Gay Men and Trauma Recovery: Reclaiming Your Life
What is Trauma?
After being a gay men’s specialist therapist for 30 years now (in 2022), I am often humbled by the wonderful opportunity I have to be of service to gay men from so many different backgrounds, of ages, races, ethnicities, even nationalities, and in so many fascinating professions. And after doing this for so long, you learn a lot, not just about gay men and gay male couples, but also about the world and life in general.
One of these things I see over and over is our lives – for all of us – are some combination of good experiences and bad experiences. Sometimes in the same week or day! When I do client work, either in therapy or coaching, I help them leverage their strengths, in what we clinical social workers call the “strengths-based perspective,” which informs much of the life/career/relationship coaching work I do, and cope with their challenges, such as in therapy and learning to cope with some kind of diagnosable psychiatric disorder (my background is as a certified psychiatric social worker, which came before my being an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist; I do a lot of both these days). Shakespeare said, “The web of our lives is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtue,” (“As You Like It”).
Others have theorized in a kind of religious context that living on Earth is dwelling somewhere between the Hell below us and the Heaven above us, so our lives are a mix of those. Even from a secular point of view, I see that point in this duality of life. We get up every day hoping for the good stuff, but, as we all know, shit happens. It’s like in Bipolar Disorder: there is depression, there is mania (or hypomania), and there is baseline, and people can take a mood stabilizer medication to try to achieve that baseline of general well-being.
We are raised as kids to expect this. We are taught, in general, that our society is civilized; that there are rules, that we are safe. We’re not necessarily barbarians or vicious animalistic creatures that devour each other and eat their young. And, yet, life teaches us – sometimes early on – that the sense of safety that we are collectively taught to expect from parents, teachers, bosses, clergy, cops, politicians, and so on – can be breached, horrifically, leaving our physical and psychological defenses torn from the experience. It’s been said that that ripping of the fabric of our defenses (beyond our ability to cope) is trauma.
Trauma is when we get overwhelmed by an experience, either as individuals or collectively. At one time, it was defined as a “life threatening” experience, or “experience outside the realm of normal human functioning,” but the term has evolved from that, in part because it’s culture-bound. What is “outside normal human functioning” for someone might be an everyday occurrence for someone else, such as someone living in a war zone.
In trauma, the experience overwhelms our expectations and our ability to cope. We don’t know what to do with it. Nobody ever taught us that such things were even possible in this world. 9/11 was such an experience; collectively, in the United States and in the world; no one saw that coming. It’s similar to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941; it was literally awakening to a new world. There would be plenty of non-Western examples, too.
Individually, trauma can take many forms. I’ve learned this in a heartbreaking way in my work with clients about what people (in my case, gay men) go through. Childhood sexual abuse. Severe acute or chronic illness. Being born with a disability. Car or other vehicle accidents. Sporting accidents. Workplace injuries. Natural disasters. Violent crime. Even non-violent or “white collar” crime can certainly be a trauma. Being “canceled.” Being “doxxed” online. Being stalked. Being cat-phished. Having your identity stolen. Being blackmailed. Being abused by social institutions like a corporation, the court system, a university, an insurance company, a police force, the military, even a neighborhood homeowners association. The loss of a loved one. A relationship breakup. The loss of a fortune. The loss of a job. The loss of one’s health, or appearance, or money, or housing, or functioning, or comfort, or dignity. It’s anytime that the implied promise of that sense of safety that we were brought up with as kids gets shredded by an experience that shows us otherwise.
Breaking the Promise of Safety
We see that “implied promise” everywhere. Fairy tales have “happily ever after.” Cop shows on TV always get the bad guy in the end. Relationships kiss and make up. Lost objects are found. Courtroom dramas mete out justice just in the nick of time. Audiences like a happy ending. Parents around a dinner table teach not so much what life is, but what it should be, according to a very controversial (Western, imperialist, classist, religious, heterosexist, economic, gender, etc.) set of ideals. Doesn’t always work out that way. And when shit happens to us, there is a certain, “Hey! Wait a minute! This wasn’t supposed to happen! What the Fuck is this?”. And sometimes, the perpetrators are the ones who taught us all about Pervasive Safety of the World in the first place, like people who were supposed to be the “custodians” of that safety whom we put our profound trust in, like parents, or teachers, or coaches, or clergy. What a mind-fuck that is.
