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The Hurts are Real

  • Location: Spokane,
Part 1 - 2017 was a formative year. It forced me, and my family, into the pathway of what's known as "Trauma integration". Though, it wasn't a conscience choice. It was more like a violent, forced integration of the overlapping themes and plot lines of my life coalescing in a big, tangled mess. There was a thread of commonality in all the stories, to be sure, but I was unaware how to engage or understand how it fit in the narrative of my life. Throughout most of our lives, we have experiences that shape us, for better or worse, into the people we are. In response to these lived and felt experiences, we develop explicit memory (things we can recall in our minds eye and remember), and implicit memory (things we can feel and know but often can't put words to, what some call body memory, or unconscious memory). Both are powerful influencers in the way we engage God and others. Early on we begin to form behaviors in response to these earliest memories that allow us to survive in the various situations we'll face as we grow up. These adaptive behaviors in some ways are a blessing - they allow us to cope with the stress of normal life, and in extreme circumstances, literally help us survive. However, over years and years of coping with unhealth, or learning to soothe dysfunction or our own emotional and spiritual dysregulated selves, things come to a head. That was 2017. A few more suicides of friends I served with in the military. A suicide at work. A school shooting that hit close to home. Another former coworker committed suicide. I lost four months, and my family will tell you the same, I was shell of myself during that time. It shook me to the core and raise more questions than answers. I had processed just enough of my own story and experiences to frame them in some mostly sober-minded and healthy ways. I was able to acknowledge the impact of things that shaped me negatively and positively, while trying not to paint a broad stroke of "bad" or "good" over them (though some of them could absolutely categorized this way). I could recognize some of my triggers. But there was namelessness to the hurt and pain I felt in my body and mind and heart but couldn't give words to. For an articulate, relatively emotionally competent person, this was excruciatingly frustrating and mentally exhausting. So much so that it began to take a toll on my body. I experienced bouts of stress related ulcers and GI symptoms, chronic sleeplessness, agitation and withdrawal, patchy hair loss and premature greying, and a deep unsettled insecurity that I could never rest or be still - this was a hypervigilance that I couldn't place, related to but somehow disconnected from what I could remember and not remember of past traumas. There are always blind spots when it comes to wounds in our lives. It's one of God's reminders that we cannot fix, heal, or save ourselves. That's a grace I wanted to see as a good thing, if God is good, but at this time felt like salt in a wound. We need others to draw us out, to speak truths we don't yet know or see, to tell us what they see behind our blind spots and help name unnamable and unmentionable hurts, to call out and speak God's blessing and Good News over places we've been wronged, and remind us that the grace of God is sufficient for the ways we've harmed or done wrong as well. I know these truths and could give mental affirmation of them, but on a functional level, I was stuck in a cyclical pattern of reacting to stressors, trying to cope and limp along, and then feeling exhausted and bewildered. Each time I I experienced hypervigilance or an overwhelming sense of earnestness and "need to produce" to stave off my inner lack of rest, I felt more and more depleted. Then I'd swing the pendulum the other direction to withdrawal and seek seclusion. Both were self-protective but in opposite ways. The overexertion was an attempt to cover my insecurity and show strength and competence, so proving I'm okay, I can do it. The withdrawal from relational and circumstantial stressors was avoidant to protect myself from hurting and feeling. Maybe I thought I would protect those I love from what was uncontrollable and possibly harmful in me as well. Not only did I not feel safe, but I also wasn't sure I was safe. Living like this is, at some point, is unsustainable and I reached a tipping point of diminishing returns that was beginning to take from me, and from my family, and my broader circles of relationship. I would trigger in regard to military trauma or the hidden and unspoken traumas of childhood abuse. Sometimes I had a deep realization that I had also committed sin and trauma towards others, and shame at my brokenness followed. I would respond in regular cycles of what I've started calling invisible depression. For an extreme extrovert like me, depression often just tones down your overexuberance and charism. Your high normal level of enthusiasm and zeal matches that of the rest of the "normal" people. It may be subdued for you, but in matching the status quo so your muted notes fade imperceptibly into the rest of the choir. Extroverted depression can go