The Case for a Trauma Trained Therapist
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
The Case for a Trauma Trained Therapist
I sat across the table from my pastor and his wife, my trembling hands jammed deep into my jacket pockets and huddled down into the collar of it. They’d just finished reading the pages and pages of my story that I’d handed them when I walked into the room. Writing all that had taken every ounce of my courage and strength in the proceeding days before the appointment. I needed help. I wanted help. But I was so traumatized from years of severe abuse as a child that I couldn’t even speak the stories--I could only write them. I wrote out many things I had never told anyone.
My pastor read my stories of brutal beatings, spiritual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse and then, the sexual abuse. That started when I was only six and I was forced to read the Biblical story of Tamar (found in 2 Samuel 13) being raped by her half-brother, before the person who told me to get my little kids Bible and read this crazy story, turned around and molested me for the first time.
My pastor set aside the stack of pages, cleared his throat and then said, “I usually use the story of Tamar when counseling . . . “
My body suddenly was no longer mine. I felt my face twist as if an unseen hand had grabbed it and taken over my body, and then suddenly, there were two of me. One of me was still sitting on the chair in the office. I could feel the chair, firm beneath one of me. But there was also suddenly a second one of me, tumbling and flipping and spiraling out of control in dark, dark, blackness with no ability to anticipate or control what was happening. End over end and side to side I flipped and rolled, swooped and plunged in utter blackness while there was a great and terrible roaring and rushing. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I had no idea what was happening and I was totally terrified.
And then finally, from a long distance away, I heard my Pastor say in what seemed to be a very, very calm and slow, quiet voice, “You’re experiencing a lot of strong emotions.”
The Chair-Sitting Me said to myself, “That’s what this is?!” and as I tried to process that, the Other Me--the one flipping and plunging endlessly in what seemed to be outer space, began slowing a little bit . . . no longer so violently and rapidly spinning and flipping.
But still I sat, silent and shaking. My hands jammed in my pockets, my head hung and my shoulders pulled down into my coat as much as I could.
And then again, the calm, slow voice of my Pastor . . . from far, far away it seemed. “Can you tell me what you are feeling?”
Brutally trained to always respond “appropriately” when asked a question, my terrified brain tried to respond. I struggled to even formulate a response--how was I supposed to do that when I was two people, and one of me was tumbling like an out-of-control astronaut through space?
Due only to sheer determination to obey, thanks to years of conditioning, I finally managed to jerk out the words, “WHY did he use the Bible like that?”
Ka-THUNK. “Space Me” had stopped tumbling and re-integrated back into “Chair Me”. I sat there shaking and sick, but one person again. I was terrified! What had just happened to me? Never before had anything remotely like this happened! Not even with all the horrific trauma and abuses of my childhood!
Some weeks later when I had processed it enough, I dared to tell my Pastor and ask him what had happened. He said he had no idea. He just had “been able to see you were experiencing a lot of strong emotions. I didn’t know what to do but I’m thankful God helped me.”
Years and years later, a professional counselor and I discussed that experience. She affirmed what I had begun to suspect. I had experienced a severe dissociation event.
Was it preventable? Almost certainly. No matter how kind and caring my Pastor was (and he was) his reading of story after story of severe traumas should have been his cue to say, “I am so, so sorry this happened to you. It was wrong and I’m sorry. I’m not qualified to counsel you through this, but I will support you. I will pray for you, and with you, and help you find a trauma trained counselor.”
Failing that, a good understanding of trauma would have helped him to realize that even if his usual practice was to use the story of Tamar in counseling victims of sexual abuse, I was not the parishioner that should have those be the first words out of his mouth. He could have and should have waited. He should have allowed time for trust to build, anxiety to lessen, and then obtained informed consent to delve into that story that was so connected to my childhood trauma.
That pastor was the first person up to that point in my life who understood enough about abuse to begin to say anything helpful to me. I did end up doing much healing and growing through his pastoral counseling,
I also suffered from his ignorance in this area, as well as several other significant areas. It has made processing my journey during that time challenging, I deeply appreciate the good he did do. I also mourn the harm he caused me in several key ways. I’m keenly aware that basically God bailed the pastor out of a situation he put himself into because he didn’t have the knowledge or tools to properly handle the level of harm that had been inflicted on me. I’m thankful to God about that. But I don’t for one minute think that just because it ended up without having to have a squad called for me, or some other type of obvious impact, that it should be considered a “victory” or “ok”. It wasn’t OK. And it should not be repeated.
There’s no need for the first words out of someone’s mouth to trigger the most horrific dissociative event that a client has ever experienced, before or since their first counseling session.
If you are helping someone, learn from these mistakes, and don’t repeat them. If a client comes to you with a history of trauma and you do not truly have the training and practice to counsel them effectively, without doing more harm, do the right thing by them and yourself. Refer them on to qualified help.
And if you are the survivor who needs a counselor, make sure you find one who is able and willing to tailor their approach to your individual needs. You deserve counseling that is safe, accurate, kind, and helpful.
Rosemarie Miller is a survivor advocate, speaker, and writer who works to raise awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse in faith communities. Raised as a Plain Mennonite, she now works with survivors from a wide range of church backgrounds, including many from conservative and plain-dressing Anabaptist groups.