I found the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag a few hours ago. I’m normally not much of a Twitter user, more of a Facebook and LinkedIn fan. But, this one struck a chord. So, I sent off a tweet. This blog post is an extended version of that tweet.
I was five years old.
Let that sink in for just one moment.
Look at that photo up above. That’s me at five years old. Study my eyes. Do you see the sadness? He was a sixteen year old neighbor. He lived next door to my kindergarten best friend. I’ll spare the disgusting details. It was the first time STOP! screamed inside my soul, but could not find its way out of my mouth.
He threatened to hurt my mom if I told anyone.
I was nine years old.
Again, I will give you just a moment to ponder that.
My mom had sent me for a can of soup from our apartment neighbor. His mother was not home, yet he invited me inside. I was hesitant, but he insisted. If I wanted the can of soup, I’d have to come in. So, I did. He led me to a back room, pantry shelves lined the wall, filled with boxes and cans. He dangled the soup can over my head with strict instructions, “You’ll have to earn it.”
He told me he would kill my mom if I ever told a soul. STOP! could not find its way out of my terrified body.
Mom never did ask what took me so long to retrieve the can of soup.
I was ten years old.
Ten. Years. Old. As in fifth grade.
He was my school choir director and our church organist. He told me I had a pretty voice. But, I needed private lessons if I wanted a solo. I believed him when he told me I was special. Private lessons quickly turned to “privates” lessons. I begged my dad to let me quit choir. He didn’t insist on knowing why, but allowed it. Mom was disappointed in me. I mean, how would it look? The choir director was her church friend.
STOP! stayed frozen inside.
I was fourteen years old.
An awkward freshman in a Catholic school, working in the evenings for our parish priests in the rectory, answering phones and stuffing Sunday’s church bulletin with announcements about picnics and fundraisers.
He was the religious education director. I would giggle and blush at his suggestive comments, so unsure of how to scream STOP! even though that was, yet again, screaming in my soul. He followed me to the basement one evening, as I descended to fill the basement fridge with sodas as instructed by the pastor. This time I pushed back, but not before he made one of his suggestions come to life.
I was sixteen years old.
I would tell all the boys, “I’m as pure as the driven snow.” Code for: “I’m a virgin and proud of it.” He was my boyfriend. We were at a party on his grandparents farm. I was drinking. Heavily. He had tried before. Repeatedly. I had warded off his attempts. This night, I was less guarded thanks to beer and shots. He asked me if I wanted to see the family’s race car in the barn. I complied. Knowing in my soul I should not. He took me instead to the other barn. The one filled with cats and a loft. A loft with a rickety old bed. I repeatedly told him, “No” and “STOP!“, but . . . he didn’t.
Upon our walk back to the party, with a soft snow falling like tears from heaven, he turned to me and said, “I guess now only the snow is pure and driven.”
I was seventeen years old.
I had been jumped by a gang of youth while downtown and sexually accosted. That doesn’t belong under this hashtag because it WAS reported. I spent much of my junior year of high school testifying at trials in juvenile court. And having lunch with a detective involved in the investigation. His friends threw around the words “jail bait” quite a bit as they gave their fellow officer a congratulatory slap on the back.
He asked my parents to take me to dinner downtown to celebrate the final conviction case. They obliged. He was a police officer, right?
On the drive toward the city, a Knight Ranger song played on the radio and he turned to tell me, “This is our song.” My stomach flipped and STOP! silently screamed . . . yet again.
We never made it downtown for dinner. Instead he took me to his apartment. I resisted and eventually convinced this naked police officer to take me home. His children’s photos hanging on the wall helped me win that battle.
He instructed me not to speak of it. To anyone.
What is PTSD?
What is PTSD? Or, in my case, what is C-PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as: “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”
Medical News Today explains: “PTSD is generally related to a single event, while complex PTSD is related to a series of events, or one prolonged event.”Health Direct defines it as: “Complex PTSD describes a more severe and long-term condition that can occur after prolonged and repeated trauma, particularly in childhood. Trauma can cause problems with memory and disrupt the development of a person’s identity and their ability to control emotions and form relationships with others.”
For over twenty-five years, I battled severe panic attacks. These initially appeared when driving, brought on by a benign and unknown trigger. Flashbacks started haunting me and soon I was waking from my sleep in the throes of full-blown panic. I started to close in on myself and became agoraphobic over a period of time, afraid to leave my house for “fear of my fear”.
