Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The Day Everything Changed #NoBackingDown #BonusContent
The Day Everything Changed
by Lucille Zimmerman
“There are places in the heart which do not exist yet; and into them, suffering enters that they may have existence.”
“Have a seat,” my professor smiled and encouraged me to relax in his dimly lit office. Scared and nervous, and living inside a thirty-eight year old woman’s body, the little girl began to speak.
I was four months along in my graduate Counseling program and had gone to my professor’s office to ask him how I should handle a situation regarding another student. Despite the fact that the student, herself, was in the counseling program, she was mocking others who had been in need of counselor at one time or another. “What is wrong with all of you?” she chided. It seems ridiculous now, but the fact that I had to go talk to the professor to help stabilize me in light of her comments is a revelation of how small and insecure I was. That was the incident that got me to the teacher’s office, but it was not the reason I was supposed to be there.
Looking back, I see that a much bigger plan was at work. It was the first time I had a safe place to begin talking; to begin looking at my life. It was the first time someone really saw me, and all that had happened in my life that created the insecure, sad person who hid behind perfection and a plastic smile. Later, I discovered the teacher felt an “open door policy” within a counseling education program was best for everybody. He knew that the learning would stir things up in students and they would need a safe place to discuss those things. He wanted to makes sure students found teachers who were available to talk when needed. Little did I know that the moment I walked into his office, I would finally find safety to feel and talk about the cataclysmic pain I had buried; pain that would take several years to turn from an almost complete hemorrhage into a tiny scar.
I had always been a nervous and emotional person; wound tight with frequent bouts of low-level sadness and shame. I thought this was part of my genetic makeup. In school, I learned about family dynamics and trauma, and how certain situations impact people. In the safety of my teacher’s office where I had freedom to talk and glean insight into my past, I examined the wounds I had incurred while growing up. I examined the dysfunctional ways I tried to ignore tremendous loss, and to dismiss huge boundary violations in my family of origin. But now, I had no choice—I was being confronted to work through those issues in my own counseling process.
People are capable of tremendous change. Though the therapeutic work I did was painful and incredibly fast-paced, owing to the reading and discussions in which I was immersed, when I left the program I was no longer the depressed, anxious, insecure person I had been when I entered three years prior. The new Lucille who walked out of school had hope, took risks, and laughed deeply. I have witnessed this transformation over and over with my colleagues and clients.
Now that my pain has been acknowledged and processed, it has afforded me the wisdom to help others and to reflect on how God was at work in my story, and how he is at work in everyone’s story. Sue Monk Kidd in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter says, "The truth is, in order to heal we need to tell our stories and have them witnessed...The story itself becomes a vessel that holds us up, that sustains, that allows us to order our jumbled experiences into meaning. As I told my stories of fear, awakening, struggle, and transformation and had them received, heard, and validated…I found healing.” Little did I know the moment I stepped into the professor’s office, would be beginning of moving from survivor to thriver.
Until that point, I had no idea how my childhood wounds had impacted me, and how effectively they could be healed through clinical counseling. I had seen counselors in the past to address phobia issues after an especially severe dog bite. Both counselors focused only on my dog-fears and went nowhere near all my other issues, which I now think is odd since children who have childhood trauma are much more likely to develop adult phobias.
I went into the field of counseling in order to help other people; I didn’t think I had many issues of my own to work out. When I went back to school to get a graduate degree, I had been a committed Christian for twelve years. I had been leading all sorts of Bible study groups, was surrounded by other Christian friends, and had a fairly happy home-life with my husband and children. But even though my life appeared normal and I understood Christ’s forgiveness cognitively, I was shackled with shame and low self-esteem. After years of trying to heal these issues through prayer, Bible reading and journal writing, I had resigned myself to the fact that this was my lot in life. In effect, having been a Christian for that long and understanding God’s grace, but not being able to apply it to my own life caused me to feel even more shame. I was ashamed of my shame.
Now I understand I had no place to work through the pain of my past, and therefore no place to gain a foothold in understanding why I had engaged in such destructive behaviors that tied me to shame. I had believed a message that in simplified terms taught that accepting Jesus and reading some well-meaning scriptures were all I needed to enjoy a peaceful life. Now I understand why I couldn’t get more healing from a book, lecture, Bible study, or prayer. I was emotionally broken and needed the help of a skilled clinical counselor.
Sitting in class, one of my teachers described a wound on his cat’s paw. His veterinarian instructed him to peel the scab off every day, saying the wound was healing over to quickly; the deeper infection inside wasn’t allowed exposure. In the same way, I believe Christians are rushed to heal through denial and declaration of forgiveness, rather than having a place work through the pain. Unhealed pain may seem innocuous but it is the toxin responsible for many addictions.
Let’s say a woman was raped. The church might encourage her to forgive, as a one-time event. Once the woman says she forgives, she is expected to move on without lasting symptoms. Conversely, most counselors would have a woman express her anger and her grief, rather than denying their existence. In my own experience, and what I witness in my clients, forgiveness is usually the result of doing the emotional work.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned is that it is in relationship that we incur our greatest wounds, and it must be in relationship that we heal them. When I finished my graduate program, I felt angry that I had been stuck in anxiety, shame, and depression for more than a decade after becoming a devout follower of Christ, only to find healing so quickly in the world of clinical counseling. Hear me, I am not saying that I didn’t experience much healing and growth by being immersed in Bible studies and by being surrounded by wonderful Christian friends. I grew and healed a lot.
My frustration, looking back, is that I was on a relentless pursuit to find all my emotional healing through Bible studies and prayer, and when that didn’t work, I tried harder. In a futile cycle I would sit in my bedroom, writing in my journal, praying and crying, while begging God to take away my terrible self-esteem and shame. I do believe I could have spent the rest of my life doing that and not have found the healing I experienced with someone walking beside me as I shared my story.
I am not minimizing the power and work of God. Nothing could be further from the truth – I simply want Christians to consider other tools, in addition to faith and prayer, which God has provided for the emotionally wounded, who seek to be healed. I want Christians to have more understanding and permission to seek counseling and not feel that they lack faith or that God doesn’t love them enough to heal them. I want them to have the knowledge and freedom to consult a counselor, in the same way most would see a doctor if they dropped a cinder block on their foot.
Connect with Lucille Zimmerman and find out more about her upcoming book, "Renewed," at www.lucillezimmerman.com