Excellent perspective on the many worn out, beat up, burned out pastors I've know and met over the years.
Pastoral PTSD by J.A. Medders
David Shepherd writes a great article on Cross-Cultural Burnout PTSD, and ways to help missionaries deal with the debilitating illness.
Here is the link to his article:
I am making up a word here to describe one big step forward for me in my battle with PTSD. The word is "picturizing." Actually, I can't take credit for the word as it possesses a history with me.
During my many years in Southern Africa, I was privileged to know many wonderful groups of people. One such group was the Zulu nation. I developed some wonderful & close relationships with many Zulu folk. One such person was Wiseman. Wiseman was a very colorful guy, and I particularly enjoyed his English. Being fluent in English, and I myself fluent in Zulu, we both used to regularly butcher each other's language!
Well now, Wiseman when he spoke English did something very common, and that was to speak English from Zulu grammar. So, in effect, unbeknownst to him, he made up words; a lot of words! One such word when imagining something was the word "picturize" or "picturizing." Often he would say something like this, "Jabulani (my Zulu name) I, I, am picturizing this thing is my head." Translation, "I am imagining this . . ."
Another reason I am fond of this word is because since I am not in the psychological profession, it helps me ensure that my thoughts and advice are my own, and does not bleed over into the very complicated fields of psychological thought and science.
So, here is something that is really helping me. My counselor Tom started helping me with it a while ago. You see, for me, in my PTSD, with my abuser - just one of my issues, I imagine that person as a adult differently than I saw her as a child. I've learned in my adult brain to picturize that person as a small child, standing on a chair, playing cards, and acting in the manner that she did when she was an adult and I was still a child; only this time she is a cigarette smoking five year old card player.
As an adult, this helps me see who that person really was in her adult years; a wounded out of controlled dangerous child. Picturizing her as a child led me to begin to think about her more; her adult relationships, her family relationships with siblings and parents, and her opposite sex relationships, and well, you get the idea.
One picture that keeps appearing in my mind is this adult woman as an ten or eleven year old girl standing with her back towards me turning her head back around over her left shoulder as she just looks at me. In this imagine, I see a young girl who's face maps out sadness, hurt, disappointment, fear, and pain. It's very much a dejected unloved look. This is the image I picturize in my mind a lot these days. The face I see accurately portrays this person's condition.
I think it helps my logical brain or adult brain guide my emotional brain to a better place. And, with some of my issues I brought back from Africa affecting my PTSD, it also helps me to logically and rationally think taking my emotional brain - child brain to a more secure safe place.
I remember a story of a woman who was abused as a child. She learned to picturize her abuser standing on the floor only two feet high with a goofy hat on his head jumping up and down speaking in a squeaky mousy voice. Looking down on this little creature as an adult gave her a safer better picture of thinking about him. For her it helped.
For those of us who's PTSD springs out of childhood memories, perhaps picturizing in this way might actually help. It helps me, and I really want to help you too.
As always these are Just My Thoughts,
Hooks come in all shapes and sizes. They pretty much all bare one purpose in common, and that is to catch hold or snag something, and then hang on to it dragging it along. For me, that is sort of describes an aspect of my PTSD.
We talk a lot about triggers. I've written a blog about my triggers, but I think often, "What causes the triggers that trigger the triggers of my PTSD?" I think for me, my triggers are tied to hooks; events or things that traumatized me taking deep hold of me long ago. These hooks were unknown to me until recently as I worked through my PTSD with the help of friends, and my counselor Tom.
From Trigger to Hook
It's no secret for those who know me a bit, know that I spent over twenty years in South Africa involved in ministry, raising a family, teaching, and taking care of orphan children. I returned to the States because of "burnout" because family, friends, and I thought it best for me. Then eighteen months into the first church I pastored an event took place that shook my world.
One particular day, two very well known women in the congregation passed by me in the hall down from my office . One commented to the other while looking in my direction, "Oh, I hated being pregnant, I hated being fat." With that they laughed, and I guess I made a bit of a gaff when I replied, chuckling as they passed by, "I thought being pregnant was the only time it was a beautiful to be fat?" And, with that both women physically climbed into me in the church in front of my office door. Both women held positions of leadership in the church, and I have to tell you I've never, ever been hit that hard in my entire life! I remember thinking as they delivered a half dozen blows with doubled up fists, "I could take both these gals out, right now, right here with pretty much one punch each." I turned the other cheek so to speak, as they pretty much punched the crap out of me. I hope Jesus was pleased. It was pretty much my fault, I've should of know better. Never comment on a woman's weight! Rule 101 of male-female etiquette.
