Trauma, Addiction and Spirituality
Robert Grant, Ph.D.
Copyright 2007 @ Robert Grant Ph.D.
Please do not duplicate for mass distribution without author’s written permission
Dr. Robert Grant addressed the assembled participants at the 2007 Guest House Summer Leadership Conference in New Orleans, LA. His address generated much comment and discussion among the participants. The address was transcribed and edited by Dr. Grant for Guest House Review. It is published here as the first in a two-part presentation of his ideas on trauma, abuse, addiction, and the challenge of healing among the Church’s ministers.
In this presentation I am going to try to bring together the fields of Philosophy, Psychology, Spirituality, and Theology. Many people have been seriously affected by traumatic events. Many will not meet the clinical psychiatric criteria for “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) or some other kind of trauma-related disorder. Yet, this does not mean that they have not been seriously affected and/or traumatized. In addition, a lot of the psychological terminology that you have heard regarding post-traumatic stress or trauma reflects surface manifestations of more profound shifts that have taken place in a victim’s identity structure, understanding of human beings, worldview and images of God.
Most of the time we are asleep. We are asleep at the wheel of life and the culture’s job is to put us to sleep and keep us that way. We collude together as a species, in every society, to avoid the more distressing, complex and uncontrollable aspects of life. When I was growing up, no one ever told me that what I was being taught in school or by the culture was a single socio-historical version of reality. No one ever told me that. They just told me that this is the way it is, that this is life and that this is Reality!
I believe that every culture inserts its citizens into a language system and a belief system that are not of their choosing. Each of us is uncritically placed into a preordained paradigm, belief system, language system or value system and we have no perspective by which to critique or challenge that approach to reality. We simply absorb it. Without adhering to this process, individuals would become marginalized or excluded from society, and would face threats to their survival as human beings. I call this prepackaged version of reality “the box.” It is like a map, the cultural and linguistic map that is given to every citizen to organize and make sense of reality. People can usually deal with and make sense of, everything that occurs within “the box” because there is language, theory, rituals, healing protocols, and the like to help them organize and work through many of life’s most important events. Now whether or not these tools and frameworks are effective is another matter. It is just that when things fall within the framework of one’s “box” people typically feel that there is a way to work with these things.
Sometimes, however, things happen that are outside one’s frames of reference. This is what I refer to as trauma. These things are not supposed to happen or, if they do happen, they aren’t supposed to happen to me but to people and on the other side of the world… or people living in another city, for example, the inner city but it’s not supposed to happen to me. If it does happen to me and falls within my cultural “box” or frame of reference then I’ve got some kind of theological or spiritual framework that says it’s been given to me by God as a test or that it is the will of Allah (Insh’Allah) or “God’s will.” In other words, God is testing me and trying to teach me something. God has given me a challenge or trial. Whether scientific or religious, our “boxes” are frameworks that think that they can make sense of reality and trauma when things happen to us.
The problem is that most individuals do not even know that they have a “frame of reference” until they are forced outside of it. Nobody talks about this. Consequently, all that trauma victims know, at first, is that they are confused, disoriented and cannot make sense of what has happened to them.
Typically what most people do when they are confused, disoriented and in spaces that they don’t understand is that they go to other people and seek validation. The problem is that the individuals they go to are typically in the very same “box” or framework that the trauma victim was just involuntarily ejected from. In addition, people in the “box” are not too excited to hear about another’s experience of being outside the boundaries of their “boxes,” which challenges their sacred cows and cardinal beliefs. Such individuals tend to minimize, pathologize, shame, marginalize, punish, or re-abuse trauma victims. So trauma victims usually have only two options, i.e., to stay on the margins of society and remain marginalized as suspect individuals, mentally ill, criminals, political dissidents or revolutionaries, or, more typically, have to edit their traumatic experience and then cram it back into their pre-trauma views of self, people, world and God. After all humans are mammals and, like other herd animals, they want to get back into “the box” where it’s comfortable, safe, familiar and where they can be with others.
The cost of making such compromises is usually some form of psychiatric distress or interpersonal problem. In biblical terms these individuals have bitten from the “fruit of knowledge.” They “know” something that they do not want to consciously acknowledge because it is going to challenge everything that they have used to organize and hold onto their sense of reality, identity and God. Most people would prefer to suffer some form of post-traumatic stress or the negative effect from an addiction, rather than risk opening up “Pandora’s Box” and throwing everything of value into question. I believe that most psychopathology and addictions are designed to keep the individual and other people away from the implications of his traumatic experience, i.e., the implications that this experience has for everything that he has used to hold himself together and establish some form of terra firma upon which to stand and build a life.
