Why You Can’t Remember Traumatic Events Clearly

Let me get the scientific part out of the way first. To understand the rest of this article, I need to define three things:

Traumatic Event: Any happening which effects major change in our emotional, physical and memory functions

Glucocorticoids: Substances produced during trauma that help our brain cope with the overwhelming nature of the event

Hippocampus: The central core of our memory system that allows us to take events and store them in long-term memory.

Armed with those definitions, let me walk you through recent discoveries with memory research. In about a dozen studies (but most recently in this one by Benno Roozendaal et al), it has been shown that when we have a traumatic event in our lives, the body produces major amounts of glucocorticoids. This helps to calm us down so we can cope. It also gives us that “numb” feeling that many people describe during stress. But glucocorticoids have a transverse effect. They destroy neurons in the Hippocampus. This means that the more stress we are under, the less we will be able to store the traumatic event in long-term memory. This partially explains how some people who endured years of trauma through abuse have very little memory of the entire season of events.

However, there is one other effect of Glucocorticoids. They enhance the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system helps us store our emotional reactions in events. Our brains can actually store our emotional output during a traumatic event much more completely than we can store the facts of the event.

The implication of these two findings is huge for MPT (Memory Processing Therapy) counseling. MPT counseling accesses emotional reactions in the present time and follows them back to their original memory. Since emotions are actually heightened during trauma, they are a more accurate way to access traumatic memories than any other method.

I consider this a true endorsement for MPT and EMDR approaches to emotional and spiritual well-being. Each of these counseling methods relies on triggered emotions to go back to false beliefs and decisions that are still affecting our lives from those trauma.

Like or Dislike Whomever You Want

I wasn’t trying to shock the students. But that is what happened anyway.

I started off by telling them “I like some actors and actresses more than others.” That statement didn’t affect them at all. They looked bored. Then I followed it up. “I have friends I like more than others.” Once again, few students even acknowledged I had said something significant. However, I was just warming up.

“There are people in my church I like. There are people in the church I pastor that frankly I don’t like.” Now I had their attention. Some of them agreed with me. Other students appeared to be uncomfortable.

“And to be frank, I like some of my kids better than others.” Now they all seemed confused and a little indignant. “Actually, the ones I like are not necessarily the ones I liked last week. It keeps changing.” Now they just looked confused.

I then started my teaching. I explained that our likes and preferences are one of the great rights each of us have. Even God does not require that we like everyone–or anyone at all. The beauty of the gift of free choice God gives us is that we can exercise our preferences any way we want.

There is a curious transitional verse in the New Testament which displays this truth. In Mark 3:13 it says,

“Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.”

‭(‭Mark‬ ‭3:13‬ ‭NIV)

The word “wanted” means “wished”. Jesus looked over all the people who were following him and he chose some of them he preferred. This was his choice and his preference. He wanted these people in particular.

I get the impression that some in God’s family think we have to like everyone the same. How is that even possible? I know in my life that my preferences are always changing. I used to hate sushi. Now, I actually like it and seek it out. There are days I like some genres of music and certain artists and other days I change my preferences. There are friends I have always liked and probably will never stop. My wife is one of those. So is my brother Dave.

Here, however, is the sober reality. In my walk with God, he points out I am to show every person the same level of dignity and respect. Even when I don’t like them, even when I truly criticize them or even bring them to account for their actions, I must still hold a place of respect and treat them with human kindness, regardless of whether I like them.

That includes politicians I really don’t like. That includes church members whose actions cause others real problems. It includes men who have abused women and children. And I have sought to do this when I have gone to the police to report child abuse. I still want to hold a place of respect for the humanness of another.

Why?

Because all humans fail at some level. I do, you do, they do. And when we refuse to treat another person with dignity, we are demeaning our own humanity.

It is hard–in some cases, it feels impossible. But God does this for us and God requires of all who have committed their lives to God.

And you may not like me after reading this. That’s okay.‬‬

The Day We All Got Angry In Church—And Grew Up!

I instructed everyone in the congregation not to hug him, not to tell them they loved him, not to make him feel overly welcome. There were tears, angry outbursts, and much sadness. But after I had explained why we were doing this, everyone reluctantly agreed it was what God wanted.

