Courageous Conversation: Abuse Survivors Can Heal—and Thrive—in the Aftermath of Trauma

The more our communities understand about trauma, the more likely we are to help survivors of experiences such as clergy sexual abuse achieve healing and post-traumatic growth. Trauma knowledge is also essential for survivors themselves in their recovery journey. These were two main takeaways from Awake Milwaukee’s latest Courageous Conversation, “Trauma and Resilience in the Body of Christ,” held on May 12. A recording of the panel discussion is available below.

This hopeful and informative event featured Deborah Rodriguez, MD, a general pediatrician from Tacoma, Washington, who has specialty training in trauma-informed care and has spent 10 years working with trauma survivors in medical and faith settings. Rodriguez is herself a survivor of complex childhood trauma. She experienced child sexual abuse, including abuse by a priest. “I’m also a survivor of reporting the abuse by the priest to the Catholic Church,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes … the avenues for some of us to report can be just as traumatizing as the original trauma.” Rodriguez is also a peer counselor and mental health coach for trauma survivors through Hopeful Hearts Ministry and the Maria Goretti Network.

She was joined by Regina Boyd, an experienced licensed mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist based near Orlando, Florida, whose clients include survivors of various forms of trauma and sexual abuse. 

Why Trauma Matters

Understanding trauma gives us a way to make sense of terrible life events such as accidents, natural disasters, and sexual abuse, Boyd explained. Being diagnosed with trauma can help survivors get the help they need, she said, and “can often be a huge step in … taking those beginning steps toward healing.”

Boyd defined trauma as a response to a stressful experience. “Sometimes the event can be so overwhelming that the stress exceeds the person’s ability to manage or integrate the emotions they experience,” Boyd said. Symptoms of trauma may include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, problems with sleep, exaggerated negative beliefs, and attempts to avoid reminders of the incident. Boyd also described the ways that a trauma history can influence relationships. For example, trauma survivors may be hyper-controlling or extreme people-pleasers in their marriages and friendships. But Boyd emphasized that the symptoms of trauma are highly individual and can vary widely among people.

Although the symptoms may differ, “trauma is a universal human experience,” Rodriguez noted as the event began. “Abuse is not necessarily a universal human experience, but trauma is.” Given that so many people have experienced some form of trauma in their lives, identifying sexual abuse in churches as a form of trauma increases the chances that survivors will be met with compassion and help in their healing journey, the panelists suggested.

What Are “Triggers?”

The term “trigger” is used frequently, sometimes in disparaging ways to tease people for being too sensitive. The reality is that triggers are important to understand in relation to trauma, Boyd said. A trigger is a “sensory reminder of a painful memory or experience,” she explained. Survivors might hear a song or smell an aroma that reminds them of that horrible event. “What happens is that all these feelings come back in a rush,” Boyd said. “Your body has a physiological response that is really unconscious and unintentional just because you encountered that sensory input.”

People who experienced trauma in a church context may become anxious in faith-related settings. For example, Rodriguez described her own difficulties in church during the period when she was first trying to make sense of her abuse by a Catholic priest. “I would sit in the back of Mass in a panic and anxiety state,” she recalled. She said that she learned through personal experience and her work with other survivors that some people misinterpret this distress, including the inability to stay seated in church, as a sign that the person is not a good Catholic or Christian.

“Triggers or ‘trauma reminders’ as I sometimes call them, really have no mercy,” Rodriguez added. “They really come upon people when we least expect it.” Understanding the physical effects of trauma on the body can help survivors “to have greater mercy on themselves, and for those around the survivor to understand and have more compassion,” she said.  

Deborah’s post-Traumatic Growth

Both Boyd and Rodriguez offered hopeful news about “post-traumatic growth,” or the possibility that some people might recover and even thrive in the aftermath of trauma. Rodriguez shared details of her own healing journey and post-traumatic growth.

“My trauma growth came from acknowledging my story, stumbling a whole lot with it, struggling with it, learning all I could [about trauma], having a whole bunch of good support people, [which] took a while to find…and then helping others by at least listening to their stories,” Rodriguez said. “And that in turn creates a new cycle of healing.”

The panelists covered other important topics including the difference between trauma and complex trauma, how to listen well to a survivor’s trauma story, and the impact of secondary or vicarious trauma on people who love or work with survivors. They also discussed the hopeful possibility of vicarious resilience. To learn more, see the event recording below.

The Gifts Survivors Bring

Instead of simply seeing trauma survivors as difficult people to be avoided or silenced, Christians can benefit from acknowledging the gifts they bring to the Church. Boyd noted that in her experience, survivors often have heightened tenderness and compassion. They are often able to see the complexity of situations and may be especially flexible. “Those are significant gifts that we need in the Church, that are often not recognized and utilized enough,” she said.

“With every survivor story that comes to me, I see a better picture of God,” Rodriguez said. Survivor stories echo Christ’s suffering and resurrection, she suggested. “If each survivor is such an encapsulation of … Jesus Christ,” Rodriguez said, “why are we not listening and walking with them and learning from them?”

As the conversation drew to a close, Boyd and Rodriguez spoke directly to trauma survivors. “We all have dignity, so people who have experienced trauma have dignity because we were created in God’s image,” Boyd said. “You are loved and your life is a gift. You are valued, and we need you.”

“You are not alone in this,” Rodriguez added. Because we are all part of the Body of Christ, “when one struggles, we all struggle. When one does well, we all do well.”

She concluded with her message from the start of the conversation: “Trauma is … a universal human experience,” she said. And that is ultimately a source of hope. “Because of that,” she said, “we have language, and methods, and ways to help those who have survived trauma.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

The Conversation Continues. Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, May 19.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the panelists in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2 and watch the video recording before you attend. See you on May 19!

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