Beautiful Trauma?

6cfc20f443acd94a531377ce11fc0b31-1000x1000x1P!nk’s hit song “Beautiful Trauma” hit the airwaves in fall 2017, right as I was taking a graduate course on trauma, including theoretical, clinical, and pastoral perspectives on trauma and recovery.

Intrigued by the pop song’s title, I’ve wondered ever since its release: Can trauma be beautiful? If so, how?

To which my initial response is a quick and clear no

I love the paradox and possibility of the title “Beautiful Trauma.” But as I’ve listened, I’ve been disappointed. Trauma is physically and psychologically painful in myriad ways. It is likely ugly, haunting, maybe bloody or smelly. To posit otherwise, to paint a picture of fun, flamboyant “trauma” as I see and hear in P!nk’s song, may be a disservice to persons living with the realities of trauma and its aftermath.

I hear the lyrics of this song nowadays and I think of some of the psychiatric inpatients I’ve met with, perhaps especially those on an alcohol and drug detox unit. Some of them could include the song’s chorus in their autobiographies:

“Cause I’ve been on the run so long they can’t find me
You’re waking up to remember I’m pretty
And when the chemicals leave my body
Yeah, they’re gonna find me in a hotel lobby”

Women on the ward have told me about literally being found “in a hotel lobby,” arrested for displaying public intoxication or expressing suicidal ideation, and “dropped off at this hell of a hospital to rot forever alone” (to quote one weeping woman). Muscular men have whispered to me that they’ve literally “been on the run so long they can’t find me,” leading them to lose track of all their family members and come to a place where they’re confessing to a chaplain that they’re alone and afraid and don’t want any of the other men to know.

Trauma is not beautiful…that is, if “beautiful” looks like the brightly colored, fast-paced, upbeat, 1950s swing-dancing scene that P!nk (and her production team of course) created in this song’s music video

If, however, “beautiful” looks like gentle, fearful, tearful, go-at-your-own-pace, intentional hope…then maybe we’re getting somewhere.

There is, after all, the entire concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG), a theory asserting “that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.”

The key, I think, is that the post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen immediately. Very rarely does someone experience a sudden accident, assault, or other life-changing and/or life-threatening event and decide the very same day to perform a song and dance about it or start an awareness and fundraising campaign for it. Rather, studies of PTG describe a process of experiencing, identifying, expressing, and processing post-traumatic stress before (or at least alongside) seeing any significant post-traumatic growth.

So, in short: trauma itself is not beautiful. Though, what we do with it may be.

It may be beautiful when my inpatients want to pray with me (and occasionally pray for me!), discuss poems, laugh while we play games, or color mandalas while we discuss perfectionism and anxiety and patience and hope.

It is not beautiful what happened to them. It may be not be beautiful what happened to you. Not at all.

But it may be beautiful — even just somewhat, sometimes — what they do with it. What you and and we do with with the trauma we’ve held. How we use it, transform it, are transformed by it. How we see it and see through it and keep seeing after it.

How do you see trauma? I hope we feel free to face the feelings trauma has created. And I hope we feel free — but not pressured or hurried — to consider the beauty that we may yet create.

 

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Everyone’s talking about suicide…

and I hope we know some things about how to talk about it.

Seriously, the prevalence of this topic in culture, media, social media, and just my own life this week has been astounding. The passing of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week have been attributed to suicide. In the midst of that, a CDC study was released Thursday, identifying “suicide rates rising across the U.S.”

At a personal level, on Monday a great church I used to attend launched their annual pub theology series, this year with a focus on mental health issues. (A video clip of my friend Fr. Ryan Waller speaking on mental health and the church is available here, and the article that he went on to publish for the Dallas Morning News is available here.) On Tuesday I started seeing patients at a psychiatric hospital, as part of my summer internship in hospital chaplaincy. On Wednesday I finished watching Season 2 of the recent Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” a series which details the “reasons why” fictional high school girl Hannah Baker took her own life — and the ripple effects of her death on her community.

Add this all up, and it can feel overwhelming. Hence why I basically had ice cream for dinner last night and plan to take a walk to a pond later today. #selfcare

18121830_1184811074998309_8128000097639833509_oI imagine if this is an overwhelming topic for me (someone training in mental health care), how much more complex it might be for people not accustomed to talking about suicide openly, fearful of it, traumatized by it in the past or present, or currently experiencing suicidal thoughts in their own lives or the lives of their family or friends.

