Chasing the Westward Sun

 

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Chasing the Westward Sun: One Week and 3,500 Miles

In the summer of 2017 I went on a one-week 3,500 mile road trip through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.  The road trip had spawned after the death of my mom the year before and my need to come to terms with that loss, it also formed from a growing dissatisfaction with my career and the sensation that I was trapped in a cycle.  I felt as though I was living life on repeat and I desperately needed to get out of that loop and away to a place that could offer me some peace.

Growing up on a farm shaped not only my childhood, but also my character.  My parents lived in poverty for most of their lives, my mom never worked outside of the home and never finished high school.  She dropped out and married my father less than a month after turning 16 years old.  My father had already dropped out of elementary school at the age of 14 to begin a life long career in the labor industry.  Farming never provided the opportunity for more than subsistence living, therefore, being employed somewhere else was mandatory to support his wife and the six children the two of them would have over their 55 years of marriage.

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My childhood was spent roaming through woodlands that covered the mostly hilly farmland that had been passed down from my grandfather.  My grandfather owned the staples of the idyllic American Midwestern farm, including horses, cattle, and chickens.  When my father inherited the land he tried his hand at pig farming as well, but lost any hope of profit when the hog market collapsed in the mid 1990’s.

My memories of that time and place are peppered with hot summer days in hay fields, and damp but brisk summer nights with the stars spread across the sky overhead.  There were bullfrogs and tree frogs croaking and chirping in the distance, coyotes howling in the hollers that surrounded the farm, as it lay within a valley.  In the early evening you could hear whip-poor-wills making their iconic calls echoing through, or owls hooting from the treeline.

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A creek ran right through the middle of the farm, often flooding during heavy rains.  As much time as I spent in the woods, I also spent a significant amount of time in and around that creek.  As a kid, you don’t stop to think about all the pig and cattle manure that washes down into those waterways or all the dead animals that find themselves swept into its current, or when cattle are standing up stream urinating right into the water.  You still walk barefoot through it, stick your hands in it, or even at times jump right into the deep pools that form from the carved out boulders that make up its bedrock.

I have more than a thousand memories of my time living on that land, so many that time has taken many of them away and yet my mind still feels full of them.  While I’ve never been fond of the smell of hog manure, cattle manure does oddly trigger memories of my childhood.  From throwing clumps of cow shit at other young relatives, pushing them into it, or sticking bottle rockets or firecrackers in them to watch them explode and splatter everywhere, these are defining experiences that color the childhoods of many Midwestern boys.

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For me, scent has always been a heavy trigger for memories and nature is full of them, beyond just the cow manure.  Cedar and walnut trees, the creek, freshly cut hay, ponds, the organic decaying matter that makes up dirt, these are just a few of the things that have their own unique smell and they coalesce to create the experience of nature, an experience that feels like home.  Perhaps Gary Snyder said it best, “Nature is not a place to visit.  It is home.”

Other senses play a role in the things we remember, from prickly cocklebur that stick to your pants and shoes, tossing square bails and getting cuts and covered in itchy dust, to touching cedar limbs and needles and getting sticky hands, your feet slipping on the slimy algae that covers rocks in the creek, hearing the sound of the leaves rustling in the trees as the wind blows through them, crowing roosters, squealing pigs, the bellows of cows, the humming cicadas in summer, the chirping crickets in the evening, the many different bird songs throughout the seasons, the babbling water as it runs over and between the rocks in the creek and the many streams that form it.

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Nature is a full sensory experience and growing up on a farm provided me with that phenomenal opportunity, one that I would never trade for anything.  So it is no wonder that as time passes and my opportunities to visit and experience that type of nature decreases, I yearn to return to it.  At the time that I began contemplating my road trip west last year, I was working a job that required me to sit in front of a computer all day.  A type of job that would make any man restless and yearn for something more.

Of the different landscapes that I find beauty in, wooded lands and hilltops are my most beloved.  Hiking through woodlands can only be topped for me by hiking through a conifer forest in the mountains.  With this in mind, I knew the land I needed to escape to, the place that would give me the most serenity or solace.  Of the many different types of trees here in the Midwest, the tree commonly called the cedar or red cedar, is probably the tree that I gravitate to the most due to its aromatic smell and my childhood history growing up around it.

