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Carol Teitelbaum, MFT Interviewed

Interview by Andrew Martin, MBA, CADC II, CA-CCS


Andrew: I have the distinct pleasure of speaking with Carol Teitelbaum, MFT and psychotherapist for individuals, couples, and families, and a psychodrama expert as well, with a private practice in Rancho Mirage, California. Thank you so much, Carol for joining us at Serene Scene Magazine today.

Carol: Thank you for having me.

Andrew: Well, I know you are a very busy woman. You have the Creative Change Conferences with its flagship the, It Happens To Boys Conference, which I had the pleasure of just attending. And you’ve got another one coming up pretty soon as well, don’t you?

Carol: In the spring, we’re going to have our 9th annual in Austin, Texas.

Andrew: Fantastic, they’re wonderful conferences. Well, why don’t you tell us about the focus?

Carol: The focus is sexual abuse happening to boys, because most people don’t realize that boys are sexually abused too. And they talk about the effects of the sexual abuse, and also the healing for men who have been sexually abused. So we have some expert speakers like John Bradshaw, John Lee, Robert Ackerman, among others.

We’ve had some of the top speakers, and we also have survivors who tell their stories and help other men speak up. So, we always ask survivors to come up to the stage if they’re willing to, and just recognize that they have been abused and that there is hope for them.

Andrew: Fantastic. Now, I want to focus on men who have been abused in this interview, if that’s all right with you. You’ve been working with this population for how long now?

Carol: I started my practice in 1985, and that was when one of my focuses was sexual abuse. Pretty much for males and females and then in 2003 or 4 I was on the District Attorney’s IT committee, which is the multiple interviewing treatment team. And I was representing the child abuse council, the child abuse council, and one of the emergency room physician said I know that there’s an under-reporting of boys coming through the emergency room, and I know that this is a big problem that nobody’s addressing.

So I took that back to our child abuse counseling and asked if we can take that on as a project, which they voted to do. And then one of my clients, Scott Smith, designed a poster for us, and it shows a little boy standing in a garage with his hands in front of his private area and just looking very sad with a tear flowing. And they decided to use that as a billboard, and that’s been up for the last nine years in the Coachella Valley, and it says it shouldn’t hurt to be a child, it happens to boys too. And from there I took it to a conference, and we’ve been having a yearly conference ever since.

Andrew: Well, let’s talk about working with these men who have been abused as children. It’s a difficult population to work with, right? What are the challenges that you face?

Carol: Well, when I was on the MDIT committee and I said I would take that on as a project, the MDIT committee was physicians, law enforcement, DA’s, some therapists, people from the Barbara Sinatra Center. So the law enforcement said to me well, how are we going to help these young boys speak up? And I said I don’t know, how am I going to help you speak up? And they pushed their chairs almost through the back wall because they got really nervous of having to disclose anything themselves.

So yes, it’s an uphill battle, but when we go on and speak, a lot of men come up to us afterward and say, that’s my story. And when new men come to our group, every time, they say I thought I was the only one this happened to.

So, what I’m finding is that the group process is, really, the most healing, because men hear other men who have gone through recovery for quite a long time, and they see that they have their life together, that they have relationships, that they’re happier. And they realize I can have this too.

But we tell them it’s very much like recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. You have to do it one day at a time.

Andrew: What is it, do you think, prevents men from seeking assistance? Is it the stigma around it? Is it machismo?

Carol: Actually, boy babies are more expressive of their feelings than girl babies are when they are first born. And it isn’t too long when boys start understanding language that they’re told to buck up, be a man, don’t cry, don’t be vulnerable, don’t ask for help, protect yourself, protect everyone around you. And then when they get older, they get the lovely privilege of going to die for their country.

So men haven’t had a very good legacy over our history, and when a boy is abused and he feels like he’s not a real man because he didn’t measure up to those requirements of what a real man is. And so, he can’t tell anyone because now they’re going to look at him like what’s wrong with him?

And men have told me that I feel like it’s my fault over and over again, I hear that all the time, and I go, how could it be your fault? Well, I should have been able to protect myself. And then I ask them how old they were, and they say they were five or six or four. And we have a project that we do with men in recovery. We have these little size eight shirts, and we ask them to paint themselves at eight, and so some of the images are really incredible. If you’re at the conference, you probably saw that. We had them up on the stage. We had people holding t-shirts. And some of them are very heartbreaking.

And actually, one of them has this idyllic setting and I said that, “this is so beautiful.” He said, “Yeah, but look close and the swing is broken.” He said sometimes what looks the best from the outside is often sickest on the inside. So, when we go out and speak, we hold one of these t-shirts up to the man who just said it was his fault and go, look how little you really were.

