PTSD Spirituality: PTSD, Statements and Exclamation Points

I had two encounters with the phrase “Make a Statement!” recently. In both cases it related to buying cars. And, as is often the case with me, I started thinking about the phrase in terms of PTSD and Spirituality.

The first instance was the report of a young man who was shopping for a new truck. His expressed desire was for it to have a variety of electronic gizmos and it had to be detailed with bright colors that would “grab attention” and “Make a Statement.”

My second encounter with the “Make a Statement!” statement happened a few days later in a laundry mat. While waiting for the laundry to do its wash, spin, and dry routine, I flipped through some of the handouts and brochures. They included some auto and apartment notices. On the cover of a “Cars for Sale” flier was a bright yellow car, with fancy paint work and a spoiler. The listing mentioned many of the expensive extras the car possessed. Referencing the car’s pricey, showy, options, it concluded with the phrase, “Make a Statement!” So, if one were to purchase that car, they would be making a statement (and probably get deeply in debt).

So…er… um… “Make a Statement” about What?

While your mileage may vary, when I hear or read the phrase “Make a Statement!” I mentally visualize it as an exclamation point, the symbol we see at the end of a written sentence when we want, you know, to “Exclaim!” about something.
We use the exclamation point when we want to strongly emphasize the sentence we have just written. In our minds we usually differ in how the following two sentences are understood:

“The dog’s barking frightened me.” And,
“The dog’s barking frightened me!” Or,
“He’s drunk.” And,
“He’s drunk!”

While the verbal content of each sentence is the same, the reader’s perceived meaning does vary to some degree due to the exclamation points.
So when the young man, and later the car ad, both expressed a desire to “Make a Statement!” I wondered what they wanted to make a statement about.

Just what precisely is the sentence to which they desire to add an exclamation point?

What thing, what idea, what part of themselves did they want to emphasize with those exclamation points. If I (foolishly) purchased either of the vehicles that are understood to “make a statement,” then what statement would I be making about myself (besides a lot more financial debt)?  If I owned or drove either of those two vehicles, then what statement am I making about who I am?

Who Are You? Who Am I?

To be even more redundant than usual: For me, myself, those words about cars and making statements, made me ask questions:

If making a statement is an exclamation point, and exclamation points usually go at the end of a sentence, then what is the sentence that is being exclaimed?
How do we fill in the words of _________________________!

And for me, this is an identity question. If I try to honestly describe myself, try to describe what I believe, try to describe who I am, and emphasize those responses with exclamation points, what then do I come up with?

If I woke up dead tomorrow, what phrases would people use about me that would be so emphatic as to include an exclamation point at the end?

In what activity or state would I want my corpse to be found? When I was much younger the saying was “If you suddenly died, would you want them to find a copy of Playboy magazine in your lap?”

I suppose today’s version might be,

“If you died suddenly, what would they find on your computer or smartphone screen?”

“What would be found in your computer’s internet history file?”

In some ways, the answers to the previous paragraph’s questions would include exclamation points at the end of them.
Our actions (and inactions) often inform how others decide just who we really are.
Some readers are familiar with the phrase, “…what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Our deeds, as well as our absence of deeds, displays our character, our identity, the content which answers the question of who we are.
Many of the things I have actually done, good or bad, have an exclamation point. They provide evidence of who I am. They indicate the type of life I am living.
Many of the things I have failed to do, good or bad, also have an exclamation point, again indicating who I really am.

PTSD and Identity

For those of us with PTSD, we know how it is dedicated to eroding our identity.

Through despair and confusion PTSD seeks to corrode our sense of self, our identity, and wound our souls. PTSD seeks to create a PTSD-Identity that would erase who we really are. The PTSD-Identity desires to enhance the worst aspects of what we might do or fail to do.
Additionally, our PTSD symptoms may further erode our identities through self-medication with street drugs, meds, alcohol, promiscuity, recklessness, and varied forms of self-harm. Often, these actions destroy our healthier relationships and contribute to destructive isolations. We may engage in these behaviors due to the hopelessness and despair that PTSD seeks to smother us with, or we may engage them in a quest to feel more alive in the face of PTSD’s incessant numbing of our relationships and actions.

Bottom Line: The PTSD-Identity seeks to overwrite who you really are.

Given that PTSD seeks to trash our identity’s sleek brightness and replace it with sludge and tar, it is often useful to ask who we are, to ask, what sentence with an exclamation point describes who I really am.

