A Conversation with Ofa and Amber

A Conversation with Ofa and Amber

Northwest Family Life has been going through some monumental changes this last year and a half, with the retiring of our beloved executive director of 32 years, Nancy Murphy, and the acceptance of the wonderful Amber North to the ED position. In addition, Ofa, our extraordinary Onsite Manager at Penny’s Place, is stepping away to spend more time with her family, and Amber has moved in, a stable presence in the transitional home. The two of them have been spending lots of quality time together and we thought we would bring you some of the rich conversation that our Development Director, Nicole, had with the two of them. 

Nicole
Ofa, you have been such a blessing, serving as the Onsite Manager at Penny’s Place for the last 4 years. What have been some of the wonderful things about this time?

The most wonderful thing is seeing the women become successful. It’s a blessing to serve God’s people, opening the door of Penny’s Place to anybody experiencing DV. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from… it’s a blessing to open the door to everyone. 

Amber, you have worked in the homeless space for more than 10 years, how does it feel to now be at Penny’s Place?

Amber
It’s a tremendous honor to come to Penny’s Place. What I see at Penny’s Place is a beautiful example of what got me into this work, that is, a desire to help provide a safe place for people to land. There were seasons in my life when I needed a safe place to land, and I was privileged to have that in my family and in my network. Not all people have that… so to be able to be part of creating that space at Penny’s Place, where people feel welcomed into community…that to me is what this work should look like. And I’ve gotten to observe that kind of welcome every day in shadowing you, Ofa…. It’s all the extra details of hospitality that you provide Ofa, like making tea and lunch, watering the garden, making sure the space is bright, having the time to stop and listen and build relationships with the women living here…. These things are what make Penny’s Place what it is… And I’m excited to move in and to continue to live into that mission and legacy that you have created.

Ofa
Thank you Amber, my encouragement for you for the next chapter is to make sure that the women feel love and belonging here. 

Amber
Thank you Ofa, that word, belonging, encompasses it. I feel like you have offered me belonging, also. The hardest part for me of you moving on to the next chapter is that I just want to spend more time with you!

Ofa
We are sisters forever!

Nicole
What motivates you to serve in this way?

Ofa
I grew up in a culture that is broad (Tongan), where we help each other. My siblings’ children are my children, and my children are also my siblings’ children. You can’t raise Penny’s Place by yourself. I love God so much and I am here to serve him. I call the women and children who come to Penny’s Place, my children. They would call me Mamma Ofa. There is a lot of loss for us in leaving. 

Amber
It’s hard to move on to a new chapter when you have given so much. This is still your home and we want to continue having you visit. As you pass the baton, know that you have nourished something that will sustain. 

Nicole
What role does faith play in your life / work?

Amber
My faith is core to my motivation, especially in this work. For me, serving is about recognizing the spark of the divine, seeing the face of God, in all people, and honoring the dignity in all people… and understanding that the world is bigger than you. How do we show up as God’s children all together, to create communities that are loving and sustaining? That’s what I think Jesus’ teachings were all about: that connection. Whether that’s a conversation or delivery of services or a home like Penny’s Place, it’s about being that safe place to land for each other.

Ofa
I love that, you should be a minister! For me, if I didn’t have faith, I couldn’t do this job. It’s something that I think about and believe in, though I can’t see it. I use my faith to help people have a safe place where they belong. For me it’s so important to open the door to everybody. Some people say, “Is this a faith place?” And I say yes, but in the same token, it’s open to everyone, we are all God’s children. 

Amber
Over the last months, talking with you, and also Nancy, and learning from people like Alisha and Nicole… I’ve come to think that if there is an opposite of violence, it’s probably love… and when we talk about faith, and love being the encompassing principle – “love your neighbor” -…then working to end violence in our communities is really what it’s all about…. 

Ofa
I see the vulnerable ones and I think of Jesus saying I was hungry and you didn’t feed me or I was naked and you didn’t clothe me. It’s not about only serving certain people. This is a place for all people. 

Amber
I think you embody that love so completely, Ofa… I think a lot of the women who live here see that in you as well… . You are an example of that to a lot of people including me! Being around your wisdom and care for people is a big part of what has helped me to feel at home in this organization.  

Ofa
And when you love something you just fight for it! Some people have nicknamed me the bulldog because I can be so aggressive in fighting for the needs of the women at Penny’s Place. My heart goes to all the donors, I don’t know how to thank them or express my gratitude to them. Many times I pray for them. People could donate anywhere, why Penny’s place? But I talk to people everywhere I go and tell them about Penny’s Place. 

Nicole
​​How do each of you care for yourself in this work, and what does sustainability look like?

Ofa
Self care is so important, that’s why we bump into each other at the lake. The water is a great way to take care of yourself. I’m grateful for my husband Sosia. 

Sustainability is continuing to build relationships in the community, with churches, with donors. At my (goodbye) party, I didn’t know all these people were going to come, I didn’t know I was so important to all these people, and I cried and cried and cried all day. 

Amber
I’ve had to learn some hard lessons about self care, especially during the pandemic, it doesn’t just look like treating yourself, but it’s about the day to day rhythms…It’s about creating pause and space for God and mini retreats all throughout the day and returning to gratitude, leaning on your support networks, creating space for a nutritious meal, having practices and things that you fall back on. It’s about leaning on friends, mentors and community,..not doing it all alone is really important! And I think for the community aspect of sustainability, it’s about that leaning on each other, and recognizing this is tough work….It’s tough to absorb stories of hardships and broken systems and trauma on the daily. We really do need the resources of mental health support, recreational activities, and spaces where we come together as a community and talk about how we can support one another and not work as islands. 

Ofa
So true. When Sosaia and I first came here, Nancy invited us to go and meet with a group of ministers who meet together once a month, and we introduced ourselves and we talked about domestic violence and how many people we serve and what we do, and also talked with other agencies, other shelters, to let them know about Penny’s Place. 

Amber
That was one of the main reasons I wanted to work with NWFL : I saw this culture of soul care that was quite distinct from anything else I had seen or interacted with. I saw that culture in the Board, in meeting you, in connecting with people… Everyone had this ethos of doing life together, and that is really special and hard to find in a workplace these days….and it’s so important for  social and human services. It’s so important that you feel like you can count on your workplace to have the resources and support so you can grow as a personas you go through the work. 

Ofa
I remember when Sosaia’s dad passed away, the love poured in, people praying for us and messaging us, we feel like NWFL is our family, and it touched so much to our heart, we belong here. 

And women coming to Penny’s Place, they say, “Is this a shelter? It feels like a home.” Many women say that when they come here. 

Nicole
Amber, what has it been like to sit near Ofa’s wisdom?

Amber
It’s a tremendous gift to sit near Ofa’s wisdom….She offers wisdom not just for the work but for my life in general. Ofa has reminded me of why I got into this work. She’s reminded me that the work looks like loving people, and helping people to come back to life. Ofa, you are vibrant and full of life and I feel like you are a living reminder to everyone who comes through the door, that there is hope…. that there is something more ahead. You have done that for me too, in some of my challenges with transition…. It’s also a reminder that all of the little things matter in this work…. the things like taking a moment to make tea when you sit down with a resident, or making sure that the back yard is pristine. All of those things add up and communicate to people that they are worthy, and you demonstrate that so well with your Ofa hospitality. 

Ofa
One of our residents said to me recently, “We should change the name of this place to Miracle Home.” 

Nicole
What do each of you hope for the future of both Penny’s Place and NWFL?

Ofa
My wish is to have more houses like Penny’s place. Maybe specific ones just for trafficking victims. Every time I walk Aurora Ave Sosia says, “Honey there goes your children,” because it just breaks my heart to see those beautiful children of God working in the street.

Amber
Part of the reason I wanted to move to Penny’s Place is that I understand Penny’s Place to be the heart of the organization. Everything we do comes back to, “How are we serving survivors in need?” I’d like to continue to see the holistic aspect to what NWFL does, of serving all people who are involved in systems of abuse (victims, perpetrators, children) and breaking generational cycles of abuse – I’d like to see that model move into more spaces, and become even more accessible to all populations and people who could benefit from it. My hope is that we continue to lean into the work, honoring the great legacy and foundation of what has been built here. 

Something also unique about PP is the offering of a really in depth therapeutic experience alongside the services, and I think that is so needed and I hope to see more of that in the region as well. 

And even though you are moving into the next chapter, Ofa, I know it is not the end of your relationship with NWFL or ours with you!  It is just a new season, as with Nancy, as I hope with all folks who become connected into the organization. As we all enter new chapters, I hope we will just continue to add to and expand this great family that’s been created!  

Ofa
I carry Penny’s Place in my heart, even when I am not here in body, I am still here in my heart. It takes a whole community to raise the child of Penny’s Place. Isn’t it amazing how God gave everyone different talents? I am so grateful for you, so happy that you came to Northwest Family Life and Penny’s Place, I can see your wings. But you don’t have to do this alone, we are all there. 

Nicole
Ofa, what words of wisdom do you have for Amber as she is now living at Penny’s Place.

Ofa
Serve with love. And for me, do you have wisdom for me as I go to the other side of the world? (Spokane). 

Amber
I would say just be gentle with yourself. Seasons of transition are an unfolding, rather than a quick new chapter of life. It’s going to be so exciting to see what blossoms for you in this new chapter! I know you are someone who is really openhearted to what God has for you, and I hope you can enjoy that ride and the unfolding and savor the little moments and the blessings as you always teach us to do so well

Ofa
I am so appreciative of you. 

Amber
And me of you!

What are you excited about in this next chapter, in Spokane?

Ofa
I went to an interview last week for a homeless organization, and I really felt love. Whatever it is, it’s going to bless me. I will learn. 

“The Good Wife”: Part 2

This is part two of the transcript of an interview with JJ, a survivor of domestic violence, and Pastor M, a pastor, mentor, and friend who walked with JJ during her marriage and divorce. 

