Tag Archives: healing

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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It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

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.

Are You Sure You Want to Say That?

This week has been a hard week of watching one unkind thing after another, mostly on Facebook or the news.  I would love to say that I can rise above it all but I can’t simply because of one thing: the dang Christians.

I have been a Christian my whole life and I know, and have experienced, Christians making terrible mistakes and doing incredibly stupid things.  I have been blessed not to have been deeply damaged by those ‘stupid things’ but that’s mostly because I had very loving and kind parents who provided me with plenty of love-based Christian teachings that countered all the judgmental, ‘holier-than-thou’ crap that I experienced at the hands of others.

Nothing beats good parenting when it comes to overcoming the slings and arrows of growing up in the Church.

And then…I became a pastor.

After I began doing ministry, I began to understand at a much deeper level the immense damage that Christian leaders can do to the community with judgmental words, with words of condemnation, and with the way that they dismiss the experiences of others they deem ‘not Christian’ or ‘not truly Christian’, thus rendering those realities and the people that experienced them insignificant.

What in God’s name are we doing?

Over and over again I am confronted with horrible words posted on Facebook by church leaders and pastors who supposedly preach the love of Christ while condemning anyone who doesn’t believe and behave like they do.  Some of them even condone violence!

Over and over again I am assaulted by news reports of another church leader or pastor arrested for horrifying crimes…some financial, some sexual, some for crimes against children.  I could swear that I remember Jesus saying that it would be better to tie a millstone around your neck and drown yourself in the sea than to lead a little one astray.

I’m getting the feeling that we’ll be able to build a pier with all the Christians tied to millstones that we’re going to find, if you know what I mean!

One of my clients brought up another incident in session the other day, and I guess the look on my face shocked her. She said that I looked like I was going to cry…and she wasn’t far from the truth.  I have come to the point where my heart actually aches and cries out to God when I hear reports of cruel and unloving Christian behavior, especially when that behavior comes from a pastor—the very people that God called to lead His children, to guide them in the way that leads to peace.  How can we tear apart the very people we were called to shepherd?  How can we not see the carnage we leave behind and the people we destroy?

My reaction shocked my client. I guess she didn’t realize just how deeply her words would affect me. She started to apologize for upsetting me and I told her that she had done nothing wrong. I had simply come in contact with another example of what is wrong with the Church.

You see, we are all broken people. We come into the world whole, but then circumstance and losses and the failures of the people who are supposed to love us start the cracks forming…little cracks that over time can develop into huge broken areas in our souls.  And as life goes on, losses become tragedies that define our lives, events we can neither escape nor undo, and our own choices add to the sorrows that break us.  Sometimes our choices become the tragedies that we cannot escape and we become our own worst enemies.

At some point in our journey in this life, the world itself starts to tear us apart one chunk at a time, labeling us ‘Not Good Enough’ or ‘Worthless’ or ‘Ugly’ or ‘Stupid’ or (insert racial epithet here) or (insert gender based insult here) or (insert sexual orientation based insult here)…  It goes on and on, and each negative label tears us apart a little more.

In the end, we end up broken and torn, un-whole and aching, wondering what we did to deserve what life has dealt us.

The funny thing is that our lack of wholeness isn’t really that problematic if we will simply own our broken and torn places and then seek out the healing places.

I’ll try to explain what I mean, but I need you to be patient for a moment.

Most of us are aware that Alcoholics Anonymous groups use the 12 Steps to guide recovery from addiction.  What you may not know is that there are also 12 Promises that they count on as they recover, and I have found one of those promises to be crucial to my own sense of wellbeing.

“#10 Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.”

At first you may think “What does that have to do with this post?”  More importantly, what does this have to do with our broken and torn souls?

