Weep No More: Self-Care after Spiritual Trauma

VERSION 2.5 by Carolina Rutz

DEDICATED TO THE MEMORIES OF
THE REV’D DR GEORGE WOLLENBURG
Past President of the Montana District of the LCMS
and
SPEND A BUCK
Winner of the 1985 Kentucky Derby

PREFACE

I want to give advice on coping with spiritual trauma. It is my hope that you will find comfort and hope.

Based on various Facebook posts and recent events, I wanted to focus on the tiny steps to recovering from spiritual trauma caused by people and institutions within the Church. It can last for years and if not addressed holistically, may cause spiritual and physical death. I am a survivor of such trauma and it took many years for me to recover. I am still dealing with the effects, and I still do these things to get over these episodes. The Facebook posts are small and will contain addenda over time. This is NOT a comprehensive guide, but it is a starting point to recovery.

Several disclaimers: I am NOT a professional. This is just advice from a survivor that may work for you. You do need the help of mental health professionals and clergy. I urge you to seek help. And if you are suicidal, STOP READING AND CALL A SUICIDE HOTLINE.

I am writing this from a classical Christian perspective. I worship in a liturgical congregation and most of my theology is drawn from the Book of Concord. I espouse the use of Liturgy and Sacraments as agents of healing as well as using traditional devotion tools in order to meditate upon Christ.

I am an Autistic woman. This means that I approach matters differently from neurotypical minds. It was because of that I was deemed unworthy to serve the Church. I will do my best to make my posts easy to understand.

The title of the posts is a reference to various things. “Weep No More” is the name of a filly who appeared several times in stakes races. She was named for the refrain of “My Old Kentucky Home”. If you have read my blog, her name appeared in the Daily Racing Form at a very crucial time in my life. I interpreted the appearance as a signal that I will exit the wilderness years in which I experienced the worst of my mental illness. From that moment, wonderful and exciting events happened. I received job promotions and my life stabilised. “Weep No More” is also a personal reminder that there will be a day that God will make all things new and there will be the end of weeping and pain for those who place their lives in Christ’s hands.

SELF-CARE

I try to describe using proper coping mechanisms so you can focus on your daily tasks and responsibilities. Here is something that the woman’s and civil rights movements espoused during the 1970s. It should have been a common sense matter, for all people. Marginalised people had limited resources for health-care, and the resources they have tend to have staff whose attitude towards those in need was less than dignified. Leaders within the movements taught self-care concepts as a means of securing survival and autonomy. Today, self-care is commonplace in our present society. However, there is the spiritual fluffiness of popular culture that flirts with New Age, Eastern, and Prosperity Gospel theologies. Alas, these are tacked on to self-care principles. I seek ways to heal out according to my convictions.

What is self-care? It is caring for your own needs. It is NOT selfishness. It is respecting yourself. When one is unwell, you want to take care of yourself so you can function and eventually take care of others. When dealing with trauma, it is important to learn how to heal out. Instead of self-harm or neglect, I consciously went the opposite and respected my body. I ate what I like within reason. I would outsource household tasks as I sucked at executive function, and learn coping mechanisms when an actual trigger occurred. This is not the pop “snowflake”/”Social Justice Warrior” concept, but an actual psychological occurrence that causes anxiety attacks. It is also NOT the same as “pampering yourself” via chocolate cake and Girls’ Night Out. Self-care is an exercise in mental health. Your goal in self-care is to make yourself stronger.

A good self-care approach should address the physical, spiritual, and mental aspects of healing. It also needs to have a framework for that healing, or what the medieval Christians would call a “rule”. Here is a proposed rule for coping with spiritual trauma:

1) Seek help from people, starting with close allies and radiating out towards people outside the church body.

2) Recognise the false and distorted messages of your affected mind and take steps to counter these dangerous thoughts.

3) Take care of your physical and bodily needs. Most important, seek professional mental health help.

4) Attend a healthy church that offers regular Eucharistic service.

5) Establish a regular prayer life using physical/traditional disciplines.

