“Where was God?” A heart-wrenching question. At the core of every traumatic experience is a confrontation with death – the potential of dying, or seeing someone die, the devastation of a way of being, loss of innocence, confrontation with chaos and, sometimes, with evil. In the midst of terror, the soul cries out to God – “Save me. Stop this. Don’t let this be happening”. In the aftermath of trauma, the body may heal; the psyche does whatever it needs to do to survive, but what about the soul, the spirit of the person? How does the spirit heal from severe trauma?
In counseling, the “Where was God?” question is a point in therapy where people are revealing to the therapist their wounded souls, and they are going to listen to what the therapist says and pick up on how the therapist reacts. It is a sign of health that the question is being asked, and it is also a challenge – both to therapists, and to the religious communities – to address the issue with mutual respect and with concern and compassion for the victims of abuse.
As a psychologist, I have been taught to deal with problems of the mind and emotions. Part of my training, and the training of all mental health professionals is to be aware of areas of personal competence in working with people, and areas in which our training isn’t adequate for the client’s needs. Cultural and religious differences are well-known areas of sensitivity, and, consequently, therapists tread lightly or not at all into these areas, and while there are many places and ways to learn about cultural differences, there are strikingly few places to learn how to deal with spiritual issues in therapy.
For clinicians working with trauma survivors, the challenges are even greater. There is also very little training available in dealing with trauma, especially severe trauma. And yet, it is the survivors of severe trauma who most need the help of trained professionals. Ironically, when survivors of kidnapping, rape, torture, and ritual abuse are discovered by the media, they are seen as the horribly victimized people that they are, and the hearts of people who hear their stories go out to these survivors. Resources are accessed, outrage is expressed, and the perpetrators are sought out and prosecuted. Meanwhile, in our offices, equally wounded people seek help from a society that offers less and less support – a society that still denies the impact of abuse and fails to provide the help needed to heal.
It is my opinion that the way our society fails the survivor is based on fear. Survivors are real people, sitting right in front of us, who have experienced the darkest side of humanity, and they bear the scars, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In order to heal, they need to face what has happened to them, and in order to do that, they need someone to witness, guide, and accompany them through the process. I once described my work with ritually abused people as going down into hell, taking someone’s hand, and walking with that person back out. Anyone working with severe trauma survivors needs to know how to do that – and there is a strong spiritual component to that journey.
I, and I’m sure, most of you, have watched the field of psychology change over the years. It’s as if we started from the outside, from watching and trying to change behavior, and have learned, and continue to learn, that human beings are far more complex than we thought. From watching and working with behavior, the field moved into observing and changing thoughts, and then, finally, into acknowledging the power of beliefs in healing or preventing healing. Whereas once there was a clear line between psychotherapy and a person’s spiritual life (with spirituality often seen as negative), now people are realizing and addressing the interrelatedness of spiritual beliefs with a person’s mental and emotional recovery.
In the DSM-IV there is actually a V-code for religious and spiritual problems. “V62.89 Religious or Spiritual Problem. This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of spiritual values that may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution.” (P.685)
It’s a sign of health that people who are abused physically, sexually, or ritually become able to talk about their abuse, not as some aberrant fantasy, but as a horrible reality. Being able to raise the issue of the spiritual impact of that abuse is another significant step toward health. Spiritual concerns are now being addressed in professional literature, and workshops on spirituality in therapy are becoming more frequent.
We have come full circle. For centuries, priests, shamans, and other religious authorities were the therapists, making no distinction between physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. The split between religion and mental health is Western, and relatively recent, and it has been helpful in demystifying the mind and allowing people new ways to study and understand human perception and behavior. A lot has been learned in this period, but the limitations of this approach are becoming more and more evident. Just as people were limited in their ability to comprehend our physical environment when they thought the world was flat, people studying the mind are bumping up against the limitations inherent in perceiving the psyche as flat. Human beings are multidimensional, the psyche is not flat, but exists in a third dimension called spirit.
As even the DSM-IV recognizes, spirituality and religion are not synonymous. Spirituality comes from the word ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breath’, and is inherent in human beings.
The English work “religion” came from either the Latin word ‘religo’ which means ‘good faith’ or ‘ritual’; or from the Latin ‘religare’ which means ‘to tie fast’. Webster’s definition is ‘any specific system of belief and worship, often including a code of ethic and a philosophy’.
Spirituality refers to a person’s connection with both an innate and transcendent spirit. This is not a wispy, ephemeral thing, but a powerful life force. My favorite illustration of the nature of spirit is a spirited horse – beautiful, vividly alive, and completely present. Religions evolved to help people connect with this powerful experience – they have documented the lives of people who were spiritually authentic and whole, and recorded the teachings of those people and their followers in an attempt to help other people on their spiritual path. Most religions recognize in the inspired people who gave rise to the religion, a quality of presence – the ability to be fully in the present, with all that life brings. They all teach the value of being present – not being held hostage by the past or over-involved in the future. There is a story about the presence of the Buddha in the book, “Seeking the Heart of Wisdom”.
“It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passes a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence. The man stopped and asked, “My friend, what are you?
Are you a celestial being, or a god?”
“No” said the Buddha.
“Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?”
Again the Buddha answered, “No”.
“Are you a man?”
“Well, my friend, what, then, are you?”
The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”
Contrast that with what you see in survivors of severe abuse – they are often dissociated, depressed, dispirited. A common statement I hear from survivors is, “I don’t want to be here.” By that they mean they either don’t want to be present to themselves, their past, and their emotions, or they don’t want to be alive. Reconnecting spiritually can be a way to move through that dark place and back into life.
When the survivor, in anger or anguish, asks, “Where was God?” there is an opening in the therapy to connect with the deepest levels of belief and meaning in the person’s psyche and soul. There is no pat answer to that question. Dealing with the spiritual consequences of complex trauma is a long process of healing a relationship – healing a relationship of soul and self, and also one of self and community.
The healing from incest, sexual abuse, ritual abuse, and other complex trauma, requires that both people, client and therapist, show up in profound ways. The job description requires courage, heart energy, and the ability to remain present. It’s not tidy. It’s not likely to fit neatly into a treatment plan that insurance companies will support. It’s huge, frequently messy, and ultimately challenging. In this field, we fight with people for their lives. Suicidal feelings, in their many forms, are a familiar part of the process – the need to have an escape plan, just in case. This is frequently work on the edge – a replication of the survivor’s experience. Anything that supplies an anchor in this storm of memory and emotion is extremely helpful.
From, Erich: To Have or to Be?, Bantam Books, 1988, NY, NY.