In the shadows
Hello and welcome to Episode 17 of This Little Light Of Mine. My name is James Powell and I’m glad that you’re able to join me for today’s episode, ‘In the shadows’.
Before we get started with today’s episode, I want to be very transparent that this is my first ‘explicit’ episode as this part of my story contains content that may trigger some survivors. In today’s episode I will be talking about sexual assault, rape, trauma and dissociation. I encourage all listeners to be gentle with themselves and to proceed with loving intent as they listen, knowing that it’s okay to stop and/or take breaks.
If you are a survivor of religious trauma, sexual abuse or assault or are a person facing mental health issues related to today’s conversation I strongly encourage you to be extremely gentle with yourself and to reach out to a mental health professional that specializes in trauma.
I am terrified about sharing these next few story episodes with you. Ever since starting TLLOM I’ve been pushing these episodes to the back of my mind by telling myself… they are months away… just focus on the episode in front of you. And now we’re here.
I’m not sharing these stories to be salacious, to call anyone out, or to shame anyone, in fact, that’s why I’ve never shared much of today’s content with anyone. I’m sharing this part of my story because I want to reduce shame. Shame reduction starts when you welcome light into the shadow parts of your life. I’m also sharing because I want allies and those who continue to inflict spiritual abuse on our LGBTQ2S+ children to understand what happens when you teach a child that they’re not allowed to love.
I’m thankful that our society is slowly evolving and some of the hard edges of mental health and addiction recovery stigma are being sanded away to give new permissions for sharing of stories to facilitate healing and growth. I’m also thankful to the people who have helped to encourage and inspire me on this part of my recovery journey
Junia Joplin – who I’m excited to introduce you to on our next episode, thank you for honesty, integrity and humanity. I see you and appreciate your living journey of hope and transformation of the church.
R & K – for being such a clear example of unconditional love for their children. Thank you for following your Knowing, asking the hard questions, preparing to fail forward and moving into action to bring more love into our world.
Joey at Dismantle Podcast. Thank you for using your loving voice to encourage much needed dialogue in our community. Your vision of community & connection OVER conversion is what we need to strive for
And finally, my Tuesday night crew. Thank you so much for your vulnerability, holding a space where we can share all of ourselves and for your encouragement and support around the content of this episode.
Antidote to shame
And it’s the support and encouragement of community that has been transformational in my healing journey. Authentic sharing is the antidote to toxic shame. Fear, disconnection and hiding in the shadows is what fuels the cancer of shame. I know this fear all too well. In fact, I’ve only been showing you the parts of me that I think are socially acceptable.
This is how I’ve operated for most of my life, I’ve been hiding behind a mask… but there are other parts of me too… it’s only been through decades of extensive therapy and intensive trauma therapy over the past year that I’m starting to see some of my protective parts. Parts of me… not the whole me.
All or nothing
Growing up in a fundamentalist background I was never taught about ‘parts’… I was simply taught that I was either good or evil, a saint or a sinner, of God or of Satan. It was this type of harmful thinking that taught me that I was completely broken, a forgotten sinner and an abomination in the eyes of God. It was this type of toxic theology that drove me out in search of nourishment… but the nourishment I found nearly starved me to death.
And with that, here’s today’s episode ‘In the shadows’.
I have a private underground world where all of my pain fades away. In this world I’m confident, bold and free. I ask for exactly what I want, and I usually get it. In this world, all my fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness and worthlessness melts away. In this world I’m desired, I feel powerful and I’m wanted. In this world I am loved… at least that’s what I thought for decades.
Our society doesn’t like to talk about the things in my hidden world. We all know this world exists but we turn our heads and hope this world will somehow disappear. This world used to only exist in the dark, in back alleys, in sleazy videos stores, or on the back pages of classified sections. This world now exists in the palm of our hands, it’s accessible 24/7 and it’s virtually free.
Some judge this world and assume it’s filled only with bottom feeders, cheaters and lowlifes. Others have done a good job normalizing this world, celebrating its pervasive presence in our cultural zeitgeist and claiming victory after a long-fought battle for freedom of expression.
But at a very young age I started to inhabit this world because I was taught by my Christian community that I’m not worthy of love in “your normal world”. I never wanted to live in this world but I wasn’t given any other viable options. I moved into this world in order to survive.
This world that I thought was helping me to survive ended up almost costing me my life.
I was introduced to my private world at a friend’s house after school in grade four. Five of us crammed into an unfinished basement cold room as Tom unzipped his older brother’s hockey bag. He dug under all the equipment and pulled out a stack of magazines. He passed each of us one of the well-worn magazines and we drank in the images.
