People you should know: Jean-Paul Bédard
– by Wendy Morley, Publisher –
Meeting Jean-Paul (JP) Bédard, high-profile sponsored endurance athlete, author, speaker and advocate, you would never have known what lies in his past if he hadn’t recently broken his lifelong silence. As is the case with most victims of abuse, he had kept his secrets locked away deep inside, as far from his consciousness as possible. But something happened during the 2013 Boston Marathon that unlocked the secret chamber. Past came roaring into present and the chamber was emptied as his dark secrets escaped. The events surrounding that day changed the course of his life, and will undoubtedly now change the course of many other lives as a result, in a most positive way.
While thousands had known him in the international running community—JP has competed in well over a hundred marathons and ultramarathons—and thousands more knew him through his 24 years as a teacher, even his wife didn’t know the truth about his childhood sexual abuse and rape until he told her in 2013 after 26 years of marriage.
Since then, his has become the voice of courage, hope and inspiration for people who felt they had no voice. Instead of allowing the past to consume him, he has chosen to use it as a tool to help others. He speaks frankly about the abuse perpetrated against him in addition to his years as a drug and alcohol abuser; he speaks about how running has helped him heal and about the empowering love of his “care team” of many, including his son, Noah, his son’s wife Jackie, and especially his own wife, Mary-Anne, to whom he gives never-ending credit.
Wendy Morley: JP, tomorrow (February 5th, 2016) you have a big event happening. Can you please tell me about it?
Jean-Paul Bédard: Almost every day for the past few years, I have been approached by people asking how they can get involved in my advocacy and fundraising endeavors. As a direct result of this outpouring of support, in partnership with Scotiabank Charity Challenge, The Canadian Running Series and the Ottawa Marathon, I’m launching “JP’s Team.” Runners from across the country will be invited to join “JP’s Team.” As they are training for their respective races, they will be raising funds for the two featured charities: The Gatehouse (in Toronto) and Little Warriors (in Edmonton). Both of these charitable organizations work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse and work to educate the general public about the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. There will also be a role to play for those people who are not runners, yet are passionate about getting involved in raising funds and awareness. There is no cost to join JP’s Team and there is no minimum fundraising requirement. The tagline is “Together, For Kids Big & Small.”
The Difficult Past
WM: JP, I met you last year through the running community, and at first I did not know about the work you’ve done for awareness of abuse, or of course about your own history. I don’t want to dwell on your past but it is extremely relevant to who you are and what you are doing. I’m almost ashamed to try to put this in a short question with a relatively short answer, but let’s try.
You were sexually abused as a child. Can you please tell me how this began? How long it went on for? What it did to your psyche and sense of self? Your childhood was not a happy one even before this abuse, I gather.
JPB: Sadly, like far too many other children, I did not have an “ideal” childhood. I’m the youngest of five siblings, and there is a significant gap between us. By the time I came along, my parents’ marriage was all but over. My mother wanted to leave, but she didn’t. Looking back on it now, I really wish she had.
My father worked six days a week from 11am until 11pm, so it was basically my mother at home with my older sister and me. My mother was very physically abusive towards me. The three older kids were already out of the house by this point, and my mother’s mental health was compromised, to say the least. She beat me, shook me and hit me violently for many, many years. She was always careful to do it in secret, away from my father and the other kids. I had teachers and coaches over the years question me on some of the bruises and marks, but I never spoke up about it. Worse, she would give me extra strength codeine cough syrup twice a day – she called it “JP’s hyper medicine” to try to keep me dopey and easier to manage. I think this set me up for addiction issues later in life, and also my tendency to numb myself and escape.
I was plagued with terrible eczema on my hands and feet for my entire childhood. My body had become quite literally a canvas for all of the stress and fear I was carrying around. Eventually my mother moved out, and I begged my dad to allow me to stay with him because I was so afraid of living with her. And that’s what happened. My dad took custody of my sister and me. Oh, and the eczema? Well that magically disappeared within a few weeks of my mother moving out.
I’ll never know for sure if this early trauma set me up for what happened next in my life, but the more I read about childhood sexual abuse, the more I discover that vulnerable kids are easy prey for pedophiles. Right around the time my mother left, I was sexually abused by my hockey coach. I prefer not to go into too many details other than to say that when I finally managed to break free from him, he said: “No one, no one, will ever believe you.”
Things may have worked out better for me if that had been the end of it, but sadly, a few years later, at the age of 12, I was violently raped by two young men in an isolated ravine. The assault ended with me lying on the muddy ground with my pants around my ankles. And just before they left me there, the one who was holding me down stood up and urinated on me. I went home to an empty house that day, and until three years ago I told no one what had happened to me. How is a young child supposed to process such emotions? I feel as though in order to survive the assault, I had to allow my mind to “take me away from myself.” And I’ve spent almost 40 years trying to find my way back.