We do not ask this question to self-flagellate ourselves, humble brag, or boast how good (or bad) we are. We ask as a form of self-assessment.

Regular readers know we need to learn about our PTSD triggers and our PTSD behaviors. This frequent self-assessment helps us to avoid the tar pits and encourages healing. If we pay attention to this question it can also help us to avoid harming ourselves and others.

And, asking ourselves about our identity can serve as a way to further discoveries. 

In our journey through traumatic adversity and its ever present aftermath, we can discover if we will walk the path of life or the path of death (It sounds melodramatic, but, alas, it’s true).

Choosing which path is better than having the path of death forced upon us by PTSD.

But the question extends beyond our deeds which occur in the intersection of time and space (Golly, does that ever sound highfalutin!). The question includes not only the natural, perceptible world of time and space, but it also includes the wider supernatural world, the world of eternal being, sometimes called the “eternal now,” sometimes known as the Presence of God, sometimes known as one’s metaphysics.

Our question of who I am parallels (includes?) the question Jesus puts to his disciples (in Mark 8, Matthew 16, and Luke 9) when he asks “Who do men say that I am?” and then gets more specific by asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

The answer that is given to the first question largely reflects what people thought of Jesus in terms of his words and deeds juxtaposed with what they knew of their own religious tradition. And in fairness to them, that is also how we usually evaluate ourselves and others. We try to use the tangible, observable, evidence to weigh our decisions about who we are. Evidence that we ourselves have experienced, combined with what we think we know about our history, informs our conclusions if we ask who we really are.

The answers offered by Jesus’ disciples: The people think he is John the Baptist returned (which would horrify King Herod, who had had John decapitated), the prophet Jeremiah or Elijah (both long dead), or some other deceased prophet now risen.

Yet, the scripture suggests that Jesus is looking for more than this type of answer. Jesus does not respond to these names but focuses his question away from what the people think to what his disciples think. He then asks his disciples more directly, “Who do YOU say that I am?” (emphasis on “you” added by me).

Although Jesus asks this question of his disciples as a group, the only response we have recorded is from the Apostle Peter.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter responds with, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Some English translations will render it as, “You are the Messiah.” Either translation works for the question at hand).

Jesus explains how Peter arrived at the truth. He informs Peter that he did not arrive at this conclusion by only mundane means. That is, Peter did not limit his evidence to only what is observable from the physical world. Rather, Peter’s understanding that Jesus is the Christ is revealed, supernatural, knowledge. The reason we can say this, besides the fact that the word “revealed” is actually used in the Matthean text, is that the means of the revelation is spelled out by Jesus to Peter (and subsequently us).

It’s worthwhile to inflict the text on you here:

“And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter…” (Matthew 16:17-18).

There is a lot to learn from this response (And, yes, it does actually have something to do with exclamation points! Really!)

Peter’s knowledge that Jesus is more than a prophet, that he is the Christ, indicates that he understands to some extent that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. For traditional Christians, this insight, this revelation, is fundamental to the relevance of Christianity. It is fundamental to the question of how we are saved (Soteriology) and how we might become more holy (Sanctification) (For more on how the divine and human nature of Jesus is relevant to PTSD Spirituality, see “Jesus on the Cross and PTSD Soul Wounds“).

Included in the reference to “flesh and blood” is the idea of acquiring knowledge through material means, through only physically observable evidence. Flesh and blood may reveal physical truths, but not necessarily eternal, divine truths. The phrase also has a metaphoric use indicating that any dependence on one’s genealogy and connection to a particular family, clan, tribe, or nationality is insufficient to arrive at a fuller knowledge of Jesus as the Christ. Jesus redefines his family as those who do the will of God (Mark 3). Mere flesh and blood relations do not bring sanctification, revelation, or salvation.

The depth of the question, “Who do you say that I am?” can only be fully answered by means beyond material evidence. It will include some material evidence, but a full understanding, requires divine input. For Simon who becomes Peter, Jesus identifies the source of that knowledge as God. For the apostle to know that Jesus is the Christ requires revelation from God.

This speaks to a widening of Peter’s identity, and is partially signified by the name Peter, bestowed upon him by Jesus.

Jesus also states that Peter is “blessed” because of the source of his knowledge. The usual material means of flesh and blood did not cause Peter to sort this out, but rather God revealed it to him. And for that reason, Jesus names him and says he is blessed.

