Grief helps us face and ultimately release what happened or didn’t happen to us. I read this this morning in the book by Dr. Edith Eger called The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life.
Her book caused me to ask myself some important questions around my childhood losses.
Losses that daily make appearances in my life as an adult.
Losses that cry out for my attention and compassion.
What did I want that I didn’t get as a child?
There were times when I caught glimpses of these things in my life. Just long enough to have hope that they would continue. Only to be crushed when they ended.
We were eating at a nice restaurant in a Georgia mall. I was so excited about my meal of a giant hot dog covered in bright orange American cheese and French fries. I felt special getting to eat there with my father. He got a Reuben sandwich. I couldn’t wait to see the Mynah bird in the pet store across the mall. His name was Arthur. He wasn’t for sale. They had another bird they were selling named Merlin. But he was too expensive. If my father had kept his job. If we hadn’t lost everything. If my parents had stayed together, maybe I could have gotten the bird. Stayed at the same school. Lived in the nice house. Maybe I would have felt safe to be myself. I thought it was my fault that they ended. My adopted father was abusive and an alcoholic. My mother his enabler. I was a scape goat. I was an escape from his pain, too. I wanted to be a kid who had parents who raised me to be who I was supposed to be, not a kid who believed she was to blame or that she was to fix their pain.
These are the things I’m still grieving. I survived despite what they did. I have given my own children the freedom to be themselves. I haven’t done it as well as I would have liked. But I do believe I gave them the chance to at least be themselves without fear of thinking there was something wrong with them. I have overcome much. I have made many mistakes. But I am not a kid anymore. I do not have my parents screaming at me for messing things up. It is safe to be myself. To enjoy the restaurant, the birds, without fearing the bad that is to come. I always believed if I prepared myself for what was to come it wouldn’t take me by surprise. Maybe if I did everything right I could keep the abuse from happening. That was the only hope I had.
I can buy the bird if I want to. I can be myself. Bad comes for everyone. It is unavoidable. No matter what we do. We can only live one day at a time. One moment at a time doing the best we can with the wisdom God gives us. We cannot control the choices of others. We best get out of the way and let them choose for themselves when they are self destructive. Don’t take their blame. Give them back their choices. Accept whatever happens in life. Be grateful for the good. Grieve the losses. Honor them by paying attention. Give others what you didn’t get that you needed. Forgive yourself for going after those things in unhealthy ways. Make better choices. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t take the blame for the abuse of others. Love while you can. Without expectations. Without planning to. Just be present. To the moment. To the birds and the dog and the cat. On the walk. Unloading the dishes and the laundry. Driving through the traffic. Turn up the radio. Let down the window. Breath the fresh air and the gas fumes. While you wait. It all matters. They matter. You matter. In a New York minute everything can change. But right now is all we have control over. Choose to be alive in this moment.
If you or someone you know is interested in my services as a trauma recovery coach, please see my new coaching page on my website. I am offering for a very limited time a free 30 minute discovery session.
This morning I read another article about pastor exposed. Every time before today when I have read one of these articles I confess that I feel justified in my decision to leave the church. But this article was different.
Even though I had never met this pastor, I had followed his sermons online for years. The things that he said made a real and lasting impact on my life. After listening to one of his sermons, I realized the weight of a lie I had been carrying had become too heavy. I sent this pastor an email from an anonymous account. I told him what had been happening. In his compassionate response back he said, Come out into the light.
His email gave me the courage to call a counselor for the first time. It began the process of opening the door to freedom from an abusive relationship with another pastor, and I will always be grateful for this.
But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:13 & 14
When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible for everyone to see. Sadly, the world does not shed a compassionate light when darkness is exposed. Everyone has an opinion. And the saying is true…most of them stink.
I am as confused as most about the sexual sin, abuse, pride, political idolatry, racism, and bigotry being exposed in religious organizations daily. I find myself wondering at the rate things are happening what the church will look like in another decade?
After having been abused in church, I no longer feel safe attending. I tried for several years to continue to attend, but the triggers were just too much. It was an act of self-compassion to make the decision to stop going. It has also been an effort to hold on to my faith.
As I said earlier, many of the exposure articles I have read have given me justification for leaving the church. Last week, I read a Twitter post from a pastor who made a generalized statement about a Christian not going to church is like a cancer patient not getting chemo. Sometimes it feels like the church is great at pointing out what everyone else is doing wrong, but falls way short of addressing the darkness inside the walls of it’s institutions.
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? I Corinthians 5:12
Even though I have lost so much faith in the institution of the church, I have not lost faith in Christ.
What does it look like for the light of Christ to shine into our darkness?
Too many times I let the responses of others be where I look to find the answer.
The loud judgments in the comments section.
Or the denial of those who minimize, excuse or remain silent about what brings us harm.
Christ does not condemn.
Christ does not deny or dismiss our pain.
He whispers to us in our slumber to wake up.
He collects our every tear in His bottle.
He turns over the tables in the church where abuse is overlooked.
He breathes into our lungs and gives us life.
Over and over and over again.
I’m so thankful He came into my darkness and showed me His true light. It was the only way I survived.
