It’s well documented in psychology that trauma gets stuck in the body/mind. We know from the neurobiological authority that trauma, if not adequately consolidated at the moment of conception, becomes indelible in the body and that left unresolved can have intractable effects on both the emotional and physical parts of us. The spiritual part of us as well is not overlooked, as, some believe trauma gets embedded on our soul DNA.
The Body Keeps the Score
Childhood trauma, shock and developmental, have the potential to have profound effects on us through the ages, showing up differently at different times. What it looks like may not even be obvious to its beginnings yet it is inherently interwoven. That is where therapy comes in.
Being able to connect the dots, that is, make connections between then and now allows us to see how our past steps into our present. It sanctions us to go back and tame the dragon, the part of us holding those ineffective intrusive parts of ourselves that would be worth shedding as they possess no intrinsic constructive value to our everyday life that is a vanguard to growth.
Sexual abuse is one illustration of that trauma, and sexual abuse in men is only one segment. And yes it occurs, to boys, over and over and over again. It is not rare nor uncommon. A prototype of this shows up with regularity in my office, with painfully held secrets, some of which are minimized and some of which the intensity pain is so great it’s unbearable. Nevertheless, there is one common theme that I do see . . when the narrative is produced and the pain is allowed to be present simultaneously, the healing is (in part) automatic. Surprisingly in men who have had little if any vocabulary for emotions, they now materialize.
While women are socialized to share, men are not and confession of their innermost secret, for some who have held it for upwards of 50 years, it is not where they neither intend nor desire to be yet it is where they repeatedly end up. Without the revelation the holding of the memory produces not only emotional and relational issues but physiological and physical pain, a laceration that radiates throughout.
I had the opportunity to work with Mike, a large burly tattooed clad man in his early 40’s. Tortured by his excessive masturbation, a pattern of frequency that exceeded his already high-baseline, he self-referred, with trepidation. Shortly into the therapy as the topic shifted from his present day behavior with his penis to his pain regarding a somewhat challenged relationship with his son, the product of a recent divorce, things shifted. As he recited both his internal and external struggle, things calmed down. Not coincidentally, with a heavy heart, he revealed that his son was the same age as he when he was abused for a short period by his then 12 year old brother, a memory that held not only pain but intense shame, guilt, anger and remorse.
Then there was Gabe, a middle age man with two young-adult children from his first somewhat unhappy marriage. As he approached therapy reluctantly he proceeded to talk about his recent acting out of his current, second, marriage, a place where he is much happier than he has ever been. Yet with his ultra-conservative Italian Catholic background he is perplexed with his actions and lies employed to shield them. His behaviors have not yet taken full form as he has only ‘flirted’ with the notion of being with others. As Gabe proceeds he shares that as a young boy he was repetitively used as a tool for his much older, post-pubescent, sister’s masturbation. There was no penetration and he was not asked to do anything specific to satisfy her. Telling of the secret is painful and it was no less painful for Gabe, who, in his repressed rage allowed the pain as well as the tears to flow.
Raymond held his secret in a secluded compartment for 50 years, a private underground segment disguised largely in his out-of-control sexual behavior, never changing despite his 15 year marriage, 2 kids, a house, successful career and twin dogs. Held under wraps inside this man born of two German parents , this classified information was made known one moment after 5 years in therapy, therapy that included couples therapy for his wife to work through the complex partner trauma and intermittent meetings with him alone (he sought treatment in the Midwest where his job took him weekdays, albeit infrequently), 2 disclosures (all dishonest with the third only to be thwarted by him adding more information to the already established package). With pain outpouring, he cited a now conscious awareness of a few incidents with his older brother, a prodigy who was favored by the parents, opening up a space to now create an honest account and narrative of his pain.
The stories are never ending as is the pain held within them.
With this, I am in no way inferring that with telling or re-telling of the event all will be cured yet the change is profound and an opening for deeper work. Insight is insufficient; one needs to get deep inside the network that holds the injury.
And understand that for these men mentioned above this is relatively nominal compared to other stories that are not so easily healed, those that involve ongoing abuse, anal sex, multiple perpetrators, drugs and the list goes on. With these the symptomatology is far worse and by the time they reach for help not only are they addicted to a substance and/or a process (sex, money, food/eating) but they are on so much prescription medication, that in its own right can cause psychiatric and other unwanted physical symptoms, that it’s challenging to untangle the web to find a place to begin. The effects of such trauma might include anxiety, OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, relational issues, challenges with intimacy, flashbacks, sexual difficulties, an inability to trust and connect and more. They become insulated from other.
For a while I worked with Albert, who was abused by the clergy of the Diocese of the Catholic Church; it was the clergy that subsidized his sessions directly to me. His experience was so unspeakable he was addicted to alcohol and pain killers, insufficient to camouflage the pain that lay concealed. He was stricken with bipolar disorder, intermittent psychoses and unrelenting depression as well as an inability to establish consistent intimacy and closeness in relationships. Making a dent in his pain wasn’t easy and time wasn’t on his side before he drifted yet again into psychosis. Each time I received the check from the Diocese I was disgusted.
Where Are the Words?
One of the greatest, if not the #1 challenge is the inability or difficulty for these men to use words to define their experience. Finding a voice for their wounds allows healing. Still, not all trauma survivors remember their incident that clearly and cannot report it as such and many become traumatized by the re-telling. In these cases one needs a safe holding space in order to proceed and skilled process consultant (aka therapist) to help work through the emotions as they emerge.
More Information . . .
There is some good information and statistics on male survivors of sexual abuse here.
A good reference to understand this is Richard Gartner’s Betrayed as Boys.
Although somewhat scrutinized, the practice guidelines for working with boys and men are here.