This pack was produced originally by Survivors Sheffield in 2000.
First Step has used the Male Survivors document for many years with our clients as it provides great information on depression, anxiety, self worth and suicidal thoughts.
About This Self-Help Pack
Male survivor groups deal with many requests for help. They are not always able to respond to these requests immediately. Survivors Sheffield, for example, currently operate a waiting list for our services. We often have the experience of men contacting the telephone helpline asking for help which cannot be given for weeks or even months.
This pack has been produced to be shared with men to provide some practical support while they await face to face help.
Many of the men contacting survivor groups are in the middle of a crisis. Most have also suffered sexual abuse as boys which has affected them into manhood. This self-help pack will address some of those needs. It is not intended to minimise the needs of men who suffered sexual abuse as adults or who were abused in childhood but who are not currently in crisis.
The aims of this pack are:
- To show men who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood that they are not alone. The advice, suggestions and information given comes mostly from other survivors also abused as boys.
- To provide some practical information, advice and options which will help men through the crisis.
In working through the pack it may be worth bearing in mind the following:
- We are not saying that all you need to cope with crisis is this pack! If we could we would prefer to offer you immediate face to face support. We encourage you to get this support and to reach out to people you trust. We include a lengthy and vital section on ‘Getting Support in a Crisis’.
- This pack rarely gives direct advice. We strongly believe that you should be in charge of your recovery and this holds, even in a crisis. We usually ask you to consider a number of options and offer several suggestions.
Not every section may seem relevant to you. This doesn’t matter, nor does it mean that in some way you don’t qualify. Concentrate on whatever sections seem most important to you. The pack is designed so that you can go through the contents and ‘dip’ into the parts you find most useful.
Most of the information, advice and suggestions, come from survivors themselves. First Step wants to learn and improve its service constantly. We believe too much importance is placed on academic research and not enough on survivors’ own experiences of recovery. So, we would very much welcome any comments, observations, or criticisms you may have regarding this pack. We want to know what helps and what doesn’t. In this way Survivors Sheffield builds a body of wisdom which can be passed from survivor to survivor.
This pack is a result of that wisdom and we hope it helps.
Coping with crisis
Getting support in a crisis
Keeping yourself safe
Finding a way through addiction
Reducing physical tension
Coping with sleep difficulties
Controlling panic and sudden distress
Beginning to feel
Coping with Crisis
Crisis can hit at many points whilst you’re dealing with and recovering from sexual abuse. It can hit when :
- You begin to realise what happened to you as a boy.
- You start getting memories about what happened to you.
- You begin to talk about what happened and it begins to ‘hit home’ how much you’ve been hurt.
- You start to get other memories you didn’t know were there.
- Other things go wrong in your life like relationship break-ups, financial difficulties, problems at work.
- Things remind you of the abuse, like having contact with the person who abused you, the death of the abuser, or significant anniversaries such as birthdays.
- Something very scary happens like you are the victim of an assault. This is scary in itself and can also be a powerful reminder of the past abuse.
Crisis can be a particular feature of the early stages of remembering and dealing with the abuse. It can feel at this point like everything is in chaos. But crisis is not confined to this stage. Along the way a crisis can be triggered by some of the events described above. Sometimes things can seem to get worse before they get better as the full extent of the hurt suffered becomes clearer. There’s no particular time limit to a crisis. It can be short and dramatic or last for a long time.
What happens in a Crisis?
It’s hard to imagine it going away, and it’s hard to see a way through it. You may feel :-
- Like you and your life are totally disorganised.
- That you can’t cope with things as you usually can.
- Tense and panicky most of the time.
- Extremely numb, like you can’t feel anything.
- Like you’re not safe.
It’s usually noticeable that one or more parts of your life are not working right and people around you may have commented upon this.
Where there’s a crisis there’s usually a feeling of being threatened. The threat may be obvious and physical such as the place you’re living not being particularly safe. Or it may be more subtle – as if your inner sense of yourself as a person and as a man is under threat. You feel like you can’t cope with the feeling of threat. Being abused as a boy can trigger a number of threats for you as a man:
- Starting to get memories can leave you feeling vulnerable. Men are usually brought up to think of themselves as ‘strong’. It can be a shock to think that this could have happened to you.
- If you’re having a lot of distress you may start to feel out of control. Again, boys are usually taught that they should ‘be in control’ and not ‘give in’ to emotions. Feeling out of control can be very scary.
- Remembering and dealing with your abuse can change the way you think about yourself as a man. Boys tend to grow up trying to think of themselves as strong and independent, like cowboys in films. Adults tend to encourage them to think this. Remembering your pain as a boy may affect this view of yourself. That can feel threatening.
- You may feel confused sexually. What happened to you as a boy may lead you to question what the abuse means for you now. If you’re ‘straight’ you may wonder if what happened makes you ‘less than a man.’ If you’re gay you may wonder whether you’re gay because you were abused. All of this is very unsettling and may threaten the way you see yourself sexually.
- If you’re currently in a dangerous situation or have suffered a recent assault you might be thinking, ‘why can’t I cope with this? I should be able to.’ Again, this threatens your overall sense of safety.
What to do in a crisis?
Build the life raft for recovery!
Over the next few pages we’ll look in detail at coping with crisis. To help with this you could use the image of a life raft. This sees the process of recovery from abuse as being like a river running down to the sea. The aim is to get further down the river towards the sea and, as you do, you start to feel more in control, happier and more fulfilled. The pain gets less. It’s a difficult journey, but one that has been completed many times by many survivors of abuse.
Any rapids you encounter on the way are like a crisis. You need to travel in something safe on this journey for, whilst the water will often be smooth and the raft will simply glide with the stream, the rapids are very difficult to get over. So, you need a sturdy life raft to get you over the rough patches.
Building the life raft for recovery means :-
- Staying alive
- Getting support
- Keeping yourself safe
- Establishing control over distress
- Beginning to feel your feelings
Try to build your life raft as soon as you can, even if you’re not in crisis now. It’s important that when you need it you can jump in. If you’re in a crisis now then try to concentrate on building it. Get some help with building it from those around whom you trust.
The next few pages will give some tips on how to do it. Most of these tips come from other survivors who are on the journey too. They have overcome many rapids and their experience might be of great help.
