PTSD & Black Lives Matter (4 Years Later)
Four years ago, before RAAN became The Witness, before the Cubs won the World Series, or Lebron led the Cavs to a comeback against Golden State, and before…well, ya know, I wrote an article on PTSD and Black Lives. In it, I discussed some of the effects of Post-traumatic stress disorder on the Black community, the nature of sin and trauma in its generational impact, and how to move towards healing.
Over these past few years, ‘trauma’ has become a buzzword, and like most popular things, its abundant use has caused it to lose some of its meaning. It seems we’re at a crucible, so a follow-up article seemed appropriate.
I will take a look at trauma through a different lens and discuss in more depth how to deal with it, particularly as it is related to racial trauma. But first, I would like to affirm the work of The Witness.
The Work of The Witness
I want to publicly give thanks to The Witness for what it has been up to since its inception, but especially these past few years.
First, they intentionally created a space for Black folks to fully be themselves. It is in places like this, where it is safe to be vulnerable, known, and in need, that healing takes place. Second, they have been vocally supportive and personally vulnerable about the need for counseling. The taboo that “counseling is for ____” is a hard ship to turn and I am grateful for their work on this. Third, they have purposefully left harmful people and places, all while being honest with us. This takes no small amount of courage and wisdom. So, before I talk about trauma, let’s give thanks to God that he has put women and men in this particular place, at this particular time, to provide this particular safe haven.
I am not sure who first came up with it, but an easy way (although imperfect) to categorize traumatic events is to see them as Big T, Little T, and Chronic T. I will speak to each in terms of racial trauma.
Big Traumas are those seismic events that are, without doubt, negatively life-changing in a negative way. For many folks, as well as communities of people, there is a moment of no return, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 or the murder of Mike Brown in 2014.
For many of the Black people I know or counsel, there are singular events in their lives that changed the way they view themselves and the rest of the world. That is what trauma does. It is not just something negative that happens, not just a bad experience, but something that significantly changes us—our brain, body, and heart—in a negative way.
Typically, a traumatic event leaves you feeling frozen, powerless, alone, and/or afraid. It could be something that happened to you in school as a kid that made you see yourself as less than. It could be a time when you were pulled over and you feared for your life or something you experienced when something bad happened to a loved one that drastically changed you from the inside out.
Little T & Chronic T
Little traumas or little T’s are those “small” things that can add up over time. Microaggressions fall under this category—if, and that’s a big if, they only happen once. To be perfectly honest, I am doubtful anyone who grew up Black in America has experienced only one, small racial pain.
One way to think about this is that if you were bullied at recess as a kid. If it only happened once, it would hurt, and you’d probably steer clear of whoever picked on you. That is a little-T. But, if you got bullied day in and day out, in the same way, over and over and over, the impact would be called chronic.
Chronic Trauma is like a poisonous gas. You get sick. Being Black in America, I imagine, is like living in poisonous gas. It is so constant and (sometimes) imperceivable, that it becomes normalized. Over time, and if on your own, you might start to imagine it’s not something outside of you causing pain, but that it’s something about you, and that if you were just ______, then everything would be better.
So much of the hurt that is being spoken of in this space falls under this category. Abusive systems amplify this messaging and typically spin the blame on those being hurt. The reality is that it will not go away on its own, and sometimes we must choose to go breathe fresh air somewhere else. For some, they can #LeaveLoud, but for others, it is alright to just get out in whatever way you can.
What To Do
There is no one right way to treat trauma, but there are more and less helpful means of doing so. Actual trauma changes you neurologically and physiologically, meaning that your body holds the pain, and so, it is through engagement with your mind and body that you have to heal it, which always involves safe relationships.
An old counseling adage states: in relationship, we have been broken; in relationship, we will be healed. Here are 7 prompts to help get you started. If you’re overwhelmed, just find one of these that feels doable.
- Tell your story. One of the greatest gifts of The Witness, and all the blogs, events, pods, and teaching that have come from it, is that Black stories have a place to be told and heard. It is often difficult to understand your pain when it has been normalized, but when you start to share and listen to others who have had similar experiences, it’s often like the sun breaking through dark clouds. It’s perfectly okay if you don’t want to put your personal experiences online. That may be very wise of you, but you need to find someone near you or on a place like the PTM Facebook group who you can connect with. Send them a DM and ask if they can chat, and if they can’t, find someone who can. Find someone you feel safe with and start to share your story, as well as listen to theirs.
- Go to counseling. Find a counselor who fits your needs – someone licensed and trained in working with trauma. Someone you can trust. And it’s perfectly acceptable if that means you only want to work with someone of your ethnicity. Here’s a short guide I wrote to help in finding a counselor who is a good fit. I would suggest looking into EMDR or Brainspotting to name a couple of trauma-focused treatments.
- Take care of yourself. There are many ways to seek self-care, which can be found in this Witness article. But bottom line, get in a healthy and safe community AND learn to process emotions. This looks different for everyone, but it will always include deep breathing and deep friendships.
- Yoga. Research has shown that yoga is one of the most beneficial treatments for a person who has experienced trauma. Why? Because yoga helps you to regain control over your body, the power which trauma and/or abuse steals. Yoga allows you to reclaim the God-given dominion that is yours. Look for a yogi who is trained in trauma or trauma-sensitive work.
- Disconnect. One of the side effects of being traumatized is becoming detached. Detachment looks different for everyone. It may be active detachment, where we avoid relationships to focus on busyness or distraction, or it may be a type of inactive detachment, where we unwillingly shut off from the world. Like a car that overheats, your mind is protecting you by shutting down. This is not a bad thing but can lead to undesirable consequences.Give yourself permission to disconnect before you detach. Disconnect from those things which breathe toxicity into you instead of breathing life – like social media, news, painful videos, and the like. Let me qualify this by saying: if you are reading this article, on this site, I’m not worried that you’ll put Black lives out of your heart and mind by taking a sabbatical from painful information. Give yourself permission to protect your mind and heart by disconnecting for a duration of time.
- Stay connected to the Body of Christ. Another reason I love The Witness is because of their core belief that we NEED to be connected to the Church locally. No doubt, some of us have had to leave churches that were more harmful than healing, but please do not stop there.Find a place where the Word is preached, God is exalted, the Spirit is sought, and freedom is pursued. And if you don’t know of a place like that, reach out to folks on any of these sites mentioned and let us pray with/for you as well as encourage and direct you towards a healthy church body.
- Pray the Psalms. One of the early African church fathers, Athanasius (AD 296-373), said: “The other Scriptures speak to us, but the Psalms speak for us.” I have found it a helpful practice to read a Psalm and write it out in my own language; with my own pains, fears, sorrows, and enemies. If you don’t know where to start, head to Psalm 116.
“Death stared me in the face, hell was hard on my heels. Up against it, I didn’t know which way to turn; then I called out to God for help: “Please, God!” I cried out. “Save my life!” God is gracious—it is he who makes things right, our most compassionate God. God takes the side of the helpless; when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me” (Psalm 116:3-6).