Something magical happened that afternoon. I felt an intoxicating wave of danger mixed with goodness pass through my body. I knew what I was doing was wrong and yet I was completely entranced with what I was seeing. Time stopped, all my pain and anxiety slipped away, I felt connected with my friends and a pulse of sexual energy surged through my body. For the first time in my life I felt powerful.
This is what I’ve been looking for
The other boys were commenting on the women on the pages but I was mesmerized with the naked images of a fully-grown man. I immediately knew that this is what I was searching for when I played truth or dare with the friends who were my age. I didn’t want to explore with boys my age. I wanted to feel the love of a man… one of these men.
The high from those pictures was like nothing I had ever experienced. I needed more and I knew I couldn’t rely on Tom getting access to his brother’s magazines. I needed my own.
Using savings from my paper route I rode my bike as far away from our house as I could, on the hunt for a small independent convenience store. My gut told me that a smaller store wouldn’t ask me for ID and that being far away from my home I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.
After a couple of scouting trips I found my target. I should have been nervous about making this purchase but the power of those images gave me the courage and the fearlessness I needed. I walked into the store. Grabbed a couple of magazines, brought them up to the cash with a bag of chips, paid and I was in business and instantly hooked.
Those magazines would later evolve into a secret collection of online images with the generous help from those AOL CD-ROMs full of trial minutes that would be regularly delivered to our home. Sneaking downstairs into the basement after everyone else was asleep the crackling and hissing of the modem handshake from our cutting edge 56.6 dial-up connection would transport me into a magical world. In this world I was like Pinocchio and his visit to Pleasure Island. I was no longer ‘me’, I was an alter-ego who was strong, bold, in-control and free. In this world I didn’t have to hide ‘what’ I was, I was free to desire what I wanted and I could exchange with others just like me.
This hidden world became my medicine. They were my anti-depressants, my anti-anxiety meds, my sleeping pills, my everything. Whenever I felt alone, overwhelmed or when I was scared; this world was the replacement for the protection I needed from my family, my church and my community. This world gave me the love, warmth and assurance that I could get through another moment.
My hidden world experienced explosive growth when I was 13. I was reading a newspaper article that was talking about a place where gay men went called a bathhouse. I didn’t have any idea of what a bathhouse was but the article made it seem interesting to me.
What in the world is a bathhouse?
These were pre-Google days so I got out the Yellow Pages searched for ‘bathhouse’ and to my surprise there were several listings. I randomly picked one of the numbers, waiting until my family was out of the house, picked up the phone, hit *67 to block our number… since I didn’t want anyone gay knowing our home phone number, then I dialled the number.
CT – “Hello, Club Toronto”
Me – “Um hi, is this a bar?”
CT – “Yes, we have one”
Me – “Are you a gym?”
CT – “Yes, we have one”
Me – “Are you a night club?”
CT – “I guess so, we’re busier at night… listen you sound curious, it’s probably easier if you just come and check it out yourself… and you do know that it’s an all male establishment.”
Me – “Yes, thanks.”
My personal invitation
That’s all I really needed. I took that as my personal invitation to check it out. The next weekend I made up an excuse that I needed to go downtown to the reference library for a school project and asked my parents if they would drop me off at the train station on Sunday afternoon after church. They agreed and I was off.
Arriving at Club Toronto I had no idea what I was doing. I opened the door and saw a small counter and behind the security slats was a man. I was clueless and completely out of my depths and all I could think to say was
He looked me up and down and replied with
“Locker or Room?”
I had no idea what he was talking
I gave him the some money and I heard a buzzing sound from another door. I froze not knowing what to do next. They guy behind the counter just stared at me. Finally he looked at me and said.
“You need to push the door open and come on through”
I pushed the door open, went through and was handed a towel and a key on an elastic key chain.
I’ve made a huge mistake
Everything inside was so dark and as my eyes adjusted from the outside sunlight I froze again as I looked around. I was dumbfounded and had no idea where to start or what to do in this place. At that moment I knew I had made a big mistake. I knew that I shouldn’t have been there. I knew that it was time for me to go.
As I started to look for a way out, I was approached by an older man… a particularly larger older man, wearing a towel who said
“You look lost, can I help give you a tour?”
I don’t remember saying anything back to the man and yet my body started to move and I followed this man who was easily five times my age as he showed me the gym area, the sauna, the whirlpool, the outdoor pool and the lounge before he asked to see the key in my hand.
