Recently, I sat with a client who experienced repeated sexual abuse and rape by high school peers. The tragedy is not only that this was part of her past, but that PTSD symptoms still haunt her adult life some 20+ years later.
You see, unlike riding the roller coaster at the amusement park, where the gut-wrenching twists and turns stop when the ride comes to an end, trauma has no defined stopping point for haunting its victim. Sometimes, the trauma prowls about for many years and wells up after a hairline trigger is induced (e.g. loud noise, tone of voice, certain touches, location in the city). Despite the victim being a survivor, she is still a victim. I believe this is where the real hurt is experienced: the body can endure many things, but trauma can continue to torment the mind and soul.
However, there is real hope for being able to take back control of one’s own life and live in light of one’s dignity. This usually begins to happen when one is able to appropriately reflect upon the heinous act and is best done in a professional counseling environment.
Sadly, we regularly see tragedy and trauma all around us. And, as we realistically look to the future, the only safe thing is to assume there will be more of the same in our culture and personal lives. Jesus told us that we’d have trouble in this world (John 16:33). And Peter warns that “the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Despite the passage emphasizing one’s faith in Christ, I have not known a greater adversary to a person’s faith than experienced physical trauma. There are usually questions of, “How could God allow this?” or, “If God is good, then why did I experience this?”
There is hope, and there are means for transforming victims from survivors to thrivers. Jesus Christ wants to restore, not continually shame a person.
But, there is hope, and there are means for transforming victims from survivors to thrivers. Jesus Christ wants to restore, not continually shame a person. We see this in various conversations, including with the woman at the well (John 4). He is empathetic and desires all to find rest in him. A victim must realize that she is worth redeeming because she is made in God’s image. As seen in the physical examples of a paralytic man (John 5) and a blind man (John 9), Jesus is willing to bring healing and restoration.
As a professional counselor, my heart breaks for the trauma many people endure in this fallen world. Through my experience in walking with counselees through their struggles, here are several things I’d like you to consider if you’re dealing with your own mental and emotional pain:
- It’s okay to cry, mourn, and be angry with the atrocity (Eccl. 3:4-8). Often the way one resolves the emotional pain of trauma is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. This may sound irrational, but our brains are quite intricate and capable of complicated, self-preserving tasks—by God’s design. Whether cognitively or subconsciously, our brains can actually “block” harmful memories so that we are not emotionally heightened in negative ways. In extreme form, this coping manifests itself in Multiple Personality Disorder. In lesser, more common ways of coping, one denies himself the opportunity to reflect on the trauma and face the fears it has created. The victim often will believe that if he doesn’t display the emotions attached to the trauma, then it “wasn’t that bad.” Other times, a victim will compare himself to others who experienced “similar” trauma, feeling like he should be able to “suck it up” too. Our world is broken, and we await the day that Christ will come and make all things news. Until then, you should use your emotions to react to situations in the way God has designed.
- It’s not your fault! This is a tough thought to process emotionally because self-induced shame is often the only way we can rationalize random trauma. We innately want to believe the good in others, even though we acknowledge that we are fallen. So, when something wrong or bad happens, a person will often justify the circumstance by accepting the responsibility and blame upon herself. This is easy to do because most trauma results from vulnerable situations that already lead the victim to the conclusion that she “is not capable of being right/strong/good.” Therefore, she is more willing to accept unmerited responsibility for trauma she experienced. But the key to remember is that you are never guilty by association alone.
- The experienced symptoms are all normal and common (i.e. anxiety, depression, nightmares, digestion issues). You don’t have to feel weird or embarrassed for having mysterious side effects. The residual pain of trauma, resulting in physical symptoms, are reminders of the haunting experience. If a victim suffers PTSD symptoms, that is not a loss of control, but evidence of how trauma negatively impacts that person. If a you notice any changes in health, you can compare the symptom onset with the occurrence of the trauma. If those correlate, then it is comforting to know that by reducing the distress, you can likely alleviate ailing symptoms.
- You are a survivor, not just a victim. You are not defined by your crisis. It is important to remember that we are fragile beings with the supernatural strength of the Lord available to us. Each living victim of past trauma should view herself as a survivor. Sometimes it is easy to be fixated on what happened, rather than what can be. As a Christian, your identity is found in Christ. No future growth and prognosis is too hard for him.
- Seek counseling. Find a competent counselor who will delicately speak and display Christ-like compassion and truth during your recovery process. This is an important step for two reasons: 1) It’s worth the professionalism to deal with trauma, and 2) If one avoids competent counseling, there is a risk of further damage. (Note: avoiding counseling altogether does not aid the healing process.) Time does not heal all wounds. If I saw someone had fallen into a giant pit and could not get out, I would not yell down in vain, “Don’t worry, eventually you’ll figure something out, or you’ll die trying.” Immediate action is required. Likewise, it is necessary to consider one’s emotional health with immediacy and care. I believe the client is best served when the counselor is professionally trained, with the fortitude and compassion of a Christ-like emulation.
- There is hope! Jesus proves this through his ministry of always healing, restoring, redeeming, and renewing lives that he encounters. Remember, there is nothing new under the sun. I have seen the power of his redemption and restoration firsthand. Jesus, who defeated sin, death, and the grave is capable of transforming lives and will one day fully heal and restore when he returns.
Healing may be a short or long journey for recovery, but it cannot begin until one confronts the reality of the past. I pray that God gives you courage to seek that out with the safety of a competent counselor. If you are the listening helper in someone’s trauma recovery, then I pray you will be discerning in how you convey your compassion through your counsel and your conduct with the trauma survivor who sits with you. May God use the hurts we’ve encountered to make us conduits of his compassion and care.