The life raft is just an image. If it doesn’t suit you then you could imagine your own safe image. It might be a house or a boat or a plane – anything which will help you feel safe, protected and able to survive the hard times until better times come.
Getting Support in a Crisis
Why is getting support so important?
There are many reasons:
- Two features of a crisis are a sense of threat and a feeling of not coping. You need some support to help you ‘over the rapids.’
- Any support you build now will stand you in good stead throughout the journey. Even when you’re not in a crisis, getting support is an essential part of recovery.
- Abuse tends to occur in secrecy and isolation. It’s important to try to break this pattern. Getting support does this.
- Men often feel that they have got to ‘go it alone,’ even in the most challenging situations. It’s hard to recover from what happened when you were a boy without reaching out for some extra help. This is never more true than in a crisis.
So, what exactly is this support? In many ways support means people. But not just any people. These are people with very particular qualities, who :-
- Listen to your feelings
- Accept and respect you
- Are reliable
- Are trustworthy
- Keep your confidences
- Believe that you have been abused
- Don’t ‘play down’ what happened to you
- Never blame you for what happened
- Never side with the person who abused you.
Basically, you need a Support Team to help you on the life raft. They may be found in your immediate social circle, (partner or family or friends), from professional helpers, (therapists or counsellors or other professionals or voluntary organisations), or from other Survivors. Members of your Support Team don’t have to be highly qualified with lots of letters after their name. Nor do they always do ‘professional’, things. For instance a supportive person might :
- Make you a meal
- Come round for a cup of tea
- Tell you they care about you
- Allow you to ‘let off steam’ by crying or shouting.
It’s worth going through the people you are involved with, whether personally or professionally, and deciding whether you think they have the qualities mentioned above. If they don’t then they may not be the most supportive people to have around if you’re going through a crisis.
In choosing your Support Team there are some issues to consider:
If you’re in a serious relationship you may need to weigh up how supportive your partner is? Clearly an understanding partner could provide vital support in a crisis. Does she or he have the qualities mentioned previously?
Have you told them about the abuse and what you’re going through? Did they react with understanding and support? If you haven’t told them yet, how do you think they would react if you did? How have they reacted when you’ve shared personal things in the past?
If you’ve told your partner already and they are supportive you could consider the following options
- Tell them you’re in a crisis and need their support.
- Ask your partner for what you need. Remember that they will have their own needs too and will probably not be available 24 hours a day. Try to arrange with them a level of support they think they’ll be able to give. Hopefully, you’ll be getting support elsewhere as well.
- Be clear with them about anything you’re not prepared to negotiate. If sex is out of the question for you at the moment, tell them that. If there are some places you can’t go, or things you can’t do – because it’s too painful – let them know.
If you haven’t told your partner yet but you think they have the qualities to make a good supporter :-
- Seriously consider telling them.
- Ask them for some practical support.
If you’ve told your partner and they are not supportive, or, if you do not think they have the qualities that would make a good supporter, you have some difficult decisions to make. Some options are:-
- You could end the relationship. It’s very hard to recover if people around you are not treating you with respect. The extra stress of a ‘bad’ relationship may not be what you need, particularly if you’re going through a crisis.
- Ending it may not be acceptable to you. You may not want the stress of a break up on top of everything else. You could try to put some space between your partner and you. This will at least reduce the number of times you’re belittled or undermined, and give you time to think through what you want to do next. Use the space to build and get support from other aspects of your support system.
There may be times when your partner is not only not supportive but engages in the following behaviours :-
- Physically hurts or assaults you
- Does sexual things to you that you don’t want.
- Verbally abuses you.
If this is the case then please try to get away from this relationship. It will be like having someone on your life raft who’s trying to push you in the river. No-one deserves to be abused either as a child or an adult. Men are not usually seen as being on the receiving end of abusive relationships. There are rarely safe refuges provided for them. Society expects men to just, ‘grin and bear it’. But if these things are happening to you then it’s not safe and you’ll find it difficult to recover. Leaving relationships, even ‘bad’ ones, is not easy. Here are some ideas that might help :
- Start from the position that you deserve to have healthy, supportive people around you.
- Get some space between yourself and your partner. Go away for a while. Stay with a friend. Use the time to talk through your problem with a member of your Support Team. Try to come up with a plan that will get you to safety.
- If you’re in danger of being physically harmed, (assaulted or sexually abused again), get out of the situation.
If you don’t live together :
- Get a friend over to stay
- Go and stay with a friend
- Consult the Police, tell them what danger you’re in, ask them what they can do about it.
- Consult a solicitor about your legal rights and how to take out an injunction. This is a complex area as the law is chiefly concerned with the violence of men against women.
If you do live together consider all the above and in addition :
- Consult a solicitor about any legal issues regarding the property.
- If you haven’t got somewhere to stay consider seeking priority re-housing from the local authority. This may seem drastic, but it’s sometimes needed in order to find a way to safety. You need to consult a solicitor and your local Housing Aid centre for more advice.
Remember that you can never rely on the hope that your partner will change if he/she is abusive. They may promise to change, but your safety can only be assured by actions you take yourself. You can take advice and consult with those you trust. Being safe is necessary if you’re to get through the crisis and move towards recovery. Abuse has no place on the life raft for recovery.
If you’re in an abusive relationship, but it just feels impossible to get out then :
- Try not to constantly criticise yourself, or think of yourself as ‘less than a man’, or to blame for what’s happening.
- Stay in touch with members of your Support Team.
- Take whatever steps you feel you can towards building your life raft. Spend more time with trustworthy people. Consider making a plan to get out of the situation. Be gentle with yourself and take good care of yourself physically.
- Every step you can make takes you further towards getting safe, building an effective life raft and towards recovery.
- Remember that you are not to blame for your abuse. As a boy, your abuser was to blame – now it is the person who is assaulting or abusing you. The only difference is that, as an adult you now have more resources and power and you can begin to take steps, however small, towards safety and recovery.
Most of the options mentioned for ‘Partners’ are equally relevant when choosing which friends to include as part of your Support Team. When asking them for help you could consider whether they would be prepared to :
- Receive phone calls when you are distressed, including at night.
- Listen if you need to talk about the abuse and your feelings.
- Accompany you when you need support, to G.P.’s appointments, shopping etc.
Like your partner, friends will have their personal needs too. So, some negotiations will have to take place about what they can offer.
