That Time (12) Who Am I This Time?

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My life is not all misery and woe. On the contrary, I have a happy, privileged and blessed life. Sure, I have endured a lot. I have struggled, especially emotionally. I have had countless failings. Made a lot of mistakes. Hurt some people and been hurt by some others. But I survived and now I am thriving.

I’ve also had a lot of amazing experiences. I’ve traveled extensively, having been, on multiple occasions, to Italy, France, German, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain, and Viet Nam. I have skied (not well), snorkeled, sailed, motorcycled, and hiked deserts, cloud forests, redwoods, cities, and the goat trails of Cinque Terra. I studied yoga in India at one of Calcutta’s most historic yoga schools.

One of my teenage dreams was to work in professional theatre and for about 20 years I did that. I’ve been an actor, lighting designer, technical director, and performance artist. I have met and worked with famous artists and many more lesser-known who were as accomplished and talented as any of the recognizable names.

Here’s just one highlight of my performing arts career. In the early ’90s, I acted in a play for children in Atlanta. It was directed by a highly regarded German director. All of the actors were adults but most of us portrayed children. My character, Peter, was the misfit, the one who always got into trouble. The play ran for two weeks with schoolchildren bused in each weekday. The theatre accommodated a little over two hundred children and most performances were sold out.

Every performance of this play was a delight but one day something  happened that I will always treasure. In one scene, Peter got into some mischief and ended up hiding under a large cardboard box. The angry Father discovers Peter and removes the box in an “Aha, I caught you!” moment.” The kids in the audience went wild. They started screaming my character’s name. “Peter! Peter! Peter!” Then they started stamping their feet on the floor. This went on so long the play had to stop, people rushed into the theatre from the lobby, offices, and backstage to see what the commotion was. “Peter! Peter! Peter!” It was incredible. They just wouldn’t stop. It was thrilling and emotional and I have never felt such a joyous connection with an audience, before or since.

Acting wasn’t easy for me. I have never stood on a stage without being terrified. But I was good at it. Offstage I had always been socially insecure, nervous, reticent. But I did my best to never let anyone see that. I didn’t know it at the time but I grew up acting, pretending. Pretending to be something other than what I felt I was. Pretending to be confident. Pretending to be cool and detached. Pretending that the bad things never happened. Pretending to be whole.

I was introduced to acting while at Omnibus, the alternative High School I attended for my junior and senior years. It was one of my teachers, Nancy Groh, who gave me this gift. It was another, Cathy Smith, who propelled me further into the performing arts and I became active in the Woods Hole Community Theatre. It’s hard to put into words what acting became for me but it was instrumental in my personal growth. Acting, playing a part, on a stage, with all the constraints that required, was what enabled me to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of other people. I felt safe on stage in a way I never felt before. I also felt seen, accepted, even admired.

Eventually, I came to realize that acting wasn’t enough. That the self esteem it brought me was conditional. That I was using the applause as a substitute for my lack of self-worth and my inability to feel love. But at the same time it showed me the way to being whole. All of my acting was little Eric trying to find his way. It was through acting that I learned how to allow myself to feel.

Have you heard of psychodrama? Here’s a brief summary from Wikipedia.

“Psychodrama is an action method, often used as a psychotherapy, in which clients use spontaneous dramatization, role-playing, and dramatic self-presentation to investigate and gain insight into their lives.”

This is what acting did for me. Acting provided me with a way to explore the inner parts of myself while at the same time allowing me to practice being open with people in a safe, controlled situation. Acting prepared me for the many years of therapy I needed to begin to heal.

Come to think of it, my acting experience is also behind my becoming a  yoga instructor. For fifteen years I ran a successful hot yoga studio that continues today. Reading a room full of strangers, making my students feel safe, supported, and seen, using my voice effectively, knowing when to make eye contact and when not to, all of these are skills I learned on stage.

Stage fright can’t even come close to the fear of coming out as a survivor of sexual assault. I’ll tell you more about that later because it was a profoundly enlightening and healing experience but I will share a moment from my first Weekend of Recovery that is emotionally on a par with “Peter! Peter! Peter!,” for me.

Weekends of Recovery are three-day workshops for male survivors of sexual victimization, at any time in their lives, conducted by a group of the most selfless, generous, brilliant trauma therapists you can imagine. I am incredibly lucky (and grateful) to have found my way to them. I have now attended three weekends and a one-day workshop. I hope to attend another weekend in 2022.

This is about a single moment that happened in the final minutes of the final day of my first three-day weekend. One of the final group exercises is something called Shame Busting. I can’t give you details, not so much for reasons of privacy, but because it’s one of those experiences that can’t be summarized easily. That’s true for the whole weekend,of course, but this was surprising in so many ways and incredibly effective. By the end of it, I was exhausted and exhilarated. I think all of us were.

The effect of this final session was that I was reconnected with the part of me that died. You can call it my inner child. Little Eric. But in the moment, it was just me. I mean him. I mean us. It was a revelation. He lives! I am still here! I survived! I’m me again! I’m still me!

After we had settled down, talked one last time about why we were there, what we were going home to, how to stay safe, I found myself alone in the circle. Everyone was standing, moving around, gathering their belongings, saying their goodbyes. I started bawling. I’m talking snot-nosed sobbing, heaving. One of the therapists approached me, asking me if I was OK, did I need anything? Was I upset about something? Crying wasn’t unusual at a weekend like this, believe me. There was a lot of it. But this was different.

I mustered the ability to speak and said, “The only fear left in me now is of losing what I just found.”

It’s been nine years since that moment and I have not.

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