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Finding the healing path

Victoria Men’s Trauma Centre sets survivors of abuse on their way
Alana Samson, executive director of Victoria Men's Trauma Centre, and abuse survivor Martin Bonnhomme with Luna.

Victoria Men’s Trauma Centre sets survivors of abuse on their way

Jerry still remembers the high school teacher who taught him about sex. He was 13. It happened twice. And, at age 43, he still has trouble trusting people. Some nights, it’s hard to sleep.

“At the time, abuse — especially child abuse — wasn’t talked about very much. But every once in a while the scenes would creep into my head,” Jerry says. “I felt so worthless, and everything I did seemed to revolve around this system of self loathing and self hate.”

Jerry turned to substance abuse and watched his surrounding group of friends cycle in and out of the prison system. He had trouble with relationships and spent his adult life without help while struggling with his own personality disorders — Asperger syndrome, for one — as well as his previous history of familial abuse. Then, his brother and a sponsor referred him to the Victoria Men’s Trauma Centre. After one year, Jerry says for the first time in his life he has found a positive, safe environment to talk about his experiences and, above all, he’s seeing results.

“I’m able to handle a lot of different relationships now, and I can understand people and their positions better,” Jerry says. “I’ve been clean as an addict for three or four years now, but I never realized how much was going on below the surface, and I couldn’t even imagine what I could have done to deal with it, if not this.”

A survivor’s tale

Jerry’s story is one of over 1,050 cases that have come through the centre’s doors since it opened in 2003, and he remains one of the 212 current active cases the centre is dealing with.

“Our numbers are increasing every year, and we’ve had a 33 per cent increase just in this first quarter from last year,” says Executive Director Alana Samson. The centre now has three to four intakes a week, as opposed to 10 or so a month, she adds. “It’s not that more men are experiencing trauma, it’s that more men aren’t afraid to speak up about it.”

In an effort to support those men and the centre, the group will be celebrating this year’s National Victims of Crime Awareness Week, taking place across Canada from April 10 to 16. On Friday, April 15, the centre will host its fifth-annual awareness event, this year in the form of “Many Voices, Many Paths,” an interactive fundraiser hosted at the Delta Ocean Point Resort and Spa.

The evening will showcase performances by clients and supporters of the centre, including comedy by Spilt Milk Theatre Company, Victoria’s first poet laureate Carla Funk, marimba guru Ben Crocker, singer Georgia Murray, motivational speaker Martin Bonnhomme and dance mixes by DJ Generic. The night will also offer a silent auction, door prizes, hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. All proceeds go to the centre.

“A lot of these men are very talented individuals, and we wanted to create an environment that honoured and supported them in that,” says Samson. “Having a vehicle to express yourself can be a huge help in the healing process as well.”

Bonnhomme, 40, has been a client of the centre since 2007, and will be using his experience to speak on Friday about what it’s like to be a survivor of abuse. The Quebec native was sexually abused on multiple occasions as a teen, then spent much of his adult life in provincial and federal jail for violent crimes. When an internal parole officer discovered Bonnhomme’s history, she referred him to the centre, where he started receiving counselling.

An interesting point Samson is quick to bring up is that while people stigmatize survivors of abuse by assuming they will go on to abuse, this is not necessarily the case — studies have shown fewer than five per cent of people who have survived abuse ever go on to become perpetrators, though people often confuse those stats with the fact that 95 per cent of offenders were also abused in their lives. Bonnhomme has never committed a sexual-based crime.

“My experience [with abuse] really crippled my life, emotionally,” says Bonnhomme. “I was anti-social, couldn’t handle intimacy and didn’t know how to interact with people … for a man, you’re proud and you don’t want to talk about this stuff with people, so you turn to substances and crime. I’m thankful for finally having permission to be able to talk.”

Bonnhomme has been out of jail since 2009 and free from drugs for almost a year. He’s currently going to school and hopes to one day become a counsellor.

“I’m just starting to get comfortable with Martin,” Bonnhomme says. “Sometimes it’s still really hard, and I have a lot of tough weeks, especially when I have to be alone with myself. But I have good weeks too now, and … I don’t have to be so scared about what I have inside of me, now.”

Journey to the centre of pain

When it comes to Jerry’s experience, he says he was thankful to have the support of the centre when he decided to go to the police to report the crime his high school teacher committed so many years ago. The teacher was found, plead guilty, and was sentenced in court — a day that Jerry had to attend and testify.

“At that point, I knew there was nothing more I could do,” Jerry says. “I made the choice not to find out how the teacher was sentenced, because I did what I had to and didn’t want to get attached to the outcome. I faced my greatest demons, and it was the moment I could finally move on and say, ‘I can’t blame this anymore.’ I could finally stop the cycle.”

Both Jerry and Bonnhomme say they may not have had enough strength to move on without help from the centre. Samson believes that the more the issues are talked about, the healthier our society can become.

“Having a place for men to come forward where they feel at home and welcome gives them permission to come out of their shadows. What we really hope to do is contradict society’s message that men can’t be victims,” she says.

Samson adds that more press and events — like the February Elton John concert benefit raffle the centre held — have helped raise the profile of the centre. Still, she says most of the men they see were referred to the centre by other men and clients of the centre.

Now, the centre’s big push is to start considering where they should pour their resources: perhaps in the form of a new facility.

“At the rate we’re growing, we really recognize the need for a bigger space, with more rooms and areas to offer counselling service to the clients who need us,” says Samson. “Of course, the big question then is, how are we going to fund this?”

While the centre does receive some funding from provincial grants, the majority of its operating budget comes from clientele. However, no men are refused service, even if payment is not an option — so resources are always tight.

“So many men don’t feel like there are services out there for them, and there aren’t a lot, but we are here to help,” says Samson. “Hopefully this year’s [awareness] event takes on that celebratory nature and shows the different ways men can become victims, as well as the different journeys each one takes to heal.” M