You may be thinking that all this asking for help sounds very weak and that as a man you should be able to cope. Try to remember :
- It’s a sign of courage not weakness. The journey you’re embarking on is very difficult and some teamwork will help you get to where you want to go.
- You don’t have to ask everyone for help. To help you through times of crisis choose one or two special friends who you are close to and trust.
Generally, all the above options hold for family too. But there are also a number of pitfalls to be aware of:
- Your abuser may still be around. If he/she is, you’ll have to weigh up very carefully what contact you want. Having contact with your abuser may trigger distress at any time. This could be even worse if you feel in a crisis.
- Now is not the time for family disclosures and confrontations in order to get more support. Such confrontations need very careful planning and do not necessarily result in you getting what you want. To try it whilst you’re feeling in crisis is very risky.
Nevertheless, you may have someone in your family who you are particularly close to. This may be someone you could consider including in your Support Team. As well as needing to be a good supporter you might want to consider the following :
- Do they already know about the abuse? Are they supportive? Have they shown that they are ‘on your side’, and do not have the sort of divided loyalties which could make them ‘leak’ things out to the family and your abuser. In a crisis this could cause you the sort of extra stress you don’t need.
- Are you able to see them separately from the family? It may not help you handle your crisis if you have to go into a stressful family environment to get support.
There are a number of different types of professional helpers :-
- Counsellors and Psychotherapists
- Social Workers
- Community Psychiatric Nurses
One question you may be asking is – should I get individual counselling/therapy? A good counsellor or therapist can be a great help on your journey. Some Survivors have found them a lifeline. Others manage OK without them. Whatever your view, remember that they are just people and so need to show you the qualities of a supportive person mentioned previously. In addition you may want to check out the following :
- Has the counsellor ever worked with survivors of sexual abuse?
- Have they worked with men abused as boys?
- What training have they had?
- Who are they accountable to? E.g. a supervisor or professional body.
This may help you decide whether you think the counsellor is competent and has knowledge of the issues. In terms of dealing with a crisis you may want to ask :
- Do you do emergency sessions?
- Can you be contacted at home in a crisis?
This will give you some idea about what level of support you can expect from them.
You may or not be able to afford counselling/therapy. Privately, it doesn’t come cheap. Two options to consider here are :
- Seeing if your G.P. is prepared to fund a counsellor. Family Doctors often control budgets and can decide what to spend money on; or they may have a counsellor attached to the surgery.
- Try to negotiate a reduced fee with a private therapist. They often operate a sliding scale for people on reduced income.
When choosing a counsellor it is important to make sure you feel safe and secure, and the counsellor/therapist is properly qualified to a recognised standard and DBS checked. Always choose carefully and be prepared to shop around until you’re satisfied. At First Step all of our counsellors are DBS checked and have or are working towards recognised qualifications. Our counsellors are monitored on a regular basis to ensure they are working ethically and to our high standards.
If you decide that you need some individual counselling to get you through the crisis try not to see it as a sign of weakness or failure. Men sometimes tell themselves this. It’s really the opposite – a sign of courage and strength to face up to painful issues and tackle them head on.
Other professional helpers such as social workers, G.P’s, Community Nurses and Psychiatrists are usually in some way tied up with the mental health system. Again, if they are to be helpful in a crisis they need to show the qualities of a supportive person. They’re sometimes able to give practical support in a crisis, such as :
G.P’s can prescribe medication. This isn’t the answer to dealing with abuse but in a crisis it can provide some short term relief.
Social workers often have knowledge about what resources might be available to help in the community.
Community Psychiatric Nurses sometimes have useful skills in areas like anxiety management and relaxation.
Psychiatrists tend to be very powerful and control access to a lot of resources.
The quality of all these people varies enormously. They can be good, bad, or indifferent. They are representatives of systems which are extremely powerful and where you can feel like a number rather than a person. This can be very frustrating and not the sort of hassle you need in a crisis. It is also a system which has a poor track record in acknowledging the distress faced by men abused as boys. Nevertheless, some Survivors have found these professionals to be helpful and welcome on their life raft.
Other types of support
Supportive people are an important part of your crisis team on your life raft. But there are other things too. Consider if any of the following are important for you :-
- Do you have any activities or hobbies that help you ‘blow off steam?’ It might be watching T.V., jogging, listening to music, playing games on a computer.
- Are there any objects your find particularly comforting? Sometimes people have good luck charms, or objects associated with ‘good times.’ These can be comforting to have around in a crisis.
- Do you have any spiritual or religious beliefs: These can be anything ranging from strong political beliefs to being part of an organised religion. Such beliefs can be great sources of comfort in times of crisis.
- Pets can also be a source of comfort. A loving dog or cat can give a lot of support and acceptance and may even sense that you’re having a painful time.
Build your raft and put on it what you need to feel safe. This will include a few carefully chosen people who you know are supportive. You are in charge of the raft and where it is going. But they can help you over the rapids.
You did not deserve to be abused and you do not deserve any of the suffering that has gone with it. You deserve a fulfilling, happy life.
Suicide is a taboo subject. People don’t usually want to talk about it, but many men who’ve suffered sexual abuse as boys think about it, plan it, even attempt it. Why?
Childhood abuse can have so many harmful effects it’s no wonder many men think about killing themselves. If you’re one of them see if any of the following seems true for you :-
- You feel very depressed, like there’s no point in living.
- You may feel like you can never get anything right and that you’re no use to anyone.
- The future might seem completely hopeless.
- You may feel like the only way to blot out the pain you are feeling is to end it all.
- You may not really want to die, but you want oblivion, a peace, where there’s no more pain.
Feeling suicidal can occur at different stages of recovery. Sometimes it happens when you start remembering the abuse and trying to come to terms with what happened. At this point you may experience a lot of emotional pain and chaos. Then, as you start recovering you may feel despair thinking of the long road that lies ahead. But the feelings of pain and chaos can often come back later on if you uncover new memories, or even when you achieve what seems like a positive breakthrough.
What to do if you feel like killing yourself
- Don’t do it! OK, this is easy to say. But the tragedy is that a small number of survivors do kill themselves. This is not only tragic in itself, but also because our experience at Survivors is that, over time, and with support, the pain gets less. You deserve to live.
- Get help and support. Talk to the people you trust about how you’re feeling. Suicide, like abuse, occurs in isolation. Try to reach out to those you trust.