A Hook Uncovered
Now that one event unleashed a series of emotional events which at the time didn't seem to make much sense. If you suffer from PTSD you get this point. The sense of detachment that began particularly with that first congregation I pastored eventually led to my resignation six months later. That single event troubled me more than anything I'd seen in Africa, or anything I've seen on the fire scene serving as chaplain the past eight years. Nothing I've seen troubled me compared to that one morning in front of my office when two women in my congregation hurt me; physically and emotionally.
I was told by several leaders, not to mention the issue at first because no one would believe me, second it was my word against theirs, and third, is would cause a fracture in the congregation as both women were well respected leaders in the church. I then retreated into emotional anonymity as I was deeply deeply wounded. It wasn't until four years later that I realized, something had snagged me deep down inside; a hook.
The Hook Identified
When I first started seeing Tom, I just sort of figured right from the beginning that my struggles were due to the stresses of the pastoring a American church. And, I can tell you my friends the stresses in the pastorate are very stressful! Tom in addition to being a great counselor and therapist is also a pastor's kid. So, he understands church and ministry. We talked much about my second pastorate where my emotional paralysis grew. Over time our sessions led to my many experiences in Africa. I sort of always figured it was Africa not the pastorate that caused me such deep seated adjustment difficulties.
One particular session as I brought up the two-women assault again, Tom looked at me and said, "What was growing up like." Now, my mom was a single parent of six children. There were hard days in the 60's & 70's, and she did the best she could. She loved us, and I loved her. I actually wrote a blog about the great things my mom did for us kids.
In the sixties, being a single mom was a curse. Not many woman were single or divorced in those days. Times were tough, and I could tell many stories of our hardships. When the hardships were quite acute, mom tended to lose it. And, when she lost it - love you mom - she tended to become very very physical. This my siblings and I thought was normal in our upbringing; something all families shared in common with us. But, as we're matured we realized that my mother's physicality with us indicated she needed deep help; something she never received.
The Hook Removed
On the day two women in my church accosted me, it opened a vault door of hidden emotions unleashing fear and terror which paralyzed me for five more years. It was only when the hook was revealed, identified, and understood that I began to recover. Oh, to be sure, some of the Africa stuff had to be dealt with too, and a lot of the pastorate stuff as well, but a lot of it goes back to injury caused in the developing years of childhood.
Tom encouraged me to write about each traumatic event in my childhood in my personal journal. The more I write, the more I realize that that little boy who ran and hid as other siblings were assaulted, was just that, a little boy. That little guy doesn't exist any more. I am here and now surrounded by family and friends who love me deeply. Grandchildren bless me with their presence, and crawl all over me like the statue of Buddha you see where all the children sit all over him.
I carry a renewed sense of purpose as I launch into a new career at age fifty-seven of Life Coaching. I am also starting my own nonprofit to travel back overseas and offer free coaching, cross-cultural leadership training, and assistance to third world community leaders.
For the first time in years I am on the mend, on the up and up, and doing much much better. Oh, if you suffer from PTSD, you know it's a constant companion, but once I identified my hook, the battle of managing my PTSD got a whole lot easier and effective. And, I am finding there are other hooks too.
Just My Thoughts,
After twenty-two years in Africa while working with HIV-AIDS orphans and seeing some of the most horrendous stuff imaginable, a South African coworker, Dave, looked me in the eye and said, "Don, you are finished here. You are worn out, grounded down, and empty. Go back home to the United States. Go back home my friend, we can handle it here." Six months after our conversation, Dave, a younger man than myself, dropped dead of a heart attack. I knew deep down inside Dave was absolutely right. Seeing too much suffering, too much tragedy, and too many children and young people dying from AIDS had taken its toll. I just needed a break. So, we moved back "home."