We have to talk about suicide. We have to do so kindly, clearly, and quickly (i.e. as soon as we notice concerning statements or behaviors). And those of us not currently experiencing symptoms of mental illness must be involved.

One of the most important exhortations I’ve seen floating around social media this week is the reminder that it isn’t enough to tell people who are struggling, “Speak up. Get help.” Rather, it can be important for friends, family, and others to speak up and be the help. That’s because a hallmark of depression, as well as some other mental illnesses, is social withdrawal. By this, I mean not just a preference for being alone but a profound psychosocial incapacity for reaching out. That all requires much more physical energy, cognitive decision making, and social connectivity than depression typically allows.

One way that we can speak up and be the help that people may need is by enacting the “QPR” method. Taught widely by the QPR Institute, this method is like CPR, which rescues people having trouble breathing, but in this case aims to rescue people having trouble finding the will to keep living.

  1. Question: Ask the person you’re concerned about as clearly as possible something like, “Are you having thoughts of killing yourself?”
  2. Persuade: Encourage the person you’re concerned about not to act on their suicidal thoughts — at least not today or not this week. For example, in crisis counseling, I sometimes tell people, “Let’s make an agreement that you you won’t act on those suicidal thoughts today. We can check back in tomorrow and go from there. How does that sound?” In addition, if they have access to a gun, rope, pills, sharp objects, or other instruments that they’ve identified as a way they might kill themself, persuade them to get rid of that object(s) at least until their crisis has passed.
  3. Refer: Refer the person you’re concerned about to a local mental health professional, a hotline like 1-800-273-TALK or Crisis Text Line (just text “home” to 741-741 to chat with a trained crisis counselor!), or a local emergency room if they are in imminent risk. Stick with them while they contact one of these referral sources.

Take care of yourselves, friends. And take care of your loved ones. This week and always.

“Welcome to the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.” – Frederick Buechner

 

Get Up and Eat: A Sermon on Depression

As Mental Health Month draws to an end…here’s a sermon on depression that I offered toward the end of my preaching class Fall 2017. I don’t suppose it’s perfect, but I do believe it reflects something of God, God’s Word, and God’s activity in my life.

***

A reading from 1 King 19:1-8.

“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

The Word of God for the people of God.

***

It sounds strange even to me, but when I was a teenager, this passage from 1 Kings 19 was one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Honestly, I think I opened a concordance one day out of curiosity, looked up the word “depression,” and there it was. That’s the only way I can imagine coming across this story, because I don’t remember hearing it preached on or taught anywhere in particular. I certainly don’t remember it being in my colorful children’s Bible. Talking about what amounts to suicidal thoughts isn’t exactly something we’re likely to do in our churches, in our pulpits, in our lives.

But it’s in the Bible. And, I thank God for that.

See, when I was a teenager, I was slowly starting to figure out how to live with chronic clinical depression. Showing symptoms by the time I was 14, diagnosed at 18, and managing bouts of different durations and difficulties off and on ever since. Journeying periodically into the wilderness like Elijah and laying down under a broom tree – or, more likely, under my bedcovers – and sometimes, just sometimes, wanting to die.

Church seemed to have nothing to say to this experience – or at least nothing helpful, nothing sustainable. Church, to me, seemed to be about singing joyful songs and hearing about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and so on. When I wasn’t experiencing those things? I was ashamed to say so…so I just wouldn’t.

The Bible, though, when we really look into it, gets incredibly honest and allows us to do the same. The Bible, in this story from the life of the prophet Elijah, spoke of my depression – even when no one else would – and gave me a holy permission to experience my depression, talk to God about it, and try to seek God in it.

***

Let’s take a closer look at how Elijah does this – how he encounters the Lord in his despair.

First things first, Elijah tells God about the despair. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”

This is a very serious thing for a person to say, and I want to acknowledge that. I want to acknowledge that some of you, your loved ones, or your parishioners or CPE patients may have said, are saying, or will say something like Elijah has said. I want to acknowledge, in fact, that someone in your life may have died by suicide.

