“I can’t forgive him,” I said.
He just looked at me. Didn’t say a word.
“I can’t,” I protested. “He’s a sick fuck who tried to molest me. I was only six years old, man. No, this resentment isn’t going anywhere. I’m holding onto this one.”
He looked annoyed.
“Alright, well how about this,” he told me, unimpressed. “How about you get the fuck out of my house and come back when you’re ready to try things my way.” He stood up, ready to usher me from his deck to my car.
Decision time. This guy was my “sponsor.” I was a “drug addict.” All I knew was I wanted to stop “doing drugs” because my life had “gone to shit,” but I didn’t know how. I had shredded my life into pieces, pushing away anybody who I’d ever been close. Friends. Family. Acquaintances. I had nobody. Nothing.
No job. No money. Nothing.
I wasn’t even sure what a sponsor was, but this guy was the only person who seemed to want me around. Every 12-step meeting I went to, all I heard was “get a sponsor,” or, “Have you gotten a sponsor yet?” So I found this guy just to shut them up.
And here he was, teaching me to let go of something that cut my innocence in half at a young age, creating a dividing line of BEFORE and AFTER.
Let me back up to before.
Spring Valley, California, sometime in the mid 1980s. My best friend Jason and I were inseparable. We rode bikes, caught bugs, went fishing, played sports. He lived across the street from me and he was the closest thing I had to a brother. He was my first best friend.
He had a brother named Greg, who was six years older than both Jason and me. I didn’t pay too much attention to Greg. He was older and did whatever it was that older kids did, which was different than the things Jason and I did. There was no reason for him to be a part of my life.
Until the day he changed all of that.
Jason’s parents were gone and he and I were playing with toys in the living room. I’d brought over my He-Man Battle Cat and Castle of Grayskull. Together with Jason’s He-Man toys, we had the whole team assembled to defend the realm of Eternia from Skeletor.
Except we were missing Skeletor.
“Where’s Skeletor?” I asked. It was strange because that was the one action-figure we’d always argue over. It was always there.
Jason just looked down at the carpet, a defeated glance noticeable even to a fellow six-year-old.
There were two bedrooms attached to the living room, one of them being Greg’s. The door to the left was closed, but Greg’s door was slightly open. Skeletor stood just inside the room, waiting for Jason and me to come get.
“Don’t go in there,” Jason told me. “Just leave it there.” I’d never seen Jason so serious before.
“But we need Skeletor,” I protested. “For Snake Mountain.”
“Jason,” he begged. “Don’t do it. Don’t go in there. PLEASE.”
I wasn’t listening. I wanted that toy, and it was just over there. I stood up and walked toward the toy. I think I heard “Jason, don’t!” but I can’t be certain. As soon as I entered the bedroom the door slammed. Greg was standing off to the side of the doorway in a place nobody could see.
I was like a fly who’d been caught in trap, a horrifically spun web with just the right bait.
He was much bigger than I was, and placed his hands on my chest, fingers gripping my armpits, pushing me until I fell back into the open closet. On the way back, I accidentally kicked over Skeletor, who just looked away.
“What are you doing?” I asked, confused, scared. “Greg, stop!”
I was surrounded by hanging jackets and T-shirts. I couldn’t see anything. All I could feel was clothes pushing up against my face. Standing up I felt Greg push me back one more time until I hit the back of the closet. It made a loud thumping sound.
“Greg, get off of me,” I begged. But he wasn’t listening. He had a smile on his face as he looked at me. “Just hold still,” he said. “Watch this.”
Reaching down, he unbuttoned my pants. I could feel him trying to reach his hand down, under my pants but above my underwear. I immediately panicked, pushing back as hard as I could and knocking down the rod of clothes, the closet door, and Greg.
He fell onto his back, crushing Skeletor beneath him.
With my pants unbuttoned I ran out of the room. Jason looked at me, surprised I’d made it out so quickly. “Jason,” he yelled as I buttoned my pants, still not sure what in the fuck had just happened. “RUN!”
This time I listened to him. We ran as fast as we could out of the house. I was faster than Jason, but he was running faster than me that day. He ran from that house with a passion and urgency I’d never seen. I’m certain he was trying to outrun more than just me on that day.
Running down the street, I could see my dad in front of our house working on his VW Bus. “Tell your dad,” Jason begged me. “Tell your dad what happened!” As we got closer, my dad overheard our conversation.
“Tell me what?” He asked.
By the time we got to the VW Bus, we were both out of breath. I stood knelt over, hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath while I thought. I wanted to tell my dad what had happened. I swear to God I did. But I also felt embarrassed. Ashamed. I didn’t understand sex or sexuality, but I knew what just happened was wrong. I could feel it.
Jason looked over at me, as if this were finally it. He wanted me to tell my dad so badly, I could see it in his face. This was not just a chance to tell what had happened to me, but could also stop whatever was happening to him. He looked at me, eyes wide open, part trepidation, part excitement, part relief.
All I had to do was tell my dad what happened.
