Easter is upon us. Bunnies, eggs, and candy are a plenty. Pretty dresses with all of the finery are displayed in shop windows. People are making plans with friends and family for the holiday. Even the weather where I live is cooperating: warm, bright, and sunny. Perfect for a sunrise service and stroll on the beach — far away from the depths of Jesus’s suffering and his message about suffering.
This past week, I spent some time with a young, heroin addict. Still addicted, she’s fighting a noble fight to get sober and find her way in life, or find the life she lost to her addiction. She is pretty but her struggle isn’t. Her life is very hard and parts of it so ugly you’d want to look away. She’s filled with pain. She cannot speak without crying. Yet she clings to hope.
The last time I spent any meaningful amount of time with a young, heroin addict was when I worked in an inpatient treatment center. My job was to take patients for walks and encourage them to talk about their future: plans for when treatment ended. Assigned to me was a young girl. She was the youngest person in the center. Everyone else was over twenty five. The majority were male. But Becky [not her real name] nineteen, worn and weary—bone thin with skin marked by scars and bruises— was mine for what the center called “walk and talks.” Yet she refused to talk. And her silence made her suffering all the more tangible: so tangible it made me uncomfortable.
I think it is fair to say most people do not like to spend any real and authentic amount of time with suffering people. We send emails or messages, bring a meal, stop by for a visit or two, and then move on.
Research on responses to grieving, suffering people report most people will not abide with the suffering longer than a couple weeks or a few months. Why? Because supporting someone who is suffering is not pleasant and it’s hard.
Jesus found his own suffering so hard he had to rely upon a friend to help him carry his cross. And surely carrying Jesus's cross was incredibly hard.
It is easier to ease into Easter, to acknowledge the suffering, but not to stop and stay with it for very long. It’s easier to slide by and move on to the end of the story, where Jesus is alive and transformed in all his glory. But the only way to truly know and understand his glory, at least according to him, is to “put your hands in his wounds.” Jesus’s suffering is his glory.
This past week I spent some time with a young, heroin addict who feels, and perhaps truly is, all alone in the world. Yes, people have shown up to judge her or offer advice. They tell her to stop making excuses (she has had a really hard life), get clean, stay sober, make some new friends, get a job, go to school, stop wasting her life, and so on. Easy answers to a very complex situation.
When I worked in the inpatient treatment center, if someone had asked me what to say or how to help someone who was suffering so very much, I probably would have offered an easy answer too. But I don’t anymore. I’ve since discovered the answer is difficult: promise you will help them carry their cross. Then keep your promise.
And I promise, if you do this, it will not only transform them, but you too.
In 2017 I read several books I'd recommend. One of my "Top 5" is "Silence in the Age of Noise" by Erling Kagge. Kagge is an explorer in the true sense of the word, and he is also the first person to reach the South Pole alone. Kagge spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica accompanied only by a radio whose batteries he had removed before beginning his journey. "Silence in the Age of Noise" isn't as much about silence as it as about what silence has to offer. Silence, it turns out, has much to offer. One of the things it offers is an opportunity for healing. But how?
Throughout history and in a variety of religions, people have sought healing, transformation, enlightenment, and even God by turning to silence. Christian history is filled with stories of men and women enduring life alone and in silence in order to discover their "true selves" and in order to become closer to God. But why silence?
Erling Kagge's book on silence offers a variety of insights, and one of them draws upon the new brain science that is so influential in the field of healing trauma: dopamine loops.
Dopamine loops are complex systems of neuropathways in the brain that drive a person's thoughts, feelings, and behavior, causing someone to do something over and over again, even when the behavior is causing them problems. For example a soldier, home from war, who seeks shelter immediately (say, by diving underneath a table at a restaurant) whenever he hears the sound of ice tinkling in a glass of water. IEDs on the battlefield made that same sound just seconds before exploding. At the root of his "diving underneath the table" behavior is a dopmaine loop in his brain.
But what does all of this have to do with silence?
One of Kagge's insights is that the only way we can truly come to know ourselves and what drives us, is to separate ourselves from everything else --- all of the noise and business in our lives --- so we can properly listen to our thoughts and feelings, carefully observe them, and can come to fully understand how they affect us. Do they serve to connect us with ourselves, others, and God? Or do they serve to disconnect us from ourselves, others, and God? And if so, how?