I followed him up a level where he pointed out my locker and told me that he would wait while I changed into my towel. I was trembling but I followed my instructions as I tried to cover myself up while taking off all of my clothes and wrapping myself in the towel that was handed to me at the front desk. As I locked up all my belongings all I could think of was the amount of trouble I would be in if my house keys were stolen while I was here.
Terrified AND intrigued
I was lost and terrified in this strange world and had no idea what to do next but there was a small part of me that was intrigued by a number of the men that I’d seen on the tour.
“One more stop, let me show you what one of the rooms looks like” said my tour guide.
Again, I mindlessly followed him up to the fourth level of the building. This time he gave me his key and asked me to unlock the door and go inside.
Going inside I was surprised to see that this wasn’t “a room”. The barren space was no larger than a closet with barely enough space for something that resembled a cot jammed into the corner.
My tour guide invited me to get onto the cot.
My tour guide started to touch me and position my body.
I was frozen inside my head as I watched what was about to happen from outside of my body. I was terrified but there was nothing that I could do.
Snapping back into my body
Suddenly something inside of me came back online, I was back in my body and I realized what HE thought was about to happen. Adrenalin kicked in, I shoved my way out of the room, bolted down one flight of stairs to my locker, changed as fast as I could, ran down two more flights and found the exit.
Out on the street my heart was pounding and the thoughts in my head were spinning.
What in the world are you doing? Is that man coming after me? You could have been killed? You almost got AIDS from that man. You are never going to be forgiven for this. I just want to get home and pretend this never happened.
Then it hit me. I told my parents to pick me up from the train WAY later in the afternoon. I was terrified, ashamed and I had 3 hours to kill all by myself. To this day I still don’t remember what I did with those 3 hours.
SIDE NOTE – A decade earlier
A small historical side note. I’ve heard of the infamous ‘bathhouse raids’ but it didn’t really hit me until putting together this episode. Not even ten years earlier, Club Toronto was included in these raids. Had I been born earlier maybe I would have been arrested. Could I have had a criminal record at 13?
The next week went by with my usual self-flagellation (of the religious discipline type) and generally hating myself for orchestrating such a massive sin but nearing the week’s end I told my parents I needed to go back downtown to finish up research for my project.
The next Sunday I made my way back downtown to Club Toronto, walked inside, was greeted with a
Owning the place
This time around I didn’t need a tour guide. I knew what to expect and where to go. I found my locker and entered into this underground world like I owned it.
This underground world became my sanctuary. That Sunday morning I started off at church as a closeted sinner. Within the walls of my church I believed that I was unlovable, unworthy and that people like me were dirty, evil and headed for an eternity in Hell.
Becoming a saint
That Sunday afternoon at the bathhouse I became a saint. Within the bathhouse walls I was desired, special, and adored. Within these walls I found people who accepted me for me. Within these walls the fear, anger and frustration of living with my family, my fear of abandonment, the overwhelming anxiety of my mortal annihilation from God and the sadness, loneliness and terror of being bullied at school all disappeared. Within these walls, for the first time, I felt seen, I felt safe, I felt loved.
This world would get much deeper and darker and for the past 30 years this world has been the balm to whatever ails me. This was the world where I learned the crucial developmental tasks about ‘love’, sex, relationships. This world became my drug and overtook so many aspects of my life, damaged many relationships and hurt many people. Diving into this world at such a young age damaged my soul, inflicted trauma and abuse and led me down a path to a distorted and harmful view of what I thought love was.
To this day, when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed a part of me starts up and old memories, vivid flashbacks with scents, sounds and body sensations flood into my thoughts and infiltrate my dreams. I’m now learning that these are trauma responses and that after years conditioning when my brain doesn’t want to be ‘here’ in our world it transports me back to place where I felt alive and free.
What I thought was love was really my hiding space, a space I needed because I was afraid to let love in. In this world it was easy for me to survive because I had to give nothing… I only had to take. At least that’s what I used to believe. This world that I pretended to stand for liberation, choice and adventure was actually my prison and my executioner. I can now see that I was attracted to this world because of my pain, my low self-esteem and self-image, my fear of intimacy, my lack of trust and my need for control… all of these stemming from being taught that I was not allowed to love.
This is what happens
I wouldn’t wish this world on anyone but I never felt I had a choice. When you teach a child that because of who they are that they are not allowed to love, they will search for anything that could be a substitute.
