I just got back from an incredible weekend at Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in California. The retreat was called: Trauma, Healing & Spirituality. I went because I love Mercy Center and because I could get some Continuing Education Credits toward the upkeep of my counseling license. I got much more than I bargained for and I have decided to share some of my thoughts over the next several weeks.
I’m going to start at the end of the retreat and work backwards. Our last assignment was to walk around the grounds and see what symbol of the weekend “found us.” I was found by this blue bird. Please watch this short video.
The bird brings my first trauma story full circle. When I was about sixteen I was laying in the sun by my family’s swimming pool. A bird, exactly like this one only smaller, hopped up to me and chirped in a very desperate voice, “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” He had prematurely left the nest.
I took the bird in and promptly named him “Bird” ‘cause I’m creative like that. Bird was terrified and needy and always hungry. I took him out twice a day and found bugs on the sidewalk. I’d tap next to the bug and Bird would happily eat it. This went on for a few days before Bird flew up into a tree in your yard and was on his own.
About a year later I had just finished closing up shop with my boss when he raped me. There are certain predictable things that have to come together for a person to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
First, something startles you. In this case it was when my boss’s intentions became clear. A person or situation that felt safe suddenly became unsafe, and one is startled by that.
Second, you feel trapped. In my case I tried to run away but the exit was blocked and he was stronger than I was.
Third, at some point you feel you might die. Most rape victims have this feeling at some point.
There, now you have the perfect recipe for PTSD. You can see why all of our combat vets have PTSD. They constantly live in that soup.
The point of this blog is not for anyone to feel sorry for me. God has redeemed this experience for me through many years of processing, counseling and helping others who have also been abused.
When trauma happens, there can be a separation between our spirit and our body. Some people with on-going trauma learn to completely dissociate from their bodies. Also during trauma, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released. This is good as it kicks in the flight/fight or flee response. We need that response in order to survive. But if stress continues for too long, the amygdala in our brains can become enlarged and we can get stuck in the fight/flight or flee place.
This conference, of course, reminded me of my first trauma event and of the subsequent traumas in my life that re-trigger my trauma brain. The last six years have had many triggers to re-inflict those damaged areas of my brain: Losing our home, losing my son (for four months when he went missing off his army base), totaling my car, losing a job, losing my mom…It’s been a rough patch.
The good news is that there are ways to heal the trauma brain. That’s what I learned at this conference. This weekend I learned some basic breathing exercises and spiritual disciplines that can lower cortisol levels and allow the amygdala to shrink back to its normal size. I’ll be trying to practice some of them daily and giving you a report.
Now, about the bird. As I was walking the grounds, looking for a symbol, I saw this bird that looked very much like my Bird. But this bird was happy, peaceful and not afraid. He (or she) let me get close and film him while he busily went about finding food for himself or his family. It was a metaphor for my life. I am not that frightened bird I once was. I am at peace, I have purpose, and I have people to feed. I’m excited to share the things I’ve learned in this space.
There is hope for the traumatized brain. There is hope for you. You’re welcome to share your stories with me, but you don’t have to. These are sacred stories and should be told in safe spaces. I know many of you have had trauma and are living with the hypervigilance, fear and disembodiment that come with it. I will pray for you and share the hope I’m finding.