THE INITIAL TRAUMA RECOVERY COACHING PROGRAM

Review 
I enrolled in the Initial Trauma Certification Program online with IAOTRC in August of 2020. In the middle of the pandemic and having recently made the decision to not return to my current job, not much was clear about the direction I needed to go. When I read the description of the program, I decided to enroll.  I was disappointed to learn the class was full. I emailed Sarah, and only a few days into the program I got an email from her letting me know a spot had opened up. I was excited to have the opportunity and immediately started to attend an online Zoom class that week. I’d never used Zoom before, but like everyone else in 2020 I learned how to adjust to doing things differently.  I have worked in the mental healthcare field for several years and am not unfamiliar with trauma informed care.  I also have a history of childhood trauma and spent a few years in therapy.  I was very impressed with the training I received at IAOTRC.  Not only did it build upon the foundation I already had in trauma informed care, but they explained the neurobiological effects of trauma in ways that I was able to understand more clearly.  Every class provided me with rich information and resources that would enable me to begin work as a trauma informed coach.  The observation and participation groups taught me at a gentle but steady pace to apply what I had learned in the classroom and gain confidence in my ability to coach. This is not a program where certification is easily obtained.  It is a program that will require participation and effort.  However, if one is committed to learning, certification will be an obtainable goal. Not only do I highly recommend the program, but I also encourage those in a position of caring for others especially in healthcare or religious environments to enroll in these classes. I have experienced first hand the harm that can come from others in these environments who are not trauma informed. I am so very thankful for the safe learning environment provided at the IAOTRC. Not only do I feel competent to coach, I also have experienced real hope for myself and others who have experienced trauma after having enrolled in this program. 

 

The Healing Power of Self-Compassion

Everyone we meet is fighting difficult battles. Let us be kind to one another and to ourselves.

I recently starting listening to the Audible presentation by Deb Dana, LCSW Befriending Your Nervous System. I am only a couple of chapters in, and I find myself stopping to take notes and to write this blog. It is a resource rich in understanding how our nervous system works, and how understanding this process is extremely helpful in our healing process as trauma survivors.

Did you know that when our nervous system is in a survival state that our brains by default go to self-criticism? According to Deb Dana, this is a normal reaction from our nervous system when we do not feel safe.

Deb cites Kristen Neff’s book Self‐Compassion: The Proven Power of being Kind to Yourself .

This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.

Deb encourages her listeners to write their own statements that are similar to Neff’s, so we can be reminded when we do not feel safe that our nervous systems are just doing their jobs.

Here is my statement:

I do not feel safe in this moment.  My body and brain are reacting to what is happening.  This is a normal reaction for anyone.  Remember to be kind to yourself.

As a trauma survivor, what I tell myself about what is happening can make all the difference in my ability to keep moving forward in the moment. Brain scans reveal that the amygdala is often larger for trauma survivors. We are hypervigilent to danger. This means that sometimes a reminder of past traumas can cause us to see danger where there is not an immediate threat. Again, this is a normal response. It is the job of our brains to keep us safe. When bad things have happened in the past, our brains work actively to keep them from happening again. It is not a reason to be critical of ourselves, however because our prefrontal cortex (the reasoning part of our brains) goes off line when we are in survival mode logic can go out the window.

This is why it is incredibly helpful to understand these processes when we are not in a survival state. Planning ahead is what will give us the resources we need when we feel unsafe again. I am learning that understanding what happens in my body and my brain when I feel unsafe, quietens the loud, critical voices of a survival state.

Implementation of self-compassion into our lives is a process that takes practice. I don’t know about you, but taking care of myself is sometimes easy to forget, especially when things feel out of control or chaotic. For the past few weeks, I have been training at a new job. Learning something new, changing my routine, and getting to know new people is especially difficult for me. When difficulties arise, my sympathetic nervous system reacts to the chaos by overwhelming my brain with loud, critical voices that proclaim:

You will never learn this. You’re overreacting and making life more difficult for everyone around you. Everyone thinks you are an idiot.

And sometimes when I’m really overwhelmed the voices proclaim that the world would be better off without me. This thought comes when I feel trapped in a situation that seems unchanging and hopeless.

Once there was a little girl trapped in an abusive situation with her father. She could not escape. All she could do was try to figure out what to do to keep it from happening again. Because she was a child, the only power she had was to try and change her behavior. When this didn’t stop the abuse, she believed that there must be something terribly wrong with her.

When my sympathetic nervous system storm passes, and the shame rolls in for my having overreacted, I remember this little girl. A little girl who needed to be rescued. A little girl who needed to be loved.

I’m all grown up now, but there are times I still long to be rescued and loved. These are the times that I can acknowledge what I feel and offer myself self‐compassion. These are the times when I can reach out to safe people or even animals who give me the healthy love and compassion I need.