One needs to know that Peter’s life is not suddenly strewn with rose petals because of this revelatory knowledge.   Indeed, now that Peter is blessed with this knowledge, the rest of his life is not just a bowl of cherries (not even a bowl of figs or olives!).  Peter is on a sanctification journey and he has many hard times ahead of him. For example, in spite of his knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, he later denies knowing him three times. Given his more complete knowledge of just who Jesus is, one might suppose that his three denials of Jesus are even worse than someone who only thinks of Jesus as “merely” a prophet, teacher, or miracle worker. It requires more than only flesh and blood observations to arrive at this conclusion  (For more on how we can learn how to survive with our PTSD, in spite of the awful things we may have committed, see “Judas, Peter and Choosing the Right Path“).  In our sanctification journey we, like Peter, still make mistakes, we still sin, we still seek forgiveness and reconciliation…as Peter did.

Exclamation Points and Who You Are!

When I started pondering this question about exclamation points, PTSD, and identity, I thought I was going to write a quick couple of hundred words and ask how would you filling the sentence for your own life? What is the sentence that describes you and ends with an exclamation point? Even some 2000-3000 words later, I still think that is a valid question. I offer that question to you to ask of yourself, and I ask myself that question fairly frequently as part of my process of self-examination in what have I done and what have I failed to do.

Yet, I ask it even more deeply in terms of my PTSD.

My PTSD attempts to make me hate myself, give up on my self, and conclude that I have no real worth. 

My PTSD does this because it knows that if am overwhelmed by despair, by doubts about my personal value, then I am more likely to alienate my healthy relationships and commit acts of self-harm. And, some of PTSD’s acts of self-harm can end up as a suicide.

Intellectually, and on most days spiritually, I know that I am made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This means I have infinite worth, infinite value, because I, like you, have been made from the divine blueprint, that is, the image and likeness of God. How this all works remains mysterious, because it speaks to a knowledge and a reality which is beyond just flesh and blood, beyond mundane material evidence.

To know, really know, beyond the merely intellectual reading of the words in Genesis, that I – that you! – have something fundamentally in common with God, means we have eternal value, we have eternal worth.

This realization can be sudden or gradual. But, to survive PTSD and to keep it from killing us, it is a realization – a revelation – that we need to arrive at.

Arrival at this understanding and appreciation of our eternal worth and value rarely happens all at once. It is part of the survival journey we make as individuals with PTSD. Fortunately, it is a journey of sanctification where each day, through each trial (and paradoxically, also through each authentic joy), we can gain more light and insight into our own natures as essential beings who possess value in the eyes of God.

The knowledge that you have self-worth, an eternal self-worth, is something revealed to us by God. We are more than just mundane “flesh and blood.” We have eternal value and worth. Hopefully, when one can start to realize this, they will be less likely to be overrun by the PTSD behaviors which lead to physical harm and the alienation of our most important relationships.

I start each semester by telling my students that they have value. No matter how hard life is for them at this moment they can get through it. And, every time they get through a crisis or a challenge, struggle through the despair that comes with pain, confusion, and living in a culture which tends to value us as commodities to be bought and sold, they will be able to withstand the next battering that life may bring.

In my role as a spiritual director this is also a point that I try to make. This is, of course, easier said than done. Given my chronic pain condition, other physical disabilities, and some PTSD, I find that I frequently struggle against despair and feeling worthless.  Resisting these destructive traits brought on by PTSD remains an ongoing journey.

It often feels easier to give into destructive behaviors that tell me the same blatant lies about having no worth and nothing really matters anymore. The temptations whisper that it will help me cope better. Always, always (two “always” in a row like that means it must be true…Right?), the sense of relief that these temptations offer is illusory and can only lead me to deeper despair, frustration,  and to deeper risks of self-harm.

And so when I (finally) come around to the question of what is the sentence that precedes my exclamation point I find I have a couple of answers.

If I limit myself to only one statement, then it is the following:

I have eternal value!

If I limit myself to only one statement about you, then it is the following:

You have eternal value!

I know this intellectually and I know this, to some extent, spiritually. If I am keeping up my end of things, then each day I know, one might even say, I “experience,” this divine truth to an ever larger degree.  Experiencing and knowing this helps to hose the PTSD goop off of my life.

It can be immensely difficult to not be swamped by PTSD. It wants us to abandon all that matters. If we recognize our value, we can soften the assault and survive.