So it’s in that moment, the first time “the rules” of expected safety get broken, that trauma happens. And then we’re left there to just deal with it, not only for what it is that has happened to us, but also with that feeling of “Hey, wait, what is this? You never said anything about this.”
Trauma as Neurobiology
Trauma can be seen as a cultural, social, and psychological thing. But it’s also, actually, a neurobiological process in our brains. That’s one of the biggest differences in how therapists are trained between the time I was in school in the late 80s and early 90s and when I’ve taught psychotherapy practice intervention models now, is the role of neurobiology. It’s not that the psychotherapy world “needs” to be somehow “legitimized” by making it all sound more “medical;” it doesn’t; it was always “legitimate,” especially if the practitioner is using what we call “evidence-based practice models,” which is what I taught for over 15 semesters at USC’s graduate school of social work (which, unfortunately, has long since deteriorated and courses like that have been eliminated, along with its formerly-top rankings, I might add, though years of unfortunate and chaotic management). But evidence-based practice models that I taught, then, and better institutions still teach now, are methods of intervention that psychotherapists of all kinds (psychologists, clinical social workers, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, etc.) should be using, which have been studied and proven to be at least somewhat effective in having good clinical outcomes with the client or patient cohort studied. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is evidence-based. Psychodynamic therapy is evidence-based. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is evidence-based. Treatments like “sex addiction” are not. And viva la difference. Evidence-based practice protects consumers from charlatanism.
Trauma is so important to the human experience, and to the human brain, that a lot goes on in there, especially if we consider brain hemispheres. Being a Brain-Wise Therapist by Bonnie Badenboch is a great resource on this. She describes how traumatic experiences are “recorded” in the right hemisphere, like a recording device or a video camera, and then these images, memories, feelings, themes are “processed” into a coherent narrative by the left hemisphere of the brain through language (“talk therapy”) or other expression (the “expressive therapies,” like art therapy drawings or collage or one of those). In therapy, “mirror neurons” between the patient and the therapist get activated, and they are really connecting on a brain-to-brain level, which all informs the therapeutic work (in addition to the good stuff like rapport, trust, and the healing relationship, preferably in a culturally-competent context for the therapist, such as being a specialist in working with gay men when you are, indeed, working with gay men).
The fact that the human brain has so much going on both during and certainly after trauma tells us something. It tells us that humans know when they are facing a trauma and coping with its aftermath, just like our immune system knows what to do when faced with a foreign pathogen of illness, or if we fall down and scrape our knee. All the systems get activated toward our defense and healing. The mind has its own version of that.
So if we’re brought up with hopefully at least some sense of safety, living life means that we eventually have to deal when there are exceptions to this sense of safety. All the systems within us – body, mind, and many would say soul – have to rally to mount an equal and opposite defensive healing response to be restored to the equilibrium of a past level of functioning. In the meantime, we cope, we “fake it til we make it,” sometimes for years after, but that only goes so far before the full impact of the traumatic experience comes home to roost, and we get either Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, or some variations on it (developing a substance abuse problem, compulsive habits, or some other “maladaptive coping strategy” that needs to be replaced by something more benevolent and more enduring in service to our own healing.
Perhaps there’s a paradox in that part of coping with that default “sense of safety” in the world is just to expect, and accept, that there will be exceptions. There will be times when the people we previously trusted betray us, emotionally or physically. There will be times when our generally civilized society breaks down. There will be times when the general goodwill nature of humankind is shown to be false when dealing with someone selfish, aggressive, greedy, incompetent, violent, sadistic, or just plain careless, and at our expense. Exceptions to the rule, are part of the rule.