Today, I want to be hard on myself for overreacting to the chaos in my current circumstances. I want to feel ashamed for being so vulnerable and afraid, and for believing that the world would be better off without me.

But today, I will remember that I wasn’t created to give up. I was created for love.

And so were you.

No matter what you may be going through, know that you are not alone. You matter. You are worthy of love and self-compassion. You are worthy to be treated with respect. Life can be difficult. It’s ok to acknowledge this and move forward even when you feel like you totally messed things up. Abuse is never your fault. It’s ok to ask for help.

2020 hit us with a lot. 2021 is no walk in the park either.

Everyone we meet is fighting difficult battles. Let us be kind to one another and to ourselves.

God and Trauma

Experiencing God did not take away my pain, nor did it prevent that pain from leading me down more harmful paths.

The word God has become empty of meaning through thousands of years of misuse.

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment Eckhart Tolle.

I started reading Tolle’s book a couple of days ago. I haven’t made it very far. Reading it has caused me to stop and reflect on my spiritual experiences in ways I never have before.

The word God, Tolle says, has been misused for thousands of years and has lost it’s original meaning.

What comes to your mind when you think about God?

It is a simple but profound question I found myself asking reading Tolle’s book this morning.

When I ask myself this question, I realize that even the word God brings up memories of things that I would rather forget.

This realization brings up a lot of feelings for me. Sadness, grief, despair, loss. Shame, guilt, fear, and overwhelming emptiness. These emotions manifest themselves starting in my throat and spreading down into my chest.

The path of healing for trauma survivors is acknowledging the pain of our losses and giving ourselves the time we need to grieve. I acknowledge that one of the biggest losses I have experienced is the relationship I once had with God.

I used to think that this loss was about no longer being able to attend church due to overwhelming triggers. But reading Tolle’s book caused me to understand that my losses go much deeper than that.

Tolle describes the moment he experienced a spiritual awakening that came after tremendous internal suffering when he realized there were two identities inside himself. A false self that he describes as: unhappy and deeply fearful self, which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. And his true self that he describes as: my true nature as the ever-present I am: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.

While I would not describe my own spiritual awakening with the same words as Tolle, our experiences were much the same. I, too, in a moment of intense mental suffering became aware of the divisions inside of myself that kept my soul in chaos.

After my abusive father passed away a few months prior to my experience, I was bombarded with a mixture of overwhelming emotions. I recognize now these emotions were there because my body was holding onto trauma that needed to be released; years of suppressed memories that my mind, in order to protect me, caused me to forget.

Peace came when I realized there were many voices inside of my head motivated by fear and shame. Voices that I understand now became a part of my identity as a result of ongoing childhood abuse.  Voices that I believed were just a part of me. My own spiritual awakening brought relief and release when I finally realized the cacophony of voices inside my head were not telling me the truth about myself.

I experienced God for the first time after months of intense suffering when He awakened my mind to the truth of who I was through the words of a Twila Paris song.

And there are many wondrous voices,
Day and night they fill the air,
But there is one so small and quiet,
I would know it anywhere…

Where He Leads Me Twila Paris

Hearing these words caused something to awaken inside my mind; an awareness that the shame-filled voices were not who I really was. On this day, I believed that God spoke in a peaceful quiet voice telling me that I had never been alone. This voice motivated me to read my Bible. Up until this time, I’d only felt shame reading it. I tended to gravitate towards the ones that only communicated how I had mistreated God’s temple. Deep down I believed there was something evil about me that had caused all the bad things in my life to happen. However, after listening to this song I read verses that communicated something else. And these verses flooded my soul with an unseen hope I had never known before.

For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:24‭-‬27 NKJV

I read and reread these verses that day. For the first time I truly understood that God was not angry with me. Memories of my childhood began to flash before my mind. I no longer felt shame about who I was. Rather, I felt tremendous sadness over how I had been abused. I felt the deep sense that God had seen how I had been mistreated, and He grieved with and for me.

I experienced God for the first time when I was in my 20’s when some of the most confusing memories brought tremendous suffering. More suffering would come after this.

Experiencing God did not take away my pain, nor did it prevent that pain from leading me down more harmful paths.

But what this experience did, and what it continues to do is reveal to me a loving Creator who holds our pain and never leaves us alone.

I recognize as I read back over what I started to write a few weeks ago that I have let other hurting humans define for way too long who I am and who God is.

One only needs to Google God or church to see how many different opinions there are about God.

One only needs to walk through the doors of a church, and ask a pastor to help them understand God, and be given an answer that totally causes them to doubt everything they ever knew to be true.

One only needs to be abused by a spiritual leader to forget who the real God is.

I can testify that despite whatever paths our pain or others abuse take us down, God never forgets who we are to Him.

