Author Archives: randy
Do you ever feel like people treat you in ways you don’t deserve? Maybe they act dismissive about what you have to say or tell you shouldn’t feel a certain way? Have you done work that you are proud of and either nobody seems to notice, or your boss ends up getting the credit for it?
I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling underappreciated lately. It’s an interesting turn of events because as a survivor I have spent the better part of my life not wanting to be noticed. For years I was totally comfortable letting others take credit for my ideas or work so that I could stay safely invisible.
Since I have come out as a survivor and shared my story, I think I am very proud of the work I do, but am I really? Last week in one day three different situations happened that I saw as disrespectful of me. First it made me feel bad about myself, and then it made me mad. What’s wrong with those people? Don’t they realize how hard I work?
And then I thought about the messages I give people, and all the ways I tell them, “it’s okay, don’t worry about me.” As I listed all the ways I give that message, I began to realize I’m actually telling people that I don’t count. Isn’t one of the main messages we learn as survivors is that our feelings are not important, or that other people count more than us?
Damn, I hate it when that finger I have pointed at “them” turns to face me. How can I possibly blame others for treating me the way I suggest they do? Let me be clear that I am not talking about the abuse we suffered. We are in no way responsible for that.
It is amazing how different it feels to “own” my part in how I am received by the world. I have spent the last few days communicating in a more confident way and following up with those I felt had been dismissive of me. It is not about being pushy or demanding, it’s a simple attitude that I matter, and it’s okay to express that. In one case it was “when you said x it hurt my feelings and here’s why.”
I want to take this one step further. When I was still in major denial about my abuse I worked for a man that I had little respect for. Guess who worked hard to contribute to his success and then never got any credit for their work? Yep, me. Now, guess who I blamed? Yep, him.
Now here’s the twist. I finally figured out I could not control anyone’s behavior but my own. I decided to “own” my part of the dysfunction. After no communication for 14 years I wrote him a letter and told him of my journey of healing and how bad I felt about treating him with total disrespect for the years I worked for him. I got back the most compassionate email I have ever received. We are actually becoming friends!
My message is this: The more we take responsibility for what happens around us the more satisfaction we find. If you don’t like what is going on in your world, do something about it. If you don’t like the way people treat you, tell them. We are truly the masters of our universe.
May the force grant you the courage to change the things you can. You will be amazed. I know I am.
Read more on Joyful Heart Foundation website.
–By Randy Ellison
We had friends over for dinner last week and they shared a story that made them slightly uncomfortable and sent me into apoplexy. They get together with their neighbors a few times a year for a potluck dinner and visit. At the latest gathering someone asked the group about their first kiss. This seemed to bring up some fond childhood memories for most of them and made for some shared laughs.
Next they asked about their first sexual experience. Evidently a few stumbled on this one since they were sitting next to their spouses and partners. Even though this is a subject most of us would not readily discuss, it seems to be a new “fun” game for oldsters to play at gatherings.
A little background on why I found this so disturbing. My therapist recounted a story for me in therapy one day. She was speaking at a sexual abuse awareness conference for faith communities and several of the attendees went out for refreshments at the end of the day. The group proceeded to ask a similar question that the neighbors had. “Where was your first sexual experience?” After a few of them had responded my therapist spoke up and told them she had a slightly different perspective. She shared that she had a client (me) whose first sexual experience was in his church, in his minister’s office. Mouths dropped open and people were rather shocked. Blown out of the water more like it.
None of those people had ever pictured anything like that before. But I’ll bet it does not surprise a lot of you, does it? It is real life experience for many of us as survivors that most people cannot even begin to picture. I’m sorry if that is your memory and I’m sorry it’s mine.
Last fall I was a speaker at a conference on sexual violence. My topic was “Why Boys Don’t Tell” about being victims of abuse. Although the talk was quite well received I did one thing that upset more than a few of the audience. In my desire to get people to understand some of the trauma that many of us have lived through I tried a little exercise. I ask everyone to close their eyes and picture the person they admired most as a child. I then asked them to picture that person performing sexual acts on them…… repeatedly…… over time.
