For many men, past traumas help them to understand their problems with addiction and violence—even in recovery.
Most of the men I’ve talked to over the years in the journey through recovery can identify some point in their lives when they realized it was not okay to express certain feelings or behaviors, especially if those feelings showed weakness, vulnerability or sensitivity. Crying above all was strictly discouraged.
They also learned—sometimes through everyday interactions with other men but frequently because of abuse or traumatic experiences—that the only appropriate way to express things like fear, hurt, rejection, or sadness was through the conduit of anger and violence.
One of the most powerful breakthroughs in addiction treatment is our growing understanding of trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines an event as traumatic when both of the following are present: “(1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and (2) the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.”
Mental health practitioners now understand that one of the distinguishing factors with trauma is not the event itself as much as an individual’s response to the event. It’s very important to understand that if you’ve had a traumatic experience and still suffer from it, this does not mean you’re weak, sick, or that you are in any way at fault. When the serious effects of trauma go untreated, men in recovery—even long-term recovery—find that they struggle with relapse, isolate themselves from others and their communities, abuse loved ones, destroy their marriages, and act out in ways that damage themselves and others.
An alcoholic man in this place, for example, can work the Twelve Steps rigorously, but the emotional, physical, and psychological fallout of untreated trauma will keep him stuck in the pain, confusion, depression, anger, and hopelessness of addictive and unhealthy behaviors. Those around him might see him as a “dry drunk,” even though he has been technically sober for years.
Of course, men are rarely encouraged to talk about their experiences of abuse or trauma, and our culture seems very confused about what is acceptable behavior both from and toward boys and men. One notable exception to this norm produced an amazing cultural breakthrough regarding men’s experience of trauma. It started with Tyler Perry talking about his own sexual abuse and culminated in November 2010 when Oprah aired an episode focusing on men’s needs. Two hundred men came forward with sexual abuse they had experienced. Even more powerful, their loved ones heard these stories—many for the first time—and were then interviewed for the show.
Only recently have we started to make the connection between the violence and abuse perpetrated on boys and men, how men are raised in this society, and the violence men commit. Every man I spoke with during the writing of my book, A Man’s Way Through the Twelve Steps, had experienced some kind of emotional or verbal abuse, and many talked about physical abuse as well. A small percentage of men also admitted having been sexually abused. The silence that many men feel forced to keep around these traumatic experiences causes a great deal of pain and, not surprisingly, often becomes a factor in their addictive behaviors down the line.
Knowing that abuse, trauma and violence against boys and men are so strongly linked with addiction—and knowing, if left untreated, that the aftermath of these experiences can cause undeniable psychological, emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual destruction—doesn’t it seem not only logical but necessary to create addiction treatment curricula that are trauma-informed?
Care providers, like myself, should be obligated to acknowledge the powerful role that trauma plays in men’s identity, addiction and recovery. We should offer help and healing opportunities not just for the addictive behavior on the surface, but for the untold pain, grief, violence and fear that underlie and feed it.
I am in the process of writing a series of articles dedicated to the topic of men’s experiences with violence and how a trauma-informed curriculum can address their unique needs in recovery. My hope is that you will join this conversation, share your stories, and help get the word out about this important issue.