Written by Carol Teitelbaum, MFT
Reprinted from RECOVERY ILLUSTRATED MAGAZINE
Beginning a life of sobriety requires many changes in a person’s life. Often, a newcomer is asked to completely change their prior life, including their friendships, (those friends who continue to use drugs and alcohol) and the places they hang out. They are also told to go to meetings; ninety meetings in ninety days, to abstain from the use of drugs or alcohol, be willing to take direction, and make new and healthier choices. For many, this is a rather tall order.
What does this look like? What we know is that, as a child is developing, they are curious, playful, and silly, their soul is pure. When a child is sexually, verbally, or physically abused, they feel shame, lots of shame.
Every male survivor I have worked with has said, “I thought I was the only one this happened to. I thought I did something to cause it. It must be my fault. There must be something wrong with me.” This sense of shame comes from the perception of being weak, feeling they let someone take advantage of them because they weren’t strong enough to stop it. Shame makes them feel dirty, and disgusting. They don’t want anyone to look at them.
Where did they get that message? How does a child believe they cannot be weak or vulnerable? It comes from our society telling boys, from the time they understand language, to “buck up”, “be a man”, “don’t cry”, “don’t act like a sissy”, “don’t act like a girl.” Suffering in silence, these male survivors fall prey to feelings of depression, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and are ripe for addictive substances and behaviors.
Many survivors found themselves at the hands of a perpetrator and called out to God, “Don’t let this happen, make it stop, send someone to rescue me.” No one came, the deed was done, and the bell could not be unrung. The child, hurt, ashamed, sad, and terrified then wonders where God was when he was hurting. “Why did God abandon me?”
Many abuse survivors discover drugs or alcohol at a young age. After that first drink or drug enters their bodies, they no longer feel shame. It has disappeared. One can only imagine how difficult it is to give that up and, once again, be flooded with feelings of shame.
The abuse cycle repeats in the adult male; tension builds, they act out, then feel remorse, and promise to never do it again, then tension builds …. The stories told at AA and NA, are true, painful, funny; well, some not so much. We each want to believe our stories are unique, and that no one else could possibly know our pain. Then, we find out how much our stories are the same. Learning that others suffer similar pain is both a blessing and a curse; we find out we are not unique, but also find out we are not alone.
As sobriety increases, we find ourselves meeting a stranger in the mirror. Depending on the age of first use, awareness comes with increasing emotional immaturity. A grown man of forty-five could— emotionally-speaking—be at the level of a sixteen year old and is making the kinds of life decisions a teenager would make, then wondering how he got himself into such a mess. Emotionally, teenagers are not capable of running an adult’s life.
So many survivors never got to be children. From the time they were old enough to reach the stove or stand on a chair, many survivors were the surrogate parent for their siblings; they were latch-key kids with no one to supervise or help them. Feeling like a grown-up but acting like a child does not lead to a healthy lifestyle.
We all look to our past to find the missing puzzle pieces that make everything come together, for everything to make sense. Sometimes there is no sense and nothing that creates the “aha” moment.
“Come to meetings, trust, recite the serenity prayer, turn it over” sponsors say daily to countless sponsees, most of whom are saying, “What the hell does that mean?” Survivors who that feel God abandoned them in their hour of need say, “Hell, no, I’m not doing that again.” It is often quite difficult for a survivor to trust that there is a Higher Power, let alone turn their lives over.
Often, it takes drastic circumstances to convince them to finally surrender: illness, hospitalization, overdose, failed suicide attempt, loss of a loved one through separation or death, financial ruin, failed business, where there is nothing left, and nothing left to do. Finally, that moment comes, and they say, “I give in. I can’t do this alone anymore.” This time they mean it. They reach a moment when their normal beliefs might be suspended for a second or two and then the words are uttered. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”