“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Laozi, Tao Te Ching
Trigger Warning: This blog post includes references to childhood sexual abuse.
I was sexually abused by a 12-year-old neighbor when I was seven years old. We had just moved into a new neighborhood. He came to the door one day and said he needed help with a Cub Scout project. I said, “Sure, how can I help?” We went inside, to my dad’s office, and he proceeded to abuse me.
In some ways, I have spoken very little about what happened that day, even less about how the abuse continued over the next few years.
I am the first guest for Season 3 of Unspoken: Conversations with Candace. She is dedicating the season to male survivors of sexual abuse. I am helping to produce the season with the support of Digimentors (pro bono) and will serve as co-host starting with the second episode.
The podcast will drop on Friday, Jan. 20. The recorded video will be released Monday, Jan. 23, on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and my Lens on Life website.
This is a huge step for me.
I met Dawn Helmrich at a United Way conference in 2016. She was speaking on a panel and mentioned in passing that she was a survivor of sexual assault. When I introduced myself, I didn’t share my story right away, but I knew instinctively that she was someone I could trust.
I learned about Denim Day, an effort to raise awareness and show support for survivors of sexual assault, from Dawn. While at United Way, I spread the word about the work she was doing in Milwaukee and encouraged other United Ways (and United Way Worldwide) to join the movement. I thought about sharing my story while organizing one of the photo ops at our headquarters, but never did.
I first spoke publicly about what happened during a special episode of Sree’s Sunday #NYTReadalong in September of 2018. It was during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. I did the show from my parents’ house in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The weekly audience is mostly regulars. It was a safe space. A number of people reached out with messages of support and shared their own stories after the show. A week or two later, I wrote a blog post for United Way that offered resources for survivors of sexual assault and mentioned my own history in passing.
Fast forward to April 2022. Dawn invited me to speak at a meeting of the Milwaukee Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault over Zoom. It was a panel of male survivors of sexual assault. Candace Sanchez was one of a hundred or so attendees. (In fact, she was able to attend only because of a last-minute cancellation. She calls it “divine design.”)
When asked to offer final thoughts, I issued a Call to Action:
Usually, women are invited to speak on panels about rape and sexual abuse. Usually, when people think of survivors of abuse, they think of women. They don’t think of men. I asked the women in the audience to make space for us, explaining that men needed a little help. That it was hard enough to find our voice, but that with support and encouragement, we might be able to do it.
Candace reached out during the meeting. She said she wanted to dedicate Season 3 of her podcast to Male Survivors. She asked if I’d be the first guest. I said yes, and then upped the ante. I suggested that Digimentors might be able to offer production support, that we could produce the entire season on StreamYard, like we do for Sree’s Sunday #NYTReadalong and other clients. I could send her the audio file so her podcast team could still produce the podcast, but I suggested that I would take the video file and stream it to social media.
The Journal Sentinel had a reporter covering that meeting. They reached out to me for a few comments and to clarify some of the details I’d shared during the meeting. When the article came out, I was caught off-guard. Nothing was inaccurate. It was just as I’d described.
However, it was jarring to see myself in the lede:
Neil Parekh was 7.
He was home alone. His older neighbor came over and suggested they work on a Cub Scout project in the basement.
The two went downstairs and the neighbor sexually abused him.
"I had no idea what was going on," Parekh said.
I never shared the article anywhere. Not because I was embarrassed, but because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to provide context for it.
I think I’m ready to share it now. Maybe. I have to be ready. I made my decision last June, leading with my head. Until now, it’s been mostly an intellectual exercise. Logistics. Scheduling. Recording. Editing. Now, I’m leading with my heart. I’m about to share my story in a very public way. I am incredibly nervous. I’m scared. I’ve been trying to figure out the “best” way to let people know about the podcast. Struggling to figure out the right parts of the story to share at the right time. I have a perfectionist streak. I always have. I’ve come to realize that this is just one of the many ways that trauma manifests itself.
This podcast is a journey of discovery and healing. I’m learning from and leaning on other survivors. I’m also finding my voice. I am so grateful that Candace reached out. I’ve had a chance to meet other male survivors and hear their stories. My hope is that by putting my story out there, and helping others put their stories out there, somebody will listen (or watch). My hope is that someone will find comfort in our stories of trauma and healing. I’m still learning to live with the guilt. I’m still learning to deal with the shame. I haven’t even come close to forgiveness - although I know that’s an important step in the process.
Here is a short preview of my discussion with Candace. I hope you have a chance to listen (or watch) the full show.