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Post Traumatic Growth

We’ve all heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It refers to changes in the brain and our functioning after an experience of extreme trauma. It can actually change our genes and the wiring of our brains. Military veterans and survivors of physical and sexual assault are common victims of PTSD. The new buzz phrase is “trauma informed treatment” for survivors of sexual and gender based violence. It is important to understand how trauma affects the brain to understand what the survivor is experiencing.

We also read things like the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) or a book like Scared Sick, by Robin Carr-Morse to learn what devastating health issues may befall survivors of child abuse. I know, I have experienced many of those outcomes! I have also had survivors get mad at me for sharing the ACE Study with them. I hear, “Thanks a lot asshole, now I know how miserable my life will continue to be.”

But there is more to surviving trauma than the negative ways it changes us. There can be very positive outcomes. I have recently become aware of a new field of study called Post Traumatic Growth, a name coined by two researchers from University of North Carolina, Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun. Now Jim Rendon explores their theories in the recent book Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.

Talk about a dichotomy; one is a painful disorder and the other an awakening, and they are both supposed outcomes of trauma. What the hell? As it turns out, scientists are finally discovering that people who put a lot of effort into healing from trauma often grow in surprising ways.

As we begin healing, most of us start from a place of hurt, anger and often despair. We know that severe trauma is held emotionally in our minds and has no language, so that when we first tell or write our story, it give us words to help understand what happened to us. That is where most survivors begin and every one I know tells me that just telling their story helps them heal.

That process of speaking, writing and going to counseling is exactly what results in Post Traumatic Growth in many people. The amount of introspection and rumination of one’s life while healing often changes how we see ourselves, and our place in the world. For me, I had to find a way to put meaning into my life after all the pain and dysfunction.

Dr Tedeschi compares a traumatic event to an earthquake that damages a building. The challenge is to see the opportunity presented by this seismic event. “In the aftermath of the earthquake, why not build something better? Don’t just live beneath the rubble (which many of us do!), don’t just build the same old building that you had before….”

He describes 5 factors of post traumatic growth:

  1. Personal Strength (feeling personally stronger)
  2. Appreciation of life
  3. Relating to others in new ways (intimacy, compassion, showing up)
  4. New possibilities for life
  5. Spiritual change or growth

I have often wondered why I find survivors to be such amazing people. Many either work for, or started organizations that exist to prevent abuse or support survivors. Now I see that it is an outcome of growth from their healing process. “With post-traumatic growth, a person who has faced difficult challenges doesn’t just return to baseline, which is what happens with resilience,” explains Tedeschi. “They change in fundamental, sometimes dramatic, ways.”

For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, it’s insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Cynthia Occelli

So to those of you out there who are just beginning your healing or wonder, “What comes next?”, think about the fact that often, new life comes because of the catastrophe, and it is not just course correction, but an entirely new direction.

Randy Ellison




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Sing Like No One Is Listening

I have written recently about hiding myself and my talents out of fear, which at least in part is a result of being abused as a teen. As I continue down the healing path new thoughts come to mind about my future, who I am and how I want to live the rest of my life.

When I started High School I signed up for choir. It turned out my teacher had produced award-winning choirs for over two decades. It also turned out that as much as I liked music, I was not the best of singers!

My mother, in her desire to help me, paid for private voice lessons for a year. I learned more about singing and breathing, but no matter how many opportunities were made available, singing was not one of my talents. I think the main problem was tone deafness!

Flash forward to today. At the church I attend there is a woman who has a beautiful soprano voice. As I listened to her sing a solo I couldn’t help but think she would have benefitted greatly from the singing instruction I had as a youth. The more I listened I realized there was not a thing wrong with her voice. It was confidence she lacked. She was tentative and reached for notes that she could easily get on top of. I had this urge to contact her and tell her to let loose when she sings. Let the notes come from deep inside. I longed to hear her full voice.

That led me to think how most of us hold back from our gifts. We aren’t sure of ourselves or we worry what others will think. There is a saying in healing circles, about people being uncomfortable in their own skin. What would my life look like if I used my talents with confidence? What would your life look like if you walked the earth confident and proud of what you are good at? Wow, can you imagine? I’m guessing it would be like getting around on a pair of roller skates.

