When Russell Stagg counsels sexual abuse survivors, they often tell him they feel he understands them. Their hunch about the therapist and author is well-founded. He has taken a full-circle life journey from a boy who suffered childhood abuse to a senior citizen who helps the abused find healing.“I was molested by my mother from the age of about four-and-a-half until I was nine,” Stagg shared in an interview with the Western Standard.“Like most survivors, I ended up struggling with addictions. And I've had PTSD for most of my life, just incredibly low self esteem for a lot of my life, a sense of being damaged and unlovable. Those are all really typical of survivors of sexual violence.”Stagg was born in the UK and raised in Toronto. His journey of recovery began with a book written in 1990 by psychotherapist Steven Farmer.“Until I was in my mid 30s, I had this sense that something was really, really terribly wrong, and I had no idea what it was. And one day I was in a bookstore, and I saw a book, Adult Children of Abusive Parents. And I bought this book and I felt terribly guilty. It's like, ‘This is ridiculous. Why am I doing this?’” he recalled.“One evening, I took the book out and started reading. I just got as far as the first sentence: ‘Like you, I was abused as a child.’ And I lost it; I totally lost it. I started crying harder than I had ever cried in my life, and I cried all night long. And I just cried for months.”“I got into therapy, started realizing that what was going on with me wasn't something terribly wrong with me. It was what was done to me.”Stagg said his experience is surprisingly common and that abuse stories that make the news are only “the tip of the iceberg.”“Males experience sexual violence at almost the same rate that females do. In most cases, they have female perpetrators and a third of sexual abuse of boys is perpetrated by mothers,” he said.“I don't really think things are getting better. Most of it's going on behind closed doors at home, or houses of friends. Most sexual violence occurs with family, a lot of friends of family.”Following studies in Pennsylvania, Stagg became a Jewish chaplain at the University of Calgary and the city’s Foothills Hospital. His experience drew him to psychotherapy studies and a Master’s in Counselling from Athabasca University. He had a counselling practice in Ladysmith, BC, followed by another in London, ON. Now in his senior years, Stagg lives in St. John, New Brunswick and counsels people online in English Canada, the UK and Australia.The motivations of sexual abusers seem hard for most people to understand. From Stagg’s perspective just like haters gotta hate, abusers gotta abuse.“They will abuse any way they can. I think of my mother, she really went out of her way to try to put me down. She wasn't physical, although, you know, in many cases, there is physical abuse, as well as sexual,” Stagg explained.“Molesters are simply abusers and children are a very easy target. Child molesters, you can spot them because they're always crossing boundaries. They can't help it. They like to abuse.”Many of Stagg’s clients approach him for therapy not knowing what has fed their thoughts and feelings.“Typically people have a sense that there's something very wrong and it can take years or decades before they start processing what's happening. I deal with people with addictions quite a bit. In many cases, I have people who've overcome addictions, but they're still dealing with PTSD,” he said.“I will say something like, ‘I have the sense this feeling goes way back.’ And sometimes I have gotten a really extreme reaction when I said that.”Stagg said many people who haven’t processed the abuse they suffered revisit their wounds when they are the victims of people or circumstances.“A lot of people don't even recognize what's happening. I'll have people saying to me, ‘I just wish I didn't overreact all the time.’ Some little thing happens and they blow up,” he said.“In the moment it feels in the very depths of your soul that you are a worthless and unlovable person. And you try and argue with that feeling, but it's just such a strong feeling that you can't overcome it.”Stagg gets clients to notice they were “triggered” and asks them how they felt.“Almost always people say, ‘I feel small.’ They're actually really living feelings from when they were abused and they don't even realize it,” he said.“For instance, somebody had an overdraft at the bank and it was just devastating for them. They couldn't understand why. They just went in and put some money in; it was fixed in no time.”“I said, ‘What was going through your head when you had all these feelings?’“And they said, ‘Well, I thought I'd done something wrong.’"“I said, ‘Okay, when you were abused, what was going through your head?’"“‘I felt that I was doing something wrong.’"