I can also testify that one comes the closest to experiencing the true God when we experience our true selves.

One of the things I appreciate the most in the trauma coaching program that I am enrolled in is that a coaching relationship is a peer relationship, and sessions are client led. We are taught that every person has what they need inside themselves to heal. A coaches job is to help a client discover for themselves who they really are. As a spiritual abuse survivor, this has had a huge impact on me.

I realize one must never allow another person to define who they are or who God is for them.

We must discover this for ourselves.

If you are interested in learning more, this is a very helpful article by Robyn Brickel, MA LMFT about how trauma impacts the way we view ourselves:

Why it’s Important to Identify as a Trauma Survivor

Pete Walker’s website is another helpful resource in understanding how complex childhood trauma impacts our lives.

Your Body is a Temple…

When we pay attention to our bodies, we learn that they have something important to say to us about our pain

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:19‭-‬20 ESV

I grew up in a fundamental Christian culture where I was taught to believe that our desires, especially the sexual ones were bad. 

My understanding was that when one craved certain “sinful” things it was because they were bad. A good person craved good things. 

Childhood sexual abuse mixed in with these dangerous beliefs birthed an identity saturated with toxic shame.

An early memory as a teen comes to mind of sitting in my room fighting off “bad desires” by visualizing a castle where God was the King.  I knew if I gave into those desires,  I was destroying His castle, making it an unfit place for Him to live.  If I didn’t give into those desires, God was pleased with me and wasn’t ashamed to dwell inside of me. I also believed when I gave into the bad desires that evil could move in. 

I didn’t grow up in church,  but my mother watched the TV preachers most Sundays.  I learned by listening to them that confessing to God meant forgiveness.  I also spent a lot of time in my room begging God to forgive me for giving into sinful desires and being bad. I thought if I beat myself up enough He’d be satisfied and finally forgive me. 

Thankfully, as an adult I learned about God’s grace and compassion and stopped feeling it necessary to earn God’s forgiveness by beating myself up.  When I came to the realization that Jesus suffered and died for my sins,  I felt a tremendous relief in my soul. 

However, today I am still in the process of learning what it means to have a body that God calls His temple. I have recently enrolled in a trauma informed coaching class where I am learning about the effects of trauma in our bodies.  I am fascinated by the science of how our bodies do not forget the traumas that have happened to us.  There is still so much that I do not understand about this, but what I have learned thus far has been incredibly valuable and healing for me.

When we pay attention to our bodies, we learn that they have something important to say to us about our pain.  

Inside our beautiful, amazing and complex body systems,  we find a temple that honors our pain and holds it until we notice it and are able to do the same. 

Once I had an experience with the King of my temple.  His reaction to the shame I was feeling about my desires surprised and deeply soothed me.  I realized He was the one holding my pain.  It turns out He never left me even on my worst days. 

We glorify God in our body when we honor what we feel by paying attention to it and being curious about what it wants to tell us. I believe we do the most damage to ourselves when we ignore what we are feeling or beat ourselves up.

I have held onto this memory every time I have wanted to give up on myself and believe I was incapable of anything good.

I recognize today when I honor my body by acknowledging how it feels, I am honoring my Creator, too.

I believe the work being done today around trauma and our bodies is a gift from our Creator to us.  

If you are interested in learning more, here are a few helpful resources.   

Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Mindfulness Coach App

Healing After Spiritual Trauma

Healing takes time.  Healing looks different for all of us. Some of us may heal and return to church. Some of us might not.

In my previous post, I referred to the definition Bessel Van Der Kolk gave for trauma.  

When your reality is not seen or known, that is the trauma.

I am learning in a trauma coaching program I have been taking recently that one of the most important parts of our healing journey from trauma is having people in our lives who will sit with us in our pain. 

Several years ago, I was suffering pain and confusion around a previous spiritual leader’s abuse.  I went to another spiritual leader for help.  This leader thankfully told me that I needed the kind of help he was not able to provide.  He strongly encouraged me to receive counseling from a mental health professional.  This was the best guidance he could have given me.  As a result, I began counseling over the phone with someone who finally was able to understand what had been happening to me and help me to see that it was abusive. However, outside of my relationship with my counselor and my husband, I found few other people who were able to understand what I experienced. 

My counselor told me early on that what we see we do not unsee

However, the process of being able to see the truth about trauma is sometimes multi-layered.  After a decade of spiritual abuse, the layers of my own blindness came off very slowly. Some pealed back when another member of my family was sexually abused, and the spiritual leader minimized it rather than reported it.  Other layers did not begin to loosen until he was no longer my leader.  Only when I was no longer in a relationship with him was I able to fully see the damage that the abusive relationship caused. 

I realize now that it was unrealistic on my part to expect others to understand his abuse, especially those who had been under his leadership. 

