Tag Archives: PTSD

Dissociative Praise

“Focus on a point in the distance. Escape your body. Leave behind the pain.”

Praise became my mantra,
worship my coping mechanism.

I had read about the benefits of dissociation in a book on natural childbirth, not realizing at the time that this was also a common, involuntary response to overwhelming trauma. The way the book described it, disassociation was a natural, healthy way to cope with intense pain. Separating my mind from my body was fine and good for something as short-lived as childbirth, but in the aftermath of severe, complex trauma, the real challenge came in trying to reintegrate. What the books never explained was where to go when I left my body, or how to find my way back once it was over.

See how they lie in wait for me! Fierce men conspire against me for no offense or sin of mine, O LORD.
How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down– this leaning wall, this tottering fence? They fully intend to topple him from his lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
Psalm 59:3, 62:3-4

When trauma struck David, he didn’t need a book to tell his soul what to do. In the face of terrifying physical danger and overwhelming emotional pain, his soul evacuated. It could no longer face the constant terror of enemies lurking around every corner, relentlessly pursuing him until they had successfully crushed him to pieces. It could no longer handle the exhausting awareness that no matter where he went people would betray him, that one by one each person he trusted was more likely to turn out as his enemy rather than his friend.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest– I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

His soul went looking for another place to stay, somewhere where he could escape from his current physical circumstance. Being fully present in his body hurt too much. It might be trapped in the horrors of the moment, but his soul was free to spread its wings and fly away.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.
Psalm 61:2, 57:1

And so his soul soared to the one place it knew it was safe. It flew to take refuge near God. Here his Companion was trustworthy and his surroundings were secure. Here he could leave behind the chaotic, uncontrollable mess of earth and enter into the beautiful, soothing peace of heaven.

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:2-5

But the center of this dissociative state was not nothingness. It was God. God was what made this place so delightful. He was the light that captivated David’s attention with its indescribable beauty. He was the delicacy that satisfied David’s lips more than the richest of foods. David fell head over heels in love with God, and he never wanted to go back.

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Psalm 63:6-8

Savoring God’s beauty. Reveling in His love. In light of the horrors that lurked below, David’s prayers overflowed with the most unexpected themes. He lost himself in worship. He escaped into the delights of praise. God became his most tangible circumstance. He didn’t really want to face any other.

For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
Psalm 61:3-4

This is where he wanted to stay forever, or at least until the disaster below had passed. But physical realities pulled at his soul, reminding him that it was not yet fully released from its bodily dwelling. He had to respond to his body’s urgent needs. He had to function within its immediate surroundings.

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.
Psalm 57:7-9

So David took the praise party of his dreams back into the waking nightmare of his world. He worshipped God’s transcendent power and beauty while experiencing his own immanent helplessness and mess. The threats were still as real as ever, the betrayal as relentless. But with God as the center of his focus, he could rise above the storm while walking through it. With God as his sure foundation, He could remain steadfast even while being overwhelmed.

When my soul was overwhelmed by trauma too intense for it to bear, it, too, took wings and flew into the arms of God. During those nightmarish days and weeks on earth, I experienced a sweetness in His presence that I had never known before. God in all His glorious attributes came alive for me, no longer a distant abstraction but now a very real presence. Having tasted and seen His heavenly delights, my life on earth held little appeal for me.

God took my soul by the hand and led me back into my body.

But like it or not, I knew I eventually had to go back, to reintegrate into the life that my body was still living. God took my soul by the hand and led me back into my body. He slowly taught me that it was safe to live there, because His Spirit was living there, too. Praise became my mantra, worship my coping mechanism. As long as I could feel Him with me, as long as I knew He was still on the throne of the universe, I was reassured that I could go on living.

Away from the body. At home with the Lord.
Back home in the body. Never away from the Lord.

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Trauma from the Inside Out

Aftershocks. The first few times they came, they shook me to the core. Was it happening again? My mind knew it was over, that I was safe, but something else inside me was screaming otherwise.

Safety no longer meant the absence of danger;
it meant the presence of God.