My heart is grieved and disillusioned by another pastor exposed. It would be easy to dismiss my pain with cynicism and apathy. It would be easy to judge.
But then I remember the door to my own dark prison opening and the light shining in. I remember His compassion and grace and the feel of His healing breath into my lungs keeping me alive.
And I’m so thankful that it really is all about His grace.
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Brain scans reveal that the amygdala of a person who has experienced trauma in childhood is actually larger than those who have not experienced childhood trauma.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking myself the same question over and over again, Is it trauma or is it a real threat?
Our bodies and brains are truly amazing. They signal us when something is not right. They work together to move us into action or non-action to get us out of harm’s way.
An oversized amygdala, however, will communicate that there is a threat at times when there is no current threat, only a reminder of a previous one. A larger amygdala can result in a state of hypervigilence for many trauma survivors.
Even after years of therapy and my recent training to be a trauma recovery coach, I still struggle to tell the difference between a real or a perceived threat.
If you are dealing with the same struggle, I encourage you to be compassionate towards yourself. The ambivalence that comes about with this type of uncertainty can easily become a shame producer.
Writing is an act that helps me to transform my shame into curiosity. When I write what I am feeling I am better able to see all that is going on inside. As I can more clearly observe my shame, I can begin to slowly understand where it is coming from and how to process it in a healthy way.
Shame is never useful. When it is hidden away inside ourselves, we often develop maladaptive coping mechanisms to escape it. A few examples of these are overeating, overspending, drug use, or codependency, etc. I spent a lifetime trying to cope with my shame in unhealthy ways. Only when I started to write, could I discover what was happening inside and begin to experience relief. Now, when the all too familiar shame arises I am able to recognize it and process it rather than try to escape it. Writing has become what is called an adaptive coping mechanism for me. Adaptive coping Mechanisms are internal resources we discover on our healing journeys that can replace our maladaptive ones. Writing is just one example. It’s important that we each discover what is most helpful to us and allow it to become a practice in our daily lives.
Recently, my oversized amygdala kicked into overdrive. My first reaction was to fawn. Fawn is a reaction of our autonomic nervous system that causes us to react to a perceived threat by people pleasing. I started apologizing to the person in front of me for getting overwhelmed by their behaviors that reminded me of an abusive personality in my past. When I was a little girl, sometimes the only way to keep myself safe was telling my father what I knew would not upset him. He was the type of person who when in pain blamed others for what he was feeling. When I spilled the tea on the table by accident and he started to overreact by screaming, I apologized for making him overreact. It was the only way I could bring safety to the situation. If I argued with him, it would result in an escalating situation that would go from bad to worse. The individual standing in front of me recently had a similar way of reacting to problems. Rather than taking some responsibility for things going wrong, this individual shifted responsibility to others, and went on a tirade when he didn’t get what he wanted. He reminded me of my father after having only met him a few times. Initially, I didn’t understand what was happening. When he was standing in front of me going into a mini tirade, all kinds of emotions came up that were difficult to hide. I did what I knew best how to do smile and go along and agree. When I got home later that day, alarm bells started to go off inside my brain. They were so loud that I wanted to hide inside my house and never see this person again. I heard the words run. Get away as quickly as possible. It was unrealistic to avoid dealing with this person. I knew I would see them again. I needed to figure out a way that I could deal with this person in a healthy way. The first question that overwhelmed me was my reaction a trauma response or a real perceived threat. In this situation, I now recognize it was both. While this individual was not in a position to abuse and blame me as my father had, he was not a safe person to be around. When a person is unwilling to deal with their own responsibilities and is shifting blame to others, they can feel like a loaded weapon looking for the next target who could just as easily be you. I understood in my dealings with this individual that it was important to understand what my responsibilities were and what his were, and set clear boundaries for myself to protect myself from being harmed by him. Ultimately, I decided it was best for my emotional health to avoid this person. Thankfully, I was able to make changes that made this possible. If you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to be kind to yourself and find safe people to support you. Ask yourself what changes you can make to best take care of yourself.
When we are faced with the question is it real or is it trauma, it is most important that we acknowledge to ourselves that everything we feel is important. As a trauma survivor, there are changes in my brain that may cause me to overrespond to what feels threatening. However, I have discovered that these responses are happening for a legitimate reason. We should never minimize or cast them aside. Being kind to ourselves means we pay attention to all that we feel and process it in ways that are helpful. When we process our responses, sometimes we may discover that we just need to remind ourselves that we are adults who can take care of ourselves, and no longer children trapped in abusive situations. However, sometimes our trauma responses may give us insight to problems that may not get better and we can make the choice to remove ourselves from them. When we honor our responses, shame subsides and we are able to move forward into making choices that are best for us.
A tremendously helpful resource is a book I recently started reading The Gift by Edth Eger.
For more information on the fawn response, visit Pete Walker’s website.
Another great resource to learn more about our nervous system responses is Deb Dana’s Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory.
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.
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.
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:
Pete Walker’s website is another helpful resource in understanding how complex childhood trauma impacts our lives.
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.
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…
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