When I started EMDR therapy at Cincinnati Trauma Connection in 2013, it was there I first learned of dissociation and my having compartmentalized my trauma incidents in order to survive and cope. It was also within the safe confines of my therapist’s office where I started to sift through those old storage boxes of horrors and confront the negative energy attached to them. Trauma by trauma, memory by memory, I took my power back from the ghosts who had been haunting my mind and soul. I released long-stored trauma energy and learned coping skills to regulate my symptoms when triggered.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD which I experienced were:
- Hyper-arousal – I was living in a constant state of being on high-alert for imminent danger (whether real or imagined). That “tiger in the bushes” feeling was my norm. I still occasionally find myself in defense mode, however, I am now cognizant of it (my shoulders will be pulled up by my ears and my eyes will be scanning my surroundings) and can bring myself back into a centered, grounded, and calm state rather quickly.
- Panic attacks – These symptoms would arise at benign triggers (a loud noise, seeing a violent movie scene, being stuck in traffic, during restless sleep, and more): sweating palms, racing heart, tunnel vision, tingles in my legs and head, inability to formulate words, overwhelming need to escape/run or hide/curl into a ball, and feeling faint. It has been years since I have experienced a full-blown panic attack. If I feel the beginnings of one start to emerge, I am able to quickly disarm it with an onslaught of coping skills, mindfulness exercises, and grounding practices. Download my FREE anxiety coping guide above for more detailed info.
- Flashbacks – These first appeared soon after the second bank robbery and murder of my co-worker, when I awoke from a deep sleep to the terror of having the dark shadow of the murderer standing over me in my bedroom. While he was not really there, thankfully, my mind and body were reacting as if he was there with an intention to hurt me. The adrenaline coursed my veins as I fought my way back to reality. These flashback occurrences have diminished over the years and are now non-existent.
- Nightmares – Similar to flashbacks, except the haunting happens within the dream itself, but ends upon waking. I have been known to howl in my sleep, run and kick (having even received a restless leg syndrome diagnosis at one point), and, on rare occasion, flail in my sleep. Most times I woke up in the midst of a severe panic attack and would fall immediately to the floor and curl into a ball or dart from my bed and begin to pace and shake. Again, it has been years since I have experienced this and only once have I awoken from a frightening dream state during that time and was able to calm my aroused state within seconds.
- Avoidance behaviors – This entails avoiding situations and places which have caused a panic attack or anxiety in the past, or trying to avoid feeling scared, resulting in avoidance behaviors. Honestly, this one still lingers. Even after four years of EMDR therapy and utilizing other various therapy modalities and coping skills, I cannot yet drive on highways or over most bridges, sometimes experiencing heightened anxiety while a passenger in a vehicle in these spaces, as well. We have been unable to pinpoint the reason driving is a trigger. I have attempted exposure therapy and “making myself” drive over bridges and on small highway jaunts, however, the success is short-lived and avoidance behaviors quickly fall back into place. I will never give up and strive to find a solution to this lingering effect of my C-PTSD.
- Trust issues – This can be directed at intimate relationships (partners, friends, family members) or the general public (open spaces, crowds, someone sitting behind you). Because of the violation of personal safety experienced during traumatic events, trauma survivors will, at times, put up walls of defense as a protective measure. Because the large majority of my transgressors were male, I had to make concerted efforts to be aware of my responses to men in general. I also found myself having to sit at the end of an aisle while attending concerts or theater events so as to not be trapped and unable to escape quickly. I now honor my needs and trauma-history and plan accordingly.
- Anxiety – Here I am referring to a general state of anxious feelings. I would spend my days nervous about how I was coming across to someone, if so-and-so liked me, whether I was being a good enough mom, how I was going to travel across town for my son’s baseball game, was I going to randomly fall off of the earth (for real!), when my next panic attack was going to hit, how to keep all of the kids toys organized and not chaotic (you see a pattern here? . . . afraid to feel out of control). I now live my life in a regularly calm state, practicing mindfulness, and living in “the now” as much as possible. I am aware of my body/mind/soul state and take steps to center myself if I am feeling off-kilter.
- Racing thoughts – The scariest of all of my symptoms. I wasn’t sure how to even describe what was happening in my brain when I first tried explaining this to my EMDR therapist. I felt as if I was standing on the brink of insanity, one stumble away from going over the edge into madness. My brain was trying to grab at hope. That’s the best way I can describe it. Once I learned to be comfortable in my own body, with all of its quirks and sometimes interfering symptoms, I was able to stop a racing thought dead in its tracks. I was standing in the shower a few months ago when I was quickly overwhelmed by racing thoughts, and, just as quickly, I re-directed my thought pattern through mindfulness techniques and calming strategies and ended up smiling and saying aloud to myself, “You rock, T! I am so proud of you!”
