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.

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

Not My Story

Abuse transformed reveals the glory of God. Only He can take what our enemy meant for evil and use it to bring beauty and healing to one another’s lives

I recently finished the book Snake Oil and the Art of Healing and Truth Telling by Becca Stevens.  Since I moved to the Nashville area this past year, I have been hearing about Thistle Farms, but I knew little about it other than it was another well known nonprofit in the area.  When a coworker mentioned Becca in a conversation about St. Augustine’s Chapel where Becca is a priest, I got curious and did what I do best and Googled her!

Continue reading “Not My Story”