Category: Mental Health

Thanksgiving in a Desperate World

Giving Thanks When Your Heart is Breaking

Today in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving. For so many, this year has been nothing but heartbreak, disappointment, pain, and fear. Many people have chosen not to travel. They have decided not to be with family. Untold numbers are forced to be alone, isolated. Because of the fear of a virus. Numerous states have even decided to attempt to fine or jail those who choose differently. Choosing to embrace life and gather to give thanks anyway.

Regardless of where you find yourself on the spectrum of fear and life there will be those who are alone and hurting. The holiday season tends to remind us of everything that we have lost. We see commercials, social media, and others tell us that we should all ignore the pain and be happy. Yet they remind us that we have lost loved ones. That we have lost our identities. That we have lost our freedom.

External reminders are nothing, however, compared to what we do to ourselves. Our minds are constantly looking to remind us of the pain. This is its desperate attempt to keep us from feeling that trauma again. We mourn and grieve the life we should have had, the life we were meant to live. And this year, many people will again navigate those emotional, physical, and spiritual reminders of what’s been lost or taken from them. They may also have to navigate the mental game of “well someone else has it worse…” A game that has devastating consequences.

This is a year when we have seen a sharp increase in suicides and additions. One with untold numbers of children and women being battered and abused. A year when it’s hard to even think about trying to find things to be thankful for. It seems that for so many, the demons of despair and fear are taking their toll. After all, you can only be exposed to despair and fear for so long before it starts to eat away at you.

Finding the Way

So how do we step forward today and for every day after that, choosing to turn away from the darkness that threatens to engulf us? We look at truth rather than lies. Choosing to hold onto evidence and hope, rather than give into panic and paranoia. Leaning into God, holding tight to His word. Which will always guide us home.

Truth is not fluid. Evidence is not subjective. These are two things which have absolutes and are irrefutable. It doesn’t matter what others think or believe if they are in contradiction to truth and evidence. This is where you find the hope to keep moving forward. The strength to offer us thanksgiving.

Evidence is only valid in one way. When coming from a source that does not have a vested interest in swaying your mind one way or the other. This kind of evidence is hard to come by this year. Everyone seems to want you to believe only one train of thought. The one that leads to compliance. One that silences the unafraid.

You cannot have a thankful perspective when you are unable to find truth and evidence. If all you hear are words of despair, then thankfulness cannot exist. Choosing to close your eyes to truth will not allow you to experience true thankfulness and life.

Truth

We are conditioned to think that we should be thankful for things as they are. That if we lament or grieve, then we are not “real” Christians. This often coming from people who wouldn’t know Christ if he was right in front of their faces, btw. But if that is true, why is there an ENTIRE chapter of the Bible called Lamentations? Oh and have you ever heard of the Prophet Jeremiah? Yeah, he’s called the weeping prophet for a reason!

No. We are allowed to lament, to grieve. What we are called to do, however, is follow that with thanksgiving. Not for how miserable our circumstances are, but for how good and faithful God is. We are not offering thanks for the pain, but for the promises and truth of who God says we are and who He is. Yes, you can find joy even in sorrow. In fact, you can both cry and laugh at the same times. When you seek to understand what in your world you can even begin to be thankful for this year, realize that you’re not supposed to necessarily be thankful for anything but God.

Those who tell us to thank God we’re alive today because so many people didn’t wake up, or to be thankful that it was ONLY one child we lost because so-and-so lost their whole family, or that your trauma ended long ago and so many people are still suffering so be thankful you’re out of it…yeah, those people have no idea what being thankful means. When you are still grieving the demons and ghosts in your life, sometimes the only thing you can cling to is the truth of God.

The Heartcry of Pain

And if you’re like me, and your traumas’ consequences involve a disconnect and anger with God at times, then you can be thankful that you have a God who can handle your anger and pain. Because I promise you, He can. If you ever doubt whether God can handle your heart cries of pain, then read the Psalms. David was a “man after God’s own heart,” yet the entire book of Psalms is filled with his heart cries. Just don’t stay there. Yes, we can cry out, but like David, we also need to speak out the truth of who God is.

