Why Everyone in Recovery Must be Trauma Informed: For Men's Sake(Part II)

We know that approximately 75% of those who enter treatment for addiction have experienced at least one kind of abuse. So why are we still not talking about it? And why are there so few addiction curricula out there that are truly trauma-informed?

I was recently invited to speak at an event in the same small Virginia town where I started my recovery journey and had the chance to be with some of the people with whom I first got sober 17 years ago. There were the guys I called the Fantastic Four: my first sponsor, my first best friend in sobriety, the man who taught me how to say “Hi” to other people, and the man who had what I wanted. And there were the incredible women—especially Mama T and all the adopted grandmas.

eyeThere were new stores, new restaurants, and new people in the recovery community. Still, it was surreal for me to be back there, because in many ways nothing had changed, and I felt like no time had passed since I’d walked down the streets, scared of the world and of taking the first steps of this amazing journey, building the foundation for becoming the man I am today.

Much has happened in those years. We have all grown in different ways. One of the guys—who had 10 years of sobriety when I was starting my first year—was someone I really admired. He was not much older than I was, and he had been sober since he was seventeen (I was 22 and he was 27.) He rode a Harley and was covered in tattoos. He looked confident, cool, and he loved recovery.

As we stopped on the sidewalk getting ready to cross the road, Charlie quietly said, “You know, I’m really glad you said something about that abuse stuff and how it has affected your relationships.” Charlie is one of those guys who wants everything recovery has to offer him and is just as strong after 27 years of sobriety as he has ever been. And he is incredibly humble—because he is constantly open to the lessons that life has to teach him.

Charlie then told me what the last several years had brought up for him in his recovery: past sexual abuse. This was the kind of sexual abuse that boys have been raised to think is not only NOT abuse but something to strive for, fantasize about: a female teacher being sexual with him. Never mind the fact that he was in the fifth grade. Now his second marriage was falling apart as he realized he had fallen in love with a woman who was drowning in her own horrific trauma history—and she was taking him down with her.

Without going into detail, Charlie said something extremely powerful about the effect of trauma: “I knew about it. I had talked about in previous fifth steps. I was meeting with a counselor just a year ago when the marriage was going to hell, and as I started talking about it I just erupted into tears and was sobbing the whole time. Then I would call other guys and talk to them about it and do the same thing.” Charlie’s body and spirit knew the impact of pre-adolescent sexual abuse, even if his mind did not. In his mind, those experiences were bragging rights. In his soul, they were killing him.

“Somebody has to talk about it, Dan. All of these men are dealing with something like that, and nobody is talking about it. I have been in recovery for 27 years. Twenty-seven f’in years, and I never heard guys talking about it.”

That was my experience, as well. And many men who have done trauma work have probably had very similar experiences: despite the incredible prevalence of abuse in men’s lives, very few people talk about it, and it is still rare to find an addiction curriculum that is truly trauma-informed.

We estimate that at least 75% of men and women coming into treatment for alcohol and other drug addiction have experienced at least one form of abuse. For men, we know that sexual abuse is underreported, particularly amongst boys and adolescents. We know the line between discipline and physical abuse in childhood is still undefined and unclear to many men. It is also my firm belief that in our society the process of becoming a man is inherently traumatic. And, because sexual confusion, violence and anger are so inextricably woven throughout men’s experience, it is no surprise that so many of us are perplexed about what is appropriate and not appropriate and that we struggle to find a refuge to share our most vulnerable pain. Without a safe place—a very safe place—men are not going to talk about our abuse. And if we don’t talk about it, it won’t stop.

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin, M.A., has worked in the mental health and addictions field for over a decade. He is author of A Man’s Way Through the Twelve Steps and co-author of the groundbreaking curriculum Helping Men Recover, which looks comprehensively and holistically at men’s needs and issues in recovery.

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