As a result of the ten year ACE study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control we now know the possible problems that can arise after being subjected to abuse or neglect, everything from physical and emotional problems to learning disabilities.
I have been working with men for the last eight years and I have witnessed the shame and hurt from their past abuse turn into rage. Men have been told from the time they understand language that to be a “real” man they must not cry, show their vulnerabilities, or ask for help. They must “Keep that Stiff Upper Lip”. The result of suppressing feelings for years and years, as well as keeping the secret of being sexually abused, is usually expressed as rage.
Men who have not dealt with their abuse issues are “Acting out” by using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, “acting out” sexually, (excessive masturbation, pornography, sexual encounters) gambling, domestic violence, child abuse, road rage, self harm, or “acting in”, depression, fear, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
Just as the effects of using drugs and alcohol at an early age arrests one’s emotional maturity, so does being sexually abused. When a young boy is sexually abused he has lost his ability to mature sexually in a ritualized way. First boys discover their own bodies; they learn what their body feels like, touching themselves and eventually discovering that their penis does more than just urinate. They learn when they touch their penis in a certain way it feels good and they learn about masturbation. As the boy gets older he has an experience with a partner, discovering their body and learning about what makes them feel good. Now imagine someone has robbed you of that experience and manipulated you into performing these rituals all at once and you are only eight or ten years old, way too young to even understand the feelings you are having or what this behavior means. So many men have no sexual education; they have no knowledge except from magazines or porn about how to make love to a partner, and the expectations they have from watching professional actors perform in porn movies leaves them questioning even more their own real life sexual experience. The experience never seems to match up to what they saw on the screen.
The first step in healing is speaking up and telling someone what happened, therapist, a counselor, a sponsor, a good friend. The first telling is very difficult for men to do but so freeing when they find out they are not alone. The statistics are staggering; one in three girls and one in four boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. Once men learn that other men out there have been through similar experiences they start to feel some relief.
Since most children blame themselves if something bad happens in their family; a divorce, abuse, poverty, drugs and alcohol, children are positive that whatever happened was as a result of their own shortcomings; not smart enough, not good looking enough, or not strong enough. Most male survivors feel such shame because they failed the litmus test of what a “real” man is. Real men are not abused, beaten, or witness the abuse of their siblings, “real” men fight back, protect themselves and those around them, and never shed a tear. This is what they have been told. This message is damaging to our men. When I hold up a size eight T shirt in front of a man and ask him to look at how big he really was when he was abused, it usually brings him to tears. How could an eight year old body defend himself against a grown man? The visual cue really helps to understand the disparity between the adult man and the little boy. Helping men get in touch with that little boy they once were and committing to be a good parent to him is so helpful in the healing process, to be able to understand what triggers their old wounds and fears and to know that these events are not happening in the present moment, but deeply seeded in their past.
Men can learn mindfulness exercises and learn how to regulate their emotions, bringing themselves back to the here- and- now and by learning re-parenting of that wounded little child they once were.
When my group of survivors and I began to speak at recovery centers offering workshops to male patients and staff, we had to fight an uphill battle, being told over and over again that men had to be sober a year before they could deal with these issues. What we found, working in the trenches, is that sixty-eight percent of men in recovery facilities are abuse survivors but never tell anyone. They get out of treatment, get triggered and relapse. Now, thankfully trauma work is a part of most facilities and we are invited in to offer our workshops. Watching men heal has been so rewarding, seeing smiling sober faces, having good relationships with partners and their children. There is Hope.
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