Trauma Therapy III: Leaving the Hole

This is part III of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here. If you haven’t ready part II, read it by clicking here.

Once I reached the bottom of the hole, it was difficult to pick myself back up and find my way out. Everything was painful, but the pain had become comfortable. I was used to being raw. I didn’t know how to fold up the mess and prepare to get back to my life. My everyday life had become so encased in reviewing my trauma that I wasn’t sure how to go about my daily life anymore. I had done the work, but now I had to actually recover.

When I was hospitalized, I could tell the day I started feeling better because I started straightening up the common room. For nearly a week, I floated around, not particularly caring about myself or my surroundings. But two days before I was released, I threw out old papers that had piled up, organized the crayons and coloring books, and put all of the remotes in a little basket. That was the moment I knew that I was getting back to normal. While sometimes my obsessive organizing can be a negative sign, here it pointed to the fact that I was getting back to normal. The same was true in PHP/IOP but in a different way: I started mentoring other women.

New women arrived in the program each day, and I watched them go through the same phases I had experienced. When I saw them fighting the process, I called them out. When I saw them willing to be vulnerable, I celebrated. My recovery was no longer just about me but about the women around me as well. My therapist relied on me and other “old-timers” in the group to help guide new women who needed to let go and trust the process. I began to see that I knew everything the program had to offer, and that, if I stayed too much longer, I would start to go backwards.

This happens pretty often in recovery programs like the women’s trauma program at Ridgeview. We reach the bottom of the dark hole, we claw back out, and then we’re not sure what to do. For me, I was too afraid to enter back into real life, so I started crawling back into the hole again. The hole was painful, but at least I knew my way around in there. It seemed like a kind of strange Stockholm syndrome where my trauma was holding me captive. I started to feel comfortable in the misery and resisted returning to my old rhythms. I was different now and didn’t know how to negotiate daily life with my new tools. I knew how to negotiate trauma therapy, though, so I held tight to it as long as I could.

On my last day of the program, I cried constantly. I have always been a sentimental person, so I knew I would be upset about leaving all the women who had been on this journey with me. But it wasn’t just that. I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could do it. I knew I had tools and I had done recovery work to prepare me for being on my own, but I was afraid I was going to fail. I was scared that without the daily support of Ridgeview, I would end right back up where I started. What I didn’t realize was that, even when I messed up, it was impossible for me to go back to the place I had been in before.

Recovery isn’t linear but it isn’t circular either. Even when you mess up, you’re moving forward. Each time I relapse into self harm or have suicidal thoughts, I’m still learning about how to overcome those urges. Each time I have a panic attack, I make it through and I’m reminded that it will end. There are plenty of bad days, but each one makes me stronger. Everything that has happened in the past brings me to where I am now, so even though I’ve had difficult moments since Ridgeview, I can’t go back to where I was in May. I’m not the same.

The hole is still there, and there will always be more to work through, more to sit in. In fact, I am sitting in it right now. But the goal is to not avoid the hole for so long that it overflows again. I now have the tools to clean out the dark hole as I go. I will still be angry along the way. I will still sit and sob at night. But I’ve also witnessed my own strength and know that I can make it to morning.

Dear Mom,

It’s been 24 years since the day you left me. That seems like an absurd number, but I know that every year the number gets bigger. Each year, it feels like you’re getting farther away. I lose more memories. I live farther from the people who knew you. Most of the people in my life have never met you. Some of them don’t even know that you’re gone. With each deathiversary, I get more accustomed to explaining where you are.

The closer I get to your age, the more scared I am for myself. Joining a grief group has helped me to realize that this is normal. Most of us who have lost older siblings or parents assume we won’t make it past the age they were when they died, and when we do, we don’t know how to handle it. We never envision ourselves reaching 40, knowing our mom never will, but here I am. I still have some years before I reach 36, but the dread grows the closer I get.

A lot of people mark traumatic experiences, especially deaths, with “before” and “after.” This is how trauma survivors tell time. And while this is how I mark other events in my life, with you there was no “before.” The floaty recollections I have of you feel like another life, a dream, a made up story. My whole life has been “after.” For a while, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me, but recently my trauma therapist explained to me that my trauma isn’t in the fact that you died. I don’t remember it. The trauma of losing you happens over and over again, every time something happens that you should be here for and you’re not here.

I have more pictures of you in my room now to help me remember. I’m doing regressive memory work with my therapist to draw out old feelings and, hopefully, old memories. I mainly remember you taking care of me: scraped knees, bee stings, injuries of childhood. I remember you waking me up to lick the spoon from a batch of brownies. I wonder if you knew then that you didn’t have much time left, and that sweet memory would be more important than my 8pm bedtime.

Next to my bed, I have a tryptic of you, signing to me that you love me. I. Love. You. You smile back at me from a 90s hospital room every night as I go to sleep. And I know that you loved me. There are pictures to prove it. You stared at me with a look of deep adoration. But sometimes I get angry at you. I wish you’d left me more things to remember you by. I wish I had letters for each birthday or a recording of your voice reading me a bedtime story or a video telling me all the things you couldn’t tell a five-year-old. I know it’s not fair to ask for those things because I’m sure you did the best you could. I only ask for them because I miss you.

I’m not sure what I believe about where you are anymore, but I hope wherever it is, it’s peaceful. I hope you are proud of me, but I hope you don’t miss me. People tell me you’d be proud of me, but it doesn’t mean much. Even so, I try to live each day like you’re watching me. I look for you in crowds.

Love you always,

Brenna

Trauma Therapy II: Sitting In It

This is part II of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here.

After about a week of trauma therapy in PHP, the work finally began. I stopped resisting and started being honest with myself about my experiences. I stopped trying to do everything right and started trying to tell the truth. Through this, I realized that the reasons I thought I’d been hospitalized weren’t really the reasons I’d been hospitalized. The things that I thought had tipped me over the edge were only the topsoil in a deep and messy hole. And the only way out was to sit in the hole and get dirty.

Because I had been in survival mode for so long, actually feeling my emotions was exhausting. I don’t like for people to see me upset and I don’t like to be vulnerable, but trauma therapy was requiring me to do both of those things basically all the time. After a day or two of this, I told my therapist that I felt like there was a gaping wound in the middle of my chest and the only way to feel safe was to curl up in a ball. She said, “What are you afraid is going to happen? You’re safe.” I wasn’t sure what I thought was going to happen if I let go and sat in it. In retrospect, I think it was the actual letting go that I was so afraid of. I had built my life around hanging on in order to survive. I thought I would lose myself. I thought the darkness would take me over. I thought my grief and trauma and shame would eat me alive. But, in reality, it had already tried and I had escaped.

I cried for a week. I cried constantly in group even if I wasn’t the one sharing. I bought frozen and prepackaged meals at the grocery store because I could barely manage to eat, much less cook. I laid in my bed and cried myself to sleep every night, overwhelmed by the amount of emotions I was finally allowing myself to feel. Plus, the loneliness of knowing that no one else can help you with your feelings is probably the most destitute I’ve ever felt. Some days, I felt ok during PHP because I knew others around me felt the same way. It was often when I left that I felt the most overwhelmed. When it was time to go home, what was I supposed to do? The answer was: nothing. I just had to sit there and feel terrible. I felt lonely and sad and overwhelmed, and you just feel it. I felt homesick for something I couldn’t identify and entirely umoored. And when I felt like drinking or hurting myself or ending it all just to make the feelings stop, I called someone to sit with you. And kept feeling.

After about a week of feeling all of this, I remember asking my therapist, “How long do I have to sit it in? How do I know when I’m done?” She looked at me and said, “I’m still sitting in it.” There will always be things I need to sit in and feel. It will probably never be as overwhelming as the second week of trauma therapy because I aim to never get to a point again where I have decades worth of built up trauma to process, but there will always be something. No one else could tell me when I was done sitting in it. I just knew. One night, I looked at a picture of my mom and sobbed for hours. After that I knew I had reached the bottom of the cave and it was time to find my way back out.

To be continued in part III…

Psych Ward

*tw: mental illness, hospitalization, suicide, self harm, sexual assault*

At the end of May, I spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. While I don’t feel comfortable sharing the specifics of what led me to be admitted, I was admitted involuntarily, meaning I did not walk in off the street and decide I needed care. Instead, I had reached my saturation point for handling life’s variables and healthcare providers determined I would be safest in a hospital setting. I never thought I would need to be hospitalized, but in retrospect, I’m suprised it took me this long. I can now see warning signs in myself all over the place, but I wasn’t listening to them.

Late on the Monday night before Memorial Day, I sobbed in the car as my roommate drove me to the emergency room. I texted my boss and my therapist and called my partner, but I remember very little after that. I spent the night in Emory University’s ER, attempting to watch Sex in the City and drifting in and out of conciousness as we waited for the rotating psychiatrist to come and evaluate me. Around 5:30am, my partner left to go home and rest. Around 6:30am, the psychiatrist finally arrived. I talked with him for a few minutes, answering questions about what brought me to the ER, my medical and psychiatric history, and how I was feeling. Not long after, the attending nurse told me I was being taken to a psychiatric hospital. They assured me they would find one that would accept my insurance. I was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance with no specific idea about where I was headed. I was terrified and exhausted, and I slept the whole ride.

When we arrived, I was unloaded along with my backpack I had somehow managed to bring along. Still in blue papery hospital scrubs, I sat scrunched up in an armchair alone in an intake room for what felt like hours, waiting to be processed into the hospital. Eventually, I was able to put my own clothes back on and use my phone to text a few people to tell them where I was. I wrote down important phone numbers so I would still have them after they could confiscate my phone. They took my bookbag as well, and it would be two days before I could get the rest of my things out of it. I was taken to a section of the hospital that I now know is primarily for people who are psychotic, delusional, aggressive, or paranoid. I didn’t fit any of these categories, but the women’s trauma unit I was eventually bound for was full, so I was stuck in holding until there was an open bed.

I walked around for three days in a complete fog. I’m sure the sleeping medications didn’t help, but as the reality of what was happening set in, I began to feel less and less in control of my body. I had panic attacks and cried constantly. I had no idea what was going on. I felt entirely alone. I wanted so badly to process what had happened but felt I had no one to talk to. I watched people get shots of sedatives to calm them after having raging outbursts. I watched one man try to escape twice in one day. I watched another walk around wearing only one shoe, in a psychotic daze for 48 hours until they corrected his medication and he became a completely stable person. I was scared and I had no clue how to move forward.

On day 3, I finally had visitation hours. Seeing my partner and my best friend was both jarring and comforting. They said they were surprised at how good I looked and seemed. Looking back, this is especially strange because of how out of control I felt. All of my defense mechanisms to keep my life together had finally failed. My perfectionism, my obsessive cleaning and organizing, my intellectualization of my problems, and my avoidance of conflict and difficult emotions had all worked for a long time. But the thing about defense mechanisms is that they work until they don’t. I avoided digging deeply into myself for so many decades that I started to believe I could forget that certain things had happened to me by simply not acknowledging them. (Spoiler: This does not work.) I was dishonest with myself and the people who love me about how I was really doing because I was ashamed of the pain I was actually feeling, and, at times, completely unaware of the pain I was actually feeling.

I started to unwrap all of this once I was moved from the chaotic holding unit to the women’s trauma unit. I was surrounded by women who shared my diagnoses and my life experiences. We never discussed specifics, but we just knew. It was such a relief to get hugs from other women after not having any physical contact for days in the other unit. I started to smile and laugh again. “This isn’t the psych ward!” we would yell across the table at each other, as we color pictures of mandalas and animals with dulling colored pencils. We laughed because there was no other way we could make it through. Because we were in the psych ward. And our reality pressed in from all sides as we walked around in our pants without drawstrings and shoes without laces. Our backs ached from mattresses without springs and our eyes were tired from the wellness checks every 15 minutes during the night to make sure we were breathing. It was an overwhelming week. It was a week I never thought I’d have. But it was real, and now it’s a part of my story.

Since being released, I’ve been participating in a partial hospitalization program for women’s trauma. It’s possibly the most difficult work I’ve ever done. I’m not quite ready to share my reflections on the work I’ve been doing in trauma therapy yet because it’s still so close and because I’m still doing it. But I wanted to at least share the beginning of this journey. I want to share this experience because I want to help normalize psychiatric care. Inpatient hospitalization programs are for everyone. If you feel out of control of your emotions, a situation, substance abuse, or your behaviors, admitting yourself to a program like the one I was in could be a helpful step. Inpatient programs help stabilize you in moments of crisis. Getting help before you’re in a full blown crisis is also a valid reason to seek hospitalization.

I’m getting better, but I can’t say I’m getting better every day because that would be a lie. Healing is not linear. I’m learning new ways to cope and some days I use those new coping skills effectively, but other days I don’t. I’m back at work part time, but I’m teaching my self to take it easy. I’m scared to integrate back into “real life”, but I know that I’ll be ready when it’s time. I’m still not sure what all I’m supposed to have learned from the psych ward, but I trust that I’m learning it.

The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

GUEST POST: Who the heck am I, anyway?

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter.  A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo.  She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work.  Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope.  We immediately decided to guest blog for each other.  You can find my post on her blog here.  Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.

Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.

I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?

In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.

I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.

God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.

In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.

About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:

Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.

Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.

Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.