Before it's too late
Do you have anything you're deeply passionate about, but can't really explain? Or are there parts of your past that you just can't seem to remember with any real clarity?
Since the mid-1990s, I've felt a deep and indescribable connection to the work of Phoenix Youth Programs, a Halifax-based youth support centre, and I’ve also always struggled to describe my younger self.
In the last year, I discovered just how deeply these ideas were linked in the deepest recesses of my mind — how the cause of my dissociation affected my passion for at-risk youth — and then, how the discovery of that knowledge would almost kill me.
For years, I subconsciously blocked many of my early, childhood memories. I've been told that psychoanalytic theory dubs this an ego defense mechanism. That in order to defend the psyche against painful anxieties, the mind is able to deny, distort or manipulate reality. My early mind developed a tact for dissociation, and I had absolutely no idea until last year.
The truth is, I was the victim of repeated sexual assaults as a child. The abuse was persistent between the ages of eight and 11, and although my abuser was not a family member, I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone. I thought it was my fault.
This is a story about a high functioning depressive that became addicted to the medication he was prescribed; a story about a man who uncovers the truth about his molestation; a story about a suicide survivor, and a story about a successful business leader who has decided to disclose his sexuality for the first time, publicly.
This is my story.
I had the quintessential early life growing up on a farm in Windsor, Nova Scotia in the 1960s. If you know this part of the country, I think you can imagine.
The summers were always warm and sunny, through from spring to autumn. Oh, but the winters were cold. No matter the season, there was never a shortage of chores to be done, caring for animals or working in the fields. There was a lot of hard work, most of it done by family. And it was a big family — just one brother and one sister, but cousins; we had lots of cousins — more than I could count. Family was my world and it seemed like they were always around. For a while, I thought everyone in the world was my family because in my world, they were.
Then, the abuse began.
The memories are still foggy, but what ever happened to me over those three years, I kept to myself. I felt incredible shame about it, as if I bore the blame.
At school, I avoided raising my head to look people in the eyes. I felt humiliated constantly. Making matters worse, I was bullied mercilessly. I never defended myself because they seemed to know how powerless I felt, how I’d been abused; how incapable of fighting back I was.
Simply walking to class was like running the gauntlet. Get there and get there quick was my mantra. My bullies would line the halls yelling, "fag" and "queer" — anything and everything they could say to hurt me. At that point, I didn't even know that I was gay, but somehow I thought they did. I never responded and I never fought back.
For five years, I just took it. I didn’t speak-out against my bullies because I didn’t think anyone would care. Whatever sense of self-worth I had at that time was completely eviscerated by the person who assaulted me and later, those bullies. No teacher or friend would ever attempt to help me in those years. I held a grudge against those I considered friends. I felt so alone.
Later, I learned that children take substantial risk in befriending bullied classmates. To expect children to stick up for each other against their peers is to expect them to take on even more risk. At a time in development when identity is largely shared by those around you, children don’t often stick their heads out for one another. But understanding is forgiving and I understand now.
Once I left public school and entered university, things got better for me. People didn't know who I was, they didn't know my background — it was like I was starting over. I was able to engineer an image of who I wanted to be and who I eventually planned to become. Then, I worked towards that goal.
I was able to do well, overachieve and make school happen the way I wanted it to. But I also turned to alcohol and drugs to make it easier for me to cope. Or so I thought. At times, I needed a lot to just cope and keep the memories buried.
My depression, however, had yet to show itself. It was waiting dormant in the background to be triggered. I distinctly remember the first episode I had in university; classes became overwhelming and I couldn't get out of bed. I told my friends and professors that I had mono, to hide the truth from everyone — even from myself, thinking it would eventually go away.
I had three depressive episodes while studying at Acadia University. I never considered the possibility that I was struggling with mental illness. Mental health was very rarely talked about in those days and even when it was, you certainly weren't going to admit to it. So I lived alone with depression for years. I chalked it up to another one of my personal secrets I had to keep hidden while I completed school and ventured into adulthood.
By the time I started working, I was focused and consumed by my work and business. I lived in a state of chronic anxiety without reprieve, behind a tailor-made disguise.
In 1994, I had my first extreme bout of depression. I thought if I worked more hours, I could cure myself or at least mask the pain. I couldn't have been more wrong. I never understood my illness well enough to self-treat it. Instead, I would isolate myself and avoid relationships, further deepening the effects of the depression.
I realized in the mid-1990s that seeing a therapist to talk things out would be a good idea. So I began. I’ve seen a variety of therapists weekly for the last 20 years, and all-in-all they've helped — some more than others. Of the many therapists I’ve visited, the methodologies tend to be the same — deal with the stress and anxiety of daily life and medicate more.
Eventually, three years ago, the persistent depressive episodes matched with a steady increase in my medication dosage, over a 20-year period, culminated in the deepest depression I had ever faced.
I completely lost the ability to work.
Prior to this, I distilled an odd-pride from my knack for compartmentalization, to be able to suck it up and move on. I went through a series of these cycles, but this time it was different. This episode, it seemed, was a long time coming.
