Back to the uncomfortable zone. For a few weeks now, I’ve been prompted to write about my experience with PTSD. I’ve put it off, prayed about it, discussed it, and tested it. By tested it, I mean that I, in Christian terminology, put down a fleece. For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about PTSD recovery, and this verse came to mind.
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:22
You see, my PTSD resulted from childhood trauma that requires a mountain of forgiveness. The story is personal, and I’m not really inclined to discuss this. Most all of my friends are unaware of this aspect in my life, but it is a formative part of my life. So, I asked God for a sign. Make it clear that I am to write this or let me write something else. I prayed this for 7-10 days with ongoing conviction. To my horror, that was the text that our preacher used this Sunday. I knew then, the post had to be written – pleasant or not – private or not. So, this is what I know about PTSD. This may be an exercise once again for me, but perhaps it will benefit someone else as well.
What follows is not medical advice. It is not a standard to which you should comply. It is, very simply, my experience – my testimony. Others, especially soldiers, may have a completely different experience and require a very different treatment protocol.
What does PTSD feel like? Imagine for a minute, if you will, what your breakfast plate looked like this morning in great detail. What did you wear yesterday and exactly how did it look? For many of us, those details are unimportant and are not stored. Like a deck of cards full of memories, the memory is in the back and not vivid. Perhaps, with effort, we can remember it. The memory, likely, does not have the same vivid image as the clothes that you are wearing right now. It’s a normal, healthy memory. Now, imagine where you were on 9-11 or when the space shuttle exploded or when Kennedy was shot. Imagine what it felt like when you were in a car accident. Perhaps it feels like that memory just happened and full of vivid details that are stronger than the breakfast that you had today. That card immediately comes to the front of the deck with the fresh memory attached.
A benign example from my childhood is the day that the school burned. I can remember seeing the flames shooting through our middle school today almost as if I were still looking at it. I remember who laughed, I remember who cried, and I remember who tried to go back into the building to rescue others. The card can easily come to the top of my deck when I want it to (like writing this just now) and when I don’t want it to (bonfires, candles, etc.). If you see me avoiding lighting my children’s birthday candles or the campfire, then you will understand. I don’t want that card at the front of the deck, and I avoid situations where it can be triggered. While the image is “stuck”, I do very little in my life that requires a live fire. As such, the incidence is low and it is not interfering with my life. Therefore, I am not planning to seek treatment for this mild aversion to fire.
For invasive PTSD, in my experience, there is a physical element and a emotional element tied to the card that needs to be reshuffled to its proper place. As a small child, I experienced invasive medical procedures at a urologist. In the 1970s, the instruments were only adult sized. All procedures were very painful, and explaining what is happening to children was not a priority of the doctor. For years, I had a frozen memory, a card at the front of the deck, that had me laying on a procedure table being held down against my will by multiple people and the searing pain. I recall the doctor telling the orderly to cover my mouth when I whimpered and wanted my Mommy. I was a young child in a powerless situation. Perhaps, if I had only experienced this once – it would not have been so bad. There were repetitive treatment of this nature, and I became fearful of doctors (or anyone dressed in white). In the 1970s, waitresses wore white; this was all I needed to go screaming from the room.
To compound the situation, I was expected to “be good.” Without a parent in the room, there was no witness to what was happening to me. I felt so alone and so unable to be the good girl that I knew I should be. No matter how hard I tried, I could not master the bravery and the dignity to walk into this situation quietly and calmly knowing what was to come. So, I attached the emotion of never being good enough to this pain. You see, I couldn’t be that brave. I couldn’t hold up under the pain and be the “big girl” that I needed to be. I just wasn’t able.
In addition to experiencing the physical pain in reality a handful of times from 1 1/2 -12, I also experienced the pain in my mind almost daily. Like a card in a deck, it would present itself as a frozen image under certain triggers and wouldn’t complete the thought. It was just stuck there in all of the horror – much more vibrant than this morning’s breakfast. Not a memory – a reality. Even at night, there were nightmares. All of this from medical treatment you say? Yes, and I’m not alone. As an adult, I saw a urologist once. He told me that any patients of his that had seen a urologist in the 1970s had similar experiences and similar difficulties with seeing a urologist as an adult. Later, I would learn from a trauma specialist that a child’s mind interprets experiences like mine similarly to sexual assault. It’s bad enough to experience to experience the pain once. It’s life-changing to relive it every day in your mind for years. It hurts; it’s painful.
All pain needs medicine, and mine was food. When the images would pop into my brain, they were self-medicated by eating a combination of salty, sugary, fatty foods. My eyes would zone out, and I would enter a self-hypnosis-type mode while I ate. Then, the food would be gone, and the feel good feelings would replace the image. I literally and figuratively stuffed the feelings down, often not remembering eating. Any time that I felt that I could not rise to a challenge, this was my response. There were no brakes on consuming the food – I ate until it was gone. All pain needs medicine, this was mine. I hear of other people who have PTSD that choose to medicate in other ways, but the need is the same. Reshuffle the deck; stop the pain.
My first attempt at treatment occurred in my early 20s while I was in college. First, I called a local hotline to see if the rape counseling services might have any assistance for me. They did not think this was an issue that they could address and recommended a Christian counselor. I saw her, and the results were not pleasant. She suggested that God gave me that pain to prevent me from having premarital sex. I left despondent and knew without a doubt that, whatever this was, it was not treatable. It would be two decades before I tried again.
When I was working on my doctoral degree, there was a Dr. Oz challenge. He was going to give a million dollars to the person that lost the most weight. I am a successful person and full of determination. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this would be the challenge that would make me a millionaire! I weighed in officially and began the program; I gained weight. Why? Why couldn’t I muster weight loss even for a million dollars? I didn’t understand.
One of the colleagues in the Ed.D. program was a Christian counselor. She was so much more sane than the person that I had seen decades ago. So, I decided to try once more with a Christian counselor. Our work offered six free visits, and I took them up on it. After the second or third visit, the medical imagery came to surface, and she told me that I could be freed from those images if I saw a trauma specialist. Freed? There was a way out? I could end these images that have haunted me for decades? Really? Sign me up.
The trauma specialist told me about a procedure called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR. The short procedure replaced 200-300 hours of counseling that used to be necessary to reprogram PTSD. The second appointment taught me coping skills such as breathing techniques to prepare me for the hard work ahead. With the next appointment, we began the hard work of treatment. She uses the knee tapping technique (as opposed to the blinking light) tapping left knee then right. I entered a light hypnosis (that I fully remembered when awake) and went to the point of the memory that was “stuck” and finished the memory. The card returned to its rightful location in the vague place of the back of the deck.
Like a deck of cards, this memory pulled a few other memories with it. For instance, I could remember holding my childhood dog and telling her that I did not want to go to the hospital. The little dog was the keeper of my secrets, you see. It also pulled additional memories forward that needed to be processed back into the deck. The very first session stopped the zoned-out eating, and it has never returned. There have been about five appointments in all. When life gets stressful, sometimes another card gets shuffled to the front and needs to be put back in place. Dealing with another matter that was processed during the therapies put aside a lifetime of worry that things were my fault. The shoulder tightness and stomach tightness that I held as a physical result of these experiences were also gone. For good.
So, you may ask, does any of this have to do with Matthew 18:22? With pain, there is a tendency towards unforgiveness. Perhaps, in the world’s eyes, this tendency is well justified. The doctor absolutely acted terribly towards me. I can see the horror in the orderly and nurse’s eyes. In the days when doctors could not be challenged, he did not exercise care towards the welfare of his patient. There was no comfort, and he would be in jail for assault in today’s medical environment – especially if it had been recorded on a cell phone. I also needed to forgive myself and my parents – both of whom were innocent in this scenario. So, how do you forgive? My friend, you forgive 70 times 7 times and more. For, even if you have been wronged only once, there can be lifetime of reliving, remembering, and re-forgiving. As a Christian, it is vital for forgiveness – even if it must be 70 times 7 times for the single offense. Most of the time, the forgiveness is intact now, after all he is dead. On the other hand, there are still moments when I resent him. I’m working on it. Seventy times 7 times and again.
What advice would I offer to you, your loved one, or your friend? I’ll defer to James 5: 14-16
14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: 15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
First, have a righteous person join you in battle spiritually. All efforts should be bathed in prayer. My therapist prayed with me every session. Second, use the best medicine has to offer. The oil in Biblical times, so I’ve heard, represented the best of medical treatment. Finally, you need to confess your faults. Find a trusted Christian therapist and work through the process. It is hard work, but little is reworded without effort.
When you think of a traumatic event suffered by a friend or loved one, you may wonder why it is so hard for them to “move past” a single event. Remember, that event is being replayed, perhaps frequently, with intensity similar to the original event. You may think that they have experienced this once, but they may have lived out a lifetime of occurrences and suffer the consequences of that sustained trauma. Healing is important, but not everyone wants to accept the assistance of a counselor to help them. It may make them feel weak or in adequate – like Naaman.
I leave you with the story of Naaman. He had leprosy and was told by the man of God that now to be healed, but pride stood in his way. It was only when he accepted the treatment that he was cured.
2 Kings 5:11-14
11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
I can still remember each of the events that have been shuffled. The memories are not gone, but they are no longer more vibrant than today’s breakfast (what did I have again?). It was hard work, and I’m proud of completing the process. It’s not a dinner table topic, but maybe it should be. Maybe there is someone out there that is struggling and needs to know that there is hope.
God bless you and the best to you, your family, and friends who are walking the path needing healing. Please tell them that the images can go away. It’s freedom from a very dark jail.