I have no doubt that this was more than a little unfair and upset some of them enough to let me know in no uncertain terms on their evaluations. But my hope is that people begin to understand what it is like to live with those memories and that there are an estimated 20 million men and 30 million women who have similar childhood memories. Therapy goes a long way to heal these wounds. So does the understanding of our peers of what it means to live as a survivor and the effort and work it takes to heal from the trauma. I also hope that sharing stories like these helps pull back the blinds a little bit to shine a light on child sex abuse.
So next time you find yourself in a conversation about childhood sexual experiences, maybe it’s time to widen your lens. They are not all fond memories for everyone. And if you are a survivor, sharing your story in a safe environment goes a long way towards healing and understanding. May we each find the grace of sharing our pain in a healthy way and to be compassionate listeners.
“Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family. In 2008, Anna Woodiwiss, then 27, was working for a service organization in Afghanistan. On April 1, she went horseback riding and was thrown, dying from her injuries. In 2013, her younger sister Catherine, then 26, was biking to work from her home in Washington. She was hit by a car and her face was severely smashed up. She has endured and will continue to endure a series of operations. For a time, she breathed and ate through a tube, unable to speak. The recovery is slow,” writes David Brooks.
This article caught me eye because it was titled, “The Art of Presence” and being present has been the key to my personal recovery. I followed the article back to the original, “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma”, by Catherine Woodiwiss. Her wisdom on surviving trauma is awe-inspiring.
Her words remind me that trauma permanently changes us. There is no going back, so now we must choose what our lives will look like. It also reminds me that the best we can do for other trauma survivors is just to be there for them, hold them in love, so they can rebuild their lives.
Here are Catherine’s ten things.
1. Trauma permanently changes us.
2. Presence is always better than distance.
3. Healing is seasonal, not linear.
4. Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.
5. Grieving is social, and so is healing.
6. Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.
7. Allow those suffering to tell their own stories.
8. Love shows up in unexpected ways.
9. Whatever doesn’t kill you …
10. … Doesn’t kill you.
I love the perspective she shares that the first stop after trauma is that we lived through it. Some of us spend the rest of our lives surviving which is what I did until 5 years ago. Some of us, with determination and lots of support from loved ones and friends find new paths.
I invite you to read Catherine’s article in full to share her wisdom.
Why does it matter forty years later that my minister abused me? Well, for starters it had a huge impact on my life that affected what I did or didn’t do, and why. When we live in total denial of a major trauma that happened in childhood, our entire reality is distorted.
Before we share our story, all we can do is hold it inside our bodies. That means we carry it in our mind, stomach, liver, intestines and every cell in our body. And let’s not forget these stories of abuse have poison in them. As I have heard said, holding our tongue is like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die. But in reality we are holding the poison which becomes more toxic over time. Healing can only begin when we spit it out.
Because I had never spoken of what happened to me, every decision I made in life was in response to the trauma I suffered as a child. In theory I was a survivor, but as long as I held on to the toxic stress of child abuse, I was giving victim reactions to most all the input that came my way. It was not a choice I made, it was programmed into my brain to respond to people and situations as though they might be a threat to me. I was wary of everyone, quick to write people off and always on guard.
I just heard from a 71 year old man that said he hopes he has not waited too long to tell his story. It is never too late to tell your story and the person that it will matter to most is you! The person it mattered to most when I began therapy at age 57 was me. My quality of life had suffered immeasurably, and I was just plain tired. You have to want it or need it more than the perceived safety of keeping the secret and the pain (poison) locked inside.
I wanted more out of life than just living as a survivor. I wanted to feel again. I wanted to have a real live relationship with another human being. I wanted to be able to love and be loved, touch and be touched. All of these things sound so very basic and yet I gave them up in order to be able to keep my secret. To be honest, in my case it probably took a year before I realized how much others really meant to me and how much I had given up.