Yes, God wanted us to be cold and unsympathetic for a season.

Here’s why.

Our town was only 1500 people. The church had grown considerably, largely because of an influx of hippies and drug addicts who found a place at God’s table and a group of loving Christians who didn’t judge them.

It really was a way-station of Grace. But grace can have its problems too. We were about to discover what that looked like.

This couple took in a 13 year old foster girl. They had fostered two boys before and this girl seemed the most broken of them all. She had been abused both physically and sexually by her mother and father. The province of British Columbia where we were living wanted an experienced foster home to place her in. This couple had passed all the tests and were exemplary candidates to host her.

I was the only counselor in that town, and I had only started trauma therapy training that previous year. But because I had some training, the province used me to do intervention work with families and children in unsafe environments. They sent me to several training events and I became acquainted with all the laws regarding child abuse. This was in 1983 and I had no idea the torrent of abuse revelations which would begin to surface that decade.

I had no clue that North America was at the beginning of a wave of sexual abuse revelations.

After the foster girl had been with them for about 6 months, the congregation had come to know and love her. They felt protective of her, even though she could be quite challenging in her acting out. She could get angry at the drop of a hat. As I learned more about the trauma associated with abuse, I instructed people on how to help her. We learned together.

One horrible incident shattered my learning environment and brought me into the real world. An RCMP officer who attended our church told me that the girl had disclosed to the police that someone in the church had molested her.

It was the man in her foster home. By the time I found out, they had already arrested him and he had made a full confession of his crime .

Of course, this devastated the congregation. We were about 140 people and every one of us knew the young girl and her foster parents. This man went immediately into the jail system and because he did not contest the charges, he was sentenced quickly. He spent the better part of a year in jail for his crime. (Note: That was the mandatory sentence at the time. Fortunately, the sentence for child sexual abuse/assault is much greater, as it should be).

But when he was due to get out, several members of the church wondered how we were supposed to act toward him. We had rallied around and supported his wife financially while he was in jail. We paid for the young girl to get therapy (while she was still around…they removed her of course and put her in another home and we lost touch with her). That congregation was my learning community. Everything I learned from my professors about helping a community deal with sexual assault I applied with them.

They all did wonderfully.

But now he was coming back to live at home and wanted to start attending church. He first told me about this and I asked the Elders board what they thought. They were all in favor of showing grace to him. One of the elders suggested we have a potluck to welcome him back.

I completely disagreed. I felt then–and now–that this was the wrong thing to do at that moment. Let me explain.

Churches make two grand mistakes with those who sin publicly. We sometimes castigate them and shame them to the point of morbidity. We can be so cruel as Christians at times. We are especially hard on those who get divorced, have had abortions, use drugs or alcohol, or have affairs. We often do not accept their repentance and we shove them rudely out the door of our lives.

But we also make the opposite mistake. We may indeed love the offender so much they might believe we don’t really object to what they did. We say “We’ve all made mistakes” and “God forgives, so should we” or “David committed adultery and Paul was a murderer, so how can we judge?”. These are not helpful approaches however, especially when children are involved.

(Sigh. Another note: David did not commit adultery. He raped Bathsheba by virtue of having all authority as King and having her brought by armed guards to his house. Please never call it adultery again.)

Jesus was pretty clear about his attitude toward someone who causes a little child to stumble. It would be better for them if a millstone was hung around their neck and that they be thrown into the sea. I believe he is saying that the person and their victim will have to live with this crime forever. It would be easier to just end it all than face the knowledge of offending a child. However, there are many offenders who have learned how to ignore what they have done by blaming the victim.

This man tried to do this initially when he told me what happened with the foster daughter. He talked to me about her seeking to seduce him the first time. I taught him that it doesn’t even matter if a child is seductive or flirtatious. If they are, they learned that behavior by the way other adults assaulted them.

No child is responsible for the act of molestation in any way.

I finally got through to this man that he was minimizing and rationalizing his behavior. He agreed with me and it began the long, painful process of working through his shame and remorse. He finally arrived at a place where he was willing to start making amends.

I will leave that part of the process for another blog entry.

