Journeying Through Trauma

A few months ago, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder primarily as a result of my childhood as a TCK in Outer Mongolia. Early 90’s Mongolia was not an easy place to live. Violence was normal, alcoholism everywhere, food was scarce and as a child you learn to adapt to your environment, developing necessary skills to keep yourself safe.

The thing about trauma is that it tears down any conviction that the world is harmless. The world is a very dangerous place and when you find yourself face to face with evil, with people intent to do you harm, there is no going back to the illusion that there is such a place as safe. Your body is instinctually primed to encounter danger at any moment, making it difficult to detect what is real danger and what is not.

When we experience trauma, the body experiences it first, the heart pounds and we go straight to fight, flight or freeze. Then we feel the emotion, the fear, the shame, the anger. It is only after the emotions that we can pull back and cognitively understand what happened, why it happened and how we can protect ourselves from any similar encounter in the future.

The problem with childhood trauma is, as children, we can’t always cognitively process the traumatic events and formulate them into a coherent narrative, so they become trapped as memories in the body itself.

I have always wondered why I held a distaste for the statements, “God will keep you safe,” or, “God will protect you,” but now I understand. God has kept me safe in many circumstances, but he has also allowed me to experience very dangerous and harmful events as well. Forcing me to question and develop an understanding of God and evil and faith and humanity that is strong enough to withstand the reality of the world.

Now, if this sounds like a great reason to keep your kids safe and secure or is prompting feelings of shame as the mother of children overseas, that is not what it is meant to be. However, it is meant to shine a light on the reality of life. It is hard, as parents, to acknowledge that our choices have harmed our kids in some way. But the truth is, harm is everywhere, and the goal isn’t to keep our children safe, but to arm them with skills and weaponry, so that when they walk out into the world, they are equipped to withstand evil.

Last week my Mom bought me a necklace, a beautiful, expensive, silver necklace of a sword. Because healing from unresolved trauma is not about making the world less dangerous or painting a false image of safety, it is about standing tall, shoulders back, and becoming a little dangerous ourselves. Armed with weapons to fight the evil and suffering that we will inevitably encounter in the future, becoming people that others rely on to bear the weight of crosses that we all carry.

Us cross-cultural workers, we aren’t unique, we are human. Our worldview may be its own kind, but our humanity is a shared experience with everyone we meet. We are not immune to the effects of trauma, both the big and little kinds, or impervious to suffering and sacrifice. They shape us, they haunt us, and they paint a picture of our world.

I think I have believed that, somehow, trauma could make me strong without first making me weak. That plodding forward in life was possible before fully facing the events of the past. I could dismiss a lot of memories as, “not that bad,” or minimize them with the expression, “well, at least I wasn’t…” But it doesn’t help, and it will surely become tomorrow Joy’s problem if I continue.

Acknowledging the truth isn’t a complaint. It doesn’t deny the beauty in this cross-cultural life and it doesn’t diminish the love that we have been shown. We are simply human, and as such, we are affected by the multitudes of sufferings in the world.

I think there is an assumption that our spirituality protects us from the negative effects of life. That reliance on the spiritual disciplines will heal our brokenness without taking the needed time and energy to face what lurks deep in the soul. It isn’t weakness when we deal with the after effects of trauma, it is strength, because we have witnessed unspeakable horrors from those who seek new ways to do harm.

So, now I am on a new journey. A journey into the past, that will clarify my present, and inform my future. I’m excited. God has promised to complete what he has started in me, to mold me in his hands like a master potter. Occasionally I get glimpses of the future me. The one who smiles because she knows that there is an interior of steel in her veins. She is competent, content and no longer haunted by what she couldn’t understand. Instead of timidity, she is armed with courage, a courage that knows the evils and suffering she could endure yet is assured that she can face them head on. Her, her sword, and her God.

What trauma have you experienced on the field? Where have you found support in acknowledging and processing the events?

Photo by Deglee Degi on Unsplash


  1. MG January 7, 2019

    We just endured a pretty traumatic pregnancy that started with hyperemesis gravidarum (ie, the worst version of morning sickness ever) and ended with symptomatic placenta previa (ie, spontaneous massive bleeding that sent me to the hospital 5 times) and an unplanned c-section 5 weeks early. Thankfully the Spirit was ever present through the whole ordeal and our sweet baby is completely healthy, though she probably shouldn’t be.

    I so resonated with the first several paragraphs, especially as our family has always been really healthy. Your point that “trauma tears down any conviction that the world is harmless.” is straight on, which is why there’s such a need to process what’s happened! Otherwise, we continue to live in fear that the bad that has happened will continue to be our story… that the God who was with us in the trial will abandon us in future ones… or worse yet we will doubt that He is who He says He is (sovereign, loving, just, faithful, etc)!

    I didn’t intend to adopt these thoughts, but coming down from the trauma has revealed that they are a constant presence. Thankfully our home church has a resident counselor who is willing to video call at odd hours to meet with me! Slowly the cloud of fear is being lifted from my mind and heart so that I can move forward in hope and trust.

    1. Joy Smalley January 8, 2019

      Thank you, MG, for sharing your story with us here. That had to have been a very scary and traumatic time, I am blessed to hear that you are healing through the counseling of others. That is so important and it is a beautiful way in which God uses his body to bring healing and comfort. I agree, that trauma can bring about the feeling of impending doom, that the worst is bound to happen. It is a difficult mindset to change once it is imbedded deeply in the brain and I have found it equally difficult to see God as he says he is. I pray God continues to bless you and your family with insight and health and a lifting of the fear.

  2. Shonna Ingram January 9, 2019

    Thank you for sharing your story. I think as missionaries we sometimes hide our trauma because of all the expectations we or other put on ourselves. Then it gets worse because we don’t feel like we are allowed the time to process it. I work in missionary care as a coach and I just received my Master Facilitator certification with the Trauma Healing Institue which just came out with their cane out with the missionary version last year. I am working on implementing this tool in future trainings.

    1. Joy Smalley January 10, 2019

      Hi Shonna, I agree with you, that M’s can diminish and hide their trauma. I think because we experienced it via our calling, we cant acknowledge its impact.That somehow, because God allowed it, it must be good and therefore can’t hurt. I think that what you are doing, Shonna, is so incredibly important. I do believe that it is through the acknowledgement of pain and impact that our gospel and relationship with God deepens. May God extend his grace to you as you extend it to others. Blessings.

  3. Karen Carlson January 11, 2019

    This is beautiful! I’ve been through both significant and “not as bad as…” trauma on the field. For many years I didn’t really process it. Honestly, I thought I had; I thought I was OK. But it was buried deep in my heart. It took my health taking a nose dive sixteen years ago for me to recognize that, “Hmmm, maybe I’ve been going through more than I thought.” Our member care department was also growing in being able to help our staff deal with trauma. God peeled my heart like an onion, layer upon layer, year after year. I’m not 100% yet for the current political crisis in our host country has had my heart racing a few times as fear gripped my soul. Thus I know there is more healing yet to come where I can stand as you poetically stated “armed with courage, a courage that knows the evils and suffering she could endure yet is assured that she can face them head on.” Realistically the peace of Christ that passes all understanding will not be completely fulfilled until I stand next to my sweet Savior. However, some of my most precious times with Christ have come when I have recognized His love and care for me in the midst of some of these traumas. I have tested a favorite quote of Corrie ten Boom and found it true, “No hole is so deep that Christ is not deeper still.”

    I am passing your post onto at least one of my young friends who currently is working through PTSD. Thank you.

    1. Joy Smalley January 12, 2019

      Thank you, Karen, for sharing your story. I love that quote, “No hole is so deep that Christ is not deeper still.” It just might end up on my wall 🙂

  4. Rachel January 14, 2019

    “I think I have believed that, somehow, trauma could make me strong without first making me weak.”
    Yeah, me, too. I’ve had a mixture of “trauma“ on and off the field and I’ve had that “push through“ attitude – until circumstances in my life caused me and my life to come to a halt and I’ve had to deal with deep deep stuff. Which has resulted in deep deep healing, praise God.
    But being OK with weakness is something I’m having to grapple with, too.

    1. Joy Smalley January 15, 2019

      You and me both, Rachel, it was like I hit a wall and couldn’t deny that I was deeply affected by trauma in ways that were unproductive and harmful to me and others. I praise God that he has brought you deep healing, I know that God will use what you have experienced alongside what healing God has brought to influence the world in deep, authentic, astonishing ways. Blessings.

  5. JB January 19, 2019

    Trauma is real, and bad things do happen to “good” people, right?! The traumas in my life are on the lower end of any scale, but in actively praying for people around the world, my family and I had to incorporate suffering into our world view. Some resources are the Trauma Healing Institute mentioned above, and Mending the Soul Ministries. In embracing the call to go to the Nations, we are not avoiding pain and trauma “by being in the center of God’s will” but rather going to places long held by the Evil One. Being prepared as an adult is one thing, but our children are a different story. It is eye-opening for me to hear my kids’ stories about how they felt and recurring dreams. And why didn’t I know this?…Thanks again for sharing your stories. May we all grow in resilience!

    1. Joy Smalley January 24, 2019

      Thank you for sharing, JB! I agree that children and adults can process traumas and stressors differently, many of those experiences are what shapes the heart and minds of our children in both wonderful and difficult ways. God bless you 🙂

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