Ironically, the Eastern red cedar tree of the United States is actually not a cedar tree at all.  It’s a species of Juniper (species: Juniperus virginiana) and is what’s known as a false cedar, belonging to the cypress tree family.  True cedars are not native to America, but are naturally occurring in Africa and Asia.  All are conifers, however, and this classification of trees are certainly my favorite.  Some of the largest mountainous conifer forests in the United States are in the west and the north of the country, part of the Taiga biome or boreal forests of the world.  Oddly enough, a large subtropical lowland conifer forest exists in the wetlands of southeast United States.

My love for conifer forests and the mountains established a pretty clear destination for my escape from the world of glowing computer screens and posture-destroying office chairs.  While my desire to just get in the car and drive off after the westward sun was strong, I had enough self-control to realize that I needed to plan a budget and map out my route, and choose the places out west and in the north that I wanted to stop and spend some time in.

For anyone wanting to take a road trip, whether it’s across the country or just through a few states, knowing how much money you have to spend and how or where you’re going to spend it is critical.  You need to take into account the supplies you will need, including food, clothing, hiking or camping gear, and the cost of gas for your vehicle – you need to know how many miles to the gallon your vehicle can get.  Knowing this will help you plan out your fuel budget to cover the distance you will be driving.

You should also have a plan for when things go wrong, such as if your vehicle breaks down or you have a flat tire.  The terrain you will be facing is another matter of consideration and whether or not your vehicle can traverse it.  Will the roads your traveling always be paved, will some be dirt roads and rough?  Will you need a lifted vehicle, what type of tires will be appropriate for the season and the climate that you will be driving in?

If you’re not driving a large van or RV across the country, where will you be sleeping?  If you plan to camp outdoors, you will need to pack according to the climate in the region you’ll be staying in.  If you plan to stay in hotels along various stops you should book in advance to get the best prices and the best rooms.  Popular locations such as National or State Parks are difficult to find hotel rooms near because people often book them up to six months in advance of their trip.  When booking hotel rooms, consider amenities such as free parking, free breakfast, to try and save on your costs.  Also consider offers of free cancellation in case something happens and your trip gets cancelled or your planned route changes and you will no longer be traveling through that area.

Whether you plan to bring all of your food or plan to eat at local joints, you will need a budget for meals.  This aspect of spending has been difficult for me as sometimes I eat more than expected, and sometimes less.  What sounded appetizing when I packed it, has at times not been so appetizing when it came time to eat it.  I chose to mostly eat locally while traveling and slept in hotels, which I booked weeks in advance.  I set aside a lot of time to read reviews, compare prices, and picked hotels near my destinations.  Generally speaking, plan to spend more than your initial estimate suggests on most of these budgetary costs, especially on gas.

It’s a good idea to round up by $50 to $200 on each of your cost estimates.  By the time my trip ended and I was back home, I had spent more on food, gas, and sleeping arrangements than I had originally budgeted, in fact I over spent by $500.  So, just realize things don’t always go as planned, and you may fork over more money than you budgeted.  If you don’t have the financial safety net that I had, consider that you may have to cut your trip short if your spending has taken up too much of your budget early into your road trip.

As I did my research to figure out what National and State Parks would be best to see the kind of scenery I was yearning for, and any other opportunities along the way, I compiled a list of places to visit.  My list consisted of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Glacier National Park in Montana.  To get there and back I also had to drive through Kansas, Colorado and North Dakota.  This trip was planned for July due to it being a great time of the year in northern Montana, my main destination.

My road trip was planned to last a week, which meant that I would not have an extensive amount of time spent in each location.  Though my budget wouldn’t allow for extended stays, I wanted to see all of those locations and so I accepted the scenario of not getting to spend a lot of time in any one location.

Colorado was the first stop on my trip, though I knew I wouldn’t be exploring any of the parks there as it was an overnight stay only.  This was my second time in Colorado, I had visited there in 2002 with my family, and back then we stayed in the Vail region.  This time around I stayed in Parachute, so I did have the opportunity to drive through parts of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and White River National Forest.  As this was July and I was driving in from the east, most of eastern Colorado was dry and it wasn’t until I got closer to the Rocky Mountains did the land begin to appear more beautiful.

