June 22nd, 2013 // 11:33 pm @ marla
First-time novelist Brian Sweany overcame the crippling loss of his father, a devastating family secret, and years of depression by putting it all into a novel. Art is seriously imitating reality — and helping him release emotional pain.
On October 1, 1992, when I was 21-years-old, my father was killed in an automobile accident.
It wasn’t so much an accident as it was a cruel, almost unbelievable confluence of events. He was a car dealer visiting the Indianapolis Auto Auction to acquire some used vehicles for his dealership down in Columbus, Indiana. Mom had actually told him not to go to work that day because he had been fighting a stomach bug. Around 8:30 in the morning, Dad was standing in a garage stall bidding on a GMC Sonoma when a Ford Bronco with a sticky accelerator came hurtling out of the repo line. It pinned my father against the back bumper of the Sonoma, practically cutting him in half at the torso. He died almost instantly, or at least I hope he did.
Dad left behind a wife and marriage of 23 years, two sons and two daughters. I was the oldest. My sisters were 18 and 15. My brother, a child conceived when my father decided to reverse his vasectomy in his forties, was only 4 years old. The loss crippled our family with grief and despair. Mom became the saddest of widows, plunging herself into a haze of anti-depressants and bad relationships, never quite getting over her loneliness. My sisters would eventually both move west to California, ostensibly to go to school but more likely to escape their grief. My little brother just wanted his daddy to come home.
For about nine months after Dad died, I was a walking cliché, a classic emotional train wreck, acting out at every turn: self-destructive, promiscuous, drunk, and high much of the time. I did anything I could to try to ignore the hole in my heart and the depression that had taken over my life. At one point it looked like that behavior would become my life.
In addition to the terrible loss I faced, I harbored a secret I refused to acknowledge while my father was alive. It was something so heinous I could not bear for him to know: I was sexually abused by my father’s best friend—my godfather—until I was 10-years-old. I wrestled for many years with how and when I would tell people. Somehow my father’s death gave me permission to excavate it from a hidden compartment in my mind.
But before I even had a chance to share, something began to change in my life. I did something that was either brave or foolhardy, or maybe even a little of both. I let life happen. I met an amazing woman and fell in love. I got married; what’s more, I’ve made that marriage stick for going on 18 years and have three beautiful children to show for it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My Godfather Is a Pedophile
In the fall of 1995, I got my chance to release my burden. My wife and I had been married for only two months. We were living in an apartment in Ypsilanti, Michigan, as she finished up nursing school at Eastern Michigan University. A few weeks after the third anniversary of my father’s death, my mother called. I could tell by the sound of her voice that she had been crying. I braced myself for the worst, again.
“Your godfather tried to commit suicide yesterday,” she said.
My father was an only child. He was raised by an abusive and alcoholic mother and a sweet-natured, big-hearted father. On those days when Grandma’s love was measured by the length of a switch and Grandpa wasn’t there to protect him, Dad sought solace in his friends. One such friend was Ron, a man Dad would come to regard as his brother. For every seminal moment in my father’s life, “Uncle Ron” was there. He was Dad’s best man. He stood watch over Dad’s first-born son (me), both as Godfather at my baptism and later as my confirmation sponsor. He gave the eulogy at Dad’s funeral. He walked Mom down the aisle at my wedding. Our wedding reception was the last time we spoke. I even felt guilty for not keeping in touch those last eight weeks leading up to his attempted suicide because in my mind he was still my godfather.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“The paramedics got to him just in time, and they found a note,” said my mother.
“A suicide note?”
“A suicide note, a confession, whatever you want to call it,” Mom said. “It’s bad, Brian. It’s really bad. Your godfather has been charged with child molestation and criminal deviate conduct. He’s been molesting young boys, his middle school students. Uncle Ron is a pedophile.”
Uncle Ron is a pedophile. I let those words roll around in my head for a few seconds, searching in vain for the right way to process the revelation. Memories came flooding back to me. The need to say something, now, overcame me.
“Brian,” Mom continued. “A part of me is almost glad your father is dead, because this would have killed him.”
