This the first sermon in the series for our Back to the Basics series entitled “Becoming a Trauma-Informed Community.
I’m going to tell you the story about the worst and best day of my life. A year and a half ago, Patrick got sick and didn’t get better. He began losing weight; he had headaches that wouldn’t go away. We went to the doctor three times, made one visit to the ER… and I can’t remember how many times I called the Kaiser advice nurse. And then, at 3 o’clock in the morning on Dec. 5th — Jerome’s birthday — I awoke to find Patrick having a seizure beside me in bed. Words can’t describe the panic that ripped through my body. He was calm as we rode in the ambulance to the hospital, but in the emergency room, with several doctors crowded around his bedside, he became incredibly agitated, trying to pull the IVs out of his arm and crying out in a way I had never heard before. I couldn’t bear to be in the room with him. I was too frightened, panicked. In order not to completely freak out, I had to leave, go into a quiet room and text the prayer warriors in my life to ask them to pray for Patrick. I calmed down and went back to Patrick. But then, I would find the panic overtaking me again, and I would go back to the room to breathe or drink the cool orange juice that the nurses had left for me. Jerome was my rock, as he always is. He alone stayed with Patrick throughout that whole three-hour ordeal in the ER at Children’s Hospital, calming his own fears enough to be steadfastly present.
In trauma terms, my nervous system was hyper-aroused. Or, put another way, I was extremely neurologically dysregulated. Leaving the room, calling in support, breathing all helped to bring that arousal, that dysregulation, down to a place where I could function. Sort of. Jerome was able to maintain a more steady neurological state than me. Though he, too, was frightened, he was able to stay in what trauma experts call the “resilient zone” or the “window of tolerance.” Thank God one of us was.
We transferred Patrick to Kaiser, and there he became unconscious. In a way, this was a blessing. He was no longer agitated and crying out. In another way, of course, it was just as scary. I was still very frightened, but I was able to fairly consistently stay in the “resilient zone” by this point. For one thing, I was able to bodily release some of the terror energy I had been holding. Pat came to the hospital and led me in some simple body exercises that helped release some of it. In addition, Jerome and I went for a walk while Patrick was getting a CT scan, and — thank God — there was a park with trees right across the street from the hospital. We held each other and leaned back into a redwood tree, so that it could hold us. We both breathed deeply, for what felt like the first time that day, and cried. We felt connected to the tree and in an odd way felt that it absorbed some of our fear and pain. We still call it “the magic tree.”
In addition, ever since I had called in my prayer warriors early in the morning, I felt connected to a web of women who were holding me. As these women checked in with me, some of them shared what they were experiencing in their prayer for Patrick. This moved me deeply and began to re-weave the fabric of meaning that had been torn apart by the morning’s terror. I began to feel, again, that Something Bigger was present with Patrick and present with us. Later, other angels arrived and provided hugs, hot tea, food and beds for us to sleep on that night. We also knew — and could feel — that we were being held in prayer by all of you. These acts of comfort and care also held us together. The words of the song “Will you let me be your servant” went through my head: “I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joys and sorrows ’til we see this journey through.” I knew that no matter what happened, we were not going to go through it alone. I was accompanied by the Divine, and by the “body of Christ” — you.
You know how this story ends. Later that night, in answer to so many prayers, Patrick woke up, and I knew he was back. I knew this because one of the first things he said after awaking was “Flubber,” which was this little schtick he used to do back in 5th grade. I got so tired of hearing “Flubber” back then. And I was never so happy as when I heard him saying it at 11 p.m. in the ICU. Although it would be a couple of days before we really understood what was going on with him — viral meningitis — the crisis was over. My son was not going to die or be permanently damaged. My nervous system was calmed to the point where I even could sleep that night.
(Let’s take a deep breath. Shake it out. Say “flubber.”)
Oddly, when we began this series, I mindlessly said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced trauma.” Hello? That day was definitely one where Jerome and I both experienced trauma. A definition of trauma the I like is: any threat to ourselves or others that overwhelms our usual methods of coping. I want to say that not all trauma experts would agree with this definition. It is one I learned from the STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) webinar I did a few months back, and it is a broader definition of trauma than some.
Let’s unpack that definition a little. That threat could be physical, as it was with Patrick, but it could also be an emotional or spiritual threat — because a threat can feel annihilating to our being and not be physical. Witness the psychological and spiritual wounding of racism, heterosexism, etc. etc. Witness the spiritual wounding of fear-based theologies. How about being told that you or a loved one will swim in a lake of fire for all eternity to induce a bit of spiritual trauma? This threat doesn’t need to be directed at you, obviously. If someone you love is threatened, you actually may be more stressed by that threat than the person threatened — as was the case with us and Patrick, who glided through the whole experience. An event can be traumatic even if you don’t know the people threatened. When Kinari went to Indonesia right after that huge tsunami in 2004 to help victims of the disaster, she was exposing herself to trauma, even though she didn’t know anybody affected by the tsunami. Trauma experts call this vicarious trauma, and it’s especially common in “first-line responders” who work directly with traumatized people and populations — like many in our church do.
Trauma also overwhelms our usual methods of coping. During a traumatic event, those coping methods that keep us within the “resilient zone” or “window of tolerance” crumble. We can’t keep ourself together. We either go into hyper-arousal, as I did, or we go into a freeze or numb state, a dissociative state. Trauma also “overwhelms our capacity to make intelligible sense of them because they are stronger and more intense than the best meaning-making strategy we have” (From Serene Jones’ book Trauma and Grace). That morning, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my world and I had fallen into some sort of alternative universe that didn’t make sense. I have seen people who have just had a loved one die suddenly also have their “meaning making” capacities overwhelmed. They will often say, over and over, “It just doesn’t make any sense. I just can’t wrap my mind around this.” What overwhelms one person may not overwhelm another. Witness Jerome and I in that ER at Children’s Hospital. He was able to stay in the “resilience zone” and not get overwhelmed, while I was not, at first.
The example of trauma from my own life that was linked to a one-time event — an illness, although it could have been an accident, a natural disaster, a surgery, violence. But trauma can also be caused by events or circumstances that are ongoing, continuous. This is why systemic discrimination or poverty can be especially traumatic. Like: Growing up lesbian or gay in a homophobic community. Wondering if a loved one is going to be the victim of police brutality every time they step out the door. Not having enough food to eat on a regular basis. Constantly fearing deportation or eviction. Working within a hostile environment where “dignity violations” or micro-aggressions are ongoing. Living within a hostile home environment where abuse or neglect occurs.
And last, traumatic events befall collectives of people, not just individuals — families, communities, regions (think Hurricane Harvey), nations. Many folks have said that Sept. 11 was a collective trauma for this country — one we did not handle well, since we didn’t heal or transform the trauma, we just continued it by going to war.
Even though we will experience trauma in our life, this doesn’t mean that we have to be traumatized in an ongoing way. Jerome and I experienced trauma that day but we were were able to release the trauma energy and not have its effects persist in our life. Trauma not released and integrated into our life can get stuck in our individual body spirits and also in our collective body spirits. That stuck energy can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits in the form of enduring stress or trauma reactions. I’m not going to go into all of varieties of stress or trauma reactions during this sermon. There’s a great handout from the Eastern Mennonite University’s trauma training that talks about how stuck trauma energy results in “acting out” behaviors, meaning aggression and violence against others like bullying, criminal activity, blaming others, viewing violence as redemptive. Or it can result in “acting in” behaviors, aggression or violence against ourselves like depression, learned helplessness or fatalism, internalized oppression. The handout is called “Cycles of Violence,” because unless the trauma is interrupted and healed, it will keep on getting passed along.
This stuck trauma can pass down from generation to generation. EMU held a workshop several years ago called “Transforming Historical Harms.” It looked at how “colonization, civil war, slavery, genocide, and systemic discrimination cause traumatic reactions and impacts and are embodied in generation after generation. The victims of such trauma and their descendants obviously carry wounds,” said the workshop leaders, “but so do the perpetrators (and their descendants).”
I think you can begin to understand why I said in the email earlier this week that once you begin learning about trauma, you see it everywhere — in our personal psyches, in our relationships, within our communities, and in our political and social world. If we really want to be about what Jewish folks call “tikkun olam” — mending the world — and what we call bringing about the realm of God on earth, we have to understand something about trauma and its impacts and also about its healing.
Living in these mortal bodies, we will experience terrible things. Traumatizing things. But, we can also experience interrupting grace. Grace that interrupts trauma and keeps it from becoming stuck trauma. Grace that interrupts stuck trauma and can heal it. One source of that interrupting grace is our own bodies. We have been beautifully created to be strong, resilient creatures. Trauma experts say that we are wired to survive, that our bodies’ natural wisdom knows how to deal with trauma, just like a gazelle is able to run several miles being chased by a tiger, narrowly escape, shake off the trauma and rather peacefully eat grass a few minutes later. One book about this natural capacity of our bodies to release trauma is called “In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.” I like that. Just the title alone speaks about what happened to Jerome and I as we leaned back against the magic tree.
Another source of that interrupting grace is Christ, the Spirit of God, the Divine Presence is always with us. Psalm 139: “If I make my bed in hell, you are there. Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” In the early hours of my own terror that day, I wasn’t able to hold onto this promise — but many of you could, and you eventually led me back to this assurance.
And we are sources of interrupting grace for each other. Many people find grace through healing professionals who understand how to release and heal trauma. Or through oppressed or marginalized communities who have become geniuses at resilience and resistance to trauma. I think of the African-American community and way spirituals and the blues and Gospel music and hip-hop has built resilience and healing from trauma into that community. And in the nighttime of our fear, you were sources of interrupting grace to us. You came to us — as Jesus did to the disciples on the road to Emmaus — full-bodied and present. You were able to hold us together through your care and comfort. You helped us reorder our disordered thoughts, transform our terror into meaning. You showed us that we were not alone. I think this is why Jerome and I refer to Dec. 5 as the worst and best day of our lives. Not only did we lose and then recover our son during that one day. We also faced the worst fear of our life and received the most profound blessings of our life on the same day.
I am aware that not all trauma is so easily resolved as the story I have been telling you. Sometimes, it takes years of hard work to heal. In fact, I could have told you another story about how stuck trauma in my family of origin has continued to follow me and my family until the present day. But I know that the possibility for healing and releasing this trauma is always present. Grace can always interrupt. May we increasingly become a community of this interrupting grace, so that we can transform violence and suffering in our lives and in the life of the world.