In addiction recovery, people face many challenges in many forms. For men, recovery challenges their identity of themselves - or of what it means to be a ‘man’.
There are few myths surrounding ‘manhood’ which we see: Men are always tough, men are always in control, men are disposable, men are not emotional or emotionally vulnerable, men are competitive, and men don’t know how to have meaningful relationships.
Let us examine three of these myths that impact addiction recovery:
Men are tough beings
Let us take the first myth - that men are always tough. Now men are always expected to be tough and strong, like warriors. They are supposed to be able to withstand a lot of pain - both physical and emotional. Since childhood, boys are taught that succumbing to pain is a sign of weakness. You often hear on the playground: “come on, don’t cry like a girl”… “Are you a man or what?” Those who show the slightest sign of weakness are ridiculed. As the boys grow up to be me, the playground changes but the rules remain the same. Even when men when to war, they had to be cold, unemotional and painless.
In the long run men start to deny their pain due to such social conditioning. While in the short run it teaches endurance, in the long run it becomes a way of life. Living in denial of pain is self destructive. It not only gives us a false sense of control but it teaches us to dissociate from our emotions. This means that we lead ourselves to believe we have resolved emotions and issues which have not actually been resolved, leading us to act out in dangerous ways which may be harmful to us or others around us. For example, we may fight with our girlfriend who then starts crying, and as we bite down our pain we wonder why she is so weak emotionally. There are several ways to address this myth - if we are in pain about a relationship that we are in, we need to talk to our partner or get some counselling and guidance. If we are still in pain over issues about our using days, we need to do a Fourth Step inventory or talk to our sponsor. Addiction recovery is all about feeling pain, expressing it appropriately, then letting go to mover forward.
Men are always in control
The second myth says that men are always in control. For many people, their addiction helped them pretend that they were in control. After drinking, they would feel knowledgeable, witty, alive and in control. One man says: “You know, my addiction helped me pretend I was in control. In reality I was lost and scared. I was still trying to maintain that control during my first treatment. I even made suggestions to my counselor about how they should rewrite the Big Book”. Control also means power and men are supposed to be all-powerful. Therefore for an alcoholic or addict in recovery it is very difficult to accept that a small thing like a bottle or few pills can have more power than them. Hence the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous which says “We admitted we were powerless…” is something that a lot of men find it hard to accept because it goes against the ideals that they've been brought up to believe. Men are taught that it is a sign of weakness to ‘accept the things we cannot change’ (Serenity Prayer). However, in recovery we are taught that there are people, places and situations which are beyond our control, and only once we accept this can we begin the process of healing in addiction recovery.
Men are disposable
That men are disposable is the third myth. Men are traditionally seen as breadwinners, with a clearly defined role that takes them out of the house. Often, work comes first, and families learn to accept that fathers can be absent on important occasions but mothers cannot. Therefore men are seen as disposable or replaceable whereas mothers are usually an integral part of the family. It is reported that in families where the father is an alcoholic, this “disposable’ self image allows him greater freedom to get sicker before some kind of treatment is sought. Sanjay says, “I never thought anything in my life meant anything to anyone. I’ve spent my life believing I’ve been a liability. All my life I’ve been scared. I’ve tried to be a team player. I’ve been afraid that if I ever stood out from the crowd, I’d be dropped from the team.” However this feeling is often covered up by what twelve step programs call ‘false pride’. This means that the person starts being overly grandiose and also overtly criticizes others to pull them down to his level and as to feel better about himself. Men start feeling like an outsider with their family and feel ‘needed’ with their drinking friends so they start spending more and more time with them, though it is actually an illusion. The fact is, that men are needed. But they need to allow themselves to feel the emotions that will bring them closer to the ones they love. Developing empathy is part of addiction recovery.