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Trauma and Well-Meaning Relatives

An Open Letter on the Occasion of my Wedding



I blinked at my latest text messages.


Within the past 12 hours, I had received two more inquiries about my wedding - and whether it would be held in the Catholic church.


One was from an old friend, who I tried to assume the best of intentions.


“Maybe she knows how tender this is for me,” I told myself, trying to remember if I had shared anything about my trauma with her.


Surely she’s asking because she’s my friend, and not because she worries if I’m a heretic.


The second message came from a relative that I don’t have any real relationship with. We see each other at family gatherings every few years.


I didn’t even know he had my number.


“Hey there. How are wedding plans going... Is it going to be Catholic”


No punctuation. Just a very complicated jumble of words and intentions coming out of the ether.


My mind went blank.


Then came the sound of my gears winding up, like the first seconds of a washing machine’s spin cycle.


First came uncertainty. “What? He's not even invited to the wedding!”


The spin cycle jumped an octave as it accelerated.


“Why would he ask that? We don’t even have a relationship! What right does he have to ask a question like that?”


My heart was pounding now, and the anger rushed through my arteries, tightening every limb.


I snapped my attention to my body, familiar with the response. I took two breaths.


“He doesn’t know. He can’t possibly know,” I told myself, insides still whirring. “People don’t know what trauma is.”


I have been so immersed in the world of neuroscience, polyvagal theory, trauma studies, and the like, that sometimes I forget how few people are trauma-informed.


Ten years ago, I hardly knew what anxiety meant.


So I set off to write an open letter to my friends and family.


“Here,” I would say. “This is what happens in our bodies during trauma. This is why you need to be gracious and have boundaries, because every person you meet has been through something difficult in their life.”


I pecked out the letter on my phone, thumbs flying across the screen.


“This needs to be said. Not just for me, but for everyone who has experienced trauma.”


One nagging part gave me pause.


“Are you sure you want to publish this now?”


I hesitated. I’m about to announce an Advent mini-retreat on Contemplative Monk and Spiritual Wanderlust. We’re going to talk about Mary, the divine mother, as a mystic.


And if all goes well, I plan to launch a whole Women Mystics School in January, where each month will focus on a different female mystic. Hildegard, Teresa, Julian. Etty, Simone, Evelyn.


“Will people want to listen to a woman on fire? Will a letter about trauma be a big wet blanket? Who will want to hear about peaceful, mystical wisdom from someone who had anger blazing through her veins two weeks prior?”


My mouth arced in spite of myself.


Who were the mystics but women on fire?


Didn’t I just finish reading about Hildegard verbally razing the clergy from the steps of the Cologne Cathedral?


Didn’t Catherine of Siena turn to the pope with eyes of fire, commanding him to return to his place in Rome?


Didn’t Teresa of Avila clean house in the Carmelite order?


If I am going to speak of their mystical gifts, share their contemplative wisdom with the world - would it not be unjust to omit their blazing, audacious acts?


For a woman to flare up in anger and channel that into change --


That cannot be a wet blanket to her mystical life.


In fact, one might argue that it is a direct result of it.



Here is my open letter to my family and friends. May it educate, convict, validate and unsettle those who need to hear it.



An Open Letter on the Occasion of My Wedding


Dear friends and family,


Several of you have asked whether or not I am getting married in the Catholic Church. Some of you are old friends, and perhaps ask out of curiosity, or have some insight into the road I’ve been on these last several years. Some of you I don’t have a relationship with outside of family reunions.


I want to take the time to explain why this is such a difficult and dangerous question.


I have experienced some very painful things in my life. Trauma, several times over, at the hands of people in the Church.


No, it is not appropriate to ask what happened.


This is the very reason I feel compelled to write. The fact that you are asking questions tells me you must have little to no knowledge of trauma, and therefore little understanding of how to respect a person’s boundaries.


I’m really trying to find the part of me that imagines your positive intent.


But what happens to a traumatized person is what is happening to me now:

  • My heart is racing.

  • It’s hard to breathe.

  • I am having difficulty moving my limbs. I feel frozen.

  • A part of me is panicking that I’m going to be violated all over again.

