The moment—30 years ago—is etched in my brain.
We had moved to Denver to pastor a small church. Wanting to connect with Dave—a guy from the church—we went golfing.
On a tee, Dave is ready to hit. A helicopter flew over; I glanced up, then over at Dave. Something was wrong. He was frozen, standing there, not moving, not swinging, completely locked up.
I walked over. He turned to me and said: “Vietnam. Every time I hear a helicopter I am back there.”
Note: He didn’t say “It reminds me of Vietnam.” He said, “I am back there.” Back slogging through jungles, in kill or be killed mode, fearing land mines. Constant sound—gunfire, grenades, bombs. The smell of napalm. Overhead, the endless sound of helicopters.
God designed us to respond to threats with “fight or flight.” Adrenaline pours through our body, energy and terror grip us. Used occasionally, it works great. We flee or fight, sometimes freezing, calming down later. But soldiers in combat live in near-constant fight or flight, a reality that does deep damage to body, mind, and spirit.
Those threats are called trauma. The longer it lasts, the deeper it is, the more damage it leaves, long after the initial trauma. That lingering impact is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD has triggers—events, sounds, sights—that bring back the original trauma. Something simple happens—the sound of a helicopter—and all of a sudden we are right back there and the cycle of fight or flight kicks back in. Now, trauma piles upon trauma and we feel the sum total; unhealed, PTSD cripples people for decades.
Colfax has given me a deep education in trauma, PTSD, and the devastating, lingering damage it leaves in our friends. Few escape; it is the hidden reality behind their chaos, brokenness and addiction.
One story: Our friend Larry, not yet ten, was placed in a foster home where he was tied up and sexually assaulted for two years.
If you have experienced sexual trauma, feel free to skip this paragraph. If not, I want you to do something: Try to imagine what those two years were like. Not just the sexual assault, but the damage to a young brain, body, emotions and spirit. Imagine the assault, the desperate attempt afterwards to calm down, the constant fear of the next assault. Think of the associations—a car door slamming, a bedroom door opening, the touch of a hand. All burned deep into your entire system.
Larry’s trauma was deep and sustained. Two horrifying years…
If you met Larry, you would see wreckage. Addiction, mental illness, failed relationships, prison time, the inability to keep work. I rarely saw him sober.
Yet, the couple times I saw him sober and well-dressed, he looked like an engineer, someone making good money, with a wife and kids. Maybe leading a Bible Study at church.
But his life is light years from that.
Why? Why is he the way he is? Why is it so hard for him to change, to get his life together?
It goes back to that trauma. Even if he walked out of those two years into a healthy, loving environment with good help, it would take years to heal. Most likely, he just moved from one traumatic situation to another, from trauma to trauma.
Larry would live with ongoing fear and nightmares, unable to trust anyone. A walking case of PTSD, he would encounter triggers everywhere. Each time he got triggered, he would be “right back there,” re-experiencing those events.
He would turn to substances—alcohol and drugs—seeking relief from his pain. Life would spin out of control—brushes with the law, prison time, a marriage destroyed, job loss, bad decisions. He becomes a walking time bomb, set off by almost anything. Trauma would pile on top of trauma, a trauma trail.
Many of our Colfax friends have stories like Larry’s, each dealing with major, unresolved trauma. It is the curse of Colfax.
A landmark book on trauma, by Bessel VanderKolk, is entitled “The Body Keeps The Score.” It does. Trauma gets stored in our entire being—body, mind, heart, and spirit—lurking there, impacting entire lives. Most of our friend’s bodies are on a decades-long losing streak, registering unimaginable trauma, external wreckage giving loud testimony to internal damage.
I have come to believe that our real work, here among our traumatized friends, is the work of healing. I am a follower of Jesus and believe deeply in both evangelism and discipleship, calling people to faith in Jesus followed by a disciplined approach to becoming more like Jesus. But life here has taught me the limits of evangelism. By itself, faith in Jesus rarely heals traumatized people. Many of our friends believe in Jesus and the hope of heaven. But their brokenness here and now seems mostly untouched. They lack capacity to develop discipleship habits—prayer, Bible reading, church. Even when they do, those habits simply skate over deep trauma.
They need healing, healing that goes back and faces into original trauma and the trail of PTSD that follows. There is hope. God uses many pathways to heal—medicine, psychology, brain imaging, and medicine all have a place. So too does the deep, healing prayer of God’s people over the broken. Our friends need both if they are to have a chance at healing. The path is hard, but possible.
I share this with you because I want you to understand the deep, crippling impact of unresolved trauma on our friends. The only other issue here that compares in negative impact is mental illness. Often the two go hand-in-hand.
More, I want to encourage you to become people of deep compassion for the traumatized. They are—based on externals—easy to ignore or judge. They need compassion that listens, loves and seeks solutions.
Mostly, I want to ask you to pray for Larry and a thousand like him; pray for healing. Whatever path God chooses, only a powerful move of God’s Spirit can make a dent here. Pray too for us as a ministry as we begin to conceptualize “The Healing Center” that will be a cornerstone of our building. Pray for the right people to make vision reality.
Understand trauma, grow in compassion, pray for healing. Those would be great gifts to our friends and to us.