‘I am finally living.’: Child abuse survivor shares tumultuous mental health journey

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Disclaimer: This story includes mentions of child abuse and suicidal ideation that may be triggering to some.

“Before 2018, I would not be able to write my story. In 2016, I attempted to explain my journey in a published book entitled ‘Screaming into the Light.’ But even in that book, I changed some names to mask my shame. So, here goes…

the cover of a book
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

My story begins in Chicago, Illinois. In 1974, I was born into poverty at Cook County Hospital. The child of a Black father and a White mother in Chicago in this period of history is a simple way to express that my life began with social and family exclusion due to the racial strife of the times. My family lived in a trailer park in Robbins, Illinois, until nine years of age. Amidst poverty and a lack of resources for my family is the doorway to the experiences of my life that led me down a path of trauma that would take me more than thirty years to finally face.

My parents initially worked factory and fast-food restaurant jobs before opening their own fast-food store. This required us to have babysitters to help my parents make a better life for us. The assistance came at a price I would not disclose to my parents until I was 18 years old.

I was about seven or eight when my older brother and I spent a night at our neighbors’ home. I do not remember if my parents needed a night out or working. But the neighbor’s son, who was a young teenager at the time, had befriended us, and his mother was lovely. Whatever the reason, we were there to spend the night. While everyone slept, the neighbor’s son woke me from my sleep. And in the tiny bathroom of the mobile home, my first experience of trauma and pain is etched forever in my memories. This would be the first horrific experience by this teenager that would last until my family moved to Dixmoor, Illinois, when I was about nine years old.

young man who was abused
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

Even now, while I am writing this, I recall my father asking me why I did not say anything. He did not even believe me, citing that he saw no physical evidence of what occurred. I was threatened by the neighbor not to speak of what happened, or my parents would be killed. My father, being the disciplinarian, would attempt to whip the rebelliousness out of me as I acted out. Even though I believe even to this day that his intentions were good, the compounding trauma as I know it to be now unintentionally changed the direction of my life. But I digress.

I suspect that I carried somewhat of a Scarlett Letter on me. And I say this because the teenager would be the first of four males to violate my innocence in different ways. My great uncle, my 3rd-grade teacher, and even the Catholic priest at St. John the Baptist School in Harvey, Illinois, would turn out to be predators to my innocence. My relief from violations of different variations would not end until I began high school.

I suppose I noticed differences in how I saw the world versus other people my age in that I never wanted to be alone. I always wanted to be in a group. My friends seemed to never have an issue being by themselves. But I figured it simply must be how I was, the person who enjoyed being socially around everyone, an extrovert. This way of being would constantly contrast with the life I was living through. My family owned a small corner store and several properties, and I was always working on something for our family.

There was another layer that added to my feeling of belonging. At about 12 years old, my family had my last name changed. It was ‘Miller.’ But we went to court and had my last name changed to ‘Harper.’ I had always wondered why my last name was different than my dad’s last name. And one afternoon, after a whipping, one of the hundreds over the years until that point that included moments of getting my thighs whipped by a leather belt while I was sitting on the using the bathroom, my older brother informed me what caused the difference. Apparently, my biological father and mother split up when I was a baby or right before birth. I still do not know the truth. But what I do know is that he was Black and that he had been murdered less than a mile from where I had been living. My dad did his best to console me; I suppose he saw the devastation in my face. But I think this added to what I would later learn was a severe fear of abandonment.

By the time I was a senior in high school, my life was already an emotional roller coaster of trying to fit in. I wanted to tell my parents so many times, but my dad was homophobic. And because I was not gay and did not know how he would receive the accounts of me being continually sexually abused by men who were to be trusted, I feared that he would believe me gay and disown me. And so, the rage I kept in would be released in the martial arts tournaments my dad placed me in. My father would remove me from the sport, saying that I was a danger to people from what he said. But it was my only outlet for the emotions I had to keep to myself. I would eventually leave home. I knocked on my parent’s bedroom door in the middle of the night and told them I was leaving. My dad let me go. My mom stuck with me several times. And then I walked away.

house where abuse happened
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

My early twenties began by attaching myself to someone I had hoped would not abandon me. Months after dating, I would ask the first of four women to marry me.

I was married to her by the time I was 20, and we eventually had two children. And while I did my best to be a provider, I was not so good with the emotional responsibility required by being a husband and a father. Fun times were fun. Not-so-fun times were filled with depression and anger. And while I was never physically aggressive towards my wife or kids, I took it out on the walls and myself. Yes…I would slap my own face in frustration. This behavior would eventually impact my work as a construction worker, not allowing me to keep a job. And with no degree, I went into the Navy. And this would be the time in my life when my second child would be welcomed.

I remember wanting to be with my wife for the birth of our second son. I was already a year into my service. Before going to the fleet, my troubles in our marriage affected my schooling, and I was highly encouraged to send my wife home until I was stationed at my permanent duty station. Before moving her to where I was stationed, our son was arriving.

house where man grew up
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

But my command would not let me go home. And so, I threatened to jump off the ship and swim to shore. We were at sea at the time off the coast of California. I spent the next 24 hours under psychological observation and was separated with a general but honorable separation. Before I was finally discharged, I was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder by the Navy. I received no treatment while in the service, and neither did they provide me any therapy once I was separated. In fact, I did not even get to use my G.I. Bill that I had paid into fully.