Upon arriving in the States, my "home" really was not my home. I was as much as a foreigner in the United States after being gone so many years, as in any country in the world I'd lived or visited. My symptoms as Dave pointed out to me only accelerated and grew considerably worse upon my arrival back to Minnesota in 2006. I tried every approach in dealing with my problem. Only my closest friend, Kathy - also my wife, and myself knew about my condition. So, I embarked on a self-help journey. Receiving training and certifications in Critical Incident Stress Management, Psychological First Aid, Mental First Aid, Depression Recovery, and Chaplaincy; training all paid by two Fire Departments I served with as Chaplain, but I knew I needed more help. Here's the thing, on the Fire Scene during some of the most traumatic situations, I excelled in offering care and service. Even the really bad stuff in the United States seems, to me, hopeful compared to the suffering I'd witnessed in third-world countries.
Possessing no insurance, a friend of mine whose church, Constance Free Church, enjoys donors who provide money to help people struggling from this kind of stuff offered assistance to see a licensed counselor. Tom is his name, and over the course of a year we started working together as I was diagnosed with PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Upon, learning of the diagnoses, my world began turning around. As I continued with Tom, I began learning about the characteristics of PTSD. It gave me great hope when many of my symptoms matched the clinical characteristics of PTSD. With friends like Chuck, Randy, Kathy, Steve, and others, I began to learn how to manage my PTSD, and today am living proof that you can come through trauma, tragedy, and live a full and meaningful life!
I prefer not to call myself a PTSD survivor. I am a PTSD Thriver! My life is fuller and more meaningful today than ever before. My PTSD has helped me focus me like a laser beam to the really important stuff of life! I choose to Thrive seeing my PTSD as just one my tutors in life.
Just My Thoughts.
Most everyone who suffers from PTSD has heard of the term "triggers." A trigger is that thing that happens either inside of you (internal) or outside of you (external) that sets you and your PTSD off. Here are some of the things I've learned about my triggers that help me deal with my PTSD. Please remember, I am not a mental health expert. I share only my experience in dealing with my PTSD.
Number One - What Actually Are My Triggers?
What causes my angst, anxiety, build-up, stress, panic attacks, worry, sleeplessness, fear, flashbacks, trauma, distress, physical pain, and well . . . ? If you suffer from PTSD, you understand. So, actually, what are my triggers, and what causes them, and how do they start, and when do they adversely affect me? I've clearly identified most my triggers, but that doesn't help me enough.
Number Two - What Actually are the Sources of My Triggers?
It's one thing to simply say, "Oops, that was one of my triggers" after the fact, but quite another necessity to understand my triggers. For me, I pay close attention to my episodes looking way back into the source of the triggering of my PTSD. Simply identifying a trigger, for me, doesn't help enough. I need to start to see my trigger long before the trigger triggers my PTSD. Let me give one example.
For me sudden noises, to name one, are a problem. We don't quite understand why certain kinds of noise are such a problem for me. But, I've identified some. Having witnessed so much violence in South Africa during my many years there, the shutting of the drawers and cabinets in the office next to me made me jump every time. I kindly asked my office assistance and facilities manager to help with my problem, and they removed most of the doors from the cabinets. This helped a lot.
There are times I say to Kathy, "Please, no more noise right now." We have learned that's not me being controlling or inconsiderate, but rather understanding that certain types of noises for whatever reason puts me close to my trigger point. Together we manage my PTSD.
Number Three - Triggers, My Families, & Friends?
I've only started blogging about my PTSD recently. Always been afraid what some might think about me if they knew about my/our struggles with this. But, in my short blogging career, spouses of PTSD suffers contact me sharing some constants. The common thread about triggers is, "My spouse either does not talk with me about his/her triggers or I am not exactly sure 'what sets him/her' off."
For me, I think it very important that my wife, Kathy, and I work together on this PTSD thing. She is on the journey with me! Together we need to understand this thing, manage this thing, and make sure our lives are rich, meaningful, and rewarding, in spite of this thing or perhaps because of this thing!
At work, my closest associates know about my struggle. There are times I say, "I am a bit on edge today, please help me with this if you can." I also have a couple of close friends to share my struggle with, and my counselor Tom has helped a lot!