Culture originally puts people to sleep. Trauma wakes them up, pulls back the curtain of social denial, and shows them aspects of life that they would prefer not to know because such things are too threatening and too frightening. Addiction is one way of lulling or putting oneself back to sleep. Anything can be used as an addiction, anything that distracts, numbs, overworks and keeps the traumatized individual diverted can be used as an addiction. Humans in general are addictive creatures. They’re always looking for ways not to accept what their existential condition, i.e., that humans are limited, finite and will die and that human existence is unstable, without guarantees and has no ultimate meaning.
Many of humans are unable to accept that their socially constructed versions of self, other people, world and God have been negated or rendered inert by experiences of trauma and that their uncritically accepted images of God (typically picked up in childhood) don’t work anymore in the wake of certain traumatic events and the questions and issues that arise in every process of recovery. There are lots of biblical references for this kind of process, several spiritual teachers in several religious traditions talk about this. Everything that has been taken for granted or held to be sacred must usually be re-evaluated in the wake of traumatic events. Most trauma recipients if they are going to acquire any degree of peace or resolution must get to the essence of their experience and learn what it signifies about being human and aware.
Today, almost no one voluntarily embarks on such a journey of deconstruction. All enter this space kicking and screaming because there is no guarantee that they are going to survive such a journey. All intuitively sense that, if they let go of certain foundational myths and beliefs, which have been challenged, de-centered or negated by their experiences of trauma then they will then have nothing left to stand on and may cease to exist altogether as an individual being. The result can be a loss of identity, world, motivation to live and even their sanity. It all depends on how well put together individuals are and how much support they have. Most people intuitively know that the implications of certain traumatic events can take away the taken-for-granted or the status quo and, thus, everything that they believe in and/or use to hold themselves together.
Such losses instigate the equivalent of an earthquakes or tectonic shift in the structural integrity of an individual’s identity, worldview and spiritual core. Earthquakes occur when the plates of the earth shift and grind against each other. This is what trauma does to people. It shifts the foundations upon which they have built their identities and lives. Tragically it is very hard to find dialogue and validation in these broken, shifted and damaged places. Most people do not want to consciously go into these places because they intuitively sense that they are at risk of dying, in a psychological and spiritual sense, if they were to deal with the material that has been generated in these places.
They also sense that they could be transformed in the process of if they were to intentionally enter these spaces but they also know that there is no guarantee, especially when road maps and guides, which could lead them through such territory, are in short supply. Essentially, traumatic experiences puts victims on a path that spiritual adepts have been walking for thousands of years - albeit alone, without maps or guides and shaken to the core.
Trauma and Addiction are Brother and Sister
Trauma victims and addicts are like brothers and sisters. Whenever you find one you almost always find the other. Wherever trauma is discovered, there is almost always some kind of substance abuse or addictive process lurking about and whenever substance abuse or addiction is found, the effects of traumatic events will almost always have been forced to go underground.
I’m not a big fan of the disease model of addiction even though I wouldn’t deny the bio-chemical or biological sub-stratum of an addiction. Most of my clients with an addiction have also been un-recovered trauma survivors who were using substances or process addictions, to not only numb or distract themselves, but also stay away from what will be discussed in the next section.
Before proceeding let me say a bit more about the relationship between trauma and addiction. Typically in the short term, traumatic events initiate a range of intrusive symptoms, such as, hypervigilance, increased startle reaction, nightmares, flashbacks, reliving experiences, etc… This type of material is anxiety producing. Trauma recipients in one way or another have been violated. As a result, they live in fear of being hurt again. In the immediate wake of traumatic events they are usually also unable to control many of their thoughts and feelings. As a consequence, while in the Intrusive Phase (Horowitz, 1979) of the posttraumatic response process, which can last for several hours, weeks or months, individuals typically feel anxious and insecure. As a result, they are in need of something that can de-escalate their debilitating levels of anxiety, i.e., a depressive substance (downers) or process addiction that has the power to calm them down, distract them and enable them to get a break from a range of intrusive distressing feelings, images and memories. Since most are unable to concentrate, sleep or function in the immediate wake of such events due to the fact of being regularly assaulted by intrusive images and feelings they will attempt to shut down affectively and intellectually, especially if they have been able to get out of the traumatic situation. In so doing, most head into what Horowitz (1979) refers to as the Avoidant or Denial Phase (Horowitz, 1976).