Who wants to believe the person who taught them about God was capable of abuse?

Still the responses I received from my religious community in some ways were more damaging than the abuse itself.

God is sovereign.

What I heard was that God ordained the abuse, so that I could be used to accomplish His will.

We forgive you.

What I heard was that I wasn’t abused. I was just a sinner in need of forgiveness.

We just need to forgive him.

What I heard was that I needed to ignore what I had experienced and move on.

When I left this environment and went to other religious communities over the span of several years, the pain of these words never went away. I was reminded of over and over again in other churches when I heard the same phrases being spoken. As a result, I drifted in and out of multiple churches, only becoming more frustrated.

I want to be careful to say that anger plays an important part in the healing process of trauma.  My anger has helped me to understand that I am the way that I am because of something bad that happened to me.  It is crucial to my emotional well being to be able to feel this emotion, not so that I can remain stuck in being a victim(as I’ve heard others in the church say about trauma survivors), but so that I can see the harm that was done to me and offer myself compassion. 

After having stepped away from religious environments for a while, I am starting to see things (more layers) about why it is so difficult for me to be in church.  Sometimes we need to remove ourselves completely to see things more clearly.

Over the past few years, I have heard many wonderful messages in church that reminded me of the love of God.  I have met many caring and good people. A few of these people have helped me to heal by listening and loving me even when they may not have understood what was happening to me.  Even if people do not understand the traumas we experience, they can still see and know and accept us where we are and bring much healing. I learned recently this process is called co-regulation. However, I have also come to realize that the person we need understanding from the most is our own selves.  Until we are able to forgive ourselves for the ways we survived the traumatic events in our lives it is difficult to move forward. We are able to learn through trauma informed care to give ourselves what we long to receive from others. This process is called self-regulation. 

With all that is going on in our world currently, I believe it is more important now than ever that churches seek to be trauma informed and work alongside mental health in bringing healing to the minds, bodies and souls of those who are suffering in this way.  Sadly, I have walked away from church feeling worse about myself, because I believed that I didn’t have enough faith to apply the message that I heard and just trust God with whatever it was I was going through. 

What happens to the soul of a person when we go to church and hear scripture and songs that retrigger us and send our minds reeling back to our painful past? What happens to our faith in God when we are told we will never be forgiven by God, because we can’t just forgive our perpetrator, make amends and move on?  What happens when major parts of the  healing process are skipped over, because everything is over spiritualized?

Did God not ask that we love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength? How can we do this if we have not experienced real healing in all of these areas of of our lives?

Yesterday, I read a post a good friend sent me from a pastor who is trauma informed. His words brought comfort and relief. 

I believe it will be invaluable for the Church of Christ to understand these truths in the months and years ahead. Both the scientific truth of the effects of trauma, but also the truth of Messiah’s redeeming spiritual power, in order to effectively minister to these wounded souls.

I confess that I still struggle with “just believing” that God will bring beauty out of our ashes and that He will work everything out for our good.  Part of the reason for this is my brain is still reminded of how many times I heard this in a church where I was abused. If you struggle in this way, I want you to know that it is OK.  You are not alone.

Healing takes time.  Healing looks different for all of us. Some of us may heal and return to church. Some of us might not.

Through my own experiences, I have come to understand that God sees and knows what we have been through. He knows our suffering better than anyone else, because He has suffered in all the ways that we have. He meets us where we are. He will not abandons us. He believes in us even when our traumatized brains make it difficult to believe in anything again. He is our Perfect Heavenly Father who is able to see past our pain and see His child whom He dearly loves.

His compassion and love for us never fails…

A Stone of Hope

When your reality is not seen or known, that is the trauma. Bessel Van Der Kolk

I recently watched the Netflix Documentary Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story. Darrell starred in Saturday Night Live for 14 seasons. Darrell is probably best known for his hilarious imitation of Bill Clinton. However, while others enjoyed the gift of laughter he gave them, Darrell suffered as an alcoholic who cut himself in an effort to cope with the pain of his childhood trauma.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, author of When the Body Keeps the Score, shares his definition of trauma in the show.

When your reality is not seen and known, that is the trauma.

Even though others may not know about the traumas we have suffered in our lives, our bodies never forget. These memories are stored away, sometimes in strange places. They can also resurface at times we least expect them to. Sometimes they return at a time when we feel strong enough to deal with them. Other times they come back when other traumatic events occur.

As a little girl, I don’t remember a lot of details about my childhood. What stands out the most to me, is being inside my head a lot. Escaping in my imagination was one of the few things that I was able to control. In my preteen years, I started writing fiction stories. I will never forget the day I made the decision to start writing. I decided if I could not change my circumstances that I would write myself out of them. I hid these stories under my bed, because they revealed my true self that I was too ashamed for others to see.