Finding some sense of justice mattered to me as well. Justice has a different meaning to every survivor. Reporting my abuser became important. The places he had been a minister needed to be notified so they could look for others that might have been victims and needed help. In the process the faith community became aware of what had happened in their building and had the opportunity to discuss what they could do to make sure it never happened again.
I think it is important to note that the church did not embrace my report with open arms. I had to persist over time to get their attention and support, but it did finally come. Without survivors telling their stories this would never happen. No one can be as passionate about child abuse as a survivor and it takes that passion to get peoples’ attention and eventually their understanding.
Telling my story has changed many more lives than my own. It has changed my relationship with my partner whom I have been married to for 42 years. It has changed how I am with my children and grandchildren. It has changed my church and my community.
Whether your story is at the beginning, middle or end, it matters because you matter! Telling your story matters more than you can ever imagine. Besides giving new life to you and those you love, it will give people you have never met the strength to share their story. The more we share our stories, the more we heal and the more our families and communities heal.
Imagine a world without child abuse and one filled with healthy adults. That’s how much it matters.
I’m one of those people whose desk has countless stacks of things I want to get to tomorrow, next week….or someday. There are also all the little objects that I need to put away or file. I guess it represents just how messy life can be and that we always have undone things in life. The other day my wife brought to my attention that it was getting out of control. As I began to clear away the rubble (think tornado), I saw this stack of “stuff” underneath a stack of papers. It is in fact exactly the picture you see here, except I admit I did move the wrenches so you could read the title of my book.
It got me thinking about life, healing and purpose. I tell people that healing is not a destination, but a journey. I realized this was a picture of life. So here is what I see and what it means to me. At the bottom is the book that is the story of facing life after years (decades) of dissociation. I lived it and then wrote it on paper, first for myself, and then to share with others. I am so glad to have a living record of that period in my life. I never want to forget those discoveries and how I felt about them at the time, and hopefully others find value in sharing that experience as well.
Next I see the wrenches. They remind me that we are never just “fixed”. Often we are either too tight or too loose and we need to be adjusted to find good balance. I will say that I am glad they are both ratchets to make the adjustments easier than a plain old box wrench.
Off to one side I noticed a gas canister for my obsolete Porter Cable Bammer finish nailer. I bought it before I owned a compressor for nail guns. At the time I figured it would be a good short cut to buying a compressor, hoses, and different guns and then hauling all of that around. I find two lessons here. First is that there are no short cuts in life that are lasting. On the other hand sometimes we need a little “push” or propellant to get to the next step.
The band-aid is pretty obviously for the cuts and scrapes we get along the way. Those little “owies” can come from a variety of places or people and are not real serious, but they bleed just the same.
The bottle there is a natural product called Rescue Remedy. Now here is a dang interesting thing for a survivor to have on his desk. It was created to deal with emergencies and crises. It can be used to help us get through any stressful or traumatic situations, like an exam, shock, a car accident or…. Just a drop or two on the tongue and it is supposed to calm you. I also think it is important to share that it is a type of healing that is outside my frame of reference, but one I learned from listening to my daughter. That is new behavior for this man!
The thumb drive, or memory stick was sitting a few inches away and I threw it in before I took the picture. The book represents my trauma and my initial recovery with that. The memory stick is more, much more. As I have traveled further on my path I find that opening earlier memories and cleaning the taint of abuse off them is now important to me. I want to be able to feel the joy of so many memories that were lost or buried beneath my abuse. I loved youth group and church camp at the coast. I loved youth choir. I met lots of wonderful people whose memories have been stored with that ick feeling. There were fun times that are shrouded with that all encompassing shame. I had jobs I was good at and worked with people I liked that are hidden in the fog. The abuse worked in my life like tentacles wrapping around everything, good and bad, and dragging them down.
I want to uncover it all and take ownership of what is rightfully mine. I want to be aware of how I really felt about my life experiences and not to confuse that with what he did to me. I am taking them back to feel the joys and sorrows, highs and lows of my life. I am reclaiming my history. I am reclaiming my life.