As a survivor I can say that life has been a lot like being tied to stakes with little room for movement or freedom of choice. My talents have always had a closed lid on them. I use them when I work, but somehow I do not experience joy at my own successes. I rarely walk away from a job saying to myself, “that felt good.” There is a saying that goes like this:

Sing like no one is listening.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.
Dance like nobody’s watching,
and live like it’s heaven on earth.

In other words live life with abandon. So here is my challenge to myself and to you. Write down the things you think you are or might be good at and put a star by the ones on that list you enjoy and have fun doing. Now commit to doing those things more often and make time every day to do at least one of them.

There is a story in Matthew about talents. In that case it refers to money, but it applies to anything of value. We have a choice to bury them, as I did, or use them and watch them grow! We need to shut out our self judgment and reprogram ourselves to fully embrace our talents to give them light to breathe and grow. If it is true that the greatest obstacle to human growth and happiness is ourselves, why not move out of your own way?

I recently renewed my contractors license to help pay expenses. Last week I worked on a sewer pump for a woman. The job was dirty and smelly and it took several days to get it working right. And yes, the pump came on and shot sewage at me! When I told my friend what I was doing, her reaction was ick! I came back with how good I felt, because with my skills and patience I solved a problem this woman had worried about every day for five years.

How much richer our lives would be if we wore our talents like a new set of clothes. Watch me walk down the street in my beautiful coat of many colors, an outfit made entirely of me. And then I wake each day and put on the real me as I walk out the door. Here I am feeling good about myself. I can then see and appreciate you and me in a whole new light.

May it be so!

Randy Ellison

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Accuser vs. Victim

Apparently as a society we have devolved into a culture that labels our children that report being sexually assaulted “accusers”. How long will it take for the news media to quit using language to describe sexual assault that is totally dismissive of victims and supportive of offenders? It’s broadly known as victim blaming. Make it the victim’s fault and show what a great guy the offender is and always use language that softens the seriousness of the crime.

This week marked the conclusion of the trial of Owen Labrie in Concord, New Hampshire. He was accused of raping a fellow student when he was 18 and she was 15. Evidently at St. Paul’s Prep School there is a tradition called “Senior Salute” where senior boys try to take the virginity of freshman girls. Now if that is not predatory behavior I don’t know what is!

In reporting this story two CNN reporters, Aaron Cooper and Boris Sanchez labeled the 15 year old victim an accuser, not once, not twice, but six times! Virtually every time they spoke of her it was “the accuser.” I would like to ask Mr. Cooper, Mr. Sanchez, and the leadership at CNN News, at what point does someone become a victim in your minds? God forbid, but if your son or daughter were raped would you call them an accuser? Or would you hold and rock your baby as they cried away their fear and shame after surviving such a vile indignity?

The term of “accuser” used for a victim of sexual assault was brought into common usage in 2004 in the rape trial of Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant. His lawyers made sure that label was used in every article and interview when describing Bryant’s alleged victims. It was a defense tactic to put the victim of a crime in a bad light and to create doubt.

There is no other crime where the reporting alleged victim is referred to as an accuser. I find it quite curious that as a culture we work so hard to discredit victims of sexual violence above any other crime. As in the case of Kobe Bryant the victim was put on trial here. This 16 year old victim was on the stand for an entire day defending herself.

At the same time it is quite interesting to note how much energy is put into showing what great guys the accused offenders are. In this article, the now convicted perpetrator is quoted as saying “I tried to be as polite as possible.” Oh, and he always carried a condom, as if that is some kind of evidence he is not a sexual predator.