 

Tabitha: Let’s recap a bit. JJ and her spouse are in ministry. It then comes to light that their marriage difficulties are more serious than previously thought-–she is actually being abused by her husband. The church tries to rally around them both by providing support for her and accountability for him. What went wrong?

JJ: My understanding was they didn’t really know what to do.   

Pastor M: After the initial support the church offered, things were not getting better. He was continuing to spiral. And because JJ’s support team was committed to the restoration of the marriage, they couldn’t accept how damaging his behavior was. It compromised their personal convictions. Their hope was in the marriage, it wasn’t in God. It wasn’t in what God could do regardless of whether or not the marriage survived.

JJ: Where do we put our hope? Is God big enough to work when everything we’ve known, everything we believe to be biblical, doesn’t work anymore?

I think another thing that went wrong is that my support system took all of his statements at face value. He said he was sorry, so he must be sorry. He said he would change, so he was going to change. Eventually I came to the realization that there was a cycle of good, then bad, good, then bad, good, then bad, and that cycle was escalating. And after twelve years of living it, I knew that cycle wasn’t going to change.

So I decided I didn’t want to live that way anymore, and I didn’t want my children living it and thinking that it was okay. But my support system couldn’t accept that. Even as I walked into divorce mediation, they were texting me to “just give him more time.” “Don’t finalize today.” And meanwhile, he was telling everyone, “There’s something wrong with her, I don’t know why she’s doing this, I love her so much, I can’t understand why she wants to end us, etc.”

By the end, the only person I really felt was in my corner was Pastor M.

One of the things that made it so hard as my support system fell apart, was that my whole world was the church. I didn’t have any friends outside of the church, and I wasn’t close to my family. I knew if I went through with the divorce he would probably lose his job and I would probably lose my whole community. I knew it would affect my kids.

Tabitha: What I am hearing in this part of your story is a high level of exhaustion. You had been trying so hard for so long to save your relationship. And when that became untenable, the people who were supposed to support you added a new level of exhaustion. Pastor M, I imagine this was true for you too. 

Pastor M: Yes, it was exhausting. I remember one week I spent around 30 hours just meeting, emailing, and responding to the people involved–not just JJ or her spouse but all the members of the congregation that he was influencing. The church is a family system, so the violence, abuse, and manipulation that one family is experiencing radiates out towards the rest of the congregation. 

JJ: I am just now realizing how exhausted I was back then. It was like the carpet had been pulled out from under me, and I was lying flat on my back at the bottom of a pit, staring at the ground above, thinking, “I’m supposed to be up there. That’s a hundred feet above me and I’m on the cold, wet, damp, awful pit floor. What do I do now?” 

But I had three kids, a full-time job, a living situation to take care of, legal obligations. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t rest.

Tabitha: In the cycle of abuse, the abuser tends to draw everyone into their orbit. Anyone who gets a glimpse of what’s really happening can get sucked in. It’s disorientating, because the abuser is constantly trying to draw attention away from their pattern of behavior, away from the truth, by making you second guess every conversation or experience. It sounds like your church, while well intentioned, got caught in that destructive orbit. 

Pastor M: Yes, we did. No matter how hard we tried to create a supportive environment that held him accountable, he was just throwing hand grenades in at every step of the way. So the support we offered JJ started to unravel, and there was no way to reign in the chaos. 

Tabitha: And in that unraveling, what happened to JJ? 

JJ: I was asked to leave the church–or at least it felt like that, from my perspective. At the time, the church was my only support system. Even though it was crumbling, it was what I had. And in my worldview, to be a good Christian meant never giving up. Though I came to a place where I was letting my marriage go, I wasn’t yet able to think of leaving the church. I thought I would stay and heal and see them heal, too. 

What I actually needed was to get the heck out of there, but I never would have done that. Now I’d describe it as the last straw from my tower of Babel. It had to be ripped down so I could go build on a firm foundation, which I did. 

I found another church that was an excellent place for me to grow, in ways I couldn’t have done at the previous church. But being asked to leave was devastating, at the time. 

Pastor M: There was so much confusion and triangulation going on. Asking her to leave, for me, was not a punishment, but for her survival and well being. I knew it wasn’t a good place for her anymore, but if she got out she could land on her feet. 

Her ex had been asked to leave a month or two earlier, and I just knew we didn’t have the capacity to care for her the way she needed at the time anymore. Looking back, now, I wouldn’t make the same choice, because in some ways it made her a scapegoat. 

JJ: Finding a new church was the right choice for me, but it still really hurt at the time. We didn’t speak directly much after I left. I needed space to heal. It wasn’t until a few years later that I reached out, letting him know how hurt I had felt by being asked to leave, but also that leaving had been the best thing for me. And he graciously responded and acknowledged my pain. 

Tabitha: What I’m hearing, Pastor M, is your humility in saying, “I failed, because I didn’t have the capacity at the time to give you what you needed.” You are acknowledging your good intent and the impact of your choices, not brushing it aside because JJ managed to build a new life in spite of everything. 

Pastor M: I just didn’t have anything left to give. And neither did the leadership team at the time. That wasn’t JJ’s fault. I mourn that we couldn’t give more. But I’m learning that being human is okay. And I’m proud of her resilience and the amazing person that she is. 

JJ: I think that’s one of the lessons to take from this. At the end of my marriage, I was so needy. My foundation was shaken, I felt like I was drowning and there was nothing to grab on to. No one person, no three people can support that level of need, especially if they don’t have an accurate understanding of how abuse works. They need to understand what gaslighting and manipulation look like. As I move forward, my goal is to help the church create systems that adequately support victims so that they can come out of this well. 

Tabitha: Judith Herman, an expert on domestic violence, wrote, “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing.” That’s all they ask. But the victim is crying out for justice, for assistance, for a lifeline. But it’s so much easier to do nothing, especially if you find yourself caught in the abuser’s orbit–their narrative of distorting the truth.That’s why so many people on the sidelines give up or look away. But if we want to stand in the gap for survivors of abuse, we need to understand what is happening. 

JJ: The most dangerous thing bystanders can do in an abusive situation is give the abuser the benefit of the doubt. 

Tabitha: As we wrap up our time together, I have one final question for both of you. Do you have hope for the church? Do you think she can become a safe place for survivors? 

JJ: If people are willing to open their eyes and let the truth set them free… if they are willing to become champions instead of bystanders, the church will change, and will become safe for everyone. It can become a refuge, and a place where people can thrive. Just like in our story, there may be vulnerability and neediness and sometimes, a mess; but there will also be resilience. I have hope. 

Pastor M: “Church” is a big word. I’ve seen a lot of people be more committed to the beast of structures than people. But I believe that Jesus Christ is the one who is building his church and he loves it. She may be a messy bride, but that’s okay. But I would say that my hope for the church is that Jesus will be the one to orchestrate change. When I hear how JJ has found a refuge in her current church, that gives me hope. That’s beautiful. 

JJ: Sometimes ambivalence comes when I think of how little leaders know about abusive relationships and systems. 

Pastor M: Tabitha, are you hopeful? 

Tabitha: I am hopeful for pockets of communities. I am not hopeful for the Christian machine. I think it needs to die. What I mean by the “Christian machine” are the institutions that are more committed to establishing their own power than they are to, as Jesus would say, “the least of these.” 

I think of that verse, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit.” We have spent a lot of time polishing our idols, building towers of Babel, thinking they are worth saving when Jesus was just interested in people. Especially people who had the least amount of power. 

Do I have hope for our institutions? Not really. But I do have hope in the remnant. The kingdom of heaven is always a remnant.

Domestic Violence in a Christian Relationship: Part 1, “The Good Wife”

This is the transcript of an interview with JJ, a survivor of domestic violence, and Pastor M, a pastor, mentor, and friend who walked with JJ during her marriage and divorce. This is the first of a two part series.

JJ: My ex and I were in our early twenties when we got married, and we were involved in ministry. I can say that marriage definitely did not turn out like I expected. I was taught that if you work really hard, you will create a good marriage. But that wasn’t my experience. 

Tabitha: At what point did you realize that the difficulties in your marriage were more than just “regular” struggles? How did the culture of your church/evangelicalism impact your ability to recognize abuse?

JJ: It’s complex, because there was so much emphasis on how the Bible calls us not to be selfish, but to be kind and caring. But the church, in my experience, tends to put most of that burden on women. It felt expected that I would cater to the needs (and whims) of my spouse. “He’s tired. He’s been working all day. He needs sex. He doesn’t have the capacity to help around the house or with the kids.”

Tabitha: Did you have an idea of what a “good woman” or a “good wife” was? Obviously this messaging comes from more than one place–your theology, your family of origin, and the culture at large.

JJ: The subliminal messaging is part of what makes it hard to recognize abuse. It’s an unconscious framework that makes you feel validated the more exhausted you feel, the harder you work, the less you ask for, the more you have sex when you don’t feel like it. To question that framework makes you selfish or ungodly.

Tabitha: Paster M, how do you feel hearing that?

Pastor M: Triggered. Uncomfortable. Those messages are being passed around. So much of what I and my peers were taught, as far as pastoral ministry goes, was behavioral modification. And we didn’t (and don’t) understand the far reaching impact of our words. For example, serving the “needs” of your spouse–or any other person–might be the last thing they need. Saying “No,” might be the most loving act. Giving a spouse sex whenever they demand it might be feeding the beast within them.

Tabitha: JJ, how do you think your marriage appeared to those on the outside vs. what was really happening on the inside?

JJ: I worked so hard to be the “good wife.” That meant always being at the church, volunteering, babysitting everyone’s kids, and protecting his reputation. But on the inside, I was stressed, exhausted, without purpose, and so, so, lonely. Sometimes everything would be too much and I would reach my boiling point and explode, which of course just worked against me and made me look crazy. 

Tabitha: Your (understandable) reaction to abuse would then be used against you.

JJ: Exactly. Then I would think, “I am this terrible, horrible, angry, selfish person.” Pastor M, what were you seeing on the outside?

