One of the privileges of being a high-profile athlete is that I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people, and more often than not, they want to talk about what it’s like training for, and competing in extreme endurance events. For many years, I was more than happy to have this conversation, but all that changed three years ago, when my world quite literally came crashing down around me.
At that point of my life, I’d battled back from alcohol and drug addiction, clawed my way out of suicidal depression, and through it all, running had become my salvation – my sanctuary. I’d been clean and sober for 15 years, had a wife and son who loved me, a career I excelled at, and a long list of athletic accomplishments… but I was living a lie, and I couldn’t go on that way anymore. For the first time in over 35 years, I had found the courage to say my secret out loud – “I am a survivor of sexual violence. I was sexually abused by my hockey coach when I was 9, and I was violently raped by two men when I was 12.”
I am a man, and little boys, who later become men, are not brought up to talk about these things. In fact, very few people in our society feel comfortable talking about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. As a survivor of sexual violence, I can honestly say that this situation is isolating, shame inducing, and it needs to change.
Today, when I’m speaking to large groups about my endurance running, I no longer shy away from the life circumstances that shaped me into the man I am today. I believe we are not the sum total of ‘what happened to us’, but rather, we are defined by ‘how we strive and thrive as individuals through the challenges of adversity’.
A few weeks ago I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon three times in the same day (126.6 km) to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence.
My run generated lots of media attention, and the outpouring of support from the international running community was phenomenal. To pull this off was a physical and logistic challenge, to say the least. I went out just before midnight and ran the marathon course twice before the official marathon, and then lined up with the other athletes to complete my third marathon of the day. On the surface, what everyone saw was an incredible feat of endurance, but what they didn’t see was the ‘story’ that lay behind this, and to me, the ‘real heroes’ of this story were the people who brought me to a place where all of this could happen. I thought I would share three photos taken during that day because I believe they perfectly illustrate how we as a society could best address the issue of sexual violence in our community.
Hold on to someone who needs you.
My dear friend, Frank, a man I’ve known since kindergarten came out to run with me during the dark chilly night. Here is a picture of Frank embracing me at the finish of my second marathon. This is a man who knows how far I’ve come, and he represents someone who loves me unconditionally. Can you imagine how things may have been different if I, as a little boy, could have reached out to Frank all those years ago?
Can you envision a world where children don’t have to retreat into the isolation of shame?
Just think of the years of residual trauma that would never need to metastasize.
Survivors are there for other survivors.
I ran my third marathon of the day with a young lady, who is also a survivor of sexual violence. With less than 2 kilometers to go, this young lady was overcome with the emotions of the day, and she turned to me and said: “I don’t think I can continue… everything is so overwhelming.” After we both had a good cry, I looked at her and said, “I’m not letting go of you, and promise you won’t let go of me either.” We crossed that finish line together, and with that, we demonstrated we are all STRONGER TOGETHER.
Who is your lifeboat?
But, nothing, and allow me to say that again… nothing, means more to me than this image here. This is a picture of my wife, Mary-Anne, waiting for me out in the dark to come in from one of the nighttime marathons. She’s seen me fight my way back from drug and alcohol addiction, claw my way out of the darkness of depression, and work through the sexual trauma in my past… and EVERY SECOND along this long 29-year journey, one person has never left my side… one person has sat with me in the darkness…. one person has patiently waited with me until I could discover the beauty and goodness inside me…. something that has been there all along. I just needed to find my way to it.
The one message I want everyone to take away from this is the belief that EACH OF US can make a difference in someone else’s life.
Look around you, and find someone who is struggling, and hang onto that person for dear life. Just like the picture above, Mary-Anne has been standing up for me all these years, even in the darkness, and even when I’m not in the picture.
Jean-Paul Bédard is an author, speaker, and elite Canadian endurance athlete. Most recently, he has become an international advocate for survivors of sexual violence. You can learn more about Jean-Paul’s story by following is popular blog breathethroughthis.com and by following him on Twitter @runjprun