In fairness to CNN News I found the term accuser used to describe this 16 year old rape victim on NBC News,, NY Daily News, ABC News, The Washington Post and the NY Times. I’m sure there are many more. One would think the NY Times would know better after the reaction they got in 2011 for reporting that an 11 year old victim of gang rape in Texas by 18 men, “they said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.” And then as if the perpetrators were duped by the child they asked “how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”

After the jury’s verdict Friday, CNN’s Aaron Cooper and Boris Sanchez titled their article “Former prep school student acquitted of felony rape in split verdict.” As a point of fact, he was acquitted of felony rape. He was convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, using a computer to lure a minor for sex (a felony), and child endangerment. The only news source I found that used the words “convicted of sex charges” was ABC News. Every other news source I checked used the word “acquitted.”

If this situation is ever going to change, every one of us must speak up when we see reporting of sex crimes that minimizes the severity of the crime or attempts to blame the victim. When the victims are named accusers or descriptive words are used like affair, relationship, fondle, inappropriate touch etc. when referring to rape or child sex abuse, call the authors on it. We must change our system of victim blaming and it is up to you and me to see that happens.

Randy Ellison

The CNN article as it originally appeared has been edited and a few of the more blatant offensive lines have been removed. In the future I will print the original.

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Carrying the Weight

I wrote this article for 1in6 Thursday Blog series. A few days later I had an experience where I became aware that a national prevention agency (one that I work with) was commenting on the need for survivors to “forgive” the people that abused them. I had a pretty strong reaction to that. It almost seemed to border on a form of victim blaming. At the very least it is potentially shaming for survivors that do not forgive in a traditional sense (even the Bible describes several different types of forgiveness.)

What human has the right to tell a survivor of child sex abuse (that is often too horrific to imagine) that they should forgive? It is tantamount to forcing a pacifist to pick up a gun and kill someone. I believe that is entirely the choice of the survivor based on their own needs and beliefs. Our healing path is one of our own choosing and progresses at a pace and distance determined by survivors themselves.

In this blog post I share a story that illustrates a healthy version of “letting go” of the person that abused you. It does not necessarily include forgiveness, but it can. What it does do is allow the survivors to reclaim their own power. Read on and see what you think.

“Hope you’re well. I’m having some anxiety this morning so I thought I’d reach out to a friend. No specific questions – just looking for some support I guess.”

I got this email from a young man that reached out looking for support in his healing from severe abuse by his biological father. He was in that place of aloneness and feeling anxious without being able to identify the exact cause. And yet he was able say he was in pain and ask for someone to acknowledge it. Just knowing that others are willing to sit with you and hold that space can make all the difference in the world. This is for you A.H.

My solution to anxiety was to numb it with alcohol and drugs. It worked, but it did not change one thing, and 4 hours later I was right back where I started. The anxiety for me was my body telling me I was trying to carry too much. And carry I did, for 40 years!

My friend, each step you are taking right now is helping untangle the tentacles of his evil actions from your being. If you stay the course, over time you will feel less and less the way you do today. Check out this little Zen story on carrying the weight of others.

Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants who could not help her because they were holding her packages.

The younger monk, noticed the woman and walk on by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, carried her across the water, and set her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”*

It was only a couple of years ago I finally set down the man that abused me. It happened when I felt strong enough to be in a room with him (in a dream) without feeling his power OVER me. It was the power differential that kept me feeling weak and like a victim. I had to believe I was strong enough to not be intimidated anymore and that was after years of therapy and work. It took me using my adult skills to go back and deal with him as I am now and not as I was when the abuse occurred (a child).

For me, carrying the weight of the man that abused me kept a lid on my recovery. The reason being that we cannot change something that belongs to others, we can only change ourselves. So a key piece to a successful recovery is identifying what is yours and what belongs to the person that abused you and then set down that which belongs to him or her. What you have left are all things you can manage.

You are not alone A.H. We are but two of the 18 million men who have felt this way at one time and you honor other survivors to ask for support. Find strength in knowing others have walked this path and each found ways to deal with our past and not only overcome the pain, but been strengthened by living through it.

May it be so for you too.**

Randy Ellison

*Quoted from Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth

**Originally published

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Drugs Are Not the Cage That Holds Us

KintsugiI know about drugs and addiction. I went to Alateen meetings sometimes as a kid while my father attended his AA meetings. I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a teenager and after the abuse by my pastor started my use increased. By the time I was 18 I was getting high in some form every day.

