Telling Your Story
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:
- Personal Strength (feeling personally stronger)
- Appreciation of life
- Relating to others in new ways (intimacy, compassion, showing up)
- New possibilities for life
- 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.
I was asked to write a short blog for Sojourners online magazine to honor Women’s History Month, making violence against women a memory. The work to end intimate violence is something that needs everyone’s attention. This type of violence is without question the number one public health problem in the world today.
In America, sexual and gender based violence counts its victims in the millions, its monetary costs in the billions of dollars, with outcomes of destroyed lives and questionable futures for countless survivors.
The time has finally come for people of faith to enter the movement and bring the power of their numbers to address all forms of intimate violence. It is time for the silent majority to hear the cries of survivors and stand together to say “enough.”
I was raised by a Norwegian Lutheran mother and the son of a Methodist minister, a WWII veteran who came home from the war an angry alcoholic. As the youngest of three children with little to no voice in my family, I was mostly raised by my mother and two older sisters. I never had a positive male role model. My fondest memory as a young child was sitting on the edge of my maternal grandmother’s rocker while she fed me peppermint lifesavers and read Bible stories to me.
As a young teen my mother insisted……….
Continue reading: Sojourners Magazine
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.
About eight years ago some friends invited my wife and I to go to an artist’s studio sale. I had never done anything like that before and I’ve got to admit I was intimidated. I was in awe walking through a husband and wife’s artist studio looking at paintings and clay sculptures they made with their own hands. People good enough to make a living selling what they made. Not only was the building filled with their artwork but they had built the building itself as well. It was a straw bale structure that looked and felt like a hobbits home.
As I was walking around looking at their amazing work I turned around and found myself staring into the face of a human bust with a ceramic funnel in his chest. It oozed painful emotion. The sign underneath it said, “Refilling the Empty Heart.” The price of $1300 was crossed out and it was marked $85. Somehow I did not believe that, and I was scared to ask for fear of looking stupid. No way that statue was only $85. I walked around the studio looking at interesting little pieces but I my mind kept walking over and looking at the Man. I whispered to my wife about how cool it was and she said just ask. I waited until no one else was around and I asked the woman about the statue. She told me her husband had made it as a self-portrait ten years earlier. It was a particularly low period in his life. The funnel had an original poem on it.
Then I asked the big question, “Is that price for real?” She said yes. She told me they had been hauling that 100 pound statue around to art shows for a decade and it never spoke to anyone. I told her it spoke to me and she said, “then we would be happy to have you take it home, but you have to carry it to your car on your own.” I really could not believe I bought it, but I was really happy about my great score.
I never gave one thought to what appealed to me about it. I took it home and put it on a bookcase. My family nicknamed the man George and the dog barked at it. It was probably two or three years later that I started counseling for the sexual abuse I suffered as a teenager. The deeper I delved into my abuse the lower my mood went. Then one day as I was coming out the other side of my depression I looked at that statue and I realized it was me. It was time to refill my empty heart.
I don’t know if you believe in karma or fate, but I don’t know what else to call going to an art sale for the first and only time, and walking out with a piece that would later come to represent my life. George is me, and I am George. So that is the story of this statue.
I hope that if you are on a healing path you will picture George and what he can mean to you. I allowed myself to be vulnerable the day I bought George, and again later in recovery to be able to begin refilling my heart. Is your heart empty? Are you willing to be vulnerable to refill it?
My friend Kelly Clark wrote and then spoke these words at the annual OAASIS Survivors Conference in Portland last month. Knowing Kelly as a person, I know how deeply he cares about survivors of Child Sex Abuse, but sometimes I forget how powerfully he can make his point. His career choice of being a litigator is well served by his skills and passion. Not only does he speak to revealing but also justice and what that can and cannot do for survivors.
“You Are Not Alone. We hear this a lot—it is one of OAASIS’ main sayings—but to me it actually means two quite different things, one historical and one prescriptive. The historical fact is that you are not alone in being an abuse survivor: whether because there were others abused by your abuser, or others abused in the same institution—church, youth group, school, or even family—you were not the only one, you are not alone in what you went through. I have certain books on child abuse recovery that I give to clients, and they say: “I feel like that writer has been following me around for the last 20 years, so completely did I read my own story in his book.” Yes. You are not alone. Others went through what you went through. There can be incredible solace in this. I’ve seen grown men shatter into tears of joy, sadness and release to realize that they were not the only ones it happened to. ”
So read these revealing words of experience so well said.