Taking Our Turn
When “bad things happen to good people” as the old saying (and book title) goes, I call that “our turn.” It’s very unusual, some would say impossible, to get through this lifetime unscathed. Shit happens, either because of the above-mentioned darker nature of some human beings toward others at some times, or because Mother Nature is a bitch and can harm us with a good natural disaster that causes loss. Taking our turn at having a trauma can take many different forms, but somewhere, someday, it happens. Maybe multiple times in a lifetime, and for different reasons. Just because we’ve been through one doesn’t mean we won’t go through another. A Holoocaust survivor might have her purse snatched while taking a leisurely walk down the street 70 years later. Somebody who’s just been laid off from their job six weeks before retirement eligibility can come home to a house that’s been burglarized. A childhood sexual abuse survivor can discover their law partner embezzled and they’re now facing criminal prosecution. Those are taking their turns, and it’s frustrating how it’s true that some people, through truly no fault of their own, have more than their “fair share” of trauma. This is something I’ve worked with a lot of clients on, and it’s an existential dilemma. Because I’ve seen that it’s true, that some people have just had more than their “fair share” of shit happen to them, and it truly is through no fault of their own. I’ve also seen the opposite, where someone seems to be born under a star and had consistently uncanny good luck over many years and is essentially free from trauma.
This is the existential challenge we all face. No matter what “it” is, as trauma, it happens. We can’t always prevent it, but we can cope with it after it happens.
Some of my favorite adages for this come from self-help books. Jack Canfield, in his book The Success Principles, discusses how “Event + Response = Outcome.” We can’t prevent the event from happening to us, but it’s our adaptive coping response (versus a maladaptive one) that makes the difference in the ultimate outcome. New Age author Louise Hay had another adage of facing any challenge and just saying to yourself, “How can I take a positive approach to this?” to guide you on your own best cognitive and behavioral choices that make the most of an admittedly bad situation.
Life After Safety
When we cross that threshold after a trauma, at whatever age, and in whatever circumstances/experiences, it is said that we “live in a different world” from the one we knew before. It’s a sense of loss innocence (certainly that’s been illustrated in discussions of 9/11). Somehow, life goes on. We have to make a go of it in survival, as there really is no other choice, except to live a broken, shattered experience – as some, sadly, do – and find a way to go on, even if it’s just with a little more cynicism about the world and its people, or certainly its circumstances. And, as the great show tune from “Ragtime” says, “We can never go back to before.” Life moves in but one direction: forward. And, as Lady Grantham said as the last line of the regular TV run of “Downton Abbey,” “Yes; if only we had the choice!” She would have gone back to a “simpler time” if she could.
“Life after Safety” means living with not so much a sense of safety all the time, but with a “modified safety” that while although we continue to live in a world where bad stuff happens – either to us, or someone else we care about, or even people who seem very remote to us – but with a sense that despite the “bad stuff” that happens in our lives, there can be many – some might say most – moments certainly worth living.
We live with the notion that as people go, in general, it is human nature to be sane, reasonably well-behaved, basically law-abiding, and generally of goodwill, to most people, most of the time. The odds are in our favor, in the majority (although this is certainly questioned in the current political climate in the United States, where nearly half its people support a disgraced former President who supported a violent coup attempt or are willing to revoke civil rights from women and others). We know that “stuff” can happen, but we can go along hoping that it doesn’t, and doing our best to influence that in our favor, which generally can work (wear a seatbelt, lock your doors, watch your back, take care of your health, manage your finances, etc.).
Reclaiming Our Rights
The number-one word I use in sessions with clients who are trauma survivors is “reclaiming.” How do we reclaim our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness after some schmuck (or the personification of a natural disaster or some other non-personified force) has messed it all up for us?
In my clinical work, I talk about the importance of rallying external resources like therapists, books, videos, commercial product vendors, service providers, supportive others, and materials that help stabilize us (medications, a good bed, good food, etc.). And, I talk about rallying our internal resources, such as determination, stamina, courage, persistence, tenacity, resiliency, and resolve. It is when we activate our ability to rally these both internal and external resources that we begin to fight the good fight back to functioning.
