Friday, December 4, 2015

It starts with YOU. Right here, Right now.

Jean Paul
Jean-Paul Bédard, an elite endurance athlete, international advocate for survivors of sexual violence, is also published author, featured contributor to Huffington Post, columnist with iRun Magazine, and author of the popular blog. He shares his story with us.

Could you start by sharing your story, to the extent you are comfortable and deem relevant to the work you do?

18 years ago, after a lengthy battle with drug and alcohol addiction and suicidal depression, I entered a treatment program to address my addiction issues.  Shortly after entering the treatment program, I turned to long distance running as a means to rebuild not only my physical health but also my fragile mental health. In 2013, I disclosed to family and friends that I was sexually abused by a hockey coach when I was 9 years old, and that a few years later, I was violently raped by two men when I was 12 years old.  Since that time, I have become an international advocate for other survivors of sexual violence. In 2014, I ran the iconic Boston Marathon twice in the same day (84.4 km) in a highly publicized campaign that raised both awareness of and over $25,000 for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  In the fall of 2015, I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon three times in the same day (126.6 km) to demonstrate the resiliency of survivors of trauma, and to highlight the fact that we all have a role to play in addressing the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities.  

What inspired the birth of your activism? How did it come about?
Three years ago when I finally disclosed to my wife and adult son that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the age of 9, and later a violent rape at the age of 12, I immediately turned to the medical community to help me come to terms with the trauma I had been carrying around for most of my life.  Despite living in the largest city in Canada, I quickly discovered that there were very few resources available to adult survivors of sexual violence, and even fewer resources for male survivors. Over the first few months, I experienced the incredible healing and liberation that begins with the simple act of having a ‘conversation’ – the beauty of having one other person who is willing to sit with you in your greatest ‘darkness’… a person who is not actively trying to ‘fix you’, but rather, engages in an authentic conversation guided by empathy and complete presence.  I knew right then, that I wanted to “be that person” for as many people as possible. 

Can you tell us a little about the work that you do as an activist?
As I waded tentatively into the world of advocacy, I was uncertain of how I could make the greatest difference in my community, but a few important decisions were made rather quickly.  I knew for certain I did not want to set up an organization, or be a spokesperson for any established ‘helping agency’.  Furthermore, even though I was one of only a very few men in this field, I did not want to be known as someone who advocated for male rights, and the need for further investment in, and extension of trauma response resources for the male survivor community. I see my greatest impact as being simply one of many survivors of sexual violence, but someone who is comfortable communicating candidly about the ‘messiness’ of unpacking a life of trauma… Someone who,  
hopefully, shares a message of inner resiliency that we are all blessed with… Someone who believes the greatest difference we can make in this world is to simply be there with another person as he or she sits in the discomfort of trauma.   So, this is exactly what I have been doing for the past 2 years in my numerous talks, articles for Huffington Post, and more personally, articles on my blog. The reality is that asking people to sit in a room to talk openly about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities, is a tall order, and one more often than not, destined to fail.  But what I have noticed is that everyone loves hearing a story of someone overcoming adversity, battling onwards, when most would quit…  And that’s where I come in!   People are fascinated by the world of endurance sports and the incredible willpower it takes to compete at an elite level.  As result, whenever I give talk, I weave in tales of my endurance adventures as a means to bring forward the other threads in my story – the addiction, the depression, and the trauma. 

You use different mediums to stand up against violence - could you talk a little bit about these modalities?
I consider my greatest asset to be my skills as a communicator, in that, I am equally comfortable sitting in front of my laptop composing an article, or standing in front of a large group giving a talk. 

What have your challenges been, so far? How have you overcome them?
My greatest challenge has been trying to strike a healthy balance between devoting my ‘full presence’ to my advocacy efforts, while at the same time trying to ensure that I maintain the ‘self care’ needed for me to continue my efforts in the community.  I’m not going to lie to you; it’s a balancing act I’m still trying to figure out, and it’s one that often leaves me depleted, withdrawn, and somewhat distant from the loved ones in my life. 

In your work so far, has there been a particular milestone / achievement / success story that you'd like to share?
I would have to say that I indeed do feel ‘blessed’ in terms of the incredible support I received at the time of my very public disclosure three years ago, and the subsequent doors that have been opened to me since wading into the world of advocacy.  Surprising though it may sound, I don’t feel that my greatest success or achievement is related to any of the public accolades or international media attention I have received for various advocacy projects, but rather, it has to do with Huffington Post inviting me to be a ‘featured contributor’ to their site.  I’ve had the unconditional support of the editors at Huffington Post, who have allowed me to candidly address such sensitive issues as depression, suicide, addiction, and sexual violence.  Through the more than 50 articles I’ve published on Huffington Post, I have been able to initiate a broader discussion about issues that sadly, don’t often receive the media attention they deserve.  Moreover, my writing has had a profound resonance on thousands of readers around the globe, who have taken the time to contact me so that they can share their personal stories of resilience and fearless vulnerability.  

Where do you see your greatest impact in the coming years?
 Healing begins with a conversation… I want to work towards making it more comfortable for us to talk about the uncomfortable
 Stigma isolates.  Stigma traumatizes.  Stigma kills  Remember 20 years ago how we as a society felt uncomfortable opening discussing the issue of breast cancer… Look at how far we’ve come since then… Wouldn’t it be liberating if we could talk as openly about the issue of sexual violence in our communities!  
 Putting a ‘face’ on what a ‘survivor’ looks like, and what a perpetrator looks like  We are often shocked when we hear the allegations of sexual violence or harassment against a public figure, be it an athlete, entertainer, or politician … We say to ourselves, “Here was someone we had invited into our homes each day… someone we trusted… yet he/she didn’t ‘fit’ our stereotype of what a sexual perpetrator looks like” … The same is true when it comes to ‘survivors’ of sexual violence…  Look around you…. It can be anyone, and everyone!  I want to draw people’s attention to the fact that it makes no difference whether we are talking about a perpetrator or a survivor, sexual violence can touch anyone’s life.
 Moving from ‘bystanders’ to ‘upstanders’  Often, our natural inclination is to do nothing because we see the problem is either too big for us to handle, or none of our business… Guess what?  It is our business and each of us can make a difference!

Ultimately… It all comes down to ONE MESSAGE… And it starts with YOU, right here… Right now!