I’m back in therapy after too long a lapse. New therapist, this time, an older presbyterian minister who also has a long list of credentials and achievements to support his certification as a counselor. I’m not embarrassed to talk about needing help. It is just part of being human. When my daughter asks why I need to go to the doctor so often, I tell her this: “Sometimes, when really bad things happen, it breaks our heart and makes our mind sick. The doctors help me with my mind, and the therapists help me with my heart.”
I know some folks get really uncomfortable when a Christian talks about needing doctors and counselors outside the church to deal with trauma. Those people don’t understand what it is like to have lived through something that horrible. Maybe they were older when grief hits them and they are better prepared to process the pain. Maybe they’ve never lived through something truly traumatic. Whatever the case, they can’t fathom having problems that prayer and Scripture can’t fix. Which is silly, because most everyone I know takes ibuprofen or Tylenol for their headaches, they take Dayquil or tinctures of herbs when they get a really bad cold. They go the emergency room when something is really, really wrong. They get outside help. Prayer and Scripture are the most powerful tools in a Christian’s toolbelt, but they aren’t magic fixes (they aren’t sonic screwdriver).
We live in a world with sin. We get sick, people die, children are abused, and women’s bodies slowly starve to death in order to bring a child into the world alive (#HGaware). Our hearts and minds are no different. They break just like our bodies. There is no shame in getting help. Getting help is the first step to getting better. It isn’t easy, but those who undertake the journey are brave. We are going to battle against sin, ourselves and others. We will sweat and cry under the weight of our pasts, and we will grow stronger. Getting help is something you can only do through Christ, who strengthens you.
I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Someone who has PTSD may have seen something horrific (like war), or they may have gone through some sort of trauma that they couldn’t process; that is why I have it. Someone told some incredibly hurtful lies about me when I was a kid, and I believed them. They hurt me physically. They accused me of being pregnant, on drugs and an alcoholic as a teenager. I’m retraining myself to know that Satan is an accuser, God never condemns, but convicts us. This person got angry a lot, this person who was supposed to love and protect me, they said they never wanted to see or talk to me ever again. Now I have a debilitating fear of my loved ones abandoning me. Later, I endured sexual abuse and I tried to numb the pain with alcohol — but alcohol wears off and knowing your personhood was violated isn’t something God wants us to “get over”. I still feel trapped when anyone tries to bear hug me. Then, my dearest friend was abruptly killed along with her husband and newborn daughter when a Bronco’s football star raced a drunk down a highway on May 7, 2005. Steph and Tony were dead on the scene. I saw a police picture of their bodies covered on the highway. The seatbelt had broken on impact. I saw one of their shoes sticking out from beneath the tarp in a photo. Their baby girl was kept alive until the family could decide about organ donation. I don’t know what they decided, but I was racked with guilt for not making the 300-mile trek so I could meet her. I never got to hold her, smell her fresh baby skin, to walk and sing to her so Steph could nap. I couldn’t go the memorial. I couldn’t afford the trip (which was why I hadn’t gone to see them earlier). My boss at work promised a $100 bonus for anyone who got 20 credit applications over the weekend. I got 40 to cover the travel expenses. He didn’t pay up. Did I mention I found out about her death on Mother’s day? I had gotten my first positive pregnancy test right before we went to church. When we got home, I was about to call her to tell her the good news, we’d been praying that I’d get pregnant. We wanted to be Mamas at the same time. My husband answered an incoming call, I was not being very patient because I wanted the phone. The call was to let us know what had happened. It has taken a few days to identify Stephanie’s body. There is still a big gaping hole in my heart. Time doesn’t heal those kinds of wounds. Then there were my pregnancies, of which I have no regrets, but effectively triggered the childhood trauma. I felt out of control, trapped and scared. There were shakes, which turn into muscle spasms when I am stressed, panic attacks when my phone rings or someone I wasn’t planning on knocks on my door. Anxiety attacks whenever I run across an emotional trigger (I’m still learning what they all are). I’ve had nightmares my whole life but they became viscous; images of loved ones dead and rotting, violent deaths where their necks are slit before me and I can’t do anything to protect them. I have lots of dreams where I am trapped or kidnapped. I’ve always had lousy self-esteem so that wasn’t new, but the hypervigilance was. I’d come out of sleep with my heart racing with a fight or flight response whenever someone woke me up. My husband and daughter have learned to gently put their hand on me and whisper when they need to wake me. I startle easily and frequently. I’m aways keyed up and it is exhausting. When I’m off my medications, I can’t leave my house, I can’t stop crying, I can’t sleep, and I can’t think.