Pastor M: Obviously this changed overtime as more things came to light, but I saw you as someone who was very devoted to her husband. She adored him, respected him. They seemed fulfilled. I didn’t realize at first that she was unhappy. Later, there were whispers of struggle, but I was reassured by others that it was in the past. I had no idea at first what was going on behind the scenes.

JJ: From the inside, it’s just so hard to recognize abuse because you are taught from the time you are a child, “Forgive 70 times 7, love as you love yourself,” so when abusive behavior happens it’s easy to blame yourself, or to think, “I just have to try harder.”

Paster M: What ends up happening is we create a narrative with a “front stage” and a “back stage,” and behind the curtain is where we keep all the ugliness. We just don’t let anybody see it. Something Donald Miller says that has really stuck with me is, “Everyone has a story, it’s just not the one they are telling.” And I can see how that played out with JJ and her ex, and many other couples I’ve worked with throughout my ministry.

JJ: Behind our curtain was this unsolvable mess, and I didn’t even realize it. What I needed was a demolition crew, but I was just trying to push it all around with a broom, telling myself, “Okay, I just have to love more. I just have to forgive more.” 

Tabitha: And those messages, such as, “We’re all sinners, everybody struggles, nobody’s perfect;” those messages get twisted when you are a survivor. You ignore warning signs because you think it must be normal.

JJ: Yes, and that’s why my favorite verse is “The truth will set you free.” Because it does, even though it’s extremely difficult. Sometimes telling the truth, for a survivor of abuse, makes it worse before it makes it better.

Pastor M: Yes, and that is so scary. If you think it’s hard to deal with the pain quietly, what happens when it’s out in the open? But we really do need a demolition before we can rebuild.

Tabitha: That brings us back to a pivotal point in this story. Pastor M, when did you begin to realize that the issues JJ and her spouse had were more than regular “marriage stuff.” What made you realize that this was actually an abusive situation?

Pastor M: It was a slow realization as I got to know them more. I realized that her spouse needed a lot of support to confront his own issues, and we offered a lot of mentoring opportunities. But he was very good at manipulating people, making himself into a victim, and blaming others. However, it wasn’t until I sat JJ down in my office and asked her to tell me the real story that I realized how bad it actually was. She “pulled back the curtain,” like we said earlier, and that was when I took action and tried to set up the support that she needed.

Letting me see what was going on was such a brave thing for JJ to do. It took so much courage. And I want to mention that while it can be helpful and essential to let people know what is really happening, not everyone is safe to do that with. Just because someone is a pastor (and I say this as a former pastor), doesn’t mean that they will be safe. There were a lot of well intentioned people in JJ’s life and it was still really messy.

Tabitha: JJ, is it fair to say that things got harder after you spoke up?

JJ: Absolutely. When I kept silent, I could still plaster over the cracks in our relationship most of the time. But once I cracked it open, everyone could see our mess and comment on it. 

To this day, I can’t even remember what I told Pastor M in his office. I didn’t have the vocabulary to call it abuse, I thought it was just “marital difficulties.” 

Pastor M: When she was talking, I could sense that there was abuse, even though I didn’t really know how to define it. 

Tabitha: Right. Nowadays, most people in our society hopefully understand that physically assaulting someone is unacceptable. It’s a lot easier to label that as abuse or violence. But what many don’t realize is that emotional, spiritual, verbal, and psychological abuse often precede physical abuse, and can be just as destructive and controlling.

JJ: It’s hard to recognize that you are experiencing it, let alone for others on the outside to understand how that type of abuse can devastate someone.

Tabitha: Often when domestic violence and the church are discussed, you hear two different experiences. Either the church was life saving and supportive–which is great; or, the church compounded the abuse by not believing victims, blaming them, or telling them to remain in unsafe relationships. Something that’s impactful to me about your story is that it’s really in the messy middle. There were people who knew that something wasn’t right and wanted to help, but JJ still got hurt. What went wrong?

JJ: In the beginning, my goal was to try and save his reputation. I wanted him to have as much dignity and respect as possible, because he was in ministry. I had a small group of people who tried to support me. They tried to be everything I needed, and I am and was grateful for their efforts. I didn’t have a family to support me, and I didn’t really have friends or community outside the church. I needed people that I could call and cry with. But within that support group, their goal was to save the marriage.

What I wish they understood is that, in an abusive relationship, if preserving a marriage is the highest priority, then the entity of marriage becomes a god and the oppressor is constantly given the benefit of the doubt.

It creates a permissive attitude towards the abuser, and undermines any support offered to the victim.

Pastor M: Something that I used to say (but definitely wouldn’t now) is, “I’m not on either person’s side, I’m on the side of the marriage.”  But now I know, some marriages should not be preserved. Some are dangerous. When there is violence, manipulation, or abuse, I can’t tell someone that their marriage is worth more than their life.

But in JJ’s situation, I don’t think the people in her support team believed that. The church doesn’t like failure. We say we believe in the redemptive power of God, we say we believe in hope, but what happens when redemption and hope don’t look like what we thought they would? 

JJ: Sometimes the church’s best efforts are actually the tower of Babel. We want something glorious and grand when it actually never should have been built.

Pastor M: When we make an idol out of marriage, something that is holy and intended for good becomes a beast that can destroy us.

Tabitha. Yes. Something you said earlier, JJ, reminded me of a quote by C.S. Lewis: “Anything that becomes a god becomes a demon.” I think the church has turned the sacrament of marriage into a god. We’ve made it a qualifier for ministry and have therefore neglected the much higher goal of human flourishing. When we talk about there always being hope, what does that mean? Does hope die when people divorce? Or does hope transcend the dissolution of a violent relationship and rise up when survivors rebuild their lives?

JJ: One of my favorite songs is by Nicole Nordmann, it’s called The Unmaking. It’s about how there can be total destruction in our lives–and sometimes there needs to be–but God can still work. I went through this terrible situation, I divorced the man who was hurting me, but now I’ve found a calling that I’m truly passionate about.

Racism and Domestic Violence

Racism and Domestic Violence

Tabitha: Today I’m here with my friend, Kristie Williams. She is a professor at Walden university and an affiliate at Northwest Family life. Kristie runs Candid Conversations, book club discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion. What else do you want people to know about you?

Kristie: I’m an educator and a lifelong learner. I am a licensed professional counselor, but I teach clinical mental health counseling and multicultural counseling at Walden University. I’ve been the assistant Dean and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion. I’ve also served as a director of accessibility. So, when I think of this topic, I’m looking at it from a number of different ways.

Tabitha: You’ve shared in the past about the connections and overlap you’ve seen between racism and domestic violence. Can you say more about that?

Kristie: My connection to Northwest family life started over 20 years ago. I’m a graduate of what is now the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. During my time there, the domestic violence certification program started. I was a child witness of domestic violence, so I felt like I needed to be a part of that. I started learning about power and control, and how perpetrators attempt to hold their victims down. I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is the same thing that happens regarding racism!”
When you’re talking about racism, sometimes people just shut down because they think, “I’m going to say the wrong thing,” or “I’m going to offend somebody.” And so, I’ve started facilitating trainings, workshops, and discussions around dating violence, domestic violence, and racism. During these training sessions, I use the Power and Control Wheel to show participants how abusers can manipulate and control others.

Tabitha: There are now many versions of the power and control wheel, with some that illustrate the overlap of gender/race/citizenship privilege. For example, a survivor of domestic violence who is from another country might face even more stigma or have their immigration status held against them.

Kristie: Yes. These “wheels” really illustrate what’s going on in a way that people, especially the students I work with, can understand without making them feel like they are going to say the wrong thing. It helps them to be able to ask questions and learn. I try to teach in a way that people who are new to these topics don’t feel like they are being shamed for what they didn’t know, or didn’t see, or didn’t understand.

Tabitha: It must sometimes be difficult for you sometimes to walk into a space, knowing that people are already afraid they’re going to mess up before you've even presented anything. How does that work with Candid Conversations?

Kristie: Everyone’s already afraid, even if they really want to do the right thing. I have to help them recognize what some people may be coming in with, because when you’re entering these spaces, you’re not coming in alone. You’re bringing all the generational stuff that’s behind you. Someone may say something triggering. It might be the first time they have had the opportunity to discuss these issues. We’re providing a safe space, a brave space, I’d even say a sacred space, for people to hear, “This didn’t start with you.” Something I say so frequently my students roll their eyes is this: The best way to change hearts and minds is in relationships and over time. That’s what’s so good about doing these book discussions. People come together for weeks and get to know each other. It’s not like you have these hard conversations about racism and never see that person again. Just like with support groups, there’s something special about being with people over time that actually impacts and affects change.

Tabitha: Yes. In some of the groups I’ve participated in with you, we’ve had people from really, really different places, levels of understanding, and educational backgrounds. But we meet with the goal of connecting. Even if we don't necessarily end at the same spot, there’s this strong desire to understand the other that I think is really sacred.

Kristie: Absolutely. In some cases, people are coming from different states or even countries. It’s possible they’ve never met somebody that looks or thinks like somebody else on that screen. It knocks down biases they didn’t know they had. It creates a space where people can realize they have mindsets they need to dismantle. Or they meet people or read something in the book where they think, “Me too!” Things I often hear are, “Oh, I had never thought of it that way,” or, “I hadn’t realized that people are actually still experiencing this kind of discrimination and bias.” If you’re a white person who lives in a predominantly white city like Seattle, it can be really easy to think, “That’s only happening over there in that place where they’re kind of backward.” Nope, it’s actually still happening today here.

Tabitha: And when you are face-to-face with someone else who is experiencing it, it suddenly becomes a lot more personal.

Kristie: Yes, absolutely.

Tabitha: Can you tell us a bit more about what books you covered in Candid Conversations? Which book is your favorite?

Kristie: Ooh, that’s going to be a hard question. We started out at the beginning of the pandemic. People were struggling, feeling isolated, and had more time on their hands. Simultaneously, we had George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, all of these things were happening at the same time. I started book clubs to help my students stay connected, and initially the first Candid Conversations book club was just to help therapists connect during the pandemic. Our first book was Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. What I didn’t realize at first is that his story doesn’t just have racism, but also domestic violence. We also read My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, and It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn. Each of the books really contributed to the ongoing conversation of how we got to where we are in this country. We’ve talked a lot about inherited trauma. Right now we’re reading The Choice by Edith Eger. It feels really applicable to what’s happening in Ukraine right now. It’s the story of a Holocaust survivor and talks about how we have a choice in how we respond to evil. We don’t have to let evil control us. It’s like everything we’ve read so far culminates in this particular book.

Tabitha: It’s interesting how with all the book studies you’ve done, there’s this spirit led aspect to it because they all fold into one another. With Trevor Noah’s book, you touched on really serious topics but in an accessible way, because he’s so funny. It’s like a side door into tough subjects–one minute you are laughing and the next you are crying. My Grandmother’s Hands was such a good backdrop that helped explain where our culture is at right now. Many people don’t realize that slavery didn’t just come out of nowhere, and neither did the genocide of indigenous peoples. And it’s not an excuse, but it gives us a framework to show us how far we have to go to dismantle oppressive systems–and how much we have to repent of.

Kristie: Absolutely. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people.” But as we read our current book, The Choice, we get to hear all these stories of people who have experienced violence and trauma and choose not to pass that on. We have a choice in how we respond.

Tabitha: It’s a powerful truth. In some of the support groups I lead, that’s been a question we’ve been asking. There are women in really difficult circumstances. Sometimes they have to co-parent with their abuser, sometimes they lose their community because their story isn’t believed. But even in these situations they are learning to ask, “Where do I have agency here? I may be forced to encounter someone who’s hurt me, but how do I choose to enter that space? How can I keep myself calm? How can I be a shelter for my children in spite of what we are going through?” I find that question, “Where do I have agency right now?” to be really powerful in my own life.

Kristie: It’s empowering for people to realize that they have the choice to speak up, or to not respond (which is sometimes a valid choice.)

Tabitha: Shifting topics a bit, I’d like to go back to talking about the intersection of domestic violence and racism. What do you think are some of the additional struggles faced by survivors who are also women of color?

Kristie: That’s a great question. Oftentimes, there aren’t any people of color at the organizations who are supposed to help them. Maybe they are in an abusive situation, so they reach out to their church. The church recommends a domestic violence shelter but when they show up, there isn’t a single person who looks like them. Not only are they dealing with the trauma of their particular situation, but they might wonder if there is bias against them from the people who are supposed to help. Or, if their abuser is a person of color, they might worry about perpetuating stereotypes. I am speaking as an African American woman who was a child witness of domestic violence. If I am telling my story to a white person, I am wondering if they can recognize that I still love my father. He was the father God gave me, even though I can see that there were things he did that were horrific. I’m not excusing that–but that wasn’t all he was. So, if someone comes to a DV support group, and their abuser is a person of color, they might not feel safe to share that. They might wonder if others in the group will use their story as a reason to distrust other men of color. They might project your story onto every Black, Latino, Asian, etc. man they meet, and that’s a risk when you share. I think more therapists and facilitators need training on this. It’s also important to note that this is an issue in batterer’s treatment as well. How do men of color who have been abusive trust that their group leaders or counselors think they can actually change? We have to ask ourselves if the people coming to us for help can relate to the helpers. Because they are going to be asking, “Is
this a safe place for me to bring my whole self?”

Tabitha: So, as a white facilitator, what’s the first thing I can do to make women of color feel safer in my group?

Kristie: Start with directly acknowledging that we are all different, and that everyone is bringing different things into the group. Being a survivor can be isolating enough, we don’t want people to feel alone and unacknowledged because of their ethnicity too.

Tabitha: How would you define the term “intersectionality” for someone who’s never heard it before?

Kristie: Intersectionality is the point at which different parts of our identity meet, specifically marginalized identities. I am African American, but I’m also a woman. A survivor might be an immigrant and also be part of the LGBTQ+ community. These identities are connecting and overlapping and we can’t pull them apart. For example, at a college I used to work at, there was a group for LGBTQ+ students, but the students of color within the group felt like there was something missing. They went on to start an additional group that addressed the areas they felt weren’t being heard or seen in the other. These two groups worked together, but the second group was essential to meet those needs that weren’t being met. Intersectionality creates awareness of all of the different components people bring to the table, whether that’s gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion.

Tabitha: This is really important for white people to understand. It’s easy for most of us to walk through the world, at least in the West, because everything is catered to us. We tend to think that our way of viewing the world is the baseline for “normal.” We have to learn to walk with the awareness that what might feel “normal” or “average” to us is not necessarily the case for everyone else.
I am trying to have the awareness that I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to miss things, or make
assumptions that aren’t helpful. And there will be times when I’m called out for that, but it doesn’t have to be a source of shame, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.

Kristie: A great resource on intersectionality is Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw. I use some of her materials in my courses.

Tabitha: Futures Without Violence is another great resource. They have a phrase in one of their videos on intersectionality that I like: “We can’t end one form of violence without ending all forms of violence.”

Kristie: Sometimes when people are suffering, it can be hard for them to connect or relate to a different form of oppression. But we can’t act like these other forms of violence don’t exist just because they aren’t happening to us. I think we all have purpose. It’s true that we can’t do everything, but that’s why we need to connect with others so we can be, at the very least, a resource. I’m a lifelong learner, and I often point people to the work of someone else more knowledgeable. But we can’t just cover our eyes and pretend like violence against other communities doesn’t exist.

Tabitha: What’s the phrase? “A rising tide lifts all boats?” To me, this means that we’re all connected, and none of us are really free until all of us are free, to paraphrase Fanny Lou Hamer. So I want to see full equality and flourishing for women, and that means I want to see full equality and flourishing for people of all races. As we wrap up, can you tell us what you are reading right now?

Kristie: Well, like I said, I can’t recommend the book The Choice enough. I also just ordered How to Do the Work, which I’ve heard is good. And Dr. Caprice Hollins has been a big influence on me.

Tabitha: Thank you so much for your time and your wisdom, Kristie! You are a gift to Northwest Family Life and to everyone you come into contact with.

 

Andrew Bauman on Working with Abusers

Andrew Bauman on Working with Abusers

Freedom Corner

Join us for an interview with Andrew Bauman. Andrew is the Founder & Director of the Christian Counseling Center: For Sexual Health & Trauma (CCC). Andrew J. Bauman is a licensed mental health counselor with a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Andrew is the author of How Not to Be an *SS, The Sexually Healthy Man, Floating Away, Stumbling Toward Wholeness, The Psychology of Porn, and (with his wife Dr. Christy Bauman) A Brave Lament book and award-winning film.

To see the full conversation, watch the video above or read the transcript below which has been edited for length and clarity.

Tabitha: I’m joined today by author and therapist Andrew Bauman to talk about his new book, How Not to Be an *SS

Andrew: Thank you so much for having me. I’m a big fan of Northwest Family Life’s work, so glad to be here.  

Tabitha: So tell me, how did you first get involved with working with victims of abuse? 

Andrew: I think most callings tap into our own story. For me, growing up, my father was a pastor yet also a secret addict, and had a certain type of theology that was very oppressive and harmful to women, including my mom. That was the world I grew up in. As I grew older and had my own 13-year addiction to pornography, I not only realized I put women as “less than,” but also saw that my theology had become oppressive. About 15 years ago, in Nancy Murphy’s class at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, I realized: “Wow, there’s a name for this. It’s called domestic violence”. And I began the process of owning my own abusive behavior, my own history of misogyny. Now I want to help men become safe, to become good, and to understand how to stop being abusive.

Tabitha: So in the beginning of your book, you mention there’s a stigma around the word abuse. Nobody wants to be called an abuser. However, you’re one of the few men I’ve ever heard that says, “I used to be abusive.” You talk about the “unaware fool” and the “narcissistic coward,” opposite ends of the abusive spectrum. Can you elaborate.

Andrew: Not all abuse is created equal, right? In a sense, we put the label of abuse only on the worst diabolical behavior you could think of, the classic example is punching your wife or physical abuse.

But the normal abuse that I see daily is in the evangelical church. [They say,] “Oh, I would never hit my wife. I’m not abusive.” But yet they are. They’re on the spectrum of abuse because of what they do to gain power and control over their partner. And they haven’t done the internal work to undo these systems of entitlement that have served them and degraded their own spouse. So, we have to create some type of framework that helps people understand that while many of them are not that kind of classical narcissistic abuser, they are, in their unawareness and carelessness, behaving abusively.

You have to dive deep to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. You have to begin to do that so you’re not a foolish man. Our unprocessed traumas are always reenacted. So if I don’t deal with my traumas, I’m going to reenact them most likely in my most intimate relationships, most likely in my marriage. I truly believe in men. I truly love men and believe we can do and be much better than this. 

Tabitha: There’s a lot of infantilizing of men, especially in the evangelical church. Sometimes, we act as if men are physically incapable of understanding anything emotional.

Andrew: Exactly. We’re talking about grown ass men here. They can read a book or they can actually reach out to me. Their partner doesn’t have to set up sessions for them. They are capable. They are grown ass men and we have to begin to require that of them because they’re not 12 year old boys.

Tabitha:  It must be really difficult for some men to say, “My behavior was abusive,” rather than minimizing it by saying, “I regret the way I treated people.” How do men respond if you say, “That behavior is actually abusive.” Are they out the door? 

Andrew: I can use an example from this morning. One [guy] says, “I am not abusive! I’m going to go to other therapists who do not say that!” And his wife is freaking out. “Now my husband’s so unsafe. When he was meeting with you, he was finally starting to get safe. And now he’s back to, “I’m good, I’m good. I’m good.” And I’m not saying that they’re bad. I’m just saying we have to integrate both our goodness, and our depravity. We are image bearers of God and we’re capable of great violence and harm. The sooner we can name that, the sooner we can move beyond it.