Numbing and Escape
WM: This led to difficulties with drugs and alcohol. Could you please tell me how your addictions began?
JPB: From the age of 14, I became a daily drinker. That quickly escalated into drugs, and soon arrived all the messiness that comes with that lifestyle: emergency room visits with overdoses, cutting class, interactions with the police, but more importantly, moving further and further toward the margins of society.
WM: I’m sure that, though drugs and alcohol may have given you temporary respite from your pain, they ended up causing you much more pain in the end. What depths did they bring you to?
JPB: The shitty thing about being an addict is that it literally takes you a lifetime to realize there is no such thing as selective numbing. Yes, I was using drugs and alcohol to numb or anesthetize everything inside me and around me, but in order to block out all those feelings, I had to block out every feeling. No love, no joy, no connection was ever going to penetrate such numbing behavior. I’ve sat through enough 12-step meeting to realize that no one wants to hear the depth that addiction can bring a person to. Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty. It went on far too long. And too many people were hurt as a direct result of my addiction.
WM: What made you decide to quit? How was that journey? And did that directly make you face your abuse?
JPB: Two things coalesced in order for me to finally stop using and get clean. On a personal level, my wife Mary-Anne confronted me and made it perfectly clear that she couldn’t stay in a relationship in which I was slowly (and at times, quickly) trying to drink myself to death. We had a young son, and he was her primary concern.
The second thing that happened was more of a wake-up call. I had been out drinking with friends one night, and one of the people offered me a drive home, but I declined her offer and stayed on at the bar drinking. A few hours later I got the call. Shortly after leaving the bar that night, this lady drove her car into the back of a propane-powered taxi and the propane tank exploded, sending a plume of fire through her front air vents. When I visited her in the burn unit, I learned that she had sustained third-degree burns to her face and arms, and the fire was so intense, it melted her pantyhose to her legs. That was the last day I picked up a drink or a drug, and I’ve been sober now for almost 19 years.
A True Partner
WM: When did you meet your wife, and when did you marry?
JPB: Mary-Anne and I met when I was in university and she was finishing a college degree here in Toronto. We moved into together two months later, got engaged a month after that, and were married the following year at the ripe old age of 21.
WM: When she met you, she did not know about the abuse in your past. Did she know about your alcohol and drug problems?
JPB: I mentioned the incident with hockey coach in passing, but never talked about it in any substantive way. And with the rape—none of that came out until three years ago, 26 years into our marriage*. Mary-Anne obviously was aware of the addiction issues, but for the first few years of our son’s life we were literally too poor for me to fuel my addiction. That all started to ramp up when my son was in kindergarten. Near the end of my drinking, I had become suicidal, and was being heavily medicated for bipolar disorder. The last year of my drinking was not pretty. The only saving grace, and I believe this is the primary reason our marriage weathered all of this, is that I was never a violent drunk (I had seen enough violence growing up to last me a lifetime), and there was never any infidelity. I drank to escape, to pass out, to disappear.
[* The Boston Marathon of 2013 and the moments after the bombing triggered something in JP. This resulted, through working with professionals, in the understanding that he had PTSD resulting from the rape.]
WM: Mary-Anne has been incredibly supportive of you. Please tell me a little about her support for you and its meaning to you.
JPB: I would need to write a book to cover that! Mary-Anne taught me that there is HUGE difference between “being there for someone” and “being there with someone.” She’s never tried to fix me. She has this amazing capacity to simply be there for me and to always believe in me. In fact, Mary-Anne saw goodness inside me long before I ever realized it was there. Shortly after I disclosed to her about the sexual abuse in my past and I started getting professional help for it, Mary-Anne gave me an anniversary card, and inside it she wrote: “Who knew when we said for better of worse, it would be our worst that would make us better.” That’s who Mary-Anne is. I cry just thinking about how tightly and deeply she is wound around my entire being.
WM: You also have a son. How did you broach the subject with him?
JPB: I disclosed to our son, Noah, about the sexual abuse in my childhood almost immediately after I spoke with Mary-Anne. He was in his early 20s when I told him, and he has been an integral part of my care team as I move through the rebuilding of my life. I am so proud of him, and he reminds me of what a precious gift unconditional love is.
WM: He’s now married and you all have bought a house together, so I assume you’re very close!