For the overnight stay, I had a room booked at the Grand Vista Hotel.  My experience there was pleasant and they earned a 5-star rating from me.  For dinner I went to the Mexican restaurant just up the block, called El Tapatio.  I was hitting the road early the next morning, so I did not have time to explore too far from the hotel.  I did take some time to walk around the town, spent some time in the hotel’s hot tub, and then just settled in for the night.

The next stop was Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming.  While the scenery driving up from the south was similarly as dry and arid as Colorado, the closer I got to the park, the more things began to fill me with awe.  Some of the photos I took there can be seen in the below slideshow.  Jackson Lake was a major part of my exploration, and was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life, I highly recommend visiting.  During this phase of my road trip, I slept at the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Pinedale, which I give a 5 out of 5 star rating to also.

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Aside from exploring the region around the lake I also enjoyed lunch at Leek’s Pizzeria located at the marina on the lake.  I sat outside on the deck, the service was fast and the pizza was great, but the view was unbeatable.  I really cannot stress how great Jackson Lake is (minus the hungry mosquitoes), even if you’re like me and have no desire to be on a boat out on the lake, the view from the shoreline alone is breathtaking.  Certainly a highlight from my trip and ranks a close second behind Glacier.  I had honestly never heard of Grand Teton National Park prior to this trip, so it was an extraordinary experience.

Grand Teton National Park is connected to Yellowstone and so exploring one park offers the opportunity to explore the other if you’re willing to keep driving north.  If you plan to visit Yellowstone only to see Old Faithful, you’re wasting your time and money.  Yes, it’s historical and iconic, but it’s crowded and there’s really nothing exciting about it.  There are far more beautiful things to see and do.  In the slideshow below are my photos of Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in the park.  Also you will see Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a massive hotel along the shoreline overlooking the lake, whose initial construction dates back to 1891.

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Yellowstone National Park was my third favorite place to visit and I regret that I did not spend enough time exploring the park.  I only had one afternoon to spend there, which is why Yellowstone Lake was the focal point of my exploration.  I also regret wasting my time at Old Faithful, it was either that or Mammoth Springs and I wish I had chosen the latter.  Regardless, I had the opportunity to hike around a bit and explore.  The aromatic conifer in the higher elevations was soul touching for me, there’s no better air to breath.

From Yellowstone to Montana was going to be an all-night drive.  Along the way I passed through the city of Bozeman, with the town of Choteau (pronounced “show-toe”) being my destination for the night.  The mountainous drive between these two points took three hours and I arrived in Choteau at 12:30 AM.  It felt like the longest drive of my life as I was fighting off sleepiness and everything all around me was pitch black.  Most of the time there was not even a single light in the distance from human civilization and very seldom did I ever come across another vehicle on the road.  I don’t think there has been another time in my life that I felt so alone.

I’m certain that the drive during the daylight hours would have been spectacular and I kind of regret having not just spent the night in Bozeman, but I was on a schedule and I had to be in Choteau to arrive on time for my hotel reservation at the Stage Stop Inn.  I spent two nights at the hotel and my experience there was very pleasant.  Due to being so exhausted from the drive, my first morning in Choteau found me with no energy to drive up to Glacier, so I spent the day exploring the town and speaking to the local residents.

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One of my stops was at the Old Trail Museum Inc., where there is a wide array of things to see in a centralized location.  The exhibits here are ideal for kids as it does not require a lot of walking to be able to see everything.  I’ve included several of my pictures of what the museum has to offer in the slideshow above.  There is also an ice cream parlor on the complex that offers a good selection of flavors and options for how it’s served, and there’s a diner across the street called the Outpost Deli, I included a photo of the front of the building at the end of the slideshow.

Service at the diner was top-notch and the food was excellent.  I was so impressed at how hard everyone was working that I tipped the young gentleman that was my waiter an extra $20.  I spent some more time afterwards walking around the town.  I stopped at the visitor’s center and spoke to an older gentlemen, we had a good conversation about my trip, the things he’s down around the area, places he suggested, he gave me a map and some tips about the road north to Glacier National Park.  It might seem odd to say, but it felt like I was having a conversation with my grandpa.

