How Gender-Informed Treatment Helps Men Recover from Trauma
Rob Rodriguez, the latest addition to the Marc Hertz therapeutic team, has been involved in facilitating trauma-specific healing for men struggling to overcome trauma brought about by troubling childhood experiences. Tyler Reitzner, director of marketing and outreach, discusses with Rob the importance of gender-informed modalities in treating substance use disorders and behavioral health issues.
Tyler: We’re excited about our new partnership with Griffin Recovery Enterprises and are looking forward to exploring their expertise regarding gender-informed treatment in future blog posts. But first, I wanted to talk with a member of our team about why this is important. Can you start by talking about why you’ve gotten involved in facilitating trauma-informed recovery experiences for men?
Rob: I’m currently engaged in a meaningful discussion with a couple colleagues about whether men and women really experience emotions and trauma differently. If you observe behavioral health groups with men ranging from severely ill to high functioning as participants, you will often see the same ranges of emotions as in women’s groups. Men and women seem to experience the same levels of dissociation, depersonalization, and engage in similar defenses and adopted strategies for coping. There are subtle differences between women and men in how they are expressed. It’s been my experience that when men feel uncomfortable, they often use jocularity, crass humor or different ranges of defiance or resistance. It is important for me as a clinician to correctly interpret their chosen strategies in order to help them. Men face many barriers in accepting that they need help, and we may unwittingly contribute to their barriers by wrongly interpreting their behavior.
Tyler: So it’s really about getting men in the door. Once they’re in the room, then the real work can begin.
Rob: Right. To me it’s not enough to talk about being trauma-informed and about ways to treat men with trauma. We have to talk about how we get men to the table. Women who have been traumatized seem to often be quicker to name the trauma and recognize that they need help to recover. A man may have more difficulty. He may say “Yeah, my dad beat me with a stick, but I deserved it, I screwed up.” He may in turn use the same form of punishment on his children. Generational and societal changes now tell him that this behavior is abusive. He may struggle to consolidate this new knowledge without internalizing a deep sense of shame. In fact, one of the biggest barriers to recovery for men is the shame they feel when they review past behaviors, especially actions they’ve taken while under the influence of chemicals. Our focus should be in helping men see that their behaviors are adaptive, not necessarily maladaptive. They adapted to what was in front of them, doing the best they knew how at the moment. I view humanity really simply: people avoid pain and seek comfort. I want to be safe, I don’t want to hurt. Everything is based on that for me. I want to get from point A to point B with the tools I was given employing the strategies I was trained in. If the tools provided me were “men don’t cry, solve your own problems and don’t ask for help,” those are the tools I’m going to use. It would be very hard for me to show emotions, admit I am wounded, and ask for help.
Tyler: What are some of the beliefs that can keep men from seeking help?
Rob: A lot of this has to do with men rejecting the concept of trauma. Trauma, to most men, is a feminized word. Many men can’t see themselves as men if they admit they are traumatized. As helpers, we may contribute to this dynamic by engaging in polarized arguments about women and men. I find these troubling. My hope is that eventually we’re going to get to a more centralized and inclusive discussion of these gender constructs and how they get in the way of men healing.
Tyler: Can you give me an example of how gender constructs can be barriers in the therapeutic setting?
Rob: While co-authoring a trauma recovery curriculum for men, I submitted a draft for feedback to multiple women and men for review. The facilitator guide portion mentioned a suggestion to have plants and flowers in the room, and have soft music playing as the men came in. “Do you think you should have plants and flowers in the group room? And soft music? Do men really like that?” some asked. Others asked “Should you use the word décor to describe the room? Will men like that?” I replied that we need to stop protecting men from feminine words. My idea was to have them come into a gentle and nurturing environment. I remember one group I led, I would have Healing Rajas music playing before the group, and this one big construction worker first walked in and asked, “What’s with the crappy music?” On the third session, I strategically had the music off at the beginning and sure enough, the same man asked, “Where’s the music?” I said “I thought you didn’t like the music.” He replied “It’s relaxing, it’s OK.” We have to give men more credit. In my experience, they are much deeper than their exteriors imply.
Tyler: Do you think it’s possible to exhibit masculine constructs in a positive way?
Rob: My favorite word to bring up with the men in group is “samurai.” I ask them what they think when they think of the word samurai. They usually say, “Warrior, fighter, bad ass.” The actual Bushido meaning of the word is “to serve.” In the therapeutic setting, we want to demonstrate both meanings of that word. We can be fierce and strong Trauma Warriors, and we can be each other’s servants.