Again, silence on both ends of the phone. My pulse quickened. My chest was tight. I had to tell her. “I know this would have killed Dad,” I said. “And that’s why I never told anyone about what Uncle Ron did to me for the first ten years of my life. He abused me too.”
My mother was stunned. I had hidden it so well.
Everyone deals with abuse—physical, sexual, emotional or otherwise—in their own very personal way. I had many bouts of depression. I abused alcohol. My skewed perceptions of sexuality and intimacy led me to objectify women and nearly derail my marriage. But in the end, I let life happen. While I cannot distill it into a step-by-step instruction manual, I want to share my story and some of my philosophy for those who have similar situations.
Be Heroic but Humble. As someone who writes for a living, I can’t help but love Oprah Winfrey for how many people she has brought back to reading books. That being said, sometimes she goes a little too far with her armchair psychology, perpetuating a culture of victimhood that insists truth can only be derived through tears and hyper-affirmation. Overcoming abuse is heroic, and yes, we should be lauded, but I think we also need to be careful not to allow abuse to define us.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, there is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year. There are 525,600 minutes in a non-leap year. That makes 31,536,000 seconds per year. 31,536,000 divided by 207,754 comes out to one sexual assault every 152 seconds, or about one every two minutes. Translation: There are a lot of us in this lifeboat. Many of us feel broken, but the word “victim” need not be synonymous with abuse. For me, not treating myself as a victim, and instead learning the difference between flailing and flying, has been a far more powerful recovery mantra.
Give Yourself Permission to Hate. My abuse happened at such a young age that by the time I had the psychological tools to recognize that it was a bad thing, I had long since created two separate and distinct Uncle Ron personas: The Godfather and The Monster. The Godfather was Dad’s brother and the man I loved, the man everyone loved. The Monster was this shadowy figure who liked crawling into bed with little boys and sticking his hand down the front side of their underwear.
If there was a silver lining to losing my father, it was that his death gave me permission to fully realize Uncle Ron as The Monster. I was twenty-four years of age, and to that point had chalked up my pre-marriage promiscuity and compulsive masturbation to hormones, not my own personal demons. Telling my mother, and then my wife, actualized the abuse. I’ve been on the therapist’s couch. I’ve read my share of self-helps books. I know all about giving myself permission to grieve and permission to forgive. But honestly, the first step in my recovery was giving me permission to hate. It may not sound politically correct, but it was emotionally correct for my recovery. It could be that once you allow that real feeling to rise that you can find your way beyond it, but it was important not to cheat myself out of the chance to truly feel hatred toward the person who had hurt me.
Love and Laugh. When I think back to the twenty-something young man who used to drink a bottle of hundred-proof peppermint schnapps just to get through the day, I struggle relating to him. Once you’ve given yourself permission to hate, flip the script. Learn to love yourself, learn to love others, and most importantly, learn to laugh.
Humor is an underrated tonic. Like far too many people, my mother usually reaches for the closest bottle of Class IV narcotics when she’s feeling down. Conversely, I put Caddyshack in the DVR and have farting contests with my kids. Make a list of things you find funny, and pull that list out when depression starts to hit. How many times have you been to a funeral home and witnessed the sudden and unexpected transition from tears to laughter? It happened at my father’s wake. The heart wants to heal. It’s your brain that gets in the way.
Find Your Therapy. The journey forward from abuse is a very personal one. I’ve sat on a couch and talked to attentive strangers with fancy degrees. My mother’s struggles notwithstanding, I have seen prescription anti-depressants vastly improve the lives of a lot of people. Neither of these approaches works for me, and I suspect many people find themselves in this limbo between modern psychiatry and Western medicine. Once you’ve figured out how to be heroic but humble, the final step is learning how to channel that confidence and humility to find your therapy.
Since conventional therapy did not work, I took to writing my story in the form of a fictional account of my experience. I poured my heart, soul, and personal pain into my debut novel, Exotic Music of the Belly Dance. It is a coming of age story of a boy who loses his father and is abused by his monstrous uncle. Sound familiar? Brian Sweany became “Hank Fitzpatrick,” Uncle Ron became “Uncle Mitch,” and everything I ever wanted to say to him played out on the page. Calling my book merely a “novel” is an understatement. It was a catharsis. It was my therapy. Maybe yours is also writing. Maybe it’s eighteen holes with your best friend. Maybe it’s an early morning jog when the day is new and full of opportunity. Maybe it’s talking to a professional and taking medicine. Regardless of what your therapy might be, just find it.
