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Ben’s Blog

How Can We Respond More Positively To A Relapse?

Sitting alone by myself something within begged me to stop what I was doing and evaluate the situation I was in. Even though I wasn’t completely coherent, I was able to take a step back and observe my environment for a minute. It wasn’t pretty.

I was sitting alone with a cup in one hand and a 750 mL, now half-empty, bottle of vodka sneering down on me from its spot on the counter, almost as if it was relishing in my defeat, “Gotcha! You thought you could handle me. Muahahahahaha!”

It had conquered me and quickly too. I glanced at my phone to see the time. It had only been between thirty minutes and an hour since I had began drinking. “Half of a bottle in thirty minutes! What am I doing? Stop drinking. This is not who I am. Remember?”

Whether I liked it or not, after three years of sobriety, I had now relapsed—a fact that I could not change.

My initial thoughts were more constructive than I remember them being in the past, “I can’t change what happened but I can choose how to move forward. God is aware of me and still loves me. He wants me to succeed and will continue to help me progress. Change takes time. Be patient with myself. I’m on the right path. ”

The advice of one of my favorite religious mentors kept playing in my head, “Ben, I don’t care how many times you fall off the horse. I only care about how fast you get back in the saddle.”

I was going to get back in the saddle quickly; I could get back to being productive. I felt empowered by this realization. The work I had done over the past three years wasn’t completely lost in one moment.

Now, I knew this moment of clarity would soon be met by heightened feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and by my favorite disorder, OCD (OCD is probably the devil disguised as a mental health disorder). I mentally prepared myself for the blow. I knew that life could get rough for the next little while as the dust settled—this wasn’t my first rodeo, after all.

Though I momentarily debated keeping this experience to myself, I knew I couldn’t. I would need some guidance and support.

I contacted a few of my greatest supporters and made an appointment with my therapist.

With a positive plan of action in place, my anxiety decreased.

Here are 25 lessons I am learning/relearning since emerging from this recent relapse.

  1. Seek positive and safe environments that will continue to sustain good changes in behavior. I believe more of us would be open if we felt safe from unnecessary judgment.
  2. Addiction thrives in isolated environments. Whatever mechanisms drive us to addictions will try to isolate, so they can take over.
  3. Form healthy connections with other people where mutual acceptance exists. This provides tremendous strength and confidence and helps prevent isolation.
  4. Make yourself the number one priority. If we don’t start with ourselves, we can’t really help anyone else.
  5. Set realistic expectations for self and for others. We may let ourselves or others down.  Some people may let us down. When we relapse, others may see us as a bad examples. Most people want to help but some may not know how. That’s okay. There are plenty of people who do.
  6. Fight to get the needed help. Be humble and open when receiving it. Years ago I begged to go to inpatient rehab but was told my problems weren’t severe enough. Those with “real” addictions would laugh at me. That was hard to hear when I have a history of being suicidal. Most of my efforts to get help have been to prevent going back to such a dark place. Lesson learned: Not all advice is good advice. Not all help is good help. Sometimes we have to filter through the bad in order to get to the good.
  7. Be aware that addictions and harmful behaviors can take on many forms. Addictions are shifty shapeshifters. Even though we may get one under control, a bad habit may resurface as something else. These have been some of my struggles over the years (this is just a short list): substances, binge eating, not eating, not taking care of myself, a lot sexual acting out, pornography, caffeine, binge TV watching, self-harming, exercising excessively, anger, lying, cussing and on and on. Whenever I try to change all at once, I fail. One step at a time.
  8. Focus energy and attention on productive behaviors instead of negative ones. The best thing we can do is replace the troublesome behavior with a positive one quickly. It helps us not dwell on mistakes.
  9. Believe in self. We are worth it. We are strong. As long as we want to keep trying, we have to believe in ourselves.
  10. Change takes time. We learn through a lot of trial and error. There’s a lot of fine-tuning, tweaking and patience involved in the change process.
  11. Relapse is not the end of the world. It has little to do with who we truly are and who we can become. We may always be at risk of a relapse even though we don’t plan on it or desire to. (I’m not encouraging others to relapse but am aware of how common it is. I only hope we can get help and move forward as soon as possible if we do.)
  12. Relapse is not an overnight process. Anxiety and stressors can build up for a while before it actually happens. Sometimes we don’t realize we needed to ask for help until after the fact. So, don’t blame us if we don’t.
  13. Never give up. A setback is a setback. It’s never too late to try as long as we have more time, right?
  14. Be proud of how far we’ve come. For me, 1 relapse is less significant than 3 years of positive change.
  15. Guilt is not always bad. Guilt can encourage change because it helps us recognize our behavior wasn’t good.
  16. Turn away from shame. It can cause us to remain stuck in the harmful behavior. Sometimes we have to remove ourselves from shameful environments.
  17. Religion/Spirituality may help. I believe in and am grateful for repentance. The first place I turn to for help in a relapse situation is God. Prayer is my number one go to, even when I question whether or not God is really there because nothing seems to be changing for the better. (I know not everyone believes in God or is religious. That’s okay with me.)
  18. We’re not alone. Even though it feels that way sometimes. There’s something powerful about knowing we’re not alone in our struggles. We’re individually never the only alcoholic, drug addict, mentally-ill person or victim in the world.
  19. Asking for help is a sign of strength. We often can’t change on our own. We may need therapy, spiritual guidance and support from family and friends. Acknowledging this is powerful.
  20. Shift our views. I hate the saying “love the sinner but hate the sin”.  The general interpretation of it seems to promote condescending treatment of those of us who struggle. Will hating a “sin” ever help us love ourselves and each other more?
  21. Judge others less.
  22. Positive self talk makes a world of difference.
  23. Live in the present. Sometimes worrying about the past or the future makes it too difficult to focus on what we can be doing in the present. The worrying causes anxiety. Sometimes I run or exercise just so I can practice living in the moment. I try to tell myself over and over again, “I’m running. I’m running. I’m running. Don’t worry about anything else for the moment. I’m running.” Sounds funny, but it helps.
  24. Anxiety drives a lot of harmful behaviors.
  25. Address the root cause. This isn’t the same as dwelling on the past, but it helps us equip ourselves with the knowledge we need to change. If we keep having diarrhea, we could take pills over and over again to treat it. But at some point we would probably benefit from trying to understand why we have diarrhea in the first place (watch the video below).