- Consider talking to your G.P. Suicidal feelings can be related to depression. Men who’ve been abused often experience bouts of depression. Nowadays doctors regard depression as a treatable illness with anti-depressant medication. Some survivors have found anti-depressants useful in lifting their mood. They’re not the answer to dealing with abuse issues, but they may get you over a rough patch.
- Decide what structure you need to stay safe. Do you need to be around someone all the time? Do you need to be able to contact someone by phone 24 hours per day? Are there trusted people around you who can do these things for you, and are they willing to do it?
- Remember that the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day by phone, and sometimes can even offer face to face support. They are usually accepting, don’t judge and are experienced at listening to people who feel despairing.
- If you feel you need a short spell in hospital to stay safe you’ll probably have to consult your G.P. or another health professional. Consulting such people can be useful but you should be fully informed about the power they possess. People feeling suicidal are usually offered beds on psychiatric wards if there is no additional help to offer them in their own home. But be aware that some professionals also have the power to detain you against your will if you decide you don’t want to go into hospital. If two doctors say you are a danger to yourself and suffering from a mental disorder and a social worker agrees, you can be detained against your will on a psychiatric ward. As a boy you may already have had the experience of something bad being done to you against your will, so the thought that you may again be forced into doing something you don’t want to do may be scary. If you feel you do want to get involved with G.P.s or other mental health professionals, try to take a friend or ally along with you to support you and help you argue for what you want.
- Try to avoid using alcohol or non-prescribed drugs. If you’re already feeling low, these will only make you feel worse.
- Try to make an agreement with someone about what you’ll do if you start to feel suicidal. This person could be a trusted friend or a therapist/counsellor. Your agreement with them might include:
- Who you will ring
- Where you will go, for instance a safe place to spend the night
- What measures you will take to reduce your distress e.g. relaxation, medication etc.
- Make a list of reasons for living. It may seem difficult but write down anything that comes to mind. Survivors often come up with many reasons for living like;
- I won’t let the abuser win
- I want to be here with my friends/family/lover
- If I can stick with it the pain will get less
- Try to imagine a future where the pain has reduced. Again this is hard to do if you feel down. Try to imagine what life will be like in a month’s time, a year’s time, three year’s time, all the time with you recovering from the effects of the abuse, the pain reducing, and you getting more of what you want from life.
- If you’re in therapy, counselling, or a support group try to make a plan with them about what you’ll do between sessions and make a commitment to come to the next session.
- If you’re in the process of exploring your abuse in therapy, counselling, or a group, decide whether you need to take a break and concentrate on just staying safe. Some people might feel they can push through the pain – others might need to take a break.
Finally, remember that you deserve to live.
Keeping Yourself Safe
There are many aspects to keeping yourself safe. One is taking care of your body and not hurting yourself. Men who’ve suffered sexual abuse as boys sometimes hurt themselves by:
- Cutting themselves
- Burning themselves
- Getting involved in fights
- Abusing alcohol or drugs (if this applies to you see, ‘Finding your way through addiction.’)
- Getting themselves in dangerous situations (e.g. where they’re likely to be assaulted)
- Taking risks with their physical safety (e.g. driving whilst drunk)
- Getting involved with people who abuse or assault them.
There are many reasons why men take it out on their own bodies or put themselves in situations where they might get hurt :
- As a boy you may have been constantly scared. Fear like that can affect the way the body works, making it hard to relax and calm down. This can get carried through into manhood. Hurting yourself may become a way to get relief and calm down.
- If all you’ve ever know is pain and hurt, then you grow up expecting it. When it’s not there you may create it yourself – almost like an addiction. Hurting yourself is a type of self-preservation. As a boy you had no control over the abuse – but if you inflict pain on your own body now, there may be a sense that you can control the amount of it.
- Your abuser may have tried to brainwash you into thinking that your body deserved to be hurt.
- You may hurt so much inside that there seems just no way to express it. Hurting your body is a way of saying just how bad you feel.
- You may feel completely numb – like you have no feelings. As painful as it is, hurting yourself proves that you feel something, even if it’s only pain.
- You may feel overwhelmed by anger and hate and worry that if you express it you may hurt someone. The only place for this rage to go seems to be in on yourself.
If you do hurt yourself it’s important to remember that it’s something you’ve done to survive. It’s not just the same as wanting to kill yourself. (If you do want to kill yourself see, ‘Staying Alive.’) You had to live and handle intolerable levels of fear, rage and pain. Men are rarely encouraged to express feelings, let alone deep distress. You coped as best you could given a bad situation. Try to hold onto that thought if you feel the way you’ve coped is wrong.
What to do if you feel caught in a pattern of hurting yourself
- Tell someone you trust about it. Use your support system. Like abuse, self-harm occurs in secret and seems filled with shame. Sharing feelings with trustworthy people breaks into the cycle of shame.
- Do something about physical stress. (See ‘Reducing Physical Tension.) You may have got used to high levels of tension when you were abused as a boy. Hurting yourself, or putting yourself in situations where you might get hurt, is a way of handling this tension. It’s important to learn new ways that aren’t harmful to yourself.
- Control the pace at which you address abuse issues. This applies whether you’re in ‘therapy,’ talking with friends, or reading books. You have the right to control when you look at issues and how fast. Hurting yourself may have been a way of dealing with feelings inside. As you deal with the feelings that come up you may find that you are harming yourself more. If therapy is getting too ‘heavy’ you could tell your counsellor you need a break, or need to focus on other issues. Give some thought to when it feels safe for you to read books on recovery from abuse.
- Think up some safe ways to express anger and rage. This helps form the habit of getting feelings from inside to outside without hurting yourself or anyone else. Some ideas are:
- Hard exercise – running, swimming.
- Punching something that can’t hurt your hand such as a punch bag (with boxing gloves on), or some big thick pillows.
- Smashing glass bottles at a recycling plant.
If you’re not physically fit, don’t push yourself too hard.
- Your anger and rage may include fantasies of revenge against your abuser. This is understandable. It’s important to talk about this to those who are supporting you. You have every right to these feelings, but in order to keep safe don’t act on them. You might end up getting physically hurt or suffering even more than you already have. Although you have every right to your feelings you don’t have the right to hurt anyone physically. You may want to consider taking legal action against your abuser and you could contact your local support group for more advice and support on this.
