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Craig Butler Longboarder Sexual Assault

Craig Butler is a seven-time Irish National Surfing Champion. Photo: Andrew Carruthers


The Inertia

What happened? To be honest I don’t know. But somewhere deep down inside, I secretly do. It’s a shameful and embarrassing story from my teen years that has haunted me into adulthood. It’s a demon that gains power as the days go by. I try not to feed it with thought. Hell, it’s a monster very few people close to me know about. But it has started to take a toll on my mind, body, and soul. I’m ashamed every day of who I am.

Since that night that changed everything for me and left me with PTSD, my erratic behavior to block out the pain pushed away all the people who loved me and who I have loved. Friends I traveled the world with on surf trips and grew up with are gone, and you know what? I don’t blame them. There are only so many times you can threaten suicide, drink until you pass out, become passive-aggressive and angry, and put up a wall and go weeks into hiding, not wanting to talk to anyone. My behavior in my late teens to early 20s, according to multiple psychiatrists, is linked back to that night. So now I’m done carrying the burden of guilt on my shoulders, and I think it’s time I talk about it. I’ve looked for help. It hasn’t worked. Maybe if people know what happened to me it could help them speak out within the sports community, and in some way, I can turn the horrific events of that night into something more positive and hopefully lift a horrendous weight off my shoulders. This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I can only count on one hand the times when I’ve truly been happy since that night. I remember being at HT’s in the Mentawais last year. A tropical paradise with the best surf in the world out front, surfing all day, sitting on the beach drinking from a coconut. I still couldn’t manage to be internally content. I traveled back to Bali for three months to live at Canggu and found myself in a pit of depression, not surfing, not leaving my room, taking prescribed anti-depressants and Valium while drinking to dull myself. I broke down in tears every night. It was coming to the surface, but I kept trying to push it back down. I started posting stupid things online: a cry for help. I just wanted someone, anyone, to ask if I was okay. But that never happened.

This episode started from one night while I was asleep. I had a nightmare of him shoving his tongue down my throat. I shot bolt upright in bed, tears streaming down my face, and then it all came rushing back. I didn’t sleep for three days. It hurt more this time remembering what happened than the weeks following the incident when I finally first told my friends that I’d been sexually assaulted by a disgusting man that I trusted as a kid.

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The light before the darkness. Photo: Kevin Doyle

I bumped into him one night, and he invited me back to his house on the premise that he was having a party with lots of other locals from my town that I knew and that it would be good fun. Being a naïve teenager I jumped at the opportunity. When we arrived I immediately had second thoughts. All the lights were turned off. But I knew this man, trusted him, and he reassured me. We went inside and sat on the couch, I asked him where all of the other people were, and he told me that they would be along shortly. He handed me a bottle of beer and one for himself and sat down so uncomfortably close to me that I moved over. He followed. We made small talk. After my third bottle, I started to feel tired. That’s when he dropped his hand on my leg and started rubbing up and down. I completely froze. I couldn’t talk. This man was substantially older than me and someone I trusted. He started to put his hands between my legs. That’s when I jumped up and told him I had to go home. He apologized and said that he was out of order and begged me not to leave. I felt sorry for him and told him not to worry. He went to the kitchen and came back with another beer. That’s when things went lights out for me. I don’t remember a thing after that.

I finally came around and was naked in his bed with him on top of me with his tongue down my throat. All I could do was try to tell him to get off. He was also naked and molesting me. I jumped out of the bed. It was pitch black, and I couldn’t find my clothes. I remember walking around his house disoriented, feeling like I had been drugged. I went into his bathroom. He followed closely behind me and kept his hands on me. I kept shrugging them off, and he asked if I wanted to take a shower with him. I said no. All I wanted to do was go home. I was confused as to where I was and wandered around his house. He told me that maybe I should lay down and sleep it off. I didn’t respond.