Number Four - Avoid Triggers Sources if I Can
I find it best to avoid my triggers if I can. But, that is not always possible. A confrontational loud accusative person jumping in my face, another one of my triggers, is a real problem for me at times. And, I can tell you as a pastor there are always these types of people ready to launch into me at any give time without warning or rationale. If there is even an inkling of such a meeting coming, I avoid it by cold shouldering, not being present, ignoring, or just giving a short answer and walking away. Yes, a few of those personalities have left the church because, "my pastor wouldn't listen to me" but the truth of the matter is at this point and time in my life, this type of confrontation is something I am unable to deal with in a healthy manner. It totally destroys me inside.
So, while avoiding outside sources of triggering is impossible, I do try to manage my environment as best I can.
Number Five - See My Triggers Positively
As one of my goals is to avoid an intense acute PTSD episode, I choose to look at my triggers as a positive rather than a negative. I want to get to know my triggers, and know them well. Actually, my triggers are perhaps my friends. Sort of like my early warning system. If I pay attention to them, they will alert me early that trouble is coming. By avoiding this trouble, I can be closer to my wife, closer to my sons, closer to their spouses, closer to my grandchildren, and closer to my friends.
Here's the thought I leave for we who suffer from PTSD. Can perhaps our triggers be more of a helping device than a hurting device? Can our triggers help us see into the source of our PTSD? Or, at the very least help us manage our PTSD? And, could our triggers point us in a new direction? A better direction? Can life be richer not in spite of PTSD, but because of my PTSD?
Just My Thoughts
Once talking with a woman, she shared with me her story. Her husband, a returning Iraqi war vet, suffered from PTSD. She lamented, "He will talk to the dog, hold the dog, touch the dog, and allow the dog to sit on his lap, but he will not do any of those things to me. How am I supposed to feel? It's almost as if he considers me a threat; like I'm the enemy or something!" As the relationship developed, the husband shared that when around his dog it was the only time he felt safe.
So I'm not an expert here, but it seems that traumatic events in a person's life can turn one into someone who is afraid to trust, afraid to open up, afraid to engage, and fearful of vulnerability. That's what it feels like to me with my PTSD. But, here's the thing I think of quite often now. Who or what really is my enemy?
I know this, it's not those who love me the most and are closest to me. It is not that coworker who irritates me beyond measure. It's not your unsympathetic boss, or gnarly sibling, or uncaring society. Or for me as a pastor, that handful of parishioners who make my life difficult; they are not the enemy. Who or what than is exactly the enemy?
There is an enemy that seeks to slay me unless I learn to control it; an enemy which alienates me from those closest to me. An enemy which tells me, "Stay in my safe place, protect me at all cost, and trust no one." This is the enemy I think everyone of us must face and deal with perhaps every day. An enemy which can be controlled at the very least and at the very best defeated. It is a daily battle we must engage in. A dragon one must continually slay forcing it into subjection. And, as we gain the upper hand we gain hope. That enemy is my PTSD and depression. There are few things that I can control in life. But, one thing I can try to control is how I deal with my issues, my problems, or condition.
Might I encourage us with the help of our family, friends, and counselors to look at that thing that slays us a hundred times as being the only true enemy in our lives. This enemy must be dealt with, and as we learn to control it - not it control us - then perhaps we will find that the fangs and claws are not as big as imagined, and in fact the beast we feared is now a companion we can harness and use to take us to a better place, a higher place, a richer place, and a place of better relationships with those around us.
All the signs were there. I just wasn't aware that someone other than soldiers experiencing active combat could suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD. Upon learning of my struggle I discovered that anyone experiencing a traumatic event can suffer from PTSD.
Now, I must make this very clear, that I am not a licensed counselor. I am however someone who suffers from PTSD. What I share with you is only my journey, experiences, and assistance I've received in managing my own PTSD. If this is of encouragement to someone than it is well worth my time I am putting into these blogs. My suffering lasted more than a decade before, with the help of others; I started to get a handle on it.
My PTSD signs:
Finally, October of 2013 I reached out to a pastor friend Randy in Andover, Minnesota. After listening intently he said, "Don, you need someone to help you through this." Well, not possessing insurance this was an impossibility. But, Randy replied, "Our church will pay for you to get the help you need." I started meeting weekly with Tom a licensed therapist and the road to recovery began. More to come.
Don spent twenty-two years with his wife, Kathy, serving orphan children and HIV-AIDS families in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Towards the last few years in South Africa, close friends and family noticed he was struggling with something. No one was quite sure. So, with a return to the United States Don thought a change was all he needed.