By being taught that I wasn’t allowed to love as a young boy, I ran to this world. Like so many LGBTQ+ youth growing up in the church I was robbed of the opportunity to learn from my parents or church community what healthy intimacy, love, dating and commitment looks like; for me, my straight siblings received this, but I didn’t. I naively thought that my underground world was providing me with the love that was forbidden by my church. I now know that there was never any love there.
It would be more than a quarter century later that I would start to see that I was never really in those rooms with those men. My body was there. I wasn’t there. I was dissociating, and most, if not all, of my sexual experiences have been dissociative ever since.
Sexual assault & rape
It would be more than a quarter century later that I would start to see this part of my life for what it really was. This was sexual assault. This was repeated rape of a minor.
This was the love, acceptance, safety and community I thought I deserved. This was what I was taught I was worth.
When you teach children that they are unworthy of love, and that they are essentially garbage, this is what happens.
Churches continue this teaching today
This is what evangelical Christian churches continue to teach our children today.
We must stop this abuse. And I can’t do it alone. Will you help me?
So… I’m a little nervous to ask… how did that episode land for you? Writing and recording this episode brought up so many physical and emotional trauma responses for me. It’s been thirty years since the events from today’s episode am I now starting to have flashbacks of how terrified and paralyzed I was during this part of my life. Before getting into recover I used the stories from today’s episode to tell myself how brave, strong, independent and free I was… I was trying to protect myself from my truth… to do this I needed to numb and run away from my feelings; I was gaslighting myself.
Not so private
As I share about my “private” shadow world, I know that it’s not a population of 1. This world impacts millions of others. The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health conservatively estimates that between 3-5% of all Americans can be classified as addicted to sex.
- Porn sites receive more monthly traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined!
- Approximately 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors in America struggle or have struggled with pornography, but less than 1% recommend talking to their congregation about it.
What I’m learning is that porn, sex, or addiction are not the issue. The porn, sex and addictions are actually just the numbing agents. These are just the symptoms of something much deeper.
Trauma at the root
The deeper issue is spiritual trauma and violent emotional lack that comes from the toxic theology that continues to be taught in our society and in many of our churches. This trauma and abuse leads to disconnection, toxic shame and covert depression… and to cover up this pain we will run towards anything that provides an illusion of connection OR we’ll to numb our pain… two sides of the same coin.
Coming off my recent episode about purity culture I want to be clear that I’m not ‘sex shaming’ or being ‘sex negative’. I believe that these are individual choices, and my goal is to find experiences that foster love, intimacy and connection vs. shame, numbing and dissociation.
We’re taught not to talk about these shameful and ugly parts. We’re taught to run from our shadows. We’re taught to man up, pray more, work harder and essentially… bury the issue and hope it goes away.
And guess what, us humans can do a pretty great job of pretending something isn’t there. In fact, with much of covert depression and those who self-medicate with people, work, violence, sex, food, etc., most mental health professionals do not correctly diagnose either the addictive behviour or the depression at the root.
And yet these issues don’t go away. And they will continue to persist and grow like a cancer until we acknowledge, name and process the root of our trauma.
For me, I’m learning that my recovery journey is about remembering who I was created to be. The root of my trauma is being taught that I am unlovable and that I am not worthy of loving in the way that I am designed to love.
This journey is a return to love.
Next episode I am being joined by Junia Joplin who is no stranger to this journey. This summer Junia Joplin, after six years as the lead pastor of Lorne Park Baptist Church, came out to her congregation as transgender, during her Sunday sermon. In our episode, Are all welcome? we will talk with Junia about what happened next and where she’s heading today. Junia also gave me a bit of a history lesson in transgender leadership in the church as we look towards Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov 20.
What about you?
Where are you on your journey towards fully loving yourself? When you look into the mirror and connect with yourself are you able to be with, really see and love all of you?
Are you surrounding yourself with other humans that can be with, see, celebrate and love all of you?
That’s my hope for each of you. That’s my intention for myself. That’s my mission for queer children growing up in our church today.
Will you help me?
Will you help me on this mission? Will you share ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ with someone in your personal circle? Is there a family that might benefit from these stories? Maybe an ally, board member or someone on the leadership team at your church?
In need your help so that we can stop teaching our LGBTQ2S+ children that they are not allowed to love. We need to break this cycle of abuse.
Thank you again for being with us today and before I go I want to remind you.
You are a gift from God.
You are designed with a powerful voice, no matter who you are. We need to hear what you have to say. You matter, you are needed, you are wanted, and you are loved.