I lived in a state of perpetual high-alert, anticipating the next round of terror at any moment. The attacks had caught me off guard the first time around, helplessly overwhelmed. Never again would I be caught like a sitting duck, oblivious to the danger all around. At the slightest touch of my T-shirt to my neck, I would be bolt upright in bed, ready to fight off the hands trying to strangle me. At a sudden brake in the car, my adrenaline would startle into high gear, ready in an instant for fight-or-flight. And a chill… well that was the worst. It signaled to my body that the threat had already succeeded in bypassing my defenses, that all I could do was crumple and moan and beg for mercy.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger.
Psalm 55:2-3

Words escaped me. I couldn’t describe what I was experiencing. The attacks raged on inside me, even in the absence of a perpetrator. My body was my prison, with an invisible recording continuously running those nightmarish experiences through my consciousness. I cooked meals, I bandaged scraped up knees, I chuckled at children’s made-up jokes—all on auto-pilot, always distracted by another reality going on at the same time.

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.
Psalm 55:4-5

Usually I could suppress it, choosing to push it to the back of mind so that I could function as a responsible adult. But sometimes it just wouldn’t stay there. Moments when I relaxed my guard and allowed myself to enjoy my surroundings. Experiences that overwhelmed the rigid control I maintained over my mind and body. A migraine. A belly-laugh. An intimidating relational encounter. A fun, chaotic gathering. And then the terror would take over. The horror would overcome me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest–I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

I would search for a quiet, safe place, away from concerned eyes, away from bewildered questions. The strong walls of my own control had crumbled, and I needed a shelter in which to hide until the sobs and shakes had past. Usually that shelter became my own arms, wrapped tightly around my curled up body in an attempt to hold it all together. Sometimes it was the arms of a trusted other, strong enough to face my storm, safe enough to hold me in the midst of it.

But I call to God, and the LORD saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.
Psalm 55:16-18

But through the ups and downs of that tumultuous season, God became my dearest refuge, my closest circumstance. He alone could hear the cries of my soul, too deep for words to express. He alone could see the battle raging within me, far beyond my ability to analyze or direct. I clung to him like a drowning soul to a life-raft. And He never let go.

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.
Psalm 55:22-23

Gradually safety took on a new meaning for me. It no longer meant an absence of danger. For months and years to come, those threatening memories continued to return and haunt me. But I had experienced a Shelter so nurturing, so strong, so true that I wasn’t afraid anymore. I could weather those storms, sure to the core of my being that I was safe in His embrace. My world still felt like a dangerous place, but safety meant that He was holding me. In those arms I could finally let down my guard and rest.

Body Interrupted

Mind over matter. Reason regulating emotion. These mantras defined how I approached my life, until it was interrupted by trauma.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the events that overpowered my body. The fact that they happened to me was a harsh enough reality to deal with. But what I never would have expected was the way they continued to overwhelm my soul.

During the months following the attacks, I kept encountering reactions within myself that I just couldn’t control or make sense of. The neckline of my T-shirt brushing against my throat would send me into a cold panic. The slightest body chill would cause me to curl up into a tight ball and shake violently. A hearty laugh with old friends quickly dissolved into body-wracking tears. The adrenaline rush of an adventure park transformed a fun family outing into a personal nightmare, leaving me curled up on the backseat of our car moaning and sobbing uncontrollably.

The nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I control this? This was not the way that I wanted to feel or behave, but no amount of will power could make it stop. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, the nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

Somehow I felt that as a Christian, I should be better equipped to deal with trauma. Shouldn’t the indwelling of God’s Spirit enable me to be more self- controlled than this? How could my train-wreck of emotions and their obvious effect on my physical frame bring Him glory? Messy and desperate, I searched His Word for any sort of precedent for what I was experiencing.

And I found it. Many of God’s servants had faced overwhelming circumstances, ones greater than what their physical and emotional frames could handle. Elijah hid away in a cave and begged God to let him die. Joseph wept uncontrollably. David struggled to find words that could express his anguish. And Daniel took to his bed and stayed there for a season, unable to move or function despite his pressing responsibilities.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” …
As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.
Daniel 7:15,28; 8:17-18

What surprised me most about Daniel’s story was the source of his trauma. Daniel was no physical or emotional wimp! Refusing orders. Confronting executioners. Delivering treacherous messages. Facing down lions. He had repeatedly stared death in the face, unflinching in his resolve to honor God. Yet when faced with visions from God too glorious and terrifying for any mortal to comprehend, Daniel crumpled.

I, Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.
Daniel 8:27

The limits of his mortal frame had been exceeded. Daniel had seen and experienced things beyond his emotional ability to cope, and that trauma manifested itself in very real physical symptoms. The brave soldier physically incapacitated. The steadfast counselor emotionally undone. Despite the strength of his character, despite the depth of his faith, Daniel was rendered temporarily useless by the force of trauma.

