Confidence, Strength, and Courage
A #SurvivorStory by Anthony
One thing I have learned to do well is to present my life in a way that shows confidence, strength, and courage. I wake up every day and go to work like many other people. I offer consultation to medical providers about STI’s and HIV, and I advocate for others and empower them to speak their truths. Meanwhile, I hide and never really speak my own. I am also quick to offer support to a friend in need but rarely do I allow that to be reciprocated because I am the supporter, not the supported. As a whole I am perceived to be confident in most occasions. In reality, my mind and body have been conditioned to quickly adapt to a situation because anything else shows vulnerability, weakness, and provides an opportunity to be manipulated or violated.
That works well for the world but what does it do for me?
It leaves me lonely.
It leaves me lonely because my public persona leads people around me to think I’ve got it all together. I have no history of abusing drugs, and no criminal history. I appear to be financially stable and have a career I love, but working in HIV Prevention and Education can be emotionally and physically taxing. Again, I am considered, and portray myself as a strong supporter of the community.
In a community that struggles with current issues of violence, oppression, and various forms of abuse, I’ve missed my opportunity for compassion and support. Current struggles leave no space for my historical trauma. I should get over it and move on is the message received from some “friends” and some family members. I’m not usually visually depressed or sad so the perception is that I must be fine. The public persona I’ve cultivated prevents me from asking for support when I’m not doing okay. I crave support but am usually unwilling or unable to allow anyone to get close enough to give it.
Is it by choice? No. Not when I was younger, but now? Maybe it is. But it’s also a way of moving in the world that has grown stronger as I’ve aged. And despite my ability now to make other choices, it is a survival tactic that proves difficult to shake off. It’s a skill I developed early on in my childhood.
Back then, secrets were a way of life. No matter the circumstances, I protected myself with silence. See, at an age I still haven’t been able to recall, my cousin began sexually abusing, raping, and molesting me.
We are all born with an innocence, a clean slate if you will. From that innocence we develop our “power”. That power is ingrained in the confidence to try and fail, the strength to trust, and the courage to love. Our experiences with people around us help us form our perceptions of the world. If our experiences are negative or traumatic, we adapt to cope. That adaptation can appear as low self esteem, lack of courage, and/or lack of self worth. Those negative experiences contribute to stripping away essential traits one may need to live a fulfilling and satisfying life.
As a child my power was taken the first time my cousin took my innocence. He took advantage of every opportunity to abuse an already confused and struggling child. As a child, I lived in a home where abuse was present in many forms. I witnessed my mother being physically abused by husbands and boyfriends. I saw drugs abused – from cocaine to crack to heroine. Although I love my mother, may she rest in peace, she herself would punish me unfairly and sometimes severely with brooms, mops, extension cords, or whatever was accessible at the time. My escape was my aunt’s house, my only escape. I could only hope, “maybe not this time.” Rarely my cousin wouldn’t assault me, but with every occurrence he piled more of his shame and guilt upon me until I was finally broken and weighed down enough to submit without a fight.
By middle school I was groomed to believe violence, addiction, and abuse was just a way of life. Many details are lost in the trauma but I do know that over time, it took less threats and intimidation for me to “agree” to participate in the abuse. By this time I had no more power, I was beaten and defeated by life as a whole. I’d been abandoned by my mother; passed around from family member to family member and felt unwanted not to mention valued. I went to school with my mother’s old shoes I’d found in her closet and was running on the track team barefoot. I was bullied and teased by classmates, and felt guilt about a realization I might be gay. I had no control of anything and this was no different. I wanted to die, and would soon begin a quest to do just that. I had no voice. “No” was never an option.
Or was it?
There came the day when my cousin summoned me and I said “no.” The details are fuzzy, but I do remember this resistance catching him off guard and him deciding not to use force to commit his crimes. To be honest, I don’t know what I would have done if he did try to use force against me. Like me, my cousin probably did not know what I was willing to do if he tried to use force against my “no.” When I look back, I can see this resistance was the first shift in the power dynamic.
My cousin went to jail for raping someone else shortly after that first act of resistance, and our paths and lives started to move in separate directions. But the damage was done. I trusted no one and an unwarranted touch would send me into a rage. I was mentally unstable; I was broken, mind body and soul with nothing left to give.
After his abuse stopped, my self-abuse started. I could not see my value. How could I when my own family member was willing to hurt me? I had no love or belief in anything spiritual or religious. How can a God put a child on earth to endure this level of torture? I had love and hate for the people around me. I loved my cousins and aunt so I wanted to be with them. I put myself in harm’s way by being in his presence just to have access to their love. In my mind, there was always a chance maybe it wouldn’t happen this time. So naive and foolish of me. Simultaneously I hated them for not saving me from the horrible monster who plagued my life. Maybe they wouldn’t believe me. Maybe they would tease me. Even worse, maybe they would begin to do it too.
In middle school I struggled with my sexuality and the guilt of wanting something that had been so negative and evil. Girls didn’t find me attractive when I was young. Boys, on the other hand, did. I wanted attention, I needed it. It was what I was always missing at home and something no one had time to give me.
As I developed unhealthy emotional relationships with males around me, I began to lose myself in what I wanted versus what they were willing to offer. This caused me to spiral out of control and, on multiple occasions, attempt to take my own life.
When that didn’t work, I found sex. I found it online, in video booths at porn shops, parks, and restrooms. I used sex often to feel good and to satisfy my need for a male in my life. Daddy issues? Quite possible.
Was it possible I had become accustomed to being used and partly craved it to maintain a sense of “normalcy?” Maybe.