STEP 1: SEEK HELP FROM PEOPLE

I know that it is hard to maintain faith in Christ when your parish or organization affected you adversely. There is the shame and self-blame aspect, as it is easy to say “there is Something Wrong with me; otherwise, this would not have happened.” It is one thing when you suffer the consequences due to gross sin on your part. But when someone unjustly sins against you, that is a different story. God Himself has condemned that mode of thinking when Job’s “comforters” said the same thing about Job’s character when he suffered immensely. With that in mind, you are tempted to retreat and isolate oneself from fellow Christians, fearing that they would do the same. The worst thing you want to do is to suffer in silence because you are more likely to leave the faith entirely. Thanks to Facebook and other networks, one can reach out for assistance from fellow Christians. If someone does not assist you by prayer and mercy, find another person. You may have to reach out to people outside your church structure. This is especially important for those who are affiliated with a “non-denominational” or independent church. I managed to talk to various people out of state and even one who is affiliated to another confessional Lutheran synod.

For years, I mourned without a way to heal out and it affected various things. I felt I was like a rōnin, a soldier without his master. I felt God has left me high and dry without recourse. Without taking care of myself, I felt that my life was destroyed by these professors. I needed the help of a strong support system, whether it was friends, family, or professionals. The first few years, it was very difficult as I was a pastor’s wife at Shepherd of the City in Fort Wayne. My one regret is I did not tell the congregation about my situation and I really needed the prayers and support of my congregation. Starting with Facebook and my blogging and finally being open about my struggles, I manage to cultivate a support group of friends and family. They suggested taking care of myself in order to function.

After my husband’s death, I felt it was time to search for actual help. I am learning coping mechanisms that helped me get through periods of grief. Isolation is not the solution. “Sunlight” is the answer. By taking initiative to strengthen myself, I was no longer at the mercy of the abusers but I reclaimed my life.

This is why you need to reach out to a trusted clergy outside the circuit, state, or even outside the denomination. He may suggest attending another congregation. He will suggest a counselor or mental health professional. He may offer help to bring those who harmed you to accountability.

I ended up leaving the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod after 20 years of sticking things out. I was unable to find support or justice. I realise that the professors will never apologise for their actions and that it would be much better for me mentally and physically to leave the Synod for another church body.

STEP 2: RECOGNISE FALSE MESSAGES

Your brain is a cruel liar. It replays the trauma in your mind and reminds you of how God is evil and how you are worthless. That was the worst feeling I had. It tells you these lies often, and you believe them after so many times of replay. I would have agreed with Stephen Fry, and made a mental note not to visit Ireland in the future to avoid punishment for blasphemy. As a result, I became a functioning maltheist, resenting God for working through the professors at the seminary and how dare He could define any thing good because He is God and I am just a mere puppet, waiting to be destroyed.

It is the worst feeling I ever encountered and I have experienced it off and on for 11 years. No wonder Martin Luther threw an inkwell at the devil in Wartburg Castle. I bet that was the reason why he thought Dame Reason was a whore.

What worked for me: good medicine. The knowledge that these are misfirings in my brain and as soon the meds kick in, I would feel better. I would ramp up the self-care. Frequent visits to the Sacrament. Confession. Sleep. Distractions like testing out a Linux distro or crocheting a hat or reading the Daily Racing Form. Work. Lots of work. For years, I did not care if I drove to Ohio weekly or Muncie biweekly for peanuts. I was happy knowing I was needed. What did not work for me was cutting all contact from God. I felt disconnected and feeling very empty without Him.

Despite how I felt, it is a good thing that my faith is not based on my feelings. I had to rest my convictions upon concrete truth. I was not alone: so many Christians throughout history suffered these thoughts, the dark night of the soul. One Catholic saint, I found out later, felt absolutely nothing throughout her life– just doubt and her nagging thoughts of disbelief. Yet she pressed on by daily prayer and church services. When presented by these lies, she disregarded them and only relied upon Christ.

FACING AND DEALING WITH SPIRITUAL TRIGGERS

Before we go further, I must make a comment on the concept of triggers. The pop culture especially the “Alt-Right” makes light of them as the meaning of “trigger” was morphed from “an outside stimulus connected with a particular trauma that provokes a PTSD or an anxiety attack” to “an offensive concept that provokes hurt feelings and anger.” It is a shame that people do not understand these concepts and as a result, we dismiss and trivalise the traumas of various groups: battle-affected veterans, sexual assault survivors and others who were wronged and abused by authority figures. So I wanted to clarify the concept of a trigger before I talk about being reminded of the past incident.

It is maybe a good idea to avoid further personal harm by avoiding certain things that you associate with the trauma. In my case, I avoided reading The Lutheran Witness and reading Lutheran books. I picked up the magazine and I would see a deaconess dressed in blue and I wondered why am I too damaged to serve the Church? It does not mean leaving behind my Bible. I would not blame you if you feel like you must avoid certain teaching. But, that is Satan at work, using your wound to drive you further apart from God. I addressed the negative aspects of the toxic culture instead.