We are more apt to survive and thrive if we acknowledge our own unique value as part of making our own “statement.” If you and I “make a statement,” then let it be in our mutual recognition of the joy of life and its value…yours, mine, everyone’s.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

[Life goes ever onward for me.  Have been doing more writing (some of which ends up here on the website).  Am able to teach one class this semester on the Theology of Violence and Non-Violence.  A good portion of that course examines the spiritual dimensions of PTSD.   I am enjoying it, most of the bunnies are not too cool to be caught learning; good kids.  Guitar continues to beckon and I am now exploring…very slowly…DADGAD tuning, which – mysteriously – is a good defense against my PTSD,

While the above essay will probably take a while to drudge through, I actually cut it down by 800+ words…yes, I know, why limit the cuts to only 800!?  Future topics will focus more on PTSD Spirituality and Rape, Infidelity, Love, and also on how PTSD and Relationships interact.  Feel free to email me with suggested topics using the info on the Contact Page.  I never am able to write as often and as much as I would prefer, but I am working on that.

Thank you to those who have sent donations and/or bought through the Amazon links…it helps keep the site running!

And thank you to everyone who visits and has encouraged me to keep writing.

Be well.  Semper Pax, Dr. Z)

Comments

  1. Thanks, once again, for your timely words of spiritual encouragement. I sorely needed it this early morn. Still need to sort out a lot of junk in my head, but you’ve helped to get me going in the desired direction.
    Peace and all Good.

    • Hello Jeff, If any of this essay helps sort things out and point us in the right direction then I am doubly grateful. I have to constantly remind myself that living and thriving in spite of PTSD is a journey and not a light switch that is either on or off. We both know some days are better and some days are worse. Yet, regardless of the type of day, we remain on our journey to better life and more authenticity. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. As the wife of a PTSD sufferer, and all the ailments that go along with it, I am thankful for your words. After a rough day and night of him not coming home, I needed this to remind me that I have decided, in Christ’s power alone, to love my husband through this. Thank you again.

    • Hello Tara, I am grateful you found the essay useful. I think it does need Christ’s power to love those with PTSD. I am rather old fashioned and think that Christ’s power is necessary to make any marriage truly authentic. When we have something like PTSD thrown into the mix, relying on God and not, say, Oprah or Dr. Phil, for our spiritual sustenance and love is crucial. PTSD can also throw its own version of “Shrapnel” and harm those who love those who have PTSD. To state the obvious: you need to be sure you don’t get gravely wounded by the PTSD shrapnel. More at http://www.ptsdspirituality.com/2009/11/01/ptsd-spirituality-ptsd-shrapnel-makes-ptsd-contagious/
      I am grateful for your taking the time to read and comment.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  3. Rhea Clarke says:

    I truly enjoy reading each new piece you share with us all. This one hit home for me. The PTSD I suffer is from a war at home, right here in the US, and my ex-husband terrorized me, almost to death. I am 62, attractive, thin, usually smiling, and had a past of good memories. It took 10 years to get me where I am at now, after the kids were gone, and it was just two of us. I love and respect our military and thank you all for protecting our country and am so sorry that some of you have experiences that have given you PTSD. It comes to existence in wars, homes, alleyways, at parties, anywhere where a situation overwhelms our minds and leaves us feeling abandoned. My Dad was a WWII POW, I saw “shell shock” first hand.
    But I ask, what exactly is it that we are having such a hard time removing, or even coping with? It isn’t a disease, or virus, it doesn’t show up on an x-Ray, or MRI, there is no specific spot to find to cut it out of our body. What is this that has eaten away at my mind, my worth, my spiritualism, my hope and joy.
    I pray each night Psalm 23, I believe in our creator, I believe we are made in the likeness of God, and I believe each day we attempt to create our reality and with that we can change or try to change our reality for the better. We have two important emotions, love and fear. Yet, my emotions are so entwined and knotted I am halted in life. Without a logical description of PTSD, my brain cannot embrace what I feel and what I go through each day. I have seen 7 therapist that say they are pro-active in PTSD treatment. The VA is the only place that has PTSD therapy groups. Even all the Domestic Violence Centers do not offer any groups for women with PTSD. (Big sigh)
    Who am I? I am a woman who is trying to write a future filled with love. I am a beautiful creature of God. I struggle every day believing the two previous sentences. I am conflicted daily with emotions that keep me home bound and alone. I hope someday soon to find my way through more days than one at a time and can look back with some kind of understanding. And if I die, I hope people will say she tried to help herself and others until the end. And in all honesty there are many days I look up at the sky and mentally scream WT*!! That is my exclamation. (Forgive the * please)