I used sex as a drug and at this point there was no sense of what a healthy sexual relationship even looked like. Some people inject meth or heroin. I injected myself into the seedy underground sex world of Portland and eventually Atlanta. A place where “attention” is waiting around every corner, every dark room, and in every hole.
I continued this pattern of stranger after stranger, night after night. To say I had no concerns would be a lie; however, that concern was being caught by someone, not catching a sexually transmitted infection. Never would I want to be seen by anyone who knew me. So, to avoid running into people I knew, I traveled outside of Portland to surrounding areas to feed my habit. Secretly hoping I’d see someone I knew just to normalize the behavior. After all, I couldn’t be the only one enjoying this life…could I?
I moved to Atlanta and continued playing in my sexual playground. No protection and no thoughts or attempts at protecting myself from harm. Going home with strangers nightly. Engaging in sex with multiple anonymous partners, sometimes multiple partners or groups in a single night. No condoms, no PrEP, no testing or cares in the world. That was until years later, when I was tested for the first time and learned I was living with HIV.
Still in the closet to most and now I’m dying of HIV? The natural order is to come out as gay and ignorant people will assume it’s just a matter of time. I found it incredibly difficult to tell others my status when I hadn’t yet become comfortable talking about my sexuality.
It wasn’t as if this was new to me. I had a family member who had been recently diagnosed, and I had a close friend whose father died of AIDS-related complications. However, as someone who had been suicidal, this was my golden ticket. There would be no treatment and I wouldn’t tell anyone. My mother had already passed away and I owed no one else anything.
I continued life as if nothing was wrong. Presenting with confidence, strength, and courage. But inside, I was struggling. I was struggling because I was keeping one more secret. This frustrated me. There were so many things people didn’t know about me. So many things I didn’t know about myself.
I realized the power I’d lost so many years ago would appear at just the right times to get me through. I had been sexually abused, abandoned, and sold crack cocaine all by the age of 12 years old but I was still an honor roll student. My cousin, my brother, and my best friend all died before turning 21 and just a few years apart. Although I attempted suicide numerous times, I was still living.
And even though I went for years without medication, my body fought the HIV on its own. When I did decide to seek out care, I was healthy. Prior to going in I called my best friend in Miami to finally tell him my status. He took it hard and that finally gave me the space to share my fear and tears with someone close to me. I informed him that I would not be seeking care and wanted to tell him goodbye. We talked a little longer before disconnecting but minutes later my phone rang and it was his mom. She called as only an Italian woman from New York could. She ordered me to go to the doctor and no was not an option. As I look back she may have saved my life, may she rest in peace.
When realizing my issues with my health were more mental than physical I began to realize how fortunate I had been, not only now but throughout my life. Make no mistake about it, things always seemed to be slightly more difficult than others around me, but for some reason I also found a way. No food…I found it and have no recollection of ever being hungry. No parents…I figured it out and did it myself. No courage…I was taught early there was no pleasure without pain so I faked it. I did what I had to, I didn’t know there were other options.
I started to understand a part of what makes up my power is resilience and that part of me was never fully defeated and can’t be taken. Resilience gave me the motivation to get up and continue to fight and to live. It continues to give me hope and it gives me compassion and a dream to never let anyone, especially any child walk this path alone.
There is no statute of limitations on the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Shockingly many states in the US have statues limiting the government’s ability to prosecute crimes against children. These statutes puts an unfair burden on victims and should be abolished. It has taken 30 years for me to heal from the crimes committed against me, but this is my journey, done my way, with no apologies and no validation necessary.
As of today, I have told my family about the years of abuse and they were supportive. I have confronted my abuser in public and he confessed. I contacted the Portland Police Bureau and filed a criminal complaint and will be following up with a civil suit. It has taken many years for me to gain control of my narrative, my identity, and my power. I never knew what my life was missing because those things were taken before I knew they existed. People were hurt. Some asked why I waited so long. But no one said it didn’t happen, not even the abuser himself. It never mattered who did or did not believe me. I felt secure in telling my story because it wasn’t about how it was received as much as it was about speaking out. I, and countless others, are proof there can be life after. My “life after” contains lots of compassion and understanding. Although I would never say I can appreciate the things that happened to me, nor wish them upon anyone.
I have returned the shame and guilt to its rightful owner. He can suffer. I have released the scared little boy and become the man I was destined to be…confident, strong, and courageous.
About the Author
As a Black gay man from Portland, OR, Anthony Rivers is dedicated to ending stigma, increasing testing, and advocating for health equity amongst communities disproportionately affected by HIV, STI’s, and other health conditions. His personal and professional experience also leads him to champion rights and advocate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Anthony currently works with King County and the CDC as a program manager. He continues to work tirelessly for the gay and POC communities by supporting programs that serve communities of color and advocating for those programs to be run by people of color. He previously served as HIV Prevention Specialist for Cascade AIDS Project as well as the State of Washington focusing many testing and outreach efforts towards underserved communities. Anthony created programs such as: Shop Talk, a health workshop geared toward health education and HIV prevention in collaboration with barbershops and beauty salons. A 3 on 3 basketball tournament and health fair with health screenings and scholarships. And, created a Black Health Matters campaign with the African American AIDS Awareness Action Alliance (A6) to increase health awareness, end HIV stigma, and educate the Black community about PrEP.
“A victim is a survivor who has not yet gotten their wings, their power, or their voice. I have been chosen to lift them up, provide support, and raise hell until victims are ready to fly.” – Anthony Rivers
To contact Anthony, email: firstname.lastname@example.org