The way we talk about addiction is often really negative, even the words used to discuss it are depressing. We say words or phrases like sinner, liar, relapse, selfish, shame, bad example, hot mess, train wreck, unreliable, lost cause, never change, manipulative, hopeless, that’s just the way they are, it’s their fault/they chose to be this way when they took their first drink, rock bottom—we seem to think “hitting rock bottom” is a necessary part of addiction recovery. Maybe it is, but only if, the “addict” gets another chance.

Some seem to want to shame people into recovery. I disagree with this approach. I wonder if this impacts the way we respond to addiction. It seems like society says fix yourself, and then we will accept you again, rather than being a part of the recovery process.

Most of us suffer from some sort of addiction or behavior that impacts our lives and how we relate to others. There are some that are more obvious than others like substances, gambling or pornography. But there are less obvious behaviors like overworking, neglecting those we love, condemning others or self-shaming. I think we’re actually more similar than we think and can be more empathetic towards those with different issues than our own. Everyone knows what it’s like to struggle in life.

What I am believing in more and more each day, which was greatly reinforced by my recent setback, is how much we treat symptoms instead of addressing root causes. Abuse, neglect and trauma from childhood impact adult behavior and health. There’s a growing body of evidence that supports helping children who have faced adverse experiences. If addressed, the child can lead a healthier life and maybe avoid things like addiction and certain diseases altogether.

Here’s an incredible TedMed Talk video that explains the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and adult health and what can be done to reverse the effects. I highly recommend watching it.


Why I Chose To Attend My Abuser’s Funeral

Over the past months I felt pretty good and was proud of how I’d been able to weather some pretty rough storms. Overall my trajectory has been upward. I have been feeling more confident. The abuse felt as resolved as it could be for the time being, even though I knew I would experience additional setbacks. I think most victims can relate to anticipating setbacks. We know they will come but are never sure when they will strike or how we will handle them.

A few weeks ago a setback came (I have written a blog post about it and will share it later). It was pretty major, so I immediately made an appointment with my therapist. Our session went well and I made an additional appointment for 8 AM on a work day of the following week. This isn’t a typical time for me. I hadn’t been to therapy much in months, but when I go, I usually go on Saturdays. That way if it’s an emotionally draining session, I can recover before returning to work on Monday.