JPB: One year ago, Mary-Anne and I decided to sell our house and use the proceeds to buy a bigger house with Noah and our daughter-in-law, Jackie. We really wanted to help them get into the housing market that was growing farther and farther out of reach for them every single day. We ended up buying a big old Victorian house right in downtown Toronto. Noah and Jackie live in the lower unit and Mary-Anne and I live in the upper unit. Most of the people we knew thought we were crazy to tie our future, our retirement nest egg, to our son and daughter-in-law. My response is always the same: If you can’t bet on your kids, who can you bet on?!
JP the Runner
WM: Where does running fit in? Did you run when you were a child? How did you begin again? When you began, was it difficult? Did it feel freeing? Did it feel like you were running out your demons?
JPB: I had run in school and through high school as well, but I didn’t really start getting into serious running until about eight months into my treatment program for drug and alcohol addiction.
Running has brought so many changes to my life, but none greater than bringing me to the understanding that life has little to do with striving for goals and chasing after dreams, and everything to do with scraping up against boundaries of discomfort and, with a little faith and a lot of patience, discerning how to navigate those delicate spaces.
It’s been said that art is nothing more than reduction—the transcendent scraping away of veneers, the unmasking of the pillars of truth and beauty. In light of that, I would submit that running, in its purest form, is the fluidity of art in motion. I might even go as far as to suggest that a life given over to running is the purest form of reduction and self-reflection. Have I replaced one addiction with another? Yes, probably. But running has given me the opportunity to run toward that little boy who was left alone on the muddy ground of that ravine all those years ago.
WM: How long has it been since you quit drugs/alcohol and began running?
JPB: It will be 19 years this March. One day at a time. I still attend 12-step meetings on a regular basis.
WM: How much do you run per week, and how has that changed over the years?
JPB: I now run approximately 200 km/week, and it’s been up at that “extreme” level for about three years now.
WM: Can you tell me about your race history? Have you always taken part in races since you began running? Do you take part in them for the challenge, for the camaraderie, the support? Tell me how this has changed over the years.
JPB: I’ve run over 120 marathons and ultras, and I’ve run the Boston Marathon more than 10 times now. Running has allowed me to travel all over the world. For me, running now is ALL about building community, nurturing those authentic connections that I’ve never been very good at sustaining.
I can tell you that when you look at me today, what you see is what you get. There are no more walls up around me, and I now believe that by embracing vulnerability, I have been able to welcome so much joy and love into my life. I am surrounding myself with friends who are like family to me. Sadly, when I went public with my disclosure three years ago, my entire family of origin distanced themselves from me and we haven’t spoken since. I’m now building the “family” I always wished I had surrounding me.
Running to Raise Awareness
WM: Last fall, you completed a triple marathon as part of the Scotiabank Toronto Marathon. What’s the reason?
JPB: Two years ago I ran a Double Boston (84.4km, or 52.4 miles) to raise awareness and funds for the treatment center here in Toronto (The Gatehouse) that helped me work through the trauma of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Last October I ran a Triple Toronto Waterfront Marathon (126.6 km, or 78.6 miles) to demonstrate the resiliency of survivors of sexual violence and to support the Ontario Government’s #ItsNeverOkay campaign that reminds us we all have a role to play in standing up and speaking out any time we see sexual violence and harassment.
JPB: I was a teacher for 24 years, but now I’m focusing primarily on my advocacy work and writing. My book Running Into Yourself is due out later this spring. I do a lot of speaking for organizations, community agencies and schools around the issue of sexual violence and living through trauma. In addition my speaking and book, I’m a featured contributor to Huffington Post, and my blog “Breathe Through This” www.breathethroughthis.com has over 2 million readers/subscribers.
WM: Finally, what’s next?
JPB: Later this May I’ll be running a “Double-Double” Ottawa Marathon (168.8 km or 104.8 miles) and in October a “Triple-Double” Toronto Waterfront Marathon (253.2 km, or 131 miles). Both of these events are fundraisers and awareness events. I hope to raise over $100,000 for The Gatehouse (Toronto) and Little Warriors (Edmonton). These organizations work with both children and adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The most exciting news is that later this week, I’ll be launching “JP’s Team.” People from across the country will be able to join me in raising funds and awareness for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This year, the program will be part of the Scotiabank Charity Challenge at both the Ottawa Marathon and the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Next year, in addition to these two race events, I will roll out “JP’s Team” to the Blue Nose Marathon in Nova Scotia, the Edmonton Marathon, and the Vancouver Half Marathon.
If you’d like to find out more information or find out how you can get involved, or if you’d simply like to follow along on my journey, please visit www.runjprun.com and click on “JP’s Team.”