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Traumatic Truths

motivational pictures

A few years ago I attended a conference about spirituality and trauma conducted by Dr. Robert Grant. I highly recommend his book The Way of the Wound if you have either been affected by trauma in any way, or if you deal as a professional counselor, therapist, or pastoral care giver. The fact is that we all experience difficult times and very often trauma is at the heart of them.

During that seminar he went through a number of things and going back through my notes I decided to pull some of them out, you can note some of my dark humor and sarcasm, not that there is anything wrong with that…. But really all kidding aside these are abiding truths and they can be both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. To me they actually help make sense of the world.

Back when I was in seminary and in  my early years of ministry, in fact up until the time I landing in Iraq, I was filled with a lot of certitude. I can’t say that now, I have faith but I doubt at least as much as I believe. As baseball great Earl Weaver said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

So here are some truths, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

Despite my snarkey comment the fact is that we live in a culture that denies death, while death is such an integral part of life.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

We all know people, very good people who do all the right things and despite that still experience trauma and tragedy.

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

Now be assured I do believe in planning, including thinking about contingencies, and I do this pretty well. That being said there is seldom a week that goes by where I do not experience something that gums up my plans.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time.

Need I say more about this?

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

This thought by Bonhoeffer one drives a lot of people crazy, especially religious people who have to try to prove things that they cannot prove.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

I believe in the goodness of most people, but I am also a realist, evil and malevolence is all too real and all to much a part of our world. Until we get that, we will never understand those that commit evil, especially those that do so in the name of God.

So anyway, since we are getting ready for another big winter storm I will close for the day. Tomorrow we’ll see what I put out, until then I think that I just might drink beer instead.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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Till the Smoke Clears: A Reflection on PTSD and Faith

A morning drive in Iraq, looks like that here too

We are in a drought in Eastern North Carolina and with that drought have come forest and peat fires in the areas surrounding the Crystal Coast. The fires have now shrouded the summer sky with a layer of dense smoke and the National Weather Service is predicting poor air quality and visibilities of a mile or less.

I had been noticing it periodically over the past few weeks and occasionally the stench from the fires would catch me unsuspecting and send me back to Iraq. Anyone that has served in Iraq can testify of the pall of smoke from burn pits and in locations around the cities and countryside of Iraq. Those afflicted with PTSD often have a heightened sense of awareness to things that most people take for granted such as noise, light and smell.  Having experienced this myself and talked to many more men and women that served in Iraq, especially those with PTSD these normal parts of everyday life now seem to be hard wired into our brains along with a need for safety and a certain level of hyper-vigilance.

Sand smoke and clouds

I had to drive to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point for my BLS recertification at the Medical Clinic this morning and the sky was weird hue. It reminded me somewhat of Iraq and the smell of the smoke hit me as did the sound of helicopters and jets taking part in a large exercise.  For a fair amount of the trip I was back in Iraq.  When I returned to LeJeune I had to stop by the UPS Store for a simple transaction and as I was filling out the paperwork someone barged in and slammed the door to the store as the sound of bombs exploding on the bombing ranges of the coast of Camp LeJeune went off. About that time a police car roared by with its siren wailing, just like they did in Iraq. I had to about put myself back into my skin as I remembered a morning doing PT near the perimeter of Taqaddam air base when an explosion rocked the town of Habbinyah less than a mile away with gunfire and sirens following the explosion. That’s some good living.  Hurriedly paying I got out of the store got in my trusty 2001 Honda CR-V and got on the road. As I drove west toward the base the smoke was worse in places as was the stench.

Sunset in the smoke and sand and a smoky day in ENC

I got back to the Hospital and took care of what I needed to do and went home. On the way out the door I could not find my Blackberry. It was nowhere. Not in my uniform, my desk or anywhere. I wracked my brain wondering where it could be.  Then I thought that it had to be at the UPS store, the Cherry Point Clinic or the Cherry Point base gas station.  I was beginning to hit panic mode but was able to calm down and as I drove back home toward the UPS store I just prayed that I had left it there. Thankfully I had and the very kind lady that runs the store had safeguarded it.  Evidently when the other customer had slammed herself through the door I had dropped it out of my hand without even noticing.  That old startle response is still there and thank God for life in small towns.