The people I met in that town were nothing but kind and welcoming people.  According to the 2000 census, the average income for households was only slightly more than $25,000, with nearly 20% of the population living below the poverty line.  While driving through Montana I noticed there was still a lot of poverty throughout the state, especially among Native American populations.  The best land in Montana is in the western third of the state, whereas the central and especially the eastern part are prairie and badlands.  This part of the state reminded me of eastern Colorado and southern Wyoming – mostly flat, arid and unpleasant.

The morning of my second day in Choteau greeted me before the sun rose.  I wanted to be in Glacier National Park before 8:00 AM and before the crowds of other visitors arrived.  On my way up to St. Mary at the east entrance of the park, I came upon a hitchhiker at about 5:30 AM walking in basketball shorts and a t-shirt.  For those unaware, the climate in this region of Montana at that time of morning is pretty cold.  I have seldom stopped for hitchhikers in my lifetime due to the risks of being robbed or worse.  However, this young man was clearly not armed and was of a physical build I was not threatened by.  I wasn’t too far outside the town of Browning, which was where I was planning on topping off my gas tank before Glacier, and was also the direction this young man was walking in.

I made the choice to pullover and give him a lift.  He attempted to get into the back of the car, but I told him he was welcome to sit up front and so he did.  He appeared to be in his early twenties at the oldest, and had a large dip in his mouth.  It only took a couple minutes before the tobacco smell permeated my entire car.  He thanked me for stopping and said that other vehicles had just kept driving.

He made a comment about how cold it was that morning, so I asked him where he was headed and he told me that he had just been visiting family on the reservation and was heading back to Browning.  I told him that worked well for me as I was heading there anyway.  The Blackfeet Reservation makes up some 3,000 square miles and borders Glacier National Park on the park’s eastern side.  There population is more than 17,000 registered members.

The young man asked me if I was headed to the casino to do some gambling, I told him that I had not been aware there was a casino in the town, but that I was actually on my way to Glacier.  I asked him if he had ever been to the park, he said that he hadn’t but wanted to go some day.  I contemplated on that for a moment, it seemed wild to me to be living so close to one of the most gorgeous places in this country, but to have never visited.  I dropped him off in town at the location he instructed and I made my way to the nearest gas station.

By the time I got to Glacier’s east entrance and the Going-to-the-Sun Road at the St. Mary Visitor’s Center near Saint Mary Lake it was around 7:00 AM and there was barely another vehicle in sight.  The sun was rising in the east and the dramatic view of the sunlight hitting the landscape was astounding.  No words can truly replicate or do justice for the beauty that is Glacier National Park at sunrise.  Please enjoy some of my best photos of the park during my visit in the slideshow below.

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I hope to one day return to Glacier and spend more time in other parts of the park.  If I had all the time I wanted, I would spend most of my time around Many Glacier, Logan Pass, Avalanche Lake, Lake McDonald, Bowman Lake, and Kintla Lake.

I also have hopes to visit other parks around the country, such as Yosemite in California.   Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada are jaw-dropping.  Incredibly these two Canadian parks are accessible from Glacier as all three lie just north of each other.  Heading north from Whitefish, Montana on Highway 93 will lead you right through the other two parks.  It will take you some nine hours to drive from Glacier to Banff to Jasper, but that drive cuts straight through some of the most beautiful terrain on the North American continent.  Definitely on my bucket list of things to do.

Returning to the Midwest I drove east through Montana into North Dakota.  Eastern Montana and western North Dakota are similar in their terrain.  There’s not much to see as it’s mostly arid land.  The closer you get to central and eastern North Dakota the land transforms into the plains grasslands and you begin to see more trees.  My dinner that night was at the Texas Roadhouse in Fargo.  Absolutely no complaints.  I spent my final night on the road at the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham.  Hands-down one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a good night’s rest which was well deserved and desperately needed after the long thirteen-hour drive from Glacier.

The morning after I headed home to Missouri.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore Fargo, but the city looked as though it had a lot to offer.  Anyone traveling through the area looking for something to do, will surely find it in Fargo.

After my 3,500 mile week-long road trip I returned home sunburned and short one pair of ASICS sneakers, and two-grand, but it was one hell of an experience and I would highly recommend anyone else to take on the same kind of adventure.  Life is short and there’s so much to see and do out there.  You learn so much about life beyond your front door, about people in other parts of the country, and you learn more about yourself.

