I’m a trauma therapist. Each day, I work with survivors of sexual trauma at a non-profit agency and also within my private counseling practice. I have a Master’s in Counseling, and have read books and written papers on trauma. I also have a complex history of trauma in my own life, and have pursued personal counseling. I am well acquainted with grief and the hope that can overflow as one begins to heal. While all of these experiences are assets to my professional therapeutic practice, sometimes you can know too much, which perhaps is what impeded me from the Practice of Honesty in the past year.
On June 28, 2016, I called my husband to ask him what he wanted from the grocery store. My six month old was in the back seat, and I was leaving my pastor’s house where I had been enjoying coffee with his wife. It was a beautiful summer day, and I felt nourished by my baby and the meaningful conversation I got to have alongside of her with a dear friend. I’m not sure what my husband was asking me to buy…maybe it was his constant plea for more chicken wings and my insistence that I wouldn’t buy them unless they’re organic…or his desire for a week’s worth of ramen noodles instead of me cooking for him—but then I heard the scream.
I imagined someone spilling their coffee and screaming because it was hot. I kept talking about groceries. And then a shuffle, and a rushed “I’ve gotta go,” and click.
My husband’s a kind man. Maybe he is just helping this woman clean up her coffee, I thought. And then I received this text message: “There’s an active shooter in my building. I love you.”
I received a few more texts from my husband. “I love you.” “I love you so much.” “I’m looking at the shooter. I can see his face.” In a panic, I texted the woman with whom I had just met and asked her to pray. I called my father who did not answer, and then I called my best friend. She instructed me to pull my car over, and I sat on the side of the road until I heard that my husband was safe.
My brain surged with all of the information I know about trauma. In the moment, I was able to name the fight or flight reaction occurring within my body. I knew what was happening in my brain as my body sought to seek safety after such a large reaction in my nervous system. I started thinking about the symptoms of PTSD and ways that I could monitor my husband’s posttraumatic symptoms in case he began to meet criteria for Acute Stress Disorder. I gave myself space for self-compassion and tears. While my husband was the direct survivor and witness of the trauma, I was able to honor myself as a secondary survivor.
I had navigated trauma before, and knew that I could do it again. After all, my family had survived the day.
My husband was able to relay the entirety of the day’s events to me when he came home. As he hid behind a desk alone in his office, he witnessed the shooter walk in, kill another woman, and then kill himself. My husband was the only person alive in the room until the police arrived.
Swarms of friends and family reached out to support us—specifically my husband. Surprising to me, my husband was able to heal rather quickly. He never denied his emotions from that day and was able to have meaningful conversations with the victim’s family as he healed. I continued to monitor his posttraumatic symptoms and am convinced that his healing was honest and impactful.
My healing, on the other hand, did not come as easily. While our family received an incredible outpouring of support from loved ones, it consistently came in the form of “how is your husband?” I strived to advocate for myself saying, “I don’t think I’m okay. Our whole family is suffering.” But people struggled to find the right words for me. Loved ones encouraged me to keep supporting my spouse. Incredulously, when I went on a vacation two weeks later without my husband, one friend actually suggested that my husband might cheat on me if I didn’t stay home to support him. He was okay though. He had healed. Meanwhile, I felt stuck and invalidated.
As time passed, In many ways, our family healed. I still feel immense gratitude for my husband’s healing, and during that time, I loved watching him continue to be emotionally present for our daughter as she grew and changed. I even thought I had healed for quite some time. And then, on September 22 of the same year, my dog died in a tragic accident.
I felt like I was wearing the inside of my body on the outside. All of the stress from the summer caused me to feel undone.
I’ve been seeing a therapist since I was twelve-years-old. I knew what would help, and yet I continued to process my traumas from a purely cognitive level. “I’ve read so many books. I should be able to understand this,” I told myself.
As I look back on the past year though, I honestly struggle to remember it. For so many months, I functioned as a mere shell of myself, striving to present myself as an empowered bearer of healing while ignoring my broken self. Sure, I could tell my husband, “I’m not okay,” but I never took things deeper than that.
In the meantime, I found myself obsessing over themes of death in my brain. I couldn’t stop worrying about my daughter’s safety. Because my dog died in a choking accident, I stopped giving my daughter solid food and switched her to purees. I would wake up in the middle of the night to check her pulse. I also woke up to do the same for my husband. The fear became even more paralyzing.I began to fear for my own death, making sure I said “I love you” before I left the house not out of kindness, but because I was constantly convinced that I would get in a car accident. I started to experience physical health symptoms, breaking out in hives on a near daily basis.
I was able to use the term “posttraumatic symptoms” to describe my pain, but did not truly have a breakthrough until July of 2017. Interestingly, it occurred while watching a Harry Potter movie on a girls’ night with my sister-in-law. During the second film, Harry has survived yet another major trauma and is in the Chamber of Secrets with Ginny Weasley. As they are preparing to depart the Chamber, Harry looks up at Ginny and says, “It’s alright Ginny, it’s over. It’s just a memory.”
In one line, Harry Potter summarized the goal of trauma recovery: successful recognition of one’s safety. I had spent a year convinced that the trauma was still occurring…that I was not safe. I had survived major trauma, and had been spending more time reliving the trauma than honoring myself as a survivor.
As soon as I began to realize my goal for recovery—to believe I was safe—I hit an immediate wall.
Have you ever turned on the news? Better yet, have you ever swiped left on your iPhone and found that the news pops up whether you want it or not? How could I learn to feel safe in a world where trauma and death are part of the human experience? I began to mourn.
Surprisingly, it has been in my mourning that I have encountered hope. This world is not safe. I cannot guarantee my safety or the safety of my family. And yet, the more deeply I enter into this truth, the more I have been met with mercy and hope. In my profession, we talk a lot about the necessity of experiencing the fullness of negative emotions in order to also feel the fullness of joy. I spent a year of my life in a space of blandness. Paralyzed by my fear, I could not enter into Grief, but I also couldn’t enter into Joy. In my healing process, I find myself now, more fully than ever, in the place of Honesty. The path toward Honesty has felt messy and heavy at times, but it is in this place of Honesty that I begin to experience freedom. Honesty begets hope, and it is my hope that you may also have this experience through your own journey of Honesty.
Christian possesses a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, is a nationally certified counselor, and a candidate for counseling licensure in the state of Colorado. Additionally, she is currently pursuing an Advanced Counseling Certificate from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Christian has extensive experience working with survivors of sexual trauma, as well as individuals struggling with anxiety, spiritual concerns, or difficulty maintaining meaningful relationships. Christian finds hope and joy in watching individuals heal from their experiences and develop healthy coping skills. During her free time, Christian enjoys singing, snowboarding, dark chocolate, and going on walks with her family. For more information, please see Christian’s website at www.counselingdenver.org.