I was also diagnosed with Manic Depression as a teenager. They used to call it Bipolar 2, and then they changed the name again recently (I can’t keep up!). All it means I am severely depressed 95% of the time, I feel useless, as if it would be better if I’d never been born because I’m a screw-up, a burden to everyone around me. No amount of truth helps because I already know the truth and believe it, but my mind doesn’t respond. I watch life happen above me. I’m underwater, the sound is garbled and I don’t get a clear picture of what is happening around me. I feel incredibly lonely. Try as I might, I can’t surface above the water to join the real world and eventually, panic gives way to hopelessness. There were suicide attempts. I still fight the urge to cut my arms and legs. But it’s been 7 years since my last lapse. I’ve tattooed over some of the scars as a reality check. To think before I try to make the pain stop.
I’ve seen pastors for aspects of all this. They can help a bit, but biblical knowledge is not the same as understanding people and medical aspects of what happens in trauma (did you know childhood trauma does things to a brain that show up on CAT scan?). While I wholeheartedly recommend pastors for counseling common problems, they often fall short with more complicated situations. I’ve been given advice that would have been good advice for someone with less severe problems, but with me, their advice made things much worse, not better. My particular illness was just outside their realm of expertise. I am learning to trust them again, I know they meant well. This can happen with certified counselors too, as it has with me. You can’t take a course for a month and have what it takes to be a counselor. You just can’t! People aren’t math problems. They are incredibly complicated and a store of vast wisdom and compassion are required to help those of us who are deeply, sometimes irreversibly wounded — and you have to love people. If you don’t truly love people, that is a sin you need to get help with. If you think you are a good counselor, you aren’t qualified. Humility is a requirement, both before God and your patient. Counseling isn’t a certification, it is a calling. Only God can give you the wisdom you need to help people with this kind of deep pain.
Friends, if you need help, please choose your counselor wisely. Often times, your pastor may be the best person to help you. But for greater problems, you have to choose a therapist (don’t let them choose you). Bring a friend, someone who isn’t part of the problems you are having. Do an interview (you can do this with an email or a phone call if you aren’t in a position to pay for an interview session). Get a second opinion. Don’t be afraid to switch to a different counselor if the one you have isn’t helpful. The Christian Counseling & Education Foundation has some really good insights on this subject. I see a good therapist/counselor as someone who will guide me towards God’s truth and help me learn to process information healthily. They can help teach me how to manage my symptoms and bring to me to a point where my future isn’t crippled by my past. They validate what you are feeling, even when they might disagree (validation and affirmation aren’t the same). They affirm that you are God’s child, that you are not a mistake, and that He loves you.
I also see medical doctors. Just as someone who breaks a leg gets help, I get help with my broken heart and head. I take medications to turn down the volume on some of my symptoms (the shakes, severity of anxiety, it also helps me have less horrific dreams). Drugs don’t solve my problems, it doesn’t fix my heart or my head, but they make it possible for me to function, give me the strength to work on my problems instead of being overcome by them. People who think that medicine is a cover up for a heart issue overestimate science and underestimate God. Remember that medications aren’t for everyone, particularly if you have addictive inclinations or are looking for an easy out. They won’t help you with sin.
Today I read this account of a therapy session and it resonated with me. A wise counselor listens more than they talk. They give opportunities to express what is being suppressed. They help reveal sources so the root of the problem can be dealt with.
Therapy and professional counseling can be really expensive, but it can be worth every penny. Some insurances even cover the costs and other providers have a reasonable self-pay plan. Don’t let finances or shame keep you from getting help. God gives us these resources because He loves us. They are gifts. Don’t refuse this kind of help because of what other’s may think. It is extremely helpful and I’m very thankful for it.