Even as an adult, I still struggle to write publicly. The shaming voices from my childhood remind me it is not safe. I am learning that these voices are a result of changes in my brain that happened because of childhood trauma. As an adult with this knowledge, I am able to give myself self-compassion and keep writing, because I know that writing is a part of my own healing journey.

I am currently enrolled in a trauma coaching program through the IAOTRC. I am learning in this course that is common for trauma survivors to believe self-condemning lies about themselves. Darrell Hammond writes about his own experiences with these kinds of beliefs in his book, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem.

…your brain starts searching for a way to explain it. Most of the time, your brain says, “It’s because of you. That’s why your mother hit you, cut you, slammed your hands in the door. ” You think you’re shit, you think you’re worthless, you think you’re unlovable, you think you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Life is always bad. Your brain has tried to simplify a perfect storm because it’s so confusing.

When the reality of our suffering is not seen or known, the lies we believe about ourselves can become the loudest voices inside our heads. Imagine occupying a house with someone who condemns you all the time. Most of us would be desperate to get away from this person as soon as possible. But when the voice is our own, escape can feel impossible, and we do whatever we can to survive.

Desperation can open us up to even more trauma. Abuse, addiction and self-harm often enter our lives when we are seeking to relieve the pain of our past traumas. But desperation can also open us up to hope when we experience relief through self-compassion and safe relationships.

Bessel Van der Kolk says in Cracked Up:

Trauma is usually about a victim trying to make amends for the perpetrator. The most important thing is forgiveness of yourself for having been as vulnerable, as scared, as angry, as frozen as you were. And forgiving yourself all the ways you have tried to survive. So just take care of that. Just learn to forgive yourself for all the things you have done in order to survive. That’s a big job.”

Darrell went to 23 mental health professionals before he finally found someone who recognized his suffering was a result of childhood trauma. Relief for him finally began to come when he heard a doctor say, You’re a trauma patient. What brought you to this ER again was something that happened to you.

I experienced relief in the first phone conversation I had with my therapist when she helped me to see that I was being abused. I began to understand that day my own attempts to survive childhood trauma had caused me to be vulnerable to an abusive relationship with a spiritual leader.

Forgiving myself for what I did to survive is a continual process. Being seen and known by my therapist enabled me to start it. I believe the work being done in trauma recovery is what our world desperately needs right now.

Darrell’s story is bringing an awareness to how trauma impacts our lives. It is enabling trauma survivors like myself to be seen and heard, and I cannot recommend his book and the documentary highly enough.

If trauma has impacted your life, here are some educational resources that will help you in the recovery process. There is hope and healing. You are not alone.

We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, as MLK said. Darrell Hammond

https://www.crackedupmovie.com/resource-center

https://www.ted.com/talks/michelle_esrick_through_the_mud_we_rise_jan_2019/up-next

http://www.pete-walker.com/

https://certifiedtraumarecoverycoaching.com/directory-of-coaches

Redeeming Power: Understanding Abuse and Authority in the Church by Dr. Diane Langberg Book Review

It was an honor to be a part of this book launch team. I highly recommend Dr. Langberg’s book.

“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them(Ezek. 34:4 NASB). Because the shepherds misused their God-­given power, failed to care for wounded sheep, and allowed the flock of Israel to become prey, God removed the flock from their care.” Diane Langberg, PhD In Redeeming Power, Dr. Langberg is giving those who of us who say we are Christ followers another opportunity to examine ourselves. We are not called to look at our performance or perfection. God is not concerned so much with our perfect church attendance or how many people we converted to our “little corner” of Christianity. God cares about how we treat one another, especially those who “are under our care.”  All of us have power, whether it be a mother nursing her newborn baby, the pastor of a big or small church, or a leader of an entire nation.  In all of these situations, others look up to those who are in a higher position to provide for them what they really need. Throughout history, humans have chosen to bless or curse those who are vulnerable to them by serving themselves or serving others. With power comes great responsibility, and none of us really understand this power until we are faced with the choice of how to use it.  In Redeeming Power, Dr. Langberg gives many examples of how power has been abused, the systems that enable it, and the desperation of our hearts that deceives us into believing that we are not abusing but doing good by protecting the broken systems of this world. She calls us to follow the One who had every opportunity to abuse power, because He had all the power, yet He chose to use His power to save us. I highly recommend this book for every person who wants to truly follow in Christ’s steps. 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50937745-redeeming-power

My Story

Even though words are woefully inadequate to express the depth of damage from trauma, they must be spoken. To remain silent is to fail to honor the event and memory. By honoring the memory I mean speaking the truth about it, saying it really happened, saying it was really evil and saying that it really did damage.

