Category Archives: Trauma

In the beginning was the Word…

The last few weeks I have been working with a woman who is struggling with chronic and complex PTSD.

To put that in laymen’s terms, my client experienced a boatload of trauma, starting when she was just a child and ending only recently when she kicked out her latest abusive partner.  The litany of abuse is unbelievably long, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse when she was a child, abandonment by her parents, and domestic violence with her romantic partners as an adult.

You might imagine that it is difficult listening to someone graphically describe the violence they have lived through, and you would be right. Sometimes I get a little sick to my stomach because the violence is so extreme; it stuns me to realize just how much violence can be done to a human being without killing them.  It’s even worse when the violence happened to my client when they were a child because of how helpless they were to escape their abuser and how reliant they were on their abuser for their daily needs.

And of course, my clients cry when they talk about the abuse. They weep, hug themselves, and rock back and forth, trying to comfort the invisible child within that just cannot stop screaming in anguish.

For all the pain that the violence causes, the violence is far easier to fix than the verbal abuse. Punches, kicks, and belts will never have anything on the spoken word when it comes to inflicting damage.

I know that you’ve heard that stupid childhood meme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

What a load of crap!!

As a therapist I have tools to tear away the memories of physical and sexual violence; I have special techniques that help the brain reprocess and ‘de-fang’ disturbing and painful memories of violence and terror.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I have a magic wand that I wave at my client that makes the bad memories fade away.  On the other hand, the methods currently used for treating trauma are effective and there are enough different methods to be able to find at least one that works well for the client’s specific needs.  If we work hard and the client is brave, we can usually eliminate most, if not all, of the symptoms of PTSD and free them the abuse of their past.

What is much harder is freeing them from the voices inside their head that repeat demeaning, hateful words that were spoken by their abuser in anger and disdain.  I cannot silence the demanding father that could never be pleased, no matter how high the grade or how many goals you made once he takes up residence in my client’s mind. I cannot pry off the negative label when my client’s mother labeled her a whore when she finally told her mom about the years of sexual abuse by her stepfather.  I cannot stop the horrifying, negative, self-abusive messages that play in my client’s head as their mind repeats endlessly the abusive words spoken to them every time they made a mistake or angered their parents. I cannot re-establish my client’s confidence after years of being told by their partner that they are the entire reason the marriage is miserable, and that they perceive everything incorrectly and do everything wrong.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we carry deadly weapons in our mouths: weapons that we can quickly deploy that produce deadly results without leaving any bodies behind as evidence.

Words are weapons, and our weapons are far more fatal than we like to realize.

It is so easy to succumb to irritation and strike out at our children or our spouse or our coworkers. It is so easy to blame our constant, low-lying agitation on the demands of our jobs and daily life. And it is so easy to forgive ourselves for the many ‘minor’ moments when we let our tone and our message get sharp and jagged, when we say a host of the wrong words. It is so much easier to ask forgiveness for our ‘momentary’ lapse of kindness than to actually try to control our tongue.

Have you ever tried to control your tongue?

It didn’t work for me either.

It won’t ever work.

It doesn’t work because it isn’t our tongue that we need to control.  It’s our mind. Our tongue has no will of its own. It can only repeat the words that play silently in our minds, waiting for our anger to give them greater purchase so they can be spoken out loud.

And why? Why would we house weapons in our minds, letting them silently fill our heads with words that can only do damage?

It’s because my clients aren’t the only ones who have been tortured with venomous words.

It’s you, too. It’s me.  I’m afraid that no one escapes unscathed.

Every single one of us, in some way, have been stabbed and beaten and shot with words that tore us apart.  Maybe our parents spoke them, or maybe it was a schoolyard bully. For some of us it was our partner that spoke the words that ripped us apart. The problem is that the damage never stops with us. As long as we let these wounds remain unhealed, they bleed sick, self-punishing thoughts that wound us even more until finally the words demand release and they turn their venom outward, begging to pour out of our mouth so they can go on damaging other people.

