For husbands of survivors| Trauma Tuesday

This short video is an excellent resource for Christian husbands of survivors, although I would urge caution about one of the recommendations made by the speaker.

My reaction to this video was almost entirely positive. I especially liked what the speaker said about husbands pursuing their own healing and growing in sexual purity. The husband who takes this video to heart would truly end up being a tremendous blessing to his wife as well as receiving much blessing in return.

However, I do want to voice a few serious cautions to husbands about seeking support from other men:

  1. Only disclose your wife’s sexual trauma to someone with her full knowledge and consent. Do not pressure her — not all women are ready to go public with the most traumatic events of their lives, especially trauma of a sexual nature, and the thought of a man knowing can be especially frightening, shameful, and humiliating. Your wife’s ability to trust you and feel safe should trump your need or desire to tell “the guys”. A therapist might be a far better source for support, since not many men are equipped to offer the wisdom, insight, and confidentiality you need.
  2. Choose your confidante carefully. We like to pretend that men don’t gossip, but this is sadly not the case. Furthermore, the last thing you should want is to confide in a man who believes in rape myths, insists that your wife made the whole thing up, tells you to “make her submit!” or even angrily confronts your wife about “crying rape just because she regrets her slutty behavior, and is making up a lame excuse to withhold sex”. (One woman had to deal with more than one such angry confrontation after her husband confided in his men’s group at church.)
  3. Choose as a confidante only a respectful, godly, tender-hearted, safe, loving, compassionate man who is a friend of your marriage. Such a man should not press you for details about what happened to your wife or about any of her current sexual struggles. (Those issues should probably be dealt with in therapy anyway.) Instead, he should encourage you to be more Christ-like. One husband was shocked, and later convicted, that the man he confided in was moved to tears — in marked contrast to the husband’s own lack of tenderness and compassion. The best confidante will challenge you to grow in sacrificial love, rather than further enable you in selfish indifference or impatience.
  4. Be prepared that telling people may make your wife the target of gossip, false accusations, harassment, intimidation, and even worse. One wife was continually harassed by a man who accused her of lying about her sexual assault because, as he insisted to her, “you are too ugly to rape”. Some survivors have had to endure “rape jokes” or “incest jokes” supposedly in order to get us to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously. Men have attempted to intimidate rape survivors with, “I hope someone rapes you again.” Even more frightening, a woman was confronted in her own home by a “friend” of her husband who threatened, “I could rape you too, you know, and this time no one would believe you.” The worst case I know about personally is the woman who was assaulted by her “pastor” after he learned of her past sexual trauma. Predators and abusers don’t usually identify themselves as such in advance, and are all too often the last person we would suspect.

Obviously I am not suggesting rape survivors hide in silence. After all, I’ve gone public. But it should be our own choice, and we should not be outed as survivors without our consent — especially not by the very men who have vowed to love, honor, and cherish us.

Why I’m glad that I’m no longer a Calvinist…

…and some other rambling thoughts about suffering and stumbling.

I wrote this as a comment on a blog a few months ago:

I wish I had the rest of the day to respond to individual posts. As many of you so eloquently and heartbreakingly described, grief and suffering HURTS. Jesus showed us what true compassion and grief looks like when he wept with his friends over the loss of their brother — even though Jesus knew full well he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Later, Paul would remind Christians to weep with those who weep, to bear each others’ burdens.

And, you know what? Doing that HURTS — not as much as the actual pain of the one grieving, but it hurts to sit with someone in their pain and totally open your heart, allowing their pain to invade your safe little bubble. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have neat, tidy answers to difficult tragedies. It’s scary to admit similarly devastating blows could strike us as well. So we blame people for their own pain in a self-righteous and desperate attempt to promise ourselves that this same sickness, this same tragedy, will never come near us. And, if it does, we will handle it better. We are made of stronger stuff and better theology, so we will never hurt as much as those other people. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I know. I was that person…until my world exploded about 6 years ago, and years of running from pain and being all “praise God, the past is in the past!” came crashing down on me. Thank God that I had left Calvinists and Calvinism behind before then.

