Have you ever noticed that when you start out with the intention of writing or talking with someone about something you’ve learned, God sets you up so that you experience it yourself in the process? For example, in 2010 my husband had plans to make a major career change and began going to nursing school, and it seemed like from the moment he enrolled, people were having medical emergencies everywhere he went. For example, one summer, on August 10, 2010 to be exact, he made a quick trip to a local store to pick up a few items. But that quick trip turned out to be several hours long, because while he was there an older man in the store had a heart attack. My recently-certified husband found himself doing CPR on a stranger in a convenience store on a hot afternoon. And why do I remember the exact date? Because, while he performed CPR in the store, I was at home in labor with our third child.
Earlier this month I set out to take the month of November to talk about the interaction between past and present traumatic experiences and our physical health. Then, a week later I ended up in the ER in Charlotte, NC, where I had traveled, alone, to attend a writers’ conference. Thankfully, it was only a brief hour or two before I was able to return to my hotel room, and I was able to attend most of the conference. But the sense of light-headedness and general weakness still lingers, and since then I’ve also developed an infection that doesn’t want to quit. And since I have long-term physical and mental health problems as well, I’m not, ya know, well.
Ironically, though, this is exactly the phenomenon I intended to present this month. If you’ve ever noticed that “bad luck” seems to flood in from multiple sources at once, or that hardships in one area in life seem to beget hardships in others as well, you are not alone. And, more importantly, I think, it isn’t your fault, and God isn’t punishing you.
Although the word trauma is often used to indicate a physical injury or an event that caused it, this is only a narrow definition of a broader, more versatile concept. Trauma is used to describe a variety of human experiences, including not just physical injury but mental and emotional injury as well. While most people associate “post-traumatic stress” with war veterans or people who became involved in a catastrophic crime or accident, researchers have found that the phenomenon first identified in combat veterans returning from the Vietnam war, is not isolated to the veteran population at all. In fact, PTSD is exhibited by thousands of people who have never served in the military or police force, been the victim of a violent crime, or fled a war zone. PTSD is, unfortunately, quite common in the general population.
While there are specific criteria that doctors use to diagnose mental health problems, obviously these issues aren’t as easy to specify. An x-ray can determine whether a bone is broken, but it cannot measure damage done to wound our pride, our sense of self-worth, our relationships, or our walk with Christ. In some ways this means that mental and psychological diagnoses are more subjective, since they involve a psychiatrist or other mental health professional determining if your experiences fit a certain list of common symptoms. You could see one psychiatrist on Monday who believes you have PTSD symptoms, and another one on Wednesday who disagrees, even if there has been no change in how you feel. So, in the realm of mental health, the diagnostic label assigned to you is not so much the name of an illness as it is a tool that will hopefully enable you to receive treatment appropriate to what you’re experiencing. This is the case in some neurological conditions as well.
Although a PTSD diagnosis may seem over-the-top dramatic, it’s a label that can grant you access to specialized care. In recent years researchers and psychiatrists have also adopted the term complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) to refer to the unique PTSD symptoms experienced by people who endured trauma over a longer period of time. So, while someone who survived a terrible car accident may develop PTSD as a result of the mental anguish he experienced, a person who endured years of physical or psychological abuse, who was abandoned by a caregiver, lived most of his life impoverished, or someone who spent years of life living with a long-term illness, may develop PTSD symptoms that may look different than those of the accident victim.
Despite the noteworthy differences, though, both sufferers are experiencing both mental-emotional and physical problems that are a result of trauma. Fifteen or so years ago I often begged and pleaded with God to show me and forgive me for whatever sin I’d committed that led to the punishment of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and anger in my mind during the same period of time when I was also struggling with urinary tract infections, yeast-related problems both internally and on my skin, frequent headaches, migraines, and episodes of vertigo, and the development of numerous allergies to medication. It didn’t make sense to me that God would allow so many layers of suffering to occur simultaneously if I had not somehow earned them. Even after years of therapy, when I realized that God does not punish his children in so direct a manner, I questioned why hardship seemed to come in the form of torrential downpours.
In most cases I cannot identify a specific reason for why an emotional or relationship struggle led to a physical, medical issue in my life, but inevitably they seemed to come and go together, as the sand moves within the tides. Although I will not attempt to explain it here, if you’re interested in knowing the science behind the phenomenon of clustered periods of hardship alternating with periods of relative comfort, I highly recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk.
What I can offer you of my experience is this:
It is not you.
It is not your fault.
God is not punishing you.
God is not disappointed in you, ashamed of you, or angry with you.
Regardless of who or what brought hardship, pain, or turmoil into your life and your body, what you are experiencing is the result of a broken world, ravaged by sins well beyond your own, and suffering the loss of its intimate connection with its loving Creator. Your suffering, whatever it entails, is your portion of the burden of sin all humans carry, whether they realize it or not. While you bear this burden today, in days to come, if you have given your life to the loving, upholding, and all-powerful God of heaven and earth, your burden will be removed, and you will experience contentment and wholeness in His presence.
For now, you need only to care for yourself, be gentle with others, and trust in your Maker.