I arrived at my appointment and sat down. A lot of times I won’t bring my phone in with me, and if I do, I will only use it for a time check. My phone vibrated not long after I sat down. I wondered, “Who was texting me so early in the morning?” I never get text messages that early. I felt like I should check my phone and asked my therapist to excuse my rudeness as I looked at it.

It was a text from my mom saying, “Just saw [our abuser’s] obituary in the paper.” This news shocked me. I told my therapist who has helped me heal from the effects of the abuse. This was a big deal. This was a huge moment. I think we were both in a state of disbelief. It was bizarre to learn this at the beginning of my therapy appointment. My setback suddenly felt timely. I was now glad that it had happened and landed me back in therapy before receiving this news. It seemed to have softened the blow a bit.

My therapist asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I responded, “Not right now. I will. But I don’t even know what to think or say yet. I’m not sure how I feel.” At the end of the session, I told her if the funeral hasn’t happened yet, I was going to go. We scheduled another appointment for the following Saturday, so I would have time to process how I felt.

I called my mom and my sister immediately after. I asked Annaka if she had heard the news yet. She hadn’t. The news made her sick. She began expressing some of her feelings that she shared in her last blog post. At this point, my reaction wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel much initially.

I spoke with my mom. She seemed shocked and upset. Any chance we had to get answers from our abuser in this life may be gone, we had to mourn this loss of hope. When asked how I was doing, I told my mom that I was doing fine but always react logically at first. I tend to have delayed emotional reactions to traumatic events. I knew I would break down later but wasn’t sure when it would happen or even what it would look like.

I drove to Annaka’s to be with her, so we could talk and comfort one another. Our common experience with our abuser allows us to understand each other on a level that other people cannot. She had written her initial reaction down and was ready to post it. She felt it was important to capture what that moment felt like knowing many other victims would be able to relate. I was proud of her for being willing to do it because we rarely get a glimpse into what experiences feel like in the moment. Most are shared in retrospect as I am doing now.

We talked for several hours. I could feel my body responding to the news, but my emotions still hadn’t caught up yet. I told her I was going to the funeral no matter what and that mom was going to come with me. I wanted Annaka to come too but wasn’t going to pressure her. When I left her house, she wasn’t sure whether or not she would come. She didn’t want to.

As I drove home, I wondered why I even wanted to go and why this was one of my initial desires. I thought that I may just be sadistic.

I don’t know if many people would choose to go to their abuser’s funeral. Members of my family asked why I wanted to, and I wasn’t exactly sure. It just felt like something I should do. Most people don’t get a chance to face their abuser, but I finally did. I had been wishing for this moment for a long time and was going to take it, even if he had to be in a casket for me to do so. (One thing about victims is every single one will choose to handle healing differently. This is just what felt right for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for others.)

Some thoughts kept entering my mind. Up to this point, no single person has impacted and controlled my life more than my abuser. Even though I wasn’t going to mourn his death in the way I would a loved one, I still had to grieve the loss. He has been a part of me since I was five. His actions greatly influenced how I have developed, behaved and how I have perceived and interacted with the world. I honestly can’t tell which pieces of my life are due to the abuse and which ones would have existed regardless of his actions. I hate that he is a part of my life, but he is and now he’s gone.

Over the past three years, there are so many times when I had contemplated driving over to his house and knocking on his door. Hoping that looking into his eyes would finally confirm what he did to me. His reaction to me would say it all. He may verbally be able to deny it, but I was convinced that his eyes wouldn’t be able to. I would just look at him and know the truth. No words would have been needed. As far as I know, he is the only person who could remember exactly what had happened.

I had sometimes wondered what it would feel like to ring the door, punch him in the face and walk away. I had wanted to write him a letter at some point with no return address expressing how his actions had impacted my life, just in case, somewhere deep down inside, he was capable of caring. I had wondered what I would do if I ran into him in public as I don’t work far from where he was living. These thoughts I entertained from time to time would never become a reality. It was both relieving and frustrating, a blessing and a curse.

I did feel comfort knowing that he no longer lived within one mile of an elementary school and a preschool. Still he left so much unanswered.