The marriage ended once I had gotten home. I could not emotionally manage it. I then began struggling to fill a void in myself, coping with unhealthy encounters with numerous women. I drank alcohol every single day. And it would not be until I went back into construction and met who would become my second wife that I would begin to understand why I could not manage my emotions at all. While my second wife and I were still dating, I started having unimaginable anxiety and depression events. I would cry for almost no reason and get angered over any challenge to what I believed was my masculinity. She helped me to begin seeking out mental health treatment and medication. For me, I felt nothing was working. I suppose I let my father’s distrust of mental health override what was probably the best thing for me. But this see-saw of emotions, anxiety, and depression would worsen over the years.

I suffered a career-ending injury to my back on a job site in 2009. While running a large piece of heavy equipment, I jarred my back and ruptured two discs in my lower back. I had spinal reconstruction surgery and now live with titanium rods and screws in my lower back. Upon the unresolved anxiety and depression issues, I was left facing an unknown future. Being a construction worker was now my identity amidst the struggles with my racial identity. We would have two children, bringing the number to four, and I would love all the moments with my kids. But I could not handle the emotional responsibility, though I thought I could.

My second marriage would end, and yes, I would walk right into another relationship. This one was a bit different as I was back in college pursuing my Liberal Arts degree and found my way into providing diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops and presentations. I even authored a few published books and a monodrama entitled, ‘Black and White: A Man Divided.’ This creative outlet of writing and acting in the monodrama allowed me some relief. That was until my spouse at the time and I drank too much. The negative unresolved feelings from us both would pour out into vicious arguments that lasted from the evening until the early morning.

One day in 2015, I felt tingling in my right arm. I was still acting in the play at the time. But we had an MRI done and found out I had a vertebra crushing my spinal cord. It could have been an undetected injury from the construction accident. But I required immediate neck surgery which took place three days from the MRI scan. I thought it was no big deal. They would cut me open, screw in a plate, and I would be home in two days. However, that is not what happened. Right after surgery while I was in recovery, a hematoma clogged the draining tube from my neck. And what should have been a 10-minute procedure took more than four hours! I had coded on the table. I had suffocated on my own blood and died for what was believed to be less than a minute. There was concern that I might have brain damage but fortunately, I was fine after seven days in the ICU.

man recovering in the ICU
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

I understand now that I was drawn to women who had grit and intelligence for an unconscious reason. They reminded me of the affinity I had for my Dad’s characteristics. They were my crutches. I leaned on them because I was unable to stand on my own. And this fear of abandonment and emotional prison of shame would lead me to my suicide attempt in 2018. I had given up. I had messed up the lives of these ladies who took my hand in marriage. I had been unable to be the father I wanted to be for my kids. And I saw no way out. I placed the handgun to my head in that darkened loft in Dallas, Texas. Crying and yelling, I am sorry, and I pulled the trigger. Nothing. The gun jammed. Fearful that my wife at the time would find out and stick me in a psych ward, I placed it back where we had kept it in our closet and never told her. Now divorced from her with our contact severed, I suspect she still does not know. But that was my bottom. And even though she had helped me find a therapist and even helped me go through ketamine treatments, I had not improved enough for the marriage to be saved.

After my attempt, I took therapy seriously and even was prescribed medication that I will most likely take the rest of my life. For a couple of years, I went to therapy weekly. I had unresolved trauma and PTSD. I had a deep abyss of shame and high fear of abandonment. With the help of my medication, my therapist helped me navigate my way out of pain. By late 2019, at 45 years old, I had finally gained emotional control of myself. It was the first time since I was seven.

man recovering in the ICU
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

Today, I am married. And it was the first time I entered a relationship and then marriage without searching for someone to save me. We have emotional discussions and healthy resolve, and I do not hear my abusers in her disagreements with me. I do not lose control of my emotions. I feel them. I acknowledge them. I manage them. They do not control me or what I choose to do. I can smell roses and see color. I am finally living. And just as importantly, I am finally able to experience love. But there was a cost to my journey into mentally healthy living.

The relationships with my children are a work in progress. I still see my therapist when I feel the need. Many of those who knew me before treatment are now distant from me. And that is okay. It was not their or my fault that I had trauma. I can only attempt to reconnect and make amends. It is their choice to allow me back into their lives. And it is my responsibility to take care of my mental health. And so, I will leave that olive branch out there for them. And it will remain there for as long as they need to see me, the healthy person I am today.

If anyone reads this, please know that you are not alone. We do not have to suffer in silence. And the most important thing I had to learn and accept is that what happened to me was not my fault. I was a victim. And getting professional assistance helped me to end my victimization.”

man taking a thoughtful selfie
Courtesy of Charles M. Harper

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Charles M. Harper Sr. from Robbins, IL. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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