Today I hit the trails at Cincinnati Nature Center for some self-care soul work. I practiced mindfulness exercises as I hiked, listening to the sounds of nature, taking in deep breaths of the forest scents, and allowing the cool morning air to embrace me. Nature is my reminder to stay grounded. As I focused on the little bee, asleep on a flower, I allowed myself peace. Right there in that moment. No decisions about nursing homes or insurance policies, no scheduling conflicts or malfunctioning recordings. Just me, a bee and a flower.
I wish you serenity in nature. Here is a little collage of some of my favorite photos I have snapped while hiking at our local nature preserve. Enjoy!
Before diving into step 4, a reminder about resilience: it is defined as the ability to overcome adverse conditions; with healthy bonding relationships, guidance, support, and compassion as the catalysts. Basically, it entails having the capacity to bounce back from stressful or overwhelming experiences.
What are some steps we can take to ensure we are building resilience in our lives?
- Focus on the positives.
- Seek out and nurture supportive relationships.
- Utilize self-care strategies.
- Take action steps to create positive change.
- Work on healthy habit formation.
- Find a guiding hand to hold.
- Learn to become our own hero.
- Be gentle with ourselves.
Today we will cover Step 4: Take action steps to create positive change.
In order to overcome the panic attack and anxiety symptoms I had been experiencing for over twenty-five years, I had to make some serious changes in my mindset. I also had to be willing to change my habits, instill healthy boundaries, build my support system, and welcome challenges. These days I pat myself on the back for investing time and energy into ME and creating a life filled with tranquility even in the midst of storms.
Here are ten action steps you can implement in your life in order to create positive change:
- Be honest with yourself: Take a good look at your life in order to determine where you really want to make some positive changes. Make a pros and cons list, journal it out, or talk it over with a friend. Do you want a more spiritual existence? Then what can you do to change that? Do you want to feel more fit and healthy? What are some realistic options to make that happen? And so on. Being real with what you want will give you a clear goal.
- Welcome challenges as opportunities for growth: If you approach your action steps with a “bring it” attitude, you will take the negative power out of any challenges which might arise. Remind yourself that you might stumble. And that’s okay. Look at mistakes or setbacks as opportunities for growth. I recently visited the gulf coast in Florida and allowed my fears to overwhelm me on a beach visit. I closed in on myself and held a pity party. However, within a few hours, I gave myself a pep talk and headed back out to the shore. I conquered my phobias and enjoyed a moment in the “now” as I played with my family in the surf.
- Small steps add up: You do not have to accomplish your goal all at once or have it completed in day one. If you are wanting to be more active, turn off your television or phone or video games for an hour. Then go move. Walk in the park, hop on your bike, turn on music and dance around your kitchen while you cook. No need to toss the television out the window . . . yet! Start making new habits one little step at a time. What will your first small step be?
- Treat others as you would like to be treated: That whole golden rule thing. It really does help bring positivity into your life. Try smiling at others and take note of their responses. Sure, you might run into a few folks who are having a bad day (or life) and ignore your gesture, but that’s cool. Send them a little private wish for positivity in their lives then move on to the next person for a smile exchange. Try doing favors for others without expecting a favor in return. Maybe join a volunteer organization to give back to your community. As you nurture kindness, that will radiate into all aspects of your life. Keep track of how many people returned your smile today . . . you might be surprised!
- Remove/reduce negativity: I really could live without a television. I rarely have it on. And, wow, is my life more fulfilling now that I keep it from infiltrating my peaceful space. I also listen to meditative music. I avoid violent, disrespectful, and negative song lyrics. I have put limitations in place regarding toxic people in my life . . . those energy vampires I have mentioned before. I do not remove them completely as I hope maybe some day my glitter-shitter attitude will rub off on them, but I do walk away if I start to feel overwhelmed by their negativity. It’s a gift I give myself. Is there anyone in your life needing a boundary adjustment so as to minimize their pull on your positive energy?
- Practice self-care: A powerful tool for creating positive changes in your life is self-care. Using positive affirmations, utilizing healthy eating choices, engaging in activities that promote laughter and smiling, allowing yourself permission to rest or do “no-thing”, and finding a hobby are all examples of self-care. Choose one self-care practice to start today!
