Theodicy & PTSD

For the RevGalBlogPals’ “Faith and Illness” column this week, I expounded upon my experiences of faith through the lens of PTSD, which I first wrote about in a chapter of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice. Here’s the column:

There is no safe space in the world.

Not your neighborhood. Not your home. Neither the middle of the forest nor the middle of the city. Not your favorite vacation spot. Not your beloved church. No place — familiar or foreign — is absolutely guaranteed to be safe.

(There aren’t really safe people either. “For all have sinned and fallen short” is a fancy religious way of saying that anyone can hurt you.)

Almost ten years of traumatic experiences & gaslighting changed my mind about safety.

Literally. Changed my mind.

Changed my brain.

The brain that, in my youth, saw the world as her oyster and laughed in the face of challenges, in my adulthood has spent nearly twenty years running on the adrenaline of fight or flight or freeze. It looks at the world through lenses that see only echoes of trauma — trauma and not joy, trauma and not hope, trauma and not Good News — and the pain that it sees, to be clear, is not delusional but experienced. It’s a veil of injury that I cannot escape, that I am ashamed to name, that my entire body-mind-spirit are constantly keyed up to identify & resist.

And the problem that results from my brain’s synapses constantly rehearsing, re-firing, repeating their best defenses against worst case scenarios is that they biologically & spiritually allow little room to believe in restoration … little room to believe in grace … little room to believe that God is anything but responsible.

“But look at all you’ve done,” some people say, as though it’s as simple as handing me their rose-colored glasses to rewire my brain.

“But there’s nothing to fear here,” some people say, as though their own sense of security is more authoritative than my lived experience.

“You exaggerate your stress,” others say, as though they’d prefer that I disguise my symptoms better … or is it that I disguise my symptoms so well they don’t believe I have an illness?

PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, is an illness in which the brain, body, and spirit fail to reconcile an experience of trauma into the past, unable to recognize safety & recovery in the present. While many people experience trauma, not everyone with an experience of trauma has PTSD. PTSD is more likely to develop for those who suffer trauma over time or at a young age, who are shut down by others unwilling to acknowledge the injury, and/or who do not have a support system with whom to process the injury. Unable to “close” the story of trauma, mind-body-spirit are overloaded as they try to manage the ongoing flood of trauma information alongside the day-to-day responsibilities of life. Studies of PTSD treatment methods — and studies of the disorder itself — are still new enough that medical & psychological opinions differ as to best practices. Some who live with PTSD are aided by medicine, some by exercise & body movement, some by neurological exercises, some by relationships, and most with some type of therapy.

And, of course, everyone with PTSD is different in their response to the disorder and to treatment, and in their intersection of faith with PTSD.

So I can only speak for myself when I offer the following requests to my clergy colleagues and to the Church about PTSD awareness & hospitality to those who live with it:

  • Practice making room — in your own faith, in your sacred spaces, in your congregation — for pain that doesn’t have easy answers. I have no tolerance for Good News that hasn’t wrestled candidly with bad news or that needs a pretty bow of theological tidiness. Pain does not need placation; it needs presence. 
  • It’s possible to be mad at God and still be in the Church. If you really need your God to be always good & always faithful & always above questioning, that’s fine, but my God and I have a pretty contentious relationship owing to the overwhelming evidence that God has abandoned a lot of people to the sinful horrors of this world. We just passed the third anniversary of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, for example, and maybe you’ve noticed the global humanitarian crisis of hatred & inhospitality toward migrants and refugees. One way or another, every church and person of faith needs to take seriously the problem of theodicy; for better or for worse, those of us who live with PTSD have a pretty good handle on that theological quandary.
  • Please don’t treat me as a hero for surviving trauma … or as a victim for experiencing an ongoing illness. I’m not your metaphor for what God can do, and I’m certainly not your case study for coping (although I’m terribly skilled at denial, if you’ve read my new book with Martha Spong). Please welcome me and those like me who live with PTSD into your church as a whole person — with pains and flaws, with dreams and gifts, just like every other sinner & saint.

It remains true that I’d rather avoid sharing details of my “dirty laundry” — including details of my health — in public forums, yet I know I’m not alone in needing a Church that is unafraid to acknowledge pain & trauma and to be present without solutions for the work of healing. Our faith communities fail to testify to the wounded & resurrected Body of Christ if they lack a theology that takes Katie Cannon seriously when she notes, “Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation” (as quoted in The Body Keeps the Score).

cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals

Hardened Heart (Lent 12)

Where you have broken my heart, O God,
a callus has formed instead of a soft scar.
Probably not what you intended, but then
healing is unpredictable and necessitates
ongoing treatment, persistent grace, and
the massage of lovingkindess over time.
I pray that You do not leave my calluses
unattended, that you do not stop working
on the hardened bits of this broken heart.

Lent 29

I’m sorry that you hurt, God.
I don’t know how you bear it
but I do know that I’ve been
distracted by my own aches.
I’m sorry that I can’t do much
to ease your pain. I’m sorry
that it’s so significant and so
constant. Here: let me at least
share the ice pack with you,
and we can alternate with
the heating pad. Pain meds
are pretty useless, in the
scheme of things — once
they wear off, there’s only
pain remaining — but we can
pretend they do us some good.
Just for fun, we can take out
the bandaids from the closet.
I have a tin of Jesus bandaids:
isn’t that ironic & too funny?
We can cover our wounds
with adhesive strips that say
“Jesus heals” even though he
(you) doesn’t actually make
the pain go away. Most of all,
I’m truly sorry about the pain.

Lent 18

What else can you make of this mess, O God?
We trust — Lord help us, we have to trust —
that you see the mess, that you can imagine
something different from this ridiculousness,
and more than that: we trust that you consider
this particular chaos, this moment of tangled
violences and uncertainties and imprecisions
within the scheme of your eternal landscape
where creative surprises challenge dead ends
and prolific healing invigorates broken bones.
We trust that you are familiar with messes
and we pray that you hold with just as much
hope
our own messy hearts, broken and strained
and make of them what we cannot yet know.

on Ezekiel 37:1-3

Lent 32 (Vinyls)

My heart skips — 33 —
not the wild leap to express joy
but the weary limp to avoid a pain
the wince — 33 — the accommodation
of a long-standing scar
Like scratched vinyl
and a track that misses its beat
so — 33 — familiar that I sing along
with the flawed syncopation
as though
this is the way
the song was intended
as though — 33 —
the lyrics make perfect sense
when that needle skips
the occasional
— 33 —
I learned to dance to broken records
so long ago
that I hardly notice any more
and really — 33 — it’s okay
but sometimes
when the day’s music is turned down
and there’s only
the off-rhythms of my heart
dodging and dancing with the shadows
— 33 — I confess to wondering
how vinyl is really meant
to sound