- Avoid alcohol and non-prescription drugs. They impair thinking and make it more likely you’ll put yourself in a situation where there’s danger. If you feel addicted to these substances see ‘Finding a way through Addiction.’
- Try to take care of the basics of physical health; eating, sleeping, taking exercise. This may be difficult if you’re feeling down but it’s important to do so you can move away from harming yourself towards looking after yourself. (If sleep is a problem see, ‘Coping with Sleep Difficulties.’)
- Explore ways of caring and nurturing your body. You could have regular physical treats such as:
- hot baths with oils
- your favourite foods
- a day at a health suite
- The issue of touch is important. As a boy you may not have had control over who touched your body. Now you can say who is allowed to touch you and where. This goes for both intimate and casual touch. Take some time to consider what touch you want and what touch you don’t want. Then tell those around you what you expect.
- If you’re in a pattern of cutting, burning, or harming your body try to identify when it occurs. Do certain triggers seem to make you do it? Does it occur at particular times of the day? After you’ve been doing certain things? How are you feeling before it happens? If you can identify when you’re likely to harm yourself you may be able to come up with a plan to avoid it, like doing some relaxation, or hitting the punch bag. Your plan could include contacting someone from your Support Team and sharing how you’re feeling with them. The idea is to find ways of expressing and coping with the way you feel inside without harming yourself.
- If you continue to do it despite your best efforts, try not to criticise yourself. Self-criticism is just another way of hurting yourself! If you feel trapped in a pattern it can be very difficult to get out. Try to look after your body after you’ve hurt yourself. If you’ve burnt yourself use cold water to lessen the damage to your skin. If you’ve cut yourself gently clean and dress the wound. See if a member of your Support Team is prepared to help you look after your burns/wounds. They’ll need to know that you’re not to be criticised for what you’ve done – you coped as best you could with the feelings you have inside.
- If you cut or burn yourself you may consider going to Casualty. If it’s a deep cut which needs stitching you may need to go. Casualty staff have not always been supportive or understanding of people who harm themselves. Survivors have reported being stitched with inadequate anaesthetic or not being given pain relief. There are some excellent staff as well. If you go to Casualty always try to take someone with you – a member of your Support Team – who’ll help you argue for your rights. You deserve good medical care.
- If you’re finding it hard to control the way you’re cutting/burning/harming yourself you could consider carrying a first aid kit. This might consist of plasters, bandages, butterfly stitches, antiseptic ointment, cotton wool – things you can buy at a chemist. Survivors who feel they cannot stop cutting themselves have even carried a sterile blade so they can reduce the risk of further harm from infected cuts. This might not seem like looking after your body, but self-harm can be a difficult pattern to break, and it may be the only way some Survivors have learnt to cope with distress. Whilst you’re tackling the difficult task of learning new ways you may as well minimise the damage your body suffers.
- Try to remember that you don’t have to punish yourself now in order to recover. Remember the pain of the little boy inside you who was abused – he’s suffered enough. You are in no way to blame for the abuse.
Finding a Way Through Addiction
There are many ways of dealing with the distressing after-effects of childhood sexual abuse. One way is to become addicted. Being addicted to something means being out of control in your use of it. You can become addicted to many things :
- Strenuous exercise
- Taking risks
Do you feel, or have you felt, out of control with any of these things? If your answer is yes, then you may be wondering, ‘what’s that got to do with being sexually abused as a boy?’ Well, being abused is extremely painful. Such pain is hard to cope with. There may have been no-one around to listen to your pain. Traditionally, men are supposed to be strong and to cope with anything. But you still have to find a way of coping and surviving. Some men turn to addictions. If this has happened to you try not to beat yourself up about it. It’s important to understand that addictions serve many valuable short-term functions :
- They help to blot out the pain of the abuse.
- They can temporarily reduce tension.
- They might help you feel good – briefly.
- They might help control distressing symptoms like flashbacks, or lack of sleep.
Unfortunately, with addiction there’s always a price to pay :
- Your physical health might suffer.
- You might suffer financially.
- You might lose time at work, or even your job.
- Under the ‘influence’ you might be more likely to get yourself into situations where you might get hurt, or hurt others.
- If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself you might be more likely to do it ‘under the influence’.
All these things are potentially dangerous. In addition, it’s hard to begin your recovery whilst you’re in the grip of addiction. This is because recovery involves expressing and feeling your feelings. This can be very hard and painful. The point of addiction is to try and blot out painful feelings. So, while you’re addicted it’s hard to get to your feelings
What to do if you think you’re addicted
- It may seem obvious, but make a decision that you want to deal with it. Talk through the decision with someone you trust.
- Remember that the addiction has served a purpose. It has helped you survive.
- Seriously consider professional help. Getting over addictions is very hard. In the case of alcohol/drugs it can even involve going somewhere to ‘dry out’.
- Reach out to people around you who you can trust. This may include friends, a therapist or counsellor, professionals, or family members. When you break an addiction you can feel very distressed. It’s important to be able to talk about this.
- Make sure you’re doing something about flashbacks, panic, sleep problems. When you break an addiction these symptoms can really hit you. If you’ve not found ways to handle them you might be tempted to go straight back to the addiction.
- If you’re in counselling or therapy weigh up very carefully whether you’re able to explore your abuse whilst you’re still addicted. Whilst it’s necessary to talk about what happened to you it can also be extremely painful – so painful that you’re tempted to take more drink, drugs etc… to cope with the pain. Talk this through with your counsellor/therapist and with others you trust. There are no hard and fast rules. Some survivors have found it useful to sort out their addictions before therapy or in the very earliest stages of it.
- Always remember that you did what you did to survive. Try to appreciate your great resourcefulness in surviving. Hold onto this thought if you feel guilty or ashamed about the ways you’ve coped.
Reducing Physical Tension
You may find that you feel tense a lot of the time. You may feel ‘edgy’ or ‘jumpy’, things may startle you easily. When you have time to yourself you may feel ‘shaky’ and find yourself unable to relax.
This isn’t that surprising. As a child you may have had the experience of feeling continuously scared. You may have been always on the lookout for the abuser’s next move. Your body may have constantly expected danger to be just around the corner. When this happens in childhood the body becomes tense and learns to stay tense, even as an adult. After all, you may not have been given the opportunity to learn how to relax – it may simply not have been safe to let your guard down.