I finally arrived at home relatively calm and turned on baseball. As I fixed dinner I could hear more bombs exploding on the ocean bombing range which is only about 6 or 7 miles away from my apartment.  Meanwhile the aircraft were much more active even deep into the night. I turned up the television and hunkered down on my big bean bag, finished an article that I began yesterday about the Battle of the Philippine Sea and tried to tune out the aircraft and the occasional explosion.

Hanging on at the end of the Iraq deployment with RP1 Nelson Lebron

A friend of mine recently wrote about the “tentacles of PTSD” which I think is an apt description of the neuro-sensory reactions that are part of life with PTSD.  While I have had a lot fewer reactions over the past few months I have noticed an increase of hyper-arousal and hyper vigilance as these stimuli trigger physical responses to perceived danger.

I remember when I was collapsing in the summer of 2008 there was a rather large and long burning fire in the Great Dismal Swamp. I walked out one morning and the smoke was so thick that the sky looked just like Iraq between the smoke and sandstorms.  That was the day that after a daylong seminar on combat and trauma that my medical officer looked at me and asked if I was okay and I said that I wasn’t. In fact that was around June 16th 2008.  It marked the beginning of me recognizing that I was different and damaged and that nothing was the same including my faith which was shattered to the point that for all practical purposes I was an agnostic. But that day was also my first step to healing.

Now I do not expect a major crash because I am a lot more aware of what is going on and what triggers me. At the same time I do feel less safe in large part due to the sights sounds and smells that are running rampant and reminding me of Iraq. They say that the smoke will be worse tomorrow and the temperatures will also rise into the mid-90s, low by Iraq standards but enough to increase sensitivity to the sights sounds and smells that I and thousands of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the area will experience.

Eventually the smoke from the fires will clear away and with it the neuro-stimuli should decrease and life will return to my “post Iraq normal” where the hyper-vigilance will subside a bit. In the mean time I have the wonderful privilege of caring for and providing ministry to those who like me have returned from war changed.

My faith which was shattered when I returned from Iraq has returned and while I still have days where I have doubts I am no longer an agnostic.  I am able to be with those that doubt and even those that have “broken up with God” to use the term of Sarah Sentilles, especially those who had their faith damaged by war. I see a lot of that here as well as a lot of men and women that have doubts but try to hold onto faith while battling PTSD, TBI, depression, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts.  Many like I did probably have to lie to their friends and families about their doubts, fears and struggles because most people don’t want to hear them.  When people do start talking they become “radioactive” to use the term of Dr. Robert Grant.  For me that openness cost me friends in my former denomination and led to me being asked to leave it in September of last year. I am better for the experience but it is still somewhat painful as I see more young men and women coming home from war not only injured or damaged in mind body and spirit but also wondering about the war itself and feeling cut off from their countrymen.  No one likes to talk about that but there are tens of thousands of veterans including many still on active duty that struggle with all of this.

Yes the smoke will clear someday, I am confident that somehow God’s grace mercy and love shown to us in Jesus will get us all through.  Until then we wait for that day when the smoke clears and we can see clearly.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Facing the Darkness that Lurks Behind Trauma

The Einsatzgrüppen: The Banality of Evil

I am in the second day of my conference and as I noted yesterday that the presenter, Dr. Robert Grant is dealing with spirituality and trauma.  As was the last time I listened to him this conference is full of good information.  For me though it is not merely information for information sake, but something very personal having gone through the living hell of a psychological, spiritual and physical collapse following my tour in Iraq and battle with chronic PTSD.  For me it was passing though the abyss and when I emerged I was a changed man.

Today Dr. Grant began with some existential truths about life which have to be acknowledged.  The basic list is his but I have taken those thoughts and ran with them.

