I met Mike almost 15 years ago. He came to me after hearing about the groups I was facilitating for gay male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. He’d been in therapy before, but told me he didn’t believe he’d ever really looked at how the abuse he experienced was affecting his life now.
After some time talking, we both thought the group would be helpful for him at this juncture of his life. He was also looking for an individual therapist and asked if I would be willing to see him individually. That’s how we began, Mike and I. He starting seeing me for individual therapy and several weeks later began the group.
A Leader in the Group
Mike immediately became a leader in the group. He demonstrated kindness and compassion for the experiences of other men. His feedback and support were valued and sought on a consistent basis. At times it was difficult to discern what exactly brought him to the group because his presentation was solid and balanced.
During individual therapy, however, Mike began to share more about his growing up. He spoke of intense loneliness and shame from the time he was a little boy. “I never fit in,” he whispered during one of our sessions. “I was different from my brothers even in elementary school and my father could sense it. I was ostracized and ashamed. At the time, I didn’t have words to describe why I felt so ‘bad’ about myself, though I later figured out that being gay was a huge part of my shame.”
As we continued to talk more about Mike’s growing up, he relayed an experience at camp that was exceptionally traumatic. At 11 years old, he was sent to an overnight camp several states away from home. He had never been away before and begged his parents to stay home. Nevertheless, when the time came, he was forced to attend camp for six weeks.
From the time he arrived, Mike felt alone. He was teased mercilessly by the boys in his cabin, being called a “fag” and “girl” more times than he can remember. One of the most painful experiences he spoke about was being teased in the community shower by a group of much older boys. “They pushed me, punched me, snapped towels at me, and tried to grab at me, yelling at the same time. There were no counselors there to protect me. When I started crying, they teased me even more.”
Mike called and wrote letters home beseeching his parents to let him come home. Not only was he not allowed to come home, but his letters went unanswered. His parents also refused to talk with him. At the end of camp and after six weeks of abuse, he returned home and never spoke of his experiences again until meeting with me.
Other Experiences of Abuse
As I tried to console Mike and validate the neglect and abuse he experienced, he began telling me of other experiences in his family where he endured similar abuse. Most of the experiences he shared revolved around intense ridicule and criticism from his father. “On more than one occasion he told me I was worthless and that I was an embarrassment to the family. He constantly compared me to my brothers who were athletic, stereotypically ‘boys,’ and so different than I was.” All of this he shared while staring at the floor.
As Mike’s story unfolded, I learned about other times in his life when he had tried to be “who he was expected to be.” He continued: “When I went to college, I majored in business because my family owned a very successful chain of retail stores. I wanted so badly to major in art, but my father wouldn’t have it. He told me he would withdraw all financial support if I changed majors.” While Mike graduated with honors and joined the family business, he felt inauthentic and isolated.
He began medicating feelings of sadness with alcohol, which contributed to less than optimal performance at work. His brothers, who had also joined the family business, began to criticize him at work, as did his father, which resulted in diminished work performance, absences, and more drinking.
Ultimately he left the family business to pursue painting while simultaneously seeking treatment for alcoholism. He took community education classes and classes at local art studios and achieved sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He continued honing his painting skills while attending AA meetings. Eventually he entered a graduate program in painting but quickly felt overwhelmed and left before completing his first semester.
During our work together, he initiated several interactions with his brothers and parents. With each contact came hopes for acknowledgment and reconciliation—which never materialized. Each time he made himself vulnerable, family members criticized his lack of achievement. They pathologized his distance from the family, which further solidified Mike’s sense of shame. “I was made to feel like any issues I had with any of them were because of something innately wrong with me. The way all of them said this—I just knew they were right.”
As Mike continued to paint and realize more of his artistic abilities, he became interested in home design and real estate. He went back to school to become a realtor and while he excelled in classes, when interacting with potential clients, their rejection of his ideas and/or properties became rejections he took personally. He left real estate quickly, feeling a sense of shame and failure once again.
Mike was in group therapy during some of these experiences. His ability to offer support and encouragement to other men in the group remained exceptional. He began to talk about the possibility of going back to school to become a teacher. I was struck by Mike’s uncanny ability to help others gain insight as well as the extent to which he gained insight and mastery about the impact of the abuse he experienced. I encouraged him as he applied and eventually enrolled in school to become a high school art teacher.
Shortly after starting classes, he entered my office looking tired and discouraged. “I can’t do this graduate program,” he said. “It’s too intense and overwhelming. I’ve been having panic attacks and extreme anxiety. I haven’t been able to sleep or eat. I feel like drinking. I have to leave the program. I hope you’ll understand.”
Unconsciously Repeating Patterns
When Mike left my office after that session, I was struck by my sense of disappointment. And the more I thought about feeling disappointed, the more I began to consider how the trajectory of my work with Mike, in many ways, paralleled the trajectory of his relationship with his family. Just as he had tried to be someone his parents expected him to be, I considered how I had unconsciously been conveying that same message to him. Each time he thought about continuing his education and/or pursuing a new career, rather than exploring the motivation behind his decision, I thought I was supporting him by encouraging him. Unwittingly, I also conveyed to Mike that who he was, wasn’t enough.
In a recent conversation with Mike, he confirmed my suspicions: “I think I need to accept my limitations and the impact those years of abuse have had on me. I’m not going to wake up one day and find my ‘true self,’ anymore than I will do something that will finally result in my parents loving me the way I deserve to be loved. I just need to grieve what I have lost and accept myself for who I am.” I continued to sit quietly and listen to him. “And I am profoundly sad.”
I recognized my reflexive urge to encourage him; to offer words of support in an effort to make him feel better. I caught myself. Paradoxically, encouraging him and listing his strengths and abilities in some way was invalidating his reality and his sadness. I reminded myself that being a helper doesn’t always involve making someone feel better. More often than not, it is about being with the pain.
I shared with Mike what I thought I may have been conveying through my encouragement. And with the grace he demonstrated throughout our work together and in his steady support of the men in his group, he nodded, smiled, and told me he felt less alone.
“*Peace is this moment without judgment. That is all. This moment in the heart-space where everything that is, is welcome. Peace is this moment without thinking that it should be some other way. That you should feel some other thing. That your life should unfold according to your plans. Peace is this moment without judgment. This moment in the heart-space where everything that is, is welcome.”
By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS