Easter in the midst of grief

On this Easter Monday, while praying for someone who recently experienced the devastating loss of a loved one,  I was reminded of words I wrote back in 1990, to be published in a church devotional booklet:

Easter…it has held a new, triumphant meaning for me since I discovered that you can’t really celebrate the victory of Easter without being devastated by Good Friday; one is meaningless without the other. When I was 19 years old, my beloved Opa died, my mother’s father, a man who had completely opened his heart to me and captured mine in the process. Even when he was a continent away, I felt his love.

A brutal, painful heart attack took his life not long after he had celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary. My mother, who had the privilege of being with him when he went home, told me his last words were a prayer of praise, ending, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

Grief is far more than emotional. It is a pain so intense that it is physical, devastating, exhausting, all consuming.

Easter came in the early days of our grieving. My mother and I stood together in church, singing the familiar Easter hymns, tears flowing down our faces. It was then that Easter became real to me — truly real — dynamic and immediate rather than historic. I was amazed that my heart could be simultaneously filled with such great joy and such aching sorrow.

Someday I too will be snatched out of this life. Someday I will stand before my Savior, along with all the saints who have gone before, and I will shout with my Opa, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

That is what I celebrate at Easter.

Holy week

Those of us who were not raised in a liturgical tradition, or in a faith community that observed the church calendar, often don’t know what we’re missing out on when it comes to the celebration of Resurrection Sunday — or what most of us call Easter. We may have wonderful Easter sunrise services and even meaningful Good Friday services, but we usually have not had the full benefit of putting the greatest events in Christianity in their context in a way that is both meaningful and practical.

We have not observed Lent as a season of preparation, personal sacrifice, repentance, contemplation, and longing for the glory of the Resurrection to be celebrated with joy. We have not set aside Holy Week as a time of somber prayer and reflection. We have not washed one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday, partaken in the Lord’s Supper together, and grieved the betrayal of our Savior. We have not wept on Good Friday at what our sins did to Jesus Christ, and mourned the suffering it cost Him to redeem us. We have not spent Saturday night in vigil, waiting…waiting…

The truth is that we need reminders. We need to make the gospel, the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, as personal as possible. We need to remember. We need to set aside the business of our everyday lives, and allow ourselves to walk through the events of Holy Week.

At least I do.

So today I read the old familiar passages about the Passover, both its origins and its new meaning as instituted by Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed. I read of the Last Supper, and of the betrayal. I read beautiful prayers of the Church. And I asked the Holy Spirit to allow all those words to grip my heart and break it anew and afresh. I asked Him to examine my innermost being and show me where I need to repent…to reveal to me my sins of omission and commission…to make me painfully aware of how I fail to love God and my fellow human beings as I should.

I don’t want this to be just another Easter season, one in which I live Holy Week as if it were any other week, sing a few wonderful hymns on Easter Sunday, eat a nice dinner, and then go on my merry way, untouched and unchanged by my celebration. I want to remember, and I want to be transformed by the reality. I want to truly live as one of the Easter people should. As Pope John Paul II said:

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

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.”

Difficult to watch, difficult to face

I recognize that this abortion a difficult, difficult subject…a polarizing one…and a deeply personal one. But I can’t turn the other way and — no matter what your beliefs on the subject — I hope you can’t either.

That’s why I hope, if you haven’t watched this particular video already, that you watch the video I am embedding below.

Yes, I know that the Center for Medical Progress has come under fire from those who disagree with how they have edited the videos they are releasing about Planned Parenthood. But this latest one…is there really a context in which what is depicted and described could be seen as a good thing? Is there a context in which this is something that we as Americans should not even feel the slightest twinge of guilt or unease about? Is this really something we should all support?

If you are pro-choice and you were in the place of the Procurement Technician on the video, would your compassion for women seeking abortions and your desire not to thwart medical research make you react differently? Would you be less willing to walk away from her job? Would you be more comfortable with cutting open the face of a fetus whose heart you had just seen beating — all in the name of medical science, of course? Would you think it all right to be pulling the brains out of babies that might possibly still be alive?

I will be honest. I cannot imagine any context whatsoever that would make what I saw and heard in this video any less hideous or disturbing.

Holly O’Donnell admitted that she started crying when holding the fetus she describes on the video. She said, no matter what benefits there might come from the role she played in procuring the brain from this unborn baby, “I don’t want to be that person”.

Can we honestly say she is wrong, misguided, too sensitive, too sentimental, too squeamish? Is she not advanced enough in her thinking? Are we to conclude that she is anti-woman and anti-science?

Or could the practices these videos are exposing possibly be wrong and barbaric? Are we willing to admit that Planned Parenthood might not be the paragon of virtue, compassion, and morality so many believe this organization to be? Could our culture have gone too far in embracing any and all abortions? Could our medical ethics be flawed? Could it be time for us to face the truth of what we are allowing ourselves to become as a people — no matter how uncomfortable and disturbing that truth might be?

Over the years, I have read and heard many eloquent defenses of the pro-choice position. It is not my intention to turn the his blog post into argument or debate about whether to not abortion should be legal. However, I cannot help but wonder — does being pro-choice require one to embrace everything that is in the above video, and to defend even the most barbaric practices surrounding abortion? Are there no limits to the pro-choice position? Are there no abortions that are morally wrong?