I am glad that I actively avoided drama in the LCMS subculture as they would talk past each other and I would be reminded of various wrongs. I would post something on Facebook about the results of a stakes race, and would run across discussion group posts where people talk past each other and accused each other of rank heterodoxy. I am embarrassed at how the Lutheran subculture would consume itself, where institutions would reject people because of disability, where theology organisations would turn against each other and accused each other of not being faithful to the Confessions. Instead, I participated outside the bubble. I was active with the Open Source Movement. I rather read about the newest Ubuntu distro than dealing with the umpteenth argument about gender and the Orders of Creation on Facebook. That’s not to say that doctrine does NOT matter. But how you deal with angry and acrimonious talking heads does matter as you know that they do not really know how to “Speak” the “Truth” In “Love.” Sound and fury, like Shakespeare would say. I would get my theological enrichment from my local pastor and podcasts. Passive listening, not active infighting. It is okay to receive teaching and remain in the sidelines during discourses. I avoided participating in theological discourse that portrayed people in an unfavorable light or deals with them abstractly.

Sometimes, I would leave the service early, especially when the cantor play “What God Ordains Is Always Good.” It took all my strength not to shout out “BULLSHIT!” But I felt compelled to return week after week, brute force. Maybe I was hoping to see a change. That was when I received the strongest support from various Confessionals who too suffered unjustly from various people from the Synod. They cared for me and prayed for me when I told them what happened. With encouragement and with medicine, I realised the myth was a misfiring of the brain that that Satan would exploit to drive me away from God. After I moved to Kentucky, I did not want to be in an environment where I would be subject to further pain. That was when I decided to visit churches in my area before finding one that seemed right to me.

Eventually, you will want to deal with outside ‘triggers’. You will need mental health care for this trauma. I am currently receiving care by a counselor specialising in PTSD and related disorders.

When I left the Synod, I experienced less mental episodes and I came to the conclusion that I have better things to do than to intentionally hurt myself. As for that hymn, I would think of two things: the time I received a major job promotion that paid more than what would a deaconess would make, and my friends at the Ohio LinuxFest. I would also add the time when 1997 Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm gave me a kiss.

STEP 3: TAKE CARE OF BODILY NEEDS

HYGIENE

You must address the physical aspects of your body. I told you about self-care, right? I consciously use make up for that reason. I want to build up myself. I love makeup and beauty products. The choice to use them or not is up to you. Having say that, learning about makeup is loads of fun. I would swatch lipsticks and post them on groups like Specktra. I would review new products and frequent the MAC counter or Sephora. The purpose of a hobby is to better oneself. I love to put on colorful lipsticks and eyeshadows and profess my own beauty and love for beautiful things.

Now for traditional masculine people, you too can improve on self-image. I think of fine colognes, shaving products, grooming for men. I would buy a bottle for Preggie as I picked up my own scent. You do not have to invest $200 for a bottle of expensive perfume. Even a bottle you buy at the pharmacy would do the trick.

The point is that good hygiene will help you heal. We know, take a bath regularly, brush your teeth, put on clean clothes. But if you are going through the spiritual turmoil, it is most important. It reminds me also of what Jesus said about looking proper as usual during a fast.

Speaking of hygiene and clean clothes, I would make a digression as an Autistic woman. My executive function is impaired. So I look for easier ways to meeting basic needs. You visit my daily closet, I have mainly black pants and t-shirts with a horse racing or Kentucky theme on them. Years ago, it would have been free geeky shirts from trade shows. Clean body + clean underwear + clean pants + clean Kentucky Derby shirt = dressed up for today, whether it is church, dining, or shopping. Less time, less fuss. You can adapt this for your own needs. If you want exclusively a few things from an upscale store, go ahead. Flannel shirts and jeans? No problem. Just make sure you and your clothes are clean.

You must also relearn to eat properly and consciously make an effort to have a regular eating schedule. The same goes with sleep. And I must urge you to see a physician and/or mental health professional as well. Your body is a gift, fearfully and wonderfully made, even if people do not appreciate yourself. Do not expect immediate results, this is a marathon not a sprint.

