The Past Is In The Past. Right? Men and Childhood Trauma

By Stephen Rodgers, LCSW

Dave sits down on the couch in my office. He has come to see me because he is getting frustrated and angry at his wife and kids. Dave tells me “I am miserable and pissed all the time. I don’t know why. I love my family. But they make me so mad.” He has also started to drink heavily to cope with these feelings. This has been building for many years. However, recently things really came to a head; “I got so mad at them that I almost lost control. That scared me. I told myself I’d never be like my dad.” When I ask Dave about his childhood with his dad he responds in a vague and casual way; “my dad was an asshole. He drank all the time. He’d beat up my mom. Me too. But that stuff is in the past.” Over the course of our next few sessions, Dave opens up with more details about growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father. When I tell Dave that he experienced trauma in his childhood he first looked at me with hesitation, anger, then relief. Through our work, he was quickly able to link the trauma he experienced as a kid to his current depression and drinking. This is when our work really took off.

I’ve talked to many men who have gone through traumatic childhood events. Often these guys come to therapy “feeling stuck” in their adult lives. They are unaware of how trauma is at the root of their feeling stuck. It’s important to understand that the term “trauma” is very broad. Trauma can refer to a wide range of negative experiences. On one end of the spectrum are events like near death experiences, seeing someone else die, sexual abuse, physial abuse or a bad accident. On the other end of the spectrum are repeated experiences that often take place in interpersonal relationships. Examples of these experiences include emotional abuse, neglect, chronic bullying, overly critical or cold parents, or a parent with an addiction. Think of each end of this trauma spectrum as a bucket being filled with water; the former is a bucket being filled up in a single pour. The latter is being filled over time with repeated drips of water. It’s important to note that in both cases the bucket gets filled with water. It is very common for us men to minimize these experiences from our childhood, to brush them off as if they were unimportant. We tend to think that the past is in the past and that there’s no use in dealing with it now because as adults, we’re fine. I’m fine.