There were no easy answers. I did not heal nicely, or neatly, or tidily. It was messy. I stumbled and fell a lot. I sinned — not by grieving or hurting or being a mess, but by actual sins. I met a ragtag group of beautiful fellow sufferers who showed me what true, loving acceptance looks like. The best thing that eventually came out of the evil that Satan intended for me — and he intends evil for all of us because he is all about killing, stealing, and destroying — is that God showed me that he is a redemptive God. Sin and evil and sickness has no silver lining, but God can redeem the worst thing. And the best way he redeemed all that ugliness in my life, all the pain that came to a head in recent years, is that he revealed himself to me as the perfect, loving Father that I’d never dreamed he could be. It was in relationship with him — and some of his representatives who shared his love — that I have been able to walk out my healing journey. (It has felt like stumbling and even being dragged more than walking at times.)

This longwinded comment is to say that I think when we begin to comprehend the enormity and tenderness of God’s love — especially in the midst of life’s ickyness —when we begin to experience how deeply personal and intimate his love is for us, it makes all the difference. The Calvinist view of God is much safer. It keeps God at a comfortable distance. God up close and personal is beautiful and healing beyond all comprehension, but it’s also overwhelming. After all, this is the God of the universe we’re talking about.

My world has been rocked. My heart has been broken. I’ve lost my taste for nominal Christianity. I have no easy answers. Sometimes all I can do is hug someone, pray for them, and weep. And that hurts, even though compassion is a good hurt, a good heartbreak.

That’s what I was running from when I was a Calvinist. I needed a small, safe, understandable, predictable God who provided security and a safe haven from pain and messiness. What I’ve found now is this huge, wild, mysterious, incomprehensible God who has captured my heart, melted and broken it, healed and tenderized it — and turned my world upside down.

I wish everybody could know that wonderful, amazing, magnificent God.

Why it’s neither kind nor helpful to respond to PTSD sufferers with “grow up” | Trauma Tuesday

Recently I watched a video which I don’t care to identify or link to, because I don’t want to to carelessly indulge, even in the slightest way, a possible attention glutton. Besides, this really isn’t about that particular person; it’s about an attitude he shares with far too many other people.

But before I get to that, let me offer my thoughts and understanding of what it means to be “triggered”. I may step on a few toes here, and I want to make it clear that I am speaking for myself and not for all survivors.

For those unfamiliar with PTSD, or needing a quick review, here is a fairly concise explanation. When those of us who suffer with PTSD talk about being “triggered”, we tend to mean that something brought on an episode of emotional and physical PTSD symptoms. In other words, we were forced to relive our trauma. Maybe it was “just” that our emotions, heart rate, endocrine glands, and nervous systems reacted as if the trauma were happening again, right at that very minute. Maybe we dissociated. Maybe we had a flashback, during which our bodies and minds were convinced the trauma was happening again. Maybe all this was followed by night after night of terrorizing nightmares, and days of anxiety, during which we constantly felt as if about to jump out of our own skin, until we were utterly exhausted and spent.

What we experience can be far, far worse than I am describing.

If you have ever undergone something truly horrific, devastating, life threatening, or terrifying — torture, a violent assault, a particularly frightening accident, or something similar — you no doubt remember how you didn’t just “get over it” the instant things stopped. Even if you didn’t end up with PTSD, you felt shaken and distressed for quite some time. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, we don’t suddenly feel back to normal once we realize, “Haha, it wasn’t a real threat after all, and my nightmarish assault wasn’t happening all over again! Silly me!” (No, I don’t think it’s silly to be triggered. Nor is it a sign of weakness or fragility, despite what some may think.) It can take us a while to recover, and for our bodies, instincts, thoughts, emotions, hormones, digestive systems, cardio-vascular systems, brain chemistry, and nerves to catch up with present reality.