So now what? What do we do?

First, if you find your mind full of self-critical thoughts that tear up your self-esteem, it is important that you seek counseling. I know it sounds like your own voice in your own head saying those things, but those words didn’t come from you, and they don’t belong in your head. More importantly, if words are weapons, essentially you are beating and abusing and terrorizing yourself…and if you did that to anyone else you’d be arrested!  Believe it or not, you can spit those words out of your mind and never have to hear them again. If the counselor you find doesn’t help you, get a hold of me and I’ll share a few techniques that will help you evict the cruel inner critic in your mind.  Remember, those hateful words in your head have a habit of leaking out of your mouth and attacking others. If you want to tame your tongue, tame your inner critic.  Trust me, it works much better than you think. Also, it’s much nicer living inside your head when there isn’t any voice in there destroying your self-esteem and your confidence. Az-plc.com

Second, remember that your words have great power: power to wound, power to bind, power to heal, and power to set free. Lest you think this is a bunch of new age hokum, let me remind you that John 1 begins with the sentence In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  If everything that exists began with the Word and if the Word is God, then our words, spoken by someone who is made in the image of God, are no small thing!  God spoke the entire universe into existence; likewise when we speak we create. Do our words create love? Do they create wounds? Do they seek to carry God’s grace, or do they convey judgement and condemnation?

What you live inside your head becomes the reality you create around you. Please…let your life (and that of those you love) become a garden of life and love, not a pit of despair.

Have a blessed week! I’m on hiatus for the next week, and when I come back I hope to have all sorts of tales of new adventures.

Blessings!

 

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Here Comes The Truth

Honesty.

I always tell my clients that honesty is at such a premium in this world that being a truth teller is a skill worth developing. People thirst and hunger for truth, for words that are plain and simple, without sugar coating or gentle couching or even padding. Basically, there is so little honesty in this world that we are starving for it.

Don’t believe me?  Just think for a moment about how many times you have talked to one of your friends and had them read you a text or email to see what you think it means.  We have been become experts at analyzing words and phrasing in texts and emails, hoping to decipher what the person really means, what they are actually saying…which makes it painfully obvious that we don’t trust people to speak the unadulterated truth.

I mean it when I say that truth is so rare that we are starving for it.

However…I have to distinguish being truth-telling, and beating someone with the truth.

Sadly, I have heard plenty of people speak sentences full of barbed words, swinging sentences like a bat aimed at the other person’s head. After they finish speaking, these people all say the same thing: I’m just telling the truth, that’s all.  And they are, kind of, but not really.

You see, the truth—if you want it to be heard and accepted—needs to be spoken in love.  The kind of truth that sets you free is truth that is given as a gift, delivered directly and bluntly without sugar-coating…and without any barbs or knives.

I call it the open-handed truth.

Basically, I tell my clients to hold out their hand, palm up, whenever they speak the truth. This is to signify to them and their listener that the truth they are telling is offered as a gift. The listener is free to take that gift or leave it, but there it is: honesty and truth, offered to them as a gift.

I ask them to do that because any move away from giving a gift to delivering a barbed truth will cause their hand to suddenly shift from an open palm to a pointed finger. You know what I’m talking about: that finger-shaking, “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind” gesture that we use when we are slapping someone across the face with our words.  I tell my clients that the difference between an open-handed truth and a finger-shaking truth is the difference between honesty as a gift and honesty as a 2×4 upside the head!  It’s an effective metaphor, because who the hell wants to speak the truth as a 2×4 to someone’s head?

The answer to that question is: any member of the media when speaking to Donald Trump, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Why am I busy talking about the truth?  Well, when I started as a counselor, I found it very hard to speak certain truths to my clients, especially if the truth was particularly ugly. I also shied away from telling my clients when they were engaging in unhealthy behaviors, even when they were engaging in unhealthy and unwise behaviors right in front of me.

In short, I have been an incredible wuss for years.

And then recently I decided to try something for my stress. Being a counselor is very stressful. Clients can be very demanding, and the need to help them can leave you feeling like the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders. It can be overwhelming, and it does overwhelm me occasionally. It really wouldn’t matter that much, but I have chronic health issues, and stress makes them worse. I am at a point where something has to change or I am not going to be able to keep up with my practice. I am not willing to let stress derail my health…and I’m not willing to let my health end my ministry.

The thing was that no matter what I was doing, nothing was reducing my stress level.  Exercise was helpful, but not enough. Diet changes were helpful, but not enough. Hobbies, vacations, meditation…all of it was helpful, but not enough.

Then I remembered something I learned from watching my daughter get sober. The 12 Steps are powerful and deeply spiritual, and without them people often fail to overcome their addictions because the biggest problem in addiction is that we keep trying so hard…instead of relying on a God who is so much more powerful than we are.

And that was my epiphany.

I began reciting the first three steps (as best as I could remember them) in relation to my clients.

I admitted that I am powerless over my clients—powerless over mental illness and trauma—powerless over my client’s lives—and that trying to be a healer is becoming unmanageable.

I remembered that there is a Power greater than myself who can restore both me and my clients to sanity.

And then I made a decision to turn myself…and my clients…and their problems…and their healing…over to God’s care.

I cannot tell you how liberating that felt. Every time I’d start to get stressed about my clients or my practice, I’d remember that I am powerless over mental illness and trauma, and utterly incapable of healing anyone. Then I’d remind myself that God is more than capable of handling all that and is willing to use me along the way to bring that about…and I’d calm back down and my stress level would drop and I’d start to feel less overwhelmed and exhausted.

But there was this funny side effect of all this: I’m not a wuss anymore!

All of a sudden, I find myself saying things in session that are blunt, open-faced truths that I was unable to say before.

Dare I say…I have become strangely bold?  And I’m not talking 2×4 bold, either. This is calm, open-handed truth that is popping out of my mouth without hesitation or even the slightest twinge of guilt.

Jesus said that the truth would set us free, and the truth I discovered is that I am powerless, and when I accept that powerlessness…suddenly I am far more free to share the truth with others.

The truth about me became the truth recognized by me and spoken to others becomes the truth that sets them free.

If this is powerlessness, sign me up. And we will all be free together.

Amen.

Them Unicorns

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.         Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

Lately there has been a great deal of us and them rhetoric.  You hear it in the arguments over what restroom transgendered people should use; you also hear it in discussions about illegal immigrants, and sometimes even when we discuss immigrants in general.  Us and them distinctions show up when we talk about terrorists, even though the United States has suffered more from domestic terrorism than we have from foreign terrorism.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our friends from our enemies, our familiars from the strangers, and our own people from the outsiders.

Maybe I should refine that statement I just made.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our supposed friends from our supposed enemies, our assumed familiars from the supposed strangers, and the people we are told are our people from the people we are told are outsiders.

Let me give you an example.

I am a trauma therapist, and many of my clients are women who have been sexually abused by men.  Most of them were abused as children, and all of them were abused by family members.  I know that some people are abused by people outside their family and even by strangers, but I have been practicing since 2005 and I have yet to work with a client whose abuser was not a family member.  For many of these women, talking about the abuse is an act of betrayal against their family.  After all, they have spent years keeping silent to protect the public image of their family; others have spent years keeping silent because revealing the abuse to another family member led to repercussions and punishment instead of assistance and rescue from their abuser.  While I do all that I can to help my clients recover from their abuse so that they can live full, joyous lives, many of them find that they continue to have a deep distrust of men, whether those men are family members or not.  These are women whose male relatives—the men in their lives who were supposed to be their protectors while they were children—violated one of our society’s biggest taboos.  Their deep distrust of men can make it difficult for my straight clients to find life partners because they are not willing to expose themselves to the risk of dating.  Many have difficulty identifying men who are ‘safe’—men who will never commit acts of physical or sexual violence against a woman because it is not in their nature.  Some of my clients have trouble believing that there is any such thing as a ‘safe’ man, as if ‘safe’ men were something like unicorns, existing only in stories but not in real life.

