I come from a line of women who cared deeply for pets, who were down on their luck. When I went to visit my mom and grandmother, I often found new pets with special needs. At one point, they had a blind dog, one who suffered seizures, and one with severe arthritis. It seems those genes of compassion have been handed down to our youngest son. When he bought his first home, he decided he to get a puppy. He went to the pound and was somehow smitten by a sweet female dog that he named Sweet Dee.
Recently I got a chance to meet Dee and she is a sweetheart. During our visit, he told me her story. She was in the womb when her mother was confiscated in a police raid. The mom and the puppies she was carrying could not be adopted until after everything was settled in court. So, Dee was born in the shelter and lived in it for fourteen months. Though her physical needs were met, some of her emotional needs weren't. Her whole world was a kennel. When he walked her out to the car, she was terrified. When they walked into his house, she didn't understand she could explore the house like most puppies would. When he took her outside and showed her the backyard for the first time, she was overwhelmed and stayed by his feet. When he went to bed the first night, he invited her on to the bed, and she wouldn't come. It took her awhile to understand she could climb on the bed and sleep with him.
She quickly bonded with him and a whole new set of issues popped up. She would get so anxious when he had to leave her alone that she would get sick all over the room. So, he had to crate her and she soon learned to undo the crate so he kept her in a room that he could easily clean. With consistent love and provision, she slowly adjusted to life outside the kennel. Now. she is a bit more comfortable experiencing parks, beaches, and people who are loving and kind toward her. She can easily revert back to fearful behaviors in new situations, but each time she seems to overcome them more quickly. He shared that once she has done something wrong and realizes it, she gets so anxious that her bad behaviors escalate. While he disciplines her, he has to lavish her with love at the same time so she will calm down and stop the behavior he is correcting. It does a mama's heart good to see a son's love, patience, compassion, and discipline helping a neglected pup with a hard start overcome fear and anxiety, making it possible to live a good life.
As I sat and watched my son and Sweet Dee interact, it reminded me that sometimes we don't know what to do with people who have suffered emotional trauma and neglect. Fortunately, my church is different. It has given me the freedom to build a support group ministry that serves women who have been emotionally traumatized. Many of the women who come into our groups come in anxious and fearful much like Sweet Dee. In some the fear and anxiety are visible, but in some it is well hidden by confusing, self-protective behaviors. Sometimes those behaviors cause others to view them as people who need extra grace. Maybe in home groups their anxiety causes them to be overly talkative, abrasive, or defensive. Maybe it causes them to be overly sensitive, exhausting group members who believe they must walk on eggshells around them. Maybe they appear to be quiet or closed off, leaving group members struggling to connect with them. Maybe they have a lot of drama going on in their lives and eat up prayer time with dramatic narratives, but do little to end the drama. Maybe they come across as rigid and unbending, needing everyone to agree with them to be okay. Maybe they are stuck in sin they, causing some to doubt their salvation because they give into sinful behaviors and addictions again and again--be it alcohol, drugs, food, porn, people, shopping, or self-harm, drama, etc. Or maybe they have trouble trusting God.
I have been that extra-grace-needed person and people were either trying to fix me or ignoring me because I was so needy. I also have been that person who readily smiled but who was so closed off that little was known about that state of my heart or the dreams I dreamed of fulfilling. I have been that person who struggled to trust an awesome God to help me for fear I would find out I wasn't worth helping. And I am ashamed to say I have also been that home group member irritated, confused, and impatient with the ones who ate up time telling stories instead of talking about the lesson, the ones addicted to drama who presented the same prayer request over and over instead of confronting or setting godly boundaries that could evoke change. I have been the group member confused by the one who continued to wallow in victimhood instead of choosing to live in freedom and joy.
As I spent time in a Christian counselor's office, I became more self-aware, I went through a stage where I was so frustrated at how I reacted and responded to situations. I truly wanted to be a person who wasn't as socially awkward as I was, who didn't interpret events, words, and body language through a lens of trauma. I said to my counselor that I didn't understand why I did what I did. She suggested I read the book, A Child Called "It." When I went back to the therapist, she asked me what I thought of the book. I told her what I liked about it and how I felt about Dave and the story he lived. She then asked me what I thought of his behaviors once he was rescued. It hit me then that his behaviors made perfect sense in the context of his story. She pointed out to me that she viewed me the same way. Even though my trauma wasn't as severe as the boy in the story, it was still trauma and I had developed behaviors that protected me. Some were wise behaviors and some were maladaptive behaviors that didn't serve me well, but those behaviors were deeply ingrained in my brain and because they were tied to trauma they still pop up when I feel unsafe. But, now I don't have to act on them, I can choose more wisely how to respond. The more time that passes and the more practice I get, hopefully I will act and react out of the person God created me to be. But, for the majority of traumatized people, recovering is a life-long process. It is, in my opinion, the Biblical process mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." Traumatized people have to work hard to give up childish ways because trauma has sealed those ways so deep within them.
There are several things we can do to help people who've been traumatized grow past trauma. First, we can recognize people are living redemption stories penned by God. Our church has begun to publish written stories and show video clips of people sharing their stories. I love this, because it makes it safe for us to share and it helps us to understand each other in the context of our stories. We also see this in our support groups. When women come into group and work on their trauma, we see protective behaviors and defenses that in and of themselves don't make a lot of sense. After they tell their stories, we find their responses and defense mechanisms make perfect sense. As they continue to work and experience godly love, acceptance, and grace, they reach a place they begin to make changes they need to make and find themselves in the place Sweet Dee found herself when our son first brought her home. Freedom, healthy relationships, trusting God and other people, joy and happiness, and peace are as inviting to the traumatized as our son's home and back yard was to Dee. Yet, as inviting as those things are, they are scary, because they are unfamiliar.
It takes time for traumatized people to believe they are safe with a group of people, especially when they were traumatized by people who should have loved them and kept them safe. It takes time for them to wrap their minds around the fact that both God's sovereignty over trauma and His great love for them are true. It takes times to trust God will give audience to their concerns when the people in their lives ignored them. It takes time for them to not be afraid of this strange new feeling rising up in them, that we would define as joy, when joy they experienced in childhood was crushed in horrific ways. It takes times to believe one comes to Christ for the power to overcome sin when they have been told repeatedly that the way to God is to give up that sin. It takes time to trust others when they were so deeply wounded by the people they should have been able to trust. It takes time to trust that people can love them and give them attention when life is calm and good when the only way they got attention as children was to create chaos. It takes time to believe one can be so filled with the love of God that they can be more concerned with loving others that trying to milk love out of another's love starved heart.
I want to be someone that recognizes the hard-to-understand behavior and defenses that seem to simultaneously invite me in and push me away hide painful stories that need to be told. I want to be someone who refuses to judge people's actions and attitudes, instead showing curiosity about the story behind them. I want to be a someone who chooses to walk alongside of people who are "coming home" for the first time and "exploring a great big beautiful world" that feels so unsafe, allowing them to draw on my courage and hope when they need it. And I want to be a person so connected to God that when another's actions and reactions test my love, I can love consistently enough that the fears of the wounded are laid to rest and they can begin to live a life no longer defined by trauma, but by the love of God; and so that the question asked in the title of this post, “Is it really a great big wonderful world?” can be answered with a resounding, "YES!"