Diane Langberg, PhD

I am sharing my story as a resource for others who have suffered in similar ways, or for those who want to provide support to others who have suffered in this way. I am not writing to bring further suffering to anyone else, therefore I will not name any names or give specific details. This post will focus on my perspective alone.

When I first came to the realization that I was a survivor of spiritual abuse, one of the first places I went to for support was the internet. At the time, there were not nearly as many resources as there are now. Thankfully movements like #MeToo, #silenceisnotspiritual, and #ChurchToo have brought an awareness to these issues, and I am so grateful.

I grew up in the deep south where attending church was just what most people did. However, my family was not consistent attending church. I have some memories of going to church and Sunday school as a little girl, but only for a short period of time. As a teenager, I carried a lot of guilt for not going, especially when a group of church kids in my ninth grade class labeled me a heathen for not going. For most of that school year, I listened to them chant the word heathen over and over again in the classrooms and halls.

I met my husband when I was nineteen. He had been attending and serving in church for most of his life. I began going regularly for the first time after meeting him.

While attending church did relieve a lot of cultural shame I felt, it did little to relieve the shame I carried inside of me. I did not understand at the time that I suffered from complex PTSD as a result of the environment I grew up in. Pete Walker has written an excellent book about complex trauma in his book Complex PTSD From Surviving to Thriving. If you have suffered as a result of childhood trauma, it is a great resource.

Trauma entered my life early right after I was born when I was given up for adoption by my biological parents. I was placed in the home of my adopted parents when I was three months old. Our home appeared safe and healthy to the social workers who approved my adoption, however in the years following I experienced sexual abuse, alcoholism, financial distress, manipulation, and emotional abandonment. Looking back on my life now, it is clear to me that I suffered greatly, but I was not aware of it. I had learned to rely on myself in order to survive.

When I began attending church, I really did think that eventually the sense of shame I carried around with me would get better. I became a Christian in my 20’s and was baptized twice. I even attended church multiple times during the week. There was not any issue that I did not believe that asking Jesus to help me with would not be overcome. When I was afraid, I thought it was the devil. When I was tempted, I believed it was my evil flesh. When I sinned, all I had to do was ask Jesus to forgive me. I shamed myself over and over again for not getting better. I truly believed it was because there was something wrong with me.

There was something very wrong, but it was not what I thought it was. I am currently enrolled in a trauma coaching program which has given me tremendous insight. I am learning what I experienced was actually normal for those who suffer from complex trauma. Many children who grow up in abusive homes have a deep sense of shame and carry these core beliefs about themselves:

I am bad.

I am to blame.

I am unlovable.

I am powerless.

Adults who have experienced early childhood trauma also have lasting changes to three areas of the brain; an enlarged amygdala, a smaller hippocampus, and decreased function of the prefrontal cortex when exposed to traumatic reminders. The amygdala is the part of our brains responsible for our fear responses. The hippocampus primary function is learning and memory. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our highest level learning and reasoning.

It has been an important part of my own healing work to understand how trauma has effected my brain. Understanding the neuroscience behind my behaviors, relieves me of much shame and enables me to practice self-compassion. It also helps me to understand why I have certain emotional reactions to trauma, so that I can respond in healthy rather than self-destructive ways.

After my adopted father passed away, I had dark and troubling memories and nightmares about him. I was confused and anxious, and went to my doctor who prescribed medication for my anxiety. The anxiety got better, but I still carried a lot of unresolved grief and unanswered questions concerning my childhood. I was not aware that I had been sexually abused by my adopted father. Several years later, we began attending a new church when family conflicts caused us to leave a church we had been a part of for a while. A religious leader from the new church visited us at our home soon after we began attending. We opened up to him about our previous church experiences. He listened patiently and offered caring words. We felt supported and continued to go to church there. I was still struggling with anxiety, self-condemnation, and troubling memories, and began emailing this leader for support. Since he was old enough to be my father, he quickly became a parental figure in my life. When I met with him the first time and opened up to him about my childhood abuse, he told me God was going to deliver me from it, and I believed him. Adults who have suffered as a result of childhood abuse from their parents often have a deep desire for relationships with others in their lives who will be a parental figure to them. It is not uncommon for a counselor to re-parent a client who has this need, with appropriate boundaries set in place. In my case, my need for a parent felt like desperation as suppressed memories of sexual abuse continued to resurface and traumatize me.

The more desperate people are, the more eager they will be for a champion to ride in on a white horse and make everything better. People in these circumstances are vulnerable to control and manipulation.

Diane Langberg, PhD

I still think that early on meeting with this leader started a process of healing for me. He was the first person I trusted enough to talk to about my childhood sexual abuse. I developed an attachment to him that may have even brought parts of my brain back online. I believed he cared about me, and it caused me to feel that I was someone worthy of being cared for. Since he was a leader in the church, his care also communicated to me that God cared. The lies I believed about myself began to loosen their grip on my mind. I felt more alive as a result.

