Healing from sexual abuse is very much like healing from any kind of trauma or abuse; it happens one day at a time.
A PR person cold-called me a few months ago, offering to help me get grants to continue the work we do, and asked me to describe what it was. I proceeded to tell him the scope of our program – offering free groups for men who were sexually abused as children. He paused, and I could hear him swallow. He said, ”well, that is not a very popular subject, and I think we will have trouble getting grant money for that.” I realized that if the program were about abused pets, we would have a lot of interest and help, but abused boys, not so much.
Eight years ago, I woke up with a message in my head to create/run a program for men who had been sexually abused as children. Although I knew how busy I was, the feeling would not leave me. So I began imagining what might work.
I organized the First Annual Adults Healing from Child Abuse: It Happens to Boys Conference in March of 2009. Scott Smith, an artist I knew, had shown me the potential of healing through art. One of his paintings said it all; a little boy standing in the garage with the door open, looking downward, his hand folded in front of his body. I got Scott’s permission to use the painting to raise awareness about the issue and the conference. The local Prevent Child Abuse Council agreed to fund a billboard using the image, which has been up ever since. It says: “Child Abuse – It Happens to Boys. It Shouldn’t Hurt To Be a Child.”
Through that first conference, we reached out to the community to help educate parents, teachers, young victims, adult survivors and partners of survivors. Robert Ackerman, co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, was one of our first speakers; as well as Jerry Moe, the National Director of Children’s Programs at the Betty Ford Center, who has been gracious enough to be with us at every year since then.
Recognizing how helpful it would be if we could put a real face to the issue, I also contacted other therapists and my clients who were survivors to see who would be interested. Four men spoke for the first time at that conference. We went on to form the It Happens to Boys program, which has presented at numerous community events and participated in workshops, trainings and subsequent conferences and has provided a safe forum for men to share their stories, learn about healing tools and resources, as well as do experiential work. We’ve been gratified to find that many men have come forward to get the help they need.
With a few successful conferences under our belt, I got braver and started calling on some nationally-known speakers to join our conference family. Dave Pelzer, author of A Child Called It, John Lee, author of The Flying Boy, John Bradshaw, Patrick Carnes, Claudia Black, David Whyte, Judy Crane and others joined in. We are going strong, gradually overcoming the barriers to men getting the help they need.
The 8th Annual “It Happens to Boys” conference will be held March 5 in Long Beach, CA.
Initially, the It Happens to Boys program found that many recovery centers did not want us to come and present workshops for their male patients. We were repeatedly told that a man has to have a year of sobriety before they can deal with these types of issues. Through the experience of the men in my group and the many other men they’ve supported, we’ve come to understand that this is not actually the case, and can even be dangerous to believe.
Being in the trenches, we’d met many men who had been through recovery programs and
Never told anyone about their abuse
Might have mentioned it, but never sought—or given—any additional support or resources about it, or
Wrote about it in their 4th step but again, never accessed resources specifically on healing from their abuse
We learned that men often got triggered by something in the environment and relapsed. Sadly, we saw this happen over and over again. Thankfully, trauma work is a big part of most recovery centers’ treatment plans today. Now, we get invited to come and speak—and men can hear that there are resources, and other men like them, that can help them heal and find hope. I never give up about spreading this message.
Still, like the PR specialist mentioned, people’s defenses make them reluctant to hear about sexual abuse of boys, talk about it or learn about it. Even after the publication of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, highlighting the lifelong increased risk for a host of social, behavioral and health problems resulting from childhood trauma, the larger public is in denial about the long-lasting effects of sexual abuse. Though we still face an uphill battle, we’re making progress.
We watch new men come to our group for the first time, feeling so much fear. Then they hear the other men’s stories, and feel for the first time, they are not alone. They often share they thought they were the only one this happened to. After sharing their story that first time, and having a list of phone numbers they can call, relief begins. We’ve found that healing from sexual abuse is very much like healing from any kind of trauma or abuse: it happens one day at a time.
By Carol Teitelbaum, MFT
Carol Teitelbaum is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Education, Educational Psychology, Counseling and Guidance, both from Cal State Northridge. Carol has been a licensed therapist since 1985. Since 1999, she has been in private practice in Rancho Mirage, CA, where she offers individual and group counseling for trauma, mood disorders, anxiety reduction, stress reduction, grief and marriage issues.
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