Thursday, October 29, 2020

We miss the sound of his heartbeat 2,192 days on


This time six years ago we heard Nathanael’s heartbeat for the last time.  Even though we knew it would probably be the last time we’d hear his b-bumm, b-bumm, we really had no idea how much it would affect us.

At school, I meet with three precious ones the same age as Nathanael would be.  We spend just a few minutes together, and it’s all about me enquiring how they’re going... “What are you excited about... tell me about a favourite toy... what are you looking forward to... is there anything concerning you?”

You would think this would make me sad.  It doesn’t.  It makes me wonder just how precious life is.  Like when I met a colleague and she just opens up immediately, deep as a submarine plunging to the ocean floor — our collective gaze is on the eternal in suffering as we suffer together, as we join our losses together and agree to smile with tears rolling down our cheeks.  I may not be actually crying, but my soul cries with hers.

The depths of grief connect us in way that nothing else can.  Having thought for those nearly 2,192 days since Nathanael passed leaves me with so many opportunities to grieve him well, to connect with others in their grief, to embrace my wife, for if we have been to hell and back together nothing will tear us apart.

Journeys like this bond us in ways that transform us in indescribable ways.  There is nothing like the depths of experience that embodies suffering, because the compensation is so fundamentally and indelibly worth it — if we’re not afraid of the pain.  It is a privilege to suffer because Jesus shows us that which we wouldn’t have otherwise; God’s glimpse of the ethereal in this most tangible world.

The fact that we still pine to hear Nathanael’s heartbeat, that we’re thankful we videoed it, that we’re touched so deeply that we miss him, that we look forward to seeing him when God calls us home, that we feel all sorts of emotions all at once.  All these experiences together prove how wonderfully mysterious and cavernously lonely loss is.

Would we choose it?  Never!  Does God make something of it.  Of course!

Can we ever reconcile loss?  I don’t think we can!  Is the purpose in loss deeper than life itself?  Yes, indeed!

Whatever it is, we still miss the sound of his heartbeat! 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

How do you deal with PTSD flashback after you’ve experienced bullying, financial and spiritual abuse as an assistant minister?


One of the best experiences I get these days are questions that come randomly that I know God has given to me to have a crack at answering.  While my answer won’t cover all bases, it is my answer.

Just to set this up, in a world that is really only just beginning to wrestle with the vast complexities of trauma, including its pervasiveness and prevalence, the church seems even further behind.  Many churches (church leaders, management teams, and church people) have no idea what they’re doing when they traumatise someone to the degree that they suffer post-traumatic stress.  Just given the psychological phenomenon represented by the Eggshell Skull Rule (a legal rule) full-blown PTSD (and its offshoot, Complex PTSD) can be but a breath of bad luck away — but there is always just cause.

Simply put, many have no idea
their traumatic impact on people
by their abusive actions;
and, so many of these simply don’t care!
They would rather self-protect than do no harm.

Here is a question that comes by way of request for help, for direction, out of desperation, because the interventions tried haven’t as yet been as effective as hoped:

“Just wondering if you have any advice for dealing with PTSD flashbacks? I experienced bullying, financial and spiritual abuse at my previous work as an assistant minister in an Anglican Church. I finally made the decision to leave when I could bear it no longer. Unfortunately I did not leave soon enough and have since been diagnosed by my doctor with PTSD. I have tried counselling with a psychologist and am taking medication however the counselling had practically no effect, whereas the medication has only had a modest effect. When these flashbacks occur they are crippling. Any advice you can give will be greatly appreciated.”

The very first thing I must say is get/be under a great general practitioner.

LEAVING EARLY ENOUGH

The saddest sentence in the question posed is the feeling, with retrospect, that he’d not left early enough.  The fact is, when it comes to abuse, almost none of us leave when we should.  So, despite the cost borne — full-blown PTSD — there is simply no benefit or truth in feeling guilty despite regret.