The Denial phase involves a host of defensive and distortive mechanisms, including but not limited to, emotional numbing, inabilities to appreciate significance of certain internal and external stimuli, avoidance of certain topics and situations, amnesia (partial or complete), constrictive and inflexible ways of thinking, a use of fantasy to counteract reality, sleep disturbances, physical complaints, such as, bowel problems, fatigue, headaches, hyperarousal, impulsivity, over-activity (as a means of distraction), social isolation, self-blame, phobic responses, depression, anxiety, diminished self-care, survivor guilt, a foreshortened sense of future, re-enactment (i.e., of the original trauma in play, at work or at home), along with continued substance abuse. Individuals in the Denial Phase look more depressed, anxious, sleep disordered, substance abusing than traumatized. In many instances, the impact of traumatic events lasts a lifetime, if left untreated.
In the Denial Phase individuals are depressed and numb and, thus, in need of something that will stimulate them and give them a sense of energy and vitality. As a result, they often in search of something that will stimulant (stimulants) them and/or a high risk or adrenaline based activity. The tragedy of this situation is that such individuals often can go back and forth between these two phases and the substances and processes involved - repeatedly over the course of their lives, i.e., as a result of being triggered and/or retraumatized and, thus, having to go back into the Intrusive Phase – where they will once again need to suppress and numb their intrusive symptoms and return to the Denial Phase.
In short, a significant number of individuals, possibly as many as 60% of those with substance abuse problems, as well as, a full blown process addiction, are self medicating the effects of unresolved trauma (single and/or multiple events). Let us return now for a more in-depth look at the impact of traumatic events
Getting One’s Bearings
Most of those who are pushed outside their frames of reference will have a hard time figuring out what happened to them. There is almost no one who can help them articulate what happened or help them understand the predicament they are in. If, however, they do figure out the situation then they have a very big existential issue to confront. Once they realize that they are outside their socially condoned frames of reference… that is, that they are standing outside a socially endorsed “box”… then they will have to confront the fact that all they have had and ever will have is a “box” or socially condoned frame of reference.
Think about this for a minute. Nobody ever tells trauma victims that there are only “boxes.” Rather they are told that what they believed before their traumatic experiences IS “reality.” That is the way it is. Once trauma victims realizes that they are outside their uncritically accepted frames of reference and that there are, in fact, many cultural versions of reality (around the globe) then it is only a short step to the realize that “all there is are ‘boxes.” And, if that’s the case, how do they determine what is true and how do they know what is real or how to live?
Trauma victims, at this point in the process are in the desert in Biblical terms. They are in liminal space, that is, “be-twixt and between.” The old ways (frames of reference) don’t work and the new ways have yet to appear. Liminal space is quite anxiety provoking and many people get lost in some various forms of nihilism at this time. Life becomes meaningless; everything has been leveled or relativized. As a result, there is no longer any sense of orientation or direction.
Consequently, it becomes quite difficult to hold or accept any truth-claim on any matter. This situation characterizes the post-modern world. Linguists and philosophers have de-constructed almost every truth-claim that humans have come up with and demonstrated, quite brilliantly that is because of the inherent structure of language it is impossible to say anything definitive or rock sold about antsy aspect of self or reality.
Trauma victims end up in similar territory. Their taken-for-granted approaches to reality (“boxes”) have been de-constructed by what their traumatic experiences have exposed them to in regard to the socially constructed nature of self and world. Traumatic events have the potential to initiate processes of deconstruction in both a vertical and horizontal direction.
Horizontally, external reality has been challenged, damaged or destroyed. It has broken apart and/or rendered null and void. Examples of this will be provided shortly. Vertically, their structures of self have been challenged, damaged or destroyed by traumatic event or a series of such events. On some level, all human beings, especially victims of trauma know that they are a tentative and socially constructed artifact, and underneath their construction of the social self is no-thing, i.e., no experience of core self. The core self, in psychological terms, is actually an achievement. It is not a given. A lot of things can go wrong developmentally, for example, attachment miscues and deprivations that can leave individuals scarred or deformed at their core or in extreme cases, without a core sense of self. Such individuals are often referred to by psychologists as having a personality disorder.