Move Forward. I don’t know if I will ever fully recover from my own personal tragedies, but does anyone? Spoiler alert: I’m nowhere near “cured.” My intimacy issues remain, I try too hard to be liked, and I rarely stop at just that second cocktail. And yet, I have a wife who loves me. My three kids at least pretend I’m the coolest guy on the block. My brother, now twenty-five years old, isn’t waiting for his daddy to come home because he looks up to me as his father.
I have decided to live my life, not merely survive it. Brave or foolhardy, or maybe even a little of both, I prefer to let life happen.
Brian Sweany lives near Indianapolis with his wife of 18 years and their three children. His debut novel, Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer, was released by The Writers Coffee Shop Publishing House in May 2013. His second novel, Making Out with Blowfish, is due out in 2014. His godfather is currently a registered sex offender. Follow Brian on Twitter@briansweany.
June 12th, 2012 // 2:55 pm @ marla
We have all been told at least once in our life to “take the high road.” Sometimes it’s implied that we are the wiser individual and therefor we should be the “bigger” person. Other times it’s under the guise of being a good Christian, and we are being petty so we should turn the other cheek. In any case taking the high road is a vague statement and no one really has effectively defined what that phrase really means.
I would like to clear up any misconceptions about the meaning. First let me say that taking the high road does not mean that you allow anyone to walk all over you. I have found that when someone is manipulative or abusive, they throw that phrase at you expecting you to become submissive. When we hear “take the high road” we automatically feel as if we reacted in the wrong way, or we took the low road so we should get back on the high road. Um, that word should…sounds like we did something wrong.
Taking the high does mean to react with integrity, but it doesn’t mean to relinquish someone out of responsibility especially when they are throwing a tantrum or acting inappropriately. Taking the high road means to deal with the matter with honesty and truth without turning it into a drama. Taking the high road doesn’t mean to take the blame when it’s not your fault or to allow anyone to humiliate you.
My client (let’s call her Jane) was dealing with a difficult co-worker. Jane was being berated and did not like the treatment she was getting from her fellow worker. She discussed this with her manager and was told to let it go, and to “take the high road.” Well, Jane did that and her coworker kept criticizing her and even took the verbiage to a new level. Now, Jane was not only the topic of gossip around the water cooler, but this gossip was circulating into different departments in her company. Jane was frustrated because most of being said was untrue. She tried to set the record straight but it was too late. The damage was done. At this point Jane came to me wanting to quit and run away from this ugly problem.
The first thing I asked her was to tell me the truth and how did this problem get started in the first place. It seems that Jane was assigned a special project and she accomplished it with new ideas that she had thought up that was a first for her company. It was a big success but her co-worker was jealous because she was given the job last year and although she did a good job, Jane’s work was superior. Instead of praising Jane, she started rumors saying Jane was arrogant and she was spending a lot of the company’s money in her projects. This co-worker said that Jane had no business trying to change the company’s policy and eluded that Jane must be sleeping with the boss to have received so much success from the special project.
I immediately told Jane to set up a meeting with her manager and her manger’s boss in private and to explain what was going on and to look for solutions to stop the damaging gossip. Jane did not want to do that, it was very scary for her to confront her manager on this again and she was sure that she would be fired. It was easier for Jane to quit and find a different job. That was her version of taking the high road. That doesn’t sound fair does it?
I kept encouraging Jane to set up the meeting and to tell the truth. After two more months of this, Jane finally did it. She talked with her manager and the Chief Operating Officer. Jane explained everything and was told to take one week off for vacation. When she returned, things were very different at work, Jane’s co-worker was gone and there was no more gossip. It so happens that Jane’s company has a zero tolerance of bullying in the workplace and Jane’s co-worker already had been reprimanded on this issue, so the company had no choice but to let her go. Problem solved.
Here is what taking the high road doesn’t mean:
It doesn’t mean to give in to a bully.
It doesn’t mean to be in denial.
It doesn’t mean to let something go that really needs to be resolved.
It doesn’t mean to give someone the right to spread lies about you.
It doesn’t mean to allow someone to abuse you.
It doesn’t mean to let it go because you are afraid of someone’s reaction.
It doesn’t mean to give in to fear.
It doesn’t mean taking responsibility for someone else’s problem.
It doesn’t mean to be an enabler.
Here is what taking the high road does means:
It does mean to hold people responsible for their actions
It does mean to resolve the problem without drama.
It does mean to set your boundaries and enforce them in a way people can understand.
It does mean to react with integrity.
It does mean to get to the truth of the situation.
It does mean to communicate effectively.
It does mean to look for solutions.
It does mean to be professional and competent.
It does mean to resolve the problem that is best for all concerned.
December 31st, 2011 // 1:54 am @ marla
When a client wants me to help them stick to a New Year’s Resolution, I give them these 5 tips:
1. Be clear on what you want. For example, if you want to lose weight, how much weight do you want to lose? Is it 5 , 15, or 20 pounds or more? Be realistic and as detailed as possible on what you want to achieve, and then write it down. There is something dynamic about the act of putting your goals on paper and reading them aloud.
2. Surround yourself around people who are supportive. There are some friends who like to sabotage your success, so it’s very important to surround yourself around people who will help you attain your goal and not sway you off course. It would be helpful to be around those who have already attained what you are are striving to accomplish.
3. Be committed. How badly do you want your goal? The stronger your intention of getting what you want will be the catalyst of how fast you can achieve your New Year’s Resolution. Remind yourself of how bad you want it. Leave yourself little post-its in your car, on your desk, and even on the refrigerator. You can even give yourself a “trigger” word to help you stay motivated. I had a client who would wear a rubber band and whenever she wanted to smoke a cigarette, she would snap it and say, “I choose to be healthy” to remind herself how unhealthy smoking was for her. She quit smoking within 3 months.
4. Use your subconscious mind to assist you in getting what you want. Your subconscious mind is very powerful, so try hypnosis or meditation to get yourself in the right frame of mind to really stick to your commitment. Visualizing yourself already attaining your goal is very effective too. “If you can see it, you can achieve it.”
5. Be flexible and ready to tweak your plan to make it work for you. You might to have to alter your strategy if something isn’t working. Don’t give up, just be ready to switch to plan “B” if you find that your original plan isn’t successful. Remember the saying,’ If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again until you do.”
Happy New Year!
October 23rd, 2011 // 5:35 pm @ marla
We are all concerned with taking good care of ourselves, eating healthy and choosing vitamins and supplements that do our body good. We will spend extra money on organic foods and maybe even go out of our way to make fresh meals for our families. But there is a something that we forget to take into consideration regarding our health. It’s our relationships.
Humans are highly social. We’re not designed to be solitary or live in isolation. In fact, our society considers solitary confinement as the ultimate punishment. But we forget just how important our relationships are. Our connection to others can stimulate our brains. When we interact with others it gives us a feeling of belonging, and this is vital for good mental health. When we have the opportunity to express ourselves to others and be able to hear other viewpoints in regards to a variety of circumstances, we are able to raise our consciousness to a higher level. Not only is this how we learn, but it also gives way to spiritual growth.
Studies have shown that those who are mentally healthy have solid meaningful relationships and a strong support group that they interact with on a regular basis. I hope you have noticed that I have mentioned healthy relationships in this article. I am not talking about controlling, manipulative, domineering, or abusive relationships. These are toxic and raise big red flags regarding your mental health. I am talking about healthy and supportive relationships that are positive and stable.
There are ways to start making new friends and begin socializing with the right type of people by volunteering, joining a club, or getting involved in your local community. You can reconnect with good friends that you may have lost touch with by reaching out over the phone, or sending an e-mail.
Let’s not forget the power of our furry friends. Pets have long been known to aid in the longevity of good health with their endless supply of unconditional love. Animals can give us a feeling of importance and take our focus off of problems for a while. They help us lighten up and release stress.
So, the next time you are looking for that magic vitamin, take a friend out to lunch or play catch with your pet, it will do a body good.