- Eliminate unhealthy/unsafe choices: One of the best decisions I ever made for myself was quitting smoking. I breathe better, feel better, smell better, and live better. Recognizing my stress eating and carb addiction helped me make the choice to treat my body better, fueling it with healthier options. What unhealthy choices have you been wanting to eliminate? What’s stopping you from cutting it from your life?
- Build a supportive social network: Whether you join an online group, engage in a volunteer organization, or reach out to someone new, make sure you surround yourself with others who lift your spirits and promote positive actions. Avoid the gossip groups and bitch-session gatherings. It’s okay to vent now and then, just don’t dwell there. Do you have a circle of support? If not, envision it. Then take those small steps to make it happen.
- Challenge yourself: Believe in you! And show it by challenging yourself to accomplish something you have long wanted to do. Have you been wanting to go back to school and finish up a degree? Are you an artist looking for an audience . . . then create an online store or sign up for a craft show booth. Again, believe in you!
- Dive deep: It can be scary going back into the dark spaces of your heart and soul. At the same time, it can be liberating. If you need to hold a hand (friend, therapist, religious leader, or coach), by all means, do so. You will find you are so much stronger than you may have thought possible. I certainly believe in you. By diving deep and revisiting those dark spaces, you will empower yourself with each triumph of merely returning to peek in. My hope for you, for all of us, is that we will eventually be able to shine our light so brightly, there is no more darkness.
As defined by The Tristate Trauma Network: “Trauma-informed care (TIC) is an approach that takes into account the prevalence of trauma, acknowledges the role trauma plays in people’s lives, and uses this knowledge to respond in appropriate ways to those affected by trauma.”
With that, I will share a story of trauma-informed care in action, outside of the mental health arena:
I had decided to attend a writers’ workshop in Orlando, FL. This was going to require a flight and some highway travel. Both of which normally result in increased anxiety for me (one of my triggers, resulting from two different bank robberies I was in, is a sensation of feeling trapped with panic attack symptoms surfacing). Therefore, my senses were heightened as I made my travel plans.
Upon contacting The Omni Championsgate Resort, I was advised that they could not guarantee me a lower level floor. The young woman on the phone stated she would put it in the notes and if anything was available upon check-in then I could have it. Yeah, that was not going to work for me. The idea of traveling up fourteen floors brought on more increased anxiety symptoms as thoughts of a busy elevator and heights beyond my comfort level started surfacing.
So, I did what I do best and reached out to management via email, sharing my “story of hope” along with a request for help. I stayed polite, yet truthful to my needs. The response I received was a perfect example of trauma-informed care in action!
“Good morning, Ms. Wellbrock,Thank you for the additional information, and what an amazing woman you are! I am happy to assist and have taken the liberty of blocking your reservation into a room on a lower floor and barring any unforeseen circumstances, there should be no problem honoring your request. Though a hug is not necessary, it’s always welcome! If you know your approximate arrival time, I’ll add to your reservation and hopefully will have a chance to meet you on arrival. Please let me know if there is anything else I may do to assist you, and thank you for your loyalty.”
Again . . . beautiful! ♥
Falling in line with the definition of trauma-informed care, this organization recognized the prevalence of trauma in a guest’s life, acknowledged the role it plays in my life (as well as my anxiety-inducing triggers), and used that knowledge to respond in an appropriate way to my trauma needs.
P.S. I utilized coping skills on my trip and had a panic-free, low anxiety trip filled with laughter, enlightenment and grace. I colored with gel pens on the flight, meditated and talked to a newfound trauma therapist friend on the highway shuttle ride, and enjoyed my third floor view of the scenic lazy river at the gorgeous resort.
I had the pleasure of conversing on-air with Chaplain Chris Haughee, to discuss trauma-informed ministry and his role as chaplain at Intermountain in Helena, Montana, on my most recent episode of The Healing Place Podcast, available on iTunes, Blubrry or directly on my website at www.teriwellbrock.com/podcasts/.
Chris shared his insights with me by answering my interview questions beforehand, as well. With his permission, I am sharing his written responses with you:
Today, I welcome Chaplain Chris Haughee (pronounced “Hoy”), who is joining us to discuss trauma-informed ministry practices and his experience as a chaplain to the children of Intermountain, a residential facility for severely emotionally disturbed children in Helena, Montana.
