Understanding and Forgiveness

“It’s not because we are broken. It’s because our understanding of trauma, and of our natural responses to it, is broken.” Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong: And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life MaryCatherine McDonald

A common symptom for those of us who suffer with PTSD is to avoid people, places and things that remind us of our trauma. Sometimes it is necessary to remove ourselves from the source of trauma in order to heal.  However, it is impossible to remove ourselves from everything that triggers a memory, because in order to do so we’d have to live in cave.

I learned a long time ago that shaming myself for the ways that I have dealt with trauma that comes back up is not helpful or healing. I have coped the best way that I have known how. Some of the ways have been necessary and helpful. Others not so much.  Recovery is a process and one that we need to give ourselves and others a lot of grace in. As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.”

After experiencing religious abuse and losing our church family, I spent five years relying mostly on my therapist and a few safe friends and coworkers who understood and helped me cope. I blocked and deleted a lot of friends and family on Facebook, because it was just too painful to see their faces. Looking back, I wish I could have communicated better with these friends and family about what I was dealing with, but I didn’t know how, so I’m trying to do better now.

On a recent episode of The Trauma Tapes, I heard a statistic that said veterans who suffer with PTSD and return from combat actually benefit as much or more from others who have not suffered in the same ways as they have, and who offer understanding despite their lack of it to their specific situation. I was surprised to hear this, because I believed, like many of us do, that on order to feel understood we need to be with others who have suffered in similar ways. It is encouraging for me to learn that this is not the case, because in my experience being a part of survivor groups who have suffered as a result of religious abuse and trauma has been really difficult for me. While I want to be present with others who have suffered in the same way, I find it difficult to because their trauma reminds me so much of my own and in the process I can get retraumatized. So please don’t ever underestimate the power of understanding in helping someone else survive life’s difficulties!

Sometimes navigating the world after trauma can feel like walking through a minefield and looking everywhere we can to avoid another explosion. It has been hard especially because when the wire gets tripped and there is an explosion I beat myself up.  The shame cycle that trauma survivors get in goes like this. Something happens or someone says something and there is a reminder of the pain of the past. Because traumatic memories are not stored in the parts of our brain that hold our regular memories, something as small as a smell, sound, expression on a person’s face or the tone of a voice can bring up a painful reminder. Sometimes we understand where it’s coming from, sometimes we don’t.  All of us have had these experiences at one point or another, because as humans none of us gets out of this world alive without some kind of trauma. However, for someone who has experienced prolonged trauma it is the messages that we tell ourselves about what happened to us that are the most difficult to deal with. When we are triggered, our brains and bodies go into survival mode. The executive functioning part of our brain decreases because all of our energy goes towards keeping us safe. As a trauma survivor, I have learned that when I get in this state that my biggest need is to be kind to myself.  I need to give myself permission to take a break, go sit somewhere by myself and take deep breaths, go on a walk, message a friend or just take out my phone and write what I am feeling.

In today’s world, it doesn’t feel safe to be weak and struggling with something like PTSD. We get a lot of messages that we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, leave the past behind, and just suck it up.  In religious circles, it is not uncommon to hear when we share about what we are struggling with that we should JUST pray, forgive, and trust in the Lord. I’m not here to argue or make anyone feel bad. But what I am here to say is that reentry into normalcy after trauma is difficult especially when there is a lack of understanding.

As a trauma survivor, I also have a responsibility to keep my expectations of others realistic. I am in the minority living in the southern US when it comes to being a survivor of religious abuse. Most people find comfort in church, reading their Bibles, singing hymns and praying. Because these things offer so many people comfort, it is pretty common to receive encouragement from others that includes Bible verses and offers to pray.  This encouragement comes from a caring place and is not intended to cause harm.  As humans we want to help each other. We pull from the resources that we have available, and for many of us these are spiritual. One of the reasons I am writing this, is to let others know that my reactions to your offer to provide comfort is not personal. It is just something I have to work through and I am. I even attended a church service for the first time in a couple of years on Sunday without being triggered. So it is getting better!

As a trauma recovery coach and someone who has worked in mental health for several years in an administrative capacity, I have learned that sometimes communicating about our mental health needs is difficult to do. In many ways, it would be easier  to have a physical illness that others can see. When I suffered as a result of post partum depression, I felt guilty for not feeling happy about being a new mother. I even overheard someone at work say she doesn’t look happy about being a mom. Thankfully, at the time a friend came along and told me if I fell and broke my arm, I wouldn’t feel guilty, so I shouldn’t feel guilty about the hormonal changes after having a child that were causing me to be depressed. I never forgot what she said, because it gave me so much comfort.

Today, a lot of people are throwing around mental health diagnosises all over the internet. It’s easy to become jaded. It is also easy to get lost in what we are suffering from, especially when we think others don’t understand. There is a time and place for offering advice. Sometimes we need for others to tell us our pain is not who we are. Sometimes we need reminders that God still loves us and works everything together for the good. Sometimes we do need to let go, forgive and move on. But most of the time, we just need someone to listen and love us and recognize that healing is not a one size fits all for everyone. While we all have the same basic needs and similar struggles, we do not all need the same things in the same way, nor do we all heal at the same pace or in the same ways.

My adopted brother passed away a little over a year ago. He was 12 years older than me and was one of my heroes. He worked for over 30 years as a dispatcher at the local police and sheriff’s department. I loved Bobby so much. Even though he didn’t understand a lot of my choices, he and I could always sit and giggle together. And I miss that. He reached out to me when he knew he was dying of cancer.  He had noticed a knot just beneath his chin, but he didn’t go to the doctor quickly enough and by the time they found out it was cancer it was too late.  Thankfully, he sent me a message telling me what was going on a few weeks before he passed away and that he loved me. I tried to make arrangements to see him, but he was gone before I could.  Because of where his funeral was, I was unable to go. I wasn’t surprised, because I hadn’t been able to go to my mother’s or my mother-in-law’s funeral, because of where they were either. I was frozen in fear and shame and I have felt the crushing weight of overwhelming guilt because of this. My brother did not understand the choices I felt I had to make in order to protect myself from being further traumatized. As a policeman who dealt with dangerous situations daily, he just couldn’t see why driving into the town where we grew up was so hard. Didn’t I love my aunt and uncle enough to visit them when they were sick? One of our last phone conversations after my mother passed away resulted in me hanging up the phone on him. He didn’t understand why I couldn’t come to her funeral.  But thankfully he did forgive me.

It’s taken me a long time to forgive myself for the choices I have made to survive,too. But the more I understand about trauma and the effects that it has on our physical bodies and brains, it has become easier. With understanding is forgiveness, and that includes ourselves.  As I begin reentry into relationships with my biological family, you will probably see me posting more about mental health and trauma, because this is how I survive and cope in a healthy way. Maybe it’s messy, and maybe I shouldn’t say so much.  But it could be worse. A lot worse. I’ll gladly be a trainwreck on paper rather than in real life. While others may not understand all that I have and still continue to go through, there are many who do. If you don’t understand, that’s ok. I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t understand about you either. And that’s ok.  Maybe we can just sit and giggle together.

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