“And I said, ‘Can you see that you're actually reliving the feelings from your past?’"“And this is what PTSD is. It's like a time machine. Something happens in the present, it may be something totally trivial, but it's a trigger that sends you back, and you're reliving feelings from the past. And the number one cause of PTSD is sexual violence.”Stagg said many of his clients have “very fragmented” memories of their abuse and some only “have a sense that they were abused.”“If they have a really clear memory of what happened, they probably don't have PTSD. PTSD is like there are parts of you that are still back there in the abuse,” he said.“The reason you're getting triggered is you're believing something that isn't true. You're believing something from the past. And the most common thing that people tell me is, ‘I'm worthless. I'm unlovable.’ And something happens that makes them feel worthless or unlovable and they're right back again.”In therapy, Stagg asks clients whether it was true at that time that they were worthless and unlovable. They answer no.“Then I'll say, ‘Okay, so people did things to you that made you think those things about yourself. Why are you doing that to yourself now?’"“And what they start to realize is that they, just by their thinking, are still giving themselves a false message. So, as we work on that, they're less and less likely to get triggered.”Stagg said his approach aligns with cognitive behavioural therapy. He encourages clients that there is continual progress, when they sometimes feel they’re suffering setbacks.“When you're healing from abuse, sometimes you're in the middle of a desert, and sometimes desert can bloom. You're left in this wasteland when you uncover all this stuff. And you're dealing with PTSD and maybe with addictions and all these things, but you can recover and then you're fine. And then maybe some more memories come up…but you deal with it, and you move forward again,” he said.“Sometimes it's slow, but I have seen people make stunning progress. Basically it's slow and steady. Your mind has gotten into some very bad habits and it's about changing those habits.”Stagg encourages people that healing from PTSD cannot be done alone because it’s “tremendously difficult.” He usually has 50-minute sessions because of the “hard work” involved. Weekly sessions give way to biweekly, to monthly to bimonthly, to occasional check-ins as people recover.“We really have to work on those tools, but once people have them, my work is pretty much done. They know what to do. But getting to that point, that's the really hard part.”The counsellor said his studying and clinical practice suggest most perpetrators were not abused themselves, nor do most of the abused become abusers. He has not had one client he felt would abuse either.“I've had clients who dealt with feelings of wondering if they wanted to abuse,” Stagg said.“What was really happening was they were remembering things that had happened to them, and they'd been kind of forced, as children, just to remember the pleasant thing about it. And as we dealt in therapy with all the terrible grief and everything that went with it, it healed them.”When clients asked Stagg for a good book for male victims of sexual abuse, he knew of none. In June, he released his own, entitled, One in Six: A Man's Guide to Overcoming Childhood Sexual Abuse. The 210-page book has a five-star rating on Amazon and the Clarion Review.Stagg said it is important for the abused to respect their personal boundaries and ensure their perpetrators don’t harm others if they are a current risk. Letting go of bitterness is also necessary for recovery.“You're staying awake at night, thinking about the perpetrator and all the things you'd like to do. That is only hurting you,” he said.“Get to the point where you don't expect anything of the perpetrator. You don't expect the perpetrator ever to repent. It’s highly unlikely that's ever going to happen. You don't expect to get a whole bunch of money from them or whatever. You're giving up the expectation of ever getting anything from them.”Stagg began his counselling practice in 2013, a work he says he would not have been ready for in younger years. In some ways the healing journey is lifelong, though people can usually get to a good place after many months.“I don't know that I've ever had a client that I could say, ‘Oh, you'll never get triggered again.’ But what typically happens, after a year or two, they'll get back in touch with me and recognize how much progress they've made.“I basically give people the tools to deal with past trauma. And it takes a lot of working together before they can get to the stage where they can basically do it themselves.”Stagg can be reached via his website Russelltherapy.ca or on this page. He talks about sexual violence in this video.