Life After

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Recovery for me is a multi-faceted term.  It means acknowledging my behavioral condition, understanding it and understanding that I and it are not one in the same – that I am more than my condition.  It means that I recognize the signs and symptoms of episodes or relapses, or the risk of those states.

It means that I understand and practice the steps I need to take to rise above my condition and live a life that not only benefits me, but those around me who depend upon me.  Finally, recovery also means I accept that it doesn’t equate perfection or panacea – there will still be struggles, but with the tools I have learned to utilize I can and will live a better life experience than the one I once knew.

For more than a decade I have been sharing my personal experiences with mental health issues with others who are also struggling, through the platform of writing and through private communication.  I have also stood in front of a group and told my story and I have allowed a newspaper article to be published about my very personal experiences.

All in the belief that by sharing what I have gone through and felt, it will assist those who are in a similar situation to relate to others and understand that they are not alone in how they feel or what they are facing.

Often times our thinking leads us in a very negative direction, hindering our ability to recover.  A major part of recovery is shifting our focus and training our perspective on the process of rising above the past experiences that frequently hold us down and back.  My recovery heavily centered on altering that perception of myself, establishing goals that were attainable, believing that change was possible, and finding the courage and inspiration to achieve recovery.

So, every recovery begins with perception, the perception of pain, the perception of self, and perception of life beyond the obstacles and setbacks we face throughout our lives.  By having this self-awareness of my thoughts and behavior, this shift in my self-perception, I have been able to focus my attention on personal wellness, the well-being of others, and my future.

Awareness, both of myself and of others has been and continues to be a key factor in living life beyond the issues I have faced.  A life of service aids in one’s own recovery because it adds value and meaning to our lives.  Helping others recover, helps us recover as long as we understand and maintain a healthy balance between the two.

Awareness for me involves observing my own behavior, paying attention to my thoughts, practicing meditation as I’ve learned through the study and embrace of Mahayana Buddhism, and perhaps the most important key for me has been writing.  Writing about my thoughts, feelings, experiences, aspirations, this has been a very therapeutic practice for me since I was fourteen years old.

Other key factors in recovering from mental turmoil includes patience.  If I’ve learned anything over the past ten years of training high school and college students and adult employees, it’s that patience can mean the difference between success and failure.  The same holds true in regards to mental health.

Finding solace, establishing a network of support, getting to a point of stability through medications or therapy, all of these things take time.  We all wish that we could wake up tomorrow and everything will be good or at least fine, but neither life nor mental health work like that.  It’s a process and that process takes time, energy, and commitment.

As I’ve mentioned, writing has been invaluable to me.  I consider the skill of writing to be a strength.  Without writing I’m not sure how my life would have turned out.  When I was 14, an English & math teacher convinced me to never stop writing.  I believe that her advice later saved me, as writing for me was an outlet during my most difficult experiences with depression and suicidality, and it continues to be.

This release valve enabled me to let go of some of the emotions that had been bottling up inside of me, reducing my angry outbursts, reducing the risks of self-harm, and allowing me the opportunity to navigate through myself via expressive journaling and creative writing.

While I had always been physically active, I took it much more seriously when I was in my late teens.  I credit exercise and weightlifting as a critical component of my recovery.  My willingness to commit to this type of activity is a strength in my opinion, because not everyone has that capability or willingness to commit to physical health.

Mental health and physical health are inseparable parts of living well, and maintaining physical well-being helped carry me through some of my roughest days because it provided a way to both release built up emotions and allowed me to focus on something that didn’t revolve around the emotional pain I was burdened with.

Another major piece of my recovery was being able to bond with someone else who was experiencing a similar hardship to my own.  Having support of this kind requires a willingness to open up and spend time with another person and discuss things that are immensely personal.  This does create a sense of vulnerability, but what many see as an exposure of weakness is really just a statement of strength.  I’ve long said that exposing our pain to others, gives them a path to emotional connection and the hope for healing – our pain can literally be someone else’s balm.