We have to be able to say,  “Wow. I have fallen short. I have failed and here’s how I have failed. My unprocessed trauma of my unavailable mother or violent father has been projected onto my wife.” We have got to take ownership so we can break the cycle.

Tabitha: Many Christians claim to believe in “total depravity.” But when you talk about abusive situations or racism, their first reaction is, “I would never do that!” And I’m like, “Well, your theology says that you’re perfectly capable of it.” I think sometimes we get stuck feeling ashamed of things that aren’t our fault at all and not acknowledging the things that we actually do need to repent of. 

Andrew: Yes. Well said. And I think that humility—one of the guidelines of a safe and good man—is beginning to say, “Yes, I’m a broken man and I’m willing to engage that brokenness rather than blaming, gaslighting, or saying, “It’s your fault!” or “It’s because you have childhood trauma!” or  “You’re triggering me!” Instead, we must ask, “What does it actually mean to take ownership of ourselves and our privilege?”

Tabitha: You say there’s a difference between shame and guilt. Do you have a different language for either? 

Andrew: I like to call it healthy shame versus toxic shame, and I found those categories helpful. Is this a kind of repentance? Did I mess up and feel a healthy amount of shame that I did wrong? 

Now, toxic shame is, “I am bad. I am awful. I’m a piece of crap.” That’s not helpful. That does not lead to genuine repentance. It actually leads to more acting out. It actually leads to more entitlement, and then we want to soothe our shame, so we either head towards more addiction or more abuse, or whatever makes it make us feel powerful again. Whereas healthy shame and guilt can humble us, toxic shame is humiliating. 

Tabitha: Often women who are in abusive relationships know that something’s wrong, but they don’t necessarily have the language to call it abuse. Their first thought is, “Well, he didn’t hit me, therefore it’s not abuse.” Pastors are often the first person survivors in their congregation will turn to when something’s not right in their marriage. What kind of advice would you want to give pastors who encounter this? How can they tell the difference between an unhealthy marriage and an abusive one? Who should they call?

Andrew: There is so much info out there. Online courses, Patrick Weaver, Dr. Nancy Murphy even contributed to my book, writing the essay “What church would I look for if I was an abuser?” You’ve got to get your hands on everything you can to be educated. You don’t have to be a master of all of these different things. It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you need to reach out for help. You need to get help elsewhere because this is a real issue and it’s really dangerous. 

Because if one out of four women coming to your congregation have some sort of history of violence, (one out of three sexual violence,) then we have to be talking about this. We have to be addressing this. So pastors, even if it’s not your story, it is twenty-five percent of your congregation’s story! And that’s why I have such a passion for this. We’ve got to raise awareness. We’ve got to begin to address this in our churches because silently, so many men and women are suffering.

The church can be an incredibly dangerous place for victims of domestic violence. Especially when seminaries often only require one (or no) counseling classes for their Divinity students. And I hope to be a part of the change. 

Tabitha: In our survivor groups, one of the phrases that I return to a lot is, “Accountability is loving.” Many of the women that are in our groups and are working towards healing, still love the person who abused them. Could you say more about when it’s more loving to leave a relationship than to stay?

Andrew: Yeah. Sadly, a lot of times we’ve been conditioned to think the institution of marriage is somehow more important than your own individual safety. But actually, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to stop enabling this toxic behavior and to say, “No.” Say no more and actually walk away because you love yourself and you love God so much. And God’s image is in you, so you will not be treated that way anymore. 

I can’t tell you the amount of men who have come to me, finally broken only after their wife finally said no and walked out. I don’t think true love is enabling that type of thing. Because if you truly love someone, you’ll help set them free. And that includes calling out abusive behavior. Because that’s not hopefully the type of man that they truly want to be or that God wants them to be. 

Tabitha: As a kid, I remember hearing that the only biblical reason for divorce was adultery. Abuse was a gray area. It’s interesting that we would hold up adultery as worse than abuse. Why? Why is that a more valid reason to end a marriage than abuse?

Andrew: So many women suffer in silence because they know their partner will not hear them. And yet what I’m seeing over the last decade of being in this work, it’s the resources and the online presence is growing. Women are saying “No more.” We’re not going to enable or be a part of this evangelical machine that enables male violence to continue.

Tabitha: You wrote in your book, “He broke the covenant of your marriage when he chose to be emotionally, physically, sexually, spiritually, or psychologically violent.” I think that is really important. There’s more than one way to abandon your spouse.

Talk to me a bit about survivors and anger. I know women are often punished for being angry, whereas men are looked at as more powerful when they are angry. 

Andrew: Right. I think anger is a beautiful, healthy thing for men and women to have and to embody. And it can be clean anger that actually increases intimacy and connection between the partners when anger is done without aggression. It can actually bring two people closer. Sadly, what has modeled to us and what most men demonstrate is aggression, belittling, or cutting the other person down. Whereas clean anger is just an emotion, like, “Oh, that was wrong. That really hurt my feelings.”

Tabitha: What is one thing you wish the church understood about abusive relationships? 

Andrew: That’s a big one. I want the church to understand that women are not second-class.

Much of our interpretation of the Bible, especially of Paul’s words, has been so misinterpreted. And yet our interpretation of scripture has often created this fundamental sexism against women. But we somehow say, it’s God ordained. To silence part of God’s image does not make sense. Men listening, what does it mean for us to lay down our lives? What does it mean for us to create mutuality and equality in our churches and our theology that helps us understand God much more fully, because God is in all of our faces regardless of gender.

To see more from Andrew, check out christiancc.org and andrewjbauman.com

 

Unwanted Sexual Behaviors

Unwanted Sexual Behaviors

People often think unwanted sexual behaviors happen with strangers. But the reality is there are many marriages and committed relationships where unwanted sexual behaviors occur despite the insistence by the other party for them to stop.

Unwanted sexual behaviors can include the following (but not limited to):

  • Criticism of partner’s sexuality
  • Unwanted touching
  • Demanding frequent sex
  • Name-calling (i.e., whore, frigid)
  • Sexual humiliation
  • Promiscuity
  • Forced viewing of pornographic materials
  • Forced sex with others or with an audience
  • Sex after or together with violence
  • Sex with weapons
  • Unwanted sex with sex toys
  • Rape

What’s challenging for the victims in these relationships is they may feel powerless to do anything because of their relationship status. In other words, women may think because they’re married or in a committed relationship, being sexually subservient is permissible. It’s unfortunate how many partners buy into this lie.

How does this happen? Part of it is due to their partner’s over-reliance on sex as a means of love. They may have misinterpreted sexual intimacy as the strongest means to emotional closeness thus are wedded to the notion that sex is an absolute in healthy, functioning relationships. It may start off as a joke or indirect jab at “not feeling loved” and escalate to more forceful groping or requests for sexual behaviors the other party is not comfortable with. But because the victim doesn’t feel comfortable verbalizing their experience and enforcing the boundaries, the abuser thinks their behaviors are acceptable or at the very least tolerable.

It may take years, but once the realization occurs that the victim has been sexually violated, they begin the journey of recovery and empowerment. Some relationships will reconcile when the abusers acknowledge the violations that have occurred but others will end due to the abuser’s denial, minimization, and blaming of the impacted partner.

In the end, unwanted sexual behaviors are sometimes difficult to acknowledge (on either side) but they are essentially a form of power and control that falls under the definition of domestic abuse, as they’re a violation of a person’s sexual boundaries.

 

Sam Louie is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in multicultural issues, sexual compulsivity, trauma, addictions, and domestic violence.

Ryan Chambers on therapy as a place to be seen

Ryan Chambers on therapy as a place to be seen

Ryan Chambers is a NWFL affiliate therapist. His clients often include people struggling with stress, depression, traumatic experiences and anxiety. He speaks to us here about therapy as a place to be seen in order to find options for change.

You’ve said that how we make sense of the world influences how we experience it; that our stories inform our patterns. Can you tell us more?

 

Oh, this is such a great topic. I developed my clinical mind at a graduate school that bridges psychology and theology. I made that choice because I think how we make meaning is hugely important to the patterns we develop and the limitations we face. As a therapist, I’m not in the business of shaping people’s beliefs but I think it’s hugely important to connect with threads of meaning woven through their lives. For example, the process of being seen is important to me. It shaped my previous work. And if I look back across my life I can see how that need that I faced outward speaks about an internal need I was trying to work with.

How does your work as a photographer dovetail with therapy?

 

Great question… I spent about a decade really focused on visual language and the power of bearing witness. The medium of photography relies on this process of taking the time to see: people, space, light, etc. And as I spent more time working with portraiture, the process of bearing witness started taking on an almost spiritual dimension. I think the process of being seen is, itself, healing. I realized therapy could be a way of moving more directly into that space. At the core of our work is a hope that if we sit with our clients, they’ll teach us who they’re becoming. It’s a process of unfolding.

 

You’ve said that you can’t really intervene or change something before someone feels seen. Can you talk about this, in the context of therapy and with children?

 

Ha! This is a great lesson my toddler’s been working with me on! The work of connecting with people is really one of being with them where they are even if it doesn’t make logical or emotional sense. And my son’s been driving home the point in a multitude of creative ways, mostly dealing with food or how I put his clothes on. He’s teaching me to find language for his experience first, wait for the connection, and then look for options. Dan Siegel talks about it with the shorthand of “connect and redirect.” This has been the same process my clients have been teaching me too, I need to see them first. When they feel felt options for change open up.

Talk to us about health as an integration between the mind and body of an individual and of other people.

 

With integration, I’m thinking within the context of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). IPNB offers me a really grounding framework of the mind being a relationship between body, brain and others. And it looks at health as a flexible exchange of energy and information between the parts. The really amazing thing is that who we connect with and how we connect with others is actually part of our mind, not just our mind connecting to another mind. It’s an actual neurological patterning. With this framework depression isn’t just a psychological problem and trauma isn’t necessarily an individual problem. So my work is about looking for areas where the flow of energy or information gets rigid or chaotic, understanding how that process is meeting an important need for the people I work with, and then looking for ways to honor that need better.