He says spend 50 days walking through a sub-zero, frozen world completely alone with yourself, and you will come face-to-face (or should I say thought-to-thought) with what drives you: all of your thoughts, feelings, and desires, both healthy and unhealthy. Suddenly it will be easy to identify the root of your behaviors and what needs to be addressed and healed.
Kagge's book makes this point persuasively: In theory, says Kagge, walking to the South Pole is easy. You just put one foot in front of another until you're there. But in reality, it is extremely difficult to do this, not because of the harsh conditions --- below freezing temperatures and challenging terrain --- but because, for 50 days, you have to be alone with and ever present to your thoughts and feelings, and yet you must find a way to not let them keep you from moving forward on your journey."
Last week, in response to the recent news of Harvey Weinstein’s reported history of sexually harassing and assaulting women for decades, both men and women began posting the phrase “me too” on social media, and it went viral, becoming a rallying cry against sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and all of the harm and trauma it causes.
Also last week, for the second time this Fall, theaters across the nation were sold out for the documentary film “The Heart of Man,” which follows the stories of both men and women who suffered sexual abuse as children, and the film shows how the resulting trauma from the abuse led them, as adults, to lead unhealthy and often promiscuous lives.
The “me too” postings along with “The Heart of Man” film sparked a debate in society about how we should respond to sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and all of the pain and trauma that come along with them. Hopefully we have finally realized that responding with fear and silence is only making things worse.
The film “The Heart of Man” is a Christian film, and it challenges Christians, in particular, to consider the question: How should the church respond to sexual abuse, sex and pornography addiction, and all of the lives damaged by sexual sin.
So what would be the best response?
Several years ago one of the churches I served had to face this question head on. This topic became urgent when they discovered their former pastor, a man in his fifties, not only struggled with compulsive sexual behavior in his personal life, but while he was pastor at their church, he had an ongoing, inappropriate relationship with a twelve-year-old girl in the church’s youth group.
These parishioners had never before had to deal with such a thing, and not surprisingly the congregation’s initial reaction was the “deer caught in headlights” response. Wide-eyed. Silent. Frozen. Then, before they had time to process the information, more news came: knowing he would soon be arrested, the former pastor took his own life. And the girl, who was now pregnant with his child, and her mother quickly packed up and moved to another town.
I was on staff at the church at this time, a part of a ministry team who tried to engage the congregation in a discussion on what the Christian response should be. How, as Christians, should we respond to the former minister, his actions, and his family? How should we respond to the young girl and her mother? What would a Christian response look like?
Unfortunately, too shocked and uncomfortable with it all, the congregation was not interested in exploring options. He was dead. She was gone. And understandably they simply wanted to put it behind them and move on.
Anything sexual makes us uncomfortable: sexual sin, sex abuse, sex crimes, inappropriate sexual behavior (no matter how a person might define the term inappropriate). It seems much easier to ignore these things and everything that goes along with them: the pain, trauma, dysfunction, and shame. Yet if we ignore it, then we also ignore the opportunity to heal it and try to prevent it from happening to future generations. And in terms of the church, in particular, if Christians ignore the sin, they also ignore the grace. Trans-formative grace is God’s response to the reality of sin, the trauma it causes, and the lives it destroys.
Of course no church congregation would willingly say, “Come to our church! We ignore sin here!” Just as no one in society wants to say, “Let’s ignore sexual harassment and assault and just get on with our lives.”
Yet too often that is exactly what we do. And this “ignoring” can take on two different forms.
The first is to run away from the issues because they are messy and fraught with all sorts of uncomfortable problems which have no neat, easy solutions. Because for the church to open its doors to people reportedly like Harvey Weinstein or their former pastor is to take a risk, a risk that some believe could threaten the church and its members. This mindset is fear based: if you welcome anyone, no matter how sick or wounded, then you too risk becoming sick and wounded as well as having to deal with the repercussions of the sickness and woundedness. It is better to not take the risk.
Yet the “The Heart of Man” film suggests excluding sinners is not the answer. It suggests the church must find a way to embrace sinners, so that God’s trans-formative grace is made available to everyone, even those guilty of sexual sin.