I might as well admit it: I am pro-life. There was a time when, as a rape trauma survivor, I was unsure about whether or not abortion in the case of rape or incest was morally defensible. My position has become more firm as I’ve listened to the stories of those who have been conceived by rape and incest, as well as those who have conceived children under the same conditions. We extinguish the wrong life, in my opinion, when we abort the innocent child resulting from sexual trauma. While I know that nothing can undo the unspeakably damaging and painful trauma of rape or incest, I cannot dismiss the compelling stories of girls and women who view their children as redemptive…even life-saving…after the worst trauma of their lives.

Mine is not a popular position, to say the least. I have been reluctant to state it publicly, not wanting to offend people I care for and respect, some of whom who view the pro-life position as hateful, ignorant, backwards, intolerant, and anti-woman. To be honest, I fear being painted with that same brush by speaking up.

A dear friend of mine, who travels the world over on missions of mercy and compassion –because she has one of the biggest, most loving hearts of anyone I’ve ever met — insists that it is her love for women that has caused her to be even more strongly anti-abortion. Women from vastly different cultures and religious backgrounds have opened up to her when she requests, without a hint of coercion or condemnation, “Tell me about your abortion.” She has heard the stories most of us never hear, because — even if we ask — our agendas and opinions tend to get in the way of our compassion. (I’ve told her my deepest darkest secrets, so I know how gently she receives women’s experiences and truths, receiving them as a sacred trust.) She used to be pro-life because of the babies. Now it is the women, the mothers, who have convinced her even more. She wants to spare women from having to live out the abortion experiences, and their aftermaths, that she keeps hearing about, over and over and over again…

Redeeming the day

Yesterday, I ended my post with these words:

There was a time when I insisted to my therapist that my rape was so terrible, so dark and ugly, that there was nothing about it that God could possibly redeem. He proved me wrong…but that’s best left for future posts.

Almost immediately, the following came to mind. It’s something I wrote in 2009, after I’d been in therapy a few months. I’ve only done a few minor tweaks for readability, leaving the rest alone. It’s kinda raw. But it’s the raw and broken things that need redeeming, not the clean and pretty ones.

*****

During my therapy session today, Donny asked about the anniversary of the rape, and I told him I knew it was in August, but didn’t know the date. For some reason, after I got home, this started really bothering me. I went online to find an August 1981 calendar, and I started plugging different events into different days and finally, by process of elimination, I figured out that August 23 had to be the date.

And then I sat there, thinking, “Damn. I figured it out. But I don’t quite know what to think about it, or how to feel.” Then I realized that I was still being raped on August 24…the day that later became my wedding date. I regretted my figuring out the date, because I felt as if my wedding anniversary was now forever ruined for me. My imagination went into overdrive. I became convinced that, instead of celebrating our upcoming 25th anniversary, I’d be hiding in bed, having flashbacks, reliving that horrible day and the next day in awful, nightmarish detail.

So I posted to my online support group and Matt responded, “Well, think of this: for many years you did not know it was an anniversary. Which proves the date is not forever ruined, because you have had many August 23rd’s since your rape. And that endows you with a whole lot of post-rape August 23rd memories to recall, which are clean of any such traumatic triggers.”

That made sense.

I decided to quite whining to God, “How could you let me pick August 24 as my wedding date? And why didn’t the church let us have our first choice? Why? Why? Why?”

Then I thought, “What a coincidence…what are the chances that I would get married on that day?” But then it dawned on me — how cool, how redemptive, how absolutely victorious is it that, on the 3rd anniversary of my rape, I was having a rehearsal dinner with most of my favorite people in the world? The ugliness of the rape was the furthest thing from my mind that night. Three years after Lou and Carl finally stopped raping me, I was asleep in bed, dreaming happy dreams of marriage. Three years after that horrible shower, I was getting ready for my wedding day. Three years after sticking a gun in my mouth, feeling broken and ruined and filthy, I was walking down the aisle in a beautiful white dress that had been lovingly sewn for me. I remember that, during the wedding, I had kept thinking, “God is good”. I felt like I was basking in His love. And I actually felt beautiful.

God is good. I had no idea how good. He really did give me beauty for ashes, and the oil of joy for mourning. And He couldn’t have told me that in a more obvious way.

This August 24th will be my 25th wedding anniversary. It will also be the 28th anniversary of when they stopped raping me…the 28th anniversary of the day that I cleaned myself up and went to my first day at a new job, trying to pretend nothing had happened, the 28th anniversary of the day that I didn’t pull the trigger, the 28th anniversary of the day that I took my first steps towards being a survivor.

The “coincidence” of those dates, of forgetting the date of my rape until figuring it out all these years later — it all seems to me like a beautiful, redemptive story that God has made out of the ugliest days of my life. I feel as if He’s just given me the best 25th wedding anniversary I could think of getting.

*****

One of the things we, as survivors, often tell ourselves and each other is that the process of healing and recovery is not a smooth and constant one. There are setbacks along the way. That is the nature of healing in general, but I think that there can also be something else going on when it comes to recovery from sexual trauma. Based on what I have read, and my discussions with people experienced in the field of psychological trauma, I have come to believe that sexual trauma is unique in the damage it does to the human soul. Because of this, I also believe that the process of recovery is a sort of spiritual turf war being waged over one’s soul.

In retrospect, this seems obvious to me. 2009 was one of the most difficult years of my life. A tragedy brought me into therapy. At the same time, my husband almost died. Our entire family walked through some very deep waters. I experienced anguishing dark nights of the soul. All of that almost destroyed me.

In the midst of all that, God brought healing and moments of redemption. I wish I had trusted Him more and failed Him less. But despite my stumbling about, the fighting and wrestling I mentioned in my last post, and moments of absolute rebellion, He was faithful. He never gave up on me, his all-too-prone-to-wander prodigal daughter. No matter what, He always loves me back home again.