Hard as this is to say, “as a dog returns to its vomit,” and “as a sow that is washed returns to the mud” (2 Peter 2:22), in a toxic situation we want to work, we so often return to it.

But it’s not until we leave that we can begin the work of recovery.

PTSD IS COMPLEX

The answers for PTSD are never simple.  Trauma, once we’re there, is never simple.  It’s a long road, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.  It is!  God’s invitation for an assistant minister like this unfortunate person is to enter a journey that will be lifelong; a variation in the way discipleship is done, with God’s Spirit central to the journey as expected.  But a different than expected path.  That means there will be conjoined with it, a period of grief.  Nobody in this situation wants a PTSD diagnosis!

The triggers for trauma I have experienced personally are inherently connected to trauma-bonding events where and when and how the trauma happened in the first place.

Now let’s work on what can be offered.

GET FORENSIC – TAKES THE HELPLESSNESS OUT OF IT

What I’ve done is to list the stimuli in one column in a table with the effects on a second adjacent column.  This, like everything in the faith, is a learning journey.

The more forensic we can be with what we experience the better.  This is always done when our mood is buoyant.  Sometimes this will require interviews with other people who are close to us as we learn.  Sometimes it will mean entering a time of prayer to ask God to reveal what we don’t know; then we watch subconsciously as God brings things up at the randomest times into our conscious minds.  Don’t doubt it.  God will.

None of the forensic process can be done in the triggering or within the flashback or in recovery (which can take 24-48 hours).  When we’re in the flashback or triggering, it’s time simply to be present as much as we can and be gentle with ourselves — to experience the care and peace of God as much as that’s possible.

Getting forensic is about making the most of a coaching moment — when things are well.

If a PTSD sufferer cannot do this, and many cannot, and that’s understandable, then another route must be chosen.

COMMITTING TO A SLOW PROCESS BY FAITH

Counselling is always merited.  But it depends on the method and approach.  A method like the one that Diane Langberg, PhD, uses is exceptionally safe and wise.  Psalm 82 Initiative endorses the safety-stability-strength progressive process in working with traumatised victims of domestic violence.

Such a ‘trauma-informed’ approach majors on safety, the pace of the client as ordained by what they can manage in the push-pull of recovery.  This means there are times when some progress can be made, when we advance on revelations we’ve been given; other times progress just cannot be made, and comfort and care are needed.

All the way, an inherent part of safety is about presence, connection, affirmation under the mantra ‘do no further harm’.

Stability is about taking the opportunities to ensure the pragmatic ‘system’ of the traumatised person’s life is as stable and as achievable as possible.  Steady and achievable work and workplace that, where possible, includes enjoyment.  Good and supportive family relationships as much as possible.  As much as can be achieved, less stress and an achievable lifestyle that attends to busyness.  Silence and peace are in many ways their own healers.  The contemplatives can teach us much!  Of course, stability presupposes safety.

Then there’s strength.  We can never expect to skip straight to strength without first ‘chocking’ safety and stability.

It may take a person a year or two (or more) to get to a place where they ready to be equipped for the journey out of the disabling impacts of triggering.  All of this is slow work requiring much patience.

When it feels like nothing is happening, it’s highly possible that something is happening.  We must have faith that something may be working in what we cannot see.

A LEARNING JOURNEY – FROM TRIGGERING TO TRIUMPH

The only advice I’d give in the moment of triggering is be safe.  Do whatever can be done to prepare people for what happens so they can support you.  There is no shame in being triggered.

Flashbacks occur due to the experience of stimuli we could not have predicted.  These are incredibly autonomic incidents.  Guilt and shame are inappropriate, even though these will inevitably be part of the therapeutic process — “Okay, you say don’t feel guilty or ashamed; easier said than done!”  I get it.

Be as patient with yourself and others as you can be.  Being triggered isn’t your fault, but its effects can be or feel devastating.

To give sufferers some hope, triggering and flashback events are not only stimuli for trauma, they’re stimuli for learning.  These are experiences we can use to learn how to deal with future triggering.