Because God doesn’t change. He is the same, regardless of what our lives are like. His promises are good today like they were yesterday. So today when you are feeling alone, afraid, broken, and hurt, when you are trying desperately to find a single moment to be thankful for, remember who God is. Speak out the truth of God’s word and give thanks for the fact that, even when it doesn’t feel like it, God has and will always be by your side. That He will never leave you alone. That God will always remain, even when everything else fades away.

And remember. That truth of who God is, was the whole reason the pilgrims left England and came to what became the United States. They knew who God was, what He promised, and they refused to allow any government to tell them they couldn’t worship and give thanks to the true God who saves.

2020: The Year We Can’t Escape

Feeling trapped is never a good thing. As a trauma survivor, feeling trapped, backed into a corner, or being forced to do something against your will, wrecks your carefully built protections. This year has been a haven of chaos, orchestrated and naturally occurring, pain, and uncertainty. We’ve lived every day of our lives, at least since March, with a constant barrage of others telling us that we have to be afraid. We’ve been told that survival is not guaranteed, and unless we do exactly as they say, we, our children, our parents and grandparents, are probably going to die. We’ve been told that every part of the life we’ve been living, is now unsafe. All without the benefit of evidence from an uncompromised source that does not change every day on the whims of another.

We have been forced to comply in ways many of us would never choose and which are unproven to be helpful (and usually shown to be worse). Many of us have lost loved ones, our careers, our businesses, our sense of safety, and our ability to defend ourselves. We are forever in limbo, waiting and praying that nothing else will be taken from us.

Yet, now we are forced to wait to find out the fate of our country. Those who were supposed to protect our right to vote, whom we tasked to faithfully, and with integrity, count and deliver the results of our vote, have been repeatedly shown to fail at this. The evidence showing they have been choosing lies, manipulation, and blatant cheating, because they didn’t like how things were going, is astounding.

People often struggle to understand how someone could be traumatized by the events of this year. Many do not understand how a trauma survivor could be struggling with maintaining their level of healing and why survivors seem to be falling back into the thinking and behavior responses of their early healing journey. In fact, many of you, are wondering this same thing. Questions such as, Was I actually healing and getting better, or was it all in my head? And, If I was actually healthy, I wouldn’t be responding to these events in this way? You may be thinking such destructive thoughts as: I knew I wouldn’t get better. None of what has happened is even close to what I’ve gone through. This shouldn’t be bothering me.

2020: The year the world lived in a state of trauma

Trauma. This often misused, misunderstood, and dismissed experience, takes many forms. The definition of trauma from the Oxford Dictionary is: A deeply distressing or disturbing experience and/or emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.

When you look back over your own personal experiences with everything 2020 has forced upon you, using that definition of trauma, it becomes easier to see how you and others have experienced trauma. This means that your body, mind, and soul have instinctual protective mechanisms in place to respond to the trauma. You don’t have to experience a massive horrific trauma in order to be traumatized.

Trauma responses take numerous forms. Being “on edge” all the time, being overly cautious and sensitive to the changes in others behavior or your environment, feelings of sadness, fear, and anger that seem out of proportion with the moment. These are all instinctual trauma responses that are out of our control. When our mind has been alerted that something is very wrong, we respond from that animal instinct place in our brain. It’s automatic, and NOT something that you can control just because you “shouldn’t” feel “this” way.

Healing and Trauma

When you are already a trauma survivor, the trauma of this year, can reactivate or worsen symptoms of PTSD. It can worsen your already activated trauma responses. This does not mean that the healing you’ve experienced isn’t real. This is something that I’ve struggled with all year. The reality that I can be healthy and relatively healed from previous traumas and still react to new traumas like I’m stuck in the past. The “I shouldn’t react like this anymore” feelings and thoughts can overwhelm you.

What we need to realize is that when we experience another trauma, the reactions that we are so familiar with, come again. Not because there’s something wrong with you, but because trauma automatically activates those fight/flight/freeze/comply reactions. That part of our mind doesn’t care that we’ve “worked on this” already. It doesn’t understand that we don’t need to react with that same intensity we did before we began healing. That part of our brain is only focused on protecting us from the immediate threat.