But now he was leaving jail and coming back to church. I didn’t want us to overdo the grace aspect. He needed something from us and we needed to give it. He needed the hear the Truth. And we needed to learn how to speak about our outrage.

Here is what I asked the congregation to do. When he came to church that Sunday, I was going to tell everyone what happened and what he had paid as a price for his sin. We were not going to give him a chance to speak. Afterwards, he and I would be in the community room and anyone who wanted could come in and talk to him. I instructed them to tell him how they felt about what he did. I told them they could get angry or sad or disappointed all they wanted. I put this limitation on it. No extreme name calling. No violence.

The people adhered to that guideline. There were several F bombs dropped, tears shed and some pretty angry people.

I warned him this was necessary to get it all into the open. He and I prayed together for many days prior to that Sunday. I told the congregation he and I would do that for three Sundays. After that, I asked them not to bring it up again. I informed the man he would never be in leadership again. He would never be allowed to be anywhere in the church building except the sanctuary. He could not hang around in the foyer afterwards where there may be children. He could not attend any church event where children might be present.

He agreed to all these terms. And I believe in the long run this is why he never re-offended. Over time, people began to express to him that there was forgiveness and love. But it didn’t come at once. Some people never really had much to do with him after that. This is okay.

I kept his victim informed of all we were doing. I asked her if she would like us to do anything else on her behalf. I will keep private what she wanted, but suffice to say we agreed to everything she said.

As I engage more and more churches who face the reality of their pastors being accused of these same sort of crimes, I advise them to treat the offenders the same way. Be harsh, Be swift to condemn the sin. Do not allow them to victim-shame, to minimize or to rationalize their behavior. It passes on the concept that the victim should not have “brought down” the man of God like this.

There is a time to be angry and a time to be gracious. Learn the difference.

What Works In Marriage Counseling

I won’t bother giving them fake names to protect their identities. I don’t have permission to share the details of their story and I’ve lost touch with them. But it really doesn’t matter; their story is universal these days. He worked too much and distanced himself from his wife over many years of being married. Every year, she grew more angry at him. She let that anger color her decisions and, as a result, she easily entered into another relationship. Her husband found out she was cheating on him and she freely admitted it. I do know the details of that initial fight and I don’t really have to share them here. It wasn’t any more dramatic than the confrontations in a million other relationships. Both of them spent a sleepless night wondering if they should contact a divorce lawyer. They both cried. They spent that night in different places, both physically and emotionally. But for some very unusual reasons, their story did not turn out like millions of others.

Though each of them did go for counseling at some point, they never went together for marriage counseling. And they never got a divorce. They eventually solved the problems in their marriage (for the most part) even though they both unveiled other secret sins. By telling their story I am not saying they are better than other people. But their choices do shed light on an alternative approach to marriage counseling.

I can just picture many of you waiting breathlessly for the formula to their solution. I want to be cautious at this point. Though they stayed married, it cost them way more than either would have  agreed to pay that first “fight night”. The rest of this article is not for the faint of heart. There: You have been warned.

I don’t remember if they practiced all these principles in their desire to change, but I know they at least embraced the first two. These are five things I see in  marriages that overcome problems like abuse, adultery, neglect, hatred and substance abuse. I list them in order of importance and the first ones are the most difficult.

[Disclosure: Other than from the Bible, I learned most of these principles from a series of books by William Glasser on the subject of “Choice Theory”. I mention this because several readers of this blog are MFTs and could really benefit from Dr. Glasser’s observations and practice. I am also beholding to Dr. Ed Smith and the therapy method taught in “Healing Life’s Hurts” and the practice of TPM.]

Here then are five principles that will yield the healthiest motivations to preserve a marriage:

1. Choose THIS marriage. The most poignant question Dr. Glasser asks in his first counseling session is “Do you really want to be married to your spouse?” If either spouse hedges on their answer – or comes out and says “no” – he ends the counseling relationship. He contends that no one will convince a person to be married to a particular person if they really don’t want to be. Here is what I add to that. Many people who don’t want to be married to a particular person still want to be married. They like the thought of marriage: the comfort and companionship that it can have, the intimacy it seems to promise, the stability of a family. God created the first marriage and said it was not good for man to be alone. But he also knew that once a couple are joined for any length of time in marriage, they form bonds that only death can truly separate. Therefore, people may like the idea of being married, but loathe the thought of being  married to THIS person. That has to change if the marriage will work.