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

Nothing exposes these truths faster than trauma.  It does not matter if the trauma is impersonal and the result of a natural disaster or the result of individual or corporate evil and malevolence, be it physical, psychological or spiritual trauma the effect is often destructive.

In response to these facts we all as well as our society and culture develop patterns of denial about these existential truths.  They are truths that most of us don’t want to face and which we often will do anything to avoid most often attempting to find meaning and comfort in materialism and consumerism. Others seek a “solid” faith in more fundamental branches of their religious tradition.  Still others see to recreate a world that supposedly existed before our time attempting to roll back the clock to a time when the world was right. This is true especially in our political life, progressives think back to the Great Society or the New Deal, while conservatives tend to look back to what the Founding Fathers wrote or the ones that they agree with wrote.  The overarching theme, be it in the life philosophy, religion or political-ideological arena people seek to create a world that is stable, where they can exist in their comfort zone free of trauma and free of anxiety.  However the experience of trauma often blows such constructs into a million pieces.

The fact is that the comforts and protections that we seek refuge in are often fleeting or the myth that we have created for our self protection.  Such beliefs are often illusions.  One thing about trauma is that it tends to shake one’s world.  In fact trauma can destroy long held belief structures including faith in God, humanity and deeply held beliefs about life and one’s place in the world. Religious beliefs, political ideologies and belief the righteousness of one’s country, friends, family and heroes can be devastated when trauma picks the lock of our soul and reveals our vulnerability.  Such events including war, natural and manmade disasters, the loss of loved ones to death, divorce or the loss of one’s position in life, work and safety net all can be events that trigger crisis and reveal the startling truth that we are not invulnerable.  The recent earthquake and Tsunami in Japan is a classic example as it has shaken the long held beliefs of the Japanese people regarding the respect that they have for their government and corporations.

Collectively as Americans we have experienced numerous national traumas in the past 10 years beginning with the 9-11 attacks.  We have seen war, financial disaster and numerous natural disasters which have impacted our collective psyche as a nation.  In response we elect to deny the effect of trauma on us as individuals and on our society.  Politicians seek to find quick material fixes to a greater problem which is both spiritual and existential.  Simply put we seek to treat the symptom rather than the greater problem which is that we have been so shaken that we have stopped believing in our nation, our fellow human beings and sometimes even the Divine.

We do the same as individuals because the darkness of trauma and the malevolence of those individuals and systems, governmental, corporate and ecclesiastical that inflict trauma on us is so great that we bear not to face them and face further trauma.  The impact on individuals is often devastating as the perpetrators often use their power to dehumanize people.  Thus facing the evil is to expose one to even greater danger.  Thus the more common reaction is to edit the trauma, sealing it off so that we can reenter the safety of our protected sandbox without having to face the darkness that exists.  The malevolence of evil, or what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” manifests itself in ways that most of don’t ever want to face, thus the damage done by the trauma remains unhealed.

The problem is in order to really experience healing we have to be willing to face that darkness without succumbing to it.  To do this requires not only facing the existential truths about ourselves but also uncomfortable truths about respected individuals,  government, corporate and ecclesiastical organizations and systems which perpetuate trauma.   Most of us do not want to go there.  I know I didn’t until my crisis became an existential one where I had to face the darkness or try to cover it up.  For me it was a crisis of faith in God, my church and even in the actions of my government and the political party that I had been loyal to for 36 years.

The journey was painful but in time I began to recover beginning a process that continues to this day and which I expect will be part an ongoing part of my life.  In the process I know that I have changed hopefully for the better.   As I began my recovery I found that not everyone understood, in fact when I began to write about my faith journey it cost me friends and resulted in me being asked to leave my church.  To me it seemed that some people especially in the church were more comfortable with me being damaged and quiet than recovering and posing difficult questions especially when I deviated from the party line.

