I was emotionally abused as an infant by my mother. Then when I was 10 years old, I was the victim of a violent sexual assault by an older boy. I kept these things secret for most of my life, even from myself. It’s not that I didn’t know they happened. It’s that I was very good at keeping certain memories tucked away in the dark recesses of my mind.
I have had emotional difficulties throughout my life. Depression, paranoia, uncontrollable rage and suicidal thoughts were constant companions. It was only through many years of off-and-on therapy that I was able to break my silence.
In 2012, at the age of 52, I heard about Weekends of Recovery and immediately wanted to go. I still hadn’t told my whole story. Not to my therapist and not to myself. But I was beginning to understand that doing so was going to be necessary if I ever wanted to be free of my demons. I also knew I was close to being ready.
I got a recommendation letter from my therapist and registered for a Level 1 Weekend of Recovery to be held in Hope Springs, Ohio that October. I was simultaneously excited and terrified.
The workshop would take place Friday through Sunday but I made a trip of it by driving from Atlanta a few days early. I spent one night at a remote cabin in the country that I had booked online. It was beautifully serene with crisp, cool air and I was surrounded by the rich golden colors of fall. In spite of my nervousness I felt somewhat at peace, like I was on the final stage of a very long journey.
When I met the woman who owned the cabin she asked me what brought me there. I hadn’t planned to do so but I told her the truth, simply and directly, “I’m on my way to a workshop for men who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.” I almost couldn’t believe I spoke the words aloud. It was the first time I ever said anything so revealing to a stranger. Her reaction was perfect even though I don’t remember her exact words. She simply accepted what I told her with compassion in her eyes and wished me well. I think what was most comforting about the exchange was the realization that she didn’t see me as a freak. I just felt seen and accepted.
I spent a couple days in Columbus. A therapist I had worked with before was based there so I spent a few hours with him preparing for the weekend. In my last session with him on Thursday I finally was able to speak out loud what had been done to me in the attack. I hadn’t known it was going to happen. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to say those words aloud to another human but they just came out. It was sudden and unexpected but it also felt natural and safe. We decided I was ready for the workshop and called it a day.
I arrived at Hope Springs the next afternoon. The retreat center was as remote as the cabin and just as beautiful. I had an odd mix of feelings as I approached: relief, sadness and anticipation. Also hope and terror.
During check-in I met Howard, one of the workshop founders. Howeard is a large presence, physically and charismatically. He exudes happiness and joy. I’ve never seen a bigger smile and he immediately put me at ease. After checking in I had just enough time to get my stuff settled in my room before dinner, which was to be the first time the workshop participants would meet each other.
The atmosphere at dinner, which was served buffet style, was casual. The men who had arrived before me were making small talk. I was nervous and on high alert. It seemed remarkable that everyone was so calm but as I joined the chatter and introductions I began to relax. Everyone just seemed so…. normal. I returned to my room after dinner feeling more hopeful than afraid.
The workshop began Saturday morning. There were approximately 32 people sitting in a large circle. The group included 5 moderators, 3 of whom were women. We were guided through a simple process of introductions where we stated our name and a couple words about our hopes (and fears) for the weekend.
For my whole life I felt as if I didn’t belong. To anything. I never felt safe in my family. I was awkward at school and didn’t make friends easily. As an adult, my identity always shifted and adapted according to external circumstances. I felt alone and apart. As I watched and listened to each man say his name and his two words I recognized him as being like me. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged. It was as if I found my tribe.
The youngest person appeared to be in his twenties and the oldest in his seventies. I would discover later that these men were teachers, cops, military, therapists, professionals and a couple of artists. And however much we wouldn’t have chosen it we all had something in common. Something that was integral to our identity. Something that we were ready to share. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
I can’t provide details about what exactly transpired during the weekend. Partly because it would be too difficult but also because what happens at a Weekend of Recovery stays there. But I will describe the format.
The full group gets together in the morning and afternoon for moderated discussions and exercises. The moderators are experts at making everyone feel safe and supported. There is no pressure from anyone about anything. Every participant is encouraged and trusted to know how much they are willing to share.
The group is also broken down into smaller groups of 4-5 people who meet and talk a couple times a day. Each small group is moderated by two members of the therapist staff. (I believe the therapist are also survivors.) They are the very best of the best in this field and many of them are widely recognized as such. The level of professionalism, empathy and compassion is a huge part of what makes these weekends so successful.
A key focus of the Level 1 workshop is learning how to tell your story. It’s challenging but extremely rewarding. In the small groups we spend time with exercises designed to help us get to know each other and to feel safe in this small group. We practicing listening as much as we practice talking.
There’s a wide variety of experiences among survivors and everybody’s story isn’t the same. The ages at which we were abused and the ways in which we were abused varied widely. But we don’t compare, measure or minimize anyone’s experiences. One of the ways I felt most changed by the weekend was in how I felt seen and accepted when I let my guard down and allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of other men.
On Sunday, after the final group activity, I was sitting by myself crying. Bawling, actually. Sobbing. A therapist approached me and asked if I was OK. Did I need anything more in order to prepare for my return home? I told her I was fine. I was crying because I didn’t want to leave. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to hold on to what I was feeling. I felt free for the first time in my life.
I went home to a wonderful thanksgiving with friends who remarked on how at ease I seemed to me. I told them a little about my weekend and they all said I was glowing.
My story doesn’t end there. I had setbacks. My depression gradually returned. Some of my old demons continued to visit me. I continued with my therapy and dug up a few more repressed memories. But through it all, I was stronger than I had ever been. I had more good days than bad days. I had a new confidence about the future.
Fast forward a few years. I have attended two Advanced workshops and one Day of Recovery. They have all been fantastic experiences. My depression is mostly gone and when it comes I’m OK with it. I allow myself to feel sad. Bad things happened to me and I am allowed to feel sad about those experiences. But they no longer define me. My sadness isn’t overwhelming any more. It’s just a visitor that wants me to sit with it once in a while. I feel in control of my life. I feel… normal.
I’ve stayed in touch with some of the men I met through these workshops. I know of others who have done the same. I have a community that I belong to. It feels good.