In the Bible, when Jesus talks about divorce, his primary concern is remarriage. His teaching on marriage goes right back to Genesis. He recalls for them that a man is to leave behind his birth family (father and mother) and cling to his wife. In our traditional marriage vows, we say “forsaking all others”. The “all others” means mentally dismissing the idea of a future spouse as well.

Divorces happen…there are many people who decide they cannot live with that person any longer. But would people change their approach and attitude if they believed this was their only opportunity to get married? What if this is your only chance and there are no real alternatives? Would that make a difference at how you worked at solving the problems in this marriage? Of course it would. But that is not how most people live. We live in a world of “alternatives”. If you don’t like what you have, there is always an alternative.

The couple I referenced at the beginning of this article decided if they didn’t make this marriage work they weren’t going to get married again. Waking up to that reality motivated them to get things fixed. For those who accept a biblical format for marriage, the best motivation for working on marriage problems is a choice to stay married to THIS person…not just a commitment to marriage as an institution.

2. Soften the Hard Heart: In a recent article, I mentioned the pastor who used our counseling appointment to announce his intention to divorce. After I reined in my anger, I asked him to explain his motivations. He cited chapter and verse to justify his biblical grounds for divorce. That’s when I told him: “Those are reasons you want a divorce. But as far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one ground for divorce. You have hardened your heart”. Jesus teaches us why Moses allowed the people of Israel to get a divorce. As far as we know from historical documents, the nation of Israel was the first culture to develop a concept of divorce. Why? Jesus explains: “Because of the hardness of men’s hearts, Moses permitted divorce”. That’s it in a nutshell. There are many things that break a covenant between a man and a woman. Adultery, violence, molestation of children, lying, abuse, neglect, abandonment, yelling, belittlement, substance abuse, eating disorders, withdrawal of sex, lack of passion, workaholism – they all contribute to huge rifts in marital closeness. But with all that, there still is only one reason people divorce: Hardness of heart.

I can give examples of every one of the above problems that people have endured only to stay married and to prosper. I know a woman whose husband molested their two oldest daughters. He went to state prison for his actions and her church insisted she divorce him to protect the kids. She did not want to. She refused to hate him or to give up on him. He even filed for divorce at one point, but she resisted. Her oldest daughter refused to speak to mom again unless she divorced her dad. Was she being an idiot? Some people think so. But she had compassion, love and acceptance of him. She wasn’t denying his crime or his sin. He paid for what he did and he still carries the weight of how he hurt his girls. My point in mentioning this is that no one could fault her for getting a divorce. And she really isn’t a co-dependent person or weak-willed. She just didn’t want to harden her heart that far.

(Note: Neither she nor I are advocating a person stay married to an abuser. In most cases, this would be a very bad idea. She came to her conclusion after several years of soul-searching. Her decision is the exception, not the rule).

How do you deal with a hard heart? You soften it with two decisions. These are what I spend most time working on with counselees. First, let go of the bitterness for how you have been treated. Stop reserving the right to feel wounded, victimized and in emotional pain. Let go of the right to enact emotional revenge. Second, forgive the person. This does not mean  you excuse them. You simply choose to say they do not have to “make up for” their failures and sins.

3. Confront your own story: We all have aspects of our marriage story that focus on how we have been hurt. But if that is all you can see when the marriage is failing, then you are missing the other part of the story. Don’t rely on your spouse to tell you either. They are carrying their own hurt, so they will not be all that accurate in describing your problem. No one wants to hear the statement, “do you know what your problem is?” But we all need to hear what our problem is. As a counselor I have great hope for the person who comes to me during marital difficulty and says “I need to fix me”. Those people are the ones who stay married. The ones who say “I want you to fix my partner” do not stay married very much longer.