There are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences.

Clearly, Daniel’s post-traumatic symptoms were not evidence of some weakness that he should have been able to overcome. They were a testimony of the enormity of the burden God had entrusted him to carry. But what I could readily see and accept in Daniel’s story took me a bit longer to apply to my own.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:15-16

I had to come to grips with the fact that my mind is not fully my body’s master, that there are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences. I found solace in the company of my spiritual ancestors, reliving their stories with newfound understanding. But even more I found solace in the God who knit us all together.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14

God knew my frame when I could not make sense of it. He had designed its limits and He had ordained experiences for me in which they had been exceeded. For much longer than Daniel’s “several days,” I continued to be a physical and emotional mess, but at least I was God’s mess. Like a child’s broken toy, I laid myself in my Father’s hands, trusting that He could fix what was broken. And in time He did.

His hands held my body. His love governed my soul.

Making Sense of Trauma

For the longest time I couldn’t understand what was going on in me. Why did my daughter’s little hands touching my throat suddenly make me panic? Why did my laughter now end in tears, happy moments suddenly dissolve into uncontrollable sobbing? Why couldn’t I respond spontaneously to the people and situations around me, instead feeling like I walked around in a daze, like I was watching my life from the other side of a glass window?

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of God’s bigger story.

It took a long time for my husband and I to recognize that I was experiencing the aftershocks of trauma. It took us even longer to understand what trauma is and how it works. Having emerged out the other side of those years of struggle and search to make sense of my nightmarish experience, I have come to see trauma as an integral part of God’s redemptive plan for creation. Far from being a recent psychological development, trauma is woven right through the fabric of the biblical meta-narrative. As shocking and inexplicable as the experience of trauma was for me, it was anticipated by God from the beginning.

So the LORD God said to the serpent, “…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:14-16

Who else could have foreseen the cosmic repercussions of a serpent slipping quietly into the serene goodness of the garden? In an instant, the world as it had been was turned upside down. Death introduced. Life redefined. Intimacy shattered. Relationships fragmented. Fear and failure became ever-present companions, frustration and pain the new normal. And childbirth entered the scene.

I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child– the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers.”
We have heard reports about them, and our hands hang limp. Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”
Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24, Psalm 29:9(NKJV)

Throughout the story of Scripture, childbirth symbolizes trauma. When the prophets brought news of overwhelming disaster, they described it in terms of sudden pains seizing men and nations like a woman in labor. The overwhelming power of God’s voice is depicted as sending the deer into labor. And all of creation is described as groaning under the protracted, agonizing curse of childbirth.

Like labor, trauma seizes otherwise strong, stable men and causes them to uncontrollably weep and moan. It transforms intelligent, articulate women into incoherent, curled-up infants. Trauma overpowers everything else in our lives until it becomes our defining circumstance, the moment by which we count our time, the event that re-interprets all others.

Trauma is a horrific means to a desirable end.

But along with trauma’s devastation comes an opportunity for re-creation. Just as the overwhelming pain of childbirth prepares the way for a new life to emerge, the distressing blow of trauma can open the way for a new identity to be formed.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
…And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Hebrews 2:10, 13b

Jesus’ experience of trauma was life re-defining, both for Himself and for all of us who cling to Him in faith. Through the agonizing pain He endured, He gave birth to a new family of people. And through the unspeakable horrors He experienced, He earned the right to be exalted over all of creation.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Matthew 24:7-8

Jesus’ trauma was also part of a bigger story, the transition period in creation’s millennia-long birthing process. Ever since it was subjected to the curse, creation has been moaning, shuddering with the pain of bringing forth something new. Natural disasters. World wars. Like any woman experiencing transition in labor, the thought that this state of affairs might go on forever makes it unbearable.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18-23

But blessedly, the dark tunnel of trauma does not go on forever. There is an end in sight, one which is new and improved over the beginning. The events that leave us shattered and overwhelmed are making way for us, like the rest of creation, to undergo a complete over-haul. In the process we clutch ourselves in anguish and groan with the memory of what we have endured, but we also look forward in hope to a new, better day.

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of a bigger story, important pieces in a puzzle that God has been assembling since the beginning. Though it will never make sense to me on this side of glory, I have learned to see trauma as a horrific means to a desirable end. Damage bringing renewal. Death producing life.