Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Survivor Stories: Andrew

Andrew (not his real name) approached me after I told my story publicly. He desperately wanted someone to listen to him, to understand, but had so many times been too embarrassed to even try to tell his story. I offered him the opportunity to tell it here, publicly but anonymously, allowing him to vocalize and heal while encouraging other victims at the same time. I asked him to approve every word prior to posting. He had to read this more than one time, and as is the case with so many of us, he was triggered, and experienced everything all over again. But he also found that with each retelling, each time he re-read his own horror, the power his past had over him lessened. He learned how to handle the trigger. He came to understand that he is indeed a victor, the hero of his own story.

I ask you to take a moment and offer some encouragement to Andrew after you read his story. Let him know that his courage is visible, and how speaking out is important.

I look at Andrew, and I don't see a victim. He is more like the quintessential big brother. To find out that he comes from a large Italian family is no surprise. He's bold and he's confident. He's gregarious and jovial. He is an attentive listener, an encourager, and he loves his wife of 34 years more than anything in the world.

And he tells me that for many years, too many, he held the shame of being sexually assaulted.

Andrew is not the only man I know who has been assaulted, and I doubt he will be the last I will meet. As we talk, as we peel the layers of guilt and shame away I know Andrew has coped with this trauma the way most of us, male and female, have. I hear him use the same words and phrases  that I've heard from so many victims over the years; "I didn't know." "I didn't understand." "I didn't know who I could talk to." I see the same looks of fear and shame. I feel the tension of his anger; anger he's not quite sure where to place. Trauma is trauma is trauma, I assure him. And slowly,  his history unfolds.

Here is his story.

I have to take you back to an era now gone. It's the 1970's. Andrew is a teenager, a paper boy, which is not a menial task. At 15, Andrew bore not only the responsibility of delivering newspapers, he also had to collect payment from customers. This would mean showing up at customers' homes and asking them directly for money. No cell phone. No 911. Just a 15 year old and an adult in the neighborhood.

It was on one of these trips that Andrew was assaulted by a male customer in his 30's. Andrew never tells me his name, but I'll call him Mike.

It started innocently enough. Mike invited Andrew into the house while he collected payment, and conversation ensued. Andrew felt comfortable, told me that Mike struck him as "a cool dude." Mike talked about things that interest a teen boy, specifically sex, and invited Andrew to come back again to have some fun.

Now let me pause here for just a second to tell you a little bit of Andrew's history. Andrew is the only child of proud, first generation Italian-Americans. While his nuclear family is small, his extended family is huge. His father, a WW2 vet, worked hard to provide for the family. His mother, overbearing in her own right, took care of her mentally-ill mother in the family home. In fact, Andrew shared his bedroom with his grandmother, a woman he loved and now recognizes had serious mental health issues, but at the time simply described as psycho. Her presence strained everyone's relationships, and Andrew became less and less of a priority. Andrew's parents fought more. Andrew fought with his dad more. The entire family was engulfed in chaos.

And then Andrew's grandmother died. Six weeks later, Andrew's father died suddenly as well. Andrew's last memory of his father is of the fight they had the morning he died.

It was in between these two tragedies that Andrew is befriended by Mike. It is here, in that turmoil, that Mike grooms Andrew to be compliant, to set the stage for abuse. There is no doubt in my mind that Mike saw Andrew as a potential victim long before Andrew set foot in his house the first time. Predators are that way, they can read a hurting, lonely person before any words are ever exchanged.

Andrew does return to Mike's house. He returns and has his senses overwhelmed immediately. He is given booze. He is shown gay-porn (magazines, this is the 1970's). Andrew is confused, asking himself where the girls are, but finding his body reacting anyway. Mike takes advantage of this and assaults Andrew, only deepening Andrew's confusion. Mike now has complete control over the teen, having caused Andrew to experience a new sensation against his will. Mike assaults Andrew on two more occasions.

Andrew buried this experience for decades. He tried to pretend it didn't happen, he tried to just live life and move on, but as most of us know, it doesn't go away. Despite his best efforts, the pain, the shame, manifested itself in his life. He battled depression, admitting himself for inpatient treatment on a couple of occasions. His marriage suffered.

But Andrew is also a great example of how one can overcome the trauma. With the love and support of his wife, Andrew went back there and dealt with the trauma. He allowed it all to come back to the surface, decades later, and he replaced all the lies with truths. It wasn't easy to do, admitting to his wife, to himself, all that had happened so long ago. But the truth is that the abuse did to Andrew what abuse does to everyone, it lied to him. Andrew, through no fault of his own, grew to loath himself because he held onto the shame of 1)being abused and 2) experiencing a normal physical response.

Like me, Andrew wrote a letter to his younger self. He released his teenage self from the shame, and put that shame directly where it belonged, on the shoulders of the one who abused him. Andrew the adult took the time to explain to Andrew the child how he was not at fault, he did nothing wrong, and that he simply didn't have anyone looking out for him then. He came face to face with the angry young man who tormented his past, and he hugged him. Together the two Andrews honestly mourned the losses that left gaping holes in their soul. In that letter, Andrew held the young man and allowed the him to weep.

In addition to this, Andrew received great validation from his wife. It was difficult for both of them. They had to be completely honest with each other about their feelings, needs, and desires. They had to explore intimacy on new levels. But the love between them is evident today. The abuse could have torn them apart, but instead they chose to forge through the pain and allow the healing to strengthen their relationship.

Andrew has accepted that he can't change his childhood. He realizes now that his parents weren't perfect, but they were doing the best they could. He is sure things would be handled differently today, and I agree with him. Andrew believes that no pain is wasted, and he has vowed to make the future better for his children, and all those around him. He is actively involved in the lives of his children, as well as children he has fostered, helping them to overcome the abuse they endured. He is now starting to share his story in order to help other men (and/or women) find hope in the healing process. He, like me, has learned that only the abuser benefits from silence. The victim seldom does.