The Reverend Chris Haughee is a licensed minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church and has served as chaplain of Intermountain’s residential services in Helena, Montana, since 2012. An adoptive father to two, Chaplain Chris Haughee is an advocate for greater inclusion of foster and adoptive families in the life and ministry of local congregations. You can follow his ministry at www.intermountainministry.org, contact him at email@example.com or order the curriculum “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks” to learn more about becoming a trauma-informed ministry.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about your story.
It’s been four years ago now. My son had a particularly bad day at school, and his rage had hit the point at home that evening where I needed to wrap my arms around him until he calmed down. When he finally settled into my embrace, he sobbed. He couldn’t look me in the eye as I asked him how he felt. Head in hands he muttered, “I feel yucky inside, and I feel like that almost all the time.”
Despite all the love being poured into him, nothing was sticking because of his profound sense of shame. Holding my broken-hearted son, I have never felt more broken and helpless as a father. As a dad, when you see your child hurting, you’d do anything possible to help. That image of my son sitting in my lap, hands over his face unable to look at me and see the love and care in my eyes, will remain with me forever. It has driven me deeper into my own sense of call to express the love of God to those most desperately in need of it, especially those trapped in shame.
This experience steeled my resolve to help other parents, and other pastors and ministries, through producing materials that would train, encourage, and empower the community of faith to help hurting children.
Q: If you could reach as many people in the world as possible with your message, who would you want your audience to be?
My primary audience is the church, especially those in leadership. Churches and ministries can be very effective communities for reducing stigma, healing trauma, and building resilience. Unfortunately, these same communities can also re-traumatize people, marginalize those most in need of help and healing, and can be guilty of holding any number of views towards mental illness and emotional disturbance that aren’t only bad practice when it comes to ministry, but also don’t truly align with their theology and mission, because they aren’t supported biblically.
I have worked hard at producing materials that would train, encourage, and empower the community of faith to help hurting children. My first attempt at creating such a resource is a six-week study for adults called “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks,” released in 2017. In the last fifteen months, it has been ordered by ministries and social service agencies representing 33 different states, two countries and the District of Columbia. It’s an effort in building “trauma-informed ministries.” A trauma-informed ministry is one that understands the impact of early childhood and other relational trauma has on brain development and social and spiritual functioning.
For those curious about the content of the curriculum, here is a brief outline:
- Week One: Jesus and the children; key idea: Jesus welcomes ALL children, even those affected by trauma, toxic stress, or adversity (ACEs)
- Week Two: Advocacy… what is this “trauma-informed” talk all about?; key idea: In order to advocate for children and families impacted by trauma, your church should consider trauma-informed ministry.
- Week Three: Was Jesus’ ministry “trauma-informed?”; key idea: Jesus understood the devastating effects of trauma and adversity and his ministry was shaped in a way that responded to our needs.
- Week Four: How the traumatized can look like they “have it all together.” key idea: those that are dealing with trauma don’t all look the same. Even leaders in your community have been touched by trauma… so everyone should be treated compassionately.
- Week Five: Does being trauma-informed mean we avoid saying hard things? key idea: Jesus was compassionate, yet firm… being trauma-informed means you prepare for the strong reaction some topics may elicit, not that you avoid all issues that may elicit a strong reaction.
- Week Six: Responding to trauma within the compassionate Kingdom of God; key idea: God’s Kingdom stands apart from this world’s kingdoms, bringing justice and mercy where trauma and heartache have prevailed.
- BONUS MATERIALS: “Advocating for Rachel”–a case study from a licensed child and family therapist with suggestions for interventions that a church can appropriately implement to help hurting children and families!
I am currently working on a new edition of the curriculum that would include two additional studies on working with adults that have experienced trauma or are currently going through traumatic experiences and mental health issues, and a week on “next steps,” or how a group that has engaged the rest of the study can determine where to start in forming trauma-informed ministry practices that fit their context.
Q: Why is trauma-informed ministry and working with traumatized children so important to YOU?
It’s important to me because of my personal connection, in my home and in my work. I can see that those hurting and traumatized individuals are the very ones that Jesus was drawn to in his earthly ministry. My “life verse” is 1 John 2:6—“Anyone who claims to live in him must walk (live) as Jesus did.” So, this is about me “walking my talk.” If I am a Jesus follower, I better be about the things Jesus was passionate about. There is no escaping that Jesus was passionate about children and about those who are marginalized by their situation or their suffering.
Q: Are there any myths or facts you would like to clarify for our listeners?
Being “trauma-informed” in ministry is not a program. It’s not a fad or gimmick. It’s a lens through which you can come to see the world differently. It’s not unlike the “scales falling from Saul’s eyes” when he is healed of his blindness (through Ananias) after encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:18). Once you learn about ACEs and trauma and the impact it has on a person—physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually… well, you’d wonder how you ever saw things differently.
