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So hold me Jesus,
Cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
—Rich Mullins, “Hold Me Jesus”
There I stood on a remote street, alone in the dark, completely naked. I was drunk out of my mind and yelling toward Heaven at the top of my lungs.
The place was not always the same, but the fact that I was intoxicated, naked, and crying out to God for help was nothing new.
I had no idea what was happening to me as I stood there shaking with broken beer bottles covering the road around my bare feet, pleading for help. “God, what the f**k is wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this?” I screamed into the night.
This was not the first time such a scene had played out in my life, but it was the last. A short time later, God reached out and grabbed me by the collar and shook until I was done. It is here that I begin this story. Only God could orchestrate the chaos that was my life into what it has become today. There is nothing clean and neat about my story. Likewise, there is nothing clean and neat about this book. I can assure you it will get downright messy at times.
In 2008 I encountered God in a way that I didn’t at first recognize as being God. He radically disassembled every aspect of my life and then reassembled my world into something that I never thought possible.
Rich Mullins must have been referring to this same God that I encountered when he said, “God is a wild man . . . should you encounter Him . . . hang on for dear life—or let go for dear life is a better way to say it.”I chose to let go, not knowing or caring if I would survive. I hit the end of myself so hard that I didn’t care if I lived or died.
The fact that I was drunk and naked had absolutely nothing to do with sex—or did it? I should say it had nothing to do with a desire for sex. At the time I had no idea what was happening to me other than that I was unbearably uncomfortable. I had been uncomfortable for most of my life and had no real understanding of why. At the time I didn’t recognize that my life had been one long, frustrating journey to find some semblance of peace, to find lasting comfort.
This is what being sexually abused as a child does to a person. Quite often it leaves victims physically wounded, but the emotional scars that it inflicts are the most damaging. For many children, sexual abuse goes undetected, and all too often if it is brought to the light, it is minimalized. We have all heard phrases like “kids are tough” or “he or she will bounce back in no time.”
The harsh reality is that although many children learn to live with the aftermath of abuse, they are ticking time bombs, headed toward a debilitating self-destructive future. I have a deep desire to reach out to others who have suffered childhood trauma. Millions of souls suffer from anxiety, addictions, and physical ailments and have no idea why. Much like me, they go through life living day to day with feelings of being discontent and uncomfortable emotionally and all too often physically.
Many of us live under the pretense that the further we distance ourselves from our childhood, the better we will feel because we believe the lie that “time heals all wounds.” As evidenced by the story of my life, such fables of time and healing do not hold water emotionally, psychologically, or scientifically. Many of us have learned to stuff the memories of our past so far into a dark corner somewhere that we have all but forgotten the reason for our pain, yet it continues to poison every aspect of our lives.
In the past thirty to forty years, a growing body of evidence has linked childhood sexual abuse with psychological disorders such as PTSD and physically debilitating autoimmune and nervous system disorders.
The subtitle of this book is “Childhood Sexual Abuse, PTSD, What I Wish I Had Known, and the Cost of Silence.” This book is about sharing all the things that I have learned about the devastating aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse. If I had known what I have learned over the past ten years thirty years ago, it would have undoubtedly saved me years of psychological and physical suffering—not only my suffering but also the suffering I have inflicted on the world around me through my chaotic and disruptive behavior. I will discuss in detail the cost of silence that is paid by far too many of us.
Albert Einstein wrote in his highly controversial 1954 essay “Religion and Science” that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” There has long been contention between the proponents of these two points of view—the two camps being so caught up in the pride of proving their position that they have become blinded to the truth held in both science and religion.
I spent over two decades immersed in the Christian subculture. In many ways my life was enriched through that experience, but in others I was worse off after twenty years than when I started. I spent years being indoctrinated with the belief that psychology is bad and nothing more than “psychobabble”—a term that I and my fellow believers used regularly.
I was in my mid-forties before I was introduced to the term PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and much of its associated jargon, as associated with child abuse. I had always associated PTSD with soldiers returning home from war, not victims of child abuse.
At age forty-three, the time bomb finally detonated, and my life came apart at the seams. The reality of my past caught up with me so hard and so fast that it disassembled every aspect of my world. The pain was inescapable. The past that I had fought my entire life to ignore and even deny had caught up with me and was not letting go.
