Dan Griffin is a mental health and addictions treatment specialist working in Minneapolis, MN. He has been in the treatment world for nearly 20 years. Currently he does fulltime training, consulting with major addiction treatment programs, primarily about re-conceptualizing and redesigning treatment to suit the specialized needs of men. At the inaugural Males, Trauma, and Addiction Summit in May of 2013, Dan helped craft the Eight Agreements regarding males, trauma, and addiction treatment. Additionally, he is the author of A Man’s Way through the Twelve Steps, and co-author, with Stephanie Covington and Rick Dauer, of Helping Men Recover, the first trauma-informed curriculum to specifically deal with men’s unique issues and needs. I recently interviewed Dan about his groundbreaking work, and I wanted to share his thoughts here. This is part one of a two-part post.
RW: In many ways, male socialization is anathema to the treatment experience. Could you talk a little about the ways in which men are raised and why that’s so contrary to the process of emotional and psychological healing?
DG: This dichotomy is the core of my work. We tell men don’t cry, don’t show your emotions unless it’s anger, be strong, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable, be sexually aggressive, put work before relationships, put success before relationships. Basically we tell them that power and having power is central to being a man. Then we put them in an environment where we say we want you to be vulnerable, we want you to ask for help, we want you to talk about your feelings, and anger is not OK. This tension is the elephant in the middle of the room. What I’ve found is that when we work with men in ways that help them verbalize and understand this tension, when we point out to them that it makes complete sense for the situation to feel difficult and challenging, there’s a whole new context for them in terms of treatment, their addiction, powerlessness, and any of the other challenges they have in recovery.
What we do in the curriculum that I coauthored is we literally have the men list out all the “rules of being a man” that they can come up with, and then we have them list out all the principles of recovery that they can come up with, and then we look at those lists, right there in black and white, and they can see it. It’s very interesting to see these lists side by side, to see the incredible contradictions. My whole system of work, my research, the books I’ve written, everything is framed around that dichotomy, that tension. My goal is to unpack the rules for being a man – all the different rules and nuances – and look at that against the principles of recovery, searching for ways to engage men and to prepare them not just for being sober, but for a quality recovery with quality relationships.
RW: Trauma is often ignored when treating addicted males. Why do you think this is the case, and what can be done about it?
DG: Well, if you think about the rules of being a man, it’s against the rules for men to acknowledge trauma. We spend a lot of time telling ourselves that whatever it is that happened to us wasn’t painful, that we’re not suffering, and we try to project that to the world. Really there are multiple things factoring into this under-recognition and under-treatment of male trauma.
- A lot of men are raised to not see their experience as trauma. There are certain things that are actually traumatic but we have coded them otherwise, and the field has been complicit in this. For instance, the guy who had sex for the first time when he was ten years old with his babysitter who thinks that’s a notch on his belt. He doesn’t see this as trauma, even though it is.
- We have a hard time acknowledging male trauma because male clients and clinicians have a hard time recognizing it. We are a traumatized field, working with traumatized clients, and we send them to a traumatized recovery community. That’s very real. I see that everywhere I go. It becomes this cycle of not being able to see men’s trauma, minimizing it, and not creating a safe space for men to talk about it.
- There is an underlying theme in a lot of the trauma-focused work out there – not all of it but a lot of it – that there are victims, or survivors, of trauma, and then there are the perpetrators of trauma. The prevailing opinion is that there’s always somebody or something causing the trauma, and if it’s somebody that’s causing the trauma, it’s almost always a man. So as a result of that we have not focused a lot on men as victims or survivors.
So chances are a lot of the time we don’t see men’s trauma. Furthermore, we haven’t found the most effective ways to engage men in conversations about trauma. This goes back to the rules of being a man and the dichotomy of those rules and what we’re looking for in recovery. And, once again, what I have found in my work is that when you talk to men about trauma within this larger context they begin to see things differently.
RW: You have written about “safety first” in terms of dealing with male clients, especially those who’ve been traumatized. Could you explain what you mean by safety, why it’s so important, and how to achieve it?
DG: Look again at the rules for being a man, the things that I just described. When you look at what the rules for being a man are really about, when you look at what men want when they follow those rules, you find that they are looking for acceptance, they are looking to fit in, and they are looking for safety. When we were kids and we shared our emotions, we quickly learned a lot of the time that we were not safe, so not sharing our emotions kept us safe. When we asked for help or admitted that we couldn’t do something, we were teased or criticized, so we learned quickly that it was safer to not ask for help. The rules for being a man are how men attempt to feel safe. We need to recognize that as soon as we put men in treatment and we ask them to become vulnerable, we put them into an unsafe situation. And the problem is that a lot of times men will react to that with fear and anger. This is a very understandable, human reaction, but we nevertheless pathologize it. We say there is something wrong, even though all they’re doing is letting us know that they don’t feel safe. But we label it defiance, noncompliance, disengagement, or any number of other things.
Chances are we haven’t acknowledged to them the dichotomy between the rules of being a man and what is needed for success in treatment, this tension between their identity as men and the principles of recovery, so they naturally start to act out. So if they’re acting out, if they’re struggling to open up, if they are saying, “This sucks. It’s bullshit. It doesn’t work,” then I say, “Yes, good for you. That makes complete sense. I absolutely believe that and I trust that. It makes perfect sense that this would be difficult.” Letting men know you hear them in this way helps to create safety. Doing the opposite, saying, “No, this isn’t bullshit, what’s bullshit is your attitude and the fact that you’re not engaged,” just perpetuates the lack of safety that they already feel. In some ways this is just motivational interviewing, but it’s motivational interviewing through a gendered lens.
Interestingly enough, men typically come at this from different perspectives. First there are the men who really embrace the rules, the hyper-masculine guys. Those guys can really endorse the rules. But then there are guys who really reject the rules, but chances are they still judge themselves and feel as though they are being judged by others by those rules. So for a lot of men it’s slightly different. It’s about understanding that for them the rules don’t feel comfortable, but neither do the principles of recovery because those principles have never been validated or valued. It hits at the core of their self-concept as men. Recognizing this is a way to create safety, and it also creates a new context for men being able to talk about their challenges and their struggles in treatment.