Dissociation & Male Survivors

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Sexual abuse produces a cluster of difficulties and is rarely a single or discrete issue. Survivors’ experiences are unique and compounded by several long-term complications such that a generalized “one-size-fits all” healing approach is neither helpful nor successful. There are similarities in the way females and males experience and respond to sexual abuse, but there are still differences, and we need to recognize these differences when seeking and supplying helpful strategies.  

Societal beliefs create issues for females, males, and other gender identifying individuals when trying to comprehend and understand sexual abuse. Adding masculine stereotypes and expectations affects how males recognize, experience, comprehend, and respond to sexual abuse and needs to be included in the healing process. For example, all genders may experience depression; but occurring in a gendered social context, males struggle to acknowledge, privately and publicly, that they are survivors, and are less likely to access professional health services.

Men who have reported sexual abuse indicate complex trauma including blocked memories, struggling with overwhelming memories and emotions, loss of sense of self and integrity separate from the traumatic experience, and the continuing impacts.

Are men suffering dissociative issues more because of how males are brought up and social norms? 

According to Dr. Jim Hopper, Dissociative Disorders are "a disruption of the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment. The disturbance may be sudden or gradual, transient or chronic.”

All survivors may be susceptible to Dissociative Disorders. Those who have experienced repeated traumatic or overwhelming events are more likely to experience freezing or dissociation, since it is the mind’s survival method to minimize the impact of the events.

Dr. Kelli Palfy shares in her book, Men Too, “Dissociation involves a mental, emotional, and physiological detachment or disengagement from one’s own consciousness or immediate surroundings (kind of like being in a dream state). When victims perceive they cannot tolerate or escape what is happening, they dissociate. This can protect victims in the short term, but over the long term it has the potential to disrupt every area of psychological functioning.”

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The Dissociation Spectrum

Mild Form includes “zoning out” or daydreaming which can be entered voluntarily.

Moderate Form includes the feeling of not being present in the current time, feeling unreal, or not able to recognize oneself in the mirror.

Strong Form can include more pathological forms in the development of “alters” or other personalities (called Dissociative Identity Disorder, DID) to endure the traumatic events.

Dissociation Consequences

·         Inability to remember details

·         Reduced ability to pay attention

·         Less capacity to process auditory clues

·         Reduced ability to think clearly and make decisions

·         Diminished ability to act appropriately

·         Inability to complete assignments or tasks

·         Inhibited learning, confidence, and self-esteem 

·         Loss of sleep

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Dissociation can cause much fear for survivors, especially when dealing with reporting and being questioned by lawyers and police. Many survivors experience Dissociative Amnesia, the inability to remember important details of the traumatic events. We have seen where cases have been dropped because the survivor cannot recall details during the trial, even though it may have happened many years prior when the survivor was a child.

I dissociated and normalized the abuse in thinking this was what I had to endure to make my Olympic dreams come true. I could not remember much of the details surrounding the abuse, except that I remembered flashes of moments of rooms and places where the abuse took place. It was not until later in life that I started recalling more memories.

Male survivor, C. Stewart Kitchen, recalls that he dissociated from the event: “I didn’t say it out loud until I was 31 years old. For 19 years, I kept it a secret because of the stigma I thought would be attached to me. As a man, I didn’t want to be seen as a weakling or a victim. But holding on to that secret and trauma all alone led to unhealthy beliefs about myself and about sex, which, in turn, led to unhealthy coping strategies which impacted my relationship with the world around me.”

New York Times bestselling author and podcast host, Lewis Howes shares, “For 25 years I lived in anger, resentment, and defensiveness. It showed up big time, especially in sports. I was very reactive. I needed to win at all costs. I needed to be right in relationships and other areas of my life. No one knew what happened or why I was that way because I was so ashamed and I thought that if anyone ever found out about this, no one would ever love me.”

The more men share their stories, the more we will realize that we are not the only ones that have experienced sexual abuse and that dissociation happens to many. As males realize that dissociation is a survival method, and we begin to recognize and accept the truth that we were sexually abused, memories will return when we are ready.

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About the Author:

John-Michael Lander is a Survivor, Advocate & Public Speaker

He is also the founder of An Athlete's Silence: www.anathletessilence.com

Published by SurvivorSpace, an initiative of Zero Abuse Project