On a return trip from Portland recently I had coffee dates with two male survivors. They shared their stories of what happened to them as children at the hands of their parents. One man’s sexual abuse started at age four. It ended at age nineteen when, after a particularly brutal event (the last time he ever saw his father), he ended up in the hospital needing reconstructive surgery. He told me he thought it was easier for him to live with the memories because it was all he had ever known.
The other man was severely beaten by his father (and later his step-mother) starting at age ten and lasting until he left home. The dozens of attacks he described certainly qualified as felony assault, and at least one sounded like attempted murder. He described going from an honors student to a life filled with alcohol and drugs, crime and imprisonment over a fifteen-year period. At age 41 he has just started to put together what went wrong in his life and identifying that what was done to him as a child as the probable cause.
I spent a total of four hours with these two men that day. When I left that afternoon, I attempted to drive home, 400 miles away. I didn’t get very far and I had to get off the freeway for a couple hours to pull together the strength to keep going. What was happening was obvious, I had absorbed the pain and horrors that these two men had endured from their unimaginably brutal fathers.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe for a few days so I did my self-care and went to see my therapist and then my massage therapist. The therapist helped me process what I had heard from these men and the second hand trauma I was experiencing. The massage therapist helped move it out of my body.
I left the massage on Sunday morning 20 minutes before church was due to start and I knew there was no way I could pull myself together that fast. As the minutes ticked by I got the feeling I needed to hear the sermon, so I walked the two blocks to my church and got there just in time for the sermon. Low and behold the title was, “Sightless Among Miracles.” As the preacher begins, lights start going on in my head. Miracles huh? It comes to me that I’ve been holding on to the wrong end of this animal. Let go of the tail Randy and look it in the eyes. It will destroy anyone who tries to hold the pain of victims. We can listen to the stories, but we need to focus on the miracles that are happening and they are aplenty. It is a miracle to me that these men lived through the abuse to become survivors in the first place. It is a miracle that they have reached a point of being able to share their stories out loud (which most never do). And it’s a miracle to see the healing that is taking place in these vulnerable yet powerful people. By letting go of their secrets and shame they are transforming themselves and in turn the world around them.
It is an honor to be in the presence of these courageous men as they speak their truth. As each new survivor steps up to stand with these men, the secrets die, the healing thrives and we share a new journey together. When enough of us speak out, it will become society’s journey and that will become the ultimate miracle.
I want to share an amazing experience I had last week. I was invited to give a presentation to a small group of male survivors of child sexual abuse…….age 10-13. I was nervous at the prospect of sharing with young survivors. I wasn’t sure what to put together in the way of a presentation. I always plan, plan, plan, and then plan some more before I do a presentation (anal retentive I think they call it!). Well for the first time in my life it just didn’t seem appropriate to prepare in advance. I thought I would know what to say when the time came.
I happened to watch a TED presentation from Brené Brown on shame that day, which was really about vulnerability. She shared that vulnerability is not really weakness as we perceive, but is in fact strength. When we expose ourselves as flawed and are willing to show our vulnerablity, it is truly admirable and it opens the door for others to do the same. Well this is the theme I took to the boys. My entire preparation was based on a few words.
Not good enough
Me first (to heal we must)
I’ll let you put your own meaning to each of these words.
When I arrived I was informed that the boys did not generally talk about being victims in the group. It was more of a peer support group. I started by sharing that I was a survivor, by whom, when and how long. I went on to share what it did to my life by not dealing with it. I then told them about the amazing things that had happened since I began to tell my truth. We talked about the words above and what they meant to me and what they might mean to them.
By the end of the time at least three of the boys had shared personal experiences and feelings about what happened to them. One boy age 11 told me about being ridiculed by a teacher for stuttering. His classmates were even harsher. As a foster child how he cherished the times he was allowed to see his parents. Another boy age 12 told me he attempted to commit suicide by taking pills, but now he takes pills that help him get through the day. A third boy shared that he was abused the way I was and sometimes he has nightmares and wakes up scared in the middle of the night.
I wrapped it up with how lucky they were to have a group and a place like they were at to help them heal so they would not grow up with the problems I had. They had the opportunity to heal and become whole if they chose to and worked hard. I left with a broken heart for the pain these children are suffering, and praying that they will go on to live healthy lives with the help they are getting at a young age.
It was such an honor to spend time with these victims who are crying out to be heard, loved and understood. Any chance you may have to step in and become a mentor or Big Brother/ Big Sister to a child like these, you will find you are doing heaven’s work. It is amazing how a little time and effort can mend a broken soul. May you be as blessed as I was that evening.