Cognitively, we must reframe our experiences from being victims of others’ (including Nature’s) behaviors, to being survivors. What they/it did to us is not the final word. We are not “down for the count,” as they say in boxing. Cher’s song, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.” (written by the prolific composer/lyricist, Diane Warren) that she sang in the movie, “Burlesque,” comes to mind. (There are many inspirational songs that help rally one’s defenses to trauma and inspire us, especially for gay men who love our music divas; my article on that is here).
We live on to have internal “conversations” or even confrontations with our perpetrator(s), whether in reality (which is rare, or even impossible) or in our heads. We have to fight back that what they tried to take away from us, in their aggressive greed, selfishness, self-indulgence, entitlement, and sadism – is not the last word. We have the last word. We pick up the responsibility for the atrocity and absolve ourselves of any sense of “fault” about it, and drop it back squarely back into the lap of the perpetrator. This is where the word “victim” can be useful, at times; not to lead us into defeatism and despair, but to validate our feelings and the fact that we were minding our own damn business, doing our work, driving our car, walking down the street, sleeping, doing whatever – and they came along to mess it up by doing something they had no right to do, legally, morally, or socially. The fault lies with them. And while many survivors of trauma have trouble with this, it’s important to do the work of just clarifying that point. There are, actually, perpetrators and victims, and what they did to us was wrong. And that’s in any religion, or social construct, or philosophy. Even our own brain’s neurological makeup knows that it’s wrong, because it’s not in line with how humans generally work, or should. Our defenses come from deep, evolutionary experiences. Even a child with no formal education (yet) knows that an adult should not be sexual with them; it’s developmentally inappropriate. Even if they don’t know what’s really going on, they still know it’s wrong. It’s instinctive, not just social or cultural. In every society, harming someone’s person is wrong; humans aren’t built for that. In every society, taking something that isn’t yours is wrong; we each have our own resources.
Even if in just our minds, we “speak” to our perpetrators, and I believe in the importance of a healthy anger that restores our dignity against someone who would cross us. It’s not just “back off,” to reclaim our rights. It is “back off, motherfucker.” The healthy anger validates our inherent human rights which have been violated, which transcend demographics, cultures, nations, and historical time periods.
We affirm, in trauma recovery, that we have basic human rights. To live, reasonably comfortably. To be with those we love, if we want. To be left alone, if we want. To control our own resources of possessions, money, and domicile. To control our own bodies, and who touches them, and when, and where, and why. We had rights, the perpetrator violated those rights with their own sadistic self-indulgence, and we retaliate for justice to not only reclaim what was ours, but to punish those who would even attempt to take them away from us. That’s like “punitive damages” in a lawsuit; they make others think twice before committing the same act against anyone in society. And maybe discourage others from even considering the same (which is our justice system, really, when it works – although that’s another whole story). In our justice system, sometimes (often) justice isn’t served, but we know the truth of it, in our heart of hearts. We know the truth of what happened, even in those times when we can’t prove it, or even if we can’t remember all of it, exactly. (I work with clients on this; they sometimes don’t know the details as much as they just know the feelings the event caused, often many years later.)
Sometimes, the one with privilege (the boss, the elected official, the cop, the rich one, the connected/protected one, the powerful one) “wins” the battle and they “get away with it.” But even then, we reclaim in our own minds and hearts; we know the score. It would be nice if others, did, too, like in a court of law, but we don’t need for justice to always be served for us to reclaim our rights and move on. We just have to trust in karma for their ultimate punishment, however long that takes, while we achieve that “living well is the best revenge.”
In my work with clients, we identify ways to play out what “living well” might mean after we reclaim our rights from whatever happened to us that seemed to take them away.
Living well means that we assert the rights we always had, but with a renewed vigor. For a positive self-esteem and self-concept. For good health. For good relationships. For professional satisfaction. For opportunities for joy. For the opportunity to fulfill roles like adult child, parent, sibling, worker, neighbor, colleague, lover, friend, compatriot. If someone took those rights away for a bit, well, no longer. There is a new sheriff in town, and grieving time is over. (See Maya Angelou’s poem, “And Still I Rise” for a wonderful expression of this feeling).
