Duane Hughes used sports to get through his childhood nightmare. He played football at Oregon State in 1987.Photo courtesy Duane Hughes

As a sexually-abused child, Duane Hughes suffered a world of pain at the hands of his stepfather.

A successful student and athlete, he managed to hide the abuse from everyone he knew. In spite of a Division I scholarship to play football at Oregon State University and a life that appeared great from the outside, Hughes bore the psychological scars of the abuse for years. Now 47 and a father of five through his blended family with wife Allison, Hughes wants to use his experience to help other survivors of sexual abuse.

He created R U PHIL? (i.e. “Are you Playing Hurt In Life?”), a series of workshops and keynote addresses aimed to help survivors of, and advocates for, childhood sexual abuse. An accomplished athlete, Hughes uses the “playing hurt” sports metaphor to reflect the often hidden nature of sexual abuse, as well as the devastating toll such abuse can take on a child.

Sports as a refuge

As a child, Hughes never knew his biological father. Born to a teen mother, he was raised by his grandparents, Percy and Lavonia Lytle, until his mother married when he was 5. His stepfather abused him from the time he was 9 until he was 15. It was a secret Hughes shared with no one.

“I was very secretive about it. I felt like I was alone,” he recalled. “I felt like I was living two lives. In one, I was an abused little boy, and in the other life, things were pretty good. I was athletic, did well in school and was popular. Even after the abuse stopped in high school, I didn’t want people to find out because I thought the good part of my life would stop if people found out about it.”

Hughes was terrified of breaking up his family, which now included two siblings, and felt that if he divulged his secret, the family wouldn’t survive. He cites his involvement with sports as his saving grace.

“Growing up,” he said, “I played sports year-round. None of my coaches knew. I made sure I got good grades and I never got in big trouble so that I could hide my secret. Doing well at sports gave me esteem I couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Even though his coaches had no idea, Hughes sees them as key to his survival.

“My coaches were great mentors without knowing what I was going through. Even though I didn’t tell them, the coaches helped me get to where I am today. I think sports pointed me in a different direction so I was able to function well.”

A Division I scholarship led Hughes to play football at Oregon State University, and during his time in college, he became more open about his past abuse. Once he shared his story, his mother and stepfather parted ways, but for Hughes, the damage was already done.

Healing and helping

Being a college athlete taught him about playing through injuries and pain, and Hughes realized that while he physically survived his abuse, he was still playing injured in life.

“As I got more into adulthood, I started to realize that I wasn’t whole. I was hurt, but I didn’t know how to deal with it and process it. On top of that, I was worried about what stereotypes society might project onto me.”

Hughes tried healing himself first, reaching out to his biological father and diving into therapy. It took a while to find the right fit, but eventually, the counseling.

“I realized that as time went on,” he said, “I was limited emotionally. In order not to feel pain, I excluded joy and stayed in a very narrow band of emotion. I kept persisting at counseling and really came to terms with the abuse and realized it was not my fault.”

As he healed himself and began to share his stories with friends, Hughes discovered that others had similar experiences.

“Over the years, as I got a bit older and the story came up among friends, I was shocked at how many people pulled me aside and said something similar had happened to them. The reported numbers on sexual abuse are that one in four girls is affected by age 18 and one in six boys, and those are just the reported numbers.

“When I’m open about my story,” he adds, “it encourages others to be more open, and this is one of the things that led me to create RU PHIL?”

Hughes counts himself lucky to have had sports to help him cope before he was ready to confront his abuse, but others may not have had such outlets.

“A lot of survivors are living life in turmoil because they don’t have anything else,” he said.

Through RU PHIL? Hughes has created a series of workshops and keynote speeches aimed at getting survivors to begin the healing process. As a survivor, he believes he is in a unique position to help advocates for sexual abuse survivors as well as survivors themselves.

He emphasizes two main points in his workshops. One is the importance of communication within families and building your voice.

“We work on skills to build back that internal voice and learn how to express it to those around you,” he said. “Lack of communication is what lets this go on and creates cycles, so the abuse continues. The shame associated with this keeps us from talking and keeps abusers safe and able to keep abusing.”

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