Responding to this new Trauma

Healing from your past trauma doesn’t mean that you won’t respond to further trauma in your life. For some with Complex PTSD, the reactions feel and are stronger than before. This is because the more trauma reactions to pile on top of each other, the more power they have. However, these reactions don’t have to control us. We can’t stop our brains from having a trauma response when we feel threatened, but we can learn and practice ways to retrain our brains, calm our vagus nerve (which runs from the base of your skull throughout your torso) which calms our central nervous system down. We can practice mindfulness tools that bring our minds and bodies in line with each other. When our minds and bodies are connected, we are more able to notice our body beginning to ramp up, even before we’re conscious of the trigger. This allows us to intervene before our thinking brain goes offline into a fight/flight/freeze/comply response.

Numerous resources exist for us to learn to practice tools to address our anxious feelings, trauma responses, and mindfulness. These tools allow us to address current and past trauma responses, working on healing while we’re in the middle of the trauma of 2020. The tools liked above are only a sample of what’s available. I personally use The Tapping Solution regularly myself. In my newsletter this week, I will link additional resources for you to explore.

Regardless of how you feel about 2020, chances are you are or have struggled through it. You might feel lost, scared, angry, dissociated, or any combination of things. This is the normal reaction we all have when we have to endure a seemingly never-ending series of traumas. Give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel, have compassion and grace for yourself, and give yourself space to walk through the nightmare that is this year.

Hopelessness and Death

September is National Suicide Awareness month. This year, I am even more aware of the pain of suicide as I lost a friend this year to this evil. In addition, this year has seen a sharp increase in the number of completed suicides as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions imposed on people. With the reality that there has been an increase in suicide deaths since 1999, it begs the question, what is driving the extreme hopelessness that results in the thousands of lives lost every year? There are many contributing factors such as mental health history, trauma, lack of support, resources and isolation. But what moves an individual past the point of no return to where this is the only option they can consider?

Those of us who have gone through the loss of someone due to suicide know first hand the pain the loss causes. We have guilt, shame, and forever unanswered questions. As part of the guilt process, we will find every single moment when we “should have” done something. Those who have survived being suicidal knows the damage and pain that struggle causes in your own life. But the truth is that you can do everything possible and use every resource available, but if someone is committed to dying, they will find a way. Since this month is dedicated to awareness and response to the epidemic of suicide, I would like to address this from a spiritual and mental health perspective.

Deadly hopelessness

We are not just our minds, bodies, or souls. We are all three, all the time. Each component of who we are is intimately connected to the other. There is never a time when one part of us is injured where the other parts don’t also suffer. Suicide is much more than just unresolved mental health issues. That is a part of it, yes, but not the whole story. Being suicidal is a symptom of extreme dysregulation and suffering. This kind of hopelessness only occurs with deep wounds to all three parts of who we are. We must look at all of these together in order to defeat this powerful enemy.

Hopelessness comes when everything we’ve done seems to go wrong, or we feel unable to escape a situation we are in. When we feel as if our voice has been taken from us, when we are devalued, hated, dismissed, and treated as less than, we begin to feel as if we will always be stuck in the pain of those rejections. These thoughts are false, we are never stuck. There is always a way out, but often that way requires work and effort beyond what we feel we can handle. And this is usually the truth. On our own, we absolutely cannot dig ourselves out of the grave of hopelessness without God and consistent professional help. Because if we could do it on our own, we would. Our will is not strong enough on its own, to overcome this deception of the enemy.

Surrender

Hopelessness requires our surrender. Our conscious decision to surrender to God and to whatever our current situation is. Outside of abuse and where you are in immediate danger, often it’s our perception of where we are and what we can do that keeps us trying to control rather than surrender. This is a hard place to get to.

It’s saying, I will be ok even if…. Even if I never heal. Even if I never feel better. Even if I am alone. Even if I am lonely. Even if I am rejected by those who are supposed to accept and love me. Even if this is all there is.

This idea of OK even if creates such a conflict within me that I find myself pushing back hard against it. Because it’s where we are that is causing the pain and suffering. It seems counterintuitive to surrender and accept where you are, no matter if you ever get out of it. What this is not saying is that you are going to ignore opportunities to change your circumstances, to heal, and to break free from your past. It is not saying that you are going to accept abuse and being at risk because you have to “just be content” with it. What this kind of surrender means is that you are letting go of trying to fix everything yourself and letting God take over. It’s an extreme trust that you will eventually get out of where you’re at, but you will no longer let that place destroy who you are. You will no longer allow your pain to control your thoughts and leave you hopeless, broken, and longing for death.