Well, when you read the fuller text of the 12 Promises, it tells you that you no longer have to fear people and economic security because really, what you are fearing is not having enough…not enough friends, not enough money, not enough acceptance, not enough stuff, not enough wisdom, not enough information.  Promise #10 is that we will no longer have to fear all the things that people and money can bring or deny us.  WHY? Because…within the group (in the case of the 10th Promise, they are referring to the 12 Step group) we will find everything we need.  Essentially, the promise is that within the group, we have everything we need.  Do you need a truck so that you can move?  Ask the people in your group.  Do you need someone to help you sort through some feelings? Ask the people in your group. Do you need to borrow a mixer so that you can bake your child a homemade birthday cake?  Ask the people in your group.  Do you need comfort because you’ve realized the magnitude of your brokenness? Reach out to the people in your group.

Within the group, we have everything we need.

In our lives, we group together with friends, family, Church members, coworkers, colleagues, neighbors, even with something as simple as the folks in our yoga class. We have tons of groups we participate in.  And each member of every group is broken and torn. Some are broken and torn in the same way that we are, and some are broken and torn in different ways.  The people that are broken and torn in the same way truly understand how we feel, and the people who are broken and torn in different ways are often strong exactly where we are weak and they can offer us someone to lean on.  Do you see?  Within the group, we have everything we need!

I think that this is why Christ founded the Church.

The Church is supposed to be a place where you take your wounded, broken soul and find peace, healing, and love.  You are supposed to find unconditional acceptance inside the Church and people who will walk with you along the path to finding a relationship with God and a deeper love for yourself; one that reflects the abundant love that God has for you. When you love yourself in the right ways it’s so much easier to love everyone else in the right ways.  Christ wanted us to be able to turn to the Church to find our group…the people who understand us perfectly because they are familiar with our particular brokenness, and the people who can help us understand what things might look like if we weren’t broken or torn in that specific place—people who can be strong while we wait on our healing, while we discover what love can do.

This is why it breaks my heart and hurts so much when pastors use their position and power to judge, to condemn, to be the force in the world that breaks and tears and stomps and does damage.  We have enough sickness in the world to do that already and we don’t need the people of God to help the sickness and hatefulness along, you know?

If you are one of the people who has been broken and torn by the very people who were supposed to love and nurture you, by the Christians who were supposed to help you find your path to God, please accept my heartfelt apology.  It was never supposed to be this way, and you have no idea how much it hurts me to know that the Church failed you.  Let me encourage you, however, not to give up…because God has way more up His sleeve than you can imagine and there are many wonderful people in the world, both inside and outside the doors of the Church.  Look for your group—the one that will love you for the broken, torn, beautiful creation of God that you are—and then set about becoming part of what makes it possible for the group to have everything you (and the rest of the group) needs.  Don’t just take, because no matter how broken you are, God has not failed to fill you with good things that have been kept hidden just for a moment like this.  The fantastic stuff that is you cannot be destroyed by the world. It can be broken, and it can be torn, but it cannot be destroyed and God delights in making treasures out of the brokenness that we bring Him…and it works best when we do that with a group of people who are willing to be a living expression of God’s love to us while we wait on our healing.  This applies as much to pastors as it does to everyone else: find your group and let yourself be healed in the most wonderful ways.  And don’t be surprised if the group you find is inside the Church, because there are just as many wonderful people in the Church as there are holy terrors.

If you are one of the pastors who is doing the breaking and tearing, know that I cry for all you were called to be and have abandoned.  You have bought into the lies of the Enemy, who tells you that your power and your false righteousness are impressive to God.  Trust me: you and I cannot impress the God who created the entire universe, and God has no faith in our ‘righteousness.’  If he did, He never would have sent Jesus. The proof that your ‘righteousness’ is worthless is hanging on the cross, bleeding and dying for all the damage you’ve done.  It’s not too late.  Abandon your righteousness and own your brokenness and you can be healed…or admit that you love the blood on the edge of the blade of your self-righteous words far more than you love the man on the cross.

This Post Makes Me Sick

Earlier this week, one of my colleagues in ministry was arrested by the FBI and charged with producing child pornography.