Now I realize that not everyone uses the word “triggered” in that way. Some non-survivors have co-opted it for their own use. However, when they say they are “triggered”, they mean that they are reminded of something sad or painful. A smell of perfume may prompt someone to feel grief over the loss of their beloved grandmother, or even to remember her death quite vividly, but that is part of almost everyone’s life in our world. Remembering and being upset over bad memories is a far cry from feeling like you have been pulled back into and forced to relive the most traumatizing, dehumanizing, terrifying experiences of your life. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, it’s as if our trauma is happening all over again. Past and present collide.

At the risk of offending survivors who disagree with me, I think the word may have been misused and overused by some of us. But, whether I am right about that or not, the thing we need to remember is that we are all at different places in our healing journey, and we all have different triggers. So we should be careful not to judge or belittle other survivors for being triggered “more easily” or by different things. (And, yes, mere words can be triggering.)

To make things more complicated, what might be triggering one time may not be triggering another time. It’s the seemingly unpredictable nature of PTSD that made many of us feel like we were teetering on the edge of “going crazy” until we were finally diagnosed  and given tools to help cope with the aftermath of our trauma.

Many of us in various survivor communities become fiercely protective of one another, not because we view each other as fragile, but because we place such a high priority on healing. Part of that process is learning self-care, and “trigger warnings” are a way of helping each other with that. My friends and I don’t avoid using the word “rape” or talking frankly and even graphically amongst ourselves, often to a far greater degree than we can with most non-survivors. However, if we are heading into potentially difficult territory, we will caution each other along the lines of, “Make sure you are in a good place, and be prepared, before you read this…before you watch this movie…before you go to this place…before you listen to what I am about to say…” In other words, we’ve got each other’s backs.

My healing journey has involved a lot of hard, painful work on my part. I was blessed with a wonderful therapist who shares my faith, some amazing survivors I call my “tribe”, and some truly remarkable people who have loved, encouraged and taught me along the way. Some of those people have done so in person, and others through books, art, music, sermons, and the online world. Most of all, it has been the grace of God and His love as my Heavenly Father that has brought me to where I am today. I am thankful that things that used to trigger me no longer do. In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any noticeable symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. Even the recurring nightmares are gone, as are the flashbacks. I’m able to go places, do things, and minister in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as two years ago. (I’m hoping my symptoms are gone forever but recognize that may not be the case.)

I didn’t suddenly “grow up”. It was a long, hard road to get here, and the people who dismissively urged me to “get over it” were not only unhelpful and unkind — I believe that the enemy of my soul tried to use them as roadblocks to my healing. After all, the Bible says that Satan came to kill, steal, and destroy. He hates having his damage undone. He hates redemption and reconciliation. He hates God.

Does that mean I think that anyone who fails at loving survivors is someone who hates God? No. However, as I used to tell my kids, when we don’t treat others with love and compassion, it’s as if we are playing on the wrong team in this battle of good versus evil.

In my more idealistic days, I used to think that if I could just explain this sort of stuff, people would treat trauma survivors with more compassion. I saw the main problem as a lack of knowledge. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical, but I’m realizing that more and more people simply do not care — and that includes some of the very people who should be setting the examples for compassion, gentleness, and kindness. Sadly, not everyone wants to love as Jesus does…or maybe they just don’t want to love us that way.

That brings me back to the video that inspired this post. In it, a man mimics and ridicules those who say, “That’s triggering”, and responds with a dismissive smirk, “Well, grow up.” I fully recognize that there are people who, while they are right to value freedom of speech, mistakenly think it should be best expressed and protected by saying anything they want, no matter how cruel or offensive, and refusing to be held accountable or to apologize. I know all too well that there are people who mock the very idea of compassion and who accuse anyone encouraging kindness and gentleness as being overwrought and overcome with emotions. I know that there are men who will grow irate if anyone objects to their “jokes” about rape, and that there are people who seem to make a sport of threatening, intimidating, mocking, and harassing sexual trauma survivors. I know that there are also people who aren’t malicious, but are simply lacking in empathy. I know that there are some people who mean well, but are unfortunately clueless and oblivious.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that we should legislate away free speech or legally mandate trigger warnings. To put it another way, as much as I might feel like outlawing shock jocks and blasphemers, I’m not sure I’d like to live in a society (at least not here on earth) where they are outlawed. At the same time, of all the things I’m willing to advocate for, being an insulting jerk without being called out for it is certainly not one of them.

