Fairfield man survives abusive childhood, becomes advocate for children

Apart from the immediate danger of physical and emotional harm, the effects of child abuse can be insidious and even enigmatic.

Gregg Ossman, for instance, has spent most of his life avoiding tall buildings because of debilitating fear that he eventually realized was the result of an incident in his youth.

He said he can remember not being afraid of tall buildings, but he recalls going on a class trip to New York City, standing on a sidewalk with his coat held over his eyes so that he would not see the tall buildings looming over him.

“My classmates wondered what was going on, but because I was a good student and an athlete, they just thought I was having a bad day and left it at that,” he said.

But for the rest of his life, continuing through today, he has had to develop coping strategies that would allow him to function as a successful adult, which includes a career in public relations and corporate communications for three Fortune 500 companies – Cincinnati Milacron, The Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company and Lockheed Martin.

Currently, he is serving as the Director of Development and Community Relations for Mercy Health.

His career has included a lot of travel, and if he knew the city he was going to, he was sometimes able to route his activities through underground garages and connectors to avoid the panic of being around tall buildings.

In other situations, however, “I knew exactly how many anti-anxiety pills I would have to take, but then I would get drowsy in the meetings,” he said.

“I never told my employers of my fear, so I would find reasons not to go to conventions and business meetings because it was sheer panic,” he said. “I made excuses all the time because I felt that it would be devastating to my career.

“It’s like cutting your world in half,” he said.

But what his experience as an abused child did for him, however, what to develop his own system of self-reliance and strategy.

“Strategy is about working around obstacles, not bulldozing through them,” he said.

He hates using the word “victim,” he said, because that gives too much power to the abusers.

“I do not want to empower my mother and father,” he said. “The physical bruises and the scars are the least of it. Your body heals, but the psychological effects continue.”

Ossman was raised on the east coast, and his two siblings were so much older than him that he said he feels like he was an only child.

Once, his father walked in the kitchen while he was eating breakfast and laid two dead rats on the table, saying “Try eating these.” His mother, who he described as “emotionally frail” having suffered multiple nervous breakdowns, would burn him with cigarettes.

But the key incident, the one that left him with his fear — batophobia — came when he was about 7.

The family was at a vacation home on the Jersey Shore when his father, who was working in the garden, suddenly flew into a rage and screamed at Ossman that he was going to kill him.

He picked up a large shard of metal and threw it at Ossman like a spear, piercing his leg.

“If he had hit me higher, it would have killed me,” he said.

He fled into the house with his father close behind, swinging a belt at him as he ran.

The house, he said, abutted a property that contained a number of tall gasoline and oil tanks, but it wasn’t until many years later while undergoing hypnotherapy for his phobia, that he was able to make the connection between that event and his fear.

“At that moment, those images of the tall structures imprinted on me,” he said.

After years of hiding his fear, however, Ossman recently decided that he’s at a point in his life that he can freely talk about his fear.

He has become a board member of ProKids, a Cincinnati non-profit group that works with abused and neglected children with the intent of breaking the cycle of abuse.

He said that businessmen can freely go public and receive sympathy for a history of drug abuse, alcoholism and infidelity, but are more reticent to admit to having been abused.

“You don’t find a lot of business people talking about this,” he said. “But my career has been set and I don’t expect anyone to become retaliatory now, but when I was younger, it could have been a ticket to Siberia in the labor force.”

“The abused person becomes marginalized,” Ossman said.

He tells his stories to other business people, he said, to help enlist their aid and support for ProKids.

“That CEO and I look alike, we’ve achieved similar things,” he said. “So when I say I know what abuse is and lay it on the line, I’m much more difficult to dismiss.”

“I’ve talked to abused kids,” Ossman said, “and while I don’t relay my story in detail, what I do say to them is that your best revenge is make yourself successful.”

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