In a few short months, I will incredibly reach 35 years on this planet. I did not say celebrate, because of the last 16 of these 35 years, I have only celebrated my birthday once that I can remember.
But today I celebrate something much more dear to me. It sits in my calendar on repeat for perpetuity. It’s so important to me that I have set a reminder a week out, and then the day of, just to make sure I do not forget it.
But I will never forget this date.
It was 5 years ago, on this date, that I set foot on a plane to leave a religious organization that I had been a part of for 11 years, from when I was 18 until I was almost 30.
It is on this day each year that I will celebrate my first taste of freedom in over a decade. I felt defiant and free, but I had no idea it would take me five more years to undo the eleven I had already lost.
Little did I know just how bitter that freedom would taste. Within only weeks of my return to the States, I would experience the loss of my father and as a result, of my family home. I was on my own now, and failure was not an option.
And that was only the beginning. With each of life’s hard kick to the balls, a naive boy had to reconcile just how out-of-place he was in the world. He had left as an 18-year-old idealist, hopeful of doing something positive to change the world. He came back a broken, frightened 14-year-old boy. The world was a decade older; he was now a child stuck in a man’s body, and alone.
But above all else, it was this “alone-ness” that was the most crippling. The feeling that what you had experienced was undecipherable and incommunicable. You couldn’t share with anyone why you felt dead inside, because you didn’t even know yourself.
But you were dead: confirmed by the blank soulless stare in the mirror that looked back at you each time you tried to remember who the hell you had once been.
It was like waking up one morning and not being able to turn on the lights or open the blinds. You suddenly were engulfed in absolute and total darkness. And for as much as you ran around the room looking for a way out, and clawed at the blinds, eventually, you were forced to surrender to the realization that there was nothing you could do. You were doomed.
And with that realization came a choking, sputtering, and burning fire that consumed you, a rage that smoldered behind the words “I’m fine.” when you lied again and again to those who loved you but could not understand.
The unfortunate truth is that my story is hardly unique. Confronted with a past that made no sense, nor could be explained, many who left quickly discovered that it didn’t matter how noble their intentions had been, or how much they had sacrificed for that ideal. Life didn’t give a shit, and this foray into the real world was going to kick them in the balls over and over again.
Behind many of the men who left, you will find a trail of painful failures. Failures at work, because for most of us, we had never held a real job in our lives. Failure in friendships, because we had been banned from having friends. Failure in relationships, because we had become illiterate in the world of emotional intimacy. Failure in our finances because we hadn’t so much as owned a pencil for a decade or more. In short, failure at life.
However, my goal of writing this is not to revive past wounds. Rather I wish to celebrate and share the lessons that, distilled over these past five years, perhaps might unlock for others who are still stuck, a ray of hope, and a path forward.
Lesson 1: The Storm is the Way
Oftentimes when we experience a traumatic event, we are tempted to bury those feelings and try to never revisit them. We lock them away in some corner of our hearts and never go back. And as soon as life so much as gives us the suspicion that something similar is coming at us, we turn and run.
I was like that too. But almost three years ago, that burying and hiding had taken it’s toll and was eating me inside out. I found myself standing on a bridge at night ready to jump. It was then that I swore an oath to myself that I would not drag this pain with me for the rest of my life. I decided then and there that I would face the storm, and steer into it rather than try to escape it.
You see, when you try to run from a storm, it follows you and you rarely escape its clutches. But if you turn about-face and steer into it, into the darkness, and the waves that threaten to capsize you, an incredible thing happens: you realize that you are stronger than you thought.
And that storm that you couldn’t seem to escape or run from? It turns out that it too, runs out of steam. And let me tell you a secret: no matter how dark the storm, the sun always comes out.
My storm, which seemed to go on forever, lasted just long enough for me to learn what it had to teach me.
Lesson 2: Look Beyond the Mirror
The second lesson my storm had to teach me, and perhaps the hardest for me to learn, will direct the rest of my life:
Sometimes the most courageous act is to love ourselves; the most dangerous act of defiance, to give thanks when all there seems room for is anger and hate.
During the laborious process of finding healing, the most challenging for me wasn’t the healing I needed to find with other people, but the healing I needed to find with myself.
Deeply seated in my mind was the firm belief that I was never good enough. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many languages I learned, or how much I battled my “dark side”, I could never seem to oust it. There was always something more I needed to do, something more I needed to change before I could look at myself with loving eyes.
And I hated, even despised myself for it, for never quite being “good enough” or worthy enough of love in my own eyes.
We struggle loving and accepting the dark parts of ourselves, the parts that we don’t want anyone to see, not even ourselves.
In today’s culture, we’ve replaced self-love with vanity, which is the love of our shadow. It’s much like falling in love with the two-dimensional image in the mirror, rather than the three-dimensional reality. We choose the projected parts of ourselves we deem worthy of love, instead of loving ourselves, warts and all.
True healing can only come when we learn to love ourselves, to accept ourselves: it is then we begin on the path to true freedom.
Lesson 3: Make good with your own Darkness
The final lesson my storm taught me has been hard to swallow, only because it has been painful. The last step of my journey before I close the doors to the past is to reflect on my own actions and how I too have participated in evil, either as an active participant or an observer who voiced his concerns to feebly.
But I believe my actions were not isolated only as a member of a religious organization that for a time believed it could take advantage of its members and of others as long as it was in the name of service to others.
There are actions that I took that were mine alone, the result of my own human frailty, my own pride, vanity, and smug sense of superiority.
I would like to extend my own petition of forgiveness to those whom I have hurt along the way, both when I was in the Legionaries of Christ (and especially when I was superior in Ireland) and during the past five years as I stumbled around trying to find my own feet.
I have been far from perfect, far from the man that I set out to be when I left home 16 years ago. To those I have hurt along the way, I am deeply sorry.
If some of you feel rancor or just anger for something I have done, said, or left undone, I encourage you to either reach out to me in person so that I can apologize directly, or if you feel that you cannot do that, to perhaps leave a cathartic comment below, even anonymously if you so desire.
What I have learned is that just because we are a victim of something does not mean that we too have not victimized others on our journey through life. Life is not about not making mistakes, but about growing, and admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility for them, something I hope to do a better job of from here on out.
This blog post shouldn’t end on a sad note, after all today is a cause for celebration for me! On birthdays it is customary to give gifts, and since today is the celebration of my painful rebirth, I would like to leave this gift to that confused, sad, frightened boy that stepped on a plane to return home five years ago. Perhaps it may serve some of you too who still struggle finding peace.
I won’t lie to you, Kyle: there is a world of pain ahead of you. Things will get much darker before you begin to see the light again. There will be many times when you will feel like you’re stuck out at sea treading water in a futile attempt to stay afloat, the waves crashing over you as you suck in mouthfuls of sea water. You will experience darkness, loneliness, and manic desperation like you never thought possible.
But wait it out: I promise you, better things are coming. And from that darkness there will slowly emerge a new light. Faint at first, it will grow brighter and stronger until the storm subsides and a new world opens up before you. The world is not filled with darkness; good things are coming if you just wait. So do not give up hope!