And, I’d like to add, if you are going to insist on being an insensitive clod, please confine yourself to a line of work where that is an asset and not a liability. In other words, stay out of the helping professions and out of any sort of ministry where people might actually think you are supposed to represent Jesus. (Perhaps, if you are that fond of and prone to offensive speech, consider becoming a shock jock. Then my friends and I will know not to listen to you.)

It seems that I can’t bring myself to end this post without including my two favorite stories about PTSD.

The first one was told to me by a Viet Nam vet. After a tour of duty, he was taking an afternoon nap at his grandparents’ house when something triggered a flashback, during which he ran outside and shot up the backyard. His grandfather had been watching the whole scene from his easy chair. I suppose some would think that the grandfather should have, at the very least, urged, “grow up!” But he was himself a combat veteran, having fought in World War 2, and he understood what used to be called “shell shock”. Very calmly he asked, “Well? Did you get ’em?”

“That’s why I loved my grandfather so much,” this tough former Marine told me years later, his eyes shining with tears. “He understood. I shot the heck out of his nice backyard and he never said a word about it…just sat with me and calmed me down.”

My second favorite story is one I read in a book somewhere, and it also involved a Viet Nam vet. He was at the dry cleaner’s when a car backfired out front. Next thing he knew, he was face down on the floor. To his surprise, so was the young woman who had been waiting on him. Rather sheepishly, he said, “Saigon,” followed by the year he had been there. She nodded and replied, “Beirut,” followed by the year she had left. They both got up, brushed off their clothes, and tried to go on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (And, by the way, I’m fairly certain neither of them urged the other to “grow up”.)

Maybe it’s because I have a weird sense of humor, but both stories crack me up…at the same time that I find them sweet and endearing. Those of us with PTSD, whether our symptoms are in the past or not, want what most people want — compassion and understanding. We are glad when those things are extended to other trauma survivors, and disheartened when such human kindness is withheld.

There was a time, some years back, when I felt compelled to explain to someone why I had an overreactive startle reflex, why I was hyper-vigilant in certain settings, why I acted “wacky” sometimes, and why I had a weird set of “quirks”. I offered this explanation: “You know how some people who fight in wars get PTSD? Well, I fought in a different war, a private one, and I lost.” I didn’t want pity, or to be treated with kid gloves. What I hoped for was understanding: I’m not this way on purpose. It’s a boatload of fear and pain that caused this. If I could be any other way, trust me, I would. 

It’s always a risk when we disclose the trauma in our past. We don’t always know what to expect. Sometimes we get a dismissive, “well, grow up!” — or far worse. Sometimes we get shrugs. Sometimes we get awkward silence. Sometimes we get a “me too”. And sometimes we get someone who views us as their neighbor and loves us, as much as humanly possible, the way Jesus taught.

That last type of person? They are the ones who God can use to “bind up the broken-hearted” and to “comfort those who mourn”. They are the ones who do what the Church should be doing. They are the ones who help us heal.

And they are the ones who would never dismiss a PTSD sufferer with, “Well, grow up.”

Asking the tough questions | Trauma Tuesday

When I watched this yesterday, it deeply impacted me. Not exactly a sermon, it’s more an interview in which a woman tells her remarkable story of dealing with tragedy, suffering, and disability. Yes, the pastor had things to say — in a rather powerful mini-sermon that served as introduction — and her husband spoke as well, but it was her words I found especially compelling. 

If you’ve ever asked, “Why did God allow this to happen?” you might not find the exact answer to your question, but I think you will find hope.