When I opened my mouth to speak, I planned on telling him. I had it all thought out:
Dad, Greg tried to touch me. Greg pushed me into the closet and tried to touch me. I think he’s doing this to Jason too. Dad, Jason’s scared. I’m scared. Dad, help me. Dad, make me feel safe. Dad, I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel different than I did before. Something has changed. Please Dad, please make it stop. Something is wrong. I don’t know the right words, but something is not right. Make what I’m feeling go away, Dad. Please.
That is what I wanted to say. Instead:
“Greg hit me in the arm.”
That’s all that came out of my mouth.
My dad just chuckled to himself. “OK, well, just don’t go over there for awhile. You guys go to our house and play.” And just like that, he ducked his head under the hood and continued with whatever he was doing before.
As we inched away, my dad poked his head out one more time. “If you want, you guys can play He-Man in the living room.”
I looked at Jason and he looked at me. Nothing needed to be said.
“I don’t play He-Man anymore,” I told my dad.
“Oh,” he responded, surprised. “Okay. Never mind”
I didn’t want to walk back to my car. Leaving was a death sentence. This was my last shot at getting this life thing together. I was out of second chances. As my sponsor stood up to usher me out, I sat back down.
“Alright, just tell me what to do,” I said, like a petulant child.
I wasn’t used to this. Men weren’t supposed to talk about these things, especially not with other men. Men were supposed to just suck it up, stuff it deep down, deal with it on their own. Men weren’t supposed to reach out for help. Men weren’t supposed to hurt or feel or cry.
Society had taught me each of these things, and it was about to kill me.
“What is your part?” he asked me, point blank.
I just looked at him. Silently. The question seemed ridiculous.
“My part? I was a little kid. I had no part.”
“You’re right,” he stated. “What happened was fucked up and it wasn’t your fault. But I’m not asking you what was your part. I’m asking you what isyour part. Your part in holding onto this resentment. Not your FAULT. Your PART.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, confused.
“Look, as a six-year-old boy, what happened is sad. It’s fucked up. There’s no doubt about that. But you’re not a six-year-old boy anymore. You’re a 33-year-old man. So let’s change the perspective.”
What he said hit me in the chest, and he knew it.
“I’ll be back,” he said, standing up. “Think about that for a minute.”
For 27 years, whenever I thought about that day, I thought about it from the perspective of six-year-old boy. Through the lens of a first-grader. Never had I once allowed myself to see it from the outside, from adulthood. I’d never even thought about adjusting my perspective. And suddenly, when given the direction to do so, everything began to change.
As a six-year-old, Greg was much older. Closer to an adult than to me. That’s how I had always viewed him. Bigger, older, grown. But now, from this perspective, I realized that Greg was only 11 years old.
Holy shit. He was just a kid. An 11-year-old kid. That shit that he tried… that’s a learned behavior. He learned it from someone… oh my God, somebody did that to him. Perhaps to the point where he saw it as normal.
This didn’t excuse what he did. But I began to understand.
I had empathy, from the strangest of places. I empathized with what he must have been though, because he put me through it. I knew how bad he must have hurt, because he hurt me the same way.
As a child, I hated him. As an adult, I began to forgive him.
I also began to realize that Greg wasn’t even the person I hated most in this situation. I hated myself for not telling my dad, for not saving Jason. I felt like a coward, somebody who had an opportunity to do something and didn’t. For so long, I hated myself to the core for not saying anything.
But looking at it as an adult, I saw myself as a little kid, running toward my dad. There was no “proper” way to handle that situation, no playbook to follow. I was just doing my best.
Holy shit. You were just a kid. A six-year-old kid. You were scared. Confused. Ashamed. Ease up, man. You’re judging yourself for what you did as a child by the standards of an adult. That’s not fair. You have to let it go.
This didn’t excuse what I failed to do. But I began to understand.
As a child, I hated myself. As an adult, I began to forgive myself.
I never realized how saturated in guilt and shame I was until I felt it evaporate. All at once, it just lifted off of me. All of the pain, the resentment, the hatred for both Greg and myself… it was gone in an instant.
On cue I began balling my eyes out. Crying like a baby. Not out of sadness, but rather of relief. I tried to hide my face in my hands, but my whole body shook. Tears poured out of my eyes and goosebumps traced across my arms and shoulders. I couldn’t remember ever crying that hard, and as my sponsor walked back out on to the deck, he didn’t say a word. He walked over next to me, put his arms around me, and hugged me.
Men aren’t supposed to cry. Men aren’t supposed to hug. Men aren’t supposed to talk about shit like this. Yet after breaking every one of these rules, I felt a freedom from something I was holding on to since I was six years old.
Driving away from his house that day, I felt for the first time in recovery that I might actually be able to do it. Stay clean. I felt a change inside of me, the first what would be many. Inside me, being the key. For so long, I’d induced feelings from the outside. With substances, but without substance.
Thus began my journey of self-repair, self-forgiveness, from the inside out.