Silence To Hope

Male Sexual Abuse and the Silence to Hope Project

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Ten Stages of Recovery

BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE STAGES OF RECOVERY

This section was copied from the book: Rebuilding Your House of Self Respect: Men recovering in group from childhood sexual abuse 2nd edition (2008) by Tom Wilken.

Many men who were sexually victimized as children find themselves faced with a perplexing challenge as an adult. The skills they used as a child tend to be counter productive as an adult. The perils of silence became more painful than the risks of transforming and healing.

Outlining the stages of recovery can be a misleading message to someone who is looking for a systematic, definitive plan that specifically tells them what their journey will entail. Every individual's recovery process is unique; no two are identical. However, most journeys have commonalities. The ten stages of recovery outlined here may give you an overview of what some men have experienced in their pilgrimage towards wholeness. Healing is not linear; it is back and forth and all over the place, resembling an upwardly spiralling design moving towards a destination determined by the individual. It can also be like a spider web that has many connections travelling in differing directions. Each person has a different web and follows a different path. People can be in various stages, or dealing with several of them at the same time. A person can be at one stage in one aspect of their lives and at a completely different stage in other areas.

The stages outlined here can help people design their own plan, based on the experience of others. This model typifies the journey of most but not all men. This is a brief summary and these topics will be expanded upon later in this book.

Stage #1: Denial

It is not unusual for people to be trapped in this stage for many years after the physical nature of the abuse has ended. There are many good, valid reasons why denial exists and persists. Resurfacing "ghosts" from the past is not easy to deal with. Even though the mind suppressed these memories for a good reason, there is a cost involved with keeping unresolved issues away from conscious awareness. Denial, whether it is conscious or subconscious, takes up a lot of emotional energy. Men talk about stuffing or burying feelings through the overuse of alcohol, chemical substances, prescribed medications, and other addictions.

These men were concerned about their inability to trust anyone, including themselves. Control can become a key concern for many men. They often find themselves in one of two extremes: either they feel totally controlled by others, or they try to totally control themselves and everything around them.

Having a positive connection with themselves and others seems unattainable for many sexually abused men. Due to the lack of educational material and health programs available for male survivors, many men choose secrecy and isolation until life becomes unmanageable. Others stay in denial forever, choosing to live with the associated costs involved with keeping the "ghosts" from the past in the closet.

There is a big difference between privacy and denial. When someone is in denial they are not attending to concerns that are affecting their quality of life. However, everyone has the right to privacy and the choice of how they work through issues in their lives.

The single biggest concern that survivors express is the inability to connect with themselves and others. By staying in denial and creating a false self, they limit the healthy connection they so desperately desire. When men step out of denial and start to acknowledge how childhood sexual abuse has had an impact on their adult lives, they enter stage two.

Stage #2: Confused awareness

This is the point when men start to take an honest look at their lives. For years, they have tried to forget all uncomfortable memories without success.

Many men are jolted into disclosure for various reasons. When men are emotionally overloaded with feelings connected to a present event, it becomes much harder to keep feelings connected to the past at bay. It is not easy to face the past, but most people start this stage when overloaded with other concerns, and especially when seeing the connection between the pain from the past and the hurt in the present. Perhaps a marriage has failed or they are having difficulty relating to others. Maybe the perpetrator has passed away and they feel it is safer to speak. Addictions may be destroying connections with people or things they love. This new awareness puts them into shock as they experience anxiety, panic and fear. When beginning to deal with unwanted memories, people become confused, doubting their own perceptions.

There are a lot of inner negotiations going on at this stage, and some men wish they could just forget and move on. But once "the cat is out of the bag", it is much harder to stuff it back in. When people are emotionally overwhelmed, they either engage more heavily in old habits or make a decision to heal. A decision to heal brings men to the next stage.

Stage #3: Reaching out

Coming out of a fog is not easy when you are unsure what is on the other side. At this stage, men understand the abuse happened, but they also struggle with inner shame and embarrassment. Finding someone safe and supportive to tell their stories to is not an easy task. If people are fortunate enough to connect with someone supportive, a decrease of guilt and shame will result. Unfortunately, many men seek or get advice from someone who minimizes their pain and promotes an approach that puts men back into denial. One common damaging statement victims hear is "that happened a long time ago, so just forget about it." If it were that easy, they would have. Besides, they already tried that approach, and it did not work. Reaching out and telling their stories helps men define their core issues, along with identifying losses.

Once men step out of their "cocoon" and begin sorting through the feelings and emotions connected to the past, they often enter the next stage.

Stage #4: Defining masculinity

Most men would like to grieve from a purely intellectual perspective, but healing emotional wounds from the past means feelings must be processed and included. How men view masculinity will either hinder or enhance their journey. There are many myths surrounding being a man that are simply obstacles in the recovery path. If people feel that "real" men are not victims, then they often view themselves as not being "real" men.

This stage gives men an opportunity to become real. It allows a man to become a person who is free to explore a wide range of feelings and emotions. Vulnerability and reaching out for help can be viewed as masculine, as a strength and not a weakness. Often, this is when men start to realize the abusive situation was not their fault and they step into the next stage at full speed.

