PTSD, Pastors, and a Program for Healing

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Art by Nick Fewings, unsplash.com

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a spell of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) today. I am writing while it is still fresh in my mind. People who suffer from PTSD never know when it is going to hit. We try to identify triggers, but sometimes they are unavoidable. Living in these stressful, fear-laden times does not help. I am writing so that you can catch a glimpse of what its like.

The first thing about PTSD is to acknowledge that its real. It is not something that a person can help or “choose” to get over. It is not narcissism or doubt or paranoia or a temper tantrum. PTSD is a disorder because it is objective, something that happens to a person and within a person. We who suffer from it are victims, not people seeking attention. We cannot “get over it.”

PTSD is debilitating. When there is a trigger and you enter that place of suffering, you enter a deep, dark hole only a few people have known well. If you find other people who suffer from PTSD, then you know you’re not alone. But even in a community of other victims, you all suffer the disorder at different times. When you’re in the hole, that’s when you text or call a buddy who can lend a hand.

That’s what I did. I texted some friends and reached out to my wife. They responded with open hearts. The best ones do not tell you what to do. They do not make light of your situation. They know, like Job, that sometimes you just have to sit in your ash heap until the clouds pass. They will sit with you and put their needs on hold for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, the storm rages inside, and the demons are accusatory:

“Why are you still feeling this way–your trauma situation happened so long ago?”

“Don’t be a baby, and snap out of it!”

“What did you do to feel this way? Don’t make it everyone else’s problems–its none of their business!”

“You’re so selfish! Why do you have to ruin everyone’s day and draw attention to yourself?”

And when you do reach out, sometimes it backfires. When I get into that PTSD mode, I have to try not to react. It takes effort not to say or do things that you might regret later. I try not to make decisions until it passes, and sometimes that means retreating into bed and just closing your eyes until things take a turn.

Unfortunately, when this morning’s trigger occurred–in a communication text thread about a certain situation–I did respond (by text) before thinking it through. I tried to respond positively, as a way to help people think differently about a topic they were discussing, but the response I got back was, This isn’t the place for you to write these things, Joe.

That might be true. Actually I know its true. But, at the same time, a “Thank you, Joe–we’ll talk more about this later,” would have been helpful (at least to me).

Its no excuse for my reaction, but it is my reality. And I apologize for my reaction, but I am not going to apologize for my hurt.

To be fair, not everyone knows I suffer from PTSD. We who are victims know it as a lonely road, and we don’t like to broadcast it. Some of us have therapy pets, but our culture is increasingly hostile to pets these days since all they hear about on the news are sensational reports of therapy peacocks and therapy pigs. But this is no joke. If you don’t have a pet, you just deal with it in suffering silence, although 99% of your days are great and joyous.

My feelings at the time were authentic. I wanted to blame the text thread for triggering my PTSD. I wanted to tell my correspondents where to go. I wanted the world to know that there are many of us hurting (in my case, from gun violence).

But that’s the first reaction to PTSD, and that’s when you know you are having a PTSD situation: You want to lose control and lash out to those around you.

I went to bed instead, and my wife followed. I told her I was in bed because I didn’t want to take anything out on her and the children. Its not fair to victimize everyone else and weaponize the trauma we have to live with every day.

Not all PTSD cases are the same–mine is one in a million. My bouts can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of days depending on the situation, but when bouts come I am grateful for a church that lets me retreat for the time I need to get past things.

And that’s the difference. Our churches need to understand PTSD, and our pastors need training on recognizing PTSD, responding to it, and providing best practices for how to handle it. And pastors need to know that it doesn’t only affect normal people. CEOs, doctors, pastors, professionals, clinicians, psychiatrists, therapists–they can suffer from it too. PTSD does not discriminate for education, income level, or ethnicity.

Only by understanding PTSD, that is, by reading testimonies like mine and studying up on trauma-sensitive theology, clergy and churches can facilitate support by being midwives to healing and resiliency. They can utilize biblical and historical resources that promote a type of faith that finds solidarity in the trauma-laden Christ-event of death on the cross and the new life of resurrection.

I am grateful for all the support I receive on those rare days when something triggers my PTSD. I am grateful for God’s mercy, which always carries me through–and the Spirit who gives me the voice to write things like this to help others know they’re not alone in their stunted journeys of faith.

My prayer is that others will listen and take note, and then respond accordingly. There are many of us in the world today that it cannot be ignored.