Before I share my heart with you on this topic I would like you to know I am not a doctor, psychologist or therapist. What I am is a person who suffered a long time with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder and many other self-harming behaviors. After I gave my life to Christ I still suffered from these things even though I didn’t want to. I heard many sermons that promised me I could be free, that Jesus came to set the captives free, you are a new creation in Christ Jesus. I’ve been to many services where you were invited to leave everything at the altar that was holding you down. I have been prayed over many times and I begged God to help me. But why was I ‘stuck’ when I so badly wanted to be free. The reason I write this blog today is to help the church understand trauma and mental illness from the perspective of someone who suffered a long time until God showed me the hidden wounds in my heart that needed to be healed, or you could even call this hidden trauma from my childhood that was stored in my brain.
What is trauma? The definition to trauma can be fairly broad. Trauma can be a response to a one-time or numerous traumatic events like crime, death of a loved one, child abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, combat, natural disaster, domestic violence, or a loved one being incarcerated. The list can go on and on… One thing that we need to know is that it is not up to us to determine whether or not the event was traumatic in the other person’s life. That is up to them to decide. We all handle traumatic events in different ways. Some of us may repress the memory for many years because it is too painful at the time to deal with. We develop mental illness symptoms that vary from depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, or bipolar. For a lot of people they will start using a substance such as alcohol, drugs, or food to numb out the pain of what happened to them or there are many people that act out, especially children because they can’t express how their body is feeling. They struggle with bursts of anger, depression or anxiety.
My story was I grew up in abuse, neglect and was surrounded by addiction from the time I was born. As a child I had no idea that my needs were not being met when my father was in prison and my mother was absent because she struggled with her own addiction. I ended up pregnant at fifteen years old and initiated into a Hispanic gang because I was longing to be accepted into a family. I struggled through school, I was placed in special education classes and many behavior programs until I was kicked out of school and sent to an alternative education program.
As an adult woman these things still plagued me as I tried to get a job and found myself reading at a third grade level. I was addicted to cutting myself to relieve the pain and confusion that was in my body and I was very sick from my eating disorder.
I found myself feeling so alone and isolated to the point I tried to take my life. A friend told me about Jesus and this gave me hope that someone might really love me. She told me that God had a purpose and plan for my life. This sent me on a quest to wanting to learn more, but when I grounded myself in a church for years I was still confused because I had all these issues that I was trying to hide from everybody and I didn’t know who I could turn to for help. When I went to Christian counseling for many years they assured me that if I learned more scripture and spent more time with Jesus I would be okay.
So how can the church help those who are suffering from trauma and mental illness? We need to first understand that it’s a deeper issue and that they may need outside help like a mentor who has been healed from trauma or a trauma therapist. The first step that might be helpful for the church is to learn how to recognize signs of trauma in a person, this may prevent some of the harm the church often does to trauma survivors — when it guilt’s a person by urging them to move on, just get over it, or to not “be a victim.” By saying things like, you are a new creation in Christ, it’s time to let go of your past.
What we need to remember is that trauma by definition is something beyond a person’s natural capacity to heal from. Trauma overwhelms a person’s body leaving them with the feelings of feeling “stuck” — like when a computer freezes because it is taking in more than it can handle. Therefore we can’t just tell someone suffering from trauma to “move on,” and let go of the past because you are a new creation and you need to just “trust God more.” All of these platitudes ignore the nature of trauma and what it does to a person — it is not something that a person can heal from by willpower or renewing their mind, even though this helps, it’s a lot deeper than that.
I found my help the day that I hit my bottom and I told God I couldn’t go on anymore pretending I was okay. I told him I needed help. I looked for a therapist in my area and without knowing it she was a trauma therapist. At this point in my life I never heard about trauma until my first appointment and she asked me to explain my childhood to the best of my ability. I spent years in her office recalling traumatic memories of all the things that happened to me like being sexually abused starting at the age seven. Then I witnessed Jesus taking those wounds and healing them. It was a long process and what I learned is healing takes time, but it was all worth it.
Do you feel there is something in your heart that may be holding you back from enjoying the life of peace, joy and freedom? I would like to encourage you to not be afraid to ask for help.