Then I tell them about the unicorn that I met several years ago.

My unicorn shared with me about what it means to be a member of the ‘tribe’—the tribe of people who have been sexually abused as children. The tribe has certain ways of being, certain scars that are dead giveaways to the pain and loss they have suffered.  Whenever this unicorn recognizes other members of the tribe it reveals itself and speaks the magic words: “I understand.  I was sexually abused for years.”

Turns out that unicorns are for real.

You see, men get sexually abused as well, and those men…well…they understand what it is to be afraid.  They understand what it is to not be believed when you try to tell the horrible truth.  And they understand what it is to doubt that it is possible to be safe.   They understand that an entire gender can come to feel unsafe and remain that way no matter how much therapy you get.  And men who have been sexually abused know that the fear that the tribe has of their perpetrators is not unreasonable and not unrealistic because they know what it is like to be made into a victim.  They know what it is to fear half the world’s population, and what it is like to be unable to trust men.  Sadly, unicorns know all too well what it is like to be constantly afraid, and some of them fear…

Women.

For years the politics of sexual assault has told us that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims, and statistics will tell you that this is true most of the time.  But ‘most of the time’ is not the same as ‘all of the time’ and nothing is quite that cut and dried or that black and white.  In the end, it is not so easy to separate the world into us and them, to create two groups where one is good and the other bad and then create a worldview that supports that understanding of humanity.

I remember my own moment of us and them, when I found myself baffled because a woman was tried and convicted for her participation in the atrocities against prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison.  I did not want to comprehend that a woman would agree to sexually humiliate male prisoners, that she would agree to abuse them and violate them physically and sexually.  How could she possibly agree to such violence knowing the damage it has done to her sisters in the human race? How could she participate in something so degrading when things like that happen to women all over the world every day?  Most of all, how could she possibly consent to becoming one of THEM??!  I struggled to accept Lyndie Englund’s choices because I could not conceive of the reality that women can be abusers and men can be the victim.  I believed in the us and them dichotomy that makes it so easy to vilify the other side, to hate them with impunity and ease, and to treat them as less than human.

I’m so glad that something challenged and made me abandon my us and them thinking before I met a real, living unicorn because if I hadn’t I might not have believed him when he told me his story.  I might not have been able to help him overcome his trauma so that he could live a sober, productive, joyous life…at least the best life that he can have in the face of all the abuse that he lived through.  Most of all, I would never have had the opportunity to let my other clients know that the world is not so neatly divided into us and them, women and men, victims and abusers.  In the end, the lines are far more blurred and our chances to redeem the entire situation far greater than we realize because unicorns are real and that means that some of them are our our team…and we aren’t alone in this struggle after all.

God never intended for the world to be separated into us and them.  God’s will has always been for unity and healing no matter what side a certain person fell on, and this is evident over and over in the Bible:

Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from famine

Elisha, who healed Naaman the Syrian

Jonah, who saved the people of Ninevah (Assyrians) from destruction

Jesus, who healed the son of a Roman centurion

Jesus, who healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman

Jesus, who healed a Samaritan leper

Peter, who preached to many Gentiles

Paul, who preached to many Gentiles

And then there is always Jesus, who died for the sins of an entire world.

There is no us and them.  There is only God’s children and God wants us all to come home, no matter who we are or where we are from or what group we claim allegiance to.

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”     Revelations 22:2b

The leaves of the tree are not for the healing of God’s chosen people, or the healing of the faithful, but for the healing of the nations.

That’s all of us.

All.

Amen.