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, it was not uncommon to find a new pet with special needs. At one point, they had a dog who was blind, one who was epileptic, and one with severe arthritis. While two of them developed their conditions after they had adopted them, the blind one they chose, knowing full well he was blind. It seems that those genes of compassion have been handed down to some of my children. Our youngest son recently bought his first home and after getting settled he decided he was ready to get a puppy. He went to the pound and was somehow smitten by a sweet female dog. He named Sweet Dee.
Recently I got a chance to meet and experience Dee and she is a sweetheart. I also got to watch my son nurture and care for her. 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 out until after everything was settled in court. So, Dee was born in the shelter and then lived it in for fourteen months. Though her physical needs were adequately met, some of her emotional needs weren't and to her the world was a small kennel. When he walked her out to the car, she was terrified. When she rode in the car to his house, she was terrified. When they walked into his house, she was terrified and didn't understand she could roam around the house and explore it like most puppies would. When he took her outside and showed her the backyard for the first time, she was overwhelmed. And 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 smart as she was she learned to undo the crate so he had to keep her in the bathroom where he could easily clean up after her. With his consistent love and provisions, she is slowly and surely adjusting to life outside the kennel. Now she is a bit more comfortable getting to experience new things like parks, beaches, and people who are loving and kind toward her. Oh, she can easily revert back to old 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 she has blown it 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 in life overcome fear and anxiety, making it possible to live a good life.
As I sat and watched my son and his Sweet Dee interact, it reminded me that sometimes churches don't know what to do with people who have suffered emotional trauma and emotional 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, some through neglect and some through all sorts of abuse. Many of women who come into our groups come in full of anxiety and fear much like Dee did. In some of them it is very visible, but in some of them it is well hidden by confusing, self-protective behaviors. Sometimes those behaviors cause others to view them as an EGR--a person who needs extra grace. Maybe in home group their anxiety causes them to be overly talkative or abrasive and defensive. Maybe they seem to be overly sensitive and everyone in the group gets exhausted because they feel they must walk on eggshells around them so they don't say something that wounds or offends them. Maybe they appear to be so quiet or so closed off that the majority of the group is uncomfortable, because they can't connect with them. Maybe they are the people that always have huge drama going on in their lives and are constantly eating up prayer time with overly dramatic narratives, and yet they can't seem to make changes to end the drama. Maybe they are the people who come across as rigid and unbending, needing everyone to agree with their opinion to be okay. Maybe they are the ones stuck in sin they can't break out of--you know the ones who the group doubts their salvation because they just keep giving into sinful behaviors and addiction again and again--be it alcohol, drugs, food, porn, people, shopping, or self-harm, drama, etc. Or maybe they are the people in a community group that have trouble fully trusting God, who has really already proven Himself trustworthy.
Oh, I get it. I have been that EGR person and people were either trying to fix me or ignoring me because I was so needy that they felt overwhelmed. I 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 peers--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 in love or setting godly boundaries that could evoke change, or who continued to wallow in victimhood instead of putting on their big girl panties and choosing to live in freedom and joy.
To be honest, I spent years in a Christian counselor's office. As I began to become more self-aware, I went through a stage where I was so frustrated at how I reacted and responded to different 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 remember saying to my counselor that I didn't understand why I did what I did. My therapist suggested I read the book, A Child Called "It." I read it fast because once I started reading it I couldn't put it down. When I went back to the therapist, she asked me what I thought of the book. I told her what I liked 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 developed behaviors that served to protect me. Some were wise behavior and some were maladaptive behaviors that weren't really serving me well anymore. I now realize those were deeply ingrained in my brain and because they were tied to trauma they can, even now, still pop up when I feel unsafe. I don't have to shame myself or act on them, I can choose more wisely how to respond most of the time. The more time that passes and the more practice I get, hopefully I will continue to act and react out of the person God created me to be. But the truth is that 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 spend a lifetime giving up childish ways because the trauma sealed those ways deep within them.
There are several things churches can do to help people who've been traumatized grow past the trauma. First, recognize people are living redemption stories penned by God. Our church realizes stories are important and has begun to publish written stories and show video clips of people sharing parts of 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.
This has proven true repeatedly in our support groups. When women come into group and begin to work on their various traumas, we see all sorts of behaviors and protective defenses that in and of themselves don't make a lot of sense. As they begin to feel safe and tell their stories, we find their responses to life and their defense mechanisms make perfect sense. As they continue to do work in a safe environment and experience godly love, acceptance, and complete grace, they reach a place they begin to recognize the changes they need to make and they 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. Yet, as inviting as those things are they are tremendously scary, because they are so unfamiliar and so different from what they know.
It takes time for traumatized people to really believe they are safe with 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 the traumatizing events they experienced and His great love for them are true. It takes times to really trust that 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 that joy they experienced in childhood was crushed in horrific ways. It takes times to truly believe that 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 sin. It takes time to trust others when they were so deeply wounded by those most people could trust with their lives. 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 truly be so filled with the love of God that they can be more concerned with loving others that trying to milk love out of other love starved hearts.
I want to be someone that recognizes the hard-to-understand behavior and irritating defenses that seem to invite me in and then push me away often 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 seem to be testing my love that I can love consistently enough that the fears of the wounded are laid to rest and they, too, can begin to live no longer defined by trauma, but by the love of God; and so that the question asked in the title of this piece, “Is it really a great big wonderful world?” can be answered with a resounding, "YES!"