You mentioned that the WA state dept of health came out with a study on the mental health impact of Covid and that the risk right now is depression from loneliness and disconnection.

 

Yeah. The Washington Department of Health came out with predictions of the impact of COVID on the general population. And while trauma was my first thought they actually think depression is the most likely result. The level of psychic and bodily isolation that we’re experiencing is pretty amazing. We’re pack animals and connecting to others involves all of our senses along with our big fancy brains. Technology allows me to reach across space to connect with my family and clients. But the creature of me doesn’t feel the same sense of belonging. So it can be helpful to think about what that creature needs: maybe participating in an old hobby, eat food that smells like home, maybe looking at family pictures or listening to music from a time when life was full of expectation.

One of the “stabilization tools” I use in EMDR is peaceful place or safe space imagery. And we go through the senses in the environment the person is creating. While working with a client in my general practice we realized we could use the same technique with remembering people… creating space to go through what it feels like to be with them and connecting to each of the senses. It allowed my client to enhance their feeling of connection with others through drawing on the latent memories of connecting. I imagine there’s some potential there for developing a more secure attachment as well.

You incorporate EMDR into your work. Would you explain briefly what this is, in lay terms if possible please?

 

Yeah, I remember first hearing EMDR and thinking there’s no way I can guess what that means. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Helpful right :D?!? Basically, we learned that when there’s quick eye movement back and forth it seems to initiate a process that’s akin to REM sleep. And that process has the effect of reducing the intensity of feelings, desensitizing. So it’s used a lot with PTSD and severe anxiety. But it can also be used with addiction and problematic arousal. The goal is to reduce the severity of emotions when a certain part of us gets activated and then link that part of us with a better-resourced part of ourselves, reprocessing. My favorite description I’ve heard is that like a zipper we want to zip this more scared part of ourselves with a more capable, integrate part of ourselves. So when the scared part gets activated again we can access these other faculties. It’s kind of magical. But certainly doesn’t replace therapy because often there’s little internal structure in the areas of our lives that were filled with intense fear.

 

How can parenting be a chance to re-parent oneself?

 

Oh man. So when we interact with the brain of another, especially in distress, our brain fires as if it were in the same situation. And then, if we can’t reshape our experience, we recreate it. So through each of my kids’ ages, I’m coming into contact with these young parts of myself. And my default is to recreate the experience I had for my kids. My work as a parent is to slow down this process and make choices at those critical junctions so that I can both shape my child’s experience differently and, because memories change when we recall them, I also change my own.

It sounds pretty tidy when I type it out but it’s actually a pretty painful experience. I lost my dad when I was pretty young so there’s this kind of voidy abyss that I’ve been working with. And parenting my kids is bring me ever closer to the edges of those experiences. Moving towards change and healing can sure involve a lot of pain.

 

Talk to us about stress response systems overdeveloping, as in the case of trauma.

 

There’s a lot of different ways we can speak about trauma. I’ve liked hearing it talked about as an overdevelopment of the stress response system. Some life circumstances required us to be stronger than we should be and these muscles overdeveloped. The effects can be debilitating but it’s actually our body’s best effort to keep us safe. And my goal working with my clients is to help develop the other internal muscles to match the strengths they already have: the ability to acutely monitor their internal state, the ability to shift their mood, the ability to grieve, the ability to reliably connect with others…

How do we calm our distress systems when they are activated?

 

What an important question. Polyvagal Theory has been really helpful in shaping how I work with the symptoms of distress system activation and how I conceptualize healing since it really focuses on the body response. In really general terms, our system is telling us it feels unsafe. First, we honor that and look for immediate danger. Assuming there isn’t immediate danger, we want to communicate to our body that it’s safe. The urge is normally to solve problems with our minds. But the issue is that the alarm is too sensitive or going off too intensely. Trying to use thoughts to solve the problem can often enhance the distress. Instead, we want to focus on turning off the signal. There are different routes for that and everyone will have their preferences: getting a hug, exerting physical energy, taking a bath, crying. But ideally the actions we take communicate to the creature of us that we’re safe. There’s a lot more to it but hopefully this offers a frame.

Would you speak to some of the ways that people get prepped for domestic violence?

 

For many of my clients, we often discover that DV relationships echo or link up with other relationships. And we often discover there were ways they were prepped for the DV relationship. I haven’t discovered a tidy way to say exactly how. For some, it seems to be feeling overly responsible for others or finding an external voice to echo an internal negative self-perception, for others it’s the sense that they aren’t allowed to have a mind that’s different from those they love. So working through a DV relationship often involves grieving deeper wounds. Therapy is a place to bring curiosity and care to these parts of our story. And the rewards of the work are greater resiliency, connection with others and belief in yourself. It’s a hugely hopefully process and one I’m often in awe of.

Barbara Tantrum on Foster Care and Adoption

Barbara Tantrum on Foster Care and Adoption

Barbara Trantrum is the NWFL Director of Foster Care and Adoption. She is one of the founders of Northwest Trauma Counseling and has been a NWFL affiliate therapist for the last  6 years. She works with both children and adults, often around issues of foster care, adoption and attachment.

 

You have 7 kids, tell us about the makeup of your family.

 

Our kids range in age from 9 to 23 and include 2 bio kids and 5 non-traditional kids. Of our non-traditional kids, we have one sibling group of three and two non-related kids. We have children from DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. We received one child through a private agreement with her family whom we are friends with. We foster international refugee children through a UN program. Most of our kids have been with us for either 10 or 12 years, but we have one newer one of less than a year. We are about to adopt our 18-year-old.

How can identifying emotions be difficult for kids with trauma?

 

Emotional identification is something that often has to be taught, even for typical kids, but for kids with trauma it is much more difficult. Kids with trauma are more easily triggered – making access to those emotions more difficult. For children with trauma, emotional expression can often feel unsafe – for many kids the only thing they can express is anger. Other emotions feel too vulnerable, so any strong emotion that they feel ends up coming out as anger.

 

How/why do you incorporate art and music into therapy?

 

Music and art access emotions and feelings in ways that talk alone cannot do. I try to use music and art in fun ways in therapy like playing musical chairs, drumming, playing emotions pictionary, and painting together. I have created books with clients with their art, and done countless art and craft projects.

 

Tell us about how attachment is formed through mirroring.

 

We try to help attachment form in many of the ways that attachment forms organically with an infant and child. The attachment cycle of an infant expressing a need and the need being met and that cycle happening a million times over is the basis for healthy attachment.

Mirroring is a normal part of attachment with a baby and a parent during the early stages of development – a mom sticks out her tongue and the baby follows suit. This is the activation of the mirror neurons in the baby’s brain and the beginning of empathy. For children that come from abuse and neglect where there has been an interruption in attachment, it can often really help to activate these mirror neurons. This works best for younger kids, but we encourage parents to do mirroring activities with kids of all ages – things like having kids and parents repeat a pattern on a drum that one person makes, singing songs together, playing games that involve mirroring, etc.

 

Tell us about working with kids and parents as a unit.

 

For kids with attachment challenges, they often get into a pattern of what we call “parent shopping,” which is when they aren’t sure of the security of their placement and are always scouting out the next place to go. A sympathetic therapist can make a very tempting target, and that can cause a lot of very tricky dynamics. I want the child to attach to the parent, not to me.

Also, kids often come into therapy thinking that they’re the problem, and the kids are never just the problem – any solution involves the whole family. So I work almost exclusively with kids and parents together. The model of dropping a child off to talk with a therapist for an hour with little contact with the parents just doesn’t work to solve attachment problems for those in foster care and adoption and reinforces that the kid is the problem.

 

You’ve said that when you parent a kid with trauma, it really brings up your own trauma. Can you expand on why and how to navigate this?

 

A soldier with childhood trauma is far more likely to get PTSD on the battlefield, and the same is true for a parent. If you have childhood trauma, when your child dysregulates and has a PTSD reaction that could very well set off your own PTSD reaction. Often I work with parents who mostly know what they need to do in parenting, but being able to keep control of their own reactions is tough. For parents with childhood trauma, I recommend that they be in therapy to help them. In my own life when I have sought therapy when my secondary trauma reactions were more than I could handle, and it was enormously helpful. In the interest of the whole family, I also talk a lot about self-care and emotional regulation for everyone in the family.

 

Talk to us about interracial and international adoption.

 

International adoption is on a decline currently, as overseas orphan care is shifting to building up foster care and adoption programs in the countries of origin. There still is international adoption happening, especially for special needs children, and for situations like refugees and such.

Interracial adoption is becoming the new norm. In 1996 the federal government legally mandated that race cannot be a factor in adoptive placements, and currently about 40% of adoptions are transracial. Although we often think of transracial adoption as being white parents adopting children of color, I work with parents and children of all combinations.

The most important thing with transracial foster care and adoption is respect and conversation – you never want to adopt from a people group that you don’t respect and enjoy. When you adopt from another ethnic group your family becomes multiethnic, and how your family functions needs to reflect that reality.

The other key is to talk about racial issues, don’t just pretend the child is the same race as the parents and go with that. Studies show that children raised in transracial adoptions do basically the same as same-race adoptions if the parents talk to them about racial issues.

 

Can you talk about the places where domestic violence and foster care intersect?

 

It is rare to have a child adopted from foster care at an older age that hasn’t experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the main reasons that kids are in foster care and need new families. Many of the dynamics of domestic violence continue in the dynamics of sibling relationships when parents adopt sibling groups, and we have to talk a lot about power dynamics and control issues. For a child, witnessing domestic violence is just as traumatic as experiencing it done to them.

 

WA State is experiencing a massive shortage of foster parents, with 1,000 less foster homes available now than 10 years ago, and more kids than ever in the system. What are some ways people might help?

 

Treehouse is a great place to donate or help, it’s a local organization that helps foster kids in King County. You can also become a CASA voulunteer, or help at the many churches that support foster care ministry. If you are considering foster care and are not quite ready to take the full plunge, you can do something called respite care, which is having foster kids short term to give their regular foster parents a break.

