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Interview: Former NBA Player Dooling On His Healing From Child Abuse

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Keyon Dooling spent more than a decade playing in the NBA. And these days, he’s a motivational speaker, a life coach and author. One subject he tackles is a difficult one: healing from childhood sexual abuse.

Dooling is the author of the book What’s Driving You: How I Overcame Abuse and Learned to Lead in the NBA. He recently spoke with WSHU’s Dan Katz about his experiences and what led him to write the book.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

When you first published the book in 2014, you told the Boston Globe that your decision to go public with your story prompted hundreds of thousands of people to reach out with their stories. And I’m wondering in the years since, especially with the arrival of the #MeToo movement, how has the response been to your book and to your work touring the country speaking about the subject?

When I first came out about it, you know, there was a lot of engagement about what I went through. There wasn’t a lot of examples of men talking about their experience with childhood trauma, in particular around sexual abuse. So I wanted to be a voice for that. As far as the reception that I’ve been getting, I would say it’s mixed. I would say that a lot of men whisper to me that I’m doing a good job and keep up the good work, but they don’t really support it in a way that I think could spark healing in their lives. And also, you know, create change around that discussion. And so I want to make sure that I keep being out there, being in people’s face so that, you know, we can kind of switch the narrative that it’s OK to heal and walk in your truth.

Let’s talk a little bit about your story. In the book you describe an incident that took place in 2012 that triggered feelings you’d been holding in for most of your life. Can you give a little bit more detail on that?

Of course. So what happened is I was out in Seattle, Washington, doing some charity work with a good friend and an old teammate, Avery Bradley. And we went to a great restaurant, I went to the restroom, a guy, with two hands, just grips my butt as I’m peeing. It was a trigger for me, and I was unaware that I had triggers, I was unaware that those things still were dwelling on the inside of me, and he pushed that button. From that point on, the trauma was revealed and it came back and it manifested in the form of PTSD.

When you look back at that moment now, could you have seen something like that coming?

No, not in a million years. I thought, to be honest, I was gonna keep what happened to me as a child bottled up. It was so bottled up that I think I blocked it out of my mind and it would be only occasionally that I would feel the side effects, or the memories of that. And so that was a secret that I thought I was gonna end up taking to my grave. Fortunately for me, you know, this incident happened. Because had it not happened, maybe I would have continued on the same path of some of my risky behaviors. I would have been full of anxiety, which I’ve suffered from for the better part of my life. I’m a lot healthier. I’m a lot more whole. I make a lot less money because I’m not playing basketball anymore, but you know, that’s not what I’m defined by.

Can you talk about what that journey has brought you?

Yeah, I think, you know the first thing that that journey has brought me is a sense of purpose. Speaking about it becomes a testimony and it helps people. I think that it’s changed the trajectory of my career and so now I work for the NBA Players Association as a wellness counselor. I’m speaking all over the country talking about mental health. And also, you know, just my motivational speaking. I think individually as a person, I’m better, I’m more healthy, I’m more disciplined, I’m a better husband and father. And so, doing my work, I felt like I found my blueprint for healing and a recipe for success. And I’m not too shy to share that, I want everybody else to find their own individual healing and success in their own realm.

And what is that recipe for you?

It’s a holistic approach, it’s not one thing, I think it’s a combination of things. I think the first thing is, you know, I continue to do therapy. I have one of the best therapists on the planet and I continue to do my work with him. Diet. My diet is a big part of that holistic healing. Exercise is a big part of that. My affirmations, my prayer. And just being able to be in tune with your emotions. So, if I’m having a day where I might be feeling a little down, I have things that I can do where I can get myself back on track. And I don’t really like medicine, though I’m not on any prescriptions drugs or anything like that. Though, at a point, I had to do that in order to get myself healthy. But I do a lot of essential oils and baths and massages, and a lot of holistic things to make myself feel comfortable.

In the book, you juxtapose your episode of mental illness stemming from confronting the trauma of your childhood with stories about the rest of your life, both good and bad from successes on the basketball court and having a supportive family to some of the hardships of growing up in a segregated area in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. How important was it to give people the full picture beyond the sexual abuse and the trauma related to it?

I think it was important to show that range. Because, you know, you’re not defined by one incident, whether it’s good or bad. There’s a series of tipping point moments in your life that are significant, that change the purpose, or the calling, or the path that you’re going down. And for me, when I got triggered in Seattle, I think it shifted my perspective on life, and I’ve stopped trying to make an impact through basketball, and start to try and make an impact on people more. And so basketball was a great platform for that, I thought my end all be all was to just be a basketball player and be around the game. But after going through this, and overcoming it, it’s allowed me to find a new purpose in life.

You talked about bottling it up and thinking that that was the right or natural thing to do. Do you feel that preconceptions about masculinity in our society right now at all levels in basically every socioeconomic sphere…do preconceptions about masculinity make it difficult for men to opt for the path of healing like you did in this situation?

I totally agree. Look, the first language and the first words we speak is a cry. And if we’re not crying, they’ll smack us on the butt again because that’s the natural way of knowing you’re alive. And as a man, we’re told to “suck it up, tough it up, don’t cry, be tough.” You know what that does is, something that’s so natural when you feel an emotion, you fight back and you push back against that. And it makes us sometimes more aggressive. It makes us sometimes more recluse, and we don’t express ourselves in a way that’s healthy for communication. Also, when I was looking for examples of healing, I just didn’t see it because men don’t like talking about some of the traumas that they’re experiencing, in particular around sexual abuse, and because mine happened at the hand of a teenage boy at the time, it was more embarrassing for me. And so I wanted to go hide in a rock, and when it came to the light, pretty much the reason why I wanted to run and hide, and the reason why I retired from the game is because I was embarrassed and I was ashamed and I didn’t know how my brothers would receive me because I had been abused by a male.

Do you believe that you’ve healed from what happened to you as a child?

Well, I believe I’m healing. I don’t believe the healing process is ever over. I believe you have to continue to do your work. I don’t know how somebody who might have overcome addiction, or something like that, how they feel about it, but it’s one day at a time, one week at a time. If I don’t do my routine, that’s the physical part, the mental part, the spiritual part, the emotional part, I open myself back up to suffer from PTSD. I open myself back up to suffer from anxiety. And so I have to continue my healing, and I’ll be healing the rest of my life. The most important thing about healing is to know that it’s a process, it doesn’t just stop and you’ll be healing the rest of your life.

What advice do you have for people who are considering or being prompted in similar ways to you to tell their story?

So, for someone who’s looking to heal, I would say the first thing is that it’s OK. I’ve been there, I’ve been scared and afraid to do my work. And so I would mask my pain either with drinking, or smoking or being promiscuous. At the time when I was going through it, I thought that was coping, unknowing to myself how much damage I was doing to myself, to my family. So I would say the first thing I would encourage you to do is to embrace what happened to you. Embrace what happened to you. You’re still here, so that means you’re a survivor. Now when you go get help, when you go get the right resources, when you go get the right treatment, when you go get the right infrastructure, you’ll go from surviving to thriving. And I wanna encourage anybody out there who’s not actively pursued their healing that healing awaits you. But it’s not gonna fall in your lap, you have to pursue it. And I encourage you, you deserve that not only for yourself, but for your family and your family’s future.

Keyon Dooling is author of the book What’s Driving You: How I Overcame Abuse and Learned to Lead in the NBA. He’s also a motivational speaker and life coach. You can book him at nextlevelbooking.com.

Keyon, thanks so much for being on the show.

Thanks so much for having me, man. Have a great day.