On treating survivors with respect | Trauma Tuesday

A message for those who have sexual trauma survivors in their lives 

Our boundaries were horribly violated by whoever it was that raped, molested, or sexually abused us. The last thing we need is for people to erode or violate our boundaries further — especially people who claim to care for us. A true ally will respect us, build us up, and encourage us to stand strong.

We don’t need fairytale knights in shining armor to swoop in and rescue us. We need real, genuine allies in our struggle, people who will have our backs and respect us for who we truly are — rather than treating us as damaged goods, or viewing us as weak and helpless damsels in distress.

Note: I fully recognize that not all rape survivors are women. However, since I am writing from that perspective, and since it is awkward to keep writing “he/she”, I will use mostly female pronouns and terms to refer to survivors.

I came across this in an article I read recently, called  “5 Reasons Shaming Survivors into Reporting Rape is Counter-Productive“:

Rape is an awful experience in which a person’s bodily autonomy is ignored and violated. It’s an act in which someone isn’t allowed to control what happens to their body.

For this reason, it’s vital that a survivor has control over their own healing process.

We need to accept the fact that the survivor themself is best equipped to make decisions about their own healing and how to deal with their own trauma…

While this article dealt with the issue of survivors being pressured or shamed into reporting their rapes to the police, it makes valid points about a broader issue: non-survivors presuming that they are in a better position to determine what would be the best course of action for a survivor. Often this is well-meaning protectiveness, with a wannabe ally honestly believing that his/her “rational”, non-traumatized thinking should be given far more credence than the survivor’s wishes, needs, and desire for safety. Sometimes the non-survivor is not a true ally at all, and has another agenda which — in his or her mind — trumps the well-being of the survivor.

I’ve lost count of the survivor stories I’ve heard and read in which the survivor was silenced out of someone else’s concern for the family, misguided loyalty to the perpetrators, or the desire to avoid a “scandal”. On the flip side of that are survivors whose stories were told and spread about against their will, for a variety of different reasons. Survivors I know have been accused of being “selfish” for wanting to control their own healing process, selfish for wanting desperately to regain a sense of agency and autonomy, selfish for desiring privacy, even selfish for wanting to manage their PTSD. Non-survivors simply do not understand how re-traumatizing it is when they show disregard for a survivor’s consent, and when they do not honor and help us strengthen our boundaries but seek to dismantle, ignore, or even ride roughshod over them.

I’m not talking about necessary crisis intervention or medical attention for a desperately injured woman who is crying, “Please leave me alone and let me die.” I’m talking about the sense of superiority some individuals feel merely because they have, thus far, not been raped — and they believe this somehow gives them a better perspective on how to negotiate the aftermath of sexual trauma. Worse, some seem to believe their status as non-survivors entitles them to ignore and even violate a survivor’s boundaries.

My words might sound harsh and overly condemning. That’s not my intent. I freely admit that I’m being blunt, and not mincing words, because I’ve discovered that the gentle, subtle and nuanced approach doesn’t tend to work well with those who have a tendency to push or cross boundaries. (A kinder, gentler resource for men — husbands, partners, and fathers — can be found here.) Some well-meaning people might honestly think they are trying to “help”, and that this justifies their attempts to control the survivor. It’s for her own good, they tell themselves. The reality, however, is that ignoring or violating the autonomy of a sexual trauma survivor is never in his or her best interests, except perhaps in a few extreme, life or death type situations.

Let’s look at a few of the far more common situations where non-survivors often add to the trauma of survivors by refusing to accept that the survivor herself is best equipped to make decisions about her own healing:

  • Telling others about the sexual trauma without the survivor’s consent. I understand that “secondary survivors” may feel a need for advice or a listening ear; however, this should be negotiated with the survivor. You do not own her, nor do you own her story. You should not get to decide who to tell or not tell. You do not get to decide or dictate her feelings in the matter. It doesn’t matter if you think you have all sorts of compelling reasons to tell her family, your family, your best buddies — or whoever it is that you feel the urge to tell — if you respect the survivor at all, you will honor her decision whether you agree with it or not. If you do not respect the survivor enough to allow her to determine who gets told and when, you are not her ally, nor are you a safe person for her. Period.
  • Pressing for details the survivor does not wish to tell you. It seems incredibly obvious to me that someone who genuinely cares for a survivor would respect their boundaries, yet I’m shocked at how many people don’t. Your curiosity does not justify intrusion.
  • Trying to pressure the survivor into a specific course of action. No, you don’t know better than she does. She knows what she can or can’t handle better than you do. (Read the article I referenced above.)
  • Insisting on being treated as an “ally”. Rape and sexual trauma violates — in a most terrible way — a person’s autonomy and moral agency. Having had sexual acts forced on her does not make it suddenly appropriate for a survivor to have other acts — including those you find “trivial” — and relationships forced upon her, no matter how much you may want to “be there” for her. True allies don’t pressure or insist. Instead, without a hint of coercion, they allow the survivor to approve the nature and extent of the relationship.

This includes spouses and significant others. You shouldn’t demand to be her “support person”, or to occupy a role she doesn’t want you to have. Unfortunately, I know of husbands, unable to accept this, who have gotten jealous of therapists and support group members who “knew more about the rape” than they did, and who felt they should be the survivor’s main confidante and source of emotional support. They only ended up proving themselves to be less safe and trustworthy, not more.

  • Attempting to choose a survivor’s allies for her. The husband of a survivor kept nagging his wife to “talk” to the wife of one of his buddies. “She got over her rape, and I bet she could really help you.” He dismissed as irrelevant that his wife barely knew this woman and had no desire to discuss with her the most traumatic, horrible experience of her life. That should be reason enough for a truly caring person to back off, but it took a lot of persuasion to finally convince this guy.
  • Trying to persuade or “guilt” a survivor into sharing more with her spouse or significant other than she is comfortable doing. Each person is different. Each marriage is different. Each survivor’s comfort level is different in terms of how much to tell other people in her life. Her comfort level should be honored, even if you think you would make entirely different decisions in her place.

Telling anyone about sexual trauma is difficult. Telling a male is usually even more so. Telling a spouse or significant other can be exponentially more difficult and frightening. Non-survivors tend not to grasp the enormity of this. If you care about a survivor, lay off the pressure and guilt tactics. The survivor’s boundaries should be encouraged and respected, not questioned and criticized.

Note of caution regarding marriage or “pastoral” counseling: It should go without saying that counselors should not attempt to guilt a survivor for “keeping secrets” about the rape from her husband, should not urge her to hand him her journals, should not recommend her husband have full access to her therapy records, and should not try to convince her that she “owes” her husband a detailed account of her rape. It should go without saying, but there are some counselors who simply do not understand the dynamics of sexual trauma, nor do they encourage appropriately healthy boundaries in either individuals or relationships. One would hope that a professional therapist would know better, but often lay or pastoral counselors may not have received training adequate to our needs. Sometimes their understanding of what constitutes a “healthy” marriage or spirituality does not take the realities of sexual trauma into account and would in fact be very unhealthy for a survivor.

  • Telling a survivor how to feel or react — thus invalidating her own experience. You don’t get to decide how she feels, nor do you get to map out her healing journey for her. Again, this is intrusive and can be a major setback for her. She may not act like you think a rape survivor should. Get over it. Her healing is not about reinforcing your stereotypes or making you feel comfortable.
  • Holding up other survivors’ reactions and healing journey as more appropriate or “better”. This is closely related to the previous point. Please give survivors the respect and dignity they deserve by accepting their individuality and autonomy. Not all of us have the same sexual trauma experience or the same recovery process.
  • Pressuring a survivor to trust someone she is not ready to trust. For many survivors, rape was a violation of trust. We need to be allowed to learn to trust again on our terms. We need to feel safe before we consider allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to another person. It can’t be rushed. Trust can’t be forced. It would be cruel, inhumane, and damaging not to allow a survivor to set her own pace.

The best way to earn our trust? Be trustworthy. And trust us— it’s a two-way street.