Through the Darkness Lightly

Family Tree, a sculpture by Nick Englebert at Grandview near Hollandale, Wisconsin.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Family Tree, a sculpture by Nick Englebert at Grandview near Hollandale, Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

After 24 years of sobriety my days of heavy drinking seem like a distant blur and somewhat unreal in certain ways. I spent about eleven years of my life in a pretty much constant drunken haze, self-medicating, hiding, creating masks. I was often the life of the party, a dancing fool entertaining those around me with crazy antics, but there were times when darker demons took over and I would get belligerent, break glass, or engage in other destructive behaviors. Other times I would sink into depression and paranoia, wanting nothing more than to end it all and be done with it. Most of the time I was a fun drunk, but when the party was over, when the last guest had left or I had trudged my way home in the middle of the night I was left with myself. And that was a scary thing. I think I felt lucky that I could just lay down and pass out so that I wouldn’t have to face myself alone in the dark.

Alcohol dulls the senses. It hides pain. But only temporarily. It is ultimately a depressant. It eventually takes one’s unhappiness and magnifies it tenfold, a hundredfold. It at once allows you to hide yourself from others behind a series of masks, but unmasks you to yourself and shows you the worst aspects of who you are underneath it all.

Even with that I think my psyche needed the alcohol for the eleven plus years when I was drinking. In a strange way it protected me. I did not know how to deal with the pain of my childhood and it allowed me to survive–not in a healthy kind of way, mind you, but to get through my days with at least the perception of less pain in my wounded soul. I didn’t know how else to deal with the sexual abuse I had suffered from ten to almost eighteen years old. I have shared this before but what I went through was devastating. At ten years old I was manipulated into thinking I was going to play a game. I consented to being tied up to play the game–because I didn’t know any better–and instead of some fun childhood game my pants were pulled down and I was molested. The image I have of that day is my abuser’s back as he sat on my chest, and a crucifix up on the wall just past him, with Jesus looking down on everything but no intercession on my behalf. Jesus was silent. I have often said I lost both my innocence and my faith that day. The abuse, including rape, continued for more than seven years of my childhood.

I know now that my descent into drugs, alcohol, and other dangerous behaviors was in large part a reaction to that abuse (not to mention that I was just simply wired as a very addictive personality). It kept me from having to deal with it until I was better prepared. There was a huge cost for that emotional delay, though. I lost a lot during those dark years.

And yet I came through it. I survived–not unscathed, but I survived–and I believe I came out of it a stronger, more empathetic person. This is not the way I would choose to teach empathy and give strength to someone I love. Not everyone survives what I put myself through; I was lucky. But life has its ways. It gives its lessons when and where they are needed. One just needs to be open to the messages and the lessons that are presented. Without alcohol and drugs creating a fog my spirit opened up to the universe, to the lessons it had for me, to self-revelation and some universal truths.

Since I quit drinking my life has turned around. I became honest with myself. I grew strong. I became more open. I have shared the hard lessons in my life so that others’ lives might be a bit easier, and that has made my life better, too. I faced my abuse. I forgave myself for my drunken wasted years. I forgave myself for the abuse–those who are victims of sexual abuse often blame themselves–and I forgave my abuser. I still do not like him or trust him, but I let it go. I was able to write a play about those abuse experiences. I’ve had articles published about it and I’ve given written testimony in support of Wisconsin’s Child Victims Act. I formed a Facebook group for supporting survivors. I got several organizations to help sponsor and support a day-long conference on surviving childhood sex abuse that will happen on June 20. And in July I will be co-facilitating a male survivors support group. I am no longer hiding behind masks. I have unmasked myself and I have allowed myself to like the person behind the mask.

Today I am thankful that I stopped drinking 24 years ago. But I am also thankful for everything that has happened in my life, good and bad, because I have grown from it all. I will never drink again and I will never hide behind masks again. I am living my life authentically, and I am thankful for the opportunity. I am thankful for my life. I am lucky to have it.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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