My greatest struggle
I’ve never written a blog like this before because I’ve never wanted this blog to be about me. But, I feel compelled to compose this now for some reason. Maybe it’ll help me; maybe it’ll help someone else.
I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I’ve had it for years. It affects me every single day. I’ve been through therapy. I’ve read books and listened to lectures. Yes, I’ve prayed about it. I pray about it nearly every single day, in fact, because I live in a low-grade constant fear and anxious state.
PTSD is a debilitating anxiety disorder caused by an intense, traumatic experience (or experiences). It actually re-wires the neural networks in your brain, so that the brain becomes “hot-wired” to freak out. This is called having “triggers.” It’s where your brain responds before your pre-frontal cortex (where your consciousness does its work) can respond to the situation. You can feel the blood leave your head, a panic attack, or gorgonizing anxiety and then think, “what happened?” Triggers are automatic. They are intrusive, like someone who barges into your house uninvited. They are awful. They can happen any second. (The most common anecdote I’ve heard is the war veteran who hears a car horn or fireworks and falls to the ground immediately, dodging imaginary bullets.)
And it’s important to understand, having “triggers” doesn’t mean someone is “thin-skinned” or childish. Someone with PTSD can have really healthy boundaries and handle conflict quite well. I have very healthy boundaries and have taught how to have them for years. And, triggers don’t happen all the time. It’s certainly possible to have a confrontation without any triggers. In any case, “being thin-skinned” is when a person has a low(er) self-esteem and suffers from poor emotional boundaries. That kind of person over-identifies with the complaint or criticism and internalizes the comment beyond what a healthy person does. Triggers have nothing to do with that.
Some get PTSD because of a car wreck, some from sexual assault, many from warfare, many from abuse. I got PTSD because of constant exposure to various intense interactions in my childhood.
PTSD victims have (at least) four features in common, which I’ll explore below. There are also countless idiosyncratic experiences that each victim has which differ, depending on the traumatizing event(s), person’s environment, character, et al..
The first common trait is experiencing “flashbacks” or “re-experiencing symptoms.” Your brain re-lives the trauma, event, or argument over and over again—not because you want it to. It’s called an “intrusive thought.” It intrudes on your rational thoughts, like an uncontrollable sneeze of the mind. These happen to me nearly every day. I relive conversations (it used to be about my mom; now it’s more often other people who've triggered traumatic memories involving my mom) in which I’m yelled at, cussed at, or otherwise scared. Typically, it’s a conversation where I’m having to defend something of which I’m innocent (since that was most of my childhood). I hate, loathe, despise being accused of things I didn’t do. It’s a trigger: my heart races, the blood leaves my head, I feel faint and in incredible danger. And my brain likes to replay those moments with amazing clarity, especially lying in bed at night. Or immediately when I wake. Or in the shower. Or when it’s quiet. Or when someone says or does something that reminds me of it.
The second common trait is the constant, conscious and unconscious, desire to avoid situations that remind you of the event. Because the feelings are so overwhelming, I have a compulsive desire to avoid certain people who have triggered, or who I think might trigger, flashbacks. This is especially difficult as a pastor, because I am forced to, every single day, face people who cause me terrible fear. They don’t know that. I don’t show it. But, I have to talk with them anyway. I have to meet with them anyway. And I do: I refuse to let my PTSD rule me. But, if I had my way, I’d avoid every single person who gives me the slightest threat feelings. I’d only hang out with people who constantly evoke the feeling of safety. And, if/when a person triggered me, I’d just move on. But…that’s not reality, nor the way I think God wants me to live. I can’t “love my neighbor as myself” if I allowed that compulsion to rule. So, I meet with the “dangerous” people anyway.
The third common trait is having chronic, inchoate negative beliefs and feelings. The trauma greatly affects the way you think about yourself and others. Common feelings would be anxiety, fear, worry, terror, or any other sensation or feeling associated with being in terrible danger. Negative beliefs vary, but some beliefs are common, such as the belief that the world is dangerous, that people might hurt you, or that it’s necessary to be ready for fighting or death. Because of my personal past, some of the additional negative beliefs that have become ensconced in my belief system:
· I’m not allowed to have an independent self.
· My opinion isn’t (that) valuable.
