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Mic Hunter's Stages of Recovery
This model is described in detail in Mic Hunter’s Abused Boys, one of the first books written for men struggling with the effects of unwanted or abusive boyhood sexual experiences.
The model comes from Hunter’s experiences of helping men to sort out and overcome the effects of such experiences.
He found parallels with the stages of grieving the loss of an important person in one’s life – which makes sense, because harmful boyhood sexual experiences and their effects are often experienced as causing one to ‘lose’ important aspects of oneself (for example, one’s masculinity, confidence, trust, or enjoyment of life).
1. Denial – “Nothing happened…”
Denial doesn’t necessarily mean refusing to acknowledge something that is true, though this can be the case. Rather, it refers to a variety of ways that men can – for very good reasons – push memories of unwanted childhood sexual experiences out of their awareness. These ways range from completely “blocking out” or “splitting off” memories, without even realizing it, at one extreme, to intentionally, and often with great effort, trying to keep memories and reminders from breaking into consciousness, at the other.
Most men who have had such experiences, but haven’t yet sorted them out or dealt with their effects, find themselves somewhere in the middle. They have clues that something happened, or fragments of memory that pop into awareness, but these are quickly pushed away or “blocked out” whenever they come into awareness.
There are many reasons that men have for pushing such memories and related thoughts out of their minds. They can trigger unwanted feelings like anger, sadness, fear, or horror. They can trigger unwanted and disturbing thoughts – about one’s masculinity, about important people and relationships in one’s life (past and present), and about what would happen if such memories and thoughts were not always pushed away. As discussed in stages of change, it is neither helpful nor respectful to push or try to convince a man to look at such memories or information which suggests that he may have had childhood sexual experiences that are causing him problems now.
On the other hand, as Hunter points out, it can be costly to keep such information out of awareness. In some cases, it uses ‘cognitive resources’ that are needed for other purposes, like ones school work or job responsibilities. It can keep one in constant (if unacknolwedged) fear of experiencing any vulnerable emotions that could trigger unwanted feelings, thoughts and memories about the sexual experiences. This means being unable to experience or tolerate other people’s vulnerable emotions, which is necessary for caring about their suffering and doing the right thing to help.
Also, emotions tend to be a ‘package deal.’ Disconnection from negative emotions usually means experiencing few positive ones either, or not even getting close to experiencing one’s potential to have fun and be happy. Men in this situation often find themselves feeling like they’re ‘going through the motions’ in important relationships – with friends, family, girlfriends, wives and partners, even their children.
2. Bargaining – ‘Something happened, but…’
In this stage, men acknoweldge that something happened, but attempt to convince themselves (and others) that the experience wasn’t harmful and hasn’t caused them any problems – even though it has.
This is not to say that men can’t have unwanted or even abusive sexual experiences that do not cause problems in their lives. This is possible, for example, if the experience only happened once and the boy’s life was otherwise full of healthy and positive relationships with family, friends, and other authority figures.
Instead, this stage refers to the experiences of men who are, on the one hand, no longer pushing away the fact that they had a potentially harmful sexual experience, while, on the other hand, they’re not yet ready to deal with the impact it continues to have on them. These mixed feelings are often expressed in ‘yes but’ thoughts and statements.
The ability to doubt the reality of what happened, or its effects on one’s current life, can be very strong at this stage. Also common is ‘pseudoforgiveness,’ in which, as Hunter puts it, the man ‘attempts to move from denial straight into forgiveness without experiencing any of the emotions’ related to what happened.
Below are some common things said by men in this stage, from chapter 5 of Hunter’s book:
‘It didn’t happen enough for it to matter.’
‘I know what she did, and I wanted it.’
‘I can’t deny it happened, but it’s my fault that it happened.’
‘She was just teaching me about sex.’
‘I can’t do anything about it now. There’s no sense in even talking about it.’
One last obervation, and a suggestion, from Hunter:
‘When in the bargaining stage, many people find that a constant argument or civil war goes on in their heads: ‘It really happened.’ ‘No, it didn’t.’ ‘Yes, it did.’ This goes back and forth, seemingly forever. If you find this happening, you may find it useful to choose a side and write a letter to yourself or someone else arguing that point, making no attempt to be objective or to see both sides. Once that is done, write another letter arguing the opposite side. Pay attention to your body during the writing of each letter, and listen to what your emotions are telling you ‘(Abused Boys, p.105).
3. Anger – ‘Something happened, and I’m angry about it!’
This is a third stage that many men experience. This stage begins when a man recognizes not only that something happened, but that it really did harm him.
For some men, this is the beginning of believing that what was done to them matters because they matter. For those who have squelched their anger, or been unable to feel it, this may be the first recognition that experiencing and expressing anger can be helpful and healthy.
For some, this ‘opening to anger’ brings fear that they will lose control and hurt other people or themselves. This fear can be valid and healthy. In fact, realistic concerns about anger’s destructive potential tends to protect men from acting out violent thoughts and impulses that be triggered very suddenly.
Importantly, it’s almost impossible to be simultaneously angry about something done to you and blame yourself for it. For this reason, getting angry about what happened can bring relief from self-blaming thoughts. It can be the beginning of overcoming the tendency – which is especially common in men – to blame yourself for ways people took advantage of you when you were a child.
For many, the recognition that they are valuable human beings, and that what happened isn’t their fault, can bring a huge sense of relief. Also, the anger may also provide a lot of energy and motivation to make positive changes in one’s life. In these ways, this phase can bring a great deal of healing and progress.
At the same time, this can be a risky period. Anger may become a central player in one’s emotional life. It can ‘spill out’ in ways that are harmful to oneself or others. Or one may now feel ‘justified’ and ‘entitled’ to act in the same old angry ways one has for a long time, rather than taking responsibility for them. In addition to relief and empowerment, then, this stage can bring new challenges and responsibilities.
Another problem is that some men have trouble moving on from this stage. Whether consciously or not, they prefer anger to the sadness that is an essential part of recovery. Men especially are vulnerable to getting stuck in the anger phase, because they have been conditioned to feel safe and strong when they are angry, and fear that sadness equals weakness, even being a victim, though as described below, this is definitely not the case.
As Hunter points out, in this stage many men find that exercise is a great way to channel the ‘energy’ of anger or ‘vent’ angry feelings. Running, lifting weights, or playing active sports can not only channel the energy and help release the feelings, but increase one’s senses of being strong and powerful. Finally, for some men hitting a punching bag, or even an old mattress, can be a safe way to release anger when it wells up inside.
4. Sadness – ‘Something happened, and it cost me a lot.’
As Hunter writes, ‘Sadness comes when a man realizes that he was wronged and that he has lost something that he can never retrieve.’ This is when the grieving phase of the overall grieving process described by these stages really kicks in.
Harmful unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences bring many losses – of innocence, of trust in others, of belief in oneself, and of achievements that never happened thanks to the effects of the unwanted or abusive experiences.
Truly facing and reflecting on one’s many losses can bring a great deal of sadness. Sadness is a totally legitimate and justified response to such losses. It can be painful to experience, but coming to know this sadness can bring great strength, and deep appreciation and understanding of the suffering that are part of so many people’s lives.
During this phase men can become very sensitive. Not only their own pain and suffering, but that other people, and pets or other animals, can feel very intense. They may cry easily.
Hunter observes, ‘As a person moves through the sadness stage, he will notice how his tears change. At first, crying will be very difficult and painful. He may fight back the tears by holding his breath, not making any sound… or shaming himself for needing to cry. Later in this stage, the tears will seem to come from somewhere very deep and are often accompanied by a sense of being a small child. There is often a sense of great loss and loneliness.… Still later in the recovery process the tears are followed by a sense of healing, coming together, wholeness’ (Abused Boys, p.111).
In short, in this stage of recovery one’s experiences of sadness become increasingly healing and strengthening.
Hunter and others have suggested several actvities that can help bring about this transformation. One is writing ‘goodbye letters’ to things you have lost because of unwanted or abusive childhood experiences – ‘for example, the relationships you never had because of your shame and fear of intimacy, or the type of parents you never had, or the loss of your spontaneity’ (Abused Boys, p.111).
5. Acceptance – ‘Something happened, and I have healed from it.’
Once again, a passage from Hunter’s book nicely sums up the essence of this stage:
‘The final stage of grieving begins to take place when the person who was wronged has acknowledged [what happened], felt as well as expressed the emotions he has about it, and begins to put it in proper perspective. He no longer blames himself… or punishes himself for what he did or didn’t do in order to cope… He becomes less and less likely to see himself as helpless, hopeless, and defective. This will make him less vulnerable to further exploitation. He will begin to accept himself and treat himself with respect and affection. Although he will never forget what was done to him, he will be able to stop organizing his life… around it. He will have a scar rather than an open wound’ (Abused Boys, p.113).
Acceptance here does not mean failing to see that what happened was harmful and wrong. Instead, it means accepting that the past cannot be changed, and coming to peace with it rather than remaining focused on pain or sadness, anger or resentment.
While it may be hard to imagine at the beginning of the recovery process, it really is possible to experience a sense of serenity about even the worst childhood experiences and the negative effects they once had.
The acceptance of this stage brings great strength and power. The strength and power come from having faced one’s life head-on, having truly experienced the worst of the past, and having arrived at a way of being that is free from either running away from painful truths or getting caught up in them.
With acceptance, one can truly ‘move on’ – as a man of greater courage, strength, hope, and wisdom.