My mom left home when I was 9 months old. At age 10 my neighbors took me to a well-known televangelist, where, weeping, I experienced salvation. A couple years later my brother got “saved” and invited me to become active in the local Pentecostal church, The Christ Gospel Tabernacle, which was experiencing a revival. I threw myself into church, playing my Clarinet and singing in a gospel band. I even enrolled in a program to become a minister. If I had finished, I would have become the youngest ordained minister in Michigan.
Then, at age 14, I was sexually assaulted by my sister’s boyfriend, a Radiologist at the Detroit Children’s Hospital, who had groomed me for several months previous, building me up and flattering me, in order to enslave me. He was the very definition of evil, charming, charismatic and respected in his field.
I was literally unable to speak for a week following the incident. My church family turned their back; my Pastor thought I was just trying to make trouble. My actual family brushed it under the rug. It was a crushing betrayal. As a result, the perpetrator was left free to move on to other victims. As if the abuse wasn’t bad enough, I felt guilty that he was never stopped. I felt abandoned by those who were supposed to be my support. I became very cynical. I came to believe I must be damaged goods, that I deserved my fate. I felt alone, guilty, dirty, weak and worthless, despised among men.
I found comfort and release, using the arts to escape my feelings of self-loathing. I would show them all my true worth by impressing them with my skills and talents. Trouble was, I didn’t believe I deserved success, so I almost always sabotaged myself in a spiral of self-fulfilling prophesies. I adopted my father’s stoic philosophy, based on the poem, Invictus. Ironic, that my father, who was always talking about standing up to the big bully, was in the moment I needed him most, too embarrassed to stand up to mine. I read the inspiring poem at his funeral much later in life. “My head is bloody but unbowed…I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”
I became a one-man band, hardened to advice from those sent to help me, totally “self-sufficient.” I became a pretty good actor, training in NYC, an excellent clarinetist, making my debut at Carnegie Hall with a chamber group I’d co-founded in 1991. I became a highly skilled portrait painter, published several books and instructional videos. But it was all an act, coming from my ardent desire to be loved. The many compliments and accolades were empty words, emotional triggers reminding me of the grooming perpetrated by my abuser, and the many “authorities” who’d betrayed me at every turn. I became narcissistic, paranoid. My therapy was superficial. I carried on a long series of relationships with women in an effort to fill the void and satisfy my terrible need to prove myself lovable.
Eventually, I began to realize I needed a real connection to others. I threw myself into community endeavors and collaborated on many worthwhile projects. But these efforts proved empty and disappointing to me. In my thirties I began looking for a spiritual connection through my art and sensed a oneness with nature. And yet I always felt separate and apart from it. I became a secular humanist because I innately felt a sense of goodness in the universe, even though it didn’t seem to embrace me. I dedicated my work to the service of others. I became an advocate for creative self-expression and became an outspoken advocate for the prevention of child sexual abuse. I moved back to Detroit and opened a successful art gallery in 1997, became President of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History and Humanities and hosted a TV show on Detroit Public TV, called ARTBEAT.
I even got married. But it was for all the wrong reasons. I thought I’d found someone who was also hurting, figuring she would never leave me. But a relationship based on fear and self-loathing was ultimately unsustainable. I was living a lie, which was gnawing away at my insides.
In 2005, my wife I moved to Charleston. I left the gallery I’d founded, my TV show on PBS, my role as a community organizer, hoping for a new start. We had children, hoping perhaps they would give me something else to focus on and provide me the meaning in my life I felt I lacked. I soon realized I was in no position to raise children, suffering as I was. I was covering my shame with fig leaves.
So for the sake of these precious children, I dedicated myself to getting better, emotionally. The anguish and depression was just too much. So I determined I must have a mental illness. After all, it had to be something: an affliction, something beyond my control. But I needed a diagnosis. I looked at a website and chose bipolar disorder and found a psychiatrist to go along with my self-assessment; he was happy to prescribe drugs to slow my mind down. But they didn’t work. I was still suffering.
My marriage fell apart and I found myself alone in a vicious custody battle. Ironically, my portrait career was in one of its periodic spurts, so I decided to pay for a good psychologist and get tested to find out, once and for all, what was really going on in my mind. Turns out I didn’t have mental illness, but I was spiking in a number of personality disorders and PTSD, arising from my need to cope with the inconceivable horror I’d experienced as a child. So I began an intense therapy program of deep self-examination, using CBT. I challenged every cognitive distortion (negative thought) and journaled intensely, until I could get to the truth. What thoughts could not be verified, I threw out. Eventually, I realized, intellectually, at least, I was not damaged goods.
Then came a turning point in my life. I was asked to join 200 other men, who had been sexually abused as children for two historic episodes on the Oprah Winfrey show. For the first time, I met other men like myself, who had been sexually abused as children. I learned about triggers, PTSD and disassociation. But most importantly, I found out I was not alone. Afterwords, with the help of my excellent therapist, I got to a level of honesty with myself I had never before experienced. The things that used to drive me, my desire to please, to excel in my art, succeed in my career, no longer had any meaning. I began to accept the reality of my situation. It was a period of deep humility and acceptance of my brokenness. It was a place of possibilities.
That’s when Cate came into my life. She and I had known one another over 30 years. We were drawn separately to a very special woman, who had become our surrogate mother. Pat Harvey was an inspiration and prime influencer in both our lives. Cate and I grew up a mile apart in St Clair Shores, Michigan. Our paths crossed occasionally over the years as we participated in Harvey family functions. Even though Pat left us many years ago, we know she would be happy that her two special ones would one day be together.
Years after our first marriages had ended, and just four months after Cate recovered from a life threatening illness, we re-connected as more than just friends. We recognized immediately that our relationship was the happy culmination of our long and storied lives. So Cate moved from Ferndale, MI to Charleston SC. Having never even visited Charleston, she made a huge leap of faith to be with her long-time friend and soon-to-be husband, his two sweet children and the family dog. We got married shortly after.
Cate was a life-long Christian, but unlike the many other Christian women I’d dated, she didn’t set as a pre-condition that I become a Christian. She understood something the others didn’t. She had faith that God really could make miracles happen, that redemption was truly possible. Here was a woman who lived her faith. She didn’t try to convince me of anything.
She’d heard the same, sad life-story as the others. But one part of the story stood out to her. Somehow she knew that a seed had been planted at that televangelist’s rally, so many years before. So she prayed.
In an effort to support my amazing new wife I helped her in her search for a home church. I went every Sunday to find a church she liked. Finally, we decided to check out City Church in downtown Charleston. At the end of his very thought-provoking, well researched, down to Earth sermon, Pastor Todd Simonis stopped in the middle of a thought; he seemed now to be speaking directly to me. “If you have been betrayed by someone in authority, a doctor, a father, a member of the clergy, I want to ask for your forgiveness on their behalf. We had no right to hurt you. And you have my assurance that God will never fail you as we have.” It finally dawned on me, that the relationship I’d had with Earthly “authorities” were not the same as the one I had been called to have with the ultimate authority, a loving God, the Father. He was both one with everything and Supreme in all things. He could be both Father and friend.
So, after thirty years in the desert, I came home, adored as the prodigal son. It soon became clear to me that my art was an extension of God’s mission. I began to actually see how everything is connected, that the seeming chaos of nature and the world, the stories of people struggling to overcome suffering, was actually the story of God’s work with all humanity. I began to see my life, my struggle, as a gift from God, who is teaching me what I need to carry out His mission on Earth. My “awesomeness,” that special spark I believed was buried deep inside, which Cate could somehow see, was put there by God, who is truly awesome. I find the more I get out of the way, the more his power and glory is manifested. And that is now what gives my live meaning.
When I received Kickstarter funding for The Quench Project, a vision trip to Haiti, I was ecstatic. I traveled to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, in Nov 2014, where I stayed with the Watermissions International team, led by Julio and Elsa Paula. I was very nervous about stepping out so boldly. But I had faith the Lord was leading the way. I am grateful to WMI and all my sponsors for making The Quench Project possible. The exhibition will be traveling to a variety of exhibition venues, highlighting the importance of water and the work of Watermissions International. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of artwork and books will go to the WMI’s mission there, as well as The Bread of Life Orphanage. But the glory will go directly to God.
I’m beginning to realize God’s gifts are rarely what we think they’re supposed to be. I was supposed to be a superstar, destined to go down in horrific flames, just to show the world how empty and meaningless it all is. But fortunately, God had another plan for me, another journey in mind. I’m grateful to say I’m still on it. His one true gift is His love. It’s not my burden any more. His gift to me is a life of joy and abundant gratitude. I now realize I was born a perfect child of God. Long before I was born, I was redeemed. I no longer ask God to change others or my situation. I ask Him to change me. And he does.