It’s important to try to learn to relax now. This is because :
- Long-term, tension isn’t good for your physical health.
- If we can’t relax by ourselves we sometimes turn to other ways of ‘relaxing’ like alcohol or drugs which can cause even more problems than the tension we are trying to get rid of.
Remember that learning to reduce physical tension isn’t easy and won’t happen overnight. Some techniques suit some people and don’t suit others. Experiment and find out what works for you.
Here are some suggestions :
- Do something physical. Run. Use a punch bag. Swim. Anything safe that gives you a physical release.
- Set time aside for rest whether this involves snoozing or just sitting back in a comfy chair.
- Laugh! Watch whatever T.V. makes you roar. Spend time with friends who make you laugh.
- Breathing exercises. Take long slow breaths, breathing deep from your belly rather than from your chest.
- Slow down! If you are one of those people who seem to rush about like a ‘headless chicken’.
- Try to avoid putting yourself under pressure by working to deadlines.
- Do things that you know you enjoy, whether it’s listening to music, painting, reading…
- Relaxation tapes. They usually involve a combination of deep breathing, muscular relaxation and imagining a pleasant scene. They can be very relaxing. But they’re not for everyone. Bear in mind that if you get deeply relaxed you can also feel like you are not in control. This can be frightening for Survivors who may want to stay in control in order to stay safe. They may also involve closing your eyes or holding your breath, two things which may trigger unpleasant memories of abuse.
There are many ways to reduce feelings of physical tension. Find which ones suit you best. You’ll need to keep working at it but it’s worth it. After all, your body and mind have had years of feeling tense – they deserve a rest!
Coping with Sleep Difficulties
Men who were abused as boys often experience problems with sleep. These problems can take many forms, including :
- Nightmares about the abuse.
- Waking up in a panic.
- Not being able to get off to sleep.
- Finding that the slightest noise or disturbance wakes you.
- Finding that having sex triggers memories of the abuse.
It’s easy to see why problems might arise at night. You may be feeling almost permanently tensed up and unable to rest. Night time may carry particular memories of abuse. Instead of bedtime being a relaxing ritual, as a child, it may have been the time when you were violated by someone who should have been looking after you. Simply going to bed may be a trigger for bad memories.
Here are some general hints about sleep, rest and bedtime, before we look in more detail at the distressing areas of nightmares and waking in a panic :
- Make sure the place you are going to rest is physically comfortable.
- Use whatever relaxation works for you to decrease tension prior to bedtime.
- Establish some regular habits. This may be difficult. Bedtime may have been spoiled for you as a child by the abuser. Try to establish a new ‘going to bed’ ritual which will break the pattern of fear. This may involve what time you go, whether you read in bed, whether you sleep alone or with a partner, whether you have the light on or off… Experiment and see what you can come up with.
Coping with Nightmares
Men who have been abused as boys often experience distressing nightmares. The nightmares can include :
- Direct re-creations of the abuse
- Children being harmed or killed
- Scenes of death and violence
- Being chased or otherwise assaulted
- Being humiliated or put in a powerless position.
The emotion attached to the nightmare is often one of absolute terror.
Nightmares are like flashbacks and sudden unpleasant memories in that they represent the abuse suddenly breaking through into awareness.
They are very distressing and hard to get rid of. Whilst they are difficult to cope with, some guidance might be useful :
- Make sure you’ve got some ‘talking’ help with the issue of the abuse. Being able to talk about the way sexual abuse has affected you with a trusted counsellor, therapist, or friend should reduce the number and intensity of nightmares over time. Being able to share it seems to reduce the need for the abuse to ‘break through’ in the form of a nightmare.
- Whilst they are terrifying, nightmares are also a painful part of healing. It is like the mind is remembering what happened and trying to make some sense of it.
- Some people suggest that you can ‘take charge’ of your nightmare. In other words, turn the tables on whoever is attacking or abusing you during the nightmare. Whilst this may be possible in some cases it’s certainly not true for everyone. Don’t give yourself a hard time if this isn’t true for you.
If you wake up in a panic
Waking up panicking after a nightmare is a terrifying experience, so :
- Be kind to yourself immediately afterwards. Make yourself comfortable. Take whatever relaxation measures work for you.
- Try to remember that having the nightmare, as painful as it is, is part of remembering and healing.
- Decide whether you need to be on your own right now.
- It can be good to talk about how you are feeling. If you’re with a partner who is willing to be woken then tell them what is happening and how you feel. Ask them for what support you need whether it is a cuddle or a cuppa.
- If you’re on your own, is there anyone you can ring to talk it through? Consider using the Samaritans if you’re feeling desperate. Try to tell a supportive person as soon as is practical afterwards. Sharing the nightmare is a way of breaking the isolation and getting support with the terror of it.
- Be gentle with yourself for the rest of the day. Be prepared for the nightmare to leave you feeling more vulnerable.
Nightmares are terrifying. When you experience such fear you can feel vulnerable. This does not make you weak or unmanly. Nightmares are a part of the process of recovery – an unpleasant part. It takes courage and strength to experience them and reach out for support.
Controlling Panic and Sudden Distress
Starting to remember and deal with your abuse can lead to distressing feelings. These include :
- High anxiety and panic.
- Sudden memories of the abuse forcing their way into your thoughts.
- Flashbacks, in which you seem to relive the abuse.
- Suddenly feeling that you’re a boy again, feeling as you did at the age you were abused.
- Suddenly seeing, hearing, sensing or feeling something/someone which/who isn’t actually present.
These distressing experiences may recur throughout your recovery, but they can be a particular feature of crisis. When you experience them you can feel out of control. They appear to come out of the blue – but usually there is something which has triggered them. A trigger can be anything that reminds you of the abuse, for instance :
- Becoming a parent, reminding you of your own childhood.
- Having a child who reaches the same age as you when you were abused.
- A sight, smell, sound or touch that reminds you of the abuse. Anything that reminds you of the abuser.
- Seeing something on T.V. or in the newspapers about sexual abuse.
- Medical procedures and examinations which involve people touching you or seeming to have control over your body.
- Any contact you still have with the abuser.
- Any relationship which involves someone seeming to have more power than you, e.g. work or therapy.
- Anniversaries, such as the death of the abuser.
- If you get assaulted or abused again.
In the early stages of remembering the abuse these triggers and the resulting distress can be the main feature of the crisis.