RESPITE

One of the privileges of living in First World countries, as well as other industrialised countries is travelling for pleasure and respite. I enjoyed my trips to Portland Oregon during my pursuits in the computing industry. But I visited Kentucky the most. It was four hours away from Fort Wayne and I could see Churchill Downs or Lexington and come back in the evening if I was insane enough to drive 8 hours total in one day! Driving takes a lot of mental energy (see: the spoon theory), so I would fly twice a year.

CFW Walther, who was one of the Lutheran theologians in the 19th century, suffered from mental illness. As a result, our first Synodical President suffered from burn out. What helped him were periodic respites. He would read and rest and eat well. I doubt he would function if he opted not to rest, as his time did not have the advances of medicine and mental health protocols.

Most people here in the United States can afford to spend a weekend away from home. Even if it was for me just to head north of Fort Wayne to Shipshewana for Amish/Mennonite culture for a day, I can enjoy respite. I also loved Columbus Ohio for the LinuxFest and noshing at North Market.

Like Morrissey with his love for Mexico, I love Kentucky. It was where I found great healing. On April 2017, I visited with my friend for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. I felt blessed when I got kisses from Derby winners at neighboring farms. These horses did not care if I was a theology reject. They see that I come in peace and love and they responded in kind.

I ended up moving to Kentucky when I had an opportunity to work there. Even then, I still take advantage of going to Lexington for Keeneland or the horse farms.

VOCATION AND DELEGATING TASKS

Don’t rush in the process. Start small. Focus on your vocation first as spouse, parent, or employee. You are doing God’s work just by being these three or by being a child or sibling or neighbor. I am very grateful to the companies and organisations who gave me a chance to prove to the world I am very useful. When my brain starts up with these lies, I reminded myself that I had a large territory in NE Indiana and Ohio working as a merchandiser. I reminded myself of the hours I put in as a conference organiser for the Ohio LinuxFest. And I remind myself of the job I am in right now in Louisville. Then I would repeat a short prayer reminding myself that God is suffering with me and He is with me.

Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you can afford it, you can outsource some task every 2-4 weeks. Before I moved, my parents helped out with daily chores. Dad mowed the lawn. Mom did laundry and food prep. Before my husband’s death from dementia, the nursing home took care of his basic needs. This helped me greatly as I am establishing myself in my career in the gaming industry. For 11 years, I focused on my merchandising jobs while taking care of my husband. It was a heavy burden as not only I dealt with spiritual recovery, I was making sure Preggie is doing well. But two years ago, I cannot fulfill his medical needs. Once I secured a nursing home for Preggie, I cleared out the cruft out of the house and outsourced the estate sale work as well as cleanup. It was around the same time the speed of my spiritual healing picked up. I received the right medicine. God directed me to a good job that later led me to a professional career. By simplifying my life, I have more time to focus on my work and rediscovering my childhood passion for horse racing. God gave these joys that later gave me a greater purpose. I did not mind getting my hands dirty bussing the tables. It was good busy work.

4) ATTEND CHURCH WITH THE EUCHARIST

It is up to you how you want to worship. Take your time, but be sure your spiritual needs are met. I did not observe Lent until 2016. For over a decade, I occasionally attended Bible Study at the LCMS congregation, but I mainly worshipped and then head back home for errands and job. Now that I am attending a new church, I look forward to their weekly Bible studies. What is integral to spiritual healing are regular visits to the Sacrament.

I regard my Concordia-Irvine classmates with love and respect. Several of us are aware of spiritual burnout, whether it is personal or someone they knew. They too practice self-care and sought help from professionals. But what the Irvine Confessionals are aware of is the need for the fundamentals of our faith. In their faith tradition, it is located in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. When I felt that “I can’t even”, I would remind myself that I needed the taste of forgiveness and grace for the day. It was very tempting to ditch attending Church and visit Barnes and Noble. But I needed a concrete reminder that God is still at work in my life. That is where the Lord’s Supper comes in.

“If it’s just a symbol, to Hell with it!” So said Flannery O’Connor regarding the Eucharist.

Jesus said: “This is My body…this is My Blood, given for you for the remission of sins.” I do take these words seriously, especially during bouts of maltheism. The wilderness years of old had God feeding His people manna. I had Holy Communion. I needed to be forgiven. It was the promise without any asterisks attached to it. Justification is key to healing out. Despite what those who hurt me told me, I am God’s child, made in His image, bought by the Blood of Christ.