unnoticed for a time until it reaches critical mass. Such has been the case in my life. Maybe a close friend will genuinely probe, "You seem off," or "You are sure you are okay?", or "You seem subdued." Not always, but sometimes these are hints that you may be dealing with more than just your garden variety discontent, or case of the Mondays. There is a deeper weight and sense of need than can be expressed, but it's felt. I had theological training, some counseling under my belt (in fact I grew up in the home of a counselor, so I could talk the talk), and a solid framework for the sovereign power and grace of God and his work in the world. I had a robust support system of family and friends who would have leapt to help me in an instant had I known how to ask for help. For many reasons, I was stuck in a cycle of shame and guilt and hiddenness. I've since learned that a common theme for trauma survivors is that we compare our experiences or rate them to determine what seems worthy of the word trauma. It's human nature to want to categorize and justify why we struggle or how we deal. I didn't lose a limb like him. I didn't get shot at as much as her. I wasn't really molested; it was just playing. My response to that person wasn't as violent as those guys. We want to hide. We don't want to face the truth. It's painful to name what we experienced, to sit in it and retell the story. It can even retraumatize us in the early stages of seeking health and help. It's painful to think that at times, we've been perpetrators of trauma in others. It's painful to see the devastation trauma has caused and wonder if it can be redeemable. To wonder if I am redeemable is really what I was asking. Can I be fixed? Can I be healed? Shouldn't I be able to overcome this alone? I feel so weak and vulnerable (more shame). Recovery and healing are words that get tossed around with good intention but poor understanding sometimes in trauma circles. I'm stealing this thought from somewhere (I'm not sure who deserves the credit but not me), but these words often do a disservice to us because they are used to imply that it's possible to have total and complete restoration - the absence of scars and lack of evidence of any hard thing - in this life. If we just do the right things, learn the right mantras, experience the right sort of healing, pray the right prayer, put our faith in the right God, or educate ourselves enough, we'll be more than okay, we can be restored completely! It's not true, and the weight of that lie is crushing. Now I'm an optimistic person with the gift of joy - to a fault I look for good. But this is me being sober minded and honest, not fatalistic. An unattainable goal is a carrot just out of reach that drives you to anxious striving, or despondence and depression. When you're doing well it will produce pride that you have overcome or conquered. When you're failing it produces a deep sense of shame that you are not enough, and you know it. You are the hero of your own story and so it all rises and falls on your shoulders. There is no middle ground of rest for the weary struggler who must heal by their own power. But, is the desire for recovery and total restoration a wrong desire? I don't think so! How can you reconcile these two statements: we cannot expect to experience complete healing in this life, and it's a sacred longing to need complete healing? There is an answer. We were made to live in harmony with God, creation and one another and the grand narrative and true story of the world is that we are broken. I don't think many right-minded people in moments of lucid honesty would argue that the world is broken and that they are included in this brokenness in both big and small ways. We are distant from God, often choose to willingly disregard and turn away from Him and find our meaning and purpose in things other than who our Creator says we are meant to be. We often put our hopes and dreams onto things that cannot bear the weight and weren't meant to. In doing so, we're let down by their fragility, and we crush whatever good was in them. We have a disproportionate expectation of what they can provide for us - security, hope, joy, lasting peace, belonging, value, worth. As we give these things or inordinate affection they perpetually fail and we perpetually live disheartened. Can anything bring more than temporal and fleeting rest and assurance to our souls? Traumas, or wounds, or whatever you label the general brokenness of the world, are symptoms of the true reality of the world - the truest story. The reason they sting so much and have such lasting impact is because they represent what was never meant to be. We know in our inner being that something deeper is wrong and these punctuated instances of pain highlight breakthrough moments when the breakdown of the world feels like it's going to win out in the end. They are scary and real and feel like threats to our existence because they are threats. The hurts are real. The harms of abuse, of war, of violence and societal instability that manifest in myriad ways do real damage to us and to creation. It's evident all around us. In 2017, in my piece of the story, this weight was inescapable, scary, and overwhelming.