Sexual abuse is a terrifying experience. As a boy you may have felt bewildered, powerless and completely alone. Boys are not supposed to feel like this so you may have tried to hide it and appear strong, independent, and capable. You had to survive. It would have been hard to go on, feeling scared and without support. But hidden feelings don’t just disappear. As you get older triggers remind you of the abuse and the pain breaks through into awareness. This explains experiences of panic, flashbacks and sudden, distressing sensations and memories.
Self-help for panic and sudden distress
- Make sure you have someone you can talk to; friends, a counsellor, or a support group. Sharing your feelings helps to reduce panic and distress over time.
- Try not to fight against it. You may just get more tense. Whilst it’s unpleasant, panic and distress are a part of recovery and tend to get less over time.
- Try to avoid situations of overwhelming anxiety, e.g. contact with your abuser, or major life changes. It’s not always possible. In a crisis it’s important not to put yourself through more terror than you have to. Dealing with unpredictable memories is hard enough without adding more stress.
- Avoid alcohol and non-prescribed drugs. Whilst they will calm you down they could lead to more problems, like addiction.
- Avoid quick decisions. It isn’t possible to think straight when you’re in distress. Wait until you calm down.
- Avoid driving until you’ve calmed down.
- Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.
- Avoid caffeine. It’s a stimulant and may make you feel more hyped up.
- Develop a plan with your G.P. about how you will use prescribed medication to help. It can be useful in the short-term, but carries dangers of addiction. It’s not the long-term answer to dealing with abuse.
- Try to become aware as early as you can that you’re experiencing a panic attack/flashback/sudden memory/strange sensation. Stop whatever it is you’re doing.
- Calm yourself. Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Check out reality. You could say your name, your age, the date and the place you’re at now. Plant your feet firmly on the ground and hang onto something – like the arms of a chair. Anything to get the message that the abuse is not happening now.
- Decide what to do next. You could:
- Leave the situation causing the trigger
- Change the situation causing the trigger
- Continue what you’re doing slowly, breathing deeply, reassuring yourself, and trying to relax.
- Accept what is happening and experience the feelings.
- Afterwards try to work out what happened. What was the trigger? How did you feel? Did you learn anything new about your abuse? Share this information with a member of your Support Team as soon as you can.
- Expect to feel vulnerable afterwards. You have had a scary experience. Get what support and comfort you need.
- Remember that all of this is part of recovery. Many survivors have had these experiences, got through them and got control. It doesn’t mean you’re going crazy.
We can take a more detailed look at each area, adding further tips to the ideas above.
Panic is a feeling of extreme anxiety. When you’re having a panic attack your body may seem to be out of control :-
- Breathing becomes fast, like you can’t catch your breath.
- You get sweaty hands, or you sweat all over
- Your heart feels like it’s racing.
- You may get a hot flush.
You may start to think,
- I’m going to die
- I’m going to have a heart attack.
- I’m going to collapse.
- I’m going to make a fool of myself.
- I’m not safe.
- Something terrible is going to happen.
- I’m going crazy.
In panic, fast breathing and adrenaline cause a number of unusual physical sensations. It’s a bit like the feeling when you go for a job interview or sit your driving test. Only your panic attacks are more likely to be caused by memories of your abuse than anything occurring in the present.
You may try to get away from the situation you’re in. Of course if something really is happening to you which is frightening – such as you find yourself in a dangerous area late at night – then it’s right to feel scared and try and get away. But panic also occurs when nothing dangerous is happening.
Panic attacks are hard to get rid of, but their frequency can be reduced until they rarely, if ever, occur. You can learn to get through them safely.
Here are some tips :
- Breathe slowly and deeply. This is especially important in panic. Fast, shallow breathing causes a lot of the unpleasant sensations.
- Try to control your thoughts. They can get out of hand in panic. Think up something reassuring you can say to yourself if you feel a panic coming on. Some ideas are:
- I’m safe
- This will soon pass
- This is a panic attack, there is nothing physically wrong with me.
- Sometimes doing something can jolt you out of the panic. This can be anything from washing the dishes to listening to music. Experiment for yourself and see if anything works. Anything is OK as long as it doesn’t involve you hurting yourself or anyone else.
- If you panic in a public place – providing you’re not in real danger – try not to run away. Breathe, reassure yourself and ride out the feeling. If you escape from the situation it can be hard to go back later.
Sometimes memories of your abuse can pop into your head all of a sudden. There’s nearly always a trigger. Often the trigger is sex or touch.
You might get pictures in your head of what happened to you. People or things in the picture might seem frozen in time. Usually, you are aware it’s a memory. It’s still scary, but you know that it isn’t something that’s happening to you now.
Consider the advice under ‘Self-help for Panic and Sudden Distress.’ In addition :
- If you don’t want to experience the memory now, you could try saying ‘STOP’ to yourself very firmly. That may cut into the way the trigger causes the memory. This may not work because the memories happen quickly. Also, it may not always be advisable to stop the memory. Though distressing, it is a part of recovery and dealing with the abuse.
- Afterwards try to write about the memory. If you don’t want to write you could draw a picture representing it, or mould something from plasticine. Try to share this with someone from your Support Team. Memories demand to be heard. The more they are heard, the more likely they are to fade over time.
- Memories may be connected in your mind to feelings of shame and blame about the abuse. This is why it’s so important to share them with a trusted member of your Support Team. This breaks the secrecy and gets you support from someone who sees the truth – that you were not to blame and the fault for the abuse lies with the abuser.
- Sudden memories can leave you shaky and scared. Always try to balance out the experience by looking after yourself afterwards and by giving yourself special treats. You’ve had to experience pain, you should also have some pleasure.
A flashback is a sudden memory of abuse that is so strong it actually seems that it’s happening now. Something usually triggers the flashback and it’s often touch or sex.
Again you can get pictures in your head. But they seem much more real. You may experience the actual sounds, smells, tastes, emotions that you did at the time of the abuse. You may feel terrified, shocked, numb, in a rage or filled with disgust – depending what you felt then. You may get the same physical sensations in your body. These sensations are sometimes in your genitals or bum. It’s like you’re back being abused again as a boy.
It all seems so real it’s hard to keep track of what’s actually happening in the real world. You may feel completely out of control.
Flashbacks are very scary, but you can get through them and get some control. Some survivors have later described them as a way of retrieving useful information about the abuse they suffered as a boy.