The core self is an achievement and, thus, a project from the start. Initially, there is literally “no one home” at the core of any human being. As a result, the neophyte human must weave together a socially endorsed sense of self out of whatever materials family and that culture-at-large can offer. This is my opinion, but it is backed up by the mystical tradition of almost every major religious tradition. In other, words, no matter how good an upbringing individuals have – all humans are essentially no-thing at the core. The only time anything is put in place at the core is when children get consistent care and loving feedback from their significant caregivers. Evolving children are able to integrate interpersonal feedback and build up some type of internal coherence. Their core is not a substantial or reified something. It is more the result of a great deal of social conditioning, continuous feedback and continual inner weaving done by the individual in an attempt to slap and hold together a felt sense of self. For many, the social self or ego becomes like a fibrous piece of wood. Its core, like any piece of wood, has numerous gaps, cracks and fault lines. This is due to the fact that humans are imperfect beings who are raised and formed by imperfect beings. None get a perfect up-bringing.
Trauma has a way of finding these gaps and fault lines in their structures of self and world. It then drives splitting wedges into these gaps. The metaphor here is of splitting wood with either an ax or splitting wedge. My dad taught me a lot about splitting wood. First off, wood is very coarse and densely integrated, so one can’t just drive a wedge into a big piece of wood indiscriminately because it will pop the wedge right out, especially if the wood is dry. So one has to look for either a ring or a crack in the wood and then drive the wedge into this “sweet” or soft spot. When the wedge has been placed properly one can then begin to hear the wood begin to split. The wood can be heard to struggle to hold its structural integrity, but if placed properly and driven in far enough; it will begin to break apart. Placing a second wedge properly, in conjunction with the first, should eventually open up the whole thing. Yet, the wood will continue to hold itself together and even punish the woodchopper with effort and injury if s/he is not careful and focused.
This is what trauma does. If traumatic events hit an individual where there is not a crack or ring, then it will typically bounce off and not threaten the integrity of the whole. This is why some people, when exposed to a traumatic event, are not traumatized. This, again, is because the trauma did not hit a weak spot in that person’s structure of self, other people, reality, or God.
Typically, however, when trauma penetrates the individual or breaks through his/her structural boundaries then it leads to some form of post-traumatic distress, health problem or addiction.
Many of the people that I have treated have had multiple experiences of trauma, over their entire life span and with different perpetrators. In essence, they have splitting wedges implanted and axe cuts throughout their fibrous core and are, thus, barely able to hold themselves together. Hence, the need of many unresolved trauma victims is for some form of addictive substance or process. For a time at least, addictions serve as a kind of shield and “glue” for wounded and debilitated personalities, but at great cost?
This all sounds very dark. Yet, letting one’s sacred beliefs come under careful scrutiny and possibly die is an essential passage of any “way forward” for any who are in search of healing and rebirth. Again, many religious and spiritual traditions point in this direction.
Mythologically speaking, what I am referring to is Dante’s “descent into hell,” or going into the tomb or kiva in Native American terms. This also refers to Christ in the tomb before his resurrection. Trauma victims initially have to go down, I believe, into what their traumas reveal about self and life before they can come out the other side and be reborn in the Self and Spirit.
Individuals cannot just self-medicate exposures into the hellish aspects of Life, i.e., the no-thingess that underlie every conception or sense of self and world. Through an addiction individuals can remain temporarily above such material; albeit at a very high cost. Again trauma victims have bitten from the “fruit of knowledge.” Like Adam and Eve (who couldn’t pretend that they weren’t naked anymore after they ate the forbidden fruit traumatized individuals can’t pretend that the world and self are the way they are supposed to be, i.e., as characterized by society. Therefore, victims must either work through the implications of such profound realizations or be destroyed by them. This is because on some profound level trauma victims know something that they don’t want to know on a conscious level.
When they begin to lose and surrender what they have been taught and believe, then things start to look hopeless. At these times, people risk falling into the void and into despair. Life does not seem to have meaning or be worth living. It is hard to know what is real, right or wrong or how to live in the midst of these dynamics. But if they can sustain the descent, the stripping of uncritically accepted values and beliefs, then they have the potential to come out the other side as a very profound and transformed human beings.
The greatest people in human history have typically become great, not in spite of, but because of their experiences of trauma. Ignatius was nearly killed on a battlefield and left to die. John of the Cross was tortured by his own confreres and put in prison. Almost every significant spiritual innovator in the church grew up in the midst of a plague or catastrophe. They were surrounded by cultural upheaval and war and usually also usually experienced several traumas. Trauma victims must go down, I believe, into what their traumatic experiences reveal about self, other people, world and God before they can come out the other side and transcend such experiences.
If we take Christ and read the New Testament from the perspective of a trauma survivor, then it is quite clear that he had at least six Criterion A Events according to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM. Christ had a price on his head as a child. I’m sure he had some questions about who his biological father was. People were trying to kill him, at various times in his life. His best friends betrayed him. He was publicly humiliated, scourged and crucified.
That is a lot of trauma. I believe that Christ became what he was supposed to become because of his experiences of trauma. More specifically, he became himself – he developed the spiritual core or essence of his being, i.e., his Self – because he learned the lessons of his wounds. The question is then what can individuals learn from traumatic wounds?
One thing, and this is something that every addict knows from any 12-Step support group is that human beings are not in absolute complete control of their lives. In fact, any human can die at any moment. We are limited and finite. As a result there are so many things humans cannot control or do in this world or in a single lifetime.
Secondly, there are no guarantees in life. This is in spite of how hard individuals work or how disciplined they are. Things can still go wrong. There are just too many contingencies in life and humans cannot cover all of the bases. Along these same lines, there is no security in any absolute sense. An individual’s home, assets… everything can be taken away in an instant.
The fundamental issue, once individuals begin to accept all the insecurities, lack of permanence and lack of substance that are part and parcel of being human, is that there are really only two things that really matter, that is, the love and care of other people and being connected to “something greater” than themselves. Biblically, these are the first two and greatest of all commandments.
The problem is that the ego – the socially constructed self – fears these commandments because it does not want to acknowledge its inherent vulnerability and fundamental dependence on life, other people and the Spirit. It wants the world to revolve around itself. It wants to be self-sufficient, not need others and live without injury or loss.
Once trauma victims realize that money, power, degrees, a privileged birth status, gender, and skin color will not protect them from the effects of trauma, then some will strike out in search of something more substantial. They re-evaluate priorities that they have uncritically absorbed from several sectors of the consumer-driven social world. Some start to realize that the culturally endorsed version of the good life actually involves a wasted life. It’s a life based on power, status, consumption, competition and accumulation.
An authentic life tries to discern why individuals are here – in order to become aligned with the Power and Intelligence that animates and sustains the entire Universe. This is usually discovered in and through pain and trauma. When broken in pieces and unable to put themselves back together again, some individuals learn that it is only through the love and care of other people and being connected to the Spirit that they are able find their true Self and reason for living.
The above individuals learn from their own experience that nothing in this world matters more than reaching out to and caring for other people who are in distress. This is one reason why most talented healers are also wounded healers. It is in and through their own journey and the care they received along the way that helped them discover their true nature and life calling. They used their wounds (trauma in Greek means “wound”) as bridges of compassion that connect them to others who have suffered a fate similar. These individuals want to spare people the useless suffering that comes with being disoriented and not being properly accompanied when having been broken and debilitated by certain traumatic events.
It is actually in and through their wounds, and possibly having lost everything that was once cherished, that these individuals come home to themselves. The husk or ego must be stripped before the seed or Self can emerge. Individuals usually have lose their socially constructed life in order to find themselves.
The Meaning of Suffering
The above is why I am really interested in what is involved in conscious, intentional and authentic suffering. I do not try to take suffering away from people. It is often the only thing powerful enough to keep them on the journey of Self- discovery and transformation. Trauma exposes life in its rawness. Traumatized individuals either work the territories exposed by their traumatic events or they are destroyed by them (i.e., as a result of the psychological defenses, addictions and other ways of avoiding the truths of human existence that must be put in place in order to avoid the truth of their experience).