I am a minister and a trauma counselor, and right now I am torn in all sorts of ways.

Reading the news releases about his arrest made me physically sick.  Even as I write this, the same feelings emerge: a deep sense of sadness, an ache in my chest, my stomach turns, and I have an overwhelming urge to sit and cry.

The hardest part is remembering that being charged with a crime is NOT the same as being guilty of a crime, and this is where I find myself feeling torn. I have so many emotions, simultaneously.

You see, whether my colleague is guilty or not, many lives will be destroyed because of these charges.

If my colleague is not guilty, his reputation will still be destroyed.  People will always remember him as the minister who was charged with sex crimes against children.  His friends and family will always wonder what happened, why he was accused, why he was arrested.  His career is in shambles.  He is no longer a minister in our Church.  He has lost his job.  How will he get hired anywhere else right now?  He is charged with a heinous crime…and no one wants to hire someone who may have harmed a child, whether they have been declared guilty or not.  Charges like this will impact him emotionally, financially, and it will shake his partnership with his significant other (SO) and his family to the very roots.  It is entirely possible his relationship with his SO will not survive this test, as many relationships cannot get through accusations as grave as these.

In so many ways, if my colleague has been wrongly accused, his life has been destroyed.

On the other hand…

If my colleague is guilty, his life is over.  He goes to prison.  His family is marked with his crime forever, and his SO will have to deal with the repercussions of this crime whether they leave him or not.  His family will always have to deal with this—every holiday, every birthday, every visit to the extended family becomes a moment to remember why he isn’t there.  And oh dear God if there are small children in the family…don’t you wonder?  Did he hurt them too?

But if my colleague is guilty, the damage to his life and his family’s life is nothing in comparison with the damage done to the children he exploited and abused.  And this is where the physical sickness starts in the pit of my stomach.

I have spent way too many of my days at work comforting the victims of sexual abuse. I have spent far too many hours trying to help them find a way to feel safe in the world, to feel safe enough to go to work, to go out in public, to make friends and decide they can risk trusting those friends…you cannot imagine the amount of damage done to their ability to feel safe on a daily basis as they go through the simplest of tasks.  “But Tina”, you say, “doesn’t treatment help?”  Yes, treatment helps…to a point.  The longer the abuse went on, the earlier it started in their life, the larger the number of people who participated in the abuse, the more grievous the abuse…those things can create lasting scars that no amount of treatment can erase.  It’s like being a veteran of war: you can get treatment for the PTSD that war creates, but no amount of treatment for PTSD will change the physical deficits left behind by the injuries of war.  The scars persist.  It is the same with sexual abuse: the more serious the abuse, the harder it is to eradicate the scars.  It’s not that there isn’t hope—it’s just that we can’t erase the past, no matter how hard we try.

And so I find myself torn between what I know of my colleague, what I’ve experienced of him and the friendship that we had, and the knowledge of what these charges may mean.  The part of me that wants him to be not guilty is horrified by the injustice of what that would mean to his career, his family, and his life.  Being not guilty of a crime this severe doesn’t stop the public from punishing you for simply being accused.  But if he’s guilty…the idea of the devastation his crime leaves behind makes me sick to my stomach and makes me ache in my heart for his family and his victims…and for him, because if he is guilty something is very broken in his soul.

And then I feel that I need to address an obvious question: If my colleague really is a pedophile and abuser of children, how did I not notice that something was wrong with him?  After all, I am a trained trauma therapist who works with people who have been sexually abused every day. You’d think that I’d realize it if I was in the presence of a predator, especially a person who preys on children.

The answer is NO…I had no sense that anything was wrong and as for the colleagues I have spoken to, neither did they.  The truth is that unless you witness someone doing something wrong or one of their victims reveals the truth to you, you will rarely know that someone is a predator until they are caught.

