Thriving After Trauma: Sharing insights on sexual assault and family loss in my twenties.
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
Author: Geoffrey Ahern
My name is Geoffrey, I’m a Senior Mental Health Clinician working in a large metropolitan hospital in Melbourne. I work in the Emergency Department on the Emergency Mental Health Team. Our role is to assess people who present to the ED in crisis. This can range from seeing people who are suicidal, to seeing people who’ve become unwell with an illness like schizophrenia or bipolar, and anything and everything in between. It’s an incredibly challenging but equally rewarding job, and I consider it a privilege and honour to be able to do what I do (and get paid to do it).
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve already lived my twenties, so now I get to look back in hindsight and see what worked and what didn’t work in terms of getting through. It saddens me somewhat to admit that much of what I look back on is disappointing. I wish I’d had the foresight to focus less on career, less on worrying about what people thought of me, and more on doing the personal work that later, when I did do it, was transformational.
My twenties started out pretty well. I was optimistic and hopeful that my future would be, “picture perfect”: I would marry my childhood sweetheart, excel at my university studies, and be working in my dream job. But I secretly loathed myself: I strived for perfection, not for personal reasons, but because I wanted others to admire me and tell me how well I was doing. I craved deeply the acceptance of others. But no-one knew this. On the outside I was confident and happy, but on the inside I was a scared little boy and incredibly insecure.
Things started to fall apart in my mid twenties. After almost 5 years of marriage my wife and I had our first child. I’ll never forget the moment he was born. Of course this is because there is something very special and beautiful about seeing your first born come into the world. But there was a dark side to his birth too.
We didn’t know the sex of our child until he was delivered, and the moment I realised we had a boy, I felt this sickening feeling in my stomach. I remember in my mind saying to God, “please don’t let me hurt this boy the way other men have hurt me.”
I was completely and utterly shocked. Where on earth did this come from? In actual fact, I knew where. I was sexually assaulted by multiple perpetrators on four separate occasions as a child. I never told anyone. And when my son was born, I was suddenly terrified that because these men had hurt me, the natural outcome would be that I would hurt my boy too. Have you heard the saying, “hurt people hurt people”?
Of course this wasn’t true. I could never and have never harmed a child. I adore my children and would lay down my life in a heartbeat for any of them. But it was an irrational fear that gripped me the moment he was born.
So, I did what any normal person would do, I pushed that thought away, pretended I didn’t have it and moved on. And everything was wonderful, for the time being.
Just under two years later, our second son was born. Only sadly he died in my arms the day he was born. His death was caused by the gross negligence of a health care worker, and I’ll spare you the gory details, but this health care worker had me, a new dad at 4am, resuscitate my own child who had been born in respiratory distress.
The problem with that was that pediatric resuscitation is very complex and difficult, and should be performed by an experienced specialist. This health care professional should have called for help, rather than asking me to do it, because in doing so, I actually contributed to his death. Seeing that written in black and white after a coroner’s investigation will be seared in my consciousness for the rest of my life.
After his death I spiralled. I was an emotional and mental wreck. I was drinking heavily each night till I pass out, trying to avoid as much pain as possible. To make it worse, there was a hearing at the Health Care Complaints Commission, and a pending court case where I had to re-tell and re-live this horrifying story.
At the same time, being in such an emotionally vulnerable position, my trauma history of the sexual assaults raised its ugly head. My self-loathing soared out of control, and I worked even harder to win the love, affection and approval of those around me.
Having my son die in my arms just confirmed that I was an awful, horrible human being. What sort of man lets his son die? Why didn’t I call for help when the health care professional asked me to resuscitate my child? Why didn't I say no? I started having nightmares and panic attacks. I became terribly fearful of other men as a result of having nightmares about the sexual assaults. I also became overly protective of my son, worrying that any man might hurt him. And this continued for years.
In spite of all this, I somehow continued to function. I completed my Masters Degree and excelled at work. No-one had any idea of what was happening. But I was a terrible, terrible husband, and in many ways, although I loved my kids deeply, I failed them because of my own fear and pain and self-loathing.
I eventually sought help, engaging in over two years of intense psychotherapy with a psychologist who specialises in working with men who are survivors of sexual abuse. Gradually, as I faced my demons, I learned to be kind to myself, to love who I am and who I was, and overcome the fear that had plagued me for so long.
I decided last year to start sharing my story publicly, which I had never done before. My experience, at least from my observation, seems to be quite common. For many people who were sexually assaulted as kids, the ramifications of such experience start to show up in their twenties and onward.
Looking back now, I wish I had sought help much earlier. I also wish that I had sought help before I had kids. Like many people I thought that I could do this on my own, that if I just pressed on and pushed the horrible thoughts and feelings away, eventually they would go away, but they don’t.
If you are in your twenties and you are a survivor of sexual trauma, I simply cannot recommend highly enough talking to someone about it NOW. Don’t wait till it becomes a problem. Don’t think you can do it on your own and that it will eventually go away. I assessed a man in his 70’s recently, and after he retired and started to reflect on his life, that’s when the trauma of his sexual assault came back to haunt him. Also, when you seek professional help, don’t speak to just any therapist, find a therapist who is experienced and specialises in working with survivors of childhood sexual assault. Trust me, it will be worth it.
If you are a man and has been sexually assaulted, it may be even more difficult for you to reach out for help, because there is often a deep sense of shame around sexual assault for men. If you’re straight and you’ve been sexually assaulted by a man, it often leaves you questioning your sexuality, thinking that perhaps somehow you invited it, albeit unknowingly on yourself. And if you were sexually assaulted by a woman, it's like you’ve got nothing to complain about. In fact, men often joke about it. Somehow it should be treated as a win, or an initiation into straight sex. Something you should be grateful for. Of course this is not to minimise the impact of sexual assault on women. It is only that I am speaking from my perspective as a man, and I don’t feel that it would be appropriate to speak on behalf of women. Nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted. If unfortunately, you had to experience that, whether you are a man or a woman, seek professional help. Trust me, it will be worth it.
Today I feel content and whole. But I also feel a degree of sadness that I took so long to ask for help. I no longer feel guilty for the sexual assaults. I was a child. It wasn’t my fault and I did nothing to invite it. I still carry the guilt of my son’s death, but I’ve learned to sit with it and accept that it’s just a part of the rich tapestry in my life, and that’s okay.
I know my story reads as pretty traumatic, and of course it is, but I’m the man I am today because of everything that has happened to me. And as horrible as it was, there’s a part of me that is thankful for the experiences I’ve had.
I hope my story can help you in your journey. It can be really tough navigating your twenties sometimes. In fact, I suspect it’s harder now than it was when I was in my twenties.
I’d to wrap up my story with one of my favourite quotes:
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living a heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”
– LR Knost.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story.
Geoffrey Ahern Senior Mental Health Clinician and Educator Mental Health First Aid - Principal Master Instructor Director at Informed Mind Consultancy Pty Ltd
LinkedIn: Geoffrey Ahern