Vertigo, by Roger Canaff

We found this article “Vertigo” by anti-violence advocate, child-protection specialist and legal expert, Roger Canaff, to be a moving analogy of the experience of child sexual abuse, and very helpful in raising awareness about the effects of sexual abuse on individual survivors.

“..vertigo is more than physical. In a broad sense it can be emotional, and it is one of the many demonic gifts that child sex victims receive as they attempt to navigate a world in which everything their natural development taught them to rely on is suddenly a lie.”

“I’m at a place called vertigo. It’s everything I wish I didn’t know.” -U2

It happens when we’ve drunk too much; in this culture we call it bed-spins. We plant a foot on the floor and sometimes it subsides. It happens on boats; we call it seasickness and we concentrate on the horizon, a fixed point that anchors us. It happens to pilots and it kills them; my childhood friend Pete flies jets for a living and explains in chilling detail how, in his world, it is a deadly perversion of the normally reliable signals our body’s navigation system sends to our brain. So we believe we’re flying on a level course when in reality we are aimed at the ground like a bullet. It is our senses, confused. Lying.

It’s vertigo. When it hits us, for whatever reason, we grab for something that is, or promises to be, steady, solid and unmoving. Stability is the thing that delivers us from vertigo. When the sensation is physical, we can sometimes exercise it or keep it at bay.

But vertigo is more than physical. In a broad sense it can be emotional, and it is one of the many demonic gifts that child sex victims receive as they attempt to navigate a world in which everything their natural development taught them to rely on is suddenly a lie. A signal telling them that up is down. That danger is comfort. That anger is insight. That sadness, abuse and loneliness are what they deserve. And so they grab for things that promise stability. But in the dark ether of a damaged soul the columns and posts that present themselves are sometimes false and wavering. Intoxicants, anger, isolation and self-blame are sweetly tempting as solid, steadying things. But they are poison.

So vertigo is masked, but not eliminated. The course continues to veer with no warning as to what lies ahead. The key to stopping it for real is to find the true horizon to fix upon, a solid floor to stand on so that reality can be reckoned, ghosts banished and the lying whispers silenced. It is a journey sometimes of years, and it requires insight, grueling work, and unparalleled courage.

That courage is at the solid center of an hour-long documentary produced by Kathy Barbini and Simon Weinberg of Big Voice Pictures. The film is called Boys and Men Healing, and it is a rare and nakedly honest view of the journey three men in particular have taken to address the horrors visited upon them by older offending males. Female child sex abuse, just as damaging and even more common, has been widely studied, resulting in needed insights. Male child sex abuse, however, remains more shrouded in secrecy as boys tend to under-report more than girls. Estimates of the prevalence of male child sexual abuse hover conservatively at about 1 in 6 boys, but even that is probably very conservative. For this reason in particular, Boys and Men Healing is deeply valuable and eagerly welcomed.

I spoke with Simon about the video and was struck instantly by his warmth and kindness (he exudes these like a balm even by phone), but also the fierce passion he shares with his wife and partner, Kathy, on this issue. The three male survivors the documentary focuses on are diverse in their backgrounds but strikingly common in their struggles and their eventual triumph over the abuse they endured. One of them, David Lisak, is among the foremost and prolific researchers in my business, a man I greatly admire personally and professionally. To see him sharing his own story of struggle and recovery was profoundly touching.

It’s everything I wish I didn’t know. But I do understand the stability these decent and extraordinary men have searched for over the long years. They have now, in some measure at least, achieved freedom from the dizzying fog of vertigo. They have fought with the hearts of lions for the simple relief of being grounded. They’ve striven heroically for something most of us happily take for granted- a sweet, unaltered sense of up and down, right and wrong, dark and light. It shouldn’t be that difficult. But it is.

Given the numbers as they are, it is likely that within minutes of me posting this, another boy will be introduced to sexual exploitation at the hands of, most likely, a trusted older male. At some point, maybe as the reality of what is happening sets in, or maybe months or years after, he’ll know the imbalance, the instability, the dark, deep wrongness of something spinning within him. He’ll have 1000 different names for what it is he’s feeling; perhaps as specific as a fear of intimacy, perhaps as broad as quiet hopelessness or itching rage. Those around him may simply shake their heads and call him a disappointment, a problem, a failure. If it succeeds in killing him, it won’t be listed on any death certificate, although it will surely underlie the stated cause, be it suicide, alcoholic hepatitis, drug overdose, etc.

Or, with mercy, he’ll come to know it for what it is, and then be able to expiate it through grace, effort and perhaps the angelic support of loved ones.

For now, it’s vertigo. Hold on.

© 2010, Roger Canaff. All rights reserved.

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