We would all like to believe that the monsters among us are easy to see, that if a monster came close to us that we would immediately sense the danger and would take steps to reveal the monster and get them arrested.  That is a lovely thought, but it is perilously close to being a fairy tale, and it keeps us blind to the truth.

The sad and terrible truth that each and every one of us has a monster within, and I don’t mean the potential to be a monster.  I mean that each and every human on the face of the earth is, in some part, a monster; what determines the size of the monster within is how much we feed it and how much we let the monster come out to play.  The monster within me is my anger, and I am ashamed of how vicious I can be when I don’t control my anger.  I wish this wasn’t true about me but it is true, and if I hide that truth from myself I can guarantee that my monster will bite someone—hard—when I am not paying attention.  I have lashed out in anger more often than I want to admit to and have had to apologize to more people than I want to admit to.  On the other hand, I guess I should be pleased that I had the good sense to apologize and admit to my bad behavior, because the problem with monsters is that most of us won’t admit that we have a monster within at all.  We deny that our monster exists, and in doing so, give it free reign to bite and terrorize the people we love and the folks who have to work with us.  If you admit that you have a monster within, you can do your best to control it, to deny it emotional food, to refuse to let it ‘come out and play’.  However, if you deny that you have a monster within at all, then it will come out and play whenever it can, whenever circumstances invite your inner monster to respond.  If he’s guilty this is what led my colleague to such horrible, devastating actions—he fed the monster and let it come out and play, and look what it did and how many little children are left bleeding in its wake.

It would be easy to simply label my colleague a monster and lock him away and forget that he ever existed, but I beg you not to respond in that way.  If he is guilty, yes, we should put him in prison and keep him away from the rest of the world for our own safety.  But please don’t just walk away and forget that you, too, have a monster within. Please don’t go on pretending that your monster never bites anyone, never behaves in horrible ways, never makes you ashamed of yourself.  If you are brave, please…own your inner monster. Admit to having a monster within and then set about starving that monster…refusing to give it space to play or emotions to feed on. Refuse to entertain thoughts that awaken your inner monster. Get help—even professional help if you have to.  Do whatever you have to do so that you can put your monster on a leash and take control of it.

All the children who have ever been eaten alive by a monster deserve a world as free of monsters as we can create.  Please…

Please.

From this page to God’s ears.

Dear Parent of an Adult Child…PART II

Last week I wrote about dealing with adult children and codependent behaviors.  This week I want to make things a little clearer because it’s hard to change behaviors when you don’t know what you’re aiming to eliminate, and if you don’t have anything healthy to substitute in its place.

Let’s return to our initial example, that of my client and her mom, after my client’s breakup from the unbalanced boyfriend that her mom really liked.  What could mom have done instead that would have been emotionally healthy?

To make this discussion clearer and easier, let’s give these people names:

My client:  Trina               Her mom:  Mabel               Trina’s unbalanced boyfriend: Fred

Let’s break this down (and no, it’s not Hammer Time):

Until a month ago, 22 year-old Trina was living with 23 year-old Fred, who recently moved to the state where his parents live so that he can pursue an externship in his field.  He graduated a year ago and was unable to find an externship in Arizona.  After Fred moved back to his home state, Trina moved back home and is living with 48 year-old Mabel.

About two weeks ago, Trina admitted to herself she wasn’t in love with Fred anymore and broke up with him.  Fred didn’t handle it well, threatening suicide, which freaked Trina out pretty badly.  Not knowing what to do, she asked her mom Mabel for help, and Mabel ended up on the phone with Fred.  Mabel spoke to Fred and couldn’t calm him down.  During the phone conversation, Fred reiterated his desire to commit suicide.

So…what should Mabel do?