I found that many people did not want to walk with me through those dark times and I can understand why not.  To walk with someone through the darkness exposes us to that darkness and sometimes takes us to places that we would rather not go places that lay outside of our safety zone.  However those that did walk with me, those who held me but let me walk though the crisis without trying to force feed me formulas for success or what I needed to do to “be healed” when I was in free fall gave me the freedom to experience healing. Part of that was healing was spiritual, God’s grace became real again and not just a concept. Part was psychological as I became more stable and had fewer symptomatic episodes, and part was physical as the nagging injuries healed and I was able to reassert control over my diet and exercise.  Finally part has been relational as I have started to rebuild the relationship that I have with my wife Judy because I had neglected that relationship for far too long and when I came home from Iraq I did her no favors.   A few weeks ago she told me that she felt that she had me back for the first time since Iraq.

I have been through the abyss and have emerged from it different but I think better. I still have work to do because I know that I am still full of issues.  I still have anxiety at night, trouble sleeping, especially without medication.  Other times I can experience bouts of depression and anxiety and on some occasions still battle anger and occasionally rage when I feel endangered or see injustice being inflicted on others. I still have some measure of hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal and I am much more aware of my surroundings than I used to be.  Even in ministry I am careful what I share with people. I figure on this website people can pick and chose what they want to read, but when counseling or teaching I have to be more careful.  I know that I have some deep work to do especially in relation to forgiveness of those people and systems that I felt hurt or betrayed me.  I don’t know how all of that will work out but that is part of the journey.

In the mean time I will walk in faith and hope even knowing that some of the answers that I seek will not always sit well with me or others. But then such is life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under film, PTSD, traumatic national events

To the Edge of Darkness: Notes on a Conference

I’m home for a conference on Spirituality and Trauma at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth this week. The primary speaker is Dr. Robert Grant, author of The Way of the Wound a Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation.  I had the pleasure of meeting him last year when I coordinated his visit and speaking engagement when I was stationed at Portsmouth.

One of the ideas that Robert is willing to address is going beyond the symptoms of PTSD and what are the underlying causes of trauma including the understanding of evil and malevolence and the understanding of moral injury that stems from trauma.  Last year when spoke I was really beginning to integrate my own moral and spiritual injuries that were part and parcel of my battle with PTSD and I found his presentation quite helpful.

Now 8 months after that I have come to understand more about what he talked about back then.  For me it is that what I experienced changed me and that I had to deal with things that I saw and that I know that make me radioactive to many people, especially fellow ministers and many Christians. I found that when I came back to faith and began to write about it that I was asked to leave my former church.  Evidently being an agnostic despairing of life was fine as long as I didn’t question non-creedal social issues and right wing politics.  I now ask questions that make many people uncomfortable and I have become much more sensitive to seeing things that many people want to pass over.  Recently this was the case when I suggested that legendary preacher David Wilkerson may have committed suicide by car.  But such is life when you have passed into the abyss and come back different than when you began the journey.  Thankfully I have come back.  Now I hope to be there and walk through the valley of the shadow of death with those who are walking where I have walked.

I also found that there is a good reason that I am still taking medications to help me sleep.  I inadvertently left my medications or “docile pills” as I call them in North Carolina and had to try to sleep last night without them. I was hyper-vigilant as hell and got almost no sleep.  Today I got up, forgot my hearing aids and left the front door open on my way to work.  I was absolutely exhausted and to stay awake I drank entirely too much coffee, Coke Zero and Diet Dr. Pepper.  I was tired and wired. Thankfully one of my psychiatrist friends prescribed me enough of what I take to get me through the week.  However, I was funny especially toward the end of the day when I got myself slapped by a friend when a question was asked about a book title.  The book was Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming and as people searched their brain housing groups for the title I leaned over to my friend Duke and said “isn’t that that book Oedipus in America.”   Duke paused for a second, realized that I was pulling his leg and slapped me, not that there is anything wrong with that.

While at the Medical Center I saw a good number of friends that I had worked with for two years. It was a genuine joy to see each of them again and to realize that the most important part of any assignment is the people that you have relationships with.  I am blessed. I have a couple more days in the symposium and look forward to what I will learn as well and seeing people that mean a great deal to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy