Steve Austin’s shame no longer defines him. He has moved on, and so has his family.
My four year old son had been begging for his first dog for months. With Christmas nearly here, he was upping the intensity daily. The final straw for me was his cry of, “Will you stop being mean and let Santa bring me a dog?”
I had been not-so-secretly pulling for him all along, but I wanted to honor my wife’s concerns, too. We also have a 20 month old daughter, who isn’t so sure what to think about dogs. Lindsey and I discussed the pros and cons and finally settled on testing out a foster dog we could adopt if things went well.
Two days later, I picked up my son from daycare with a surprise. Santa wasn’t getting credit for this one. When I opened the door, he squealed with excitement, just like I had hoped. The dog’s tail wagged and her entire body shook as my little boy climbed into his seat.
“Where did this dog come from? Is she coming home with us? Can she sit in my lap? What’s her name?” I adjusted the rearview mirror, not wanting to miss a single detail of his excitement. “Yea buddy, she’s your new dog. Merry Christmas.” For the moment, I was his hero.
Later, my wife and I sat in bed, talking over the day’s excitement. Suddenly, I broke down crying as I thought back to the day I missed my son’s first birthday party. That day, I was nobody’s hero. Part of me hopes he never finds out, but the story of my suicide attempt is not a secret. The police and EMT’s entered my hotel room when I didn’t show up for an out-of-town contract assignment. Ten hours earlier, I had taken thousands of milligrams of prescription and over-the-counter medications, determined to end my shame and pain forever.
A life marked by shame and fear is true for most victims of childhood sexual assault. I feared turning into my abuser, or never becoming a “real man.” In addition, I grew tired of constantly looking over my shoulder, hoping no one would find out about my porn addiction. And in the day-to-day, I feared my wife. I was terrified she would discover just how screwed up I was, and decide I was not strong enough, committed enough, or sane enough. As irrational as it is, I would have rather died than face my shame.
After my suicide attempt, several people told my wife to leave me. Staying didn’t make sense, from the outside looking in, but she trusted her heart and believed in the guy who had once been on top of the world. Lindsey waited for the day when it no longer felt like the world was on top of him.
When I was released from ICU and the psych ward, we started months of intense marriage counseling and, I began individual therapy. It wasn’t always easy. But, the day our marriage counselor connected the dots between my abuse, a twenty year porn addiction, and my suicide attempt changed my life forever. She helped us both see that shame was at the core of all the pain.
All at once my life began to make sense.
I can never get back my son’s first birthday party: the gifts, gathering of friends and family, or the Curious George smash cake. Even though Lindsey had a second cake made after I was released from the hospital, I missed the real one. He may never know, but I do.
As we lay in bed, my wife said, “I rarely think about that first birthday. What I think about are all the memories we have created since. I can’t help but think our relationship would have never become this deep if we hadn’t walked through such a living hell. The thing is, we walked through it together.” I wiped my eyes, thankful for another chance.
We have lived through the or worse part of our marriage vows and now, together, we are creating better days. Things aren’t perfect, but because my wife stuck with me through my darkest days, together, we are reaping the benefits of recovery.
Life tries to get the best of us at times and sometimes, it works. No one is immune from difficult experiences. Shame impacts everyone. The good news is forgiveness does too. Because my wife was willing to say my failure wasn’t final, my children will grow up with a father who knows the power of vulnerability, trust, and boundaries. As a result, we are loosening the grip of shame from our family, one intentional act at a time.
I missed my son’s first birthday, but I am here now and am more determined than ever to make every day count. Getting a dog for a four year old and a toddler might not make sense. But we are doing our best with the knowledge we have today, for the sake of our marriage, and our children. Isn’t that the goal? None of us will get it all right all the time, and no one can take away the smile from my son with his Christmas present this year. His very own brand-new dog.
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