If someone had insinuated that I was suffering from PTSD a year before my life was so abruptly derailed, I would have said they were crazy. I was on top of the world. My business was booming, and things were going as well as could be expected with my family. I was a deacon in our church. Life was just getting good, but little did I know that in the not-so-distant future, my life would be abruptly and dramatically changed.
The best way I can describe what happened is that I came undone. Twenty years ago I would have been labeled as having a nervous breakdown—a term that has since been abandoned by the mental health community. I was out of control. I began self-medicating heavily with alcohol and pornography. Sleep was unattainable and mocked me for weeks. I would sleep for twenty or thirty minutes at a time and awaken in a panic attack, gasping for air. Falling asleep became something I dreaded. As hard as I tried, I was unable to escape the realities of life and my past.
Through a series of events that I can only describe a supernatural, I landed at a church that loved me through my manic and irrational state. They referred me to a counseling center for sexually abused children. God had begun to answer the question, “What’s wrong with me?”, that I had screamed into the darkness just a few months earlier.
I had attended church regularly for most of my adult life but could not find the peace for which I was searching. I would go for long periods, months and even years, feeling very secure in my faith. Then at times, seemingly out of nowhere, I would become unsettled and pick up my old habits of self-medicating. It had become a continuous cycle, and the longer I stayed in church, the deeper I would retreat into my shame.
The idea of acknowledging that I was an addict or suffered from mental illness was unthinkable. I had become very good at hiding my addiction from others and lying to myself. The Christian subculture that I was involved with viewed mental illness as weakness. The church that I had been attending for over five years before I finally came to the end of myself viewed any type of illness as a lack of faith. A common phrase was “The world may say you are sick, but the truth is that you are healed by His stripes,” meaning the suffering of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:5). Yes, Jesus can and does heal us, but we were missing part of the equation.
The good news is that along my journey I discovered a growing community of Bible-believing Christians who have embraced the discoveries of science and modern psychology. Many of these men and women are helping those within the Church understand that mental illness is a treatable disorder and not merely a lack of faith.
As we journey through these pages, we will delve into the science of psychology. Although the record shows that Einstein had a difficult time believing in a God who is involved with His Creation on a personal level, it is clear that he recognized the fingerprints of intelligent design spread across our physical universe. For me, learning about the magnificent complexities of the mind and human psychology reinforces my faith in God. I stand in awe of His Creation. I often wonder if our Father in Heaven breaks out in a coy grin, brimming pride when His children discover one of the complexities of His Creation, such as gravity, the speed of light, or the brain’s limbic system. After all, what good father could resist?
In all my years of pastoral and Christian counseling, I never heard terms such a hypervigilance, dissociation,adverse childhood experience (ACE), or dysautonomia. These are all terms that I wish I had understood so many years ago. My life may have been much different. I will discuss all of these terms and many others as we move along. The science of psychology is not “psychobabble”any more than religion is “nothing more than mere superstition.”God heals, but His people are perishing because of ignorance (Hosea 4:6). Much of the terminology associated with psychology may sound a bit foreboding, but let me assure you that as we continue, we will learn that such terminology is not to be feared. This language is nothing more than words given to help describe the human condition.
If you can relate to my experience with my church, I believe that as we move along you will find a roadmap that will help you begin to heal. If you are a pastor and have encountered people like me under your care, I hope you will listen to my heart as you turn the pages. I have no doubt that you have encountered many people like me. I feel confident saying this because I know there are countless others just like me seeking healing in churches all around the world.
For the minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and make that recognition the starting point of his service. Whether he tries to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks.
—Henri Nouwen – The Wounded Healer Ministry in Contemporary Society
This heart that Henri Nouwen speaks of is not necessarily wounded through shared experience. Christ did not weep with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb because He lacked faith as they did but out of deep compassion (John 11:35). Jesus did not enter into His Creation to understand but to suffer with those He loves. He dares to enter into the inner person and dwell with us in all of the joy and suffering of this life.