That someone who has passed away is not to be condemned but is loved by God, now and forever. They are not terrible; rather, at some point in life they felt terrible. It’s important to remember that, according to recent psychological literature, suicidal thoughts and actions tend to come to a person not so much because death sounds good but because life, at least for the time being, feels very, very bad. In a very real way, the person’s brain perceives that they’ve had enoughtoo much – to carry in life and the brain can’t conceive of carrying any more.

And so the prayer of Elijah comes: I’ve had enough, Lord. Take it all away.

How does the Lord respond?

I notice God responding to Elijah in this story with persistence and provision.

An angel of the Lord – a mysterious but palpable, present being – comes to visit Elijah. Maybe not unlike a pastoral visit to an isolated parishioner.

What’s more, the angel comes twice with food.

With the angel’s help, Elijah’s healing process consists of two surprisingly simple things: eat and sleep. Sounds nice, right? Sounds like what we students are going to do a lot of once finals are over.

But, really, these instructions are deeply significant. The Bible is full of images of eating and sleeping – especially eating. These are two of life’s most fundamental day-to-day needs. And two of depression’s most common difficulties, whether in the form of eating or sleeping too much or too little.

Most health professionals will say that changes in sleeping and eating are two of the key symptoms of depression. And, honestly, I’ll tell you that this couldn’t be truer. During a bout of depression one Saturday some years ago, I spent hours struggling to get out of bed – only to spend almost an hour in my kitchen cutting an apple and finding some peanut butter so that I’d have something to eat. If only an angel had placed that apple and peanut butter by my head!

It’s hard, but I’ve heard it said before: When you’re not sure what to do next, just do the next right thing.

Sleep. Eat. The next right thing. And the next and the next. Little by little. With God’s persistence. With God’s provision.      

***

The Reverend Kathryn Greene-McCreight has illustrated this well. Rev. Kathryn is an Episcopal priest, chaplain at Yale University, and writer who has documented her personal experiences with Christian faith and mental illness. In her 2015 memoir Darkness Is My Only Companion, Rev. Kathryn describes being hospitalized and instructed, while on the ward, to set one simple goal for herself every day. She writes:

“My goal was always to say the Daily Office, something that took at most only twenty-five minutes twice a day in the ‘real world.’ In the hospital and in my ill brain it took most of the day. This lent new meaning to the phrase ‘Daily Office.’ Reading the Psalms, collects, Scripture, and prayers was nearly impossible. Concentration was no longer a faculty I possessed. Each word seemed to swim in front of my eyes. But I was determined…”

As hard it was, Rev. Kathryn was determined, like Elijah, to tell God of her despair. To receive God’s provision of a simple thing like Daily Office prayer and to receive God’s persistence of a repeated thing like Daily Office prayer.

Such a simple and repeated practice, like the regularity with which we eat meals or perhaps in our churches eat the Great Meal of Communion, has the capacity to meet a weary soul right where we are and nourish us body, mind, and soul.

***

IMG_5390 “Get up and eat,” says the angel to Elijah.

“Get up and eat,” say our pastors and priests Sunday after Sunday. Eat and drink of Christ’s body and blood.

The Eucharist is salvation writ small, placed into our hands, brought into our bodies. The Eucharist is chief among the spiritual practices that sustain us when we cannot possibly sustain ourselves. That offer us bite-size portions of life when we think – and even wish – that life should be no more.

Meals of all kinds – small and big – can do that. The Thanksgiving meal that many of us experienced last week. The meals that we might bring over to someone’s house when they’re recovering, grieving, or otherwise struggling. Even the snacks that we share in this preaching class. They keep us going.

To be clear, though, I’m not saying here that food – including spiritual food like Communion or like prayer in general – cures depression. Not at all. What I am saying is that God uses surprising, simple, and tangible things to meet us right where we are. To meet Elijah in the wilderness. To meet me in the pages of 1 Kings 19. Giving us physical and spiritual food.

“Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Get up and eat, friends, whether you are joyous, stressed, depressed, or somewhere in between. Get up and eat physically and spiritually. Receive the food of God’s angels in your own life … and likewise offer sustenance to others as God’s angels in their lives.

“Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”     

Amen.

Encouragement

It’s funny what power encouragement can have when we let it. At least for me, encouragement has the potential to light a spark that keeps my fire (of faith and of creativity) going for quite a while.

