PTSD, Pastors, and a Program for Healing

ouch sign

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.

Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

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By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?

Learn from the Italians: talk over one another!

telephone

By Joe LaGuardia

In the South, it is considered rude to speak over another person.  It is polite to listen and yield to your conversational partner.  After all, Southerners are known to be humble, mannered folk.

Not so for us Italians.  While growing up around a table full of bread, wine, and pasta, I learned that speaking over one another with exuberance was a way of life.

Italians bicker with each other, debate politics, and gossip (just a little) at the dinner table, often, all at the same time.

Our embedded cultures bleed into religious life.  Take funerals for example.  There is nothing like planning a funeral in the South.  Funeral directors around these parts are as close as siblings and as invested in the local church as your favorite deacon.

In the North, planning a funeral is like strong-arming in the Stock Exchange.  When we planned my father’s funeral, I wish I could have transported Scot Ward and company up north just so my mother did not have to fight with the director about whether to make the visitation an sixteen hour or eight hour event.

I was not happy.

Yes, Italians are anything but humble, but when it comes to speaking their mind, they are on to something.

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the earliest disciples with power and charismatic gifts fit for heaven.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In other words, a cacophony of voices rose in praise and proclamation to God.  A divine wind blew manners out of the windows, and a chorus of different languages erupted like a fight in an Italian household.

“At this sound,” Scripture tells us, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

Pentecost, like the Italians, teaches us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another.  I don’t mean to say we’ve lost the ability to be rude, but to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

Italians can get overwhelming at times, but they value communication, which generally leads to intimacy, growth, and honesty.  You may fight, but you’re still family at the end of the day.

We have removed the power of Pentecost not by only silencing voices in our midst, but by congregating (no pun intended!) around people with whom we agree and share a common language.  We forgot how to welcome diversity and talk robustly about things that matter and about which we may disagree.

There is no shortage of topics worth debating at church.  Race relations and violence come to mind.  We need to be frank about how violence has made its way into faith as if violence is a part of faith.

There is the subject of ecology and policies related to global warming.  Did you know that Christians feel differently about these topics, and our theology shapes where we are on matters related to our earth’s future?

How about gun control?  Just because some people want to regulate gun control to curb violence does not mean that people want to curb gun ownership, no more than people who value gun ownership want to shoot everyone who gives them a dirty look.

The sanctity of life demands that we assess honestly the protection of all lives that are made in God’s image, whether guilty of heinous crimes or as innocent as doves.  Talking out our differences is a start.

On that Pentecost day so long ago, the result of disciples talking together — talking over one another even — resulted in a revival that inspired 3,000 people to accept Christ as Savior.  The church has lost something along the way.  We, like the Italians, need to engage in conversations that matter.