I believe in the power of redemptive or legitimate suffering. Here people learn that what is actually causing their suffering, i.e., it is a refusal to acknowledge what they learned in and through their actual experiences of trauma. Suffering, therefore, involves an unwillingness or inability to integrate the implications of traumatic experience into wider understandings of self, people, world and God. Buddha referred to processes initiated by suffering as “crashing the ship of one’s illusions onto the rocks of reality.” Thomas á Kempis called suffering the “gymnastics of eternity.” Think about this for a minute. If individuals want to go to the Olympics as a gymnast, then they have to start training from an early age, most likely as a child. They have to learn tumbling, apparatus, ballet and stretching in order to go to the Olympics.
What if individuals want to discover eternity and the Spirit? What if they want to be one with the Father in heaven or however they characterize the Divine? They are going to have to embark on a life-long journey of training and letting things go. This is what suffering demands – to let things go, especially the uncritically accepted beliefs that are causing so much of their suffering.
Let me give you an example that many readers can relate to. I grew up as a Catholic. My sister was a Catholic nun and all of my brothers and sisters went to Catholic schools their whole lives. I even went to a Catholic graduate school. I have been around religious and clergy my entire life either as a lay person and professional and consultant to several dioceses and religious orders around the world.
When I was growing up, priests and religious were pretty much viewed as semi-divine by both children and devout parishioners. The only difference for me was that I had a sister who was a nun, so I knew that nuns were just girls in skirts. My classmates did not hold this point of view. Even then I was still a little in awe of priests and religious. So in the cultural map or worldview I was given, I didn’t know that priests and religious might sexually act out, might have sexual addictions, might be married and may have even fathered children…etc. namely, all the things that the general public has been surprised to hear over the course of the last twenty years. So what does someone do, if he is a child who has been given a certain version of reality and then encounters a priest or religious who is molesting him? Let us just say he touched the boy inappropriately. How would a child make sense of that say 40 years ago? It is not supposed to happen. Right? It probably doesn’t even exist in the child’s wildest imagination, therefore, it has to be an accident or mistake. The priest must have been moving his hands in another direction to get something else and accidentally touched the boy’s penis. Perhaps the child does not even know that something was wrong because he was too young to know about when something sexual is happening. There couldn’t be anything wrong with what a priest does. Essentially, his experience would not compute for such a child. It wouldn’t fit into his mind-frame or frame of reference. If it occurred in a contemporary setting, the child might run to someone and say something happened and that it was not appropriate. Thirty or forty years ago, however, even in America, it would have been a very hard thing for a child to get his or her head around such an event and then go to someone to talk about it. But some tried. And, what was the response from people who shared the same box or belief system that the child held? “You must be making it up or you’re really bad for having said or thought of such a thing.” Typically human beings shoot the messenger, i.e., anyone who attempts to take them outside of the taken-for-granted version of things.
In essence, trauma victims are the equivalent of modern day prophets. They know things about life that the rest of us do not want to know. Ideally, the masses should listen to these individuals but what they have to share is usually too threatening. What they have to say could threaten or take down the entire social framework and leave everyone in the wilderness, i.e., lost and confused.
So rather than honor the communiqués of partially awakened trauma victims, society tends to punish, pathologize and reject what they have seen and said. When broken in pieces and unable to put themselves and their worlds back together again, they may learn that it is only through the love, care and accurate support of other people and being connected to the Spirit that they able to discover the social construction of reality, their spiritual core and their reasons for being on this earth.
Have you ever read Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts? If you have, you know that culturally endorsed “boxes” don’t change just because somebody introduces some new and brilliant piece of information. Just talk to Galileo and a few people like him. Typically, most people are resistant to new insights because they shake the foundations of how they stand in and hold power in various strata of society Yet at the same time, if citizens could accept this new knowledge, then the collective mindset would be much more in-tune with reality, rather than just with the sides of life that people have used to create their illusions of substance, meaning and security.
In some way, traumatic events are a kind of “severe mercy” or “dark grace.” Humans encounter and make contact with more of Life and the Divine in ways that they would never imagine. I always thought that I would somehow encounter God triumphantly. I’d figure it all out and know why I’m here. I’d read scripture intensely and I’d have all the answers. But actually that approach that took me farther away from the Divine. It was through my brokenness and wounds, through tasting the dust of my own humanity, when I was face down in the dirt and debris of my destroyed beliefs and intellectual constructions, that I began to realize what I am at core (i.e., nothing as long as I am an ego) and that I can’t really make it in this world without other people, without being in relationship and working intimately with others. So I stopped striving for perfectionistic understandings and so many other ego types of achievement. I tried to be more comfortable with being a basic human being who needed others, direction from God, and a great many other things. In fact, I had to acknowledge that I was very needy. This acknowledgement brought me to people just as Thomas, the disciple, was
brought to Jesus. Jesus said to Thomas: “know me by my wounds.” That’s a very profound statement. Know who I am who I say I am because only I could carry my wounds in the way that I do, i.e., with humility, dignity and compassion.
