INTERVIEW WITH LARRY RUHL, Author BREAKING THE RUHLS (Central Recovery Press, February 2018)
This memoir is so personal and the story is so painful. How did you find the strength to share your story? Did writing it help you heal?
I have struggled with certain holidays for years, with Father’s Day being one of the hardest. A few years ago, I decided to tackle my anxiety around Father’s Day by writing out, for the first time, what my father did to me as a child. It helped me reclaim something I felt was taken from me and began to erase the tainted feeling I carried.
Writing the book was incredibly difficult. At first, I was uncertain I’d be able to do it without relapsing with alcohol. But I allowed myself long breaks, sometimes months, between writing parts of the story. I found strength in other survivors’ willingness to speak out, and in my own determination to move forward. The healing I’ve experienced as a result of writing my story happened about six months after I finished. It wasn’t an instant catharsis.
When did you first realize that what was happening in your household was not only not normal, but was physical, emotional, and sexual abuse?
I remember confiding in my second grade teacher about my parents’ violent fighting. Seeing her face, and having her give me a hug made me understand then something was wrong. But what really allowed that to sink in was my mother’s rage after the school called, and the talk my father gave to my sister and me as a result.
I felt so ashamed that I had “told” on my parents. My sister’s fear for my safety helped me understand the gravity of what it meant to talk about what happened in our house. In terms of having been sexually abused, it wasn’t until I was abused by a neighborhood boy, as a pre-teen, that I understood what he did to me had already been done to me by my father.
You spend more time in the book detailing your mother’s mental illness and her resulting emotional abuse than your father’s ongoing sexual abuse. Can you talk about how you chose to describe your experience?
When I came to terms with the sexual abuse I endured by my father, the acts themselves were concrete and clear to me. It took years to accept, but once I found that acceptance, I was able to start sorting through the impact on me as an adult.
It wasn’t my intention to focus so much attention on my mother, when I started writing this book. But as I wrote, the insidiousness of her mental illnesses was impossible to ignore. Writing as extensively as I have about her and our relationship, I opened myself up to deeper truths. My mother never protected me as her child. Instead, she found ways to use and manipulate me to her benefit. I believe untangling the effects of my experience with my mother has just begun.
You suffered very different types of abuse from each parent; both cases of abuse were severe, ongoing, and insidious in the way they played off each other. How does one begin to heal from such complex trauma? How does one find the ability to trust?
Finding a competent therapist that understands complex trauma has been the cornerstone of my own personal recovery. My therapist was very aware that I shied away from naming the complexities I faced. I struggled with terms like anxiety disorder, PTSD, and dissociation, feeling they somehow suggested weakness on my part.
I’ve had to commit myself to untangling it slowly. That’s hard for someone like me, impatient and eager to keep moving forward.
In terms of trust, as I’ve come to find ways of healing myself, I’ve learned to rely on my instincts more. For me, trusting myself fully has been the foundation of starting to trust others.
I believe that healing from complex trauma is a lifelong process, one that continues to reveal new rewards, as long as I remain grounded and aware.
You talk about how you’ve found a way to forgive your parents, but that you’ll never forget what happened. Can you speak to that?
“Forgive and forget “was ingrained into my brain from childhood. If I showed anger, frustration, or impatience, my father would call me by mother’s name, to remind me I was out of line. For years, I believed if I allowed my anger to show, I was also mentally unstable.
The main forgiveness I‘ve experienced is for me. But to no longer carry the hatred I once had for him is an enormous relief. The other facet of forgiveness has been for breaking that pact with him, and understanding that I can forgive him for what he did to me, but I also can live my life without him in it. Ending my relationship with him has been one of the best things I’ve allowed for myself. Forgiving my mother has been harder. I continue to work on that forgiveness, by looking at the most difficult aspects of who she was and what transpired between us.
Male sexual abuse and paternal incest are shrouded in layers upon layers of shame and secrecy. How did this impact your ability to come to terms with what happened? How can society at large be better about helping victims and survivors of male sexual abuse?
