Perusing a selection of Father’s Day cards, it’s easy to identify the stereotypical markers of fatherhood. A father is viewed as a provider, a protector, and a connoisseur of grilling, sports, and yard work. Fatherhood is synonymous with “strength” – as demonstrated by cards depicting bulging muscles and streaming red capes. Is there is anything fundamentally wrong with wanting to be a “strong” man? Absolutely not. The trouble – especially for fathers in recovery – is that society’s definition of male strength has evolved into something that can paradoxically lead to suffering and weakness within the family and, ultimately, our social fabric.
Attempts to shed light on the meaning of “male strength” have traditionally met with resistance. These efforts are viewed as attacks on masculinity. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The examination of deep seated beliefs around what it means to be “strong” isn’t an exercise in shaming masculinity; it’s about supporting fathers in recovery to find appropriate ways to express and cope with tough emotions. It’s not about suffocating or erasing the masculine, but rather embracing and vocalizing all of the male experience – emotions included.
Men and women are different. Evidence shows that gender specific addiction treatment – i.e. separate treatment addressing the unique needs of each gender – can be more beneficial than integrated treatment. Gender specific treatment creates a supportive environment which caters to the needs of fathers in recovery and allows men to vocalize their experiences without judgment.
Gorski’s Developmental Model of Recovery
Nothing is more emotive than painful family relationships, whether they are with estranged children or absent/abusive parents. Some fathers in recovery may want to confront or amend these relationships early in the process. While each family situation is unique, many fathers in recovery find themselves facing resistance and lacking the skills to cope. Author and educator Terence Gorski breaks recovery into a developmental model, which is comprised of six stages. It isn’t until Gorski’s fourth stage, “middle recovery”, that the individual begins to focus on family relationships. Gorski writes: “The primary focus of middle recovery is on repairing lifestyle damage caused by the addiction to work, social, family, and intimate lives…Up until this time the primary focus has been on learning how to stay sober”.
It can be tough for fathers in recovery to stay focused in the early stages. Mark Sanders, LCSW, CADC, recommends treatment providers “discuss expectations. Many fathers in early recovery expect immediate results in rebuilding relationships. It may be helpful to let them know that many years of neglect, anger, and frustration are usually not forgiven immediately…Understanding recovery from a developmental perspective can help recovering fathers develop patience and weather the inevitable disappointments”.
Male Depression and Fathers in Recovery
An understanding of “male depression” is also invaluable for fathers in recovery. The phrase “male depression” was coined by Terrence Real, author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. According to Sanders, “women are 50% more like to be diagnosed with depression than men…Depressed men often don’t look depressed but instead wear a variety of disguises”. Sanders goes on to say: “Male socialization rarely gives men permission to express vulnerable emotions such as sadness and hurt…Repressed emotions then often emerge in the form of anger…Rage is the end result of anger that has built up over extended periods of time, and violent behavior may be the offshoot of repressed rage”. These repressed emotions may lead to deep family rifts for fathers in recovery.
The consequences of repression are felt across generations. Children receive the brunt of repressed rage, and may grow up to repeat cycles of violence and substance use. “Male depression” often originates with father abandonment. Sanders notes that “over half of children are being raised without fathers in the home”. The good news is that fathers in recovery can have a substantial positive impact on their children. New coping mechanisms and communication skills can be introduced and practiced. Fathers in recovery can also exemplify ways to ask for help and/or pursue recovery should their children find themselves in need. Sanders offers a message of hope: “When fathers recover, their children can improve emotionally, psychologically, and academically, and also become more optimistic”.
A New Interpretation of Strength
It’s clear that the widely accepted definition of “strength” isn’t working. The repression of grief around father abandonment, as well as the suppression of other painful emotions, leads to violence, substance use, and toxic familial cycles. The solution isn’t asking fathers in recovery to process emotions in the same manner as women – which is a common perception – but to support them in vocalizing their experience in general. As it stands, the messages men receive about “being strong” promote suffocation and toxic stoicism. The message we need to send is not only that it’s okay to talk about it, but also that it’s strong to talk about it.
Fathers in recovery benefit most from being around other recovering men who understand and can communicate without judgment. Sanders further recommends individual and group therapy, parenting classes, couples counseling, father’s weekend retreats, and recovery coaching. From a developmental perspective, these supports can help fathers in recovery navigate the early stages, vocalize their experiences, and successfully embark on the journey of family healing.
The Process Recovery Center offers gender specific addiction treatment three days a week, and is moving toward becoming a fully gender specific addiction treatment program. If you are looking for a safe place to recover and vocalize your experience, please call (888) 649-1149 or contact us here.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Abuse Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.
Gorski, T. (2008). Recovery – Gorski’s Developmental Model. Retrieved from https://terrygorski.com/2012/04/28/125/
Real, T. (1997). I don’t want to talk about it: Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. New York, NY: Fireside Press.
Sanders, M. Fatherhood and Recovery [Ebook] (pp. 14-16). The National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center. Retrieved from http://site.americanhumane.org/fatherhooddocs/Fatherhood%20and%20Recovery.pdf