We went to another bedroom with a single bed and he told me to get in and go to sleep, which I started to do. But I was coming around and began to panic as things were making sense. In a haze, the door opened and his grotesque body got into the single bed beside me. He started to rub himself off on me. I kept trying to get out, but he kept an arm around my chest and waist, pulling me back into the bed. I kept saying “NO,” that I didn’t want this. I finally broke free and went to the other bedroom to get my clothes so I could leave. He kept tugging at my clothes and begging me to stay and I just said, “No, I’m out of here!”

I finally got my underwear on and a t-shirt and made it towards his front door. He came up behind me and started to drag me back by my arm. I kept begging him to let go, that all I wanted to do was leave. He kept pulling me towards the bedroom, and I just kept pleading. I finally fully snapped out of it and told him, “I’m going to scream really loud, and all of your neighbors are going to hear me.” That convinced him to let go. I walked home that night in just my boxers and shirt, scared, cold, alone and looking back over my shoulder. I kept vomiting with the taste of him in my mouth.

The next day I was lost. I couldn’t face anyone. I didn’t know what had happened the night before. So I went to his place of work to find out. He didn’t tell me much, but he seemed shocked to see me at his work. Without a word, he got me to follow him out the back straight away and handed me money. I asked him what it was for? To which he replied, “Last night.” I didn’t know what to say, I just turned around and left. I went to the local skate park and sat down on the halfpipe. I felt disgusted with myself and ashamed, too embarrassed to ever tell anyone that he had given me money, because we had sex. I’m not sure on the exact amount, but I threw it away in the skatepark. I didn’t want it. It was dirty money.

I don’t remember much after that. I went to my doctor and complained of high levels of anxiety, and he prescribed me Xanax. Then while on a surf trip in France, a cut on my leg got heavily infected with E-Coli, and I ended up with Reactive Arthritis. I was prescribed opium for the pain. So I started abusing both drugs to give myself “that good feeling” that you hear addicts talk about. The best part of my teen years turned into a haze, because of that horrible night. I was the first person in Irish surfing history to win both a Senior and Junior national title in the same year. I won three more titles, and you know what? I don’t remember winning a single one! That hurts more than anything. Representing my country on the Irish surf team and not remembering the trips or the people I had met. When I travel now, I’ll bump into someone and they’ll ask me “How the hell don’t you remember me? We spent a week hanging out together as youngsters surfing together in Morocco, Portugal, Spain, the Azores, England, etc.”

When I turned 20, I kicked the opium and Xanax. I went through the withdrawals and came out the other side. From 21 on I can remember life. I won another national title, and then I decided to try my hand at competing full time on the LQS. I started to travel the world. I was healthy, training in the gym daily and surfing at the highest level I’d ever surfed. I became the guy who people didn’t want in their heat at home and abroad because I knew how to surf tactically and how to get into someone’s head, while surfing circles around them. The LQS events often mixed with WQS events, and I started making friends with some of the best surfers in the as we would meet up at different events. I was hanging out with world champions who I looked up to as a kid. It was an amazing time in my life. Even if I went to a contest and got knocked out in the first round, it was still cool to see another part of the world and make more friends.

Unfortunately, by the time I turned 23, depression had started to wrap its claws around me again, and I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Panic Disorder. I put on weight, and by the time I reached 24 I started to surf less and less and I eventually retired from competition. I felt the stress was starting to become too much for me to win, though I didn’t have a chance due to my fitness levels. There were days I’d feel a panic attack coming on, but with panic disorder a panic attack is 10 times worse. I would try and get home as fast as I could and would just make it in the door before vomiting and collapsing on the ground, struggling to breathe. Luckily, I guess, half the time I’d pass out for a couple of hours and wake up when the feelings were gone. I’d stopped surfing as much but my love for traveling endured. I’ve always been happiest at the airport, about to board a flight to the other side of the world.