Even though our case was never likely to go to trial, the hope that it might was gone too. I had wondered over and over again why, when the DA assigned to our case had asked me if I could say what my abuser did to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt in a courtroom, I had said I couldn’t. It’s normal for victims to not be 100% confident, but then I wondered, “Had this been a selfish response and did I blow a chance at justice for any of his other victims? Or had my response been an honest one?” I believe it was honest and that the problem wasn’t with me but with what our justice system expects from victims in a trial.

Children often dissociate from the abuse while it is happening, making it hard to remember the detail needed to convict a perpetrator. It seems even less likely for a child to remember enough if the abuser used some type of substance to subdue the victim. When the abuse occurs it’s often the victim alone with the abuser. I have a hard time believing most children could provide solid evidence without another witness being present.

Regardless of what had happened with the DA, I had been feeling confident enough to face him in the courtroom if the case built up momentum again. I had also secretly hoped that our case could help draw attention to how ill-equipped our legal system is to serve and protect victims of sexual assault crimes. I had wished it could have also served as another vehicle to inspire change.

I had wanted to know what our abuser would have said to the police had he not asked for an attorney before they got a chance to question him. This halted our case from going forward for the time-being, but his death had killed it for good.

I have often wondered what my life would have looked like had our abuser not been a part of it.

Would I…

  • feel as much shame?
  • be more confident?
  • be more aggressive and less passive?
  • embrace my positive attributes more than my negative ones?
  • have been as afraid of life and people?
  • care less about what others think?
  • feel less terrified being in public situations where I have to remove clothing like while swimming or when showering in PE in junior high and high school?
  • have struggled so much in school?
  • have suffered from so many years of nightmares and insomnia?
  • have as much anxiety?
  • experience depression?
  • have been diagnosed with OCD or PTSD?
  • have been as drawn to use substances?
  • have been promiscuous?
  • be attracted to my own gender more than the opposite?
  • have participated in so many behaviors that my religion teaches are sinful?
  • grapple with my feelings about religion and God as much?
  • struggle as much in my relationships with my family, friends and romantic partners?
  • have tried to kill myself?

Who would I be if I had never been abused? I will never know. I can’t change what happened but don’t blame myself for wanting to understand how I was impacted and how to get better.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting by choosing to go to the funeral but was hoping for some answers. I wanted to have some closure. I wanted to confirm he was really dead. I wanted to know if his family would explain how tragic his childhood was or give me a reason to better understand his actions towards me. I wished that he had left a note for someone to read at the funeral apologizing to all of his victims for the immeasurable pain he had caused and beg for forgiveness. I wanted to bid adieu to my perpetrator and hopefully all of the pain he had caused me, my family, his other victims, and families in my community.

My choosing to go wasn’t just going to be for me. Symbolically it felt like a way I could represent other victims by standing up to my abuser and showing him how strong I have become. I wouldn’t have to sit on a witness stand or utter a word to do it. I could just quietly face him.

My struggle isn’t over, but I still believe I can become the person I was always meant to be. I am still here and enjoying my life more and more. Other victims are still here. As long as any of us are, we have the chance to help each other find our inner strength to overcome adversity. We have a chance to reach out to each other, unite and make things even better for the next generation.

Part of me wants to believe that my abuser’s death is part of a silver-lining, a beautiful opportunity to reach out even more. I already feel part of my heavy load lifting.


Invisible Pain: A Male Sexual Abuse Survivor

The summer after I turned 25, I drove to Salt Lake City one afternoon to meet with my new psychologist for the first time. I was apprehensive because I didn’t have a positive experience with my first therapist.

I peered out of a floor-to-ceiling window of his office located in a high-rise downtown as I waited for our session to begin. I gazed down on the area where buildings had recently been demolished to make room for the new City Creek Center. Loud noises from the construction penetrated the large windows. I saw a large crane and many workers outside preparing way for new structures to be built. Unlike this area, I feared my life had no chance of being renewed.

This psychologist was a friend of my parents’. Since I continued to struggle even after meeting with a therapist he had recommended, he agreed to meet with me himself. I had interacted with him a little growing up. I found comfort knowing he knew who I was. Although I had given up believing anyone could help me, somewhere deep down I hoped he would be able to understand me and explain why I had stopped progressing.

I made it clear I didn’t want to focus on my homosexual feelings or spirituality as I had with my previous therapist. At that point, I had accepted that my attractions for my own gender were a part of me. Instead, I wanted to understand who I was and what would happen to me as I was choosing what type of life to lead. I told him about the on-again/off-again relationship I was in at the time. And how I worried about everything and feared most everyone for as long as I could remember. I told him about some troubling experiences from my LDS Mission.