    • Hello Rhea, Heartfelt and Honest and Prayerful. That’s what I see in your words. We are allowed to realize we are beautiful creatures of God, believe in the Creator, and at the same time look up to the vastness of existence and scream “WTF!!” In many ways, more advanced than some would like, that is a deep prayer, honest and heartfelt. Part of the beauty of scripture is that between the same book covers we can read the beauty of Psalm 8, the protection of Psalm 23, and the “WTF!!” of the Book of Job.
      PTSD is generated by multitudes of trauma types. A while back I started focusing on the military experience of PTSD, now I think I spend more time working on those who are abused in their family and/or marriage, by their priest or their teacher, relationships, and all the other ways we get afflicted with PTSD. Trauma Don’t Care (marvelous grammar that). It can create PTSD with or without being in the military.
      As your time permits, take a look at Ashley Hart’s, “An Operator’s Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.” I have found everything there applicable to non-military PTSD as well and it has helped me and my students to get a better handle on the PTSD beast.
      I hope you continue to engage in creativity through your writing and prayer. While I am not affiliated with any Domestic Violence Centers, maybe you would find them open to starting a PTSD group. Your story and your resilience would serve to encourage other women to know they have value and don’t have to be trapped in abusive relationships.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

    • Yasmine says:

      Dear Rhea,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response – it pulled a good string in my heart. As Dr. Z stated, your story is certainly an encouragement, and although I don’t know how you feel, it was oddly comforting to see that there is another woman somewhere in the country/world attempting to make some sense out of the only life we are given, and draw value from the self by understanding our identity from God’s perspective.

      I was diagnosed with non-combat PTSD a few years ago, and I’m (finally) starting to see a glimmer of light. Like you, I am a woman who is trying “to write a future filled with love.” But, I have zero friends where I’m currently based, and my two good friends are based outside of my state and country. So, I’ve taken upon myself to start a business that allows me to pursue God through creativity, as I believe I was designed to create and to curate. This business also forces me to leave my home to network, and from time to time, it nudges me to have fun (easier said than done as the cliche goes).

      I am still perplexed by the workings of the invisible “PTSD beast” (to borrow from Dr. Z), but at the end of the day, I’m (re)learning to keep my eye (and intellectual thoughts) on the invisible God (Matt. 22:37) because life is not something we will ever fully understand. I’m also (re)learning to simply add value to the lives of others this year through the minimal skills that I possess, while asking (read: begging) God to help me with my unbelief (a la Mark 9:24). So whether it’s sending a card to my friend in New York City, or posting a positive comment on Instagram to a fellow Instagrammer, I know this counts as adding value to someone’s day. And when there is another human being who can be extremely supportive of you as a person and of your endeavors, this helps tremendously from personal experience, as I doubt myself a lot.

      What I would truly love to do is to launch a culinary/theological project similar to The Dinner Party project, except the focus would be on PTSD survivors. Time will tell if this happens, but after reading your comment regarding the lack of groups for women battling PTSD (this was also the trouble I came upon during my time living in New York City), I’m actually going to see if this is something I can launch in 2016 in my current region.

      Anyhow Rhea, I don’t know you but I believe you are a beautiful creature of God, and I believe you can (co)write that future filled with love with the Creator and fellow beings.

      Blessings,

      Yasmine

      • Hello Yasmine,
        I admire your looking for the positive on a daily basis. That outlook can help us to heal and not be completely swamped by the PTSD beast. It is always easier to be negative, perhaps that is a result of Original Sin, but seeking the brighter spots helps sustain us in life. It also helps to sustain and nourish others who could really use a brighter day.
        You, Jasmine, Rhea, and all of us who have survived trauma, are God’s beautiful creatures.
        Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  4. Very thought-provoking essay, Dr. Z. I must be honest — having a down day, so it’s more difficult to see my value today, but your humor did make me smile. (Anyone who uses the word “highfalutin” is a friend of mine.) 🙂 Sending you my thanks and all my best.

    • Hi Harry, The Down Days are when we are most vulnerable, as we both know. Yet, in some ways, they allow us to respect our own value by not engaging in things that would drag us further down. On my own down days, and I have more of them than I care to admit, I rely on the intellectual knowledge of my value and try to hold a space for the sacred knowledge of my value open. But, as a guy who uses “highfalutin” I probably rely too much on intellect and my ever-dwindling vocabulary. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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