The second way some churches (and people) respond is to view the church as a hospital for sinners, as in the “we are ALL broken,” meaning we are ALL in the same boat, and so everyone’s an equal in their sin and pain and woundedness. Yet this response blurs the necessary distinction between the sinner and his victim (or perpetrator and victim). Yes, the church and society should reach out to both, but shouldn’t the way the people reach out Harvey Weinstein or the former pastor be different than the way they reach out to the actresses who were harassed and assaulted or to the 12-year-old, pregnant girl?
For example, in my former church, the congregation did not want to reach out to the former minister’s family because of the shame and embarrassment they, themselves, felt. They were ashamed and embarrassed that the pastor’s sins had taken place at their church. Sin like this is something that was supposed to happen someplace else, not in their church. Many felt his actions had tainted them.
They also did not want to reach out to the girl and her unborn child because they could not clearly identify her as a victim, much in the same way many in Hollywood didn’t always or easily identify Weinstein’s actresses as victims. One of the church’s members even spoke up and said, “Maybe the girl did something to tempt the pastor?” He pointed out the girl often wore clothes that were too short or too tight.
Just like the “Me too” phrase, “The Heart of Man” film has generated discussion and many positive comments from people glad to hear the call to begin addressing sexual sin by reaching out to both perpetrators and victims. But the film (and the “me too” phrase) has also generated some angry and critical comments from people who, like the folks in the church I served, would rather not deal with it and so want to keep the sin, the sinners, and even the victims, at bay.
But not dealing with problems won’t make them away, not even, as we have seen, with the Weinstein case.
So how should we respond?
I suggest we must work together to find a way to move beyond the fear, shame, and all of the uncomfortable feelings, and even move beyond the “what is the right thing to do?” debates, so that together we can explore the possibilities for hope, healing, and rediscovering trans-formative grace.
To this end, films like “The Heart of Man” and trends like “Me too” are helpful because they can serve as a starting place, a place where we can begin discussing and exploring options for both perpetrators and victims, especially since both lives are in turmoil. And in doing so, hopefully we can find a way to move past the silence of fear, discomfort, and shame, and together find a way to heal the trauma and pain and to help prevent it from happening to future generations.
Whenever I'm asked to describe what trauma, especially betrayal trauma, is like, I say: Imagine going to bed one night, safe and secure in your own bedroom, in your favorite pajamas, snuggled under a warm blanket, inside the home you've known and loved for years. But when you wake up, still dressed in your pajamas, you find yourself curled up on hard, cold concrete behind a dumpster in the back alley of a place you've never before seen. It's still night and dark. You can hear voices, people talking. But when you listen closely, you realize they are speaking a language you can't understand. You check to see if this is a dream, or a nightmare. But no, it is reality. Somehow you went to bed in your own home, and you woke up here. Three questions immediately spring to mind: 1) Where am I? 2) How did I get here? And, most importantly, 3) how do I get home?
The answer to that third question is likely the most painful, and yet simplest: you can't get back home. No amount of wishing, praying, trying, or clicking your heels together and repeating "there's no place like home" will work — you can never return to the place you were, hours before, when you went to bed.
If you have experienced betrayal trauma, you likely know what happens next. Once the sun comes up, some good-hearted, well-meaning people will see you there behind the dumpster looking frightened and confused, and they will offer advice: You should go home. You must try to work things out. Or, forget going home, you need to go someplace else and find yourself a new life. Or, you've got to bloom where you're planted — meaning, of course, stay here in this strange land — but get yourself out from behind that dumpster, get out of those pajamas, find an apartment, and get a job. Or, let go of the past and just move on.
So what should you do? Stay? Leave? Try a trial separation? Give things a few weeks, months, or years before making a decision? Or should you let go and move on? What does it mean to live in "the gap": in that time between disclosure day (D-day) and the day when you can confidently make a decision about your future?
The Importance of "Gaps"
As a certified Spiritual Director, and having taught religion classes that focused on personal transformation at a private university for the past eleven years, I know the importance of "gaps." Gaps are those unique times of transition which occur when what you had expected to happen doesn't happen. Instead of what you had expected, something completely unpredictable and altogether unexpected happens. This opens up a gap.
