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The hidden reality of men's trauma

August 24, 2015
by Dan Griffin
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I was 12 years into my own personal recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction when someone finally helped to put all of the pieces together of why recovery, up until that time, had felt like such a struggle. I had improved my diet significantly, added regular exercise and a discipline of meditation, increased attention to my personal recovery discipline, and experienced much better sleep. Now, most people didn’t know it was a struggle—including me. It was simply my reality, but I knew that it didn’t have to be as hard as it was at the time.

The analogy I used came from the Lord of the Rings during the Battle for Helm's Deep. No matter how hard I fought, no matter how many times I was able to fight off the demons and the attack of the forces that seemingly wanted to destroy me, they just kept coming—line after line. Recovery, ultimately, felt more like a fight than freedom. That was not what I had been led to believe, or even had a glimpse of when I first started the journey. The different diagnoses I had been given, the ongoing challenges with rage and depression, and the deep wound of feeling unlovable were finally put into another context: trauma. Suddenly my whole experience of the world changed. Actually, it was transformed! Nothing was as it once had been.

My experiences of trauma were hidden from me, my family, and many of the professionals whose services I sought out to help me. The reason I share this part of my story is because in the years since I started that journey that has deeply affected both my personal and professional life, I have come to learn that there are legions of men for whom this story resonates. It is such a sad and unnecessary story of suffering that has led to so many men with addictions losing their marriages, finding themselves in various programs for dealing with abusiveness, relapsing, developing other addictions, and even ending their lives. That is assuming they were not kicked out of treatment or left their first recovery support meetings because they weren’t able to navigate the intensity of the experience. When recovery support meetings are safe, they are wonderful places of healing. When those rooms are not safe, they simply reinforce people’s traumas.

In my work I talk about “The Water,” the reality in which we are all immersed but of which we are often unaware. The term refers to a parable of the two fish at the bottom of the ocean when another fish swims up and says, “How is the water?” and then swims off. The two fish look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?” That is how gender, in particular, shows up in our lives. That is how gender has shown up in the addictions and mental health fields for decades. And most of us don’t see The Water because we’re in it. Once you begin to see it, you see it everywhere and you begin to appreciate how incredibly deep it runs.




Addiction and Men's Trauma

Thank you for opening the door to a significant feature of the addiction/recovery reality that has typically been closed to men. We know so much these days about the complexity of addiction. Researchers now study addiction as a brain disease, professionals can outline the specific life-style choices that contribute to living successfully in recovery, and those who identify themselves as "anonymous" (though never secret!) profoundly witness the need for belonging with others who are also "talking the talk, and walking the walk"

Here, you shine a light on something very important. While myriad programs and methods have been developed to assist men in the journey to sobriety, most rehabs and support systems function as problem solvers (we have the answers and we can tell you what you must do).

What is ultimately needed though, are agents of transformation—systems, processes, and mentors who can meet a man in his deep "woundedness," help him to identify his wound, and then provide direction and guidance so that a Light of Healing can shine on that wound (Carl Jung). Then, and only then, can the wound become a "sacred" wound, where a broken man can finally embrace healthy adult manhood. Ultimately, he is prepared to mentor others on the journey to healing.

Your metaphor of "The Water" is brilliant. I also use parable, myth, story, and metaphor in my work as a recovery specialist and psychotherapist (i.e., "soul healing"). For example, in the Hebrew story of Jonah and the "big fish," we can identify with a self-directed man who has descended into the drowning waters and is lost, his life out of control, as he ends up in the belly of the whale.

However, transformation happens inwardly by a reality that is external, and Jonah (recovered) comes out of the water and onto the shore, solid ground, where he is now profoundly changed. He sees that he is no longer alone and that the world is a benevolent place. And though "powerless," he can acknowledge that there is a greater Power that can do what he (we) alone can never do. He has learned that something within must die, and once you have experienced that "dying," you are now ready to live the Truth of who you are. In this is his initiation into manhood, and his transformation includes the changing of his bleeding wound into a sacred wound that heals.

Sharing our stories at meetings is so very therapeutic because we learn about trust because others have the courage to show us their scars. In turn, we find the courage to trust, by revealing our scars as well.


Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin, MA, is an internationally recognized author and thought leader on...

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