I remember it like it happened this morning, every nasty detail. His name was Jeremy and he lived across the street. He was a teenager. He seemed like a giant at the time. He was big and strong and took advantage of me. This was not just two kids experimenting, which is common. He knew what he was doing. He knew he was wrong.
But I learned from my Momma how to “fake it to make it”. She had a great deal of hurt in her life, but she was always the life of the party, the happy one. She was always on the “up” in public, even if she was falling apart inside.
So, life for the three-year-old returned to the family’s old habit of keeping up appearances. My Dad owned a mechanic shop in our tiny, rural Alabama town. I grew up in church. Dad sang in the musicals, and Momma helped with the children’s choir. There’s even a video of me singing my first solo in the Christmas program at the age of five. We were active in our little church as far back as I can remember.
Throughout my childhood, there are multiple memories of “experimenting” with other children. Partly out of normal childhood curiosity, and partly because I had been exposed to something no adolescent (much less a preschooler) should know exists. Then, at age twelve, I discovered porn. I liked it. It looked fun. It reminded me, in a sick and twisted way, of how I made Jeremy feel good as a tiny little boy.
I shared porn with friends, I told boys at school about it. I had become the “porn expert” by seventh grade. When your first conscious memory is of sexual abuse, an over-sexualized childhood makes perfect sense. Every conversation was a chance for sexual innuendos and every moment alone was an opportunity for secrets.
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Did I fail to mention that I was still a good little church boy during this entire time?
I was a youth leader, in all sorts of choirs and ensembles, and people constantly remarked to my parents, “With his personality, he will either be a preacher or a politician”. Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday nights, Children’s camp, youth camp. I went to all of it. I was doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. I knew plenty about God, but I had no true relationship with God.
Then it happened. I was a part of “Youth Leadership: Shelby County,” a forum created by several governmental departments, and we were on a field trip to the Department of Human Resources. After our tour, the director of DHR came in to tell us about the process of investigating child molestation cases. My heart sank, my palms grew sweaty, and there’s no word for the knot I felt in the back of my throat. But I was in “fake it to make it” mode.
I was determined no one would know.
It had been fourteen years, but the memory was still fresh. She brought out dolls they use to identify what has happened to children, and I lost it. I barely made it out of the room, running, before I fell apart in the hallway. I remember sliding down the sheet rock wall and crumbling into a pile of tears and anxiety. I was humiliated.
I had worked hard to get here. I was on a leadership trip with other students my age from all over the county. These people weren’t my church friends. They were complete strangers and I was crying in the hallway, acting like a fool! I couldn't mask my anxiety and humiliation. I wanted to crawl under the carpet.
Back to the church boy. By the age of twenty, my feet had touched the soil of three foreign countries to share the Gospel with lost souls, not even realizing that I was just as lost as every barefoot foreigner I had witnessed to. I thought I knew it all, but I had no relationship with God.
Instead, I filled the void. I tried to cover the wounds with sex and porn and experimentation, along with church mixed in for good measure. Sexual sin carries a lie that says, “With this adventure, you can be taken away for a while. Come away with me. Let’s have fun. Let’s get away from it all.” I wanted the escape.
It wasn’t until I was 25 that I started a process of truly learning who my Heavenly Father is. My Abba. Learning that He loved me first, with a love that is pure and holy. A love that is untainted and seeks to give, not take. I didn’t ask to be abused and there is nothing I can do to go back and change it. Much like the victim of sexual assault in Judges 19, I had no voice. For years, I lived like a victim. But now I am a man with a voice and a new perspective. I refuse to let my brokenness be a cause or an excuse for further addiction.
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I am learning that there are two battles in life: the first is a breaking free and the second is a staying free. The first battle is strictly spiritual: a matter of being born again. The second battle is also spiritual, but without practical steps along the way, it’s a losing fight. Recovery from childhood sexual abuse and addiction is a long and often difficult journey, but my desire to remain free means I must have clear boundaries and be honest about my struggles.
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For so many years, I got it all wrong: I thought that I had to win a battle right now and for good. I was wrong. I am going to fight whatever battle lies immediately before me, today, in this moment. The partial truth is that there will be new struggles tomorrow, but the rest of the story is that tomorrow will come with new strength. God meets me there, in the midst of my vulnerability and says, “I am strongest when you are willing to admit your weakness”.
I finally realized, that, like Jeremy, I had been given grace that I didn’t deserve. No more performing for others. Now, I am learning the freedom that comes from being real before a God who loves me as I am. I don’t have to “fake it to make it” anymore. Setting aside the mask of religion and regulations, I am now free to love others. I am Steve Austin: molested, addicted, and forgiven. By God’s grace, I’m learning even to love myself.