· Don’t make anyone upset—EVER.
· People can’t be trusted.
· People will betray you.
· You have to be perfect or people will rage at you or abandon you.
I could list more, but I’ll assume you get the point. I daily fight these false beliefs using "Stop Therapy" and various Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques.
The fourth common trait is maintaining “hyper-arousal” or “hyper-vigilance.” Ever been in a haunted house during Halloween, or watched a scary movie? Your adrenaline and cortisol traverse your body, increasing your heart rate, suppressing your appetite, and many other effects necessary to help you survive. You feel “on edge”: you are hyper-aroused. PTSD is like that, depending on how severely you have it. This is why those with PTSD have a high frequency of using narcotics and practicing other addictive behavior: the profound feeling of being “on edge” can make you feel crazy and brittle. It’s common for us to have adverse reactions to loud noises (I hate it when my kids talk loudly or yell behind me when I’m driving, or when anyone yells in my house). Because of my background, I basically have a Ph.D. in watching people’s facial expressions to discern their moods. My “emotional antennae” is overwhelmingly sensitive to the emotional environment of those around me. If I hear about a confrontational meeting I have to have—whether because I initiated it or not—the blood leaves my head. I can feel faint and find it difficult to breathe. I still go…I have to. I’m a pastor.
Those are some quick thoughts on the four common traits. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed for years that God would take them away. He hasn’t. He has brought into my life various safe people who have helped me heal. He has helped me heal via therapy. He has spoken to me numerous times in Scripture (I have several favorites, like Joshua 1:6-9; Psalm 27:14; Matt. 10:26-31; 11:28-30). And, praise Jesus, my PTSD has gotten better. My response to triggers has diminished in frequency and in intensity. Praise Jesus. And praise Jesus for anxiety medication. PTSD affects your brain chemistry so much that having supplemental help is almost imperative.
But, it’s still there. It makes me routinely seriously doubt whether or not I should stay in pastoral ministry. By far the most horrible events I’ve had have come from church-folk (and of course it is: the Church is full of imperfect people AND evil loves to work the most among Christians). Usually, the ones praised as “really knowing their Bibles” have been the worst. It’s true. I have a real sympathy for skeptics and atheists who say that Christians block them from Christianity…it’s just that Christianity isn’t true or false depending on adherents. It’s based on the truth claims within. (And there are countless AWESOME Christians in the Body of Christ, too!) In any case, I have asked God if He can “take this cup from me” in ministry because I’m afraid so much. I used to have a professor/pastor who said to every M.Div. student, “If there’s anything else you can do besides ministry, you should do it.” I fully understand his point. I ONLY do this because I really think that the God of the universe commissioned me. Perhaps, I’m wrong. But, I think I’m right. Thus, I'm still committed to pastoral ministry.
Not only am I incredulous of my capacity to do pastoral ministry well, I also feel the draw of doing other work where I would work independently. That is, if I could just offer information that people wanted: like when I’ve done consulting work, or written books, or done key-note speaking on apologetics or having healthy marriages. They are by FAR “safer” to my sensibilities than pastoral ministry.
It affects my marriage and family life, too. My wife is keenly aware of my struggles. She’s incredibly supportive. Nevertheless, I struggle with making sure I don’t raise my voice when the kids yell or don’t respect my boundaries. Praise God, I have the wherewithal to constantly do many things right.
Maybe some of this resonates with you. If so, and you haven’t received therapy, then please do everything you can to seek professional help. There is NO shame in receiving help. I go to my physician when I have strep; I go to a Christian therapist when I’m having difficulty coping.
Maybe you know someone who struggles with PTSD. I pray that this gives you some insight to their struggles. Perhaps it helps you have empathy. What most of us don’t need is for you to act weird around us. You don’t need to “walk on eggshells” for most of us. Some are that fragile. I’m not…most of the time. :)
Well, that’s it. I don’t have a massive “therefore.” I really appreciate what Paul said to the Roman Christians nearly 2,000 years ago: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23 NET).
Boy, do I pine for the “redemption” of my body. In the world-to-come, they’ll be no more PTSD or disorders of any kind. Praise Jesus! And in the meantime, I’ll have to believe that what God told Paul He might think toward me: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 NET).