Our greatest desire is to feel alive. Meaninglessness, depression, and many other symptoms are reflections of our disconnection from our core vitality. When we feel alive, we feel connected, and when we feel connected, we feel alive. Although it brings mental clarity, aliveness is not primarily a mental state; nor is it only sensory pleasure. It is a state of energetic flow and coherency in all systems of the body, brain, and mind. Human beings respond to shock and developmental/relational trauma by dissociating and disconnecting. The result is a dimming down of the life force that leaves a person, to varying degrees, exiled from life.

Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller Phd, Aline Psyd Lapierre

Had this previous church leader kept appropriate boundaries and not attempted to meet his own personal needs though me, things could have turned out differently. Sadly, this was not the case and what resulted was a spiritually abusive relationship that would continue for years. For almost a decade, my faith, feelings and family were caught in an unhealthy web of deception. It has taken years of therapy and education about trauma and abuse to untangle this tightly woven web. I made many choices during that time that I will always regret. Choices that brought irreversible damage to myself and to others. However, I want to be clear as well that even though I made bad choices, the abuse was never my fault. If you were abused in this way, I want you to know it was not your fault either.

One of the most important things I learned in therapy is the meaning of the word responsibility. Responsibility, my therapist told me, is the ability to respond. Part of my personal healing journey for the past six years has been learning how to respond in a better way to the effects of trauma in my life. It is always the responsibility of those who are in a leadership position to respond in such a way that brings healing to those placed under their care. If they do not know how to do this, then they do not need to be in a leadership position.

Abuse of power is a cancer in the body of Christ. How Christendom uses terminology regarding gender is sometimes an aspect of the disease. We need to let the light of a holy God expose us and our systems. A man named Jesus had nothing to do with these ways.

Diane Langberg, PhD

As I write this, I am currently on the book launch team for Dr. Langberg’s new book Redeeming Power, Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. This book is a highly valuable resource for every church. Dr. Langberg has played a huge role in my own healing journey by providing me with rich resources based on her experiences and expertise around childhood sexual abuse as well as abuse of power. I have learned through reading her books that what happened to me happens all too often in churches and other religious environments to children and vulnerable adults.

Dr. Langberg is right, Jesus has nothing to do with abuse of power. My faith took the biggest blow when I was spiritually abused. Untangling the lies from the truth has been a most overwhelming task. When abuse is intertwined with our faith, separating the two can feel impossible at times. The price of abuse in the church is just too high. With all the resources coming out now, churches have no excuse not to educate themselves. If a church is truly doing the work of the kingdom of God they will want to do everything they can to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, because this is where we always find Jesus. It is a church’s responsibility.

If you are an abuse survivor, I am so very sorry that you suffered this way. Please know that you are not alone and there are places you can receive help. I have listed several resources on this blog, and will continue to update them.

References

Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain.

Another great resource that has helped me understand the impact of childhood trauma is the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences). You can find out more information here.

A Full Reservoir

The sober reality is that unstable systems continue until individuals in them are able to recognize the faulty system and find the courage to bring about their own individual change.

“…the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam. The actions of one person can destroy what took hundreds of people years to build.”

James Comey, A Higher Loyalty

Recently, I watched The Comey Rule on Showtime. I initially thought this miniseries was going to be centered around the presidency of Donald Trump. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was actually about the former FBI director James Comey, who was fired shortly after Donald Trump became president. The quotation above is one Mr. Comey spoke to a group of prosecutors who were beginning new careers. He wanted them to know how important their jobs were in keeping the confidence and trust of the American people in the values of the criminal justice system. Theirs would be a job built on years of work that others before them had been building. It was their responsibility to make choices that would continue to protect and not harm this reservoir of trust. No matter what you may or may not believe about James Comey, there are a lot of different opinions about him since Trump fired him from his position, what he said is still true. Trust takes much time to gain, but can be lost in only a moment.

While I do not have anything in common with James Comey, reading his biography has been a healing balm to my soul. His words resonate deeply with me, and I am sure with others who believed in any system that left them feeling hopeless when the reservoir drained.

When we lose faith in the systems we once believed were good, truth can become very elusive and so can hope. This can be true of any kind of system, whether it is the criminal justice system, a religious system, or even our family systems.

Lately, in a trauma coaching program I enrolled in, I have been studying about the effects of a dysfunctional family system on the individuals who are a part of it. Just as reservoirs of trust can be built and strengthened through generations, so can unhealthy systems of denial that place loyalty to the system above anything else. This was the kind of system that I grew up in. I felt a responsibility in it to keep it’s secrets safe. This pattern continued into adulthood and later resulted in me becoming a part of another dysfunctional system in a church.