So you can imagine this article title caught my eye, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.* In the article, author Johan Hari tells us about the studies on addiction we have all heard, rats have access to two bottles of liquid. One has just water and the other is laced with drugs. The studies show every time that given that option the rats will drink the drugs until they finally die. We think we observe the same thing in humans.

In the 1970’s a researcher by the name of Bruce Alexander noticed that in all of these rat studies, the rats were alone in their cages. He wondered what would happen if he modified the experiment to add community, so he built a “Rat Park that was a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want.” He then introduced the two-bottle option: one, pure water and one laced with drugs.

Guess what happened? They drank less that one-quarter the amount of drugs than the rats that were alone in a cage. AND none of them did so to the point of killing themselves. His conclusion was that happy rats with good social connections don’t get addicted to drugs.

Professor Alexander did not stop there. He repeated the experiment by first putting the rats in isolation, gave them drugs and got them addicted. He then took them out of isolation and put them in the fancy “Rat Park.” He watched them first go through withdrawal, then stop their heavy use and then return to a normal non-addicted life. His conclusion was that addictive drugs are not the problem, disconnection is.

I have studied addiction as well as lived with it most of my life. I know the science around addiction and inheriting the predisposition to addiction from our parents. There is lots of brain science to support our traditional thinking around alcohol and drug abuse.

Now I would like to use myself as an example. I lived with my secret of being sexually abused by my pastor for 40 years. You can probably guess that I also used drugs for all 14,600 days of my painful secret keeping. Rarely did a day pass that I did not get high in some fashion.

I began using drugs less as I finally began therapy and addressed what had happened to me as a teen. After I began living my life differently and began having human connections again I stopped entirely. IT HAS NOT HAPPEN OVERNIGHT. At first it was on and off, but as I got healthier and really began having relationships with other adults, I no longer needed to go hide in my solitude.

I share this story not necessarily to challenge traditional thinking around addiction. I share it to show fellow survivors who have had similar issues with drugs and alcohol that there is an alternative that is not framed around addiction. Our cage was build by the abuse we suffered, not the drugs, so if we want out, we must deal with the abuse.

It took me forty years to figure out what is explained in this article. Hopefully others can read this and figure out there is a better world available whenever they are able to address the true cause of their pain.

May it be so for you.

Randy Ellison

This article was first published @

*The Huffington Post Blogs 1/20/15 by Johan Hari

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We are once again in the season that elicits feelings of excitement for some, dread for others and both for some of us. I have recently explored keeping healthier boundaries in place that allow for room to breathe and reciprocity.

Boundaries, what exactly does that word mean? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits. Personal boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people.”

As a survivor of sexual violation over time by my minister, I learned different boundaries than most kids. Being victimized taught me if you want to use me, that’s okay, I have very little value anyway. After getting away from my abusive situation I put up some very thick walls that looked remarkably like a fort. I learned if I keep people completely away, then I can be safe. I was also willing to fight and destroy anyone who challenged my walls or me.

Those walls were my boundaries and in my mind, they made me safe. Cross them at your own risk! The problem for me and many other survivors is that those are not “normal boundaries” and therefore no one else knows where they are until they bump up against them. I must say this has made long-term relationships difficult at best. After I blow up, people often wonder “What was that about?” or “What did I do?” or “I wonder what’s wrong with him?”

The boundaries that my pastor/mentor/abuser broke were replaced with trauma-informed defenses. If you were going to be around me in my younger years you better get used to short limits and intolerance on my part……………………………..

Read the rest at Joyful Heart Foundation.

Happy Holidays!

Randy Ellison

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Widening the Lens

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.

Randy Ellison

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Scientists Declare Pedophilia is Natural Orientation

The Wonderful and Wacky World of Science just got a lot less wonderful and a whole lot more wacky: Pedophilia is a sexual orientation. Really? So according to this article in the LA Times, now pedophilia should stand beside heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual etc. as the way we are born. I am pretty sure I will end up regretting writing this article, but I just have to. I am so consumed by protecting kids, children who are precious and undeveloped humans that I cannot just ignore this.