If you are ready to take the plunge, I recommend working with a private foster care agency rather than just with the state, and there are several great ones. Some organizations in the Seattle area that I recommend are Amara, Bethany Christian Services, Olive Crest, and Antioch. If you are interested in fostering refugee foster children, check out Lutheran Community Services. Before committing to an agency, make sure you talk to some people who have used that agency before and ask them about their experiences.

 

What are some recommendations or resources you have for people who are interested in become foster parents?

 

Talk to some current foster parents and look into what is involved. But don’t get too intimidated, you don’t have to be a superhero to be a foster parent – just be open to learning and growing.

Find a support group – either through your agency or through your church or community. The time to do this is when you are getting licensed – you will need support when kids hit your house.

The Refresh Conference is a fantastic conference put on every year by Overlake Christian Church, and it is a wealth of information. You can go even if you’re just checking it out! There are also a lot of different agencies there so it can be a great way to get a feel for different agencies all at once.

The movie Instant Family is also a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to become a foster parent.

Barbara has a book called: The Adoptive Parents’ Handbook: A Guide to
Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child,
coming out in September 2020.  You can connect with her via
email.

Tyler Ziebarth on Trauma and Our Innate Desire for Growth

Tyler Ziebarth on Trauma and Our Innate Desire for Growth

Tyler Ziebarth is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist who often works around issues of trauma, addiction, anxiety, and toxic beliefs.

Talk to us about humanity’s innate drive to grow.

 

This is a deep belief that I hold about people: that we all have an innate drive towards growth and development. Our natural movement is towards wholeness and “largeness”, that is, occupying a larger sense of who we are and our worth as individuals. Carl Jung once said, “We all walk around in shoes far too small for us”. By that I think he meant that the roles we play and the scripts we have been given by family and society are not large enough to contain the beauty and potential each of possess at our core.

So many problems arise when that movement towards our largeness is stifled in some way. This can occur either from things that happen to us (trauma, abuse, etc), or things that should have happened but didn’t (empathy, validation and attunement from caregivers). But no matter what happened (or didn’t happen) to us in our lives, it does not negate or destroy that inherent summons to grow and expand.

In fact, sometimes the “stuckness” we feel in our lives is our soul’s way of alerting us to places where growth and largeness are being stifled. If we have ears to hear and a sense of curiosity toward our symptoms, they may actually have much to teach us about what we need in our lives to become more fully who we were intended to be.

 

How might someone’s relationship to food or sex reflect how they relate to the world?

 

Sex and food have much in common. Both have a lot to do with longing and desire, the hunger for connection with self and others, and an appreciation of the body and its capacity for sensual pleasures. Sex and food are both ways we bring our bodies pleasure, a sense of comfort, nurturance, and care. How we relate to sex and food reveals much about how we are in relationships with others as well.

If you think about it, food was also one of the first ways we learned to soothe intolerable internal sensations. We felt the pang of hunger as an infant, and our mothers responded by feeding us. It was also in these moments of feeding that we were simultaneously being relationally satiated, having the experience of our caregiver attuned to our hunger for both food and relationship. No wonder sex (longing for relationship) and food become emotionally charged issues later in our lives.

It makes sense that if we have not developed internal resources for coping with stress, or the unpredictability of life, that we return to these early forms of self-regulation, often with extreme and unhealthy consequences. So though food and sex can offer us ways to bring our bodies pleasure and a sense of comfort, they can also become areas that bring contempt, condemnation and pain when we do not have other means of soothing our hearts.

 

Why might one want to develop the ability to tolerate anxiety?

 

For better or worse, anxiety always goes hand and hand with growth. The ability to tolerate anxiety is a prerequisite to growth. The hard truth is that the extent that we avoid and escape feeling anxiety is the extent that we also sacrifice our growth and development. Anxiety is uncomfortable, especially for those who have experienced any sort of trauma in their lives. But, as is the case with most of our anxiety-avoidance strategies , they hinder us moving forward in our lives. As the old adage goes, “what we resist persists,” and I would add, grows bigger and scarier.

Healing requires tremendous courage to face the monsters of our past and grow in our capacity to tolerate these states of anxiety. We learn how to attend, befriend and regulate our anxiety, rather than letting it rule our lives by constantly avoiding it or becoming overwhelmed by it. This is where working with a therapist can be helpful in offering the support, attunement and containment, often required to step into these places.

 

Talk to us about dysregulation.

 

Dysregulation is a form of losing your emotional balance. This is what happens when we get over the top stressed and our nervous system goes into overdrive. At this point our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and we lose access to the thinking part of our brain. For some this emotional hijacking can feel like you are drowning in your emotions. Or, for some it feels like going into “shut down mode” and they experience an absence of feeling, or numbness.

Either response hinders our ability to think straight and respond to the situation with the necessary flexibility and wisdom required to navigate the complexities of life and relationships. When our nervous system is going haywire, we naturally turn to anything that will help calm us down and rebalance us. This is where potential problems arise. If we have not developed the internal resources necessary to bring our systems back to a state of goodness and calm, we will inevitably outsource this job to a number of external things and/or behaviors (food, sex, tv, over-work) with potential negative consequences.

 

How might extreme trauma require a witness to stand beside someone as they work through overwhelming states?

 

The overwhelming states that trauma survivors talk about are sometimes called “body memories”. It is well documented that traumatic memories are often held in the body and experienced by survivors as overwhelming physical sensations. When the memory remains unprocessed, the body acts as if the trauma is “happening now” rather than something that “happened then”.

In other words, even though the thinking part of our brain knows the trauma happened a long time ago in the past, when a reminder of the past triggers us in the present, our thinking brain shuts down and our bodies act as if the trauma is happening all over again. At this point the person’s body is completely hijacked by terrifying physical sensations similar to what they experienced in the past. It is as if that young part of them who experienced those terrifying experiences back then is still very much alive in the present. The body, and subsequently those younger parts of us, get tagged as the source of terrifying sensations and are avoided at all costs.

Part of the work for trauma survivors is to reconnect with those young traumatized parts of the self and offer the care, attunement and containment they originally needed back then. Those younger parts need someone older, stronger and wiser to see how bad things were back then, and offer the appropriate care and protection that was missing. I often tell my clients that those panicked, triggered parts of us need to know that “someone gets it”, in order for those parts to move forward and heal. The therapist may be the initial witness to the client’s story, but over time the client becomes empowered to become that witness for their younger selves.

 

Tell us a little bit about different parts of the self, especially the younger parts and how they grow.

 

The writer Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I am still every age that I have been”. I love that because I think it speaks to the reality that we are not a single “self”, but all are made up of many parts of self. I think we all intuitively feel this, and it is especially evident when you hear people say things like, “part of me wants to do this, but another part wants that…”. The Pixar movie “Inside Out” is another great example of this theory of multiple selves. How many of us can recall feeling younger than we are at certain times of frustration or disappointment, or when we visit our childhood homes during the holidays? The path of growth and maturity requires that we learn to attend to and work with these younger parts of ourselves when they get activated.

This is especially necessary for those who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. When a traumatic event happens (or repeatedly happens) to a child, the experience is “too much” to process, but the child has no choice but to try and carry on with their lives as best they can. This requires the ability to “forget” what happened. This is accomplished by storing the memories and sensations of the event in a different part of our brain so that we can carry on with the task of daily life. It is as if we offload those memories to one part of the self and then exile them to “the basement”, in order for us to move on. This is a brilliant strategy and we must be grateful that our brains come equipped with this feature because otherwise we would be paralyzed and unable to move forward after a traumatic event. This compartmentalization strategy, however, does have consequences. Those exiled and neglected parts still bear the burdens of the past, and may become easily triggered by present day events.

These confusing symptoms are often what bring trauma survivors into therapy in the first place, and it becomes helpful to start viewing the symptoms as communications from younger parts of us that are not doing well and therefore flooding us with their emotions. The task of therapy is to begin learning how to attend to these young parts of the self and offer them the care and nurturance they need in order to heal.

 

Could you talk a little about post traumatic growth?

 

This is a somewhat newer area of research that is coming about, and it is quite interesting. My understanding at least is that this is the idea that some people claim positive psychological changes due to facing adversity and challenges in their lives. It is the idea that while traumatic events and adversity are never desired or welcomed, these challenging experiences nonetheless hold the opportunity for people to experience new growth, inner strength/resiliency, and aspects of the self previously undiscovered.  Many people report a radical shift in perspective about their lives and the nature of life itself after working through their traumatic past. Rather than seeing themselves as victims in a tragic life story, they begin to see themselves as survivors capable of overcoming the worst that life has thrown at them.

I find this a helpful paradigm shift. In our day and age it is sometimes easy to forget that we humans are incredibly resilient creatures capable of overcoming tremendous hardship. This is especially important to remember for those trauma survivors who hold toxic beliefs about themselves as “weak”, “defective” or “ruined”. My only worry about this idea is that people will use it to cover over or dismiss the reality of their abuse, and may avoid the necessary journey into grief that must accompany trauma treatment.

 

Do you often encounter people holding toxic believes about themselves?

 

This is probably the most common issue that I encounter as a therapist, but especially for those clients who have experienced any sort of trauma. These toxic beliefs about our self as “disgusting”, “defective”, “unlovable”, etc. are the voice of shame. I would describe the experience of shame as like being in a trance. When you are in this trance, your mind, body and soul come under attack and become weighed down by accusations that you are inadequate, broken and beyond repair. It is a terribly painful state to inhabit, and equally difficult to shake yourself out of.

Shame also sets us up for self-contempt, which is like an internal civil war between parts of our self.  This war often goes unnoticed because of how subtle it can be. Freedom requires tuning into the ways we attack our more vulnerable parts, and instead work to offer those parts care rather than contempt.

 

Talk about choosing curiosity over contempt.

 

This may be somewhat of an overstatement, but sometimes I think this is a majority of what I help clients with: choosing curiosity over contempt. So many of us come into therapy looking to “get rid of”, “eliminate” or “control” problematic symptoms. This makes sense, of course. After all, who wants to continue living with depression, panic attacks, or compulsive behaviors of any kind?