  • My entire nervous system is screaming “red alert! You’re in danger!”


This is called dorsal vagal shut down, and it’s an adaptive response to trauma.


Let me explain.


(I’m consciously breathing deeply, shifting into teacher mode, which feels safer in my body.)


When we experience something overwhelmingly painful, sometimes our nervous systems are not able to process it.


The same painful event - seeing the World Trade Centers collapse, or being bullied as a child - can be traumatic for one person and not for another. Studies have shown that what makes the difference is who you’re with before, during, and after an event. Are they able to hold you? Are you able to share your pain and your fear and feel seen?


Let me make clear: we all have trauma.


Every. Single. One.


When we experience something overwhelmingly painful, sometimes our nervous systems are not able to process it.

Because trauma is not just “capital T” trauma that most of us think of - car accidents, war, abuse. Trauma is any painful event that was too big for us to process on our own. That includes things like feeling abandoned when your parents divorced, feeling ignored or invisible as a child, or feeling powerless to change unfair treatment.


Any time you have a disproportionate reaction to reality - what some people call a trigger - that is a trauma coming to the surface, begging to be healed.


Sometimes that trigger feels extreme, like my limbs freezing up.


Sometimes that looks “normal,” like you snapping at your spouse, or stressing for weeks about a difficult conversation.


No one is immune to this. This is what it means to live in an imperfect world. Sometimes we get hurt.


That hurt has repercussions in our bodies.


This has been extensively studied - I’ll leave a list of references below. The physical repercussions are all very concrete, with measurable results in brain function, heart rate, inflammation, blood pressure, and so many other factors. This is NOT something in our heads, something fluffy and intangible, that we “just need to get over.”


Any time you have a disproportionate reaction to reality - what some people call a trigger - that is a trauma coming to the surface, begging to be healed.

When a painful event happens, our autonomic nervous system prepares us to respond.


This is called the sympathetic response, sometimes called “fight or flight.” Our heart rate and breathing speed up, pumping oxygen to our limbs so we can fight off the threat or run to safety. We have a burst of adrenaline to fuel it. Our vision narrows to what is in front of us, and our inner ears tune into certain frequencies - like growls or screams - and tunes out the middle tones of human voices.


If the threat is resolved, our nervous system can return to its resting state, called ventral vagal. Our bodies sense we are safe again: we were able to flee to safety, or ward off the bully or the bear.


This is NOT something in our heads, something fluffy and intangible, that we “just need to get over.”

If the threat is not resolved, and our bodies sense there’s no chance of escape, it will downshift into dorsal vagal - sometimes called the freeze state.


Think of an animal being chased by a cheetah. It might be running 50 mph, but when its nervous system makes the snap judgment that there’s no hope, they suddenly freeze and play dead. All that fight/flight energy is bottled up, and the animal is flooded with endorphins so that it won’t feel as much pain when the cheetah lunges for its throat.


It also serves to confuse the cheetah, so that perhaps it won’t use deadly force (oh look! It’s already dead) - thereby giving the animal a chance to escape later.


This response is something that happens to all animals. Humans too! It is not a choice we make, or something defective about us.


Your body does it too! Every day!


This response is something that happens to all animals. It is not a choice we make, or something defective about us. Your body does it too!

With trauma, those intense responses get “stuck.” We weren’t able to safely process and discharge all that energy. So the next time something feels similar to the original event, our bodies tell us we’re reliving it all over again.


(Seriously. Scans show our brains having the same activity as if we were in the traumatic moment - receiving visions and sounds and sensorial input all over again.)


This “reminder,” or trigger, could be someone asking you about your trauma. Or it could be as simple as the way someone looks at you, reminding you of the way your uncle looked at you before abusing you.


These triggers often remain unconscious. We don’t know why our coworker gives us the creeps, or why you felt so offended by being talked over at that meeting.


But our bodies remember. That neural network spread throughout your body remembers.


These triggers often remain unconscious. But our bodies remember.

I share all this to help you understand what is happening in my - and your - body. I share this so you, and everyone reading this, can be more gracious with everyone.


It is never appropriate to ask someone what their trauma is.


It is not appropriate to ask probing questions into someone’s life if you do not have a relationship with them.


These do not feel safe, and may trigger a trauma response.


How do you respect those with trauma? First, you need to get curious about yourself.

I know this might leave you feeling at a loss how to engage with others. “Everyone has trauma? How do I keep from stepping on a hidden land mine?”


The best way is to tread lightly.


Lead with curiosity. This is radically different than veiled nosiness. First, you need to get curious about yourself.


Why do I want to know if Kelly is getting married Catholic?


What am I feeling in my body?


Perhaps it’s my own anxiety, that she’s going to be outside of the Church, and therefore putting her soul in danger?


If that’s the case, what does that say about the God I believe in?


Does an all loving God let someone be abused and then punish the victim for not being able to celebrate the sacraments?


“Sorry, I know you’re hurt, but there’s no place in heaven for you now.”


Step one to being trauma informed (and a considerate human being) is to examine your own impulses. What is compelling you to ask/probe/try to help in the first place?


Does an all loving God let someone be abused and then punish the victim for not being able to celebrate the sacraments?

A big hint: “I’m asking because I care” or “I’m just trying to help” are never the right answer.


What would you feel if you didn’t ask? If you didn’t help?


I’d wager it’s in the vicinity of fear, anxiety, powerlessness.


Read: your body is shifting into fight, flight, or freeze.


What would you feel if you didn’t ask? I’d wager it’s in the vicinity of fear, anxiety, powerlessness. That is your body shifting into fight, flight, or freeze.

Please. Deal with your own trauma and emotions first. I’ve got enough hurt - I don’t have bandwidth to carry your trauma as well.


So, no, family and friends, I am not getting married Catholic. While everything within me remains Catholic, I cannot walk down the aisle while in dorsal vagal freeze state.


And I’m pretty sure the God who made me - and mysteriously allowed me to go through such painful things - is big enough to love me in all my blazing glory.





 

Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the co-director of Contemplative Monk, and the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.


For more information about how trauma impacts our physiology, check out:



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21 Comments


After reading this I feel frozen and yet mysteriously liberated. As a read your letter and a previous post I felt all of those physical reactions. I was very scary but awakening. I have not healed from my trauma as I thought I had. What do I do now?

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I am not going to be able to do this now. Must get my work done

please discontinue account for now

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You have just described what I have endured for over forty years of my life, yet the guilt and questioning of my own self, my faith, and the "clergy" that encompass the Catholic Church. Born and raised Catholic, with abuse and lies protecting the priests, I strugged with my despair. I try to live the Sermon on the Mount, and tell myself church is not a building, not a structure, it is the life journey, the sharing of faith and unconditional love; for what is God, but LOVE. Thank you so much for posting, you will be in my prayers. Much joy and love in your life. . . PEACE!

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Thanks, Bev! I'm so sorry you've been through similar pain. I hope you can find your place, nestled within God's heart. The Church is complicated, but I find my place at its mystical heart suits me well. :) Big blessings to you! 🤗

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I was born Catholic and had a Catholic education for which I am extremely grateful. Some time later and after marriage I began to question certain man made rules. I read Ivan Illich, the youngest Monsignor the church had appointed. After much soul searching he said "I am totally committed to and believe in the church as 'she' but I can no longer believe in the church as 'it'." Meaning the love and intention of Jesus Christ but not the hierarchy and rules that have developed to 'control' it. Now, I regard myself as essentially Catholic but my religion is based on the words of Jesus "Let me give you another commandment, that you love one another."

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Thanks for sharing this, stace. I, too, am so grateful for my Catholic heritage. While I might practice it a bit differently than some, I find myself secure dwelling in its—her!—mystical heart. ❤️

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Paula Gillis
Paula Gillis
Dec 02, 2021

Thank you for this. As someone with PTSD I find it frustrating that people don't understand why I choose not to hurt myself by going to certain places or seeing people who have hurt me. By staying away from them I am able to put things as far into the past as I can. If I ran into them on the street I would go right back into the past. Become that little girl...

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I totally get this, Paula. And unless a person has been through it, it’s really hard for them to understand. I hope this letter might help. Good on you for taking care of yourself. ❤️

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