I have read and been told for years that many child molesters are just wired wrong. Their treatment is, in part, to teach them that it is not okay to rape or molest children (they obviously don’t see it that way). I have also read that more often than not, child molestation or adult rape for that matter is not about sex, but power and control. Are these people born with a gene for those issues?

Now I can see a young adult in their late teens or early twenties having an affectionate attraction to someone in their early or mid teens. Hell, I can even imagine an older adult meeting a teenager and going “wow”. And then their next thought is, I wish I were 20 years younger. But here we are talking about an adult being attracted or in love with a pre-teen. Like we are talking 8-9- 10 years old? And we are going to call that a natural orientation like there is something normal about it?

I’m sorry, but I believe nature is beautiful and it always seeks balance. If one species becomes too plentiful a predator or disease shows up to put things back in balance. Left alone nature will even clean up the pollution caused by humans. My simple mind can see absolutely nothing balanced about an adult being sexually aroused by a child. It is out of order.

The article talks about a man who molested his pre-pubescent stepdaughter and the day before sentencing he landed in the hospital where they discovered a brain tumor. They removed the tumor and no more molesting. A year later he began fixating on children again and they discovered the tumor was growing again. Alright, this I can grasp. There is a serious problem in the brain and you do something you would not normally do. But to use that as proof of this being normal biological development I cannot handle.

I understand there is an organization called the North American Man/Boy Love Association, NAMBLA, who desires laws change to legally allow men to “have sex” with boys. I don’t think so. Can you say rape? In this country our laws state that a child is undeveloped and not responsible for their actions and therefore cannot consent to a legally binding contract, or consent to sex. Nada, no way. Anybody else see self-interest and smell a great big pile of dung?

As much as I cannot imagine it, I want to say that I empathize with individuals, who I’m sure exist, who for one reason or another find themselves turned on by a child. Just don’t put it off as something natural and compare it to healthy sexuality. Each of us is attracted to certain traits or looks in others; male, female, trans, light, dark, big, small whatever. I don’t know if we are born with these predispositions or if we develop them over time. But I do know these are natural differences that at least on the surface are healthy and promote balance.

Everybody should have the opportunity to love and partner with another human being by mutual consent. Just don’t tell me you want to bond with a child and it’s okay, you were born that way. I really don’t want to hear it.

Randy Ellison

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Maintaining a Relationship With One’s Rapist

I am reposting this article I first published over a year ago. It was written by someone I know only as Benny who posted this on a site called Rape is Never Justified. It has brought more comments from people in similar circumstances who just have no guide in navigating the complexities of having feelings for someone who could rape you. As a result this will be the subject of my next post. May all of you who are struggling with this issue find some small solace in that fact that you are far from alone! rse

Maintaining a Relationship With One’s Rapist

by Benny – RNJ Peer Advocate on Monday, September 19, 2011 at 6:17pm

In my last blog, I shared my story with you all and so this week I feel more confident in talking about maintaining a relationship with one’s rapist. In my case, my rapist was my boyfriend and so I continued my relationship with him, for quite some time actually. As odd as this may seem to certain people, it does happen pretty frequently. There are plenty of cases (85% of rapes) where the perpetrator is a boyfriend, or a date, or any version of an acquaintance and so there is some relationship established already. So after such an awful, traumatic experience, why would anyone choose to continue the relationship with the perpetrator? Many reasons actually.


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Spider-Man :: Tips On Ways to Prevent Sexual Abuse

It amazed me to see this 1984 comic book dealing with male child sexual abuse. I didn’t know the secret was even out then! How impressive that Marvel comics were so far ahead of the curve. Congratulations to them and Spiderman. Now if we could get this story line into one of the popular movies, how great would that be?

Thanks to advocate and friend Vicki Polin for first saving the comic book, and then sharing it. It is really quite something to read and see two stories, one with a babysitter as the abuser and the other an older boy, with both victims being male (one was Spidey before he had super powers!).

Read and be amazed, 1984 Spiderman, by Marvel Comics.

by Randy Ellison

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