The effects were not only psychological, they were physical, too. I had difficulty standing at times and became lethargic and listless — no matter what I tried, I couldn’t sleep. I developed heart issues and experienced blackouts, which I later found out were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and prescription medication abuse. These symptoms were persistent, but none were ever diagnosed properly.
It wasn't until this episode that I met a therapist who would change my life forever. In just a few sessions, he was able to recognize certain tendencies in me that were consistent with other victims of childhood traumas.
He noted that I often spoke impersonally, as if to distance myself from the focus of attention. For example, when asked to recall certain memories or feelings, instead of saying "I felt", I might have said something like, "you feel". I had big, unexplained gaps in my memory, and felt immense guilt and shame about my childhood.
I began to rediscover the molestation I had lived through as a child, the pain of being bullied and my inability to defend myself in the face of it. It caused a sort of explosion and immediate collapse in my world, forcing me into a leave of absence from work. I wasn't ready to learn any of this. No one could be.
I wished at times the pain would go away.
I ended up taking almost half a year off. Yes, my business suffered. Everything that had been an image of success in my mind shattered. Over the years, for lack of other meaningful roles in my life, I gradually intertwined my self-identity with the businesses. This entanglement left me over-exposed to the turbulence experienced by the business and vice versa; the turbulence in my life caused a massive aftershock in the business.
Businesspeople are always supposed to be engaged and supporting. You shouldn't let clients, customers or colleagues see your vulnerabilities, I thought. I hid my leave of absence from clients the best I could.
When the business inevitably failed, I fell that much harder. My image of success, identity and worth was destroyed along with it. I hadn't taken the time out to develop a new identity ahead of the crash. I lost who I was in my most desperate hour.
One Tuesday afternoon my therapist had me bring in a photo of myself at eight years old. I was told to look at the image and ask myself, “was that child really to blame for what happened to him?” I came to realize he wasn't the one to blame — I wasn't the one to blame.
It was only at this revelation in my life that I was ready and willing to begin to understand my true self. I came to realize two more important elements of my character: at 55 years of age, I would come out as gay. It was now or never and I’m glad that I did. I struggled a bit with telling people, but found that no matter who I told, they didn't care. People were fine with who I was. I was the only one challenged to accept me.
Second, I came to the realization that I was addicted to the prescribed medications that I had been taking for the last 20 years. I was abusing the drugs to the point that it was affecting me physically. I went through a long and tiresome withdrawal, which I liken to getting hit by a truck.
I wasn't able to completely withdraw from the medication, but at the present time I have a very clear sense of who I am — finally.
My way forward
I’m hoping young people will learn from my mistakes. Take my experiences and develop upon them.
After many years of struggling, I realize now that speaking openly about my personal life paved the road to my recovery. Unfortunately, few people are willing to open up about the abuse they’ve endured, especially men. I’m OK with it now and I think it’s worth sharing, if not for the lesson, then for the feeling it gives me to know that I’m no longer living in the dark. Sharing my story empowers me. I’m no longer ashamed, in fact, I feel stronger than ever.
I want to show youth that blaming themselves for whatever hell they had to endure is not the answer. No matter how dark it may seem now, there’s always a brighter future ahead; that we all have their backs and that you shouldn’t let the bastards get you down.
Because I have the resources, I can do what I need to do to get better. I understand that very few people have this privilege. The system today doesn't allow for it. Most insurance policies only cover eight therapy sessions, which is said to be the average time it takes to resolve depression. Meanwhile, it probably takes eight sessions just to figure out what caused the depression in the first place.
The system is the way it is for a reason and I think it boils down to the fact that there’s an incredible lack of patience for the patient — at least for the mentally ill patient.
There's this strange sense that because mental illness isn’t something tangible (like a broken limb), you should be able to recover from it on your own.
When I used to watch ads on television that said “depression hurts everyone,” alongside the image of a person lying on a couch frowning, I would think, "just get off the couch, and do something." It wasn't until I really got into the deeps of my own struggle that I realized, I can't get off the couch either.
We need to have the patience to invest the necessary time in treating people’s minds. If physicians don't take the time to accurately diagnose mental health issues and instead just prescribe medication without due regard, the disease will, without a doubt, continue to spread.
I understand why Phoenix resonates with me now.
I was told that if I had come out when I was 16 or 17, I would not have been accepted. I would have ended up even more vulnerable. I would have, quite likely, been one of the first kids in Phoenix.
My mistake in life was pushing all these feelings down, not seeking the help I needed and not sharing my experiences until now. My goal is to see every child and young adult get the help that they, in whatever form it may be, before it's too late.
- Michael DeVenney
Phoenix Journey Project
The Phoenix Journey Campaign is focused on having the courageous Phoenix Youth heard.
In their own words, we will hear about the reasons why youth came to Phoenix, how Phoenix was able to help them help themselves, and their future aspirations.
Through this innovative approach to fundraising, engagement and youth empowerment we aim to set-up a private funding stream capable of allowing Phoenix Youth to continue the powerful and inspiring work that they do.
My commitment is to match each dollar of your donations to a total of $25,000 so we can raise $50,000 to support these brave young people in making sense of where they are in order to move forward confidently on their journey. Please donate generously.
Please help the most vulnerable in our community by going to our Canada Helps page and donating now.