Trauma has a very special relationship to memory for us, as people. It’s a neurobiological thing, too, as is the concept of “body memory,” and some of the evidence-based psychotherapy models around that. We remember, even if some details are hazy many years later, or even immediately after. We remember because they are memories that we feel, often profoundly deeply. And, sometimes we feel so profoundly that our defenses “don’t let” us remember all of it, the memories are set aside, even though stuff about “Repressed Memory Syndrome” has been largely debunked as an illegitimate psychotherapeutic concept, which is its own discussion. For most of us, we actually do remember. We just don’t want to think about it. “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,” as gay icon Barbra Streisand sang in “The Way We Were.”
So it’s hard to even think about “forgive and forget” when it comes to traumas and their perpetrators. So many philosophical, religious, and New Age books talk about the importance of forgiveness, and how “holding on” to a resentment is a poison for someone else that we end up drinking ourselves. I’m not sure I agree with that; many writings have discussed how “forgiveness” as such is not a requirement for healing and moving on with your life. Your own circumstances, value system, culture, family, religion, etc. might dictate whether or not you consciously forgive your perpetrator. I don’t really believe in forgiveness if there has been no justice and no accountability or remorse from a human perpetrator. This is why unremorseful criminals are rarely granted parole. Many believe there is no forgiveness without contrition, or at least an acknowledgement of the harm they caused and its impact on people. Gay men who have been the victim of anti-gay violence – physical or emotional – know all about this.
But whether you forgive your human perpetrator, or just perhaps learn to understand their behavior in a different context over time – such as a psychiatric disorder like a personality disorder or a criminal psychosis – we can still move on.
Coping with Others
Our adaptive coping after trauma involves a lot of work, especially in relationships. The relationship to ourselves, when we forgive ourselves of any aspect that we hold ourselves in contempt for. “Gee, if I hadn’t been lazy and taken a short cut down the dark alley, I never would have been mugged by that gunman.” We have to forgive ourselves of that. We had a right not to be mugged, whether we went direction or took a hundred dark alleys.
We cope with professionals. When I work with clients, trauma survivors, I have to earn their trust. It’s presumptuous of me to expect it or demand it. I have to earn it, through a professional working relationship over time.
We cope with spouses, partners, or significant others. We might have been the one who experienced the trauma, and have the symptoms and the dysfunctions as a result of it, but they are the partners of someone dealing with trauma, and that is its own challenge. I work with guys like this all the time, because the survivor needs support, but the partners and spouses of survivors need support, too. It’s a whole system. This is why trauma sucks, because there is just a lot of work to do. Especially when it was all somehow preventable.
Life Goes On
After trauma, life goes on. The sun also rises. It doesn’t care. “Sometimes you’re happy, and sometimes you’re sad, but the world goes ‘round,” as the Broadway lyricist Fred Ebb wrote in a song for another gay icon, Liza Minnelli. “One day it’s kicks, then it’s kicks – in the shins! But the planet spins, and the world goes ‘round and ‘round.”
So, how is our “ride” on it going to be? Can we learn to live in a post-safety world? Can we take the good with the bad, even though we really – really – hoped it had been better?
We didn’t want this fight. But we got it. It came to us. And we had to fight back, even though we didn’t want the fight in the first place.
We didn’t want the fight. We’re mad we were even put in that position in the first place. But we’re here. And maybe the next best thing to it not having happened at all, is that we learn to cope with it. We try to find meaning that even our challenges, even our traumas, might not be “pleasant,” but they can be educational, informative, fascinating, poignant, and meaningful. Maybe we knew something important that we didn’t know before. Maybe we learned that we have something in us that we didn’t know before. Maybe we just had to learn to trust, that the ruby slippers can take us home anytime we wish, but we had to learn it for ourselves.
How can I take a positive approach to this? Event + Response = Outcome. You haven’t seen the last of me. And the world goes ‘round and ‘round.
If you would like help or support for the traumas you’ve faced in your life, or help making your own world go ‘round, consider therapy (for residents of California) or coaching services in other states or countries. If you’re looking for a public speaker, I do that. If you’re looking for an expert witness in LGBT+ or HIV/AIDS issues, or others, I do that. For more information, email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778.