As I fought my way through recovery, I discovered something interesting. I experienced the same reluctance to accept mental illness as a legitimate cause for physical disorders from the medical community as I did with those in the Church. When I say physical illness, I am including conditions such as anxiety and depression along with autoimmune, autonomic nervous system, and many other disorders and sicknesses. Anyone who suffers with anxiety attacks and depression understands all too well that our bodies share in the experience. At the suggestion of such an idea, I would receive the same look from many of my doctors as I received from my pastor. Why the reluctance? This is a question that I will do my best to answer after I share a little more of my story.
Just as I started to feel that I was back on my feet emotionally, my journey took a new and unexpected turn. I began experiencing neurological issues that we later discovered were associated with PTSD. I have been prescribed anxiety medication many times throughout my life. I have heard people say that “stress is a killer”for years, but I had no idea that it was literally killing me. Stress had become a way of life, the atmosphere in which I lived. I hated the way anxiety medication made me feel, or should I say, “not feel.” I had lived for so long with my body being marinated by stress hormones that the feeling had become normal.
In 2014 I was diagnosed with Proximal Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). I was treated with a metaphysical approach through the wonders of pharmacology. Again, I resisted the medication because I hated the way it made me feel, and it did very little or nothing to stop my AFib.
A short time later I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which at the time was considered by my doctor to be a possible reason for my AFib. Despite a couple of years of sleeping with a BiPAP machine, and my health continued to decline.
In 2016 I began writing this book without the understanding that my health issues could possibly be associated with PTSD. A year earlier, in 2015, I published a book titled Purgatory: Heaven’s Healing Waters. It’s a book about God’s healing touch in the lives of His children. I shared my history of abuse as a child and that I had come to a place of forgiveness and love toward my abusers. Several readers suggested I consider writing a book about my recovery. I wasn’t sure I was ready for such an endeavor, but the idea tugged on my heartstrings. As with so much in life, God asks us to step into the unknown as He takes us by the hand. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready, but God was. Little did I understand that writing this book was as much about my continued healing as sharing my experiences and what I have learned.
Soon after I began writing, I started experiencing severe anxiety attacks and depression. I was finding it impossible to sleep once again. I would sleep for short periods, only to wake, gasping for air and my heart beating out of control. At the time, my therapist asked me what I was feeling just after waking, and the best I can describe the first moments is that it was as if death had become a person and was in the room with me, glaring just inches from my face. I had become fixated on my own mortality. I was beginning to doubt if I was even close to being qualified to write about healing.
I began having heart palpations—at times several per minute. I was also diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and gastric reflux. For almost a year, I was unable to function without a steady diet of antacids and laxatives. I even purchased a special bed, so I could sleep with my head and chest elevated to help with the perpetual feeling of heartburn.
In 2018 I finally received a diagnosis that helped me begin to put the pieces together. At the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, I was diagnosed with cardiovagal failure and a low HRV (heart rate variability) score. Both conditions fall within the broader heading of dysautonomia—an all-encompassing term used to describe a myriad of symptoms associated with autonomic nervous system disruption.
Let me give an abbreviated explanation of what this diagnosis means. Many of our body’s electrical impulses are regulated by what is called the ANS (autonomic nervous system). This system is made up of two interdependent subsystems called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The SNS (sympathetic nervous system) is responsible for revving up our bodies when needed—somewhat like pressing the gas pedal in a car. The PSNS (parasympathetic nervous system) is responsible for calming our bodies—throttling down and applying the brakes. Much of the function of the PSNS is controlled through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the base of our brain and meanders, relaying signals from our brain to our organs all the way down to our lower abdomen. It connects just about everything to everything.
When we breathe in, the SNS releases a stress hormone that causes our heart rate to increase, and when we breathe out, the PSNS through the vagus nerve slows the heart. You can detect this for yourself. Find your pulse in your wrist and slowly breathe in. You will feel your pulse increase. And when you slowly breathe out, you will feel your pulse decrease. This is part of what your doctor is doing when he or she is listening to your heart with a stethoscope and asks you to breathe in and breathe out. They are listening for the way your heart responds.
When our ANS is sending proper signals to our heart via the vagus nerve, this speeding up and slowing down should vary slightly between heartbeats. When this happens it indicates that the heart is responding to signals from the autonomic nervous system. When it doesn’t happen, it could because there is a communication problem between the ANS and the heart.
