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

 

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?!

Best of ’17

The past few years, at the end of the calendar year, I’ve posted a list of my favorite books read, blogs read, and blogs written. But I’ve been less actively blogging in 2017 and more actively writing other things (because, well, grad school!), as well as pretty actively living, learning, serving, and so on.

So, this year I’ll try something a little different. I could be super cool like Barack Obama and share my favorite books and songs. But, let’s face it, his musical tastes are hipper than mine. So here’s 17 books I’m glad I read and 17 things I’m glad I experienced.

17 Books I’m Glad I Read:

  1. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
  2. The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggeman
  3. Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith by Monica A. Coleman
  4. God of the Oppressed by James Cone
  5. A Womanist Pastoral Theology Against Intimate and Cultural Violence by Stephanie M. Crumpton
  6. Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight
  7. Coming Clean: A Story of Faith by Seth Haines
  8. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith L. Herman
  9. Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma by Teresa Pasquale Mateus
  10. Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church by Carol Howard Merritt
  11. Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach by Christie Cozad Neuger
  12. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri Nouwen
  13. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
  14. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu
  15. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk
  16. Broken by Ryan Casey Waller
  17. The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients by Irvin D. Yalom

17 Things I’m Glad I Experienced:

  1. Decorating funfetti cupcakes with friends around a backyard firepit on my birthday
  2. Giving a eulogy at my Grandma’s memorial service after she passed away this year
  3. Having friends and priests and mentors who let me cry — when it was finals week and Grandma died, when it was Holy Week and Jesus died, when it was an ordinary week and sometimes my hope and joy had just up and died
  4. Having strong faithful older women in particular who prayed for me and with me and over me
  5. Disconnecting from one church & connecting with another (the six-word memoir version of a whole spiritual saga, friends)
  6. Making a home in a place I’ve only known for 1.5 years
  7. Wading in a creek in Bryson City, NC surrounded by fireflies and distant children’s laughter and sweet summer stillness
  8. One word: therapy
  9. Canoeing on the Eno River with an old friend — even if that included dropping my phone in the river bank, fishing it out with the assistance of humorous yet helpful bystanders, and resurrecting it to full functioning
  10. Attending my 1st Summer Institute for Reconciliation, where I got to manage the social media
  11. Attending my 2nd regional conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, where I got to be on the worship service planning team
  12. Researching theology, trauma, the problem of clergy-perpetrated sexual assault, and possibilities for pastoral care & counseling in light of sexual assault
  13. Being even a tiny, tangential part of the cultural dialogue around the #MeToo movement and #ChurchToo movement
  14. Sitting down in a couple of rocking chairs at church to talk with a homeless veteran
  15. Taking Eucharist to a remarkable older woman from my church who lives in a memory care facility — and who thought she was living in 1960’s Washington DC the last time I visited (while in fact it was the 2010’s in Chapel Hill, NC).
  16. Attending my first Blue Christmas service
  17. Preaching my first sermons — even if the congregation was a classroom of 12 seminarians, I had a blast!

Some Words on Wordlessness: A Sermon

A sermon offered in Preaching class last week…


“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” ~ Romans 8:25-27

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

***

It was sophomore year of college and my friend Alex had just sent me this text message: “I need to talk to someone. Can we meet up? Soon please.”

I knew he had been having a hard time. Several weeks prior, a classmate of ours had passed away from suicide, and Alex had been thrown into an ocean of grief, guilt, and even questions about death and the afterlife.

But that evening when I met Alex on campus he couldn’t articulate any of that. He had wanted to talk to someone…but couldn’t get the words out. We sat there for ten minutes in almost total silence.

Until eventually I said quietly, “Use your words, Alex. Just one word. Or a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

He said just a little. And I remember a lot. Not a lot of words. But a lot of Holy Spirit hovering somewhere around our lack of words.

***

When I think of this passage from Romans 8 that we’re looking at today, there’s a number of images that come to my mind.

For instance, I joked with a friend once that maybe these “sighs,” also sometimes translated as “groanings,” too deep for words are like the character Dory in the movie Finding Nemo trying to speak “whale” language. In several scenes, Dory intones her voice in all kinds of exaggerated ways. All the while, she harbors this seemingly naïve faith that the whales will understand her…and lo and behold, they do. The metaphor kind of works.

On a more serious note, I’ve heard it said on occasion that these sighs or groans represent praying in tongues or “praying in the Spirit,” understood differently by different people.

But, when I really think about this text, I see much more than “whale” language, more even than a prayer language, and more about what happens when we don’t have the language for what we’re experiencing.