Before Fred threatened suicide, the proper response to Fred is listening. Listening is always good. We are always free to be a soft shoulder for someone to cry on, but listening and attempting to fix their problem are not the same thing. For that reason, Mabel should not offer her opinions about what should be happening between Fred and Trina in regard to their relationship.  Letting another adult unload their feelings and struggles to you should be an “in one ear and out the other” kind of moment.  Not that you should forget their concerns, but that you shouldn’t let yourself get emotionally invested in what happens next. If it’s not your life, don’t get emotionally invested.  The best thing that Mabel can do in this situation (if she’s going to talk to Fred at all) is to listen to Fred’s concerns, let him unload, maybe encourage him to express his feelings (some folks have trouble with that), and then listen some more.

Once Fred expressed a desire to commit suicide, everything changed. Always take threats of suicide seriously, and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by them.  In other words, call 911 and let the police handle the person threatening suicide.  People who are seriously threatening suicide need immediate help, and you are not qualified to determine what constitutes a serious threat of suicide. Even mental health professionals and police officers struggle with that.  Finally, anyone who threatens suicide but isn’t serious about it is using the threat to manipulate you into doing what they want you to do.  Refuse to be manipulated by taking all suicide threats seriously and refusing to intervene except by calling 911.

What would a codependent response look like?

  • Begging Fred not to commit suicide and giving him a list of reasons he should live.
  • Agreeing to talk to Trina and convince her that she shouldn’t break up with Fred.
  • Agreeing to intervene with Trina at all, in any way.
  • Yelling at Fred for being over-emotional and encouraging him to “man up” or “get a grip”.
  • Doing anything other than listening to Fred and calling 911 after he threatened suicide.
  • Getting emotionally invested in the outcome…in other words, getting emotionally involved with what happens after the phone call with Fred ends.

Let’s take a moment to talk about getting emotionally invested in the outcome.  Please note that calling 911 to stop Fred from committing suicide is not ‘getting emotionally invested in the outcome’.  It is an ethical action required to save a life.  You don’t have to be emotionally invested in the outcome in order to care about a stranger enough to call 911.

Getting back to the point: we love our families and friends and of course we will have feelings and emotions about the things that happen to them.  Your daughter gets a promotion and a raise?  You will probably feel happy.  She has a breakup with her husband? You will probably feel sad and anxious about what will happen next.  That’s normal.

What’s not normal is getting emotional at the level you would be emotional if these things were happening to you.  The emotions we feel about our own lives are necessary to help us take action on our own behalf.  So…if our emotions are there to help us take action…what action can we take if the emotions we feel are about someone else’s life?  It can be very hard to restrain yourself when the impulse to act is driven by such strong emotion…and in the attempt to stop ourselves from taking actual action, we often try to emotionally influence the other person to do what we want.  This is called manipulation. The word manipulation is defined by Webster as to “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”  In my counseling practice I define manipulation to my clients as “using emotions or words to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.”  Force?  Dang…that’s a strong word, but that’s exactly what it feels like when someone is manipulating you.  You might think that getting emotionally invested in the outcome is an innocent thing that happens when you have a tender heart or you are a very caring person, but tender hearts don’t force people do things and caring persons don’t attempt to control or influence unfairly or unscrupulously.  If you are actually a caring and tender hearted person, take steps to protect your tender heart and care enough to control yourself (the only thing you actually control) and let others do the same.   We’ll talk about how to protect your tender heart next week.  Wow…it turns out that this codependency and adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Now let’s talk about the furniture.

Fred called Trina and said that he had resigned himself to losing her and needs to move on.  He asked Trina to send him certain items that he left with her when he moved, thinking that she would move to his home state after graduation so they could continue living together. Fred only wanted the smaller items sent to him and was not interested in having Trina ship the furniture to him; those he wanted donated to Goodwill.  Then Fred called Mabel and said pretty much the same thing to her. He requested that his bed and desk be donated to Goodwill because he no longer wanted them and then he told Mabel that he could not bear the idea that Trina might sleep with another man in that bed.

What should Mabel do?

