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?