This is my insight today. In essence, I’ve been purified and reborn in and through my traumatic wounds. I believe that we heal people in and through the comfort we have with our own wounds. We don’t heal people by talking down to them as though we have all the insights into their problems. We don’t heal them with our intellectual insights, forms of social power and/or our clinical competence – although all of these things are important to any process of healing.
In addition, the whole situation and dynamics of top dog and underdog could be reversed, and in my life at any moment. This has actually happened… many times. I’ve been on the other side of the desk or couch much of my life. I am on this side today but tomorrow I could once again be on the other side. This is due to the fact that life could take me down because I’m human. I am limited, and I can’t manage everything on my own. Life has too many contingencies. There are too many things that I can’t keep hold of and that can go wrong. This is both scary and paradoxical. Most people don’t want to ground themselves in this kind of understanding and spirituality. They want the more New Age – “ feel good, “get into the sunlight where everything’s pure and clean” kind of spirituality. I don’t believe that’s really where we develop a substantial or rooted kind of spirituality. I believe it’s through a conscious, intentional and reflective holding of personal distress and pain, while being held reverentially by other people that people are helped to accept the foundational elements of being human - without fear or shame. In no longer being ashamed of one’s limited humanity, it becomes nearly impossible to turn away from the distress of others people because they are one’s brothers and sisters. All humans are struggling with the challenges of existence together. The ego and its frightened nature need to step aside. In so doing the Self (spiritual core of the individual) can ascend. The Self is where the Spirit is already in harmony with the individual. It is in the other’s vulnerability and humanity that individual encounters himself and the Spirit. When we share this space with dignity then we grow together. This is considered a “sacred space” in most spiritual traditions and Twelve Step Programs. This is where people drop their façades, their cover stories, and share from the heart and depth of their being.
Typically it takes a lot of suffering to stop pretending that one is better than other people, especially when the other is mentally ill or debilitated in some way. This is another reason why I don’t take away people’s suffering. Carl Jung referred to this kind of suffering as “the refiner’s fire.” It is one of the few things powerful enough to get people to drop their pretenses and ego, re-order their priorities, and get to what is most important in life.
Look at all the people in the world who are driven by work, money, addiction and see how disengaged they are from people and the world around them. Many act as if they have life by the tail. When one of them develops a heart attack or addiction then they get shot right out of the sky. Like Paul who was knocked off his horse, these individuals are brought down to earth and possibly realize that all they have been working for is ephemeral and without substance. If they are lucky they will meet a few people who will be able to love and care for them while they are in such a broken and dis-oriented state. These individuals will most likely reinforce what I have been saying. What is important are relationships with other people and caring for others who are in a similar position as oneself. When such individuals wake up from their socially induced forms of coma, then they are afforded a second chance. When reborn in the Self and the Spirit - most will then go into some kind of social advocacy work or healing ministry. That is, they begin to live for something that isn’t just about themselves but for something that emerges out of and capitalizes on what they have been. This is amazing. I never would have imagined, throughout my youth and adulthood, that I would come closer to people and God through my brokenness and woundedness. I used to be ashamed of these things and thought that people would reject me if they knew these things about me. Yet, I’ve gone all over the world and worked in over twenty countries. I’ve done workshops in Papua, New Guinea and places you wouldn’t imagine. I’ve gone where people have limited English ability and almost no education and they still recognize me and I recognize them in the place where we are all the same, that is, where we can be rendered helpless and powerless and the place where we cannot make it on our own, that is, where we need one another and where we need to be connected to Something greater than ourselves.
This kind attitude, in-sight and knowledge transcends every race, gender, color and religion. This is where community is formed and healing is discovered.