For example, you're on your way home from work and you stop by a convenience store to pick up milk. While waiting to pay, two masked, gunmen burst through the door, and one grabs you and puts a gun to your head. You couldn't have expected this, and so it opens a gap. Or when you think you have a simple infection and go to the emergency room expecting the usual round of antibiotics but instead discover you have stage 4 cancer—a gap opens. Or while taking a walk with your husband, the man you have loved and admired for years, on a warm, sunny summer afternoon, you discover he has been, for your entire marriage, hiding something from you, and you had no clue—this opens a gap, and a new journey begins.
Gaps reveal who you truly are. They will expose every part of you, parts healthy and unhealthy, your beliefs or lack of beliefs, your ingrained habits, and your strengths and weaknesses. How you respond to gaps will determine your future. "Gap Times" as I call them, those distinct times of transition, are some of the most significant and influential times in our lives because there is an unbelievable amount of insight and wisdom to be gained for those who will embrace the deep, rich experiences that gaps uniquely offer. Gaps are where deep healing and true transformation can begin.
Living In and Embracing The Gap
In my own life, I have been living in the gap for several years now, and I have learned:
1) Discernment takes time.
When your life has been turned upside down, and you are struggling to get your footing, it is okay to make temporary-only decisions. In fact, it is perfectly normal to decide one thing one day, then later change your mind, then change your mind again. And please don't let anyone push you to make a decision that you aren't ready to make or to do anything with which you aren't completely comfortable. Discernment is a process that takes time and support. Being overwhelmed by trauma certainly slows the discernment process. So it's okay not to know what you want to do long term. In fact, it is very important to take time to carefully weigh all of your options and figure out where you are truly being called. Time itself is a gift because it offers you the opportunity to heal your wounds, to build your support network, to prepare for the future, and to assess your partner's investment (or lack of investment) in recovery as well as the overall health of your relationship. And should you decide you want to try to save your marriage, you'll need time to find the right resources to help you repair and rebuild the relationship.
2) Taking an inventory of losses and blessings is a necessary part of the healing process.
When suffering from trauma, it is normal to focus on your losses, especially when the losses are overwhelming. One of my first clients, while I was still in supervision and training for Spiritual Direction, was a woman in her forties who had just been diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. Six months prior to this, her husband had abandoned her. And needing a job, she had to move over three hours away from where she had been living. She had already lost her home and community. And now with the cancer diagnosis, she feared losing her future as well. Gap Time is a time of recognizing and grieving losses. The grieving is necessary for healing. But if we focus only on the losses, we risk overlooking the blessings. So along with her list of losses, I asked my client to make a list of all of the things the cancer could not take away: a list of what she had left, what gifts and blessings she possessed that could help her live a meaningful life today and embrace whatever the future would hold.
One of her joys was Bible studies. She loved participating in Bible studies. She was also a great cook. And even though she had no children of her own, she had always wanted to be a elementary school teacher because she enjoyed children and had been told she was good with them. So with her "blessings list" in hand, she found a Bible study at a nearby church for women with cancer. She signed up as a volunteer cook for that church's soup kitchen, then through the soup kitchen ministry, she discovered a local women's shelter that needed someone a couple days a week to play with and read to the children while their mothers attended job training workshops. By focusing on and embracing her gifts and blessings — what she had not lost — during her Gap Time, my client found meaning and purpose, a new community, and a network of supportive friends. And as she continued to focus on her gifts and blessings, she discovered some gifts and strengths she never knew she had!
3) Gap Time is a good time to get educated so you can make informed decisions about your future.
When you wake up to discover you're behind a dumpster in a strange land, the saying that "knowledge is power" is true. Wherever your life's journey has taken you, learning as much as you can about where you are now, and how to navigate your new environment, can keep you safe, help you make informed decisions about the future, and help prepare you to get to where you eventually need and want to be. This is especially true when it comes to your partner's porn and sex addiction and your betrayal trauma. The more you know about both, the safer you can be and the better you can take care of yourself. With a good understanding of your situation, you can make informed decisions about what specific kind of treatment, help, and resources are the best fit for you.
