A Trauma-Informed Approach to Sin

A Trauma-Informed Approach to Sin June 23, 2017

This guest post was written by Alex Camire.


I was sitting in a chair against the wall of a dimly lit room in the corner of the ER. My mom, who was sobering up and preparing to go to an in-patient detox facility at another hospital, began to recount to me some details that she recalled about her father who was, allegedly, physically and sexually abusive to her older siblings when she was a child.

My mother is an alcoholic. She started drinking late in life sometime during the period when my paternal grandmother passed away. My mom’s parents had died earlier in life so my dad’s mom was the last parental figure my mom had and she took the loss hard. She kept the drinking hidden for roughly a year or two until the day the police found her passed out in her car. She received a DUI, and that’s when her drinking became public knowledge.

For about the next eighteen months she drank on and off. Sometimes she would go a week or close to a month without drinking. But then, at some point, she would go on a bender, often for the whole weekend.

At its worst, she called out of work and remained intoxicated for an entire week. I only became aware of this when on the Friday of that week I, as her emergency contact at the time, received a phone call from her boss. My mom had called out every day that week except for that Friday, and so her boss was concerned. Fortunately, I was in the same town as my parents’ house when I received the call and I went to check on her right away. I found her drunk to the point of incoherence.

Realizing that she had been intoxicated for nearly a full week, I called 911 to admit her to an emergency room for detox. It was at this point after I met my mom at the ER that she began to break down and disclose some of the trauma that was welling up from her childhood.

My mom has four older, half siblings: two boys and two girls. They share the same mother, but the older four have different fathers than my mom. So my mom’s biological father was abusive toward her siblings that weren’t his biological children. She told me she couldn’t recall anything happening to her but wasn’t certain.

Going back to when mom got the DUI, I was called over to the house by my dad on a Sunday afternoon. When I got there, it felt like an impromptu intervention even though there weren’t that many people there. It was mainly my immediate family and my aunt, one of my mom’s sisters, who is also the youth pastor at our church.

I asked my mom what was going on because you could see she was visibly upset. It took a while, but she eventually gave me the “Cliff’s Notes” version of what occurred. Learning of the DUI, I asked if anyone was hurt, had she hit anyone, did she damage anything? Even though I belonged to a church that taught that drinking was a sin, I remember feeling very relieved to find out nothing had happened (not to make light of the fact that she had put herself and others in danger by driving under the influence). But you could tell that the issue was not that she put others at risk, as well as herself. The issue was that she had sinned.

In hindsight, the whole interaction feels ridiculous and out of proportion in my mind, and yet at the time it was extremely serious. I tried to talk to my mom and ask her questions, how she felt, etc. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I remember that at one point she broke down crying and said she didn’t want to become like Margaret. Margaret is my mother’s other sister. She died in 2008 from drug-induced heart failure after a long life of drug and alcohol abuse.

I remember thinking what a stark contrast that was — for my mom to have two sisters who had experienced the trauma my mother would later recall from her childhood: one, a youth pastor of an evangelical, Christian church; and the other, a drug and alcohol abuser who passed away after years of struggling with her own addictions, her own “sins.” I believe my mom felt trapped in the middle at that moment, unsure in which direction she was headed.

Sin is a pervasive issue. But the questions are: what is it, and how should we react toward it? For some, sin is a spirit in the world that tempts our “flesh” to do immoral things. For others, it’s a list of actions one shouldn’t take part in. For some, it’s being separated from God. And still, for others, it’s all of the above, something more, or something else entirely.

Sin is too subjective of a word in the first place. The implications complicate how we should react to it. For those that believe in hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, sin is also a precursor to that destination. I think this is why the conversation with my mom about the DUI felt so serious. It’s because her soul was in jeopardy more than her body had been.

But what if sin isn’t something that requires punishment or retribution? What if it were something that needed restoration and healing? What if, instead of looking at sin as the root cause of everything wrong in a person’s life, we looked at it as the symptom of a much deeper problem?

Trauma is the result of overwhelming stress caused by an incident or circumstance taken as harmful and possibly life-threatening. It can be physical, emotional, sexual, even spiritual. And, it can adversely affect a person’s wellbeing and ability to function.

As I sat with my mother in the ER, my understanding of her addiction, this apparent “sin,” drastically changed. I could see the past trauma in my mother’s life. Even though she couldn’t recall if she had been victimized herself, knowing of or witnessing the egregious acts my grandfather, apparently, carried out against my aunts and uncles would be enough to create trauma which, for my mom, was never fully resolved.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines a trauma-informed approach as:

A program, organization, or system that …:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

We, as Christians, cannot be too quick to judge the way someone deals with their trauma and copes with the ongoing suffering of that trauma. We cannot treat sin as strictly a spiritual issue or something that we only deal with through salvation or some other religious means. To truly help people, we must reorient our precepts of sin to an understanding of the impact trauma has. Even if you believe the sign or symptom of a person’s trauma is sinful, you will not help that person by dealing with it in this way.

When people experience trauma they also experience a lot of guilt and shame associated with their trauma. Treating someone like a “sinner,” or as an inherently bad person only exacerbates those feelings of shame. It can also re-traumatize them and turn them away from wanting spiritual help at all, which should be a part of their recovery, just not the only part.

There isn’t a person on this earth who won’t experience trauma and endure suffering in some way or another at some point in their life. We all have this in common. Some of us cope differently and heal at different paces than others. This is especially dependent on the type and degree of trauma one experiences.

It’s time we stopped looking at those who manifest symptoms that could be considered “sinful” as lesser than those without such symptoms. The trauma we experience in life is bad enough without heaping further guilt or shame onto those who are still wounded and hurting.

Christ didn’t come to hurt the brokenhearted. He came to heal them.

Author’s note: Mom is doing well and is currently sober.


Photo via Pixabay.

alex-camire2About Alex Camire
Alex Camire is a life-long Christian who currently works in behavioral health and case management and is in college pursuing a Masters in Social Work. He enjoys reading and writing on topics related to religion, science, law, and social justice.

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