The sober reality is that unstable systems continue until individuals in them are able to recognize the faulty system and find the courage to bring about their own individual change.

Making those individual changes is the work that I have been engaged in for the past several years through therapy and education. It has been a long and difficult journey, and one that I could not have survived without the support of safe people who were trustworthy.

Learning how to trust again can be a most difficult task after having been a part of a system that proved to be untrustworthy, especially if this system was your family or your church.

If you spend much time watching the news or scrolling through social media these days, it can seem almost impossible to find even a trustworthy source of information that isn’t skewed towards one political side or the other. This can be a re-traumatizing reminder that people are more loyal to a faulty system than they are to what is most important.

Finding trustworthy people is a process that begins by asking ourselves what is most important to us.

These are some of the questions that I have asked myself on my personal healing journey:

What did you really want from your parents that you never got? What did you long to hear from the abusive church leader who you initially believed was good? What did you hope to accomplish when you decided to join the church?

I think if we all could sit in a group together and talk we would discover that most of us want the same things; love, acceptance, validation, belonging, truth and safety are just a few things that come to my mind.

This is why James Comey’s book has meant so much to me. He refused to compromise the value system built by many faithful members before him for the sake of loyalty to a broken political system. He knew that any system not held together by the integrity of it’s members was sure to eventually fall and crush everyone who was a part of it.

I have discovered the journey of learning how to trust begins with learning how to trust myself again. I have been able to do this by honoring my own values inside of myself first through self-compassion.

People like James Comey have taught me that there are others who are committed to a value system higher than the broken ones we see. This gives me the courage to continue to believe that a better way is possible.

Jesus was another one Who believed a better way was possible, too. Despite the abuse I have seen in His name, I still believe that the truth will set us free and that love will be the force that will change the world. He is the only who promises a full reservoir that will never be drained.

When Narcissism Comes to the Church

I didn’t know what to expect and was a little nervous when I walked in a restaurant yesterday to meet with four strangers that I had met online. Recently, we all joined an online book launch team for Chuck Degroat’s latest book When Narcissism Comes to the Church. These four strangers began to feel like long time friends as I listened to them share their own painful stories of abuse suffered in a place where they had believed they would find hope.

Though each of our stories are different, we all have one thing in common, none of our lives will be the same after having experienced narcissism in the church. The fallout of our experiences has brought each of us tremendous loss. For some of us it has brought loss of jobs, fear of the unknown and fear of saying too much. Others of us have had to leave our homes and friends to start over in a new community.

To see what others do not see, is an isolating experience. Those unaware of the narcissistic patterns are on the outside looking in and only seeing the results of a magnetic personality that is able to get things done. Their abusive tendencies are often well hidden until someone goes against what he or she wants to do. As long as we are going along with their plans, we are an extension of themselves. We are made to feel needed and special. But once we go against them, we experience their wrath and the wrath of others who are still in their circles.

Another fallout from narcissism in the church, is many who have been effected by this leave the church and do not come back. There are too many reminders of the abusive cycles that we do not want to be a part of again. Others have continued to stay in the church and work diligently to bring awareness to the issue and attempt to bring change.

What I appreciate most about Chuck’s book is he offers the opportunity for the hope and healing from the system of narcissism that is in so many ministries today if there is a willingness to look at the problem, seek professional help, and be honest.

I am thankful to have met four strangers that I can now call friends. I am also thankful to know that I am not alone.

If you are in ministry, I cannot recommend Chuck’s book enough to you. If you are a survivor of narcissism in the church, this book will bring clarity, compassion, and healing.

My Amazon Review

Lori Williams5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous Resource for every ministry!

Reviewed in the United States on March 18, 2020

Verified Purchase

“The title of this book may initially draw one’s attention and cause them to think it is another attack on the church. The title is fitting, because this is the reaction many of us have received when we have recognized this sickness in a religious environment and brought attention to it. This book is not intended to bring harm to the church, just as survivors of this type abuse do not intend to bring harm to the church when they expose it. They are sick of the secrets, the confusion and pain and long for the freedom Jesus promised when we know the truth. That’s what this book is about, too. When narcissism comes to the church and the truth is brought into light many times those in a position to make decisions on the church’s behalf are ill equipped to deal with the problem. As a result, the fallout of abuse exposures can even be more painful than the actual abuse. This book is a book of hope and healing for the church and other ministries. It is a book for survivors of narcissism and for those who struggle with narcissistic behavior. It is really a book for all of us. It is a book that helps us recognize the signs and safeguard ourselves and others from disaster. It is a book for true shepherds. It is also a book that brings the darkness to light in the church and in our own hearts. I take great comfort in Chuck’s words that God is not afraid of the darkness inside of us. Our willingness to invite Him into it promises healing and transformation. It is a book of tremendous hope. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!!”