For a long time, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the unfathomable: my own father sexually abused me. What was equally hard was his behavior that persisted until I ended contact with him. In the beginning, I felt embarrassed to talk about it, feeling in some way it was my fault, or I must’ve encouraged him.
Working with a female therapist was enormously helpful for me. It was less threatening to open up to her about what happened.
In terms of what society at large can do, we need to first acknowledge, on a broader scale, that male sexual abuse occurs, and then find ways to support men who share their stories. The stigma that men can’t show emotion or vulnerability must come to an end so men can heal.
You used alcohol as way to numb yourself to the painful memories of your childhood, to forget. Was it that much harder to break the addiction when the underlying pain was so immense? What had to happen for you emotionally to get off drinking?
Alcohol allowed me to disappear into a blackout state, and the majority of the time, numb my memories. However, sometimes when it didn’t work, I’d feel the rage and anguish of what I was trying to suppress. This added guilt feelings, since I was acting just like my out-of-control mother.
As I started to make progress in therapy and healing, my alcoholism took on a life of its own. My blackout drinking became a way for me to just escape daily life. I’d wake up each morning asking myself what happened.
The idea of getting sober seemed unfair at the time. I believed I was entitled to that vice, even though it was no longer serving me in any capacity. Emotionally, I had to be ready to feel everything without a strategy to numb. Admitting to myself that I’m an alcoholic brought me great relief, but I knew staying sober would require a lifelong commitment. I had to be ready to make that promise to myself.
How did the sexual abuse by your father impact your ability to accept your identity as a gay man?
I’ve been asked if my father made me that way. And others have made the assumption that I am gay as a result of what happened.
As I came to terms with what I endured, in my mid-thirties, I felt cursed to be gay, and for the first time I asked myself if it was because of what my father did to me. That questioning was short-lived, as I truly believe I was born gay. But it added to those difficult questions like, did I ask for it? Did I deserve to be abused?
Because I had sexual relationships with women, again I questioned whether or not I was really gay. I thought it was less shameful to identify as bisexual, despite knowing that I’m a gay man. When I was at the worst juncture of my therapeutic process, I wondered how I could ever be a sexual being without triggers.
That is a process that is ongoing, and one of the hardest things for me to overcome.
If you could go back and talk to a younger you, still living with your parents and enduring the abuse, what would you say?
That is a really difficult question for me. I still find it incredibly painful to look at photos of me as a child and I STILL ask myself, “How could this have happened?” So if I were to be able to access that young boy, I would encourage him to stay strong, I would tell him to run away, I would demand that he tell, and continue to tell, until someone was willing to take action.
For a long time it was easier for me to believe that early intervention wouldn’t have made a difference but I don’t believe that at all now. Early intervention into childhood sexual abuse can be critical for recovery and healing.
You’re no longer in contact with your parents, but you are close with your sister, who still lives with them. Can you talk about how you decided to move forward with this book?
Deciding to publish my story was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make. The first conversation between us about the book has stayed with me throughout the process. She asked if I believed my book could help others. When I answered yes, she didn’t hesitate to offer her support. However, we have an understanding that she won’t read it, which I fully support in return.
What do you hope people take away from reading BREAKING THE RUHLS?
I hope any survivor who reads my book sees that despite harrowing circumstances, healing is possible, that you can lead a full life as a survivor of sexual abuse.
I also hope my book sheds light on the idea that sexual abuse often happens in plain sight. I hope people will be unafraid to speak up about a situation or a child they’re concerned about.
I also hope it can teach compassion and understanding to the allies, partners, spouses, and friends of sexual abuse survivors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Larry Ruhl serves as a board member for Taking Back Ourselves, which facilitates weekends of recovery for survivors of sexual abuse, and is a registered speaker with the RAINN network (Rape Abuse Incest National Network). He previously served as a board member at Male Survivor, a leading organization in the fight to improve the resources and support available to male survivors of all forms of sexual abuse. Today he takes meetings into addiction treatment centers as a way to shed shame and draw the parallels between addiction and sexual abuse.