For instance, I will take Jesus’ teaching on worry from the Sermon on the Mount as an example of how knowing about ACEs and trauma helps you to se the world differenty (Matthew 6:25-34). In this teaching, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life and what you will eat or drink… and what you will wear… Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying?”
How many of us have heard from messages on this teaching? After hearing a sermon on the subject of worry, how many of us have walked away thinking, “I should worry less! Jesus just wants me to trust God, so my anxiety means I am not being faithful.” Ironically, we might end up worrying about how much we worry!
Now here’s where knowing about the challenges facing those with ACEs should be reflected in our interpretation of this teaching: telling the survivor of ACEs to worry less, and that’s what Jesus wants you to do, is about as sensitive as telling a disabled child that they need to stop using their wheelchair and that Jesus wants them to walk. Many with ACEs wish they could be less anxious, but their brains adjusted to an elevated level of stress hormones early in their development.
Physically, their nervous and endocrine systems are not the same as someone who didn’t have that adversity in childhood. If someone’s infirmity doesn’t scream out to our sense of sight, touch, or hearing we shouldn’t assume it is less significant. The ACE Study found that the child with six or more ACEs will likely die 20 years earlier than the child with no ACEs. That’s significant.
Are we missing the point of the passage by shaming others and ourselves about our anxiety? I contend that Jesus was less concerned about worry than our inability to recognize our dependence on God. What did Jesus speak to? Worry about food, drink, and clothes. For most, provision of these basic needs in childhood was not an issue. But, for the child who truly didn’t have enough to eat as a child, who learned to hoard when food was available, THAT child just might have food issues—that’s just one common example I see in my ministry. Consider how you would tell these children about Jesus’ message on worry instead of the kids that argue about how many stalks of broccoli they might have to eat in order to get dessert.
When you can do that, you will know that you are on your way to being trauma-informed and that the scales have fallen from your eyes, as well!
Q: What support and resources have YOU utilized or recommend for our audience?
Perhaps a little selfishly, I’d like people to engage in the materials I have written… the curriculum called Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks. I don’t benefit from the sale of these materials. All the proceeds go towards Intermountain, the place of my employment and ministry.
I can also recommend Key Ministries and the book “Mental Health and the Church,” as well as colleague Rene Howitt’s work at Cope24. I just reviewed a Bible study she has worked on that will be published later this year, and it’s really good. Personally, I can recommend the work of Lisa Qualls at OneThankfulMom.com. Also, any materials that come out of the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University, were they teach TBRI: Trust-based Relational Intervention, which is very similar to the relational-developmental work that Intermountain does.
Q: How did you overcome/handle your own trauma and parenting a trauma-affected child? What do you suggest our listeners do to help them overcome/handle trauma, and how it intersects with their faith?
To quote a friend who just gave her testimony at our church about her own struggles with mental health misdiagnosis and recovery, she was told after her first hospitalization, “This won’t be the first time you deal with this.” Our trauma is always with us. It’s about viewing your trauma-story as something you own, rather than being owned by your trauma. It doesn’t define you, but it has shaped you. Once I could accept that for myself and for my child, and for all the children I work with, I could embrace hope.
Ultimately, that’s what faith is about… hope. Hope that our present situation or circumstance isn’t all there is. Hope that we can find community and healing together. I’d like to encourage your listeners to walk towards their trauma in whatever way they can, with as much support and help as they can muster from their community, friends and family, and know that they can transform their pain into their power with enough time and patience with themselves. Hold on to hope.
Q: If you could meet anyone in the world, dead or alive, who could help you with working with traumatized children, who would it be?
Well, Jesus would be the obvious answer, right? And, my faith teaches me that Jesus is very much alive… not just in the words of scripture, but in the real life encounters I have on a daily basis. As he taught us in the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew’s gospel… every time we extend kindness and grace to someone who is marginalized, without hope, or is distressed, we are actually interacting with Jesus. The saints of the church have always understood this to be true. It fueled individuals like Mother Teresa. It empowered the social justice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And… so many others that won’t ever be famous our applauded in this lifetime.
Q: What is your dream job? Does it revolve around this topic? Do you want to be more involved in trauma-related ministry?
