What can a story about one particular parasite tell anyone — especially someone sitting in a spirituality group with just a few days of recovery— about Higher Power, spirituality, God? If a tiny parasite could potentially reach someone with a message about a Universal Intelligence, would men and women in the same situation respond to the story in the same way?
Most addiction treatment programs make it a practice to separate men and women as much as possible. In residential programs this (obviously) is done to prevent fraternization and loss of focus on one’s own process. But do men and women also react to the same material in different ways?
Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) No. 51 from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment notes there are differences in treatment of males and females: “Although the relationship with the counselor is important to both men and women, each gender defines this connection differently. When women and men were asked what was important about the quality of their therapeutic relationships and their recovery from substance abuse, most women answered, trust and warmth, and most men answered, a utilitarian problem-solving approach” (CSAT TIP No. 51, p. 12).
But what about spirituality? Do men and women approach their spiritual explorations in treatment the same way? One thing many people, addicted or not, find hard to grasp is a sense of the mystery and the intelligence of a spiritual force in their own life. Seeing it in nature helps to personalize it.
Could it be that women approach a fresh or renewed concept of a Higher Power with the same values they wants in their counselor relationship: warmth and trust? If men value solving problems more than emotional intimacy in their counselor relationships, might that also be the way most men approach spiritual exploration?
A particular story, the one about the parasite, does seem to resonate more with men than women. It’s from a new series in development on spirituality. The series takes situations in nature and offers the listener the chance to make comparisons that may relate to the spiritual dimension.
In his book, Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures, Carl Zimmer writes of the Lancet Fluke. The Lancet Fluke is a tiny parasite that lives in the digestive system of sheep. It does not harm the sheep in any way. Sometimes the Fluke finds itself on the ground of the pasture, having been passed through the sheep’s digestive system. Now how can the Fluke get back home? It turns out that snails love to feast on sheep excrement. In doing so, it ingests the Lancet Fluke, but the snail is allergic to it; can’t tolerate the Fluke and the snail throws it up. Now, ants happen to love snail “throw up” and the ant ingests the Fluke. What happens next, according to Dr. Zimmer, science cannot explain. The ants that ingest the Lancet Fluke are overcome with an overwhelming compulsion to climb. They must climb. The Fluke is so tiny that it has no head or tail. It is inside of the ant and it makes the ant climb. In the pasture, the closest thing to climb up is usually a blade of grass. So the ant climbs right to the tip of the blade of grass. The sheep comes along and chomps that grass and the ant. And the Lancet Fluke has made its way back home.
We have discovered that men find the story compelling. Women, however, would rather move on to something else. Some comments we have heard are, “If a Higher Power can have a Lancet Fluke make an ant climb up a blade of grass by means of which science cannot understand, I suppose that same Force could help me figure some things out.” “I’m stuck in the snail vomit and I know I’m going to get home, but it sure feels yucky right now.”
At The Gooden Center in Pasadena, California, men have been receiving addiction treatment since 1962. Its sister program, Casa de Las Amigas, across the street and in operation about the same length of time, treats only women. After decades of comparing notes, the counselors concur that women’s issues are more often focused on relationships. Food addiction is also prominent. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on work. For them, sex addiction is often an ancillary diagnosis. While these are generalizations and are not substantiated with control group trials, there appear to be many instances when treatment for men and for women should differ. TIP No. 51 seems to concur.
We hand it to CSAT for tackling gender-specific treatment differences in TIP 51. And we look forward to the next TIP for how men respond differently. In the meantime, we will continue to use stories of the mysterious and awesome from the natural world in helping clients explore their spiritual life. Men may approach God as a problem to be solved. But in trying to do so, many brush up against a Force both startling and familiar, and even Something they can learn to trust.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women, TIP 51, Rockville, MD, 2009.
Zimmer, Carl, Parasite Rex, Touchstone, New York, 2000