Stage #5: Anger

This is a stage of explosive feelings; it creates anger, rage, and a desire for justice. Disclosures and confrontations seem to preoccupy the thought process. Reaching this stage is a reason for celebration, but watch out for the fireworks. Group members talk of an intense, highly charged energy that can spark rage and vengeful thoughts. They are standing up to abuse and no longer want any part of the trauma bond that may be keeping them connected with the abuser. Anger is like gasoline. If used wisely, it will drive you to where you need to go. If used unwisely, it could blow up in your face.

Anger is an emotion that is essential to the healing process. People often confuse anger with behaviour, particularly when people respond to anger with violence. It is not anger that determines the healthiness of one's choices, it is the behaviour, or how one responds to anger, that determines if anger works for or against a person. Once someone works through their anger, they will enter the next challenging stage. Nobody wants to go there, but it is an integral part of the growth process.

Stage #6: Depression

When men speak out, they are in a process of intense growth. For this new growth to happen, they often give up portions of their "old-self." Behaviours that may have worked for them as children may hinder their quality of life as an adult. The coping skills that were once useful may be outdated and counter productive. Old patterns are not always healthy, but they are familiar, and a natural reaction to giving up old and familiar ways of living is depression. If depression helps people recognize the parts of their lives that need adjusting, then there can be a healthy component to this process.

This stage is a time of transformation and integration that brings all the parts of the person together. Throughout this stage, there seems to be a death of the old "self" and a birth of a newer, healthier self. Although this is an intense period of positive growth, it can be filled with feelings of helplessness, guilt, remorse, and despair. This stage includes grieving a loss that can leave someone feeling a great sense of emptiness and sadness.

Men in this stage often find themselves giving up a need for control. This is only a stage and it will help pave the way to a better place. This next stage can be an eye opener that will positively change people's lives forever.

Stage #7: Clarifying feelings and emotions

This stage is closely linked to the stage of depression. By gaining clarity to feelings and emotions, men are automatically working through other core issues that have plagued them for years. The more people process their feelings, the more they step out of depression. This is a wonderful, struggling, confusing, and insightful stage that helps men to come in contact with the hurt inner child they left behind. Grieving losses from the past helps facilitate learning that will help people grieve present day losses as they occur. Many men have not learned to acknowledge or identify the wide range of feelings and emotions that we all experience. This growing period usually requires help from someone outside their present environment, possibly individual counselling or a support group. Clarifying feelings and emotions is an integral part of the healing process, but it is especially useful when stepping out of depression and into the next stage.

Stage #8: Regrouping

Although all stages are important, this is the phase that entails a lot of hope. Regrouping is a transforming stage, where people start learning to trust appropriately, and most importantly, they learn to trust themselves. They are developing skills to assist them in getting their needs met in a healthy fashion. By taking responsibility for their lives they feel empowered, with enhanced feelings of self worth.

People have worked very hard to get to this point and are starting to like the new person they have become. They are learning to find their own voice. A voice that is able to speak their truth. In the previous stages, group members would characterize themselves as existing and not living. This stage is a time when the search for meaning is fuelled by a desire to live life. Many victims do not plan for a future because they never thought there would be one; others expected to die young. Regrouping includes putting joy into the journeys.

Redefining friendships leads to improved intimacy and love. Loneliness is converted into enjoying their own company and being comfortable with themselves. This great stage opens a person up to a new world full of opportunity.

The next stage is a process that many people are hesitant to talk about, but from my experience, when some people reach this point; their recovery seems to take off at a speed that can only be called miraculous.

Stage #9: Spirituality

As many people grow and mature through the stages, they get a sense of power within themselves that is also greater than them self. Some group members say it is like describing the indescribable. A sense of inner peace is connected to what can be viewed as "true reality." They talk about an emptiness lifting, and they feel they will never feel alone again. This spiritual connection is often viewed as unconditional love and acceptance.

Some men have concerns that others are more advanced in their spiritual beliefs than they are. Where people are spiritually, at any given point in time, is exactly where they should be. Spirituality is an individual, experiential journey that develops over time. It is a process, and as people work through their recovery, their views on spirituality often change. A person does not have to be spiritual to heal. RYHSR groups are based on the principle that people have the right to establish their own spirituality and beliefs.

Men often talk about the healing powers of forgiveness at this stage. People do not have to forgive the abuser in order to heal, but it is important to forgive yourself. For a more in-depth look at forgiveness, please read the chapter on spirituality.

People who have travelled this far have fought a long, strenuous, rewarding journey. Finally it is time to enter the last stage.

Stage #10: Moving on

This stage includes the rest of their lives. It would be unfair to think people become "home free" and will never feel vulnerable again. In fact, many men go back and refine some of the stages at some time in their lives. How someone views their abusive experience changes from a subjective experience to an objective experience. The thought process becomes more objective than subjective. They have memories that exist independently of painful feelings and emotions.

This stage is a much more comfortable place, which includes deep and lasting changes with a sense of stability. If people seek help to improve their connection with themselves, others, and the world they live in, then moving-on must include maintaining the connections they desire.

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