My primary trigger into relapse is stress and anxiety, but I can also relapse due to feeling as though I or my life lacks importance (meaning / purpose).  Having a grip on my perception and being able to gauge what is rational thinking and what is irrational has been very helpful for me.  Preparation and planning has gone a long way in mitigating the consequences of stress and anxiety, and focusing more on the things I can control and focusing less on the things that I cannot control has really saved me a lot of unnecessary suffering.

I would say the final component is knowing myself, my abilities/talents, strengths, accomplishments, it builds me up when I’m facing adversity because I know I’ve been through hard times and difficult experiences before and still came out on top in the end.

I have been training teens and adults on the skills they need to succeed in specific jobs since January 2009, this task also required me to oversee their work performance, productivity, and cohesiveness.  For me it never was so much about the work, but the people I encountered during the experience that established it as an enjoyable experience.

I lived a very sheltered life as a child, I was taught to fear things and people that were different.  Despite this, I was always very curious of the things that I was unfamiliar with or didn’t understand.  Becoming a somewhat rebellious teenager provided me the opportunity to grow and learn beyond the bubble a small-town community attempts to keep you in.

My career of engaging with others from all walks of life (ages, religions, races, politics) has granted me a continuation of that process of personal growth.  You learn a lot about yourself and others when you become part of a group, especially when you are in a role of leadership.

In addition, I’d like to state that teaching teens and adults grants the opportunity to help others improve their skills.  This enhanced skill-set builds a foundation upon which they can create a brighter future for themselves if they’re willing to stick with it and not give up.  As someone who teaches professional development classes to adults, I know that not everyone understands things the same way, or even has the same desire to learn something new.  But when they do, you can see their confidence build – they become a stronger person because of it.

Teaching is a hard job, perhaps the hardest aspect of the career I’ve had, but it’s also been the most rewarding because of the people I’ve met and the change I’ve been able to witness as they’ve learned.  Helping give people the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, what could be more rewarding than that?

I’ve worked in retail, construction, data entry, legal services, and professional development.  I’ve volunteered in disaster relief in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and I became an advocate for behavioral health awareness and suicide prevention.  I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and I became an inter-faith minister.  Out of all the things I’ve done or attempted to do, of all the choices I’ve made, and the experiences I’ve had, I think the common thread that runs through them all is my attempt to make a difference in other people’s lives, whether it be big or small.

It is fundamentally the most important thing we can ever hope to do with our own lives.  A life of service is one of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose.  I’m only 32 years old, but in my lifetime I have seen in other people a lot of suffering, a lot of loneliness, a lot of obstacles and setbacks, and a loss of hope.  Understanding and compassion, these two things make the world a little less dark.

Since I was 19 years old, I learned that reaching out to people and opening up about my experiences in battling bi-polar disorder creates two responses.  Either they become uncomfortable and don’t know what to say due to a lack of understanding, or they begin to tell you their own story of battling some form of a behavioral health condition.  In either case, there is an opportunity for understanding and in understanding there can be compassion.  Through compassion we can build emotional connections with others.

By telling others about my own experiences over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet and communicate with others who have shared in similar suffering.  When I was younger, knowing that other people were hurting too and that I wasn’t alone changed everything for me.  Every person that I’ve ever met and communicated with due to this process of sharing, those people are my support system and because there are so many people out there suffering, these opportunities do not end.

For about a decade, my closest friend was someone else who was battling a mental health condition.  We became each other’s brace during the hard times.  I fondly recall a time when she called me at 2:00 AM, waking me up and asking if we could go get breakfast from a 24-hour diner.  It might seem crazy to others, but that small adventure and time talking was exactly what we both needed that night.

I want to help people who are in a similar situation to the one I’ve been in.  I want to help them the same way that people once helped me.  I wouldn’t be here today if someone hadn’t reached out to me and allowed me the opportunity to relate to them and their experience.  Understanding and compassion, again these things make a world of difference.

My many years of sharing my own story of living with a mental health condition and my eagerness to create an opportunity to create an environment or platform where others can relate to one another, as well as my career training has all afforded me the experience and skills to lead, teach, and support others.  But each of us can take or create the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Every small gesture and every endearing question can open the door of understanding and compassion.  These things make life after a mental health crisis or prolonged suffering, a surmountable possibility.  Hope is born from acts of kindness and concern, and through hope we bear witness to a better life.

The Past That’s Not Forgotten

[Warning: this article discusses the sexual assault of men and boys and may not be appropriate for readers under the age of thirteen]

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The Past That’s Not Forgotten

According to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, 54% of reported sexual assault victims in the U.S. military are men.  Most people would find this surprising as the narrative in the news and media compels you to believe that women are the only victims of sexual assault.

When people learn that men are sexually assaulted, which is a term that also includes prolonged abuse and rape, the conclusion is drawn that the victim must be gay and that the perpetrator must also be gay.

Again, this is a perpetual and cultural narrative given by society that does not reflect the data in cases of reported sexual assault against men and boys.  In fact, while most cases of sexual abuse on boys and teens under the age of 16, is perpetrated by heterosexual men, about 15% of perpetrators are women.  If you include cases of boys and men over the age of 16 who were victims, that percentage of female perpetrators rises to nearly 40%.

In some cases the attack occurs where the victims are made to penetrate the attacker, this type of sexual assault against boys and men accounts for nearly 7% of assaults or abuse.  This type of sexual assault can be more easily reasoned when one better understands the male anatomy.  Being sexually aroused is not relative to the situation or environment in which a boy or man finds himself.  Even under duress or discomfort, erection and orgasm can occur against their will.

This may seem like a phenomenon or oddity, but unwanted or unexpected arousal and ejaculation is experienced by most teenage boys during puberty, and does happen to some male victims of sexual assault.  This is true, regardless of the gender of the attacker or the sexual orientation of the victim.  Erection and orgasm are automatic physiological responses and do not occur by conscious choice.  To learn more, I recommend this LivingWell article.

The main focus of my article is on the sexual assault (including abuse and rape) of boys and men by other boys or men.  From this point forward, when I use the term “male,” it refers widely to pre-teen boys through to adult men.

Male-on-male sexual assault almost always involves a heterosexual male or group of males attacking another male who may be gay or who may be straight.  According to data from various sources, anywhere from 94% to 98% of all male perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse against both genders, are identified as heterosexual (straight).  What sexual orientation the victim is, however, often depends on the environment and the circumstance surrounding the attack.

The terms “victim” and “survivor” are sometimes held in disdain by boys and men who experience sexual assault in childhood or adulthood due to the subjective connotations.  Therefore, the terms are used in this article solely for the purpose to differentiate between attacker and the attacked, and not in reference to the perpetuation of the state of victim-hood nor to gauge the severity of the incident by deeming one a survivor.

Other types of assault and abuse occur when males are congregated in large enough numbers where personalities clash and social order or hierarchy is challenged.  These types of attacks are about power, dominance, and sometimes revenge.

A single straight male, or a group of straight males in instances of gang rape, will attack the victim who is seen as a threat to social standing either because he’s another alpha male or due to his popularity.  It can also be over such issues as loyalty or the desire for subjugation.  This type of attack rarely has anything to do with sexual intimacy, but with asserting dominance and control over a perceived rival or dissident.

You may find it difficult to believe that a male or group of males who are straight could sodomize another.  However, you have to understand that this particular type of sexual assault has nothing to do with sexual attraction to a person, it is about sexual attraction to power, dominance, and sometimes even violence itself.

These males are not turned on by the physical appearance or attractiveness of the victim, or by the fact that he’s biologically male, but by their control and dehumanization of the victim who represents another male in a position of power or prestige.

It’s the forced removal of that power and control, the forced vulnerability and perceived weakness or inferiority and shame that they are inflicting on the victim and their perceived dominance over him that sexually arouses the perpetrators.

This type of male sexual assault frequently occurs in prisons for the same reasons as I have mentioned, with an estimated 70,000 men experiencing rape in U.S. prisons each year, perpetrated by both fellow in-mates and corrections staff.  Accounting for almost 22% of all rapes that occur in the United States annually.

The idea that you can break another male by taking his “manhood” through sodomy is not a new concept.  Tracing history back thousands of years reveals that ancient civilizations practiced this behavior regularly during conflicts.  It was not unusual for prevailing combatants to sodomize their captured opponents as a way to break their will to keep fighting.

This act wasn’t reserved just for the battlefield, the humiliation continued into cities and villages under siege.  Any man or boy old enough to swing a sword, was subjected to the same demoralizing assault to show dominance and strip away any sense of pride or will to resist.  These types of ancient sexual assaults are even discussed in the Bible and are mistakenly quoted as referring to homosexual (same-sex) relationships.

The most common instance in which male-on-male sexual assault is practiced includes sexual attraction, impulse, interest or curiosity to a resistant, unknowing, or confused victim.  This sexual experience can be brought on either through manipulation and coercion or by force.  When sexual advances are denied or rejected, a perpetrator may force his desires on another male, who may or may not even be interested in the same gender, or even be old enough to understand what is happening.  This type of forced experience may include sodomy, forced masturbation, or oral sex.

As the most common form of sexual assault or abuse experienced by boys and men, unwanted sexual experiences can occur against victims of all age ranges.  Every year some 60,000 American children are sexually abused and 90% of the abusers are family members, teachers, friends, or someone else the child knows.  Of those who are sexually abused, a third are abused by another juvenile under the age of 18.  One in every six men have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, some reports list this ratio as high as one in every four.  One in every twenty boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Children who are abused are nine times more likely to grow up and become involved in illegal activity:

  • 30% of abused children will later in life abuse their own children
  • 50% of inmates in American prisons were abused as children, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Human Rights Watch, nearly one in every twenty male inmates are sexually assaulted by other male inmates or corrections staff
  • 80% of 21-year-old Americans who were abused as children currently suffer from at least one mental illness

The resulting consequences of childhood and adulthood sexual abuse on males are staggering.  Those who report having experienced sexual abuse, report long term symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety / Fear / Helplessness
  • Depression
  • Dissociation / Loneliness
  • Guilt / Shame/  Self-blame
  • Hostility / Irritability / Anger
  • Homophobia
  • Impaired Relationships
  • Low Self-esteem / Self-doubt
  • Masculinity Issues
  • Questioning of Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual Dysfunction / Intimacy Issues
  • Sexual Promiscuity
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicidality

These symptoms can occur immediately following a male-on-male sexual assault and last decades or for a lifetime if the victim does not seek professional help.  Based on the research, it is generally accepted by the psychology industry that many victims never seek help or report the incident(s), hindering the data available on just how widespread sexual assault and abuse is on boys and men.  Based on reporting statistics, men who experience sexual abuse as children will refrain from telling anyone for 20 years on average.

There are three main causes that prevent reporting of the assault/abuse and reluctance to seek professional help, these are:

  • Perceived social shame or consequence of being both a male and a victim of sexual assault ( rape or abuse)
  • Manipulation by perpetrator that the victim became aroused or even experienced an orgasm and therefore must have liked it or is gay
  • Threats by perpetrator to retaliate (such as assault the victim again)
  • Experience of or expectation for denial

The denial mentioned here is multi-faceted.  A victim may feel so strongly about the incident that they compartmentalize the event and the emotions attached to it – pretending as though it never happened.  This type of denial is the result of a collection of responses, from fear of facing the incident to humiliation that it occurred in the first place.

Even when a victim reports the incident to their parents or other loved ones, there may be a denial by those he is confiding in.  A denial that the event “could” have or has happened, especially when the alleged perpetrator(s) are family members or family friends, which is often the case.

For male children and adults who have experienced sexual assault or prolonged sexual abuse, therapy is recommended and encouraged.  This treatment may include group therapy or support groups for adults, but the process of opening up for children or adults will not be easy and may take time.  In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder or other forms of behavioral or mental health conditions may play a role and additional treatment such as medication may be required to work through the trauma.

This article came into being after a conversation with another man who had experienced sexual abuse during childhood.  Throughout my life I have met men who had similar stories of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of both men and women.  While we should not turn our attention away from women and girls who experience the same kinds of sexual assault and abuse, we should not allow men and boys to continue to be invisible, ashamed, and unheard.

 


For more information on the prevention of child sexual abuse, the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services produced a short PDF with important tips for parents.

Resources for this article and the data it contains were collected from:

 

 

 

 

[Disclaimer: this article is not intended to treat any mental or behavioral condition, nor is it a replacement for the advice of medical or psychological professionals, this article has been provided for the sole purpose of bringing attention to a topic that is far too often invisible]