Updated: Nov 9, 2019
My parents got divorced a few years ago, and that event sent fractures through the foundation of my life. When my parents’ marriage failed, I doubted my own capacity to be a father and a husband.
I went on a journey through the Bible to look for answers that ended in atheism.
After a while, I came back to God, but I was different.
The faith of my childhood fit about as well as my beloved “Members Only” jacket from 1987. My new views on faith and morality caused all kinds of controversy at my church. I tried to hang on, but I was hurting a lot of people by sticking around, and some of them were hurting me too.
A lifelong Baptist doesn’t expect to find himself spiritually homeless.
But I was, and it lead me to some dark places. I’m a sanguine guy, but leaving my church left me depressed and hopeless. It was worse than my folks splitting up.
I went to a therapist.
I’m the kind of person who treats therapists like handy people treat mechanics: I only show up when there are terrible sounds coming from deep within the engine. My engine sounded like it was about to blow apart every time I got out of bed.
My therapist asked me about the facts of the situation, which I could explain with clinical detail, along with observations about what I was feeling. Then she changed tactics, and asked me about my childhood. I told her I had a great childhood, aside from all the bullying.
My neighborhood was full of kids my age, and three of them were closer than brothers. Mom and Dad were affectionate, attentive parents, and my sister was my advocate. I spent my time swinging across ravines on vines, building tree forts, and exploring the world.
But then I’d go to school.
School was different. I was at the absolute bottom of the social pecking order. My presence was treated in the same way as an unexpected piece of gum on the bottom of a shoe–I was scraped relentlessly until I let go.
But I was lonely, so I could hold on a long time.
Then she asked me how all that made me feel, and I had something like a panic attack. It surprised me, and scared me. To be honest, I am the kind of person who can control emotions well. My close friends tell me I’m like a robot.
I get freaked out when my feelings don’t respond to the leash.
Every week, my therapist went to the same place–how I felt about being bullied so much as a kid. And every week, I’d skirt around a panic attack and calm myself down. I was pretty proud of my control.
One week, she asked why I never cried.
I told her I cried all the time–at movies, or commercials about how much parents love their kids. I cry all the time when people tell me sad stories about their lives. But then she asked me when I cry about my own grief, and I realized that I don’t. I don’t cry when loved ones die, or at least not more than a few seconds. And I don’t cry about events in my past.
She encouraged me to stop fighting the panic attack in her office, but I couldn’t do it. It seemed wasteful and silly, to sit in an office and just cry. My therapist insisted it was helpful, but she couldn’t cite any research telling me why it worked.
I did what I always do. I searched through scientific research myself. And I found something fascinating: our brains hold onto the past as if it’s happening right now.
When someone asks you about your most perfect day, your brain goes into a state that reflects that day–it shows up in a brain scan. The parts of your brain that activate when you’re happy also activate when you recall that day.
Even the part of your brain that processes what you see will light up with an after image of the beautiful sunset you saw on that day.
Your brain makes the past real, and this is even more true for traumatic events.
When you recall something that hurt you, your brain goes into high alert. Your limbic system responds to that memory the way it responds to a real threat in the here and now. I’m talking about full-on flight-or-fight here; elevated pulse, rapid breathing, the works.
The more that trauma was reinforced, the stronger the response from your limbic system. This is why people who had a close brush with death on a battlefield or roadway can be triggered so easily, or why people with abusive parents spend so much energy building a life that avoids brushing up to those memories. Our brains want to protect us from those circumstances.
You see, our brains have pretty terrible memory. We change our memories every time we recall them.
That’s bad for our ability to recall facts over time, but good for trauma. It’s good because when you recall painful memories in a safe place, the neurological roots of that pain in your brain weaken a little bit.
This is why we’re compelled to tell our stories over and over. Each telling of a story, when received with compassion, offers relief.
Have you ever known a person who wants to talk about that same painful story in their life over and over? Have you ever been that person? Our culture pushes back on lament like that, but brain science shows it’s healthy.
For our darkest moments, we may have to tell that story dozens of times. Or even dozens of dozens. Each time, that shadow of the past gets a little lighter, until we actually heal. There will still be a scar, of course, but you’ll stop bleeding every time the wound is pricked.
It turns out, one of the greatest gifts we can offer others is receiving their pain with grace.
Every person must have real, intimate friendships that include mutual sharing of our dark stories to be healthy.
Of course, even good friends have limits.
A good therapist is an incredible asset because they can hear your story as many times as you need to tell it to heal.
Mike McHargue is an author, speaker, and podcaster who covers the intersection of science and faith. Mike’s the host of Ask Science Mike and co-founder of The Liturgists. You can learn more, visit his website at http://www.mikemchargue.com
ON A PERSONAL NOTE:
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