I was only 5 years-old when a werewolf raped me. Not an actual werewolf, of course, but a teen-aged boy down the street who’d earned that eerie designation from other children in the neighborhood. (I later learned that objectifying him as something less than human served a purpose – after all, it was only monsters that preyed upon the innocent.)
I remember one time vividly, but I suspect there were other times as well. (Isn’t it remarkable how our brains protect us from the trauma it knows we are incapable of processing?)
I had terrible nightmares as a child. What my family thought was shyness was actually just a little boy closing himself off from a scary and unpredictable world. As I entered adulthood, my abuse manifested itself in the form of extreme risk-taking, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, co-dependency, failed relationships and isolation. I was a severe asthmatic, too, and my father drank himself to death when I was 17.
As you can imagine, I was very angry.
At some point within the last 10 years, there was a sea-change in my perspective. I realized that if I was going to live an exceptional life, I needed to find a new way of telling my old stories. Instead of saying why did this happen to me, I began in earnest to examine the effects that abuse and trauma had on my behaviors. (After all, this was the part that I could change.)
Somehow, miraculously, I have come to the realization that trauma can be the starting point for much broader discussions.
At 42, I am quite a different person than I was even two years ago. I am more determined than ever to see the world as a place of hope and renewal. I am committed to a course of introspection and self-examination, not only for the purposes of my own healing, but so that I might help others heal as well.
Randy Howard holds advanced degrees in English Literature and Education. Presently, he is working on a collection of personal essays centered around the theme of healing. He lives in Tampa, Florida with his chocolate Labradoodle, Grover.
1. What is your favorite coping skill?
Once upon a time, hiking used to be my favorite coping skill. Eighteen months ago I moved to Florida, and that pretty much ix-nayed that! Now I mostly go for long walks. There’s something about the cadence of my steps, or my breathing, perhaps, that puts me into an almost meditative state. I carry a note pad with me when I walk; it’s when I do my best thinking, so I like to jot down notes along the way.
2. What is the best piece of healing advice that you have ever recieved?
The best piece of healing advice I ever received was from my first therapist. I was 19 and hated myself. The man across the table from me had a gentle way about him. He said, “Randy, don’t try to get to San Francisco without first going through Detroit.” I wanted the pill that would magically “fix” me, but he kept reminding me that I would need to be patient with myself. In time, I learned that healing and personal growth is part of a larger and longer process.
3. What is the worst piece of healing advice that you have ever recieved?
The worst piece of advice I ever received was much more recent – within the last five years, in fact. It was another therapist, but one with whom I didn’t seem to connect very well. She basically told me that my dream of putting my story into book form was a dangerous and unrealistic goal. “What if you don’t finish it?” she said. What she failed to recognize was that my story was more about the journey than the destination.
4. What were the three hardest obstacles to overcome?
Obstacle #1: The stigma of being a man who was sexually abused. Men are supposed to be tough. Definitely not victims.
Obstacle #2: The secrecy of abuse is like a cancer that destroys the organism from the inside out. Child abuse is particularly nefarious because kids don’t have the coping skills to be able to comprehend what’s happened to them. So often they aren’t able to shout “SOMEONE IS HURTING ME!” from the rooftops. I kept my secret to myself for 14 years.
Obstacle #3: Trust. Still working on it. :-P
5. Have you ever hit "rock bottom"? What kept you going?
When I was 25, I was nearly beaten to death in a street fight. It was the second traumatic brain injury I’d received in a three year period (the first occurring when I was a college baseball player and sustained a line drive to the face, shattering my cheekbone). A fight I had no business being at left me with a fractured skull and an all-too-real awareness of my own mortality. In the ensuing months, I sunk into a deep depression. I felt hopeless and lost. Still, there was something like a voice deep down inside me that said hang in there. It was such a small, meager voice, but I had faith in it.
6. What does forgiveness mean for you?
Forgiveness, to me, is about recognizing that mankind is flawed. To forgive another, one must have the capacity to empathize. To forgive another is to forgive yourself.
7. When did you know that everything was going to be okay -- that you were going to make it?
When I was completing my student teaching (circa 2004), I assigned a writing task to my small group of 7th grade students. Their assignment was to write about a personal hardship that they’d overcome in their lives. Unknown to me, there was a young man in class whose father had died in tragic a skiing accident the year before - on a school field trip. The young man had bottled himself up and refused to talk about how he felt about his father’s death. A therapist wasn’t much help. For some reason, my little writing assignment was exactly what he needed – all of his sadness, grief and raw emotion came pouring out onto the paper.
8. Is there anything you would like to say to someone just beginning their journey?
Don’t let your abuse define you – reclaim the amazing parts of yourself and work at it, work at it, work at it until you learn how to thrive again. Also, there’s no one way to heal. Find what works best for you – support groups, church groups, physical exercise, helping others, self-help books, cognitive psychotherapy, journaling, or other modes of creative expression are all great strategies. Try them all if you have to.
9. If there was one piece of advice you would give, or one thing that you would want the significant other, best friend, etc. of a survivor to keep in mind throughout the survivor's healing process, what would that be?
When you’ve been bitten
By a shape-shifter
The damage is real, albeit unseen.
You think a limb or maybe a vital organ is missing,
But when you look down,
Your fingers still wiggle.
You’d like to scrap your dirty old self
And start over,
But there by the grace of a bull-headed faith
The shame gets winnowed down.
The joy comes bit by bit.
In time, you replace that tired old narrative:
“Born under a bad sign”
With something more… productive.
You’re a starfish,
Or some other beautiful creature
That regenerates itself with the force of nature.
Part IV. Letter
I don’t know when we’ll get the chance to “hang out” again – I wanted to say a few things to you before you shove off on your big trip.
You know, it took me a while, but I’m finally able to see you for what you really are: A depraved narcissist. All those years when you were laying low in my subconscious – I wasn’t even old enough to know better, yet there I was, carrying you around like a sack full of stones. You consumed me so completely that I was barely able to see the good parts of myself anymore.
I never realized that YOU were the biggest obstacle to my happiness and my dreams.
That was some trick you pulled off.
But guess what, Slim? You can’t hide in the shadows anymore. You and your brother CAN’T don’t have the same power over me you once held. I’ve been thinking about this for a good long while now, and I won’t spend another minute hiding my gifts from the world. See, the thing is, I’ve realized that you’re no better than the big bully who feigns toughness only to cower when confronted. I’m just kind of bemused by you now.
Does my indifference bother you?
As a symbolic gesture, I’m going to write your name on a piece of paper and burn it in the kitchen sink.
Just so you don’t think I’m being completely unreasonable, I intend to maintain ties with your cousin, HEALTHY FEAR. Unlike you, HE has my best interest in mind. Because of him, I don’t bounce checks. I look both ways before crossing the street. I slop on some SPF-30 before heading out into the Florida sun.
On that last point, I don’t guess you’ll have to worry about getting sunburned any time soon! Listen, I hear it’s a wee bit chilly in Northern Siberia. Don’t forget your mittens!
I’ll be right here, FEAR. Right out in the light of day where it’s safe and warm.
P.S. Good luck trying to instill yourself into the hearts of the tigers and bears! Lol