Many people don't know this but after 7 months of my own intense counseling, my husband briefly went through a few months of counseling himself. Matthew also had "stuff" from his past that needed healing, having endured his own version of PTSD. Not from being an abuse victim, but from being a war veteran. After he had spent many months, walking me through my trauma with excellence, I found myself in a position to return the favor.
What I discovered instead was that I didn't know exactly how to do that well. I found myself floundering and I couldn't understand why. I had assumed because I am a trauma survivor and had experienced Matthew's example of an excellent support system, I should be able to return that kind of support without a problem.
But instead, I struggled.
I wanted to be his safe person yet there were times that I didn't know how to respond to Matthew's pain. I didn't know what to say. I was unsure how to talk to him or what kinds of emotional responses I should have to different conversations. Sometimes he wanted to be around people - his few safe people - and sometimes he just needed me to plan a date night so we could be alone. Each day his needs would change and I often got it wrong!
Just because someone has endured and survived
a trauma does not mean they automatically
have all the answers.
This made me realize several things. First, just because someone has endured and survived a trauma does not mean they automatically have all the answers. We don't. We might have many of them but not all because every trauma survivor is different. That's not just comparing a survivor of a natural disaster to someone who has lost a child. That's comparing one abuse survivor to another and one war veteran to another. Not all traumas result in the same responses because we are+ different people with different personalities and different emotional needs.
The second thing I learned is that if I was struggling to support my husband, how many other support structures in this world have no idea how to do their role well. They want to but they honestly don't know how to. It struck me that there are support systems out there who literally need an instruction book. They need it spelled out, otherwise they will get it wrong. They need someone to tell them what to do so they can help and love their person the way it's needed.
Because that's what I felt I needed. I wanted an instruction book!
It's not as simple as a Bible verse or Pinterest quote. Christians often we think we can just slap a quick encouraging word on the situation then walk away and it will be fine. We've "done our job." But that is not enough! We can't just Christianese this. There are no bumper stickers that can do the job that one soul can do for another.
There are no bumper stickers that can do
the job that one soul can do for another.
People who have suffered through real traumas, not just abuse, in their life need us to be excellent for them. Yes, we need to hear them and be still with their grief. We need to sit silently by their side and listen to their heart ache without trying to give advice. But we also need to be uncomfortable for their sake. There are times that we need to do more and we need to be more. The words that come out of our mouths, should be few and be perfect.
What came seemingly naturally to Matthew did not come naturally for me in those difficult moments. I'm sure some of it was because my own healing was still very fresh and I was experiencing a residue of painful emotions, but in my mind, that didn't excuse me from not catering to Matthew when he needed me. I recognized in my own struggle that even those with firsthand experience of trauma can still get the other side wrong.
I believe a large part of the problem is that there isn't an instruction book when there could be. In all the research and reading we did, neither Matthew nor I found resources which explained how a support person should help, or respond to, an abuse survivor. Or any kind of trauma survivor.
There are plenty of books which talk about sexual abuse, the emotional, mental, sexual and spiritual damage abuse causes, and even memoirs of survivors. But there is almost nothing which explain how parents, spouses, or friends should act or speak to a survivor of abuse while also acknowledging the hardship of the support system. It's such an important role yet it's being completely neglected in research.
The support structure is being overlooked when it comes to mental health and trauma.
My husband, currently an ICU nurse, has often spoken of the success rate of patients who have a support system when they leave the hospital. Those patients who have had heart surgery, endured life-threatening lung conditions, or have to make drastic lifestyle changes will only succeed if they have the right support at home. And because we know this to be true in the medical field, those professionals are trained to educate family members as well as the patients. We understand all sides need to be informed in order for these patients to win. We do not, however, do this for mental health and trauma patients.
If support systems are to be helpful in the mental health of another person, then they also need to be informed and educated. We need to be equipping family members, spouses, and friends to respond to trauma survivors with excellence. They need to have tools in order to succeed and the truth is, we can give them resources instead of shrugging our shoulders and walking away.
There are very real ways one person can help a trauma survivor without causing additional pain.
1. Listen to them. Don't rush through the conversation because it's awkward or uncomfortable or you have "your own stuff to deal with." Sit still with them and let them audibly process their pain without feeling the need to make it better.
2. Tell them it's OK. Don't tell them their problem is going to be OK, because it may not be. Tell them that how they are feeling and responding to their pain is OK. Even if it hurts you. Even if it's hurting them. A person in that kind of deep emotional pain is floundering to find relief. They don't always know which end is up, but they do need to hear that it's OK that they don't have emotional stability in this period of their life. They will eventually have that stability again.
3. Be patient. Their healing will not come in your timing. Their healing won't even come in THEIR timing. No one wants to be in extreme pain - not physically, not emotionally, not mentally. They want to get through this faster than you want them to, so getting impatient with a survivor's progress speed is not only not helpful, but can cause more pain.
4. Stick with them. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to be by their side every moment of every day, but don't give up on them. A trauma survivor has had their world turned upside down and trampled on. Nearly everything feels unsafe to them, including those who have always been safe and secure. By walking away during these dark moments, you are adding to their shame, self-hatred, and hopelessness. Again, you don't have be everything all the time, just some of the time.
Support systems need to be safe
for trauma survivors.
They should be equipped to speak gently, compassionately, and safely to the survivor. They should be educated in what to say and what not to say, how to respond to new information, and when it's OK to be emotional on behalf of the survivor. These are the things most people don't even realize can be done incorrectly causing more pain.
I wanted to be a safe person for my husband and, although I floundered a bit in the beginning, I was able to course correct and walk Matthew through the rest of his pain. Because of that choice, our relationship is stronger than it's ever been. We have learned to be both safe for one another and allow ourselves to be held safely by each other.
This is just a piece of the beauty that can come from trauma.
**Speak Truth Ministries mission is to provide safe people for abuse survivors who need additional support during their healing process.