Have you ever been there? Maybe sitting on your couch watching a tragedy unfold on the news – like even what’s happened in Las Vegas today – or sitting with a grieving person during your Field Ed or CPE or in your own personal life. I can’t believe it, you say, there are no words, ironically using words to describe your feeling of wordlessness because that’s simply the best that our human limitations can muster.

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

I wonder, psychologically, what kinds of conditions can render us speechless in this way? What life circumstances have the power to take away our words and reduce usually articulate, even verbose people like the apostle Paul into sighs and groans?

I see at least three ways to consider the experience of speechlessness.

We can be stunned speechless, standing in awe of God or God’s creation, of sunsets or oceans or acts of kindness. We smile and let out a sigh too deep for words.

We can also be depressed into speechlessness; after all, decreased social connectivity – including communication with friends, family, and I would say God – is among the chief symptoms of clinical depression. We hide away and maybe cry and let out a sigh too deep for words.

Finally, and related to being depressed, people can be oppressed into speechlessness. Deeply, daily, this is one big sigh too deep for words.

It’s this last condition – oppression – that I’d like to focus on the most today.

***

Dr. Christie Cozad Neuger, a scholar of pastoral care and counseling, spends a great deal of time in her book Counseling Women describing the cultural phenomenon of “women’s loss of voice” and emphasizing the role of pastors, counselors, and hopefully all of us in “helping women come to voice.” To be sure, the struggle of voicelessness and the process of coming to voice is experienced not only by women but by all manner of minority persons whether ethnic, racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or otherwise. Neuger describes the frequency with which minorities have no voice for making narrative, cohesive sense of some of their experiences as well as the frequency with which minorities are not heard even when they do speak up and not believed even when they are heard.

In the example of a sexual assault survivor, for instance, she would statistically be very likely to experience a sense of shock, shame, or intimidation that locks her into silence during and after the initial impact – a silence around this topic lasting for hours, days, months, or even years. Difficulty identifying someone willing and able to listen. Difficulty being believed by friends, family, media, and the legal system who say that she’s exaggerating, seeking attention, or “was asking for it.”

There’s a reason that trauma studies have often used the language of “saying the unsayable” or “bearing the unbearable.”

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.        

***

This, my friends, is precisely where the Holy Spirit comes in.

The Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. In our sighs and groans. In the speechlessness of sublime joy, of deep depression, or of systemic oppression. And, yes, also in the wordless writer’s block of the divinity student writing theology midterms.

How exactly does the Holy Spirit help us in these times?

Well, twice just in these few verses from Romans 8, Paul repeats that the Spirit intercedes.

And what does that mean? According to Merriam Webster, to intercede means to go between, coming straight from the Latin roots “inter” meaning between and “cede” meaning go. The Holy Spirit goes between us and God. This means that the Spirit understands us and, with that understanding, speaks to God or you might even say advocates to God on our behalf. The Spirit connects me to God, you to God, us to God. The Spirit runs through our veins like a telephone wire telling God who we are, what we feel, what we think, what we need – even or perhaps especially when we can’t quite find the words to understand it or say it ourselves.

What does this mean for the oppressed? For the trauma survivor that I spoke of earlier? This means that God, through the Holy Spirit, understands her story, her personhood, her cries and sighs.

This means that God longs for us who are survivors to come to voice – not just on our own in our wordless weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

This means, too, that God longs for us who are not ourselves oppressed to come to voice on behalf of the oppressed – again not just in our wordless, shrugging, “what can I do?” kind of weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

***

I think of my friend Alex back in college and what I told him at the time: “Use your words. Just a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

For me and Alex, with our human limitations, that was true. We need language – at least in some form and to some extent – to understand one another.

But God?

God is not limited to language in the way that we are. God’s ways are “higher than our ways.”

So, with Romans 8 in mind, I imagine God saying to Alex – and to us: “Don’t worry about your words – or lack thereof. I welcome your silence. When you’re ready, I’ll welcome your words. Wherever you’re at, I welcome you. By the Holy Spirit, I know you and know how to help you.”

***

I used to think this passage in Romans was an excuse to stop trying when praying is kinda hard. As though it says with a shrug, “Don’t know how to pray? That’s OK. Just take it easy. Sigh. Groan. Whatever.”

But now, even in preparing for today’s sermon, I’ve realized this passage is an invitation not to stop trying but to stop trying so hard on my own, leaning on my own strength, when praying is kinda hard.

On our own? Sometimes there’s no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

But with the Spirit? Those sighs can start to shift from voices being depressed or oppressed in this world toward voices being expressed in the Spirit. May we take up this invitation and join in this liberation.

Amen.