Remember, when you've been in a relationship with a sex addict, you've been living with a very unhealthy person, and so much more needs to be addressed than just the addict's compulsive sexually acting out. Sex addicts have many unhealthy habits, attitudes, and behaviors that affect their partner's self-esteem, overall self-evaluation, health, and well-being. When you have been in a unhealthy relationship with an unhealthy person, it can negatively affect every part of you: the way you see and understand yourself, others, the world around you, and even your relationship with God. So taking the time to learn all the ways in which you, your life, and your family have been harmed by your partner's addiction is essential to being able to embrace the future as a healed, healthy, and whole person. Partners who come to understand all the ways the addiction and the trauma have affected them, can make healthier decisions about their present relationships, any new relationships, and their overall future.
Gap Time is Different for Everyone
Some women chose to stay with their husbands because they are able to renegotiate the rules and boundaries of our relationship, especially if their partner is committed to recovery and is in a treatment program, regularly attends meetings and meets with a sponsor, and is actively trying to understand his issues and heal them. But a woman I met years ago, at one of my weekend retreats, made a different choice. (I will call her "Jane.") After having just discovered that her husband had been having a 10 year long affair, and that he had had a child with this other woman, Jane came to the retreat in order to decide what to do. Jane was an artist who had, just prior to D-day, received a commission to create some statues for a community garden. During the weekend retreat, and through a process of prayer and discernment in community with the other women on the retreat, Jane felt led to ask her husband to move out. She decided to have no contact with him, but to put off making any further decisions at that time, choosing instead to spend the first three months of her "Gap Time" focusing on and completing her art project.
Each person's "Gap Time" will look different, but one rule applies to everyone: it is important not to ignore the gap, or try to push it or wish it away, or to try to rush it (no matter how painful it is or how much you would like for it to be over). It is okay, and actually a good thing, to be patient, kind, and compassionate with yourself as you live minute by minute, and take things step by step, when living in a gap. And even though it's true that you can't go back home and to the life you once knew before D-day — Gap Time, spent well, will make it is possible for you to get to some place better, some place more safe and more wonderful than you could ever have before imagined.
Upcoming Living in The Gap Interactive, Online, Facilitated & Guided Retreat
I offer a unique online retreat for women who are living in the gap, and who are in the process of deciding whether it is best to stay with or leave their addict partner. We will also be taking a closer look at healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. For more information please visit my upcoming workshops and retreats page: http://healingtraumatogether.com/workshops-retreats.html
Grace & Peace to you on your healing journey,
Written by Lynda Ward. Written on . Posted in Blog
Addiction Triggers vs. Trauma Triggers: Are triggers the same for an addict as they are for a traumatized partner?
My first internship, years ago, was at an inpatient, addiction treatment hospital. My assignment was to take addicts for a walk on a nature trail through the beautiful, peaceful forest on the property. As we enjoyed the woods and fresh air, my job was to encourage addicts to think about their future and what their life was going to be like after they left the hospital, and to help them articulate a plan that could protect them from relapsing. One of the main topics was triggers.
Sex addicts are frequently “triggered.” Partners of sex addicts are also “triggered.” But are triggers the same for an addict as they are for the traumatized partner?
Understanding the difference between a trauma trigger and an addiction trigger can help take the mystery out of an addict’s seemingly crazy behavior in the first few months and during the years it takes for an addict to retrain himself and his brain. If a partner is able to recognize the difference in addiction triggers and trauma triggers it can help her make sense of her often confusing and unpredictable situation. While the goal is never for the partner to try and control the addict’s recovery — recovery is the addict’s job — understanding an addict, and the addiction, can aid in a victim’s own healing process.
For addicts, anything, literally anything, can be a trigger. And for all addicts, developing new habits and patterns is necessary. But for some, managing triggers will mean changing locations, giving up friendships, and finding a new job in order to help them start afresh, free of the reminders of their old lifestyle: reminders that could potentially trigger and cause them to return to the addiction.