Consider advice under ‘Self-help for Panic and Sudden Distress’ and the additional advice on coping with sudden memories. Also :
- Develop a good understanding of which triggers cause you to flashback. You won’t be able to avoid them all. It probably wouldn’t be good to block all memories because they are also a useful part of recovery. Some you may not want to avoid because they’re an everyday part of your life or very enjoyable – like making love. But there may be some that you can avoid. Decide which triggers you will avoid. This will give you some control over the number of flashbacks and amount of distress you experience.
- Coping with panic, memories and sudden distress is very hard and there are no easy answers. Many Survivors have experienced them, come through them and established some control. Over time, and with support they’ve seen this distress reduce. As a boy you actually survived the abuse. Then you may have been all on your own. Now, as a man, you can get support and survive the memories of abuse too.
Beginning to Feel
For Survivors, feelings can seem like problems. Even pleasurable feelings like love and sex can be connected to painful thoughts. In a crisis, you may be experiencing distress such as flashbacks, sudden memories and suicidal thoughts. It’s understandable if all you want to do is to stop feeling all together.
Survivors often get into this habit of not feeling much. They may describe themselves as, ‘spaced out’, ‘numb’, ‘unreal’, ‘not connected’, ‘not all there’. This ‘spacing out’ can take a number of forms :
- Being ‘in your head.’ This means that you split your emotions off. It’s like they don’t exist. You’re able to talk about things but the emotions that go with the thoughts don’t seem to register.
- Not being aware of your body. This can almost feel like you don’t have a body. You may ignore your physical needs and not register pain or when it’s time to eat, drink, sleep.
- If your abuse involved a great deal of physical pain, or if you were physically abused as well, your brain may have gone ‘numb’ to protect you from the pain.
- After the abuse you had to find a way to carry on. It’s very hard to face up to the fact that those who should have loved and protected you, actually abused you or failed to prevent it. You may have had to go on living with them afterwards. This is an impossible position to be in. Your mind went ‘numb’, ‘spaced out’, to protect you from feeling how bad it was.
When you look at it this way, going numb is revealed as a very useful way of surviving. You did well to use it and survive.
But there comes a point when it’s no longer as useful. As a man, not feeling can be a handicap – one faced by many men, even those who haven’t been sexually abused as boys. This is because, in our society, men are not really brought up to have many emotions. It’s usually OK for them to get angry, but emotions like fear, sadness and vulnerability are not thought manly. ‘Boys don’t cry’, as the saying goes. Many men ‘space out’ from emotions because they’ve been taught as boys that it’s wrong to show them. On top of this you’ve had to contend with the pain of your abuse.
There are a number of problems with not being in touch with your feelings as a man :
- Feelings provide a lot of information. Recovery from abuse involves taking in new information and experiencing lots of feelings. Your feelings will tell you how you’re doing, what issues are around for you, what progress you’re making.
- Feeling ‘numb’ and ‘spacing out’ doesn’t help you when you have to make choices, decisions and plans. You can’t do this when you’re numb because your head is ‘somewhere else.’ Recovery is all about choices, decisions and plans. This pack encourages you to make lots of them :-
- Who should be in my Support Team?
- How do I get myself safe?
- Which relaxation methods work for me?
- Being ‘numb’ can stop you concentrating on sorting out your crisis and recovering. If you’re around people who aren’t safe, or your surroundings aren’t safe, your feelings will help you to assess the danger. Then you can do something about it. If you feel numb you’re more likely to put yourself in danger, or to stay in abusive relationships when you should get out.
- If you’re cut off from your emotions it’s hard to get close to people and to let them in. Dealing with crisis and recovery involves reaching out to supportive people. To do this you need to be able to establish close relationships.
- If you can’t establish supportive relationships you may become isolated. This may feel the same as when you were a boy. Recovery is very hard in isolation.
- If you ‘space out’ to deal with painful feelings that doesn’t mean the feelings disappear. They may emerge later, sometimes explosively :-
- Feelings of rage may reappear leading to violence.
- Seeming in a different world. Your mind may drift off into a world of daydreams, or you may get the sensation that you’re actually watching yourself from outside your body.
Does any of this ring a bell for you?
Not feeling is a habit formed in childhood. It’s easy to see why, as a boy, you may have worked out that your best way of surviving was not to have feelings :-
- When you were abused it was too scary to cope with. Your mind had to do something to help you through it, so it ‘spaced out’.
- Feelings of shame may reappear leading to self-harm.
It’s not OK to hurt yourself and it’s not OK to hurt anyone else.
Beginning to Feel
Changing habits – beginning to feel after years of not feeling – is hard work. Particularly when, as a boy, there were such good reasons for not wanting to feel.
There are good reasons now to change and here are some ideas that may help :-
- As with sudden memories and flashbacks, try to identify the triggers that occur before you go numb.
- Try to become aware of going numb as you’re doing it. This is a first step in getting some control.
- If you decide that you’re not going to space out, then ways to get in touch with your feelings are :-
- Focus on your body. Sometimes feelings emerge as a pain or sensation in the body.
- Breathe. Slowly and deeply. We tend to restrict our breathing and hold ourselves tightly when we don’t want to feel. Deep breathing also helps deal with panic.
- Afterwards try to identify what you’ve felt. If you can’t put a name to it you could draw it/paint it, or mould a model of it in plasticine. Anything which gets the feeling out into the open.
- Remember you still have the option of continuing to space out or go numb if you want to. You don’t have to feel everything. This might be overwhelming, particularly in a crisis. You can choose to go numb if it doesn’t feel safe to have your feelings, or if you just haven’t got the energy. You might make this choice if :-
- You’re trying to cope with an addiction. Having your feelings might be overwhelming and drive you back to the addictive behaviour.
- You’re in a pattern of hurting yourself, spacing out might be an alternative to hurting yourself. However be careful with this. If your pattern of self-harm involved hurting yourself as a way of jolting you out of numbness, then you’ll need to find a way of coping other than spacing out/going numb.
- You think that having your feelings could lead to rage which could result in violence.
Always try to tell a member of your support team about the feelings you’ve had.
The important thing is to get some control and start to feel your feelings. Getting control helps you to take charge of the crisis. Beginning to feel takes you through the crisis and into recovery. You’re steering your life raft over the rapids and into the calmer water beyond.