Let’s start with the fact that Mabel doesn’t need to be involved in this at all.  The fact that Fred called her after giving Trina instructions is a clear sign that Fred is up to another act of manipulation.  Remember how we defined that earlier as using words or emotions to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.  Do you get the picture now?

Let me remind you that Trina is a 22 year-old adult.  Other than the moral issue of keeping things that Fred requested be sent to him, Mabel has no reason to interfere with this situation.  She is free to ask Trina if she needs help getting things gathered up and mailed off, just as Mabel might help any other adult who needs to get a large number of items to the UPS store.  But what if Trina refuses to mail Fred his possessions?  That’s a little stickier, but we aren’t talking about criminal activity, just ethically and morally reprehensible actions.  If Trina decides to be unethical, then Mabel is free to share her disappointment and disapproval of Trina’s actions…and then Mabel needs to shut up.  Trina is an adult, and her choice to be moral or ethical is her own.  We don’t go next door to monitor our neighbor and make sure they return all their spouse’s property when they get divorced, and we need to be careful what we say to our adult children for the same reason.  If you disapprove of another adult’s choice, you are free to tell them so, but it is wise to shut up and let it go after you tell them the first time.  Anything more than that is harping and nagging…and a direct attempt to force them to behave according to your will…and that is manipulative and codependent.**

What about the bed and desk?  Fred doesn’t want them…so Trina is free to do whatever she wishes.  If Trina wants to follow Fred’s wishes, she can donate the bed and desk to Goodwill.  If she decides that she needs those items right now, she is free to donate them to herself (after all, Fred has requested that she donate them to charity…he doesn’t need them.)  If Mabel wants to follow through with Trina about that, she may want to ask Trina what she’s going to do…and Mabel is even free to have an opinion about what is the right thing to do. Let’s remember that Fred doesn’t want the bed or the desk.  Now you might think that perhaps Fred was trying to be charitable and would not be okay with Trina keeping those items because of their value.  If Mabel thinks that charity was Fred’s goal then she is free to suggest that Trina donate a certain amount to Goodwill to make up for what Goodwill could have gained by selling those items.  Then again, Mabel might want to tell Trina that she thinks it would be wise to get rid of those items, but no matter what Mabel thinks, it is Trina’s to decide what happens with the bed and the desk. Unless Mabel paid for the bed and the desk (which would make them her property) what happens with them is not her decision and she has no right to force Trina to do anything.  Then again, Trina is an adult…so Mabel never has the right to force Trina to do anything.  She can refuse to let Trina live in her house, but that’s about all the leverage she has when it comes to Trina’s behavior, and it is not okay to threaten to throw someone out of your house just because they won’t do what you tell them to do…that’s manipulative and codependent.  We will deal with adult children in your house who are out of control and have no respect for your boundaries two weeks from now.  Again, this adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Several times in this post and the last, I have said that Mabel needed to ask Trina what Trina wants to do.  This is called respecting the agency of another person. Then again, you can just call it respect, and respect is always a good idea in theory and in practice.

What to take away from this if you want to be healthy:

  • Just listen…don’t fix. When other people are talking to you, listen! Don’t tell them what to do, and don’t attempt to fix their problem unless they ask for your assistance. Listening is kind and loving and lets the person talk through the situation until they come to a better understanding of it.  Telling them what to do or ‘fixing’ things by intervening without their direct request tells them that you think they are too stupid or utterly incapable of handling things on their own.  Just listen…don’t fix.
  • Ask before acting. You are always free to offer assistance, but ask the person what they want from you.  You have no idea what someone else really needs until you ask them, and it is possible any ‘help’ you would offer will be experienced as interference by the person you are trying to help.  Don’t assume you know what someone else needs. Ask before acting.
  • Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama. It doesn’t matter if they are your child, your friend, your sibling, or your parents…if the issue is theirs, let it stay that way. This includes practicing “in one ear and out the other” listening, as well as not allowing anyone to manipulate you into entering their drama (think: Fred calling Mabel about the bed and desk.) No matter how dire they say their situation is, no matter how upset they are at this moment, you don’t have the answers to someone else’s problems. In the end, all you are doing is creating a mess that will make a great episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama.
  • Don’t get emotionally invested in the outcome. I know I said this earlier but it bears repeating.  No one wants to be called controlling or manipulative, but that will be the label you get if you allow yourself to get emotionally invested in the outcome of things you do not actually control.