4. Give Yourself Time to Reconcile: As with most “solutions” in life, we spend way too much time causing the problems and allocate so little time to solving them. Remembering the disastrous Gulf Oil Spill, recall that everyone legitimately wanted the oil to stop flowing that second. British Petroleum’s stock was plummeting because people expected the flow to be capped overnight. Revelations began coming out about how many things went wrong to cause this disaster. This wasn’t cured for several years.  By that time, most of us had mentally moved on to the next disaster and the next one after that. That is often how we treat marriage counseling. We want it fixed today!

If you have 20 years of problems, it won’t get fixed today. We vastly overestimate what can change in a week. But conversely, we completely underestimate what can change in a year. I even recommend in the most serious marital problems that people creatively separate and start dating from scratch. I highly commend the book “Reconcilable Differences” and the suggested time chart of putting a marriage back on the right track. Don’t rush things and don’t despair. Rushing and despair only muddy the waters more.

5. Ask God for “perspective”, not “rescue”. God cannot save your marriage. That is your job. But if you want God to partner with you in this, you must let him do what God does best. God sees the inner heart of every person. That includes our own heart. Just as in the third step we must see what attitudes and beliefs have caused us to act improperly, so we also need to see our spouse as God sees them. Why does God forgive them? Why does God appreciate them? Why does God spend time with them? What does God see in them? This is so crucial at that point where you cannot say anything good about your marriage partner.

My wife and I have times of struggle like every couple. This is not the venue to give examples of that. But one solution we have found is when we are feeling stymied by the bad course our marriage takes, we sit down separately and ask God to show us the good qualities of the other person. I do remember that horrible day when Kat came up with 20 things and I only had five. That only meant she was listening with more conviction than I was. I was still bitter and used my time to tell God how rotten she was being to me. God didn’t agree, so I wasted my time. But if you come to counseling with the attitude of hearing God about your spouse, things will change. They really will.

The couple who saved their own marriage at the beginning of this article did so over a period of several years. I don’t know all the details and I don’t have any idea how many times they wanted to give up. But now they both help other couples find the same path. These principles work much more effectively than the confusing and ineffective process of three-way counseling.

Why I Am Hard-Nosed on Sexual Crimes in Churches

The dormitory I lived in during my theological training was named after him.

One of the graduate programs had an academic discipline named after him.

His accomplishments were occasionally touted as the example for how an evangelist should comport themselves in traveling ministries.

He was thought of as one of our denomination’s most effective preachers to teens. At the very least, people believed he could lead any teen to Christ.

And at my last count, he had molested, raped, or assaulted over 30 teenagers during his years as a traveling evangelist.

How is that possible?

It started when a woman in her 40s began counseling with me for depression. I am not at liberty to discuss any other elements of her care, but she hinted to me that a church leader had done sexual things to her when she was a young teenager. I asked her if she had ever told anyone, and she admitted she had told several of the church’s elders, two of the leading women, her youth pastor, a policeman who went to the church, and her mother.

Only one of them believed her–a woman in the church whose daughter had a similar story to tell. I began our discussion about this assault by telling her I believed her story. I want all my clients to know I believe them. Unless they give me good reason to doubt any element of the story, it is proper to express to a victim they are believed. I understand this both from my training as a counselor and from my experience.

My mother said the same thing to me when I was 8 years old. My mother comforted me when I finally revealed our babysitter had molested me 3 times.

After working with this woman for several sessions, I asked her if she would be willing to reveal the identity of her assailant. He had raped her after a youth evangelistic rally when he had brought her to the trailer he was using while in that town. He had lured her there on the pretense of wanting to “pray with her over her many sins.”

After raping her, he blamed her for being seductive and told her that no one would believe the story if she claimed he had been the aggressor. He also hinted she was filled with a demon of lust and that is what overpowered him. He was a skilled manipulator, a practiced Groomer and Controller. He knew what he was doing. When I first heard her story, I had no idea how skilled this man was.

She finally revealed his name and I recognized it instantly. His name was plastered all over the campus of the theological school I had attended. Gordon Skitch was famous in both Canada and the United States for his youth rallies. By the time this woman revealed his crimes to me, he had been dead for about 15 years and as such was on his way to being memorialized for his work.

Our work together to bring healing and restoration to her life was relatively successful and she was so glad someone had both believed her and helped her to work through the pain and heartache. Because of this, she felt emboldened to tell a few friends who had been in the same youth group what God had done for her. Because she had no more shame for what had happened, she was quite liberal in telling people who had done this to her.

That’s when the phone calls to my office started.

In the next year, over a dozen women called me to set up appointments to come and see me. All of them had similar stories. Evangelist Gordon Skitch had molested, raped, or exposed himself to them. As the horror of their disclosures hit me, I was floored. How could so much of this have happened under the watch of pastors, church leaders, superintendents and others who should have been protecting the youth of these churches?

In almost 40 years of being both a pastor and a counselor I have observed several things about how churches deal with sex offenders. First, they don’t want to hear about it. They refuse to believe all accusations because in reality it ruins their idyllic view of what the church should be. This is strange, because we don’t do this as often with schools, political circles, businesses, or community organizations. We will reluctantly accept that a high school teacher sleeps with one of their students. It doesn’t imply the school is a bad school because one teacher is evil.

But for some reason, church members can’t accept that a pastor might have assaulted or molested one of the young people in the church. In their minds, to accept such a thing means the church is somehow not the bastion of righteousness.

Second, churches have been taught that Grace and Mercy implies we should be magnanimous to the abuser and shame the victim. Though we have not been explicitly taught this, our actions have given everyone this impression. We give farewell dinners to the molester and pray for him. The victim has to sit and watch this knowing that the board’s advice to her is “now don’t go telling the world about this.”

Third, churches often refuse to get the courts and police involved. They reason they can take care of this themselves. I’m here to tell you through this story that we can’t. We are not objective enough to see this for what it is: A Breach of Fiduciary Responsibility.

When a person in a position of absolute authority uses that authority to sexually use a person, they have broken the law. This isn’t the same as the pastor who has a one-night stand with a parishioner, or the elder who has an affair with the church’s bookkeeper. To use one’s authority to both take a sexual favor and cover it up is the height of grooming and controlling behavior. I’ll explain more about that in a later article.

Because of these brave women coming forward, I was able to contact our District Superintendent and he enabled me to contact pastors in churches where Skitch had preached over the years in our district. We then asked if there were women who would be willing to disclose his activities with them. At the final count, 32 women came forward in that part of the country to tell the same general story: he had assaulted them and then threatened them if they ever came forward.

He is one of the most heinous examples of this sort of pastoral crime. But he is not the only one I know of. Even this past month, the criminal activity of one of our country’s best known preaching pastors, Andy Savage of Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN has been brought to light. Link here.

Read this account and accept that it follows a similar pattern to other cases of fiduciary misconduct.

In the weeks to come, I am going to give some guidelines to churches regarding how they should be dealing with these situations. Our denomination completely failed our youth by allowing Gordon Skitch to keep going with his reign of terror. People knew what was happening and refused to believe the victims. Or, if they believed them, they did  nothing to stop it…which is even worse.

Even after I did the investigation, the District Superintendent who came after the one who authorized me to do it, decided to shut it down. “The man is dead” he told me. “No good can come from digging up his past”.

“Yes there is” I countered. “Women everywhere need to be told they will be believed and nothing like this will ever happen to them, their daughters or their granddaughters again.” He didn’t accept what I had to say. There were never any more disclosures about Gordon Skitch.

I use his name in this article to open up the possibility there are more women around the country who might want to know they are not the only victim.

This is why I am tough on this crime. The church of Jesus Christ needs to lead the way in exposing these crimes and making sure that the abusers are brought to justice. Grace does not exclude consequences for criminal activity.

I am dedicated to rooting this out wherever I see it: And to make sure churches do not minimize, victim-shame, gaslight, or rationalize this behavior. It is always wrong.

Welcome

To those who are just coming to this blog, welcome to the site. It is dedicated to two subjects: Hearing God and Theophostic Prayer ministry. Of course, the two subjects are closely connected, so we may go back and forth between the subjects. I will be devoting much time to this blog (compared to the other one), so feel free to add your two cents worth more than at the other site. Some of you are fairly shy…it will be much easier to know that there are only about 25 people on this blog as opposed to over 700 at the other one.