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*Content warning: mention of sexual abuse and violence.
Reclaiming My Power Through Speaking My Truth and Sharing My Story
We’ve all heard the phrase “The truth shall set you free.” The first time I felt the reality of these words was in my twenties. I had been a closeted boy since the time a cousin of mine explained what being gay meant. I was eleven. There were two things that were true at that moment. The first, I was gay. It was the first time I had a word to identify how I felt towards men. The second, this (being gay) was disgusting. Sinful. Shameful. All things you’d come to expect from a rural, small, Catholic town in Iowa in the 60s. As such, I kept my truth and my identity a secret…for a while.
In my twenties, I reached a point where I felt I rather be true to myself and risk losing acceptance and belonging from everyone around me than to continue to live another day in a lie. Just as words had once been powerful in helping me identify who I was, I found more words to help liberate my silence. I wrote letters to every member of my immediate family–my parents and each of my seven siblings–and came out. I’ve since called this The Mass Mailing.
In writing my truth, I felt I could control my narrative as well as take up the space I needed to be seen. Had I tried to say these things aloud and in person, I feared I wouldn’t be heard. That I would be shut down. That my voice would be silenced. Having it in writing gave me all the control and space to say what I needed to say without the anxiety and fear of being shut down in a face-to-face situation.
After I spoke my truth, I felt lighter, freer, and more empowered to live rather than terrified in hiding. And fortunately, my truth was met with acceptance by most of my family. I wasn’t ostracized or shunned or told I was no longer welcomed–which I know is not the same outcome for so many in the LGBTQ+ community.
In hindsight, I wonder if that experience prepared me for what would come thirty or so years later. You see, in 2016, I became unable to work due to extreme anxiety that talk therapy could not address. The only thing I could do was to walk to release the energy that my body continuously produced. Each night after a few hours of sleep, I would get up and pace inside until it became light enough to walk outside. I walked because I couldn’t stand and sit still, no matter how hard I tried.
Desperately wanting a reprieve from the anxiety, I reluctantly agreed to try MDMA therapy – a psychedelic therapy approach that brought me on a journey. (In fact, those MDMA sessions were actually called “journeys.”) This journey took me back to my childhood, to a place of discovering repressed memories that I had struggled to push aside as a grade school student and buried so deep that it took this alternative method to regain those memories at 57 years old.
The short but traumatic version is this: I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by the priest who was the principal of the grade school I attended.
Since 2016 I have been on an incredibly difficult, complicated, and nuanced healing journey. During this time, I found myself coming out to my family again–as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. This time, I had the strength to say it in person and to all of them at once.
While many couldn’t offer any response (either too stunned or too hurt to even know what to say), I once again felt lighter to not carry this burden silently.
Also during this time (since 2016), I sued the Catholic Church and we settled out of court. The legal process was grueling, unkind, and unjust. While I did receive a settlement, it barely scraped the surface of what I lost in wages from the years I was unable to work or the money I spent on therapy. Worse than that, however, was that because we settled, the courts would not be determining if the priest I accused was guilty. Additionally, it was left to the attorneys and church representatives to decide if they found my perpetrator “credibly” accused, which or more or less came down to whether they believed me. They didn’t.
That acknowledgment was what I wanted more than anything else. I wanted validation of my experiences, my trauma, and my pain. I wanted the powers-at-be to recognize that my lifetime of challenges–ranging from substance abuse from my adolescence to my thirties, intermittent bouts with anxiety and depression, my serial monogamous toxic relationships in my younger adulthood (some of which were abusive), and even my work-aholic-like tendencies–stemmed from the childhood trauma I had endured during my formative years.
I wanted them to see how that repressed trauma turned into terrorizing anxiety inside my body and mind in a way that made me unable to work and created financial hardship for myself and my spouse. That once I uncovered those memories, I was reliving the trauma every day. I was triggered daily. My emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being were being attacked.
I wanted them to understand that childhood trauma is lifetime trauma. Healing isn’t a final destination. I’ll never arrive in some state of completely healed or entirely “whole.”
But I didn’t get that kind of acknowledgment or validation from those proceedings. I didn’t get them when I tried writing to the local news outlets, the state’s attorney, the bishop of the diocese where the priest had worked, or the Pope himself. After the settlement, I wrote to all of them, once again picking up the pen and finding power in my own words. I received no response. Not even a form letter.
Yet every time I exercised my voice inside a letter or an email…Every time I told parts of my story in therapy or a support group…Each time I journaled or wrote some piece down for myself or within a writing group for survivors…I felt stronger. I felt braver. I felt more hope and will to live.
And in 2021, I made the decision that I didn’t have to rely on the responses of the people with power. I could create my own power by telling my story in my own way, on my own terms, just like I had done with The Mass Mailing. The blank page offered me all the control and space for my narrative and for my voice. As I’ve written in the preface of my forthcoming work, “I decided if no one would see me…If no one would apologize…If no one would hear me or listen…I would do the only thing I could think to do: I’d write a book.”
My memoir, currently titled Though I Walk, “...is my opportunity as one survivor to share my story in hopes I encourage a much-needed conversation about what happens to our children when they are abused and later become adults who still feel that trauma…” (also from the preface.) My greatest hope for this work is that those who read it feel called to act or at the very least called to speak. To have the hard conversations. To talk about ‘the thing that shall not be named’ but is so very present in our religious institutions and doing a world and lifetime of harm to whole families and communities, not just the victims. To have people recognize that healing is ongoing.
While writing my book began as a personal endeavor to take back my power and work through a new stage of my healing process, I recognize now that my truth may actually be a great deal more than that. What if instead of it being “the truth will set you free” it was “my truth may set you free” or “our truth may set us free.” Because the terrible reality is that I’m not the only one who has been abused as a child. I’m not the only one who was abused by a priest as a boy. I am but one voice brave enough at this point in time to share my story, knowing full well it’s not the only one to tell. Or the only one to hear, see, or care about.
As I say at the end of my preface, “Perhaps at the end of this re-telling, you will find your own voice. To either speak for those who have suffered a similar fate as an advocate and ally or to speak for yourself as a survivor and take your first step on your own path to healing.”
May finding your own voice to share your hardest experiences, set you free. May you find power as you find the right words to tell the world your story. And may the world listen. May you be seen. May you be held. May you heal.
If you are in need of mental health support services please know you are not alone and there are resources available to you.
Signs of Hope is an organization dedicated to helping those impacted by sexual violence. You can access resources, live chat and hotlines by visiting their website here: https://sohlv.org/
For mental health resources specific to the LGBTQ+ community:
About the Author:
Sam Heinrich (he/him) is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and forthcoming author. Sam loves working with individuals, couples, young adults/teenagers, and families to assist with the challenges people encounter on this journey called life. As a gay person and as a survivor of childhood clergy sexual abuse, he understands the unique challenges and trauma, life can present to us. Having done extensive personal work on his own childhood trauma, Sam knows first-hand the complexities of recovery and reclaiming your life so you can move on to your full potential.
Sam’s forthcoming memoir, currently titled Though I Walk, not only shares his story but poignantly illustrates how childhood abuse is a lifetime of abuse. His memoir is an opportunity to share his survivor story in hopes of encouraging the much-needed conversation about what happens to our children when they are abused and later become adults who still feel that trauma. Though I Walk is a call to action to all who read it. We must do something to protect the children of the world.
To contribute to the funds that are supporting Sam’s book, please visit the GoFundMe page.
To connect with Sam, find him on LinkedIn