And they start cheering up because they never thought of it that way. When you think back as you were as a child, you see yourself as more capable and bigger than you really were and they kind of protecting themselves. And then for men, they feel like if I tell anyone, people are going to think I’m gay if they were abused by a man.

And if they are gay, then they’re going to say, people are going to think I wanted it. So they have such a double-edged sword, and it’s really difficult to talk about it and tell someone, and especially if the perpetrator is a member of their family. They’re afraid to break up their family.

If it’s the color of the community, they’re afraid nobody’s going to believe them. If they’re abused by a woman, then people give them a high five. They don’t have much empathy for boys who are abused by women. And women are abusers too. The percentage is much smaller, but it does happen.

We have many men who were abused by their babysitter, by mom’s friend, different situations. And that’s really painful when somebody says good for you, instead of saying my gosh, that’s horrible that happened to you. Men have had such a hard time dealing with this, but the problem for our society and for the men In general, and their partners and children is that suppressed in men turn into rage and then we have all those things that happen. The road rage, domestic violence, child abuse, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol use, arrest, probation, recovery. Think of the billions of dollars a year it costs our society for men who have not gotten treatment.

Andrew: There are some that are reading or listening to this interview and are wondering what is abuse? I mean it’s hard to get a handle on it sometimes. Many therapists do not understand the full depth of what abuse is and the forms and the shapes that it can take. So let’s talk about that.

Carol: Okay sexual abuse includes fondling and penetration, but not only that, it also includes showing a young child pornography. Having a child witness their mother or their father having sex with somebody they don’t know. It’s telling the child sexual stories. It’s having the child touch you, you touching the child, having the child touch someone else in an inappropriate way. Having them get undressed and staring at them, taking pictures of them. So it’s a big array of things that happen and the child is so confused because they don’t understand what’s happening to them. They don’t understand if it’s right, if it’s wrong. In fact, one of my clients, a female client, her father watched pornography. Ever since she was eighteen months old, it was on TV all the time. And what she didn’t realize is he was grooming her. So by the time she was five years old and he started abusing her, she thought it was normal because that’s what she always saw on TV. That’s what people did. So she didn’t realize until she was a teenager and she told someone and they got so upset about it, and that it was wrong. She didn’t even realize that.

Andrew: What is abuse for one person may not be abuse for another. Is that true?

Carol: That’s true because some people didn’t even realize that having someone touch them was abuse. They thought, well it’s not that big a deal.

And I’ve even heard, unfortunately, therapists say well men just get over it. And men don’t get over it. It really affects them. Especially for men, that’s different than women, because of that shame of not being a real man. Women feel like damaged goods when they’re abused, but they don’t ever feel like not real women. But men actually feel like they’re not real men anymore because they failed the test.

Andrew: Okay, so we have somebody sitting in our office and they have a history of abuse, and they don’t quite know how to approach it, how to work through it, how to deal with it. How do you approach this whole issue of abuse? And how do you start to guide them and lead them through the healing process?

Carol: The first thing I tell therapists and physicians all the time, is to ask the questions. So many male survivors had told us that they would have told someone, but nobody asked.

In fact, we were doing a workshop in LAP Conference, and that’s Labor Assistance Professionals, and when we were done one of the speakers and I were at lunch and the man came over to thank us for speaking. And he said he had been an EAP counselor for 20 years and he prayed everyday this wouldn’t walk into my office. And it didn’t. And I told him I’m really sorry to tell you this but it did. The statistics are one in three girls, and one in four boys are sexually abused by the time they’re 18. So there’s no possible way that didn’t walk in your office, it’s that you didn’t ask. And he felt horrible. I didn’t want to shame him but I wanted him to know that this is one of the problems. So many therapists don’t feel comfortable talking, number one, about sexuality and, number two, about asking about abuse. They’re hoping it won’t come up because they’re not comfortable with it.

So, somebody is in my office and on my intake form it says, your history, your personal history starting from childhood. Is there any trauma, is there any abuse, is there anything that I need to know that will help us do our work? And I just ask them that way, very matter of factly, it’s not a big deal, and most of them tell me, yeah, I was abused.

And there is also something that’s really important, too. It’s that early surgeries for children can mask the symptoms of abuse? We were speaking in a recovery center and a young man said it had been six therapists and every one of them told me I’m a sexual abuse survivor, but I can’t remember anything. And I happened to be talking that day, about early surgeries and when he was three years old, he had surgery for an un-extended testicle, and so it now hit him. He had a lot of body memories, a lot of fear, a lot of shame, and he was so relieved because he couldn’t remember it and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t remember it, and that’s what it was.

