The day I truly met Jesus, I felt alive for the first time in my life. I walked outside and could actually experience through my eyes the brilliant blue of the sky. I could hear the beautiful harmony of the tweeting birds all around. I felt like I was a part of the universe. I felt like I belonged to something way bigger than myself, and that I was dearly loved and safe.
In the amazing months that followed that moment, I was able to live in the present and feel safe. It was exhilarating. I felt so alive. It happened many years ago when I was in my 20’s, and I’ve never forgotten That time.
I’ve tried to recapture that feeling of being alive again, but have not been able to do so. I’ve only gotten spurts of moments when I felt alive, because somehow my traumatized brain kicked back in and took over again.
I’ve been reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma which does an excellent job of explaining what happens to our minds and bodies when we are traumatized. Some of us stay in a constant state of agitation ready to fight at any given moment when triggered. Some of us will do anything to escape. And some of us will go offline numbing our emotions so that when harm comes we won’t have to experience the severity of it’s pain. And for the most part this is what I’ve done. It’s a normal reaction to experiencing trauma and not being able to escape. The trauma I could not escape was the emotional and sexual abuse I suffered from my adopted father as a little girl. So my brain did what it had to do to survive.
My adopted father was abused by his own father. I don’t know any details of what happened to him, but clearly he had learned to escape his own emotional pain by shifting it to others, living in denial, and doing a lot of blaming when in the moment others upset him. He also escaped through alcohol and lust and abusing me.
My mother had learned to just numb herself to all that was going on around her, allowing the abuse to continue to take place. And the trauma just continued to occur.
At the root of most abuse is a traumatized brain that is broken and does not know how to deal with pain in a healthy way.
And hurt people hurt people.
I do not want to hurt anyone else, nor do I want to be hurt by anyone anymore. I think that’s probably the case for most of us. But how can I prevent this from happening or at least minimize the damage?
Even after all I’ve written on this blog, I realize that there is still so much that I do not know. I’m just scratching the surface on what it means to deal with the damage that early childhood trauma caused me. I’m still trying to figure out what and who is safe and good and what is not. The spiritual abuse really complicated this.
I do not want to shift the blame for all my recent pain to my former pastor, but what I will say is this he missed a huge opportunity to do a lot of good in my life and in others lives, and he did largely contribute to a lot of pain. I recognize now that what I really wanted when I went to him for help was a place of safety and someone to guide me, and he ruined that by pursuing things that one ought not to pursue in a counseling relationship. Don Miller talks about in his book Scary Close that a recipe for disaster is someone trying to fix their own brokenness by helping another. One must deal with their own emotional pain and be relatively healthy before being able to truly help another. Otherwise it’s just the blind leading the blind and everyone winding up in the ditch. I don’t know what my former pastor was trying to escape while abusing me, but it was clear he’d learned very well how to navigate through life blind, and he taught me how to do the same thing.
As a result, I hurt others, too.
I learned that escaping my own trauma through sin and rationalizing did not work either. It only traumatized me more. And the spiritual abuse has made it almost impossible to determine who and what are safe. Sometimes even scripture doesn’t seem safe. I can read or hear a verse of scripture that my former pastor quoted regularly and a flood of memories return. Someone can recommend a Christian book that the former pastor read sections of at a Bible study he taught, and I’m reminded once more. I’m triggered so easily by these things, and as my brain kicks into trauma mode I begin to feel that nothing is safe. I also get confused and wonder if I’m just crazy. And the crippling shame and reminders sometimes come back throwing everything in my brain offline and making it almost impossible to function normally. Only after giving myself time to calm down am I able to recognize that things are not nearly as bad as they seem.
There’s only one explanation of how I’ve been able to function with all the trauma I’ve suffered in my lifetime, and it comes from somewhere I cannot see that’s deep inside my soul in a place that nothing bad can ever separate me from. And I know that this something else is the presence of that One Who came alongside me on my darkest day in my 20’s and told me that I was safe. He whispered to my soul that He knew where I’d been and what I’d suffered and He understood. He wept with me and prayed for me and said He loved me despite my sin. Somehow I knew that day that Jesus understood and that I belonged to Him. I knew He’d never leave and that one day all the hell on this earth I’d experienced would be forgotten and He’d wipe away all of my tears. That day for the first time my traumatized brain found peace and functioned normally. I was able to live and breathe in life. I thought at the time it was some huge spiritual awakening, but I see now what it really was was experiencing what it really felt like to experience safety.
Jesus said the world would know that we are His disciples by our love for one another. But what does love really mean?
I can give a Sunday School answer to what love really means. I can easily quote the Corinthians verses that describe what love is. But as a traumatized person, there is often a disconnect between knowing what love really means and actually experiencing it and receiving it from another person. I do not understand all the reasons why it is so difficult, but I’m starting to put the puzzle pieces together as I learn more about what trauma has done to my brain.
I do not like to admit how desperate I was for love and acceptance when I went to that pastor to get help. I do not like to admit that my affection starved brain lost all sense of reality when he touched me for the first time. I hate admitting how weak and helpless I really was. My whole life I’d learned to turn off my emotions to shut out the pain, but I’d also shut out the joy that life is supposed to bring. I wanted to feel something, anything to make me feel alive. When I felt something with him I was overwhelmed. Dr. Van Der Kolk’s does a good job of describing this desperation by making a comparison with the classic novel 1984.
George Orwell’s novel 1984, which brilliantly expresses how human beings may be induced to sacrifice everything they hold dear and true—including their sense of self—for the sake of being loved and approved of by someone in a position of authority.
I’d indeed sacrificed everything to be loved by someone. But it wasn’t love. It was desperation.
Love sacrifices for us. Love gives without expecting anything in return. Love does not bring more harm.
We are called as Christians to love.
But humans in our attempt to love and recieve love often do more harm. That’s why it’s so important that we look to the only One who lived love perfectly as our example.
The characteristic that stands out most about Christ’s love is compassion. He experienced our pain. He did not turn a deaf ears to us. He heard our voice. And His love motivated Him to action. Not to bring more pain, but rather relief.
Diane Langberg describes traumatized people like someone who has just had their house broken into and an alarm is constantly going off. As Christians we are called to help calm one another with our presence and our listening ears. Only in this way can we bring relief.
It is difficult to sit with one another in pain. For most of us we want to get away from pain as quickly as possible. But Jesus didn’t run from pain. He sat with those in it. And He took it all upon Himself so that one day we’d never have to experience it again.
In helping those who’ve been traumatized, Jesus is the ultimate example of bringing peace to a traumatized brain.
Let us learn from Him.
What Love Really Means