I recently turned 25, and it started to upset me when people would talk about “what a great surfer I was.” I felt like it was a way of putting me down. But I let that empower me. For six months I put my head down and concentrated both mentally and physically on winning another national title, just to prove people wrong. I was getting sessions in by myself at low tide when others would go to nearby reefs, and I’d have the beach to myself. I moved to The Peak in Bundoran, where nationals would be held and fully wrapped my head around the wave. There was one day about six weeks before when everything just clicked in the water. I’d finally gotten it back, I thought.

I was surfing at my original standard, and with five weeks to go until the National Championships I had my confidence again, along with my fitness and I knew I was going to reclaim my title. I was sure of it. I was studying tactics again. I was excited to be back at another contest and see old friends I hadn’t seen in years.

But one night, three weeks before the championships I jumped bolt upright in bed with that same nightmare I’d had when I was in Bali. I stayed awake all night shaking. Something clicked in my head, and all the memories came rushing back. I couldn’t understand it: I was happy and laughing the day before and then the next a four-week nightmare began. I became housebound. I’d sit in the dark with my hood up and the strings pulled for hours, too afraid to make any noise. Too scared to turn the TV on, too scared to listen to music on my headphones and worst of all, too scared to leave my house. I became extremely suicidal. I would sleep from one day to the next, wake up for an hour and fall back to sleep for another two days. My anxiety went off the charts and my mood went so low I became too weak to move. All I wanted to do was sleep. I was afraid to look outside in case someone would see me.

Eventually, I was forced to go see an on-call psychiatrist in the hospital who told me it sounded as though I was suffering from PTSD. She put me on a new drug which lifted my mood for about two days and then it dropped even lower. I felt like I had no control over my body or my actions. I became afraid of what I was planning on doing to myself and afraid that I couldn’t stop it from happening. I was literally hiding under my covers at this point with my door locked with earplugs in, waiting for something bad to happen. But nothing did.

I missed the National Championships. Six months of hard work and build up ruined. The lady who runs the Irish Surfing Association, Zoe Lally, invited me up just to get out of the house and thought that it would cheer me up, even if I didn’t compete. I could judge or commentate. It was a really nice gesture, but I had to decline. I looked like a ghost, my weight dropped significantly, and the contest ended up being the last thing on my mind. I actually wasn’t even sure I had a mind left. All I could think was, “This is it. My brain has finally closed in on itself and fried.” I was in mental turmoil with no sign of ever getting out. All this over that one horrible night.

About a week later, going to sleep in a panic (more passing out than falling asleep) I woke the next morning to my surprise having somewhat of a smile on my face with my thinking becoming much clearer. The day before I met with my psychiatrist, and he broke everything that I was feeling down. He let me talk, and he listened and assured me that what I was feeling was normal for someone who’d suffered such trauma. I talked and talked with him, and it felt good to finally have someone to open up to and let all the pain that I could never tell anyone else out.

Craig Butler, sexual assault, surfing life

It took a willingness to open up and talk to truly help myself. You can say what you want about anti-depressants, but the real healing comes from words and sharing, as I’m sure reading this story will help at least one person out there. That awful state had finally passed, and I could smile and laugh again. Surprisingly, locals I hadn’t seen in years would approach me and offer a hug or shake my hand and tell me, “It’s good to have you back, we were worried.”

Maybe reading about a naïve teenager like me will help people avoid the same situation or maybe it will help people understand that men can be sexually assaulted too, and there isn’t any need to feel shame. Sometimes, you have no control. Since confronting this man when I came home from Indonesia at the start of the year, I’ve felt some semblance of repair. He admitted it, and he’s now the one riddled with guilt, shame, and embarrassment over what transpired that night.

I’m still not sure what to do. But I’d love to see justice from that night, seeing as it has ruined pretty much every aspect of my life. I fear intimacy, and I have never been in a relationship out of fear of hurting someone or that person hurting me. It sucks to be scared of ever being with someone and feeling sick at the thought of ever being intimate again.

Craig Butler is a 7-time Irish National Surfing Champion and runs Humans of Surfing.