I think I am in my dream job, at least for now! I’d like to think I can speak with some insight to this very difficult and complicated topic of trauma-informed ministry because I am a pastor, parent, and ministry professional in a residential facility for severely emotionally disturbed and traumatized children. It’s not a calling I would have selected for myself when I was a younger man, but it’s deeply rewarding because I know that I am engaged in a ministry that means something… not just now, but for generations that follow and, God willing, for eternity as people who have felt outside of God’s love and acceptance understand their place in the community of faith.
I’d love to have the freedom to travel a bit more and share the passion I have for this work. I also wish I had a bit more of the research psychologist’s expertise, as I am working on building resilience in the children I work with and have attempted to measure the effectiveness of that work. It’s just not in my wheelhouse, so to speak, so I am hoping that God brings someone forward that shares my passion and has the research expertise to work with the data I am compiling! We’ll see… I am a dreamer and an idealist, and I think that scientifically proving that trauma-informed ministry can build resilience in severely disturbed children just might be what it would take for more ministry professionals to catch on!
Here’s an article I wrote about the resilience-focused curriculum I am writing:
Building Resilience for Better Lives (article for March 17, 2018 religion page)
Life is hard. “In this world you WILL have trouble,” Jesus said. The ability to successfully face the hardships that will inevitably come to us will determine our level of satisfaction, joy, and peace. Resilience isn’t just a desirable trait, it’s absolutely essential. And, it turns out that scripture has a lot to say about this essential quality for successful living.
There are many passages we could examine to illustrate the point, but the letter from James is one of my favorites. Eugene Peterson does a good job capturing the meaning of James 1:12– “Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.” Patient endurance. Perseverance. Determination. Grit. All these characteristics are desired to face and overcome adversity.
When working with and ministering to severely emotionally disturbed children, instilling these characteristics is a necessity. Children who have experienced early childhood trauma, sometimes called “ACEs” or adverse childhood experiences, desperately need to know that God loves them and that they have the skills and abilities to meet their present challenges and future difficulties. It’s not enough to simply love them and teach them Bible stories. They NEED the tools to take what they are learning from Intermountain’s amazing staff so they can apply it to their lives and integrate it into their belief system. When they believe the truths we seek to impart and embrace the unconditional nature of God’s love and our care, then we know we have made a lasting difference. That is why I have purposefully shifted the ministry focus at Intermountain Residential to building resiliency in the thirty-two children under our care.
Resilience is more than simply picking yourself up after you get knocked down, it involves environmental and biological factors that are often out of our control. As Paul Tough writes in his excellent book, How Children Succeed, the science of resilience tells us “that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate… they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measureable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up.”
For over a decade, many of those involved in social work have recognized the need to focus on a child’s strengths rather than their deficits. As the Social Work Policy Institute states, effective social work with vulnerable children has shifted to a “strengths perspective,” and as a result, “increased attention was paid to personal qualities and social influence that promote or reflect health and well-being.” I love the idea of building on the strengths the children I work with already have and then structuring my lessons and instruction in chapel around those traits identified to further build resilience.
I am currently writing a curriculum that ties into the measure developed by the Resilience Research Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia (resilienceproject.org). Using their “Child and Youth Resilience Measure,” I have been interviewing the children of Intermountain for the last four months and the initial results are encouraging. Recently, two formerly fearful children looked me in the eye at their discharge and could recount the things they learned and the skills they gained while in our care. They could see the connection to their faith and how their story and God’s story were now woven together on the path to resilience, experiencing greater hope, joy, and peace.
“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said. The children of Intermountain know that trouble better than most! Jesus continued, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Let us join together in God’s Kingdom work, building more resilient children, families and communities.
If this effort is something you’d be interested in knowing more about, I’d encourage you to contact me or find out more about Intermountain and Elevate Montana. The Helena Affiliate of Elevate Montana meets monthly and is an inspiring group of people serving in a number of fields and capacities throughout Helena. If we’re going to make a difference in the hearts, minds and souls of children and youth in our community, we’ll need everyone’s help in some way.
EMDR Therapy has been life-altering for me. In 2013 I experienced what I reference in my presentations as a “shift”. I was struggling in a toxic relationship, trying to come to terms with my trauma history, and attempting to juggle various personal issues. It was within the confines of Dr. Barb Hensley’s office, at Cincinnati Trauma Connection, where I finally confronted the dark spaces of my traumas and learned to process them, releasing the stored up energy which had been surfacing as severe panic attacks for the previous twenty-five years.
So, what is EMDR Therapy? EMDR is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was initially developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro as a method for helping soldiers, returning from war, combat their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. However, it has since been utilized to help hundreds of thousands of patients process traumatic experiences.