So it’s really important to get a really thorough history of early surgeries, of anything that happened. And I always ask if there were divorces, was there any domestic violence in your family. And then, once we’ve determined that there was abuse, then I have people do a timeline. So I draw them a timeline of their zero to five, five to ten, ten to 15, and I have them do it on a piece of butcher paper and just put it on the wall. So they don’t have to go in order because it’s kind of hard to remember going back from the beginning. So I just put it up there and for the next few weeks you’re just going to fill in whatever pops in your head. And once they start doing that more memories start to come up.

And, so we start off with that and find out what the trauma was and then start teaching them about dealing with the inner child part of them, the part that actually suffered that trauma. And, starting to create a good relationship between their external adult and their internal child. So that they can start re-parenting that child and help that child grow up. Because we don’t want a wounded child, running our life. And that what happens for so many of these men, that wounded child is just out in front and they get offended very easily, they get hurt very easily. And then they get hurt because it’s too hard, so expression turns to rage.

Andrew: You talked about body memory. That shows up in many traumas. How do you observe that in a patient that has abuse in their background, how does that come up?

Carol: A really skilled body worker can tell because people who have been abused have a posture where their pelvic area is tucked in and their buttocks area is out. So they stand that way because they’re protecting that area. And the muscles in their buttocks are really tight because they’re always holding themselves tight. And it’s a protective, they don’t even realize they’re doing it, but it’s a protective method of not letting anybody get close to them. So there’s things that show up in the body, there’s pain in the abdominal area, because that’s where we hold all the feelings.

So people who don’t deal well with their feelings usually get illnesses around that area of their body. Spastic colon colitis, irritable bowel, chronic constipation. All those things start happening because you’re holding on that in so tightly. And for men, they get a lot of pressure in their jaw, their jaw muscles are always twitching. So they’re holding their jaw, they’re clenching it.

Men have told me after a while that as things are starting to come up they get pain in their anal area.

Nothing’s happening, but they get a shooting pain through there. Or they get tightness in their buttocks. And so now they’re starting to realize this had to start somewhere. Where did that start from? And they start going backwards and understand that once they got abused, they started to hold themselves different.

Andrew: I can imagine that this type of abuse can really create some difficult symptoms within a relationship, in a couple’s relationship.

Carol: That’s one of the hardest issues because once you’re abused, it’s really hard. Then you have that secret you haven’t told anyone. It’s very difficult to have an intimate relationship because in an intimate relationship, someone wants to look in your eyes. And if you’re carrying a secret, you don’t want them to look in your eyes because you don’t want them to see what’s in there. So it’s a lot of push, pull, come here, go away. Somebody gets too close, they get really scared and nervous and push them away.

And even for a lot of men, they have sex in a legitimate way, and they feel guilty. And they feel dirty. And they roll over, and they feel like they don’t know what do. Or they get up and take a shower. They just can’t handle it. And it’s very sad because it really hurts a lot of relationships.

We tell people that you’ve had these defense mechanisms for so long, and it probably helped you as child, but it’s certainly not helping you now. It’s not helping you have a relationship.

And there’s a lot of pornography that’s happening, a lot masturbation and pornography as a way to relieve the sexual tension but not have to be close to someone. So that’s keeping several men, several thousand men away from an intimate relationship. Because they’re getting their needs met, but they’re not allowing someone to get close to them.

Andrew: You mentioned before that group therapy is a very effective modality to treat, particularly, men with abuse. Is it the same for women?

Carol: It’s the same for women, but women are used to being in a group. They’re used to playing together, talking to each other. And men are more used to going to a game and sitting side by side. But women grew up sitting face to face, playing with dolls, playing with things together. That’s how they are. But boys are side by side, and so it’s harder for them to be in a group. And a lot of groups formed years ago, and then men stopped coming because when it got too personal, it was too much for them.

And that’s why the nature of our particular group because some men have been there for the whole nine years. And they could see how they’ve changed. It was all new men every time, I don’t know that it would work. So in this particular, it’s like A.A., or any of the anonymous meetings. The old timers are the ones that help the newcomers because they can offer them hope and know that they can get better. And I think that’s the beauty of our group is that we have these men who’ve been there since the beginning of our group. And so when new men come in, they can tell them, this is what I’ve been through. This is how I did it, this is what helped me. And they understand that there is hope for them. One of the men in our group is 83, and he didn’t tell anybody until he was 65. That was when he started his journey. And so they could see it’s never too late to do this work and that you can become a happy person.

He was an alcoholic, he wasn’t close to his children. He was very successful in business which happens a lot with women in our group too. But a lot of times they sabotage it when they get too successful, because they don’t think that they deserve it. And that’s an issue too in a relationship. They don’t think that person could love them really. And they don’t deserve to have a good life. And then they sabotage it somehow.

Andrew: In conjunction with the group therapy then, is couples therapy also recommended when there’s a couple involved?