Peter Pollard is Training and Outreach Director for 1in6. His commentary played on the morning radio show on WPSU, the PBS/NPR station serving central Pennsylvania.
Like so many, I’ve been deeply moved in recent weeks by the stories of abuse and neglect pouring out of Penn State. Predictably, it’s stirred memories of my own healing from sexual abuse by a trusted childhood mentor.
But despite those memories, I’m confident that as we gather for Thanksgiving dinner and college football rituals Thursday, we can still find plenty to be thankful for when the talk inevitably turns to Penn State.
I’m thankful for the courage of eight young men who reported being sexually abused. They found the strength to come forward and to insist that those who failed them, be held accountable. The world is already a better place as a result.
And I’m grateful for the growing public support for those young men and others like them. Each day, the volume of that support encourages the 19 million men in the US with similar experiences of childhood sexual abuse to believe that it’s safe to begin telling their own stories.
I’m thankful for the paradoxical lessons we’re learning at Penn State. We’re reminded that men’s lives can be shaped by being silent victims of violence and that asking for help makes a man stronger, not weaker.
From an early age, we men are told to never express emotions like fear or sadness – to never acknowledge being victimized. Denied adequate outlets, many of us who are abused turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the feelings; to addictions, like food, work, sex, or risky behaviors to distract us from the feelings; or to physical or sexual violence or even suicide to shove those forbidden feelings away.
And so, I’m thankful for the opportunity our new awareness about sexual abuse gives us, to offer boys and men options, other than brave silence. From my own experience of healing, I know that by revealing those underlying emotions, we men can free ourselves from a lonely, secret shame. Then we’re ready to shift our focus toward a future of possibility instead of always looking back in anger.
As with any traumatic experience, sexual abuse changed my life in ways that can never be erased. But once I began talking about it, once I asked for help, I was able, with the support of my family and friends, to create a life I love – though very different from the one I might have had, unabused.
I don’t pretend it was always an easy process, or that I haven’t stumbled, or don’t mourn what was lost.
Healing is a journey with many potential detours.
But I do know, that if we support them, healing is a possibility for the young men who were hurt at Penn State and for many others.
And for that, we all can be thankful.