Healing PTSD is a journey of learning about the triggers, what sets us off, how, when and why.  It’s like we need to relearn how to live all over again.  But it’s not a forlorn as it sounds.

Even if we had to get used to being triggered, we can begin to see God’s purpose in this learning journey.  If Paul learned to live with a thorn in his side, we can learn to live with our triggers for trauma.  And suddenly what comes into view is growth through acceptance.

Don’t underestimate the value in learning to overcome.  God is in the business of miracles.

Important Postscript: after I posted this article, I got a direct message from someone I know stating they’ve had great results with EMDR.  I haven’t heard bad reports about this therapy.  This therapy is done by a licenced clinician.  The counselling I do is relational, and is centred around Christian discipleship.

Photo by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Coming out of the closet of grief’s depression


TEARS streamed down her face, and her chin quivered uncontrollably, as she gave way to the truth that had troubled her, for she was an elderly lady who had lost her husband. Grief had bestowed her being. And her loss was compounded by feelings of being most vulnerable to a couple of violent teenagers who lived next door. She needed the kindness of a heartfelt prayer, and, as a pastor I know who was with her as she and I began to pray; this precious older lady melted into Jesus’ arms.

All her seemingly strident strength was gone, but something marvellous happened; she fell into the arms of Jesus.

She responded to the care of a stranger whose compassion to care was simply waiting on the opportunity. She received the comfort and mercy she needed; she was met with acceptance. She had come out of the closet of her depression.

Sure, some counsellors and psychologists wouldn’t say that grief and depression are the same. Yet, she felt ashamed for feeling sad, selfish for feeling lonely, and like a whinger for ‘complaining’ when she was still wrestling with her loss 12-months past. She didn’t want to be a ‘nuisance’ in anyone’s life, least of all her family’s.

She had kept her deep and sorrowful feelings a secret. It was a secret that would do her no good. It was a secret that could even hurt her family. She needed love, help, support and safety.

***

Depression is insidious and won’t allow us to break out of the dungeons of our own hiding. It insists we keep the mask on. It tells us “Nobody will understand.”

There is no benefit in hiding, when to break free and be honest could highlight the way to help.

The way to unmask the helplessness of depression is to unmask it by seeking help.

***

Nurture compassion with eyes focused on another’s heart. God will give you warmth beyond words.

***

If I were you,

And you were me,

I’d love you true,

Because into you I’d see.

But you are you,

And I am me,

So tell me true,

How you’d like to be free.

***

Prayer:

Give Courage, O Lord

Father in Heaven,

Spirit over the Earth,

Son of our Salvation,

Heal.

Provide, Lord, the impetus for courage.

Actualise help out of depression — the faith to step — make this real.

Give entry to surrender the pain.

Help relieve the pain that is all too real.

Help make this pain that is endured be heard, felt and shared by another.

Make it happen that the burden shared is halved.

Give way, O Lord, to an industrious and sensitive working of Your Spirit.

Bring life when life all seems gone; bring healing when all that is seen is pain.

Help us understand, what we don’t understand.

Bring a sense for peace in this situation that can come only from You.

Revive the depressed by Your Word of comfort and by Your Spirit of hope.

By the Lord Jesus Christ,

My Saviour, My Rock, My Redeemer,

I pray.

AMEN.

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Attitudes to the abuses done to me as a young person


Back in the 1980s, when it was even more unfashionable for men to have emotions than it is now, it was commonplace for apprentices and trainees to have practical jokes played on them.  So often those jokes went too far and physical and psychological harms were done.

The things done to me as a 16-20-year-old included:

§     Being held down by a couple of bigger men so another man could give me a haircut... with metal-cutting tinsnips.  As they laughed, I laughed.  At the time it seemed very funny, except there was part of me that turned away as the event unfolded.  I was seventeen and I used to tell this as a party story of my ‘toughness’.

§     On a regular trip away to a bore field, engaged in manually pulling a bore pump from 30 metres underground, on an over 40 degree (105 Fahrenheit) day, leaving the large steel pipe columns in the sun to cook off the protective tape, I was held down and had the hot black plastic tape wrapped around my legs.  Little blisters later formed.  But it was all very funny.  I remember laughing through the pain.

§     A new pumping station was commissioned, and I was working on it.  I thought my tradesman had told me to throw out an old plastic valve.  You think nothing of it when you’re doing what you’re told.  The truth was this plastic valve was irreplaceable and could only be replaced ex-Germany.  Two days after I disposed of the valve they asked where it was.  I told them it was in the bin.  I’d done what I’d been told.  The large bin had since been emptied.  I was told to ‘look’ for the valve in the bin until they had the replacement flown in from Europe.  I spent three days in that bin.  They were about the longest three days of my life.

§     My very first memory of laughter at my expense was the de-ragging of a sewage pump.  This job involved opening up a pump and removing the material that had stopped it from working.  To do this job it’s very important to shut off flow from both inlet and outlet pipes.  I was told to do this job with no instruction whatsoever.  When I opened the inspection plate I was literally washed with raw sewage at pressure.  It went everywhere, including in my mouth, through my hair, saturating my clothing.  All the tradesman said with a snigger was, “Now you’ve learned a lesson.”

These are only the stories that are notable and that linger on the memory, and they don’t appear to be the reasons I was affected by workplace trauma, for there was a far more insidious undercurrent than what’s depicted in these stories.  The truth is that workplace was pretty toxic, but it was normal back then.  None of us questioned it.  It was what it was, even if it were wrong.

One thing we must remember about today’s #MeToo era is it’s for the truth that we stand.  Nowhere again should there ever be vulnerable people abused in the name of fun.  Nowhere again is trauma to be done on young lives that rely on the safety of those who should keep them safe.

Yet, for the record, I’m thankful for these experiences overall, for they have shaped who I am today and what I have achieved as an advocate against violence in the workplace, home or elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What people too often misunderstand about the abuse dynamic


One of the things I’ve been learning about myself over the past five years is how sensitive I am to feeling or being misunderstand.  I’ve come to recognise it’s something that many people are sensitive about.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I heard Dr Rod Wilson of Regent College cite in a live on-campus talk he did that he had the same sensitivity that I discovered it was okay.  We’re not weak for being sensitive.  Too easily we buy in to the rhetoric that being sensitive is not okay — I mean where does that come from when Paul, Timothy and even Jesus (among so many more figures of the Bible) were sensitive types?  Just because these were sensitive, it doesn’t mean they weren’t courageous.  They were.

Learning this about myself has made me more empathetic toward others, especially others who have been caught up in the toxic environment of an abusive dynamic.

An example of something many people misunderstand because they’ve never experienced true abuse is contained within a meme I saw posted by a few people from the following alleged ‘paraphrase’ from BrenĂ© Brown:

“When someone spews something really hurtful, don’t pick it up and hold it and rub it into your heart and snuggle with it and carry it around for a long time.  Don’t even put energy into kicking it to the curb.  You gotta see it and step OVER it or go AROUND it and keep going.”

This could allude to the idea that abuse is a once-off thing that is easily dismissed.  The trouble is, when someone is in a toxic environment that seems impossible to get out of, it’s not a matter of something, i.e. one thing, or every now and then, being spewed on them.  It’s happening regularly and they have no easy retreat.  It’s not as easy to “step OVER it or go AROUND it.”

The trouble with such a quote is it’s a battered wife or partner who it’s implied who sticks around for more.  Of course they don’t stick around for more.  It’s an oversimplification to think they have 100 percent control over what they or others do.

Often there are complicating factors as to why an abuse dynamic remains in a person’s life.

Often, it’s not so easy to up and leave.  It may frustrate you immensely watching on, but there are always reasons why dogs return to their vomit (I’m using an analogy, not saying abuse victims are dogs).