A lot of us look forward to the coming “Holidays”. It is a time to be with family and loved ones, share meals, catch up on what others are doing and reminiscing past times together. Some of the salads and side dishes are a bit over the top, but the turkey and pies are awesome. Some love the stuffing and cranberries, not me. Gawd, I’ve even seen some take bites of them together. Ugh. We get over-stuffed, some drink too much and stay up too late, and some tell the same stories every year. All in all, it is a good time for one or two days and by the grace of God we forget the irritating parts before we gather again next year.
This is not how the “Holidays” work for everyone. Some of us cannot forget things that happened in the past, nor should we. If you are a survivor of child sex abuse, seeing family may be difficult at best, and impossible at worst. If you are one of the thousands suffering from PTSD from your abuse, just coming out of your house on a holiday may not be an option.
As survivors, many things happen at holidays that can trigger us. So here is the simple message I want to share. Be careful and take care of yourself. Try to keep an ally, a friend or partner, who understands and will support you close at all times.
If you are not comfortable dealing with some people you know will be present, it’s really okay to just say, “I’m not coming, it just doesn’t work for me.” If you get there and you do not feel safe, then leave. I don’t know about you, but I find it is so easy to fall back into the “I’m not good enough” or shame mode, and just accept comments or actions that revictimize me. As survivors it seems that denial, or dissociation can work as a coping mechanism, but for many it is also be a place we like to think we have grown out of.
Is it really worth it to stand up for yourself and protect yourself from those that would revictimize or invalidate you? My answer is yes; it is worth it because it honors you and your truth. You are worth it! It is your voice that rings up to heavens. The universe is in tune to your cries. If we learn to love and take care of ourselves we really can find comfort in our own skin. Living your story not only changes you, it changes those around you.
So this holiday season I hope you intentionally choose places to go, and people to be with that love and support who you are and the journey you are on.
Go in peace.
A version of this blog was published on 1in6.org and Joyful Heart Foundation.org websites.
Probably the most rewarding aspect of being an advocate is hearing from other survivors who are starting their healing journey. I hurt for the difficult times I know they will have, but I also know the joy they will experience as they learn to like themselves and open their lives to other people. In the last week three male survivors have reached out to me. One was going to meet with his congressional representative to ask for a federal law on child sex abuse with no statute of limitations. The state laws just aren’t cutting it, according to him. He was angry and I understand that. The next two wrote about my book Boys Don’t Tell: Ending the Silence of Abuse. One man had just bought the book and had this to say:
“I have pushed this trauma away for so long, through addiction, self hatred, low self esteem, medicated for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, ADD, Panic and Anxiety disorders and so forth……I can’t have a healthy relationship and my trust issues are enormous and the list goes on. I am looking forward to finding hope and recovery that I so desperately need.”
The next letter came with greetings from the Philippines. It was from a man who said he lives in poverty and does not have the means to buy the book, but feels he needs it and will put it to good use if I will send him a copy.
“I have been looking for reading material on male sexual abuse. It is difficult to find here in the Philippines. I am religious seminarian training for Catholic priesthood.
I am interested in your area of expertise and wonderful advocacy in life not just because I am working toward a professional practice in psychology but more on a personal level. I am trying to understand myself more…I am beginning to find some connection.”
I always look for the circles and how they come together, and these three certainly overlap with pain, shame, anger, lack of understanding of self, and more pain, unbearable pain. These men’s lives do not just intersect because of what they endured as children; they are in a similar place because they are all reaching out for support as they start their healing. Every survivor I have met who is in recovery will go to extremes to help another on their journey. It’s kind of like we are all Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors; if you are hurting we are there for you, day or night.
One of the significant issues with male survivors is that we generally believe we are alone, the only one. In fact, most of us are alone because of the walls of protection we build around ourselves. I have used the phrase “I felt like I was tied in that chair, while he touched my skin.” I think a lot of us felt as though we were tied with ropes because we had no control over what was done to us.
What I find interesting is that some of us, myself included, have lived for years or decades as though those ropes were still there. It is only when the pain becomes too great, or we are triggered in some way that we first reach out to another human being to share our burden. It is at this point that the ropes begin to unwind and we can breathe for what to many of us, feels like the first deep breath we have taken since before the abuse started. And as the oxygen travels our bodies, the tears begin to well up as we release the hurt.
At church last Sunday they sang a beautiful song by Pat Humphries, “We Are One” about Korea and their country divided by war. It made me think of all the men who have survived being sexually abused as children, only to live a life alone behind our walls at war with ourselves and the world. So as you take that first breath of air, remember there are 19 million men in this country who, in some form, have had similar experiences. You are not alone, and those who will help and support your healing journey are many. We are here to bear witness to your pain and celebrate your recovery.
So I want you all to know that I truly believe that we are one. Brothers. Together we can and will overcome. And yes, a book is on its way to the Philippines.
I wrote this poem when I first began my healing journey. I wrote it on a plane on the way to see my daughter and tell her about what had happened to me as a child. As I thought about my relationship with her, I realized she really didn’t know me. For her whole life every time she got mad and judged me I just pulled back inside my walls where I wallowed in self-pity and self-loathing. I knew her disgust with me was well deserved and that feeling about myself became my norm. My life was mostly consumed by feeling bad about myself. I never knew it could be any different. I send this out to every person who has kept a secret that is eating up their lives and only dreams of a breath of fresh air and a ray of hope. There is hope, and I am living proof. If I can recover and heal, anyone can.
Secrets and Lies
What happens when we distort the truth
and store it in our mind as lies?
To protect it we construct smaller lies
and place them around it like a bunker.
If the lie is big enough we build walls
to protect it as well.
We try not to go there for fear that something will change
and the monsters will get out.
In our zeal for safety we keep others far away
in the hope they won’t notice our fortress.
The years pass and when we check on things
they look the same….. All Clear.
Change is gradual and we take no notice
of the increased weight of our burden.
We also miss seeing it when the wall gradually
encircles more than just our secret.
Life goes on and we are not aware of the pieces of ourselves
that are now behind the walls.
Given enough time our secret and it guardians
work their way to our center.
As the fortress inside us expands we lose more
and more of ourselves to its growing hunger.
Where our heart once beat is now a war zone
dominated by our defenses.
We hold up a cardboard cut out for the world to see
so they don’t notice our missing pieces and lies.
We can’t understand when friends and family
don’t recognize us or say we’ve changed.
The real surprise comes when we look in a mirror
and we don’t recognize ourselves.
Change is in the wind. This month has seen incredibly diverse news on sexual assault. As we grapple with the cultural change necessary to eliminate, or at least curb the rampant gender violence, progress is being made in some areas, side by side with continued ambivalence to the issue.
The first article that popped up was from ESPN News with more on the continuing saga of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State. Prosecutors convinced a judge that ex-President Graham Spanier, ex-Vice President Gary Shultz and ex-Athletic Director Tim Curly should stand trial. The three will be charged with perjury, obstruction, endangering the welfare of children, failure to report suspected abuse and conspiracy.
District Judge William Wenner called it “a tragic day for Penn State University.” From where I sit, it is a grand day for survivors and children. Isn’t it time we hold the secret keepers responsible for what is happening daily, hourly in our communities to children and vulnerable adults? Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
Continue Reading: 1in6/Joyful Heart
We had a local case of a 24 year-old assistant swim coach (who just happened to be the coach’s son) charged with rape and sexual abuse of a 14 year-old High School freshman over a period of months. As is often the case, when it was reported in the media, language was used that left the impression that somehow the victim (excuse me, alleged victim) might have been just as responsible as the offender.
The result is what we seem to see so often, victim blaming. “She wanted it. She came on to him. It’s her fault. She threw herself at him. He’s such a nice guy. Now she’s trying to ruin his life…” I wrote the following article about the damage that can be done with the words we use. They do in fact represent our attitudes.
“…children are never responsible for being abused in any form, no matter what the particular charges or circumstances are. There is always some type of manipulation on the part of offender to gain power and control over the child or adolescent. Our children need our support and protection- without exception.”
Read the full article here.