Finding A New Tribe

“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” C.S. LewisThe Four Loves

I have years of education, months of additional and specialized training and my own personal experiences in recovery from addiction and childhood trauma, but to some clients, I’m just another person with a position of power, and trusting me can be far too big of a risk! I have heard so many clients look at me and say, “yeah, I hear you telling me that my reaction was normal and I’m a good person, but that’s your job and that’s what you have to say…” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I, or therapists in general do not develop deep connections with their clients that lead to deep insight and psychic change. However, for many of our clients who have been abused and betrayed by the people they were supposed to be able to trust, it should not be a surprise that the walls come up with professionals, too! However, when a peer looks at that  client and says the same thing, a shift occurs. When a peer looks at that same client and says, “yeah, me too,” or, “I’ve done and felt those exact things,” that client realizes, often for the first time, that they’re not the sickest and not alone! They have found a new tribe!

In the absence of information the developing mind will often make up a story, especially if an event is difficult to comprehend. 90% of childhood sex abuse survivors know their perpetrators and 68% of the time it’s family. This goes against everything children know at a cellular level: “These are the people that are supposed to be protecting me?!” With their world turned upside down, these children try desperately to make sense of their abuse and usually the blame is turned inward: “Something must be wrong with ME.” I’ve worked with countless gay clients who create a story when their perpetrator was of the same sex: “I must have done something to ask for it…” The corrosive shame that is the insidious hallmark of childhood sexual abuse begins to define their lives. It should really be of no surprise that these individuals become our clients, desperately using drugs, alcohol, sex, technology and self-harm to dissociate and survive. In fact, a trauma survivors relationship with their addictive behaviors may be about much more than just the high. It’s often the safest and most consistent relationship they’ve ever had: it can become the family, protectors and lovers they never had. Always there to soothe, medicate and comfort… Always there to protect them from what they fear the most: the pain within. Of course they fight to hold on… Its about survival. Victor Frankl said it best; “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

The discovery of the new tribe may be the first time these clients ever felt a part of. The first time they ever felt safe enough to let their guard down and start exploring the secrets that have been defining them! What’s really beautiful is when survivors of trauma get to have experiences that were previously incomprehensible, normalized. For example, the body WILL respond. Yet countless survivors carry shame because they felt aroused during abuse or perhaps even achieved orgasm. If 30-people in a room take a bite of a lemon, those 30-people will have a physical reaction to that stimulus: puckered lips, scrunched faces and taste buds going berserk! Our sexual organs will respond to the stimulus of touch, good or bad and often times it can feel good, especially for the young mind that can’t fully conceptualize what is happening. This will happen automatically and is a completely normal and natural response. However, as mentioned earlier, the child will often make up a story with blame turned inward: “I’m a slut”, “I’m a pervert”… “I am broken.”

All the shame and confusion from the past sexual abuse becomes wrapped up with any experience that is sexual and sexual exploration, a normal and healthy process for any child and adolescent, becomes weaponized. Boys will have shame for sizing themselves up with other boys in the locker room (an instinctual behavior), girls will have shame and fear as they develop into women, a first kiss becomes frightening. Robbed of normal and healthy experiences that help shape their identity, young men and women who have experienced childhood sexual trauma are lost, which is why their trauma, the stories of the past, are often all that’s left to define them.

The new tribe is where these individuals can re-learn and re-define who they are! They get to end toxic generational patterns within their family, they get to learn to be fully present with themselves and others (a gift many people never truly experience), and they get to learn how to become authentic human beings. They get to re-define what it means to be a woman, a man, a partner, a lover and a friend. The new tribe is often the classroom where this re-education of self begins to really take place on a deeper level, and it extends far beyond the initial connections made at The Refuge: The new tribe is the healthy connections they make throughout their lives, their recovery community, their sponsorship families, the members of their ashram, dojo, yoga studio, temple, mosque or church! We’ve all heard the saying that nothing is more indicative of success than the relationship between client and therapist, but what about the relationship between clients and their peers? That new tribe! These relationships go far beyond a clients treatment episode and often, they’ll last a life time! I would argue that these relationships are far more indicative of long-term success and recovery than ANY other. These are the relationships that empower our clients to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and to begin writing their recovery stories. It is in these new tribes that they learn how beautiful and capable they are, not in spite of their trauma, but because of it!

Lewis, C.S. (1960). The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. Newly rev. and enl. ed. of From death-camp to existentialism. New York: Washington Square Press.