If there is one message I truly wish to impart to anyone who has been reading this series, it is this: you can heal from the effects of trauma, even devastating trauma, and there is hope for you and/or the person you love. And so, it is important that we do all we can to recognize the effect of trauma on our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
The topic of men and trauma has been under-discussed and even ignored for far too long. Too often we have heard about men’s natural proclivity for aggression and violence as though we are automatons powerless against the testosterone coursing through our bodies. While there is obviously some biological truth to that idea, we would be fooling ourselves to think that is the whole story.
To summarize these four articles, the questions that need to be addressed are:
· How do we talk about men’s violence and their experience of trauma in a meaningful way?
· What do we need to do to have a positive effect on men changing their violent and abusive behavior?
· How can we help men see their own pain and suffering, and then create places where they can feel safe enough to talk about these things?
The truth is, you absolutely cannot talk about men’s violence without talking about men’s trauma. To even attempt to do so is irresponsible. Yet, there has been an underlying philosophy in how we have assessed and treated men, a cynical judgment borne of resignation and ignorance coming from both men and women that shrugs its shoulders and says, “That’s just how men are”. And men’s voices have been too quiet—or even absent—from these conversations. Out of guilt, apathy, ignorance, entitlement and arrogance, we have contributed to a picture that is woefully incomplete—at best it is two hands on the proverbial elephant.
We now know based upon brain imaging techniques what many people have understood intuitively: that trauma literally gets locked in our brains and in our bodies. We have many tools available to us to treat that process, whether it is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or using yoga or music therapy to help people get into their bodies and out of their heads. One of the breakthroughs in the field of trauma is a fundamental shift in our approach to those who have suffered, and that is moving from a place of asking accusingly, “What’s wrong with you?” to a place of asking compassionately, “What happened to you?” This is a shift that we should incorporate into our everyday lives and interactions.
There is no question that this is a difficult topic to address. It can be very scary for men to talk about abuse and trauma; most of us will not even use the word “fear,” certainly not at first. As I have been saying for years: it is hard for us as men to talk about trauma without feeling as though we are somehow compromising our masculinity. Keeping all of our pain tucked away deep inside, many of us go through this world acting as tornadoes in others’ lives, leaving a path of destruction everywhere we go. Our tendency as men is to externalize the effects of the trauma—which, simply stated, means we act out those effects with other people often directly in our line of fire.
Then, perhaps worst of all, people react to our behavior and we can only see the injustice of our behavior not what we have done to help cause it. One of the hardest aspects of trauma is that you literally feel crazy—like Jekyll and Hyde or as if you have been possessed by some demon exhibiting behaviors and committing acts that horrify you and cause great personal shame. There are those men who experience childhood trauma and they grow up not to be abusers but abused—by their partners, male and female! There is a small group of men and women helping to increase our society’s awareness of men who are abused. That group of men coming forward are very courageous and have talked about the incredible shame and denial they have felt as a result of experiencing abuse in their most intimate relationships, especially from women.
Do you think you might be living with untreated trauma? If so, here are some questions taken directly from pages 233-234 of my book, A Man’s Way through the Twelve Steps, the first trauma-informed book for men in recovery from all addictions, that can help you find an answer:
• Do you yell at other people or put them down in mean and hurtful ways?
• Do you find yourself mistreating your partner and sometimes feeling as if you are possessed or two different people?
• When you feel close to someone, do you often find yourself shutting down or becoming full of rage toward him or her?
• Do you mock your partner or become very uncomfortable when he or she cries or expresses vulnerability?
• When you feel sad or hurt, do you often turn to anger or rage or isolate in depression?
• Do you overreact to conflict with extreme engagement or avoidance?
• Are you easily startled?
• Do you find yourself struggling with violent thoughts on a regular basis?
• Do you push others away with sarcasm, ridicule, or abuse when they are getting too close?
• Do you push away people you love and care about by using anger to protect yourself from being hurt?
• Do you have visions or fantasies of hurting those you love?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should consider getting professional help if only to explore any questions you have or to get more information. If you think you may be suffering from the effects of trauma, go see a professional who is trained in treating trauma.
Sometimes the damage is painfully obvious and sometimes it is subtle, hidden, and insidious—living behind the doors of suburban homes on golf courses. Behind the painted-on public smiles of families struggling to keep it together. In the menacing sneer of the criminal—the last one for whom you want to feel compassion—who made a decision when crying himself to sleep one more time, that he would never be hurt again. Or the man who finds it impossible to remain in a relationship and is afraid he is going to spend the rest of his life alone. Or the young bully beating the shit out of the boy he is sure is gay. The list goes on, ad infinitum. I have no doubt that most of the violence, aggression, and rage we see in this world comes from unrecognized and untreated trauma. That violence is unacceptable and inexcusable, but it won’t end until we see it clearly and address it with both compassion and accountability.
Part of what happens with trauma is that we write a story—or narrative in therapeutic parlance —about ourselves, and we live in that story as if it were true. We forget that we made it up. We forget that we can change the story at any time. In fact, a core part of trauma therapy is the reframing of the narrative. Of course, you can rewrite it all you want, but there is deeper work to be done. For me , it required gut-wrenching, curled-in-a-ball, give-anything-to-have-this demon-exorcised emotional work. As the saying goes: There is no way out but through. There is certainly nothing fair about it all. The sooner you let go of that idea of life needing to be fair, the easier it will be for you to find peace through all of the rubbish, all of those distorted beliefs and behavior patterns.
By doing the personal work, I have been able to put all of my past experiences into perspective and have been freed to create a new narrative for my life. I can acknowledge that much of my upbringing was far from healthy, safe or loving. I can also say honestly that I understand today that my parents did the best they could, and that so much—if not all—of their behavior was never personal. I was often caught in the line of fire but rarely ever the actual target. I can also feel immense gratitude for the path my life has taken— especially after having spent the past week working with prisoners sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. (But for the Grace of God there go I.) I have even been able to find fleeting moments of gratitude for all the pain I have experienced in my life because it has made me the man I am today. My narrative has changed dramatically, especially in the past seven years. Again, you cannot will this to happen—you have to dig down deep, grab the strongest hands you can find to help you, and do the work. Over and over. But it is worth it. There is no way out but through and on the other end is a life you cannot even imagine. You will know a new freedom and a new peace.
I have been getting a lot of people thanking me for writing these articles and speaking openly about these issues. I hope it generates a lot more men writing about the topic from as many perspectives as possible. This is where we have to start: by eradicating the stigma of men talking about abuse, while making sure we also connect it to men’s violence and acknowledging when we have been perpetrators of abuse. In addition to Tyler Perry and the Oprah “200 Men” show, Sugar Ray Leonard may have done as much in that vein with his recent autobiography. More male voices are starting to break the silence. If you are fortunate—or determined enough—you will find the love and support you need. Nothing kills more men than the foolish belief that we have to do everything on our own, though sadly we come by it very honestly. That mentality permeates so much of our experience. You will find your own path to healing, but not if you do not look for it and take the first steps. The most important advice I can give is to take the journey; you will never regret it, though there could very well be times when you are in such pain you wonder if it is worth it. I can say without hesitation that it is, and it will always be. That is a Promise.
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