incest as the crime of sexual acts with a parent, child, sibling, or grandparent. I’ve never heard of any culture that affirms incest.

Family members, especially parents and grandparents, are those we naturally trust. We turn to them for love, understanding, and comfort. And if they violate our trust, they confuse us and do irreparable damage to our souls.

Every authority I’ve read says that incest has more far-reaching negative consequences than any other because it occurs within the family system. It’s particularly true when the perpetrator is a parent, because the child grows up trapped in a twisted primary relationship.

Long before I faced my own incestuous abuse, another writer named Mark* told me that when he was a teen his mother raped him. Nearly 40 years later, we met at a conference last year and renewed our relationship.

Mark has now been married four times. His present marriage is rocky, but he’s determined to hold it together. He’s also aware of what his mother did to him. He tried to get closure and peace a few months before she died, but she denied any wrongdoing.

“My head knows all the reasons and explanations for my problems,” Mark said, “but I can’t get my emotions to adapt.” Because of his mother’s actions, Mark has never been able to sustain a relationship with a woman. He and his present wife are getting counseling, but he says, “I can’t open up to her. No matter how hard I try, the trust just isn’t there.” And then he admits, “It’s not because she’s done or said anything. It’s just hard for me to trust any woman.”

“Or impossible,” I said.

He started to disagree, closed his mouth, and stared into space for a minute or so. “Yes, that’s right.”

This is again a plea with incest survivors to get help—a friend, a minister, a therapist. It is possible to overcome the devastating effects of incest.

I know.

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.

§

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?

“But It Felt Good” (Part 2 of 2)

We survivors grew up in a convoluted world. Because we were vulnerable, needy kids, our abusers took advantage of us. As a result, we felt guilty over sexual stimulation. Frigidity is usually a female malady, but it applies to males as well (even though we use different terms). Some of them can’t achieve an erection and have other problems associated with normal intercourse.

We’re ashamed that our bodies “betrayed” us and some men never get free. Some become promiscuous, running from one sexual partner to the next. It’s as if they shout, “See, I’m all right and abuse didn’t affect me.”

We respond differently to the horrible experiences of childhood. The often-silent voices come from feeling ashamed of having erotic feelings.

“Of course it felt good!” I wish I could get that message across to every male who was raped. That’s why we have so much pain and guilt today—those selfish perpetrators destroyed the placidity of our childhood. They did the evil deed and we pay the consequences.

My abuse felt good, which is natural and normal. I accept that and I remind myself that I was a normal, needy kid whom someone exploited.

“But It Felt Good” (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t know how many men I’ve talked with who equated abuse with excitement. It felt good, and consequently, they questioned their own sexuality, whether they actually did something to make it happen.

To add to that, it may push them to wonder if they’re really gay. It’s as if they say, “If I was normal, it wouldn’t have felt good.” We need to admit that when we were sexually assaulted it felt good. Of course it did.

I still recall the old man running his hands around my body telling me how soft it felt, and I enjoyed this touch. All of us have skin hunger, and no one in my family ever touched me—or if so, I don’t remember.

Everything the old man did to me felt good. In retrospect, I felt shame for responding to a natural, normal act—the human touch.

An online article stated that three of four Americans suffer from skin hunger. I don’t know how they arrived at that statistic, but I accept it. Our perpetrators used that unfulfilled human need and we suffered because of it.

I was an innocent boy who needed loving touches;
my perpetrator exploited a basic human need.

Sexuality and Shame

Shame is one of the common elements of us who are survivors of childhood abuse. My definition of shame is that it’s a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong behavior or imagined bad behavior.

My definition means that regardless of who assaulted us, on some level we sensed it was wrong. Individuals older and larger took advantage of us, and we didn’t know any better. We were immature children and didn’t know what else to do, but we had some awareness—possibly while it was going on or later—even though our perpetrator certainly didn’t inform us.

Because of that, as adults we struggle with shame. We have no logical reason for those feelings. We were innocent and powerless. We forget that shame is an emotion and doesn’t obey rules of logic.

As an adult, I understand shame is part of our socialization process. Someone said, “No action is required; merely existing is enough.” We can’t change the feeling, but we can change our attitude toward the effect.

One day I realized, “I wasn’t a bad kid. Those who abused me were bad.” The shame didn’t disappear, but it troubles me less and less. After that, one of the things I said to myself daily for months was, “I wasn’t bad; something bad was done to me.”

How do you deal with your sense of shame?

The Exercise Factor (Part 4 of 4)

Along with moving the body, something else I’ve learned is to incorporate positive self-talk while I’m on the move. We chatter to ourselves all the time, and it’s impossible not to talk to ourselves. When I caught on to that years ago I realized I could improve my life by choosing to say positive things to myself and about myself.

My rules (which I learned from others) are simple.

1. State facts that are true.

2. Commit yourself to goals you can easily achieve.

For example, I started making two statements to myself:
  • I need to exercise.
  • I will exercise three times a week.
Both were positive and easily accomplished. At times I had to push myself to do three mornings a week. But once it became habitual, I increased it to five times. Over a period of weeks, I realized how much better I felt about Cec, and I was more energetic and creative in my work. And in those days I was running one mile. Before long I got up to six miles each day.

I kept telling myself the positive effects of those two things. I kept my goal simple and obtainable.

Perhaps I sound like a fanatic on this topic. I know only that I’ve reaped immense benefits, and exercise has played a major role on my healing journey.

Energy, Energy (Part 3 of 4)

I am and have always been a high-energy person, but even people like me have bad days—really bad days. Some mornings it takes immense effort for me to get out of bed and go for a run. Days with rain and freezing weather add another reason to turn over and sleep.

Then I remind myself that I’ll feel much better after running. And I always do. A few times I drag myself out there on the streets early in the morning and I start out wondering why I’m doing it. Even on those days, by the time I’m home and ready for a shower, I know why.

I feel better about myself. It’s that simple. I don’t have to fight negative self-talk or beat myself up emotionally. I realize how blessed I am and enjoy my life. That’s the reason for being able to develop the self-discipline of getting up every morning—and it’s worth the effort.

I kiddingly say to my friends, “I’ve saved $300,000 in therapists’ fees through exercise.”

I’m a self-starter and I realize that some people need others to keep pushing them forward. If that’s you, recruit a friend. Get one or two buddies to run or walk with you or whatever exercise you choose.

I’m a professional writer and work at home. Almost every morning I see others in my neighborhood exercising while I’m at work. One man and his wife jog (which I use to refer to a slower, more relaxed pace). A little later, two wives in their early 30s make the loop in front of my house, which is at the end of a cul-de-sac.

I live 1.3 miles from a high school and sometimes I run there and do a few laps on the track. For the past several weeks, a group of five women have been coming out. They yell at each other, laugh, and I can hear them halfway around the track. They’re having fun.

In an earlier blog I wrote, “Start small.” If there is any secret to an ongoing exercise, that’s it. Don’t set lofty goals of learning to run a 10k race in a week

In my next blog, I’ll give you one more tip on developing an exercise program to push away negativity and depression.




The Exercise Factor (Part 2 of 4)

Just to encourage people to exercise isn’t enough. I read an article early this year that said health spas get most of their new members during the holiday season. The article also pointed out that by February 9, most of them have stopped coming.

One reason people fail with exercise is that they try to make immense changes and then give up. My advice (and my own experience) says, “Start small. Decide on one thing that you can do faithfully. Then add something else.”

Next to my faith in a loving God and the positive support of others, I place physical exercise as my best form of therapy and healing. That’s because I know what it has done for me. The best way I know to express this is to use myself as an example.

I was born in 1933, so you can figure out my age. Certainly genetics play a role, but I’m healthy and exuberant with no physical problems and I take no medication. That’s not meant to brag, only to point out what physical exercise does for me.

In 1974, I had been hospitalized twice with ulcers, my blood pressure was in the high normal range, and I was about 30 pounds heavier. My doctor said having ulcers twice made me chronic and he would soon start treating me for my high blood pressure.

I left his office with a prayer in my heart and determination never to have to go back. (I never did.) I chose to take care of my body and I chose to run. It took me almost two weeks before I could run a whole mile without stopping for breath.

But the single most significant benefit was the positive effects on my psyche. Some days I felt lousy, and in the early days of my recovery I’d have to say close to helpless.

Then I went for a run—no matter how much effort it took to get my feet moving. By the time I came home, I felt good. We sometimes call it the runner’s high, or we can say the endorphins kick in. Perhaps it’s just as important to say that God made our bodies to move.

The more I move my body, the better I feel.
That’s excellent and inexpensive therapy.

Just Move It (Part 1 of 4)

As a survivor, I believe strongly in daily, physical exercise. Most experts on physical fitness suggest some form of aerobic or cardio exercise 3 times a week for about 30 minutes.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper introduced the term in the 1960s, and I’ve been an advocate of his approach since the mid-1970s. He uses the term to refer to exercises that demand the use of oxygen during the workout, such as running/jogging, swimming, cycling, and walking (fast-paced walking).

For survivors I suggest a different approach. Do it every day and as early in the day as possible. (I’m a morning person so that’s easier for me.) I chose running, although I now rotate it with fast-clipped walking. I used to be able to do 15-minute miles walking, but now it takes me 17 to 18 minutes a mile.

The purpose is to get that heart pumping. Not only does it improve our health as Cooper and others have advocated, it improves our mental health, reduces stress, and lowers depression. The experts claim (and so do I) that daily exercise increases our cognitive capacity.

My Merriam-Webster defines cognitive as conscious mental activities (such as thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering).

For those of us who were victimized as children, this is the easiest and least expensive form of therapy. My daily run doesn’t cure anything, but it improves my spiritual and physical outlook.

Skin Hunger (Part 2 of 2)

As I pointed out in a previous blog, all of us need to be touched and held. Others took advantage of our neediness and exploited it. We were innocent kids and eagerly accepted affection from anyone.

Regardless of how much help or therapy we receive, the skin hunger doesn’t go away. How do we handle it? If you have a spouse, that’s probably not a big issue. You touch each other, I assume with some regularity.

But what if you’re single? Or widowed as I am? Needs don’t disappear. Perhaps because I’ve long been one of those individuals who likes to hug and receive hugs, I’ve been more acutely aware of it.

About a year after my wife died, I noticed a row of gray-headed widows who filled up one pew at our church. I’m not sure what compelled me to do it, but I went up to the woman on the end and said, “I need a hug. Would you give me one?” She smiled and did it.

The woman next to her smiled and I said, “I’m open to one from you if you can spare it.” Within a couple of minutes, I had gone down the entire row. I felt good about it and it has become my weekly ritual.

A few weeks later I said to one of them, “Thank you for that hug. I don’t get touched all week.”

“Neither do I,” she said. “And I look forward to your hugs.” She was 91 years old.

Two more years later I’m still hugging them, but now all of us see it as mutually needed. Best of all, they’re safe hugs. We’re both responding to that need for a physical, human caress.

That practice has grown beyond the row of widows. I’m now the hugger in the church. A woman named Kay runs up to me every week. “I need my Cec hug!” And I’m delighted to provide that. Men get hugged too.

I’ve been careful about the people I embrace. If I’m unsure I ask, “May I hug you?” In two years, I’ve had only two people say no, and both times I’ve answered, “Okay, thank you” and moved on.

I focus on this because, as a survivor of childhood abuse, on that preconscious level I needed the skin contact, and getting older doesn’t destroy it. Each Sunday when I leave church I’ve been hugged at least 30 times and possibly even more. I know I feel better about life and certainly better about Cec.

I need hugs.
And in giving them, I also receive them.

Receiving Hugs (Part 1 of 2)

Women have hugged me most of my life, but I was in my 20s when I went to a church where a one-armed man named Benny hugged me. It felt uncomfortable. But over time I learned to receive hugs from men and enjoy them.

The important lesson was that I learned the difference between safe hugs and unsafe hugs. My first awareness of an unsafe embrace came at a men’s conference. The speaker told us to move around and hug at least five other men.

A man I didn’t know grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me tightly against his body. It didn’t feel good, and I’m not sure how to describe the difference. I sense that most of us know when it happens. Maybe he held me a little too long and certainly too tightly.

Not feeling comfortable discussing it with other men at the conference, a few days later I chatted with three women at church. “Do you feel a difference in the kind of hugs you receive?” I asked.

Without hesitating, all three said they did. “I can tell if a man is trying to hit on me by the way he grabs me.” In essence, that’s the statement each of them made.

Like me, they were unable to define exactly how they knew, but they did.

That distinction helped me a great deal. A couple of years after that my wife and I moved from Atlanta to Louisville, Kentucky, for a four-year period. I joined a men’s group and became actively involved.

Occasionally I felt unsafe hugs and tried to avoid those men. One of them, Eric, invited me to have dinner with him, and I gave him an excuse. A few weeks later he asked me again, and I turned him down. He didn’t ask a third time.

About that time, I heard rumors about Eric being on the prowl for other men. I knew I had made the right decision.

I’m grateful that I sensed the difference. And I think most of us do.

How about you? Have you experienced both kind of hugs? If so, how do you explain the difference?




Where Trust Starts

When I felt safe, I was ready to face the pain of the past. But part of that sense of safety stayed at bay until I was able to trust myself—to believe I was worthwhile and trustworthy.

In several blog posts over the years I’ve written about trusting others, and that’s a big issue for most of us. I’ve discovered that trust issues start with ourselves. Until I sensed I was loved, truly loved, I felt worthless and driven to prove my value to myself.

Healing begins as an inside job. Once we’re able to accept ourselves and feel some level of self-compassion and know we’re worthwhile, we can accept the affirmations and care from others.

My wife and others were expressing their feelings of acceptance and affection for years, and yet, deep inside, I felt they were conditional: as long as I met their standards for my behavior, I was all right.

Trust does begin within, but knowing we’re loved by others sets up belief.

Now I know. I’m all right. I am a creation of God and loved by him.

Who I Am and What I Do

In the previous blog I mentioned I began to focus on my childhood only after I felt loved for being who I was.

As a pastor, I felt loved and accepted by most members, but I assumed it was conditional—based on my performance. It might have seemed a safe environment, and perhaps it was. But when I first faced my memories, I asked myself this question: If I didn’t do those good things for members of the congregation, would they still love me?

A few months after I left the ministry to write full time, I finally voiced that question to my wife, Shirley. She laughed. “That’s a distorted viewpoint. You are kind and caring. That’s part of who you are. You may not trust your motives, but people know who you are. You can’t hide yourself indefinitely.”

My big lesson from that was that I had been safe for a long time, but until I accepted that reality, insecurity and uncertainty troubled me.

Who I am and what I do.
That matters most.

Why the Memories and Flashbacks Now? (Part 3 of 3)

“How do I know the memories and flashbacks are real?” one man said. “I’ve always had a good imagination.”

My answer: You know the difference. The question isn’t “Are they real?” but “Can I accept them?” When the memories first started pouring into my heart and mind, like many others, I didn’t want to believe them as being authentic. But I knew.

No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t convince myself that I had made them up. I knew.

I didn’t have a lot of flashbacks—where childhood memories forced themselves into my head. What I had most were dreams—nightmares—and I awakened in a sweat and sometimes shaking. Those dreams were quite literal, as opposed to what I call the hamburger-and-onion type—the kind that troubles me over something I ate.

In the dreams, I was a child again and I relived most of the tormenting, painful abuse.

Particularly, I remember the old man who rented a room from us. In the nightmares, he was ugly and I was afraid, but I went up to him anyway. When I was awake, I thought of him as having a kind face and he smiled often.

In my dreams I especially remembered his male-pattern baldness with no hair except on the sides of his face. Unless he went outside, he wore sleeveless undershirts and tufts of white, curly hair showed over the top of the shirt.

I mention the hair because he knelt down (or in some dreams he put me on his lap) and had me feel this hirsute chest. My dreams never went beyond that, but I knew—I knew it was real because I couldn’t face what followed.

Dream after dream came to me over a period of months. Each time I awakened abruptly, feeling frightened, and sometimes couldn’t go back to sleep.

Once I learned to accept the reality of those scenes, they went away. I don’t need them because I faced the pain and betrayal, and mourned the loss of my childhood.

Through the help of God and my friends, I’ve stayed on the healing path. I’m closer to the end of the recovery road. Until then, I have to say, “I’m not quite healed. But close.”

Why the Memories and Flashbacks Now? (Part 2 of 3)

My friend Ed Toms has said many times, “Your abusive memories don’t come back until you’re emotionally ready.”

For Ed, the breakthrough was the unfreezing of his emotions. “Once the emotions thawed, I cried for a long time—something I hadn’t done since I was about seven years old.”

I smiled remembering a similar experience in my own life.

“It wasn’t just the crying,” he said, “but it was downloading my serious emotions.” He focused on crying because he said kids learn, either by direct words or implication that boys don’t cry.

“Crying is a feminine activity—something for sissies. I heard that often enough.” The last time he cried his father told him to “suck it up and take it like a man.”

“That’s denial. It shuts off the emotional download,” he said with eyes that blinked with tears.

“The return of tears came the night I saw my newborn son. I hugged the infant and said, ‘I’ll always protect you.’ That opened me up, but several years passed before I learned to cry for myself.”

We’re all different and we don’t respond the same way. If you don’t feel safe, you won’t unlock your heart. And when you finally do open up and struggle through the flashbacks and memories, it’s hard to believe that’s part of the healing process. It’s something most of us have to go through to get past our pain.

When I first told my wife and my best friend, I didn’t know if they would laugh at me, sneer, or turn away in disgust. Both of them hugged me. That gave me the courage and the ability to continue to open up to others.

Why the Memories and Flashbacks Now? (Part 1 of 3)

A few years ago I read a fascinating master’s thesis about men who faced their childhood abuse in what we call middle age—late 30s to early 50s.

Why then? I don’t know all the reasons, but I’m among those middle-aged types. At age 51, the reality of my childhood broke through—and it was a painful time for me. For days I couldn’t get past flashbacks and vivid memories.