I don’t usually stop and meditate on the topic of encouragement, but Kate Rademacher, author of the memoir Following the Red Bird: First Steps Into a Life of Faith and a member of my church, recently graciously invited me to be the first guest blogger on her new blog, launching a sort of series on the topic of encouragement. You can read that blog post in full here.

I’ve received a lot of encouragement over the years (maybe from you, reader!), perhaps especially in recent years as I’ve grown in confidence studying at intersections of faith and mental health. For that I am grateful.

This past semester I found myself encouraged by professors, peers, and the very process of writing as I wound up eagerly crafting pastoral theology papers for each of my seminary classes, addressing the following:

  • “Belonging in the Body: A Pastoral Theology of Lay Eucharistic Visitation and the Care of Persons with Dementia”
  • “‘Enlarge Our Territory:’ The Spiritual and Social Power of Women’s Prayer Groups”
  • “Permission to Grieve: Reading Psalms Through the Lens of Foster Youth and the Experience of Disenfranchised Grief”
  • “Self-Emptying and Self-Care: Exploring a Kenotic Valuation of Self in Philippians 2:1-13”

This summer, I will be doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a structured program of pastoral care training that’s required for ordination in my denomination and many others. While CPE is all about hospital chaplaincy, I’ll be learning mental health chaplaincy in particular, based primarily at a psychiatric hospital and secondarily at a homeless shelter in order to see a spectrum of mental health needs and care structures (or perhaps lack of care structures at times).

Howard Thurman has been famously quoted as saying: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

To be clear, I’ve long taken some issue with this quotation, especially its first sentence; we should absolutely, I think, ask what the world needs. I could say more on the dynamics of Thurman’s and Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted quips on vocation, but I’m saving that for another day.

For now I’ll say: the world needs to see God’s presence in spaces of mental illness, and that, my friends, is something that makes me come alive. I’m no hero, no expert, not ordained or licensed yet. But somehow I am alive as I work, study, read, write, listen, and speak on these things.

Encouraged by the Spirit of God, the words of others, and the vitality (and necessity!) of this work, I hope to keep writing on faith and mental health both here on this blog and elsewhere. You might expect reflections on my time in mental health chaplaincy. You might expect reviews of relevant books, songs, movies, or shows (e.g. Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”). Regardless, I hope you can expect some encouragement.

Podcasts: Top 10

I never thought I’d say this, but I love podcasts. In recent months and years, there seems to have been an accelerating boom of podcasts, including numerous that align with my interests — and the purposes of this blog — centering around faith and/or mental health.

Here’s my current favorites, in alphabetical order because I can never bring myself to rank things:

  1. CXMH (short for “Christianity & Mental Health”) hosted by Robert Vore. Main topics: religion and mental health, featuring conversations mainly with mental health professionals.
  2. Exvangelical hosted by Blake Chastain. Main topics: religion and culture, featuring conversations mainly with “recovering evangelicals.”
  3. On Being hosted by Krista Tippett. Main topics: religion, culture, & creativity.
  4. Personality Hacker hosted by Joel Mark Witt and Antonia Dodge. Main topics: personality psychology, including MBTI and Enneagram.
  5. Queerology hosted by Matthias Roberts. Main topics: religion, sexuality, & gender, featuring conversations mainly with Christian LGBTQ advocates.
  6. The Airing of Grief hosted by Derek Webb, Kevin MacDougall, and Jamie Lee Finch. Main topics: religion, culture, & lament.
  7. The Liturgists hosted by Michael Gungor, Mike “Science Mike” McHargue, Hilary McBride, and William Matthews. Main topics: religion, culture, & science.
  8. The Social Work Podcast hosted by Dr. Jonathan Singer, LCSW. Main topics: mental health and social advocacy, featuring conversations mainly with social work professionals.
  9. Typology hosted by Ian Morgan Cron. Main topics: the Enneagram.
  10. “Where Should We Begin?” hosted by Esther Perel. Main topics: mental health and relationships, featuring live recordings of couples therapy sessions.

Note: My enjoyment of these podcasts does not imply my endorsement of the entirety of their views, content, and guest speakers.

What podcasts would you want to add to this list?!