It’s far too easy for people to say, “Forgiveness is easy; don’t let it hurt and don’t get bitter in the first place.”  I can tell you from firsthand experience, having had this kind of attitude once-upon-a-time, that there are situations and circumstances that keep you in an abusive dynamic.  It’s the way of the world of narcissists and first-class manipulators, and blind supporters of these who are part of the narcissist’s cheer club, that make it possible for someone to be villainised while also being the victim.

Few people, I can assure you, intentionally roll in the spew.  But it APPEARS that way to the uninitiated.

Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash

Monday, October 12, 2020

Looking forward thankfully to a meaningful grief looking back

As we consider how thankful we are that our mother, grandmother and great-grandmother has been saved from a worse stroke than what could have been, we’re all given cause to ponder what it will be like when worse comes, and ultimately death.

It’s not morbid to think in these ways if you ask me; it’s a practical portion of preparation and a thankfulness borrowed from the grief of a certainty.

Death is like that; it reminds us that we’re all finite and that all we can take for granted in our own lives is the present breath, the second’s flow of blood from an incredibly faithful heart, that until that point, refuses to give up despite the plethora of times we consider throwing in the towel.

Life is one of those paradoxical things we lament very much at times but ultimately can find it impossible to leave.  And our loved ones very much make it this way.

A poem:

Woman who brought 3 sons into this world,
woman whose daughter, a grief unfurled,
woman who has striven to give it her all,
woman who will one day grace heaven’s hall.

Woman whose example daughter-in-laws delight,
woman whose faithfulness to her husband’s right,
woman who’s fought many days to live,
woman whose mission it is to give.

Woman who in pain graciously smiles,
woman who puts up with bodily trials,
woman who listens and speaks her mind,
woman with her man are both so kind.

Woman whose legacy is a beautiful sprawling,
woman whose claim to is a heavenly calling,
woman whose great/grandchildren call her blessed,
woman whose love has been a lifelong quest.

There are many more things that could be said, but as we look forward to the day with thankfulness for her life, knowing one day she’ll be gone, we can make the most of this time now.

There is surely a time for sorrow coming.  A time when, for all of us in terms of our parents and grandparents, who (will) serenely (or not-so-serenely) depart from this life, when the love we had for them will cause overwhelming grief.  And for those of us with complicated relationships with parents and grandparents, the grief is sadly more complicated than ever.

All we can pray for is a peace abiding, a peace transcending, peace over all.

Grief is an exquisite evidence of a love deeper than imagining.  To look forward to a day coming when there will only be pining for this kind of day — when she is still here — makes us make the very most of the present hour.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The gift and the groan of discernment


People don’t always see.  People don’t always hear.  People don’t always know.

And this, as a humbling reality, is something that we must appreciate, that we ourselves do not always see or hear or know what we ought to see, hear and know.  It is precisely why we need other human beings in our lives; trustworthy and discerning souls.

Those who:

§     can show us our blind spots, but do so in ways that respects our sensibilities, so we can learn effectively, and are not harmed.

§     are sentinels for us as we negotiate this at times perilous life.

§     inspire in us confidence and belief in terms of our gifting and value.

§     etc.

The gift of discernment is also a groan, for I have known so many, and experienced it myself personally, that to see something, or hear something, or know something — especially the reprehensible — is often a great burden.

One of the things that piques our discernment is life experience.  Who is especially sensitive to inappropriate behaviour?  It’s those who have been harmed previously by those same behaviours, that do or can also become triggers.  There is a sight for these things that cannot be unseen, just as there is a hearing for these things that cannot be unheard, and there is a knowing that can be no longer unknown.

Discernment is such a costly gift for many people who have it.  There is an inexplicable knowing the transcends even seeing and hearing; a spiritual sense.  It is always hoped that those with the discernment would use their gift for good, for warning, for safety, for protection.

Discernment in another person can leave us feeling vulnerable to whatever they can see, hear and know about situations.  The responsible thing in the exercise of this gifting is to allay people’s fears wherever we can.

Perhaps of all the gifts, discernment is the most inexplicable.  Those who have it can often feel dogged.  They can often feel, “Why me, God?”  It is often a surprise what we find out, what we are given, what we cannot unsee, unhear and unknow.

But discernment is a gift to be used for the glory of God, and in whatever nuance we are given it, it’s our task to accept each seeing, hearing and knowing, accepting we’re God’s instrument, and that our comfort is not the central concern.  Ours is a sacred mission.

Discernment is, of course, a prayer language, of prayer from God to a human being, a very divine Holy Spirit communication, just as the Holy Spirit groans in time with our own groans.

And last of all, perhaps the true gift of discernment is the discernment of the discernment.  True wisdom is needed if we’re aligned to the vision of doing no harm.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Experiencing God when facing honestly the crisis of self


On February 22, 1964, Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote in his journal:

“Today is the twenty-second anniversary of my reception of the habit.  In all sobriety and honesty I must admit that the twenty-two years have not been well spent, at least as far as my part in them has been concerned, although from God there has been nothing but grace and mercy.  Rather, twenty-two years of relative confusion, often coming close to doubt and infidelity, agonized aspirations for ‘something better’, criticism of what I have, inexplicable inner suffering that is largely my own fault, insufficient efforts to overcome myself, inability to find my way, perhaps culpably straying off into things that do not concern me.”

From a man so many admired, there is such a captivating honesty, a refreshing sense of humility, especially given the success that Merton had obviously had to that point.

Is it a low point or a pity party?  No.  Almost a case of wanting more from himself for the days ahead of him.  What may we learn from our tiny corners of the world about such a salient reflection?

Merton is human and given not only to times of honest assessment, but like most of us I suspect, he was also given to times of harsh introspection.  I know I’m guilty of this, and at times it shocks me, especially when, like for Merton, it happens as an unimpressed flatness when there might otherwise be cause for reflective celebration.

Read through that large list again:

§     relative confusion – are there any of us who feel we understand exactly where we are and what our purpose is?  There isn’t a month goes past that I’m not feeling overwhelmed on one day or more.

§     often coming close to doubt and infidelity – none of us have ever doubted, right?  And infidelity is not just a sexual thing, though it very much is that too!  Oh this hits very close to home if only we’re quite brutally honest with ourselves — that’s the point isn’t it?

§     agonized aspirations for ‘something better’ – we’ve never complained, have we?  Sorry, I have!  Sorry, I’m not sorry.  I’m human.  How many biblical complaints are there?  With all of what God has poured into my life — our lives — I still wonder why I got what I got.

§     criticism of what I have – envy at whatever someone might have that is more than we have or less than what we have.  Ever done this?  Yes, I know.

§     inexplicable inner suffering that is largely my own fault – how many of us privately loath parts of ourselves, our experience, our regretful responses, how we feel, etc?

§     insufficient efforts to overcome myself – God knows we all have limits — limits that we even choose not to engage with, because we want an out.  It’s okay.  It’s fine if we feel overcome and every now and then we bail on life.

§     inability to find my way – for each of us, just how resonate with this?  How many of us have felt lost this year, for a case in point?

§     perhaps culpably straying off into things that do not concern me – this seems such a human thing to do; to find ourselves in some situation we felt sure God drew us too, only later to find out, it really was none of our concern, and we weren’t listening.

If a person like Merton, who is someone heralded as an icon, can suffer the ignoble craft of self-loathing and self-consternation then perhaps we’re in good company.

Isn’t it a great comfort as we wrestle with what might be uncomfortable to what might be for us tormenting that we have a human being of such wisdom and spiritual stature experiencing what we might?

There is a paradox buried in these words: the encounter we need is facing our crisis of self with God. Funnily enough, as we face our crises there in the midst of them is God.

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash