Broken Bones, Broken Brains

Broken Bones, Broken Brains

My family has endured its fair share of broken bones, ranging from arms and wrists to elbows and fingers. One of the worst breaks occurred at a beautiful park while my son played happily atop a playground. We heard his scream and knew that something bad had happened. He had fallen and had braced himself with his arm. The impact and the stress from that fall had snapped every bone in his arm cleanly. His arm was distorted, and he was clearly in severe pain.

I think our bones are amazing because they are built to endure and absorb stress and when we put our bones under controlled stress our bones grow stronger. This protects them from either fracturing or deteriorating through osteoarthritis. When we over-stress our bones, however, or experience acute, intense stress, like my son, our bones will break.

Mental health is no different than our bone health. God created both of them and they have similar needs. On one hand, exposure to stress is necessary to strengthen our emotional and spiritual fortitude but on the other hand, exposure to chronic stress and trauma will break us.

I, personally, am a broken person. Just last week I had an episode of dissociation that took me days to recover from. I felt disconnected from myself, like a floating head, and when I looked out at the world it felt like I was moving in slow motion. This is a product of a childhood lived within a state of chronic stress and repetitive traumas that continued into adulthood. Dissociation is how I cope with these emotions of shame, fear, anger and even joy. This isn’t something I do intentionally, it is something that I do subconsciously. It is evidence of a psychological injury, a fractured mind.

In ancient China, they had a symbol to represent the dualities of life; we call it Yin and Yang. One side is representative of order and the other side represents chaos. Or, as I like to visualize it, one side represents what is known and the other side represents what is unknown.

When we live in a culture that is not our own, we are surrounded by the unknown. This is a bigger deal than we might think because, as we face an unknown experience, our entire body preps itself for every eventuality. When we don’t know what to expect, we have to expect everything.

Enduring this type of chronic stress affects us all. There is no one who escapes unscathed and these effects ooze out of us whether we acknowledge them or not. In fact, if the stressors and their effects go unacknowledged and unarticulated, its energy will be forced to express itself in ways we can’t control. Many of them will be physically expressed in disease and ill health but also in psychological or mental illness as well. Chronic fatigue, auto immune diseases, hormone imbalances, cancers, asthma can all be a product of chronic stress as it suppresses our immune systems. Depression, post trauma stress, anxiety, addictive behaviors and abuse can also be expressions of chronic stress and the psychological wounds it creates.

A fall from the playground can snap a bone completely and chronic stress and trauma can splinter the mind.

I’ve had a recurring memory of late, one that involves a van, a dirt road, darkness and a woman’s attempt to take her own life. It doesn’t take imagination to know why or how death can become the only relief in a woman’s life. When the stress is so intense, the weight of trauma so heartbreaking and hope is missing, death becomes the only respite from the pain. It took me years to realize that the chronic stress in my life was causing chronic pain and I was devastated to learn that I had childhood PTSD. I understand what draws people to self-destruction. I know the feeling, the longing and the desire to end the fight for mental health and healing. I also know hope.

I believe that in our weakness, God is strong, but I’ve had to change my understanding of what that means. I thought it was a call to push myself beyond what I could endure. I thought I had to stay overseas and pursue the most difficult contexts, leading myself to the brink of mental collapse. I believed that this brought God glory. 

I see now that God does not want me to be destroyed. He does not want me to live beyond what I was designed to endure. He is not longing for me to be broken, or to be hurt, or to suffer. He longs to bring me healing. He wants to put my pieces back together, not tear them apart. He wants me to experience heaven, even while I remain on earth.

My brain is broken and I cannot undo what has been done, but I can seek God. I know that he is healing me. I can feel it in the peacefulness that stirs in me when my head feels like it’s wrapped in cotton or I am too scared to breathe. I have accepted the wounds that are inflicted on my psyche, my body and my soul. I honor God by embracing my limitations.

Do you believe God cares about your mental health? Do you push yourself beyond what is good for you? How does chronic stress manifest itself in your life?

Please check out our Resource Page for organizations and tools for your journey. You are not alone.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

12 Comments

  1. Nora Koch September 28, 2021

    Hi Joy,
    Thank you for sharing this!!
    I’m learning more about mental health recently and your post really speaks to a number of things I’m contemplating and learning right now.
    I wonder if you have heard of Neurofeedback therapy?
    It has been developed since the 1960ies but more in the recent years especially in relation with PTSD.

    See “Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma: Calming the Fear-Driven Brain”
    Sebern F. Fisher

    More on YouTube “Why neurofeedback is the Future of Trauma Therapy”:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_tfH50IpzTU

    1. Joy Smalley September 29, 2021

      Hi Nora! I have not heard of neuro-feedback therapy but I will definitely have a look, thank you!

  2. Rachel Mutesi September 28, 2021

    Joy, thank you so much for sharing this! I really appreciate your honesty and the hope that you share in the midst of the pain. Those questions have been particularly helpful to reflect on and grow in awareness

    1. Joy Smalley September 29, 2021

      Thank you, Rachel. May God bless you with wisdom and peace as you reflect.

  3. Jennifer September 29, 2021

    “I cannot undo what has been done, but I can seek God.”
    This morning I was trying to help my son through the idea of forgiving himself for some (minor) poor choices he had made. I was asking God for an idea or phrase he could hold onto to help him to remember to focus on his attitude for the present and future and what God wants to teach him, not wishing he could go back and do everything perfectly in the past. This was it. Thank you!

    1. Joy Smalley September 30, 2021

      I love this, Jennifer, thank you for sharing!

  4. Bayta Schwarz September 29, 2021

    “When we live in a culture that is not our own, we are surrounded by the unknown. This is a bigger deal than we might think because, as we face an unknown experience, our entire body preps itself for every eventuality. When we don’t know what to expect, we have to expect everything.” This really stuck with me. I’m not sure I have thought about the experience much from this angle, and maybe about ongoing effects it might have. Having moved mainly within Western Europe, I feel it’s been less dramatic (because things have felt less unpredictable). But looking back to a year I spent in Eastern Europe in the mid-90s (which was an unpredictable time for anyone in that part of the world as everything was changing), I can definitely relate but don’t think I was adequately aware at the time. Must think about this some more!

    1. Joy Smalley September 30, 2021

      Yeah, I’ve found it enlightening to see the impact that chronic stress can have on a person, especially in childhood. There is a book I read, The Deepest Well, that was written by a physician working in the inner cities. She found that chronic stress/trauma in childhood would predict present and future health problems. I find it beautiful to see that God has linked us together so intensely.

  5. MaDonna Maurer September 29, 2021

    Thank you Joy for sharing your story. Your honesty ” I understand what draws people to self-destruction. I know the feeling, the longing and the desire to end the fight for mental health and healing. I also know hope.” will be a such an encouragement to many of the women who read this post.
    I’m currently enrolled in a Master’s of Care and Counseling program to better equip myself to help others, but I’m finding that the information I am getting is helping me as well. In fact, shouldn’t we all “put the oxygen mask on first before helping others”? I believe that is what you are doing and are now able to share your story with confidence that the hope you have is what we can all look for. This hope can pull us through those dark times. God says He will sustain us – and I have seen that in my own life.
    Anyway, thanks again for sharing your story and the hope that God doesn’t want to break us, but heal us.

    1. Joy Smalley September 30, 2021

      MaDonna, I love when learning to help others turns into a way to our own healing. We can only give to others what we have received ourselves and it seems to me that your personal work (as hard as it is) will only improve your ability to empathize with others going through similar things. Blessings to you!

  6. Kayla October 9, 2021

    Oh my goodness! I knew that I disassociated and that when I was getting into that floating, slow-motion state of mind that, that is what was happening. But I’ve never met someone who had the same type of feeling when disassociating and you explaining yours, made me feel so heard. That I was somewhat normal for the way that I feel when I get into that mindset. I loved this post and I think that this is something that we don’t talk about enough in ministry. I was listening to a sermon on dating today and the pastor was saying that you know a woman of God when even on her day off she is doing ministry. I wholeheartedly disagree with that. I feel like as women in ministry if we have a day off we’re expected to fill our time with more work. Because, “ministry shouldn’t be work.” Ministry is work, it’s a different kind of work but it is just as valid as having an office job or working for a company 40 hours a week. It is possible to be a woman of God and not fill every second of every day with scheduled ministry. We should always be listening for the Lord to speak and He may give us someone to talk to or a family to help on our day off. But we need to normalize rest within our church communities and normalize taking a Sabbath as we need to for our mental health. Their is a time and place for everything, but we need to focus on our mental health more as a church.

    1. Joy Smalley October 10, 2021

      Hello, fellow dissociator! I could not agree with you more. Ministry is not the goal of our lives, living with God and pursuing relationship with him and walking on a path to wholeness is. Ministry is just something that happens when our wholeness and healing brings about healing in others. If we are so consumed by the act of ministry we will no longer have the wholeness to bring healing to others. Then we are just broken people, breaking others around us. Blessings to you, Kayla, may God bring you healing as you rest securely in his love.

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