Faithand Illness_a SeriesThere is no safe space in the world.

Not your neighborhood. Not your home. Neither the middle of the forest nor the middle of the city. Not your favorite vacation spot. Not your beloved church. No place — familiar or foreign — is absolutely guaranteed to be safe.

(There aren’t really safe people either. “For all have sinned and fallen short” is a fancy religious way of saying that anyone can hurt you.)

Almost ten years of traumatic experiences & gaslighting changed my mind about safety.

Literally. Changed my mind.

Changed my brain.

The brain that, in my youth, saw the world as her oyster and laughed in the face of challenges, in my adulthood has spent nearly twenty years running on the adrenaline of fight or flight or freeze. It looks at the world through lenses that see only echoes of trauma — trauma and not joy, trauma and not hope, trauma and not Good News — and the pain that it sees, to be clear, is not delusional but experienced. It’s a veil of injury that I cannot escape, that I am ashamed to name, that my entire body-mind-spirit are constantly keyed up to identify & resist.

And the problem that results from my brain’s synapses constantly rehearsing, re-firing, repeating their best defenses against worst case scenarios is that they biologically & spiritually allow little room to believe in restoration … little room to believe in grace … little room to believe that God is anything but responsible.

“But look at all you’ve done,” some people say, as though it’s as simple as handing me their rose-colored glasses to rewire my brain.

“But there’s nothing to fear here,” some people say, as though their own sense of security is more authoritative than my lived experience.

“You exaggerate your stress,” others say, as though they’d prefer that I disguise my symptoms better … or is it that I disguise my symptoms so well they don’t believe I have an illness?

PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, is an illness in which the brain, body, and spirit fail to reconcile an experience of trauma into the past, unable to recognize safety & recovery in the present. While many people experience trauma, not everyone with an experience of trauma has PTSD. PTSD is more likely to develop for those who suffer trauma over time or at a young age, who are shut down by others unwilling to acknowledge the injury, and/or who do not have a support system with whom to process the injury. Unable to “close” the story of trauma, mind-body-spirit are overloaded as they try to manage the ongoing flood of trauma information alongside the day-to-day responsibilities of life. Studies of PTSD treatment methods — and studies of the disorder itself — are still new enough that medical & psychological opinions differ as to best practices. Some who live with PTSD are aided by medicine, some by exercise & body movement, some by neurological exercises, some by relationships, and most with some type of therapy.

And, of course, everyone with PTSD is different in their response to the disorder and to treatment, and in their intersection of faith with PTSD.

So I can only speak for myself when I offer the following requests to my clergy colleagues and to the Church about PTSD awareness & hospitality to those who live with it:

  • Practice making room — in your own faith, in your sacred spaces, in your congregation — for pain that doesn’t have easy answers. I have no tolerance for Good News that hasn’t wrestled candidly with bad news or that needs a pretty bow of theological tidiness. Pain does not need placation; it needs presence. 
  • It’s possible to be mad at God and still be in the Church. If you really need your God to be always good & always faithful & always above questioning, that’s fine, but my God and I have a pretty contentious relationship owing to the overwhelming evidence that God has abandoned a lot of people to the sinful horrors of this world. We just passed the third anniversary of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, for example, and maybe you’ve noticed the global humanitarian crisis of hatred & inhospitality toward migrants and refugees. One way or another, every church and person of faith needs to take seriously the problem of theodicy; for better or for worse, those of us who live with PTSD have a pretty good handle on that theological quandary.
  • Please don’t treat me as a hero for surviving trauma … or as a victim for experiencing an ongoing illness. I’m not your metaphor for what God can do, and I’m certainly not your case study for coping (although I’m terribly skilled at denial, if you’ve read my new book with Martha Spong). Please welcome me and those like me who live with PTSD into your church as a whole person — with pains and flaws, with dreams and gifts, just like every other sinner & saint.

It remains true that I’d rather avoid sharing details of my “dirty laundry” — including details of my health — in public forums, yet I know I’m not alone in needing a Church that is unafraid to acknowledge pain & trauma and to be present without solutions for the work of healing. Our faith communities fail to testify to the wounded & resurrected Body of Christ if they lack a theology that takes Katie Cannon seriously when she notes, “Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation” (as quoted in The Body Keeps the Score).


Rachel G. Hackenberg‘s new book, Denial Is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) with co-author Martha Spong, includes reflections on trauma and PTSD … as well as more humorous stories of church nurseries, memories of grandmothers, the ridiculous of labyrinths, and an abundance of caffeine.


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5 thoughts on “Faith and Illness: Theodicy and PTSD

  1. Thank you for this piece and for the constant reminder that PTSD is broader than military service without in any way diminishing the particularity of that cause or any other. The very diversity of causes and of healing modalities is so important to name. I also often told by people that art therapy is what works or yoga or meditation or … groups or solitude or … There are so many amazing resources in so many combinations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You said, “It’s possible to be mad at God and still be in the Church.” It’s also possible to be mad at the Church and still have a relationship with God. Just a thought. My prayers are with you and with all who suffer in silence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo! Thank you for sharing your vulnerability outloud. We need your story. I know from my own experience that healing is ongoing especially when you let the light in-and us.

    Like

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