Why did it take me so long to face the ordeal and the pain of those early years? The most satisfying answer I’ve found is that it didn’t happen until I felt safe. I’d been married to a caring woman for nearly 30 years. Although I use the term safe, another way to express it is that I finally understood I was loved for who I was and not for what I said or did.

For most of those years, I had been an ordained minister and heavily involved in others’ lives. On some kind of unconscious level, I believed that if I behaved kindly and warmly, I’d be loved and accepted. That may be true, but it also meant I worked to earn that kind of acceptance.

When I finally grasped that I was loved for who I was without conditions or qualifications, I was ready to face my past.

How about you?

When did you face your abusive past?

Questions, Questions, Questions

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly six years. I’ve never asked any of you to send in questions. I may not have answers, but I’d like to know what troubles you.

If you have a question (or more than one) please email me at
cec.murp@comcast.net—my private email address. I’ll respond to them on the blog.


Did You Tell?

I’ve lost count of the number of radio and TV interviews I’ve done on the topic of sexual assault. In the majority of them, they ask me to tell my story. Almost as soon as I finish, the next question becomes, “Did you tell anyone?”

“No, I didn’t.” If they ask why, I usually say, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me.” That answer is only partially true. Probably more accurately the answer should be, “I felt no one cared enough to listen.”

Like a lot of abused kids, I felt alone, unloved, and unwanted. Who would I have told? Who would have listened?

I haven’t posed such questions on this blog, but if you didn’t tell, I’d like to hear your answer. Use your own name or write anonymously.

If you didn’t tell, do you know why?

Timing

“The earlier the abuse took place, the deeper and more traumatic the impact on the survivor.” I read that statement by an authority on childhood abuse. He never presented any evidence, but he did say that came out of his “30 years of practice.”

He also wrote something to the effect that the more deviant the perpetrator’s behavior, the greater the detriment to the survivor’s recovery. He seemed to believe that, as adults, they had deeper issues to work through.

He added something about the wider the age difference, the more negative the result.

That’s when I stopped reading, although I’m no expert who can disprove what he wrote. But what he ignored was the personality of the child.

We all heal differently, and his statements didn’t reflect that. Some boys are more sensitive than others; some survivors never seem to overcome the effects.

Immediately I think of John, a member of a small group of six men I joined during the initial year of my coming to terms with my abuse.

In one of our first meetings, John told us about his painful childhood of abuse, and it sounded much like mine, except his was a single perpetrator. He had been seeing a therapist for 20 years. He ended by saying, “I feel like a bag of shit.”

Our group met every Thursday for four years until I moved out of the city. On the last meeting, John made the same statement about himself.

I haven’t seen John since, but I wonder how he feels about himself today. My guess is that he’s probably at about the same level as he was back when he was part of the group.

Why was John unable to recover after more than two decades of therapy? I don’t know. I’m hesitant to say it was because his abuse took place so early. Or blame the length of it. I could say the same things about mine. John knew his abuser was at least 25 years older. The old man who assaulted me was at least 55 years older than I was and the woman was 35 years older.

Why have I been able to achieve almost-but-not-quite healed status and John seemed stuck? I don’t know.

I’m grateful for the friends and loved ones who have stood with me and helped me. I’m even more grateful to a benevolent and compassionate God.

Why me?

Why have I moved so far down that road?

I have no idea, but I’m filled with gratitude at the growth and progress.

Excusing

“She couldn’t help it,” I once said of my female perpetrator. “Her father made her his sexual partner after the death of his wife.”

For a long time, I used that as a way to excuse her. “She couldn’t help it. It was behavior she learned as a child.” That’s true, but it doesn’t pardon her for sexually assaulting me.

I excused the old man who molested me. “He was such a lonely man.”

More than just excusing the culprits in my life, by defending them (and I was defending), I didn’t face my anger.

But one day that changed. I went out for a late afternoon run by a small lake and (fortunately for me) no one else was around. For at least an hour I raged at the two now-dead people. I was angry at myself for defending their actions. After the venom poured out, I allowed myself to grieve over my stolen childhood.

I finished my run, sank on a bench, and cried for a long time. “I’ll learn to forgive you,” I said to both culprits, “but right now I want to feel my anger. You hurt me and made my childhood sad and lonely. I didn’t deserve what you did to me!”

It was almost dark by the time I left the park. I didn’t feel vindicated or happy. At the time I was worn out, but deep within was the sense that I had faced reality. I had pronounced them both guilty of murdering the innocence of my childhood.

When I no longer defend the guilty,
I can have compassion on the innocent.