If you decide to join another denomination, go to a church that offers the Real Presence. Not juice and wafer memorial meal. The actual Body and Blood. No professor can restrict me from partaking at this most sacred meal. I recommend a church body that teaches justification by faith alone. Check out local congregations and see if it looks healthy and transparent.

5) ESTABLISH A REGULAR PRAYER LIFE

I start with finding a “home base” in which you can think things over. If you can find a positive place to feel at ease, it can be near as your backyard. It was hard to pray at church as I was burnt, but it was much easier to focus at home in my study. A spot like Barbaro’s grave at Churchill Downs also works. It was the place I visited in 2016 where the healing process really began. There at the entrance, I felt at peace. I knew if I would have committed suicide, I would not be enjoying this moment, that I would be missing out on the healing process. After I moved to Louisville, I would visit that spot once a week and say a short prayer.

You can also can set up a Family Altar in your household. It could mean “Family Devotional Time”, not necessarily a physical location. I tend to be more literal, and I set up a small corner in my bedroom devoted to prayer and personal devotion. The goal of the Altar is to keep you persistent in your faith, remaining in Christ. It is as simple as a coffee table with devotional books that are solid and congruent with Scripture.

PRAYER: That was a difficult thing to do. It was because I feared the worst about God. In my messed-up mind, I believed that God was capricious and arbitrary enough to do whatever He wanted, so I didn’t even bother. But even in my anger I prayed in silence. I was on autopilot during Sunday worship. But my soul yearned for release.

So I laid in bed in silence, hands folded and said not a word. I would sleep knowing God knew my thoughts and He was strong enough to withstand them.

Little did I know that in the middle of the silence cosmic forces were fighting for my soul. This is not the dualist arm-wrestling imagery but it is more like Normandy: God came to redeem what was seized and ruined. And I was fighting alongside Him as I prayed.

The Anglican priest Martin Thornton wrote in The Purple Headed Mountain:

Retreat and prayer are too often thought of as “being quiet with God,” as a kind of holy rest cure, as something calm, gentle and consoling. That attitude is not wrong, but it is only half the story. To enter a quiet place, to go into retreat, is also to seek out Satan—on our own initiative—and attack. To kneel down in prayer is also to stand up and fight, for although we must resist temptation through the busy day, it is in the wilderness that the real battle is won or lost.

Prayer is communication with God, and if I neglect that, it is to my own peril. With Thornton’s quote in mind, one would think that angels are surrounding Barbaro’s grave at Churchill Downs as I prayed at the bench.

I would pray the Our Father at times, which is what you are invited to do as a Christian. It encompasses what a human really needs in life. Simple and elegant. It is enough. If you are doubting the goodness of your Father, the Eastern Orthodox has a small prayer you can use to repeat when you have those episodes. It is called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is a simple way to counteract the pain and still be connected with God.

I now use that with a set of prayer beads that my friend made for those who desire a tactile way to meditate. The beads are small in your pocket, not conspicuous to show off. When my friend and I were at Barbaro’s grave, I showed them to her and explained how to use them. She thought it was quite nifty. If prayer beads are “too Catholic”, you can hold a small pocket-size cross in your hand. If you are confronted by episodes of spiritual distress, you can reach for your cross or beads and calm down so you can resume your normal activities.

Whether you use beads or a small prayer, what matters that your awareness that your soul groans in intervention, the Holy Spirit– our Ombudsman– is before our Father presenting our cause.

THE CONCLUSION

I know this is a long list, please read in sections, skip over and come back as often as you wish. It will get better over time. You must remember that you need to take care of yourself during this difficulty. This will heal you faster. You will realise you need God more than ever. Even if you are faithless, God is still faithful to you.

Now, I write these words in honor of my spiritual awakening in Kentucky, 11 years to that dreadful day. 2017 was the year I got to move on and have a proper career and a renewed faith in a good God. Maybe you are in the middle of upheaval, months or years. I will say this: over time, it does get better. It was a snail pace. But I am thankful that I am doing much better, thanks to various people. So I want to pass this along as I want others to help themselves heal out.

To those who read this, I want to thank you for taking the time to read. Feel free to pass this along to anyone in need. Any constructive feedback is welcome. I will post these notes to my website. Thank you. And may God’s mercy be yours.

v1.0 WRITTEN 9 MAY A+D 2017
TUESDAY OF THE FOURTH WEEK OF EASTER
Tuesday after the 143rd Kentucky Derby

Revised 21 July A+D 2018