Treatment

Putting the Crayons Back in the Box: Conscious Masculinity and Recovery


There are times when wisdom stands ready to be applied to the cultural moment. Author and speaker Dan Griffin is ready for this particular moment, and Beauterre Recovery Institute is proud to present the gift of his understanding to more audiences in the addiction recovery community.

On November 10, 2017, Beauterre partnered with The Retreat and Griffin Recovery Enterprises to present Dan Griffin’s talk, “The Missing Peace: Men and Trauma,” at the Midland Hills Country Club in Roseville, Minnesota. Before a capacity crowd of 130 recovery professionals, Dan discussed how we see men’s trauma and how recovery services can be redesigned to better address the issue.

First, about that cultural moment.

The numerous accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault facing Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have led to a flood of similar accusations leveled at other powerful men from Hollywood to Congress and all of points of male power in between. Earlier this week, fallout over accusations of sexual misconduct against actor James Franco possibly cost him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for The Disaster Artist.

The #MeToo movement of victims publicly calling out their abusers has also contributed more broadly to a paradigm shift in our uncomfortable national conversation over gender roles. As author Stephen Marche (The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Woman in the 21st Century) put it in a recent New York Times opinion piece:

Through sheer bulk, the string of revelations about men from Bill Cosby to Roger Ailes to Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. to Al Franken and, this week, to Charlie Rose and John Lasseter, have forced men to confront what they hate to think about most: the nature of men in general. This time the accusations aren’t against some freak geography teacher, some frat running amok in a Southern college town. They’re against men of all different varieties, in different industries, with different sensibilities, bound together, solely, by the grotesquerie of their sexuality.

 

Men arrive at this moment of reckoning woefully unprepared. Most are shocked by the reality of women’s lived experience. Almost all are uninterested or unwilling to grapple with the problem at the heart of all this: the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido.

The New York Times comments section was full of predictable objections – from both men and women – to Marche’s negative broad-brush description of the male libido. Nobody wants to equate themselves, or a beloved son or husband, with the likes of Harvey Weinstein. However, it’s virtually impossible to dispute that toxic elements of masculine identity have distorted ideas about sexuality. The accompanying behavioral results range from sexist jokes to sexual assault and rape.

It’s also obvious that men are reluctant to talk about this stuff.

All too often both men and women are trapped by what Dan Griffin refers to as “The Man (and Woman) Rules,” those codified, unspoken “rules” which can create an incredible amount of interpersonal – and intrapersonal – conflict. As the grim headlines suggest, this traditional dynamic is clearly deficient in empathy, especially from the male side.

But what does this have to do with recovery, you might ask. Much more than you might think.

To illustrate the pervasive, existential impact of The Man Rules, Griffin employs a concept the novelist David Foster Wallace called  “The Water.”

In his book A Man’s Way Through Relationships, Griffin summarized the “The Water” as follows:

There is a story of two fish swimming in the ocean when a third fish swims up to them and says, “Hello, gents. How’s the water?” and he swims away. The two fish look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?” In this way, the Water becomes a metaphor for those built-in aspects of our experience we take for granted to such an extent that we don’t even notice them.

 

As Dan began his own recovery journey in college, he noted the very different ways in which men expressed themselves in the recovery community. The budding academic went on to develop a signature framework to describe society’s expectations of the genders: The Man Rules, and its equivalent, The Woman Rules:

To Dan Griffin, these “rules” are the “Water” in which we all swim, and a social dynamic which we take for granted, to varying degrees. One can easily see how the Rules’ fixation on sexual domination can lead to various pathologies in relationships between the sexes, especially in terms of the power structure, with implications for consent and healthy intimacy.

But the Rules can be highly problematic for the recovery journey as well, particularly for men. As Dan put it in his book, A Man’s Way Through the 12 Steps:

As a man, you may accept certain ways of thinking, talking, and acting as just who you are. You probably don’t see that our culture has a set of rules for being a man. You may not realize you are following a kind of script. You put on your costume and act out the script. Your addictions to drugs, gambling, sex, rage, or relationships are part of the fabric of your costume that allows you to hide your true self.

When men enter any addiction treatment program but especially one (like Beauterre’s) with a dual-diagnosis basis which addresses co-occurring mental health issues, the requirements of therapy can quickly come into conflict with the stipulations of The Man Rules. The Man Rules’ primary shaming mechanism is any appearance of weakness or vulnerability. But the trauma of the past “runs deep” and must be addressed openly, so lifelong recovery is possible. [Click for video from the Griffin presentation.] Dan quoted the haunting axiom from the movie Magnolia: “You may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with you yet.”

One of the biggest Man Rules is “Big Boys Don’t Cry,” but it goes even deeper: “Real Men Don’t Feel.” As Dan put it, the conditioning resulting from unwitting adherence to The Man Rules has been akin to “plucking the colors out of the vast ‘crayon box’ of emotions which all humanity is given at birth.” The only acceptable feeling for boys and men, anger, becomes the only “crayon” left in the proverbial “box.” [Click for video.]  “Part of living a conscious life is putting all of the other colors back in the box,” Dan maintained. So even if we have been conditioned to think certain “emotional colors” are “unmanly,” through overcoming the shame we have internalized we can learn how to give ourselves permission to feel all of our feelings as authentically as possible.

Dan argues that patient care must be collaborative between the patient and recovery professional and “trauma-informed.” Empathy, “the ability to step into the lives of others,” gives both parties the opportunity to express authentic feelings of compassion, which Dan defined as “Looking at the entirety of the person, including their experience and environments, rather than being judgmental and dismissive.” This includes having compassion for men even when – due to their internalization of The Man Rules – they exhibit some of the most harmful and destructive behaviors.

Many of these victimizers, Dan maintains, are in fact traumatized men themselves, who have perpetuated the cycle of abuse even when it is the last thing they ever wanted to do. Very often because of how much violence and abuse are interwoven with the Man Rules, men are unable to see the depths and subtle influences of their abusive behavior. Dan emphasized that compassion for these individuals is not collusion in their cycle of abuse. We have to learn how to embrace a more complex both/and philosophy toward men’s behavior: “What happened to you as a child is NOT YOUR FAULT,” he said, imagining a conversation with the theoretical patient caught in the abuse cycle. “AND if you are committing any violent and abusive behavior IT MUST STOP NOW.”

Finally, despite what the Stephen Marches of the world may say about masculinity, Dan maintained that “men are not the problem – how men have been raised [i.e., according to The Man Rules] is the problem. The Man Rules turn men into agents of disconnection. The most important goal of trauma-informed care is to repair the negative impact of these  disconnections,” for “we are all hard-wired for relationships.” Dan argued that by helping men establish “a healthy sense of intimacy that goes beyond sex,” recovery professionals can unearth the men’s desperate need for real connection [Click for video].

When I suggested to Dan that, to borrow a phrase, “You’ve got to know the [Man] Rules before you can break them,” his response was clarifying: “I am not really interested in men ‘breaking’ the Rules,” he told me. “What I advocate is a conscious masculinity – that is, thoughtfully choosing the kind of man you wish to be, without allowing the Rules to blindly drive that decision.”

Certainly, recovery would be much more vibrant and enduring if more men followed Dan’s advice, and were able to truly give themselves permission to “put the crayons back in the box.” 

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