Triggers can be divided into types: external and internal. An external trigger is any object, event, image, person, sight, sound, smell, color, anything external to the addict that taps into an internal state, or even their brain’s “wiring,” which causes an emotional reaction that can lead an addict to act out, or not, depending on how far along the addict is in recovery. A sex addict described one of his external triggers this way:
When I was eight years old, I started looking at my friend’s dad’s Playboy magazines. That was over 40 years ago. I haven’t seen a porn magazine in over 15 years. But there’s still something about a magazine cover, any magazine cover with a woman on it, like women’s magazines on grocery store racks, that reminds me of my old habit of looking at Playboy. I know that magazine covers are a potential trigger for me, so I intentionally do not look at magazine racks, no matter what kind of magazines a store has.
Yet as difficult as external triggers can be for addicts, especially for addicts not that far along in recovery, it is the addict’s internal states, their feelings and emotions, that hold the most power, because while an addict can look away from a magazine or woman in a bikini, it is much more complicated to turn away from emotions.
Internal states, if not properly and carefully managed, can lead to an addict’s acting out. Some of the most common internal triggers for addicts are: sad, mad, lonely, tired, stressed, hungry, and scared. One important reason my job was to take addicts for walks along a serene, nature trail was to encourage them to pay attention to how spending time outdoors in a beautiful environment — as opposed to staying inside the hospital with its institutional colors and furniture — could change the way they feel. Stepping into the woods or relaxing beside the forest’s lake (with its ducks and swans) could immediately change the addict’s mood from sad to hopeful or from anxious to relaxed, so this was one tool they could use to help them manage their feelings.
One addict, from a local SA group, who has been working very diligently on his recovery, described his own struggle with internal triggers this way:
I really fear feeling lonely. I’m fine when my wife is at home or at work nearby. But sometimes she travels for work. When she’s gone I’m always gripped by this horrible, lonely feeling. I am so afraid whenever she has a work trip coming up because I know feeling lonely is a huge struggle for me. In the past I would act out. That’s how I kept from feeling lonely. Now I make sure I call my sponsor and let him know when my wife will be gone. And I can call him any time I need. I check in with my neighbors too. And I make plans. I sign up for the free programs offered at the library. Sometimes I will take a continuing education class at the local high school. I rent or go to movies or invite friends over for dinner. I have a plan in place to help me manage feeling lonely.
Comparing Trauma Triggers and Addiction Triggers
For trauma victims, a trigger is anything that adds to or taps into their already present experience of trauma. For example, in the beginning stages, trauma victims experience overwhelming feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Fear and pain are felt intensely too. Victims can also become overwhelmed with loneliness, especially those in relationships with partners who suffer from intimacy anorexia. Trauma victims are like a glass full with the waters of trauma. A trigger is only one more drop of trauma, but one drop in an already full glass will cause it to overflow.
By contrast triggers for an addict can bring on a desire to act out, not because their glass is too full but rather because a single water drop— any one feeling or desire— itself, is unmanageable, even if their glass is almost empty.
An addict is a person who has a distorted view of reality and who has never learned how to manage or regulate emotions in a healthy manner. That is why a it is important for addicts to stay committed to recovery. A strong recovery program is essential because without it, any drop in the glass continues to be too much. Faithful and committed recovery work includes much more than just stopping the negative behavior. Learning to recognize distorted thinking, and to self-regulate and manage emotions is essential for long-term recovery.
While any emotion for an addict, even an emotion that is normal and healthy, can be unmanageable, the same is not typically true with trauma victims. Trauma victims have difficulty managing emotions, not because they have a distorted view of reality or an immature or under-developed way of dealing with their emotions, but because they are already so overwhelmed by trauma and the fear of additional trauma, that any additional trauma or stress taxes their abilities to cope. That is why healing trauma requires support from coaches, counselors, support groups, good friends, and more: to help victims draw strength from the abilities of others in order to process the trauma. It is rare for a trauma victim to move through trauma and out the other side without help. But with help, it is possible to heal. This is why a partner too needs a strong recovery program.
Calming Fearful Feelings
One of the ways a betrayed partner can lessen the fear she feels and lower the water level in her trauma glass is to begin to unravel the mystery of an addict's behavior. As Dan Siegel explains, victims who actively seek to understand their partner’s addiction and their own trauma are taking a healthy step forward. When victims can look at their ever-present, chaotic, and overwhelming emotions and reality, and can make proper sense of their trauma experience and its root cause, then they can escape being caught up in the past and re-embrace the future with courage and hope.