Year in Review. The following article originally appeared in the National Post on August 30, 2013
TORONTO – The kids asked him how to throw a knuckleball and he showed them. They asked about his hometown (Nashville), his college major (English literature) and his biggest surprise about life in Canada (bagged milk).
They asked this too: How did you handle the pain?
“As an eight-year-old boy,” R.A. Dickey replied, “I didn’t really know how to do it, so what I did was, I just stuffed it down. I would come up with little compartments that I could throw it in and try to forget about it. But I really couldn’t forget about it, you know.”
The kids knew. Like the famous Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, some of the kids sitting in a circle around R.A. Dickey had experienced the horror of sexual abuse. All of them, mostly girls, had suffered abuse of some kind. Sitting in a private box overlooking the Rogers Centre baseball diamond, they had come, some with their mothers, to hear Dickey’s story and, through their questions, to share the shadows of their own stories.
The team’s charitable foundation, Jays Care, organized the session with two partners, the Children’s Aid Foundation and Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention, both intimately acquainted with the fallout from the 1,500 child-abuse investigations conducted each year in Toronto.
At age eight, Dickey was sexually abused by a female babysitter. Later he was raped by a teenaged male. He never told anyone about those incidents until he was 32, just six years ago. Subsequently, he told the story of redemption in his personal life and baseball career in a best-selling autobiography, which is why he is often asked to speak at these sorts of sessions.
His message to the assembled kids: Don’t stuff it down. Find the courage to speak up.
“I made a mistake in not telling someone what had happened to me. My healing process started late in life, but my life after I started the process has been just incredible”
“I think the great lie that is perpetrated is that nobody will understand, nobody wants to hear your story,” he said. “If you tell them, they’re going to throw their hands up and they’re not going to want anything to do with you. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish I would have known that when I grew up.”
Dickey acknowledged that it is a frightening risk to reveal a story of abuse. He stressed the importance of finding someone “safe” and trustworthy to confide in. But to wait is to let an infection deepen and spread, he said.
In his case, he told the kids, anger and despair began to take over his life. He treated people “crappy,” even those who cared about him, he said.
“The reality is, you start becoming this person that you really don’t want to be,” he said. “I hid it for so long, and I could project what I wanted people to see me as, but inside I was really broken, and really sad, and really lonely, and ashamed.
“So when I started to talk about that as an older person, I got a lot better. And I got better fast too, because I was ready. I’d come to the end of myself and I was thinking about ending everything. I turned to [a counselor] that was invested in me and loved me well and I was able to get to the other side for the most part.”
A new agency to help abused kids get to the other side is scheduled to open next month at 890 Yonge St. The Child & Youth Advocacy Centre aims to co-ordinate the efforts of the police and various child-protection agencies, including the two that sponsored Dickey’s session on Wednesday.
Boost executive director Karyn Kennedy said the centre will be a one-stop location to serve kids who are subjects of abuse investigations. The services will include counseling and medical help, as well as a designated “advocate” to help each child through every step of the process.
Among those attending Wednesday’s session was Yuan Barnes, 23, a recent University of Toronto graduate who had not heard of R.A. Dickey and first wondered why a baseball player would be the featured guest. Barnes is a sexual abuse survivor who volunteers as a youth representative on the Children’s Aid Foundation.
She found Dickey’s message inspiring.
“My response is one of awe and surprise,” she said. “I feel encouraged and empowered, which sounds clichéd and buzz-wordy, but that’s truly how I feel. As a sexual-abuse survivor myself, to see someone with clout and power, prestige and social class sharing their story is really powerful.”
Barnes, who earned a music degree from Western, is interested in human-rights law and gender-based violence issues. Her next stop is law school.
As she listened to Wednesday’s discussion, she was also fascinated by what was left unsaid. Dickey did not say explicitly that his abuse was sexual.
“While I was surprised by the frankness with which [Dickey] spoke, I was also surprised about the way things were skirted around,” she said. “I don’t think sexual abuse was mentioned that many times. I actually think that reveals that there’s still a stigma. I’m not being critical of him. I’m saying the subject itself is still stigmatized.”
On the other hand, the audience included kids whose abuse was not sexual. And some had been affected by more than one form of abuse, Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, Dickey tried to keep his message simple.
“You don’t have to walk through all that I did,” he told the kids. “I made a mistake in not telling someone what had happened to me. My healing process started late in life, but my life after I started the process has been just incredible. I missed out on a lot because I didn’t risk it.”