Men, in particular, have long been conditioned to “suck it up” when it comes to dealing with the results of a traumatic experience. In fact, it wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognized Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as the result of having gone through a traumatic experience – in this case, combat. But even with the acknowledgment that the effects of trauma from war are real — and many veterans are receiving the treatment they need — the effects of other forms of trauma on men have yet to be fully recognized and affirmed. These everyday guys may bury their trauma so deep that symptoms such as panic attacks, pain disorders, phobias, and addictions seem to come out of nowhere. Helping men recover from trauma (including PTSD) and its after-effects is one of several counseling services for men offered by the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan.
Al Heystek, a therapist at the Men’s Resource Center and Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Center, both facilitate individual and group men’s psychotherapy programs. Heystek is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Flood is the co-creator of the Experiential Reclamation Therapy (ERT) program. In this Revealing Men podcast, they sit down to discuss trauma and the importance of men reaching out for help. You can read excerpts from the conversation below (edited for clarity and space) or listen to the complete podcast on Spotify, Google Play, or Apple Podcasts.
Men’s Relationship to Trauma
Flood: Right now, I think that trauma’s becoming part of the public discourse. I think we are becoming more aware of it. There was a time when people would be like “you got what?! You got ADD?!” And then people were trying to learn what ADHD really is — “you mean it’s just not a bad kid in school who doesn’t want to do their homework?” And now we have a better sense of the spectrum of ADHD and what it means. And I think now with PTSD and trauma, people are starting to learn about the impact that trauma has on human beings and, in particular, we’re talking about men. So, say a little bit about trauma. What is trauma?
Heystek: Well, I think you’re right, that, for a long time, if somebody was traumatized it was almost like you’d have to see something obvious. You know, like they have half a leg or something like that that would warrant the definition of that they were traumatized. But we’ve known for a very long time that trauma is really about the brain. And about some kind of violation: something really scary, something life-threatening, or something emotionally really, really painful.
Much of the trauma that we’re talking about is along the lines of this emotional loss. Somebody, you know, when they’re 10 years old and their dad suddenly dies or dies over a long period of time, or there’s some kind of abuse, or a kid that’s in junior high school and everything’s fine at home but then he’s getting bullied mercilessly at school and he’s not talking about it.
Flood: These are not necessarily physical traumas but emotional traumas. Being around something, something inflicted upon you, or witnessing something that’s emotionally scary, or shaming, that kind of thing.
Heystek: Yeh. And then you can talk to somebody like that and ask them “well, what was the worst part of that, those months that that was going on?” And, they can often go right to it and tell you about a particular situation and what that did to them, what emotions they had, and the beliefs that they began to have about themselves that then they carry with them.
Flood: Into adult life.
Flood: So, what is it in particular about your experience of working with men in trauma? We talk a lot about male socialization — how men are trained and cultivated and socialized in our society to be a certain way, this real narrow definition: real men are tough, strong, suck it up, don’t back down, kind of move through things, get over it, don’t whine about things. So, how can that training impact their relationship with trauma?
Heystek: Well, we know that by the time boys get to be five and six years old, that they’re less likely to go to their teachers or to their parents with distress. Then when you fast-forward to boys being nine, 10, 11, 12, and stuff is happening, they’re less likely to talk about it. They hold it in. And they have all kinds of narratives about themselves because of what happened and then they’re isolated.
And that, of course, is what can really make a traumatic experience so much more difficult — I’m sitting with this thing by myself and it’s not only the feelings I’ve got but it’s these narratives in my head about myself, about how weak I am, or I should have been able to do something, or you know, what’s wrong with me. So, then the shame can really begin to envelop a kind of understanding of myself.
Revealing Unresolved Trauma
Flood: You read the book, I’m sure, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, by Terry Real. He makes this point about — Charlie Donaldson and I, in Mascupathy, talked about “externalization,” he talks about it as “covert depression” — where it’s like all this trauma in a man’s body and psyche but they don’t talk about it, they’re carrying it around. And then emotional experiences happen in their (oftentimes) family life and then there’s this reactivity, this rage, this kind of explosion. And is that what you see? Men will come in with presenting problems that might be like anger problems, domestic violence, substance abuse, or whatever – which is a problem in and of itself that you need to work on – but then, as you get to know them, you learn of this huge underbelly of trauma, that maybe they’ve not even ever talked about. Do you see that a lot?
Heystek: Well, I think that that’s part of what can happen for men— whether it’s small insults or big ones— is that they hold on to stuff and they can’t talk about it so then you get the shame narrative about “what’s wrong with me.”
And recovery is about being able to name things and get it out in the open and all of that. But particularly trauma, unresolved, can increase the sense of unworthiness and shame. And men may not even be aware that that’s what’s going on. And then how they can be short with a partner or with their children. And so, sometimes when we start talking, we can get to a place where, “well, maybe this has something to do with it.” We don’t want to just say it’s always a direct line, but there’s some relationship here between something you’ve been carrying around for a long time and not had a way to get some healing about it. To make some peace about it.
Flood: So, we do groups here. We have several groups and I think it’s because we experience men making significant changes and having a lot of curative experiences in our groups. What is the power of naming trauma in a group experience with other men? I mean, you can do it individually with your therapist or your minister, that’s important, too. What is it about being with your peers that you think is curative?
Trauma and Shame
Heystek: We just hear from guys that there’s something about being with other men and not being alone in this experience – in the experience of being a man and in the experience of being somebody who’s, you know, “I’m a wounded man. I’ve been hurt. I’ve been traumatized.” And being able to just hear other men share their own experiences. So, it normalizes it. It reduces the shame. It reduces the sense “well, there’s something wrong with me.” Well, no, there’s nothing wrong with you.
And when men share it, and they get a little vulnerable about it, and then they want to back away from it a bit, and say, “well, gosh, I feel like I need to ‘man up’” because I’m starting to show this side of my vulnerability or this pain, and then somebody else will say “you are manning up, dude! You’re being real about what your pain was.”
Flood: I hear a lot of those shame narratives associated with trauma where guys will carry this belief — for years and decades — around that there’s something about me that created this trauma. Like if I would have been strong enough or smart enough, I wouldn’t have gotten bullied. Was there something about my sexuality that I invited this sexual abuse, or is there something about me being a bad son that made my father beat me up and not my brother? Sharing these narratives out loud in group can also be a way of … guys will be like, “Dude. No. no. no.” and then they have a way of challenging that narrative in a compassionate way. That helps.
Heystek: When somebody experiences some sort of trauma – being bullied, or being sexually abused, or physically abused – there’s really not a whole lot a person can do about that. I mean, after the fact you can think about “what could I have done” but a lot of times the answer is, “well, you know, not much.” Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
The EMDR Process
Flood: So, say a little bit about EMDR.
Heystek: EMDR has been around since the early 90s as a growing theory and practice. It’s a form of treatment that’s biological in its nature and it replicates REM sleep. So, it’s very similar to what goes on when we’re sleeping. We know that the brain is processing psychological and emotional material. The human body is a phenomenal thing. The brain is probably the most amazing thing on the planet that we know of, complicated, does all these functions. And one of the things it does is it sleeps. And we get rest. But it also processes stress, feelings, stuff. And, so, that’s the dream states that we have as kind of an expression of the brain taking care of business.
Flood: So, you put people to sleep at EMDR, is that what you’re saying? [Laughter]
Heystek: I’m saying it’s very comparable. I do quite a bit of explaining about the theory that what we’re doing is very similar to what happens when you’re sleeping even though they’re going to be fully awake. Essentially, what it is, is the client moving their eyes back and forth. The client is just following my two fingers in front of their face, which is, you know, eight inches, 10 inches away, something like that, back and forth. They’re just moving their eyes back and forth. There’s a whole protocol that goes along with this. It’s essentially a biological process. There’s something that’s going on with the eye movements that helps facilitate the reprocessing and the desensitizing of a memory.