However, I believe we have to first become curious about what our symptoms may be trying to tell us. Symptoms are like signposts pointing us to the wound, and subsequently, towards healing. If we listen to our symptoms rather than trying to frantically get rid of them, they will have much to tell us about what those parts of us need in order to heal. Often though, repeated unsuccessful attempts to manage or control un-welcomed symptoms leads to increasing hatred of those parts of us. This contempt further separates and internally divides us.

Rather, the way forward is to learn to increasingly bring curiosity and the intention to nurture those young, exiled parts in us that are crying out for help. This is the only way I’ve found that actually brings a sense of wholeness and healing.

You can connect with Tyler here

Ashley Zimmerman on Bodies & Trauma Informed Yoga

Ashley Zimmerman on Bodies & Trauma Informed Yoga

Ashley Zimmerman is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist who offers counseling as well as trauma informed yoga classes.

 

Why are you an affiliate of NWFL?

I am an affiliate of NWFL because I respect the vision that Nancy Murphy has to create spaces of safety for survivors. When I was at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology I found that her class was so practical while simultaneously being an offering of hope to the hurting. I find that having a community of other professionals who are passionate about similar things allows for me to feel like I’m apart of something vaster than myself. Being a therapist and holding complex stories can sometimes feel isolating, that’s why it’s really valuable for me to have a community of healers that I can glean from too through supervision and consult.

 

Tell us about your love of bodies.

 

Bodies are complex, yet courageous healers; bearing the stories which are yet to be revealed. Bodies wear scars like badges of honor, marking resilience and mastery. I find bodies to be where the deepest most vibrant work can thrive if we are simply willing to reconnect with our body’s most ancient wisdom. The truth of what you’ve endured is woven in the fabric of your being. Connecting with every thread and color can take a lifetime of learning; it is never boring or dull.

 

Tell us about your observations of teens today being hungry to connect with their bodies.

 

I feel that “people” are hungry to connect with their bodies, but something I appreciate about teens is that they’re slightly more raw and real about their felt experience in the world. They might still have influences of societal pressures, but their neuroplasticity is so readily apparent and available. There is a visceral quality to their communication style. Developmentally and physically they are going through puberty, so naturally are in this unique state of change where all their drives are coming online. Something about my work with teens keeps me honest and attentive with my own inner teenager that needs to be seen and heard and tended to without judgment. We all have one; we need be more connected to those younger, more boisterous parts of ourselves.

 

When someone is trapped in a trauma response, how is it helpful to get connected with the body?

 

I believe if you can reconnect your awareness back to your hands and feet it can be a reminder of a sense of agency, even when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Some call the hands and feet “islands of safety.”

Deep, full breaths are also vital… When trapped in a trauma response you might notice tightness of chest, quick shallow breaths or even forgetting to breathe entirely. This is when it’s really important to access more mindfulness in the way you are utilizing breath. It’s essential for sustaining life and overall wellness.

Reorienting to space and time, being present. Hyper-vigilance is something that I see often when working with people who live in traumatized bodies. Scanning the room, darting eyes, it’s a fear response or survival instinct that’s meant to be preventative in nature but it ends up exhausting the nervous system and draining the adrenals. We’re human animals, we like to orient. So instead of telling someone to “stop that!” Rather, I invite them to re-orient looking at all the corners of the room, knowing where the exits or entrances are can be simple yet somewhat stabilizing. Even inviting people to walk around if they need to redistribute their energy or blood flow. No one is trapped in my therapy office and no one has to stay sitting down the entire session unless they want to. But sometimes when someone is locked in a hyper-vigilant response they might need a reminder that they have the agency to do what they need to feel safe in their body again. Often times after trauma the body feels a distrust and betrayal, “I couldn’t keep myself safe.”

TIPP is a DBT acronym that can easily be used when a person is trying to get grounded:

T: “Tip the temperature,” this will cue your mammalian driving reflex if you splash some cold water on your face or take a cold pack to rest near your eyes or cheeks to soothe or cool your body down. This reflex causes your body chemistry to shift, your heart rate decreases and it activates your parasympathetic nervous system to prompt your relaxation response. (water should stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit) *I keep a cold pack in my office refrigerator if needed.

I: Intense exercise helps your body release negative energy that can sometimes get stored bodily when dealing with complex emotions or memories. You can redistribute this by: running, walking, hot yoga etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which can help manage anxiety or even reduce feelings of depression.

P: Paced breathing helps cue your parasympathetic nervous system to

remind your body that it’s safe. Boxed breathing is also a type of breath work that people like to try. I prefer slow expansive breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth taking a couple counts each inhale and exhale.

P: Paired muscle relaxation is a beautiful way to do a body scan, check

with yourself and being more attuned to introspection (what’s happening in your body). It helps you self-regulate. *Some yin yoga teachers offer this practice during their yoga classes and it’s a really valuable offering for survivors of trauma, or anyone really.

 

Tell us about your trauma informed yoga work.

 

Trauma informed simply means that “all bodies are welcome” and there is room for your process to look different from someone else’s. Consent is everything so the yoga facilitator offers postures as options to try on, remembering that you have the freedom to take or leave anything that doesn’t fit for you. Permission to make the practice something that works for where your body is, means if you need to linger in a shape longer because you’re feeling benefits or modify that posture so it is more comfortable for what you’re dealing with bodily (maybe injuries, different abilities, or trauma memories associated with curtain positions). The body holds a lot of memory and often times shame and distrust is correlated with reconnecting with the body, because one might remember more of what their body has endured.

Yoga in many ways is like a moving meditation, where you’re integrating the use of mind-body connection. There’s a sweet interplay and dance that happens as you reconnect and explore to your bodies edges through unique sensory-based forms of expression.

 

What are some of the different ways you see domestic violence present itself?

 

I’ve seen DV show up across the board, it does not discriminate against race, age, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. It’s when (emotional and physical) violence is an active component of the communication dynamic in close familial/relational bonds. It is when elements of power and control are used to disempower and manipulate another person’s sense of self or well-being. Arousal and degradation are often always fused. Safety becomes compromised and accessing one’s voice feels very frightening or risky. Over time this dynamic can move beyond traumatizing into a toxic abuse structure or cycle that becomes demoralizing. It’s difficult to get out of that loop or cycle of abuse because oftentimes when a sophisticated abuser had gained access to their victim, the victim takes on more ownership for the abuse than is healthy. In essence they bear the brunt of the brawl, in some twisted way buying into a lie that they “deserved this cruel and unpredictable mistreatment.

 

How can movement integration help work through PTSD or anxiety? Talk to us about preverbal states, or places where people stop having access to words.

 

Movement integration is valuable because it works with the body rather than against it. I like to think of my body as an ally and friend rather than fighting against its natural instincts or inclinations. That being said I’m aware that “the body has no narrative” so it has difficulty sometimes with reality testing, distinguishing between real and perceived threat(s). For example, if I were to see a cord that looked similar to a snake my “fear response” might kick-in and activate all the same hormones and chemical reactions in the body needed for the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to be engaged and ready to work to keep me safe. With PTSD it’s difficult to turn this off, because the body often lives in a hyper or hypo aroused state. What served you once might not always be serving you now. The ability to access language or cognitive functioning is almost impossible when you’re in lizard brain mentality and the hippocampus goes offline.

One simple thing I do if someone is in a dissociative or activated state is to pause because it’s not helpful to keep engaging story or narrative when someone is feeling trapped in one of the many “states of being” that trauma can activate. Instead, I work towards inviting them to engage their body differently. I have “thinking putty” if someone has busy hands and needs to mold something instead of moving towards self-harm or contempt. I sometimes invite them towards breath-work or even walking around mindfully being aware of their entire personhood from the feet all the way to the top of their head. It really depends on the moment or what the situation seems to be asking for. I’m simply there to hold space, be a witness and help co-regulate a person to get them back to the present moment at a pace that feels gentle yet still anchoring.

 

How people might ascribe to a core belief about themselves because of trauma?

 

It’s in those moments of suffering trauma that it’s easy to make inner vows subconsciously without even realizing it. That’s why the healing work of therapy is so important to engage well and consistently to better uncover these core beliefs that are in place. One example might be buying into the lie about one’s worth, value or capabilities. Maybe latching onto an idea like “I’m stupid.” I’ve worked with many people who know on a cognitive level that they’re capable and successful in x, y, z but on a core level might have a belief structure in place that’s primarily rooted in trauma narratives that may need to be addressed and more thoroughly engaged to find rest and comfort in a new realization. Until you start untangling some of these core belief systems that get embedded in the psyche, they often will creep in or play out in relationship because we manifest what we most deeply believe.

 

Talk to us about being an ally to one’s body, especially in places where one might feel shame or self-sooth in harmful ways. You work with many addictions that correlate to harm. Talk to us about empowering people to try something different.

 

I’m glad you asked, self-soothing in harmful ways might look like turning to an eating disorder, self-harm through cutting, patterns of addictions to codependent relationships or even substance abuse. All of these things function and serve a role but don’t always get at the core wound in a loving, nurturing way, many times it accentuates the problem instead of alleviating the issue (even if at times there is a felt sense of relief experienced, although short-lived).

You are your best advocate for knowing what you need, but you have to work with your body instead of against it. Meaning, numbing-out might seem preferential or appealing at times, when it actuality it disconnects you from what you really need or want in those vulnerable moments. Instead I invite you to pause, come into contact with a felt awareness what being curious with what is surfacing for you. Maybe feelings of sadness or grief might be bubbling up and are harder feelings to stay with. Find ways to love yourself with where you’re at instead of ignoring, shutting down or tuning out. Your body is your friend and ally, learn to trust it’s gentle nudges as a guide towards healing and soulful living. Make sure to do this work with someone who cares, finding a good fit with a therapist or healing community is essential. You don’t have to figure it out on your own, we’re wired for connection.

 

You can connect with Ashley here