More information about the therapeutic technique can be found at the American Psychological Association’s Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My personal experience during sessions included the following:
Sometimes I would use a light bar in my therapist’s office, keeping my head still and allowing my eyes to move back and forth, following a flowing green light stream from left to right and back again. Other times, I would close my eyes (as I was being distracted peripherally) and focus on the vibrating paddles I held in my hands. Those would alternate vibrations, left, right, left, right, left, right, and so on. My eye movements would naturally fall into a rhythmic back and forth movement, similar to the movement experienced during REM sleep.
While following the light bar or hand vibration pattern, I would be prompted to return to one of my traumatic experiences. The vast majority of the time something would instantaneously surface. A body memory. A flashback. A sensation. Something would appear. Sometimes it would be a snippet I had remembered outside of therapy, other times a memory would appear from an unconscious space. It would be filled with specifics I had long forgotten (such as the blue oval-shaped rug, sprawled across the floor next to my black metal-framed bunk beds, in my bedroom in our home in Park Hills, Kentucky- a memory from age four).
Sobbing, shaking, overwhelming emotions, and sometimes the symptoms of a panic attack would arise. The soothing voice of my counselor would be there to assure me that I was safe. It was there I would first learn to “just notice”.
I became aware of my triggers and realized the body memories were there to help me instead of scare me. I started to look forward to the sessions so I could dive headfirst into the chaos in order to find more answers. There was light within the darkness.
We touched upon every known traumatic experience, sometimes returning to an event repeatedly as something would surface later down the road. At first these visits into the past were seen as if I was watching a movie, from a dissociated space. I was watching someone do horrific things to a little girl from outside of myself.
I knew the day I returned to a trauma and saw it happening from within my body, through my own eyes, that I had reached a place of healing. To feel safe within my body as I relived a moment of terror during an EMDR therapy session was truly empowering.
EMDR allowed me the opportunity to process a massively complex history of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violent crimes, and addiction in my family. I am now panic attack free. While I still experience heightened anxiety in certain situations, I am better equipped to calm my physiological responses, being mindful of my needs and triggers and the coping skills I can utilize to help myself overcome the fear.
Coming next month: What is PTSD?
During a recent episode of The Healing Place podcast, I sat down with ACES Connection member, Stacy Brookman, host of the Real Life Resilience Podcast, to discuss her role as a resilience and life storytelling expert, finding clarity, her upcoming Emotional Abuse Recovery and Resilience Summit (of which I am one of forty-five featured speakers . . . yay!), and more.
Follow the links below to learn more about Stacy, life storytelling, to register for free for the 12-day summit starting September 1st, and the FREE guide listing the 35 most impactful books for emotional abuse.
* I am excited to have more therapists, trauma-gurus, and ACES experts lined up over the next few weeks for podcast interviews. I would love to have YOU join me, as well. If you are interested, please send me a private messages through this site and I will send you my podcast interview questions for you to review.
I am a huge fan of lifting one another up as beacons of light for those who are struggling, looking for guidance, or lost in the dark. I would love to offer my podcast as a platform for your voice about your mission and passion. My goal is to provide motivational, inspirational, and healing stories for my listeners.
Sometimes we stumble, tumble and then lie there flat on our face whimpering for a bit. I had a moment of this last week on our family trip to Panama City Beach, Florida. I struggled a bit with being on the highway on the eleven hour drive down, being in open spaces on the beach, and trying to climb a tall white-water-rapids ride. Sometimes my trauma history sneaks up on me. Then anxiety and panic envelop my peace.
So I wallowed in self-pity for half a day and moaned about it all on a personal Facebook post. Then, I did some self-soothing, gave myself a pep talk, and pulled up my big girl pants.
I found the gift within the struggle.
A reminder to keep fighting. This is why I am writing my book. This is why the completed manuscript will be done next month. My God-nudge to keep on going. The universe held up a mirror in front of my face to say, “You can do this!”
So, I did. I made myself practice all of those coping skills I tout in my book. I faced some fears. I walked out into the water, even though I was experiencing body memory flashbacks, and I tossed lacrosse and football with my family. I sat in a beach chair without an umbrella, pushing myself a little further than I was comfortable, in order to test my resolve. I reminded myself that this book and all it promotes for healing would not be filled with positive energy if I was not actually living the words.
So, thank you, God. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for those hurdles. Thank you for reminding me how strong I can be. Thank you for believing in me enough to nudge me forward just a little more.