I can’t remember a time when sleep came easy for me.
As a child, my mom knew I struggled with sleep but didn’t know why.
We were a poor Black family in the ghetto. Medicaid didn’t pay for doctors to dissect the sleep struggles of poor Black boys in the hood. So, my mom did the best she could to solve the problem that wouldn’t go away. She found a super bright Bugs Bunny night light. Her mission was to protect me the best she knew how from whatever monsters haunted my nights.
Little did she know the monster was real.
Had she known, things would have been different, better possibly. And in telling my story, I hope others will find the strength to share their own stories and call out their own injuries. There is a term used by medical professionals called the mechanism of injury. By identifying the mechanism of injury, medical professionals can look beyond the immediate symptoms and pinpoint the precise action that caused the injury to the patient. For me, the mechanism of injury was found in what happened in my bedroom in the dark of night.
My mom collected a menagerie of folks who made their way in and out of our home. Some were boarders who helped cover the rent. Others were ne’er-do-wells whom my mother thought all they needed was a good dose of the little baby Jesus.
There was Mr. Brown who rented the upstairs back bedroom. He was a kindly older man who spent his days on the front porch with a fifth of some sort of brown liquor, never more than an arm’s length away. He was a disabled veteran living off what little he received from the government each month. Lei, Lavonia, and their mother stayed with us for a bit. I was told they were cousins, but I later learned their mother was hiding from an abusive husband.
And then there was Gail. I don’t remember a time before Gail. She always seemed to be there. She lived in our basement. From the perspective of a skinny little boy, Gail was an imposing figure. She was an extra-large woman with rough-hewn, weather-worn skin, which betrayed her actual age. She constantly smelled of whatever she had been drinking that day. Over the years, Gail was my mother’s Achilles heel and great unfinished project.
Then it happened. The night the monster became real. Gail slipped into my bedroom. Climbed into my bed. She did things to me no seven-year-old should have happen to them. I can still smell the alcohol on her breath as she told me it was time for me to become a man. A man? I was only seven years old. That night I did not become a man. That night I was broken almost irreparably.
For years, I wore the mask only those who have experienced unimaginable trauma know. I created the mask to explain the inexplicable. I wore the mask to hide the deep shame and guilt that consumed every part of me. I know now it was not my shame and guilt to bear. But, a young boy, still a baby, doesn’t have the spiritual or emotional depth to parse those things out.
Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and political philosopher, once wrote, “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.” So, it was with me. Gail had imprinted on my tender psyche that I was utterly useless and without any value. I believed her.
My mother didn’t know of my brokenness or its depth until she was eighty years old. As part of my healing process, I was encouraged, by my then therapist, to share the abuse Gail inflicted on me. I was hesitant because Gail and my mother were still close.
To this day, I remember Gail’s exact words to me. She said my mother would never believe a “no good bastard child.” My mother was devastated by my story. I started to apologize, but she stopped me and simply said, “I love you, and I believe you.”
Even at this many years old the words “no good bastard child” still haunt me. Perhaps, this is why there are times I feel like a stranger in my own skin. It may explain why I became a perpetual and obsessive overachiever. Always blinded by my own perceived faults, there was never a standard I was good enough to meet.
On the day I was elected Speaker of Colorado’s House of Representatives, I half-jokingly told a close friend, “They done messed up and made me Speaker.” I feared all of Colorado would wake up the next morning to the sound of Gail’s words and believe her.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have sat down to put pen to paper to tell this story. I’ve told the story to small groups of friends and, rarely I’ve been convinced to share with larger audiences. However, writing brings a more concrete level of transparency and permanence to the story. A level, until now, I’ve been reluctant to embrace.
This story, my story, the counter-narrative, and a correction to my public story. The story of a young Black man full of vim, vigor, and swagger who escaped poverty to exceed all expectations for success. A story that, quite frankly, does a disservice to me and disregards much of what has formed me.
Many men, in particular Black men, resist speaking openly about their experiences with sexual abuse. Researchers have found that approximately 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted. This number is underreported because of the stigma associated with admitting sexual abuse. I grew up in a neighborhood where being a young Black man meant you showed no weakness or vulnerability. There was no room in my life to even contemplate sharing my story.
Even now, I have some apprehension about sharing my story.
I don’t have any allusions my words will encourage more men to step forward and share their stories. I hope it does. I know the long-term impact of living with the shame and guilt over something where the blame is not yours to carry.
I know a little something about the sleepless nights, the feelings of inadequacy, the false facades, the anxiety, and the depression, which happens when your soul is burdened by nearly unbearable pain.
My journey to healing has not been smooth or easy, and it is far from complete. I doubt it will ever be complete. In this case, the journey is more important. I’m a stronger person because I chose this road.
I chose to love myself enough to travel an uncertain road with an unknown conclusion. This journey has helped me embrace that I’m no longer a boy who faced a monster but now a man who has lived to tell the tale.
Terrance Carroll is a former speaker of the Colorado House. The first and only African American to ever hold that position in Colorado. He is a Baptist preacher, attorney, and former police officer. He is on Twitter @speakercarroll.
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