University of St. Andrews
Preston and his wife Chesney live in St Andrews, Scotland where he is earning his doctoral degree in theology. Preston and Chesney both love studying and discussing reformed theology and liturgical practice. They also love to weep with those who weep. They feel a call together to minister and teach both in the academy and the church. Preston is researching John Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. As a male survivor and advocate, Preston is passionate about relating the significance of Christ’s own suffering and terrors in his descent into hell to the hells that we experience here and now, especially for survivors of severe trauma.
Dissociation & Anger
I think a lot of men struggle with anger. We keep our emotions bottled up. We don’t talk about how we feel because no one ever taught us how. Feeling anything feels like weakness, so we have become masters at shutting out our affections, drying up tears, and pushing away connection. This isn’t the way men are by nature – it is what our culture teaches us.
This creates a tricky predicament for men who have survived sexual abuse. It makes us all the more prone to dissociation. That is the psychological phenomenon of “flying away” from the present moment, from all the earthy, smelly, tangible detail of the immediate. Dissociation is kind of like that “zone” you get into during a long road trip, the “white-line syndrome” where you drift off in your mind and forget where you are. Dissociation protects us from a scary situation by cutting off our nerves: if we burn off our ability to feel, then we can’t feel anything bad.
Many survivors describe dissociation during their sexual abuse as the experience of floating up outside of their body as if they have moved to the ceiling and are watching the sexual abuse happen to someone else, but not to themselves. I get that. Though it may be hard to imagine, it’s much easier to watch someone else or even yourself be abused than to be in your body during the abuse.
Dissociation, at root, is cutting ourselves off from all feeling. When we do this, we lose the ability to feel pain. Thank God for dissociation. Our body knew exactly what we needed during our traumatic moments of abuse in order to protect us, to get through it, to survive.
But now is not the abuse. And when you cut off pain, you also cut off pleasure. Now, our kids are wanting to crawl on our lap. Our spouses are wanting to kiss us. Our friends and family (the safe ones!) are wanting connection. But we can’t connect with others if we are unconnected from ourselves. We can’t live our lives in dissociation.
What is the way forward? Many of my survivor friends remind me: the more I feel, the more I heal. Us survivors like pithy little maxims. They’re easy to remember, easy to process. Repeat this phrase to yourself: feeling is healing. It’s ironic, but it’s good because the opposite is also true. When I feel, I am healing, and the more I heal, I end up feeling even more. And though that may hurt sometimes, it is not harmful. We have to learn to go at our own paces in reconnecting our bodies, our emotions, and our thoughts with ourselves. Where abuse has fractured us, the call of redemption is to engage the broken pieces with care, curiosity, and delight.
For men, this often means addressing our anger. Already prone to disconnection, when you add abuse to the mix, male survivors are in a toxic cocktail of disconnected and misdirected anger. Instead of suppressing our rage, we need to constructively engage it. That means naming it, feeling it, expressing it, without taking it out on our families or friends.
The less we address our anger, the more we will take it out on those who don’t deserve it. The more we address our anger positively, the more we will feel free to love the safe people in our lives.
If you are a male survivor or any survivor, I would encourage you today to do something that perhaps no one has yet given you permission to do. Feel your anger. Get connected with your story of harm. Don’t rush into it. But in good time, learn to allow yourself to be angry. Before we can grieve, heal, or even forgive, we absolutely must learn to be angry over what has been done to us.