Our thoughts have life or death

You see, the hopelessness that leads to death, to suicide, begins long before you ever begin to think about death as the only option to relieve your suffering. It begins with the seemingly innocent thoughts of “this is never going to end,” “I will never or always…” and similar intrusive destructive thoughts. The thoughts that we allow to take root in our minds are the ones that eventually lead us to life or death. There is a reason we are told in scripture to take all thoughts captive and bring them into submission to Christ. This is what allows us to defeat everything that tries to draw us away from who God has created us to be.

This is where we begin to win the war against suicide. Instead of only trying desperately to medicate away the intrusive symptoms and talk about it, we need to begin in the mind and the body and the soul. These thoughts, the way our bodies react to these destructive thoughts, and the damage in our souls as a result of accepting these lies as truth, create more pain than what we are already struggling with because of our past.

Fractured God

Medications and bringing others into your struggle can be important components of getting your life back. But they are not the only thing needed, yet often where most treatment stops. We have to look at how the pain and trauma from our past has fragmented or destroyed our identity in Christ and our relationship with God. When life is incredibly hard, when the trauma never stops, and the suffering seems to come in inescapable waves, you can keep your head above water and survive if you hold onto your identity and relationship with God. When you accept separation and fractures in how you see God and how you see yourself in relation to Him, that’s when the deadly hopelessness becomes inescapable. If you have hope in something beyond this life, you can face anything. But when you lose that or choose to hold onto your anger with God over what you’re struggling with, you can begin to truly believe you will never be free again.

Trauma not only destroys our minds and bodies. It also fragments our souls and our connection to God. Acknowledging the spiritual pain and working through that as well as the physical and mental consequences of trauma, will give you the hope you need to make it through the healing journey you’re on.

Suicide is never the solution to the pain. Suffering always has an end in this life. Even if it’s not what we want or how we want it to end, it does. Whether that’s because we remove ourselves from the circumstances, or we are able to change our perspectives and address our trauma, the pain will end in this life. Suicide does nothing more than remove your ability to experience healing and leave behind your pain for others to deal with. Those who have survived a suicide attempt almost always say the same thing: that as soon as they pulled the trigger, jumped, whatever, they regretted their decision. They all had a moment of clarity after they acted on their suicidal thoughts. This means that those who do not survive have the same moment of clarity and regret, but were not able to change their minds anymore.

Having suicidal thoughts is NOT part of normal every day life. It is a huge red flag that something is really wrong and you need to get help immediately. It’s not something that you need to be ashamed of, it’s a consequence of surviving hell and not having a safe place to heal. But it’s up to you, and only you, to decide that you want to live no matter what. No one will be able to rescue you from this hopelessness but God and you. Choose life, even when life is hard. You will always come out the other side free and grateful that you chose life. Our thoughts and feelings are not facts. They are illusions, usually unhealthy reactions to our pain that brings us more suffering not freedom.

The beauty is that we are more than capable of stopping our hopeless thoughts from taking hold and destroying our lives. But it requires a choice to fight and stay alive, to not entertain any thoughts of death, and to surrender to where you are so that you can get to where you’re meant to be.

IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING SUICIDAL THOUGHTS REACH OUT HERE or call 911 and get help. Don’t choose a permanent solution to a temporary pain. Choose to live no matter what and you will find hope again.

Safety, Hope, and the Onsite Foundation

What does hope look like? What does it mean to feel safe for the first time in your life? How can these things create an environment where you can truly begin to heal from the traumas that have shaped the landscape of your life?

An Unforseen Opportunity

At the beginning of March, I had a unique and unparalleled opportunity to attend a workshop addressing the trauma of being a mass shooting survivor. This was an opportunity I never had after surviving the Columbine Massacre in 1999. Another survivor spoke to me about the program, and I will admit, my first instinct was to see how I could help. I am a trauma specialist after all, it made sense for me to want to come alongside a program specifically aimed at mass shooting survivors. I inquired into coming on board with the program and then thought nothing more about it.

Funny how the things we avoid tend to assert themselves even stronger. The phrase “what we resist, persists” is very fitting. Being someone who has consistently avoided many things surrounding the Columbine Massacre even to this day, the idea of opening up that wound again was not appealing. I’ve always done the work, but also held a lot at arms length. I did not “want to go there” so many times that I convinced myself that I didn’t need to.

