*Disclaimer: This is my attempt to describe my personal experiences in dealing with Complex PTSD and is in no way meant to be an all-encompassing treatise, clinical document, or diagnostic tool. Also, as is true with most analogies, this analogy is not perfect. K thanks bye.*
The traumatic past, for me, is like an ocean.
In many seasons, I operate on dry land. I am surrounded by friends and family, the sun on my face and a breeze keeping me cool. I can breathe fresh air and see for miles. My heart anticipates a hopeful future and I feel at peace. I can see the ocean, recognize and accept the ocean’s existence, but I don’t feel its cold, salty spray on my skin.
Sometimes, something random will remind me of a traumatic event from my childhood or adolescence. Driving by a certain location. A triggering preview before a movie. I have been shoved, stumbling into the water. The surf wells up around my ankles. I take note of the stark temperature difference and feel a wash of emotion. Usually, I can step quickly and easily back on to dry land, shaking the water from my feet and rejoining my friends.
In some seasons, I find myself standing in the ocean up to my knees. Panic attacks and nightmares grip me as waves roll toward the beach and splash up against my waist. My temper is shorter, my eyes more tired, my body more reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes, certain vulnerability factors have led me into the water. Sometimes it’s life stress or a certain time of year. I’m deeper than I want to be, but I’m still standing – the things I love waiting on the shore still well in sight. I make my way back to them, out of the water, but I feel pulled by the undertow and the walking meets resistance. The beach is welcoming, but even on dry land, the breeze feels cold against my legs as a reminder. I can live like this for a while, occasionally finding myself back in the surf, but I know I need to resolve the deeper issues or things will get much worse.
There is a spiritual language and a clinical language to describe this healing/recovery process. They’re both accurate in my case. Inviting God into the places in my past that need His healing touch… stabilization, processing, and reintegration of traumatic memories… allowing the Holy Spirit to bring hope and peace to parts of my mind stuck in traumatic experiences… coping strategies and plans to keep me grounded on the shore as much of the time as possible.
Therapy involves a lot of wading through the water, acknowledging and feeling and accepting what the water holds, and learning that the water is not my present but is only part of my past.
It sounds nice and neat, but therapy brings in the tide. As the tide rises, wave upon wave of intense emotions and memories, strong enough to move me sideways and cause me to lose my balance, crash into me. The water acts like a filter. When I’m dripping wet, my perception is altered. I begin to feel perpetually unsafe, like something horrific could happen at any moment. I begin to feel helpless and hopeless like I did in times of abuse. I become disoriented, sometimes unable to catch a glimpse of the shore – of my right-now-life and my very bright future. The tide can make the water feel like the only reality and dry land feel like a dream.
But there are buoys in the water – friends and family to offer support and prayer, a therapist to walk with me and offer an anchoring hand, the arms of my Abba to buffer and give stability. I know now that I’m never alone when the tides comes in.
I also know that the tide will recede eventually, I’ll find the shore again, and I’ll be healthier for having taken the swim.
But then, sometimes, a rip tide forms.
It often comes out of nowhere, even if I’m only standing knee deep. A wave will break against me, but instead of receding, an invisible current will sweep me off my feet and drag me way, way out to sea. The waves out there are bigger, more intense, and my feet can no longer find the ocean floor. Surges crash over my head, pushing me under. I lose bearing, trying to remember the direction of the sun as I swim furiously against the tide, becoming more exhausted by the minute. Disoriented and breathless, I only have access to the mental state I was in during specific moments of trauma. I see nothing but pain and hopelessness and death. Reaching out for help is not an option now, because it wasn’t an option then. I am fully at the mercy of survival instincts and the grace of God.
These “rip tide moments” are the times that are potentially lethal for anyone struggling with PTSD and dissociation. We aren’t in our “right mind,” so we don’t make rational decisions, and the “choices” (if you can call them that) we make in those moments are difficult for others to understand. I’ve personally known friends who have lost their lives in the rip tide. **
But God is good. All the time. I’m grateful to have been spared my life in so many moments pulled under and out into open sea. For me, the incredible intensity typically doesn’t last too long, but even after my head has bobbed to the surface and air has rushed in to fill my lungs, I’m still left treading water with no shore in sight. It is here that I cry out to God, search the horizon for the light house, and float when my body wants to give up. It’s here when life-saving measures are needed so that the exhaustion doesn’t cause me to sink to the ocean floor.
At this point, my churched friends are probably thinking of the time when Jesus walked on water and calmed the storm with a word. When He called to Peter and Peter walked on water with Him. When Jesus called Peter’s sinking a result of doubt and “little faith.”
I have definitely felt the shame of wondering if my inability to consistently rise above the waves is a lack of faith on my part. If my noticing the waves (and being utterly swallowed up in them) was a show of doubt in the strength of my Jesus.
Oh how Satan loves to accuse us in our greatest vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
Let’s not add to his voice in this for others.
So why, as a Bible-believing, Jesus receiving, spirit-filled, lover of God, do I continue to struggle?
The bottom line is, we were not designed to walk on water.
I mean, literally.
Gerridae (water strider bugs) were designed to walk on water! The have hydrophobic legs, specifically designed weight distribution, and hydrofuge hairs all over them that allow them to stride atop the water. (According to Wikipedia, anyway.)
Human beings are dense and slick. We are buoyant at best and rocks at worst when it comes to water.
But because God is God, He occasionally bends the laws of nature to reveal Himself to mankind. It was because of the miracle of walking on water that the disciples’ eyes were opened to the truth that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.
32 When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. 33 Then the disciples worshiped him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed. (Matthew 14:32-33)
From the bottom of my heart, I do not believe God expects us to be miraculously immune to our physical reality just because we are His. That’s why Jesus walking on water was such a big deal. He knows how He made us. He understands our reality. This situation was an exception meant to reveal His glory, not a standard He uses to judge us.
I’m just saying, if faith in Jesus automatically equaled walking on water, swimming lessons would be a thing reserved for heathens. ;P
It’s not weakness or lack of faith to be a Christian and still experience the brokenness of this world.
What I have suffered is unthinkable, and I am still living with those ramifications on a daily basis. I still get pulled out in a rip tide more often than I’d care to admit. And God has used and is using a myriad of miracles to rescue me every single time.
Sometimes the miracle means pulling me onto the surface and walking me back to shore. Sometimes the miracle means sending out a rescue crew with a lifeboat and a warm blanket. Sometimes the miracle is a piece of driftwood floating by at just the right time to cling to as I wait.
I’m not really sure where to end this, but I just wanted to explain my (and I think probably other’s) experience with PTSD/C-PTSD. I pray one day I’ll never step foot into that ocean of pain ever again. But until then, I’ll worship God with all my might in the rightest mind I can find, and perhaps I can be that piece of driftwood for someone else in the process.
Love you all ❤
John 16:33 New Living Translation (NLT)
33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
** If you find yourself or someone you love in need of immediate help, call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.