Conjuring Hope in a Storm: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog
Living in New England in mid-winter, it’s necessary to learn to conjure up a sense of hope, even with the snow piling up outside the window. It always helps to remind myself, Spring is just around the corner.
I find I can use the same lesson in my work life, whenever I feel discouraged. I stop, and remind myself just how far we’ve actually come over the last 40 years, in the effort to end sexual abuse of children, and to provide a path to healing for the women and men, boys and girls who’ve experienced abuse.
No question, we still have a long way to go before sexual abuse is a thing of the past. There is no room for complacency. Denial and silence are still the greatest enablers of abuse. But when I think about the absence of awareness and options I had as a boy in the 1960s – when I was being sexually abused by my parish priest – I recognize that we now live in a dramatically different, and more promising world.
Even a disheartening, daily dose of news stories is a clear sign of the progress that’s been made. Previously-well-respected actors, entertainers, religious leaders, politicians, and parents, are being publicly confronted with reports of their past sexually-abusive behavior. Forty years ago, psychology texts were still teaching would-be clinicians that sexual abuse of children was a one-in-a-million event. Now we all know better.
People are talking openly and regularly about sexual abuse. Nearly everyone acknowledges that sexual abuse is a widespread problem with long-term consequences for individuals, families and communities (though many still naively believe it’s not a problem in their own family or community.) Children and adults, males and females, feel safer about breaking their silence, and are much more likely to disclose abuse than ever before.
It’s still not easy, but now there’s a context, an understanding about the issue that was previously non-existent. In recent years, clinicians, researchers and policy makers have begun to understand that abuse experienced by men and boys as well as women and girls has an impact on who they become. That awareness has inspired a movement toward a trauma-informed approach to managing the negative behaviors that are so often connected to a history of abuse.
Such openness about sexual abuse was unimaginable when I was an adolescent boy trying to make sense of what was happening to me.
And it was unimaginable to me in the years that followed, as my life unraveled, that, as a man, I’d be believed if I told anyone about the abuse.
And the idea that I might reclaim a full, meaningful and happy life was also unimaginable, when I first disclosed my abuse as a thirty-something man in the mid-1980s, confronted the priest who abused me and challenged the Church leaders, who had ignored the signs of his abuse.
Over time, the unimaginable became real.
Healing didn’t just happen. It’s a process. It’s work – difficult, but gratifying. I leaned on family, and friends, and professionals and a community of men and women, who courageously told their own stories, and showed me the way. Connection with others – those who choose well-being, is a key part of my recovery.
Healing hasn’t made my boyhood experiences of abuse go away. I haven’t forgotten them. But I learned to incorporate those experiences into my self-image as something I’ve overcome, rather than something that defines who I am (and the process of overcoming them, as a source of valuable, new skills.)
No. Collectively, we’re not where we need to be, yet. Like anyone else, I certainly can be discouraged by the latest news story. Children and adults are still experiencing abuse every day.
But then, I remind myself.
I know that change is possible. I’ve seen it in myself and in others. And that knowledge inspires me to keep working to make sure that the next 40 years bring advances as rich and as meaningful as the last in combatting sexual abuse and providing services to promote healing. It gives me confidence that we have the potential to create a much healthier, safer world. I conjure hope.
Oh! And I know Spring is coming!
By Peter Pollard
Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.