Flood: That’s like the trauma can be so overwhelming for a person that the way it gets stored is part of the issue. And this helps you reprocess it maybe in more of a segmented way or ways that are more tolerable because it’s a desensitization process?
Heystek: Right. One of the reasons why trauma is such a difficult topic is that – going back to Terrence Real’s book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It – it’s like it’s just too painful to talk about it. I’ve had clients say to me, “Well, you know that something happened to me, but I can’t tell you what it was.” And my response to them is, “You don’t have to. With this treatment.” What I like about this is that it doesn’t require a person to talk about the details of what happened to them.
Flood: That’s the beauty of it and the accessibility of it, right?
Coming to Terms with Trauma
Heystek: What happens is somebody reports “this terrible thing happened to me; this is what it was.” A bullying experience, or a sexual abuse experience, or a domestic violence experience when they were 10 years old, something like that. Or a loss, a grief, …it can be a variety of things. And, I will ask them: “if there was a video of this experience, what I want you to do is imagine one still photo that represents the worst part of the video.” It’s amazing how clients, within split seconds, can go right to it. It’s a picture of … you know, like, I can see my father’s angry face, or I can see the garage door, they come to it.
That’s all we need, is that image. And then we’ll ask them to recount, not the specifics about what happened, but when they think about the image that represents what happened how do they feel about it now.
Flood: It’s the aftermath of that.
Heystek: Right now, in the moment, they’re getting in touch with it, and they might say, “well, gosh, I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel hurt.” And then I’ll ask them, “o.k., and so what beliefs about yourself did you get from this experience?” So, “I’m not good enough.” “I’m unworthy.” Something like that. “And what would you rather believe about yourself?” “Well, that I am worthy.”
Then what we’ll do is, we’ll basically take those words and we’ll start doing eye movements. So, the image of what happened, the belief that one has about themselves, the feelings that they have. Then we also ask them where they feel it in their body. It’s all of those things. There’s something about the eye movements — when you bring all those aspects of the trauma together, almost like putting it all together and I’m going to take a photo of it —the eye movements, amazingly, reduce, sometimes within one session, the distress about that memory. Of course, it’s not forgotten, but it can move people to having more peace with it.
Flood: It doesn’t live as large inside of you as it once did.
Flood: Wow! I didn’t realize you were going to let us behind the curtain of the great magician as much as you did. I appreciate that.
Healing from Trauma
Flood: I think that it’s important for a takeaway from men who are listening, or people who love men, is to help them understand and appreciate how trauma can be a normal part of being a human being and that it has deleterious, a significant impact on us as humans and to heal from trauma is possible. There are ways that we can become fuller, more rich, more robust human beings by facing it and talking about it. I think you were able to help us understand that today.
Heystek: I think it’s so important to recognize that to a great extent this isn’t just a mental health problem, it’s a medical issue. … I will say to guys “you know, if, when you were playing soccer and you got your foot stepped on in high school — and you went to the doc — and it’s a little red and inflamed, and he tells you “yeh, we did an x-ray and the bone is cracked,” and then he’ll tell you “take it easy for a few weeks and it’s just going to heal by itself.” Well, there’s a lot of distress that we have in our lives and we go to bed, we get a good night’s sleep, and the brain kind of works things through and, you know, we’re o.k. the next day.
But if you’re playing soccer and you get a compound fracture of your femur and it needs to be set and you need a cast … the body sometimes needs more intervention. If I’m carrying around something that I’m not getting out of my head, I don’t have to have PTSD, I don’t have to have flashbacks, I don’t have to be waking up in the middle of the night. But, if I have something that is a memory about something that’s happened, that is gnawing at me, that I can’t really get out of my craw, I keep thinking about it every so often, well then, this is something that EMDR could be a way of getting some freedom from that.
Flood: Thank you, Al, for talking with us today about trauma; we can address it and get the help we need and deserve. Thanks for coming.
Heystek: Thank you.
Seeking Assistance for Trauma
If you are experiencing debilitating physiological and psychological results surrounding a traumatic experience, please contact the Men’s Resource Center for more information about our men’s support groups, EMDR and trauma therapy programs.