If individuals are willing to drop the façade and speak from this place within themselves, then anything can happen. There is nothing more powerful than wounded human beings who are comfortable and not ashamed of their wounds. Such individuals do not glorify or spiritualize their wounds. They do not use them to make people feel guilty or induce them to take care of them. These individuals have dignity in this space and say, “Here I am. Come and meet me in this place. I am not afraid.”
These are the people I want to follow and that’s who most people also want to follow. Not somebody who comes in with all the answers - someone who has everything mapped out and nailed down and/or is full or rah-rah or guilt tripping sayings. All those responses are too much for people and not helpful. This is what many hagiographers have done. They have sanitized the lives of the saints. They taken out all the human elements and trauma from their lives. As a result, most people don’t know that Francis was a prisoner of war and nearly died in a prison camp. In my opinion this was his conversion experience. Yet, the hagiographers want to make the saint so spiritually profound and elevated that the average person cannot relate to him or her, whereas in reality it is in and through the saint’s humanity that s/he becomes spiritually transformed.
In closing let me say that if individuals stay too much on the level of psychiatric manifestations, in regard to trauma and addiction, then they will miss the more profound transformations that have taken place within them. The Self is touched, if not awakened and released by experiences of trauma. It has been affected, and if we can help people get in touch with what is happening on this level, then they can start to move in the direction of psycho-spiritual transformation. This is why many former addicts are some of the deepest people I’ve ever met. They come in and talk about ruining their families, careers, jobs, and health. Maybe even somebody died because they were drunk while driving a car. These are things that most people hide. Can you think of people who go in and start telling a group of people all of their problems and the shameful episodes they were involved in? You don’t normally get too many social points, except perhaps at an AA meeting, for doing this kind of thing, especially if this is done at work and if one is trying to climb the corporate ladder or impress a man or woman on a first date. But imagine a person who comes in, right off the bat and says “Here I am, this is what I’ve done. I’m ashamed of it in one way but I’m not going to hold my past or my shame in a way that’s toxic. I’m trying to make amends. I am trying to live a better life that is more in tune with my spiritual core. This person is relatively pure and transparent.
Healed addicts, who have gone through all of the Twelve Steps, are capable of this kind of self-revelation and intimate showing. But the culture doesn’t teach us how to be capable of such intimacy because we are so image oriented. We are constantly managing our images. We typically want to be loved for what we are not. We learn this as kids. Our true self and basic humanity isn’t lovable enough so we develop a false self, a façade. The false self doesn’t draw true love. People love what they see, but that’s not really who individuals are. So how can such individuals take any kind of love seriously that is offered to a false image of themselves? In fact, if they accept it they just ensconce their addictive behaviors even more because they are afraid that they will lose the other’s love if they don’t live up to the false images of self that they have been perpetuating.
Addicts in recovery and trauma victims learn that they have to be themselves, i.e., their basic human self, warts and all, in order to receive the full benefit of another’s love and respect. There is nothing more powerful than a wounded human being who is comfortable and not ashamed of his/her wounds.
If readers found this reproduction of a lecture given at an addiction conference, in 2007, then they will most likely find the following books quite helpful, especially the Way of the Wound (A Spiritual of Trauma and Transformation) which addresses all of the issues mentioned in this presentation in much greater depth. It can be ordered at email@example.com or at amazon.com under the seller name - Deep Healing.
About the Author
Robert Grant Ph.D. is a consultant and trainer to church, healthcare, business, military and welfare organizations in the areas of trauma, cross-cultural issues and spirituality. He has also helped several dioceses, religious orders and conferences of bishops and major superiors develop their policies and procedures on matters related to ministerial abuse.
He is also author of the following books: Healing the Soul of the Church: Ministers Facing Their Histories of Abuse and Trauma. The Way of the Wound: Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation, Living and Working in Environments of Violence: A Manual for Humanitarian Workers, A Healing Response to Terrorism: A Handbook for Psychological and Spiritual First Responders. Vicarious Trauma: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Victims of Trauma. I Love a War Veteran: A Handbook for Families, Veterans and Professionals dealing with the effects of Combat Stress and Trauma. Complicated Trauma (Diagnosis and Treatment), Growth Through Adversity (Coming Out the Other Side of Trauma, Illness and Loss) and The Challenge of Forgiveness (As Faced by Victims of Betrayal and Abuse) and Anger, Healing and Forgiveness (6 hour lecture on CD). All publications can be purchased directly from Robert Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org. More of his material can be read on his blog