While we didn’t talk about these specific things in this post, here are two more things crucial to avoiding codependency and manipulative behaviors.

  • Let people screw up and make bad decisions. Essentially, let people fail. Failures can lead to all sorts of good things!  The inventor of vulcanized rubber was trying to do something else entirely and accidentally invented the rubber used in your car tires. Technically, his experiment failed, but I’m betting you’re not going to give your tires back.  You might think that failure is not always so positive in our personal lives, and you would be right. Failure is not always positive and good things don’t always come from failure.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that you can list quite a few failures in your own life right now as you read this…and you are still here, breathing, reading, and learning. Apparently, failure isn’t fatal.  So don’t freak out when someone you love makes a choice that you fear will lead to epic failure.  You are always free to tell them that you don’t think they’re being wise, but don’t try to stop them. Failure is often the doorway to great things and it always leads to learning important lessons. Let people screw up and made bad decisions. Let people fail.
  • Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures. This one is hard.  When you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer…but sometimes suffering is exactly what we need to cause us to change.  Consequences are our best teacher!  And it is really uncomfortable watching someone go through the consequences of a DUI, or of an affair, or of a failed marriage.  It is going to cause you pain to watch this person you love experience their consequences…and if you love them, you will suck it up and feel the pain—both yours and theirs.  If you love them, you will let them learn this lesson this time so they don’t have to go through this twice…or three times…or more.  Far worse than suffering through this pain with them this once would be suffering through it with them two or more times because you prevented them from feeling the pain the first time.  Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures.

Next week I am going to address the issue of being tender hearted.  Remember that a huge part of codependency is being unable to deal with emotions that other people’s actions cause you.  It is really hard sitting back and watching your child make a foolish decision with their life or their career.  It is painful to watch your sibling deal with the consequences of their DUI.  In general, the behavior of our friends and family can cause us to feel overwhelming amounts of anxiety, pain, shame, and anger…and what do you do with all those feelings?  Let’s discuss that next week, because dealing with the feelings was the hardest part for me to conquer, and it was the key to ending my own codependent and manipulative behavior.

**If you are having problems with letting an immoral / unethical person live in your house, please see last week’s post for a short comment, and then come back for the next two week’s posts.  I promise that we’ll work our way through the whole thing before we’re done.

The Society of People Who Drown

Today is one of those days when I have mixed emotions.  Let me explain.

I’m sad because all my clergy friends are on their way home from The Gathering, a yearly convocation of pastors in our conference of the United Methodist Church.  I haven’t been able to attend The Gathering for the last eight years, and it’ll be 2021 before I am able to attend.  Bummer!  The reason behind all this is long and complicated, so I’ll simplify it: you can only be out of the office so much if you are going to be a counselor that is effective, and so I allocate my days off to things like family vacation, family emergencies, and the things I do as a Methodist clergywoman that require me to be away from my counseling office.  There are only so many days off that I can take, and when it comes to attending The Gathering, I just don’t have enough days off to make it happen.  Again, bummer!

I suppose I can’t really complain. It’s not like I never get to see my clergy friends. All the clergy in our conference gather twice a year: once in February at The Gathering and once in June at Annual Conference.  And that’s where the happiness comes in!

You see, this week was a rough week: lots of tasks, lots of clients, too many crisis situations, etc.  I’ve written about this in past blog entries—weeks like this can make me feel squished. I start feeling like I am drowning in a sea of endless tasks and endless human need, feeling pushed under the surface by the sheer number of people who want to lean on me and believe that I can somehow give them what they want, what they think they need.