When my friend got back to me about joining the foundation, they were excited about the opportunity I presented, but everyone they work with has to go through the program first. If I wanted to help, I needed to travel this healing path myself.

What I Didn’t Know

Into the Unknown

When I said yes to the process of attending the program, I had no idea what I was really saying yes to. I did all the research I could on the Onsite Foundation and the Triumph over Tragedy Program (TOT) offered. The part of the program that appealed to me the most was the idea of having 7 glorious days of uninterrupted me time. Healing from whatever God brought me to. The fact that the setting for the program in Cumberland Furnace, TN, a 250 acre property that is beyond idyllic and serene, didn’t hurt either.

It was the second day of the program that I begin to feel the strong, visceral resistance to the work. I did not want to experience the pain. The crux of the program is somatic experiencing. Your body knows how to heal itself, but we get in the way. In order to heal from the pain, you have to grieve what happened. It’s not possible to break free from the past if you are unwilling to experience the strong emotions and responses associated with your traumas.

Apparently, I also developed a strong inclination and ability to not really feel what trauma had done in my mind and body. This was the cause of my strong resistance to the work. But I had chosen to embrace this opportunity no matter what God asked me to do.

Taking a deep breath and choosing to dive into the unknown, I experienced something I’ve never experienced before. Safety, a sense of truly being safe in a place and with the people in my group. We became a family. Bonded by tragedy, strengthened by the process of being known and seen, and not judged or devalued.

A sense of safety, being fully known and seen, created the exact environment needed for healing. Experiencing that I can feel the emotions and not die or get stuck in them, opened up the door to healing I didn’t know I had shut.

Reconnecting Me To Me

Our minds and bodies are intricately intertwined. Trauma breaks that connection between our mind and body. Our mind or our body is loudly screaming at us that something is not right, but we don’t always get that message the right way. The tendency to seek out medical help for physiological symptoms such as digestive issues, chronic pain, autoimmune, and other physiological concerns, is a consequence of this disconnection.

Your body will always remember what your mind forgets.

Our signals get crossed, and we don’t relate the onset of these physiological symptoms with a traumatic event. The rational mind can’t make sense of what the body is feeling because it is stuck in a memory loop of our trauma. A loop driven by the primal, unthinking, part of the brain.

Your mind will always be working to try to resolve your stuck trauma. It will cause you to remember in whatever way it can so that you can heal. Many times this is what triggers panic, anxiety, irrational fear, paranoia, and vivid nightmares. A key indicator of unhealed trauma is whether you still respond strongly to the events or memories of them.

This disconnect between mind and body is the focus of somatic experiencing. The goal being to reconnect us to ourselves. When we are connected, we can heal. If we are dissociated from ourselves, we stay stuck in trauma. We live in the past, in the present.

Goals

Onsite is the first program of its kind and it is incredibly unique and effective. Through the somatic experiencing process, the incredible knowledge of the group leaders and educators, I left with a new perspective on my trauma.

The goal at Onsite is NOT complete and total healing. The expectation of complete healing in a week would cause immense shame and further trauma because no one would get there. The goal is a 1-2 degree change. The illustration of a pilot is helpful. If a pilot shifted his course by 1-2 degrees he’d end up in a completely different and unexpected place.

So it is with us. 1-2 degrees of change will alter the trajectory of our lives.

Changing course

Being able to embrace the knowledge I already had as the truth for myself as well as everyone else, set me free to experience change. Realizing that the parts of me that I was so determined to eradicate are not my enemy and meant to protect me, let me see my pain for what it is.

Moving Forward

After this week, I came home to shut-down and shelter in place orders. I was thrust from a safe, healing environment, into toxic chaos and lack of control. The transition was extremely hard, and I am still learning and recovering from the abrupt change. Because of the work I did at Onsite, I am able to navigate this chaos in a very different way.

I am stronger. I am healthier. I am still on that healing journey.

The process began that week, and I am continuing it now. Healing from trauma is complicated, messy, hard, painful, and takes time. Instant, magic pills, do not exist. Trauma does not simply go away. Your body and mind will always try to force you to stop ignoring the trauma and heal.

Embrace the bad with the good. Realize that you are interacting with the world through the lens of your trauma response. Believe that you can heal. Then take the next step forward on your journey to freedom.

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