[Invited message for Mental Health Sunday delivered on 5/20/2018 at First Federated Church, North Jackson, OH. Message follows reading from Ezekiel 37:1-14: The Valley of the Dry Bones.]
Good morning. I’m Tom and I’m a trauma therapist. When I started my career as a counselor five years ago, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I knew I would work with people who were depressed and people who were anxious. I knew I would work with people who had organic brain disorders, like schizophrenia or bipolar.
What I came to learn is that client after client had survived astonishingly horrible life experiences and these experiences appeared directly related to their current anxiety and depression. Their past was not in their past. Many of my clients had survived things that would have been shocking if they had occurred in the 11th century, much less in modern America with modern safety nets and multiple layers of professionals with an obligation to report awfulness. Sometimes these things happened in quaint Ohio communities that we don’t associate with awfulness: Austintown, Poland, Canfield, or Champion.
What soon became clear in my first year of work as a therapist is how little my graduate school training prepared me to work with severely traumatized people. In fact very little of my training as a citizen or human prepared me to see or recognize what surrounded me. We all deal with trauma by making it invisible. In time, our brains do this as a protective mechanism. We do this individually, we do this in families, and we do this culturally. We deal with trauma by not dealing with it.
Even inside mental health agencies, trauma is often that wound that we don’t see and don’t ever really get around to treating. We go out of our way not to see it in ourselves and in others–as if our happiness depends on not seeing it–but we’re not happy. Our brains may have a thousand crevices where we can stash things. But our insides, our bones, aren’t very good at forgetting awfulness just because we ask it to.
So, as a new counselor I set about trying to see it. What I found is that most trauma comes in two main varieties. The first are that things that come that shouldn’t… When I was nine years old x person did y thing to me and I haven’t really been the same since. It’s event or experience trauma. Trauma therapists know how this type of wounding heals. The other way is what happens when the things that are supposed to come don’t come. When we are children, we are born with deep biological needs. These needs are not optional and include things like: nurture, protection, attunement, encouragement, support, and validation. When these things don’t come, really difficult things happen that impact development every bit as much as horrible events. A kid is left in a nearly impossible situation. He can’t get his needs met and he cannot figure out how to not need these things. This type of wounding affects all parts of the self. Trauma therapists know how this type of wounding heals, but a child in that situation may feel stuck in an awful childhood that never seems to end–even long after it is clothed by a grown-up body. Most people that I work with have had a lot of both types of trauma.
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound.” Trauma is little more than raw and unprocessed human memory. It sits containered in the emotional part of the brain until something comes along that activates it. That type of wounding is everywhere. And if it hasn’t happened to you, it will. We all got here when a bottom fell out and everything that we knew fell out with us into some vast space that we never anticipated inhabiting. And, it keeps happening. Live long enough and you’ll outlive nearly everyone and everything that your young heart loved. Loss is trauma. Someone will leave you or you’ll have to leave someone. Heartache is trauma. None of this is side show. It’s the stuff at the rust red marrow of life. The certainty of it is redundantly twisted into every cell. Give it time. That central thread of this life is designed to snag. It will catch and it will unravel… and it has always, always, been this way.
Think of it from Adam’s perspective–or Eve’s. It’s there in the very beginning. How wounding to lose that garden not long after you get your feet comfortable there. To lose a son. Wounding happens regardless of your intentions.
Trauma is not just about the misfortune of others–only involving the misdeeds of the coach of a far away team that your favorite team sometimes plays. Trauma is about us too. It has to be.
Grief also is wounding for those of us still here. Having an identity that isn’t permitted to exist is wounding. Invisibility is deeply wounding. Traumatic wounds are the arrows that pierce us. The good things bounce off like Nerf arrows. The good things bounce off and awfulness is what is sticky, salient, and memorable. It’s like this for everyone. We can hear this over and over in the Psalms. “Lord, this life really, really, stinks. Yet I put my trust in you.”
With trauma, you can forgive in one part of the self, only for it to show up in another. Trauma, like death or fever, affects all parts of the self. Carrying it will affect your capacity to love and trust–yet it will not just let go. It will affect your spirituality. In time, it will affect your physical health. Every client I have who has carried severe trauma for decades has one autoimmune disease or another: rheumatoid arthritis, celiac, psoriasis, lupus, Crohn’s, and dozens of related disorders. We all know that stress isn’t good for you. Carrying traumatic stress does nothing good for mental health or physical health. Until you can reprocess those experiences, it’s all burden and all wet weight.
Recognizing that we are wounded is an important first step. Tens of millions of women last year were able say–out loud– “me too.” It has never been more okay to acknowledge wounding, but I’m not sure broader culture knows much about these wounds might heal. Spirituality and being in an opening and affirming community helps. It can help a lot.
As a trauma therapist, I work with clients to move one lava-hot memory at a time from the limbic part of the brain (where fight or flight survival stuff is stored) into normal memory (where the memory can be recalled without causing a catastrophe in the body). Recovery is an amazing thing to see and I get to see it session after session, all day long. As people safely and efficiently process their trauma, they get to save the self from the past. These images that we hold in our own heads about our own suffering can be reprocessed using modern trauma methods and made much less horrible. I sit five feet from people all day every day as they do this. They astonish themselves. We do this with very little language–we literally don’t have to talk about it. We do this safely. Efficiently. We turn something unspeakably horrible into a point of real personal strength. And when deep healing comes, it comes everywhere and all at once.
That is my experience being an trauma therapist and also being a client who has received this therapy to help clear up some of my own awfulness. This is one way to come fully back alive, to get flesh back on your old dry bones. It’s one way to get healthy enough–to get still enough–to hear your calling. When you can see trauma and understand it in yourself and others, you can become a warm, nurturing, patient, and affirming presence and witness in this world. I doubt our communities or the church needs anything more urgently.
The ability of the mind to quickly reconcile itself is incredibly affirming. Our minds, our bodies, have always known how to heal, it’s just that the same cultures that traumatize us construct obstacles to healing. That capacity toward healing has always been there, beneath all the misdirection of cultures, beneath generations of shame, and beneath accumulated torture. It has been there and we now know how to find it. The marvel of observing others find it again and again is its own reward.
The discovery of healing pathways deep inside our core makes everything horrible feel a little less so. It makes the big history of awfulness feel less so. And things that looked impossible, now feel entirely local. Like finding a hope for us that I can believe in. Or walking out into sunshine at noon on Sunday and finding over and over that everything we need is already here.
If you need to, find someone to take this journey with you. You will want to work with a trauma therapist… a “regular” counselor may be a nice companion or witness to your suffering, but may not know how to safely and efficiently guide you out of it. There are people who can help.