This, of course, is why I let my mind wander off to The Gathering, where a good friend of mine was giving her testimony about her call into ministry…and that’s when the happiness started.  I started thinking about her, and praying for her…and then I started thinking about Annual Conference.

Annual Conference is not some playground for pastors; we actually get quite a lot of work done, and I often find myself a bit stressed out during the conference because I have things I am supposed to get done, official roles I have to play, or presentations I have to make.  But no matter what, Annual Conference makes me happy, because in the end, I get to hang with my peeps. I get to spend five days with all my clergy friends. If I were being honest, I would mention that I’m not friends with all the clergy in this conference, but it doesn’t really matter because I’m just glad to be with my clergy colleagues.  When we get together, it is almost always a truly joyous occasion.  We laugh with one another, we pray with one another, and in general we love on one another as much as possible.

Why?  Because we are The Society of People Who Drown.

There isn’t a pastor or clergyperson on the face of the earth who doesn’t understand what I mean.  It doesn’t matter what kind of ministry you do—youth ministry, general church ministry, chaplaincy, counseling, urban ministry, ministry with the poor—if you are in ministry, some days you drown.  The human need is so great!  People come to pastors because they are seeking something, or more accurately, they are “wanting”: wanting answers; wanting connection to something bigger than themselves; wanting to feel God more deeply; wanting to hear God’s voice more clearly; wanting an instant family; wanting to know if what they are doing is right or wrong; wanting to know if they should give up or keep trying; wanting financial help; wanting forgiveness; wanting validation; wanting something that will end their misery and pain, wanting…wanting…SOMETHING.  Add that to all the other demands that go with managing a church (or an urban mission or a vital missions program or a counseling practice, etc.) and suddenly you find yourself drowning in a sea of tasks and endless human need, pushed under the surface by the sheer number of people who are leaning on you and hoping that you can help them get what they want, what they truly need.

Together, with my clergy colleagues, we are The Society of People Who Drown, and we are okay with that.

Because we have a Savior, and He has a boat.

And we know exactly whose hand plunges into the water to pull us to the surface.  Even when that hand looks exactly like the hand of one of my colleagues and comes attached to their voice, I know who is reaching into the water after me. And when I plunge my hand into the flood to grab one of my colleagues who is starting to go under, they know exactly who is guiding my hand; they know exactly who is pulling them out of the sea.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat.

Before we accepted our call to ministry all of us found ourselves standing on the beach, looking out across the water at Jesus in the boat.  There He was, floating in a sea of human need, calling to us as we stood on the shore, and one by one we all said “That’s it! I love you, and I’m coming in!” and then we waded into the water.  It seemed like the craziest thing to do, and yet none of us seemed to be able to choose anything else.

So here we are, treading water in a sea of human need, and occasionally drowning.  And we are okay with that.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat.

There is a reason why my clergy colleagues and I love each other so intensely; why we enjoy our time together so much.  There is a reason why we seek each other out to share both tears and laughter and to lift each other’s spirits.

It’s because each and every one of us is crazy.  Only crazy people wade into the water when all the evidence makes it look like you’ll drown!  But here we are, treading water in a sea of human need and occasionally drowning…and while it’s very difficult to do, we wouldn’t do anything else.  And we wouldn’t do it with anyone else.  These are my colleagues and like me, they are all crazy…crazy for the Man in the boat who is going to save us all…crazy for the One who reaches his arm into the flood over and over to pull us up and let us know that it’s okay…we aren’t going to drown, not really, because He has His eye on us, and He isn’t going to let anything take us under for good.

That is as true for me and my clergy colleagues as it is for everyone else. Jesus doesn’t just pull a few of us to the surface. He reaches in for each and every person, everywhere, all the time.

It isn’t just me and my clergy colleagues. It’s everyone.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat!

Hallelujah! Amen.