It was a long, difficult road that Steven Gothard travelled, from a childhood of sexual abuse to an adulthood filled with happiness, but he wants other men to know that healing is possible.

The 42-year-old Thunder Bay man is speaking out three years after a mental health crisis pushed him to find the help that saved his life.

"I was off work. I was terrified to leave my apartment," he said, his bright eyes slipping out of focus with the memory. "I had actually retreated in my apartment to the bedroom and I was using [drugs] heavy, heavy, every day.

"One morning I woke up, and I was really shocked that I woke up," he said. "And I just, I don't know, I heard something inside my head that just said it didn't have to be that way anymore."

Gothard said he's fortunate his job gave him the tools he needed that day.

"As a social worker, I have an advantage in knowing where I could go and get someone to listen to what I needed and help me to get there," he said.

He called St. Joseph's Care Group and was put on a waiting list for treatment. But a doctor who had treated him after a previous suicide attempt saw the list, recognized Gothard's name, and got him help immediately.

"I couldn't go on any longer, so I had two choices. I could either take myself out for good or I could make a difference and change," Gothard said.

Sexual assault of men is 'significant', counsellor says

Most published research shows that one in six men will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. But some believe that estimate falls short.

Abi Sprakes

Abi Sprakes is the manager of clinical services at the Thunder Bay Counselling Centre (Thunder Bay Counselling Centre)

"What we've come to realize over the last number of years, now that more research is being done, it's closer to actually to one in four men," said Abi Sprakes, the manager of clinical services at Thunder Bay Counselling Centre.

Sprakes said the number of male victims may be even higher in Thunder Bay and northern Ontario because of the legacy of sexual abuse at residential schools.

"It's a significant issue in our community," she said. "Men need to know that there are services available to them."

Those services are relatively new. It wasn't until 2011, after an inquiry into institutional responses to allegations of sexual abuse in eastern Ontario, that the province funded counselling programs specifically for men.

"I think a lot of men were living in silence, really not being able to talk to loved ones, not being able to reach out to service providers," Sprakes said. 

Now that services are available, Sprakes said raising awareness is critical.

"We don't have waiting lists, so men can call, they can get in. The service is available. It's really important that men know they are there."

'I just don't feel heavy anymore'

Gothard said he "dipped his toe" into counselling at various points in his life, but it took an intensive, holistic, residential treatment program at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph to treat his overlapping issues of abuse,addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"My issues had issues," Gothard said, with a tight smile and a hint of something like pride.

But he said the key to his healing was rooting out the shame that continued for decades after the abuse stopped. His feelings were complicated by the fact that his abuser was an uncle who would babysit him regularly as a child.

"Having loved someone so deeply and then having someone damage me that a very young man I started to think what was wrong with me, I must be bad or I must be ugly or dirty or whatever."

That shame is self-perpetuating, he said. 

"You act out to justify feeling it and it becomes this really horrible cycle," he said. "It was the one thing that I was able to overcome that really started to set me free."

That freedom, while "terrifying" at first, has brought many good things his way. He's on good terms with his family and has recently started a relationship with a woman that he said is devoid of the mistrust and fear that plagued his previous attempts at romance.

"I can wake up in the morning and be really happy for everything I have," he said. "I just don't feel heavy any more."

Gothard again acknowledges his good fortune in having a job with benefits that allowed him the time off and the ability to afford residential treatment. But he believes that first call to a hospital, or a counselling centre can be equally life-changing for others.

"If there's a man out there who is struggling, I just want them to know they don't have to any more," he said. 

"If you take a chance and you step out of the shadows and just get recognized that first time, just to be able to be recognized for what is devastating you on the inside. Then you can take such a deep breath and just take the next steps really, really slowly."

If you're in northwestern Ontario and seeking help, you can call Thunder Bay Counselling Centre at 807 684-1880. They can direct you to other services in the region.