The psychologist paused in the middle of our appointment and voiced an observation that changed my self-awareness forever.  He said, “You’re in a lot of pain.”

“What?” I thought.

I didn’t understand what he meant. I became defensive and thought, “Me, in a lot of pain? How would you know? You hardly know me. Look at me. I don’t have any health problems or serious injuries. I have no reason to be in so much pain.”  My understanding for causes of pain  had been limited to physical injury or illness. I knew some people experienced emotional pain but perceived it was a choice to dwell in it. Strong people were able to brush it off and move on. I had always wanted to be strong so I had convinced myself I had everything under control.

He explained I had physical manifestations of pain and brought attention to my breathing. He asked me to listen to how forceful my exhale was. I paused for the first time to focus on my breathing as an indicator of my pain.

Inhale. I was almost gasping for air.

Exhale. The sound of my exhale seemed to drown out the noise from the construction. It was loud enough someone ten feet away could have heard.

I immediately became self-conscious. I wondered, “Do I always breath like this?”

He continued to explain this is how my body was trying to release pain. “Release invisible pain?” I wondered perplexedly.

He said that in all of his years of helping people he didn’t remember seeing anyone in as much pain as me. He was surprised that I had made it as far in life as I had. He thought I had actually done remarkably well.

I wondered, “Really? Me?” I knew he had worked with a lot of people throughout his career and questioned if I really felt THAT much pain. He had to have met with people way more messed up than I was. Did this mean I was the most damaged person he had encountered? Maybe he said this to all of his patients to keep them needing more therapy? But then I remembered, he was meeting with me for free. He wanted to help.

I didn’t esteem this observation as a badge of honor and didn’t want to be labeled as someone who chose to feel pain. Ashamed by how damaged this must have meant that I was; I felt even weaker than I had before entering his office.

I left questioning whether or not reaching out for help again had been a good idea. Making the connection between my pain and breathing had been an excruciating discovery. I didn’t know why this observation hurt so bad as I considered what pain these thunderous breaths might be masking. I had wanted to bolt out of his office and pretend this appointment had never happened.

How unaware of myself was I?

I didn’t want to accept there was any truth behind what he had said to me but could no longer ignore my true state-of-being. Reality sunk in as I reasoned with myself, “What good am I doing by denying that I feel pain? Ignoring doesn’t seem to make it go away. If I really am suffering, shouldn’t I be getting help?” The facade of being happy began cracking as I accepted that I really did feel pain. I concluded moving forward with him felt like the right thing to do, not knowing we had only reached the beginning, the tip of the iceberg.

Though I wasn’t willing to admit it at the time, my life had already spiraled out of control before meeting with him. I had stopped caring and felt worthless, incapable of accomplishing anything good. After transferring from two different schools, I had dropped out of college. My weekends were spent partying and drinking, which allowed me to escape for a while but made it harder to keep up my facade. I had never planned to make these types of decisions.

At the time, I was temporarily living at my parents’.  I would disappear, sometimes for days without telling them where I was. No phone call or text message. I wasn’t sure why I acted this way, especially as a 25-year-old man.  I began wondering if this was an indication of my pain.  Instead of seeking for understanding and approval from others as much as I had in the past, I began trying to understand who I really was. As a consequence of dissociating from the abuse, I had unknowingly disconnected from myself.

Prior to and for many years after this visit, I often thought, “No one will ever understand me. No one really cares. I could die tomorrow and the world would keep moving forward soon to forget me. I am all alone.”

What I know now and wish I knew back then is that I wasn’t alone. Many survivors before me and many others continue to feel similarly to how I have felt. Many feel this invisible pain. A pain masked from everyone else and burdened alone, sometimes for years, unaware of the gravity of its impact. It’s hard to make connections between adult struggles and the childhood abuse we disconnect from.

Learning of other victims’ experiences has helped me feel less lonely, and not feeling alone has brought me comfort. Before I began healing, I didn’t know what life was like not to carry the burdens that should have been my abuser’s. What I didn’t know is how much better life would be once I began understanding and healing from this this masked pain.

As a male sexual abuse survivor, I am not alone. You are not alone. As survivors, we are not alone.