When I asked if this is something that would get better, the doctor said he wasn’t sure. He said some people get better and some get worse. Yes, he was being vague. Unfortunately, in the culture of western medicine, conditions without a pharmacological remedy all too often go untreated. If there is no incentive for a big payoff through the sale of drugs, research money is limited.
He went on to explain that some medications can help reduce the uncomfortable feelings associated with the disorder, but the key to getting better is reducing stress, which is something I have failed at miserably for most of my life.
I had two choices at that point: 1) do nothing and spend the rest of my shortened life on disability and heavily medicated or 2) dig in and use the mind that God gave me to figure out how to get better.
I chose the latter and began reading everything I could on the subject of PTSD and neurological disorders. I quickly realized I was not alone. A few simple searches on the Internet, and I uncovered countless books and articles linking neurological and autoimmune disorders to trauma. Many of the case studies and articles that I read could have been about me.
I must admit that I was angry at first. Why such a disconnect between the undeniable mountain of evidence and our medical community? When we begin to understand that western medical schools do not teach a holistic approach to medicine, we will begin to understand the disconnect.
Western medicine is a system of specialists who treat symptoms and are trained to have very little interest in the “hows and the whys” and instead are taught to heal through pharmacology or surgery. For example, if your heart is beating out of rhythm, they understand what medications or procedures may help, but little thought, if any, is given to the body as a whole. To further illustrate the point, when I asked my cardiologist if my irritable bowel syndrome could be affecting my heart, he said he had no idea and recommended that I see a gastroenterologist. When the subject of PTSD came up, he sent me to a psychiatrist.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am very grateful for all the advancements in modern medicine. My life has been significantly improved through our medical system, but sometimes we need to connect the dots for ourselves.
Let’s return to the question above: why are doctors reluctant to accept mental illness as a legitimate reason for physical illness? The answer, to put it bluntly, is ignorance and fear. Most of us who have received any type of sales training have heard the saying, “A confused mind always says no.” It is human nature to resist what we do not understand.
It stands to reason that the way we overcome this resistance and fear is through understanding (knowledge). So, the short answer is through compassion, a word that is ubiquitous in our world, though somewhat misunderstood. As we grow in knowledge, we will discover that compassion is many things, one of which is the evidence of understanding. Compassion is also proof that we are in the presence of love. The Word of God tells us that“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Henri Nouwen writes, in his book The Wounded Healer, “For a compassionate man nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.”
It is not possible to travel the path that leads toward healing without walking in the authority of compassion.As we move forward, we will learn that compassion is much more than a concept. Compassion is not only necessary for healing to begin, it is palpable and life giving and has authority over Creation.
This book is in no way intended to be an all-encompassing guide to PTSD and the healing of trauma, but is intended as a starting place. I quote many resources written by experts in the field of childhood sexual abuse, traumatic stress, and recovery. It is my hope that you will obtain and read the books and articles that I reference. I hope you will view them as trail markers as you progress along your path of healing.
My greatest desire for you, dear reader, is that you will find hope in the pages that follow and an avenue for recovery for yourself or another—if nothing else, a place to begin. I am not a mental health professional, a priest, or a pastor. I’m just a guy with something to share. I will share my hurts and fears, hopes and dreams, what I have learned from my experiences and from others along the way, my ideas of God and who He has become in my life, and what I have found to be the most beneficial avenues of healing.
As you journey through the pages, you will find areas labeled as “rabbit trails.” Rabbit trails are side trails that I take from time to explore bits of background, foundational, or related information that I believe readers may find interesting.
Much of what you are about to read is weighty, as are the issues involved with trauma and sexual abuse. I hope you hang in there with me as I do my best to answer all the questions that I anticipate you may have as we move along. One of the things I have learned is that there are so many important questions that we are not even aware to ask. When I began this work, I felt I had dealt with my past and was ready to move on with my life. Little did I understand that God was not through with me. I don’t know that He is ever through with any of us. God is not interested in having His children just get by in life. His word so clearly communicates, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”(John 10:10). As I mentionedabove, I am not so sure this endeavor is as much about God continuing His healing work in me as it is about my reaching out to others.
When God touches one of us, He touches us all. We are all in this together.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society(New York: Image Books, 1972), xvi.
Nouwen, The Wounded Healer,41.