I want to share a small personal story about speaking up. We talk about reporting suspected child abuse all the time. Penn State has made reporting, or not, front-page news. This story has nothing to do with child abuse or even kids.
I was in a car wreck leaving Portland last week. Traffic stopped on the freeway and so did I, but unfortunately the two cars behind me did not. They used my car as a bumper to stop themselves. I was a little shaken up, but not seriously hurt, nor was anyone else.
Our Honda came through with flying colors. It had less damage than either one of the other cars. Okay here comes the story: I took the car in to the dealer to get an estimate. They happened to be very busy on Friday afternoon so there was a bit of a wait. Fortunately they had a party earlier and there was leftover pizza on a table and I was starving so I helped myself. As I was eating my pizza and waiting for my name to be called, the receptionist was calling over the loud speaker that customers were waiting and please come to the office to help them. After about five minutes a women comes into the office from the shop and starts talking to the receptionist in an agitated voice. The receptionist tries to tell here about the customers and the estimator yells at the receptionist “ No, you just need to listen to me!” and then walked out of the room.
A few minutes later the receptionist calls my name and tell me that the screamer (my word not hers) will see me in few minutes. I said do you mean the woman that was just so rude to you? She looked surprised but tried to ignore my comment. I just said no thank you. I am not interested in doing business with people like that and I would try another time. She says are you sure and I said I’m positive and walked out.
An hour later I got a phone call at home from someone who I thought was the rude woman (I found out later it was the receptionist) and she apologized for what happened and asked me to please give them a second chance. If I would make an appointment for Monday morning she would see that I got right in and the manager would help me. I was so impressed that she called and actually asked for a second chance I said yes.
When I arrived I was thanked for coming back and the manager came right out to help me. That was when I discovered that it was not screamer that had called, but in fact her victim. The manager was very kind and told me he loved working there and was proud of their reputation. He said he would be dealing with the offender to see it never happened again. He told me he was glad for the opportunity to show me a different side than what I had seen on Friday.
We finished and as I went to leave he said that regardless of the business side of things he wanted me to know how much he appreciated me speaking up, because “it’s just the right thing to do.” I looked him in the eyes and saw they were a little red and watering.
Wow. I walked out of there feeling good about myself and my faith in humanity restored. An unpleasant encounter at a car dealer (of all places), and instead of just walking away, I said something. It must have empowered the person I said it to, so she did something about it. A victim had someone speak up for them. Someone asked for a second chance, and new behavior for me, I gave it. A supervisor got reminded of what’s important in life and a thoughtless person gets told it’s not okay to act that way.
Speak up; you might be surprised by the outcome. I was.
November 22, 2011: Randy Ellison Interviewed by Kim Guilfoyle @ FoxNews.com LIVE
How does the Penn State Scandal shed light on this topic?
Watch the video here.
I had coffee with a friend and fellow survivor of CSA today. We covered as many bases as we could get to in an hour and a half. One of the things that continues to amaze us both is that EVERY SINGLE TIME we speak before a group about our experience with abuse, someone comes up to us afterwards. They tell us their own secret, usually that they were abused as well and haven’t told anyone before. It is as though telling our truth and our willingness to be vulnerable opens the door for them. What a beautiful thing!
It makes me wonder if more of us were willing to bare our souls and share our pain, that it might actually help heal the world. Kind of funny how we all work so hard and expend so much energy trying to protect our secrets when, if we let them go, we would help others as well as ourselves. We also get the added bonus of becoming healthy in spirit and mind.
So what are you waiting for? Just because you haven’t gone to a meeting and heard a survivor speak, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak up on your own. Pick someone that you feel safest with in your life, a friend, partner, parent, sibling, or minister, but make it someone you have a relationship with, someone who can hold your pain and hurt with respect. Then share your truth. If you speak from your heart, you are never wrong. There is no advice needed, just listen and hold that space with you.
This is not an end, or solution to anyone’s problems, but rather a beginning. Once you have said the words out loud with a witness, the secret will lose its power over you. With that weight lifted you can seek whatever solutions make sense in your life. That may mean counseling, or a change in relationships or job, but it will open up all sorts of possibilities that were closed to you while you held tight to your secret and it held you.
For my friend and me there was no downside, because the shame of what we were holding was killing us.
Go ahead. Give it a try. I have something I want to tell you… Can we talk?
by Randy Ellison