I was deeply conflicted when Don Southworth called me. Part of my mind truly yearned to continue with Beyond the Call. There were rich and productive aspects to the program, and people I had grown to care for. I wanted good relationships with my Peer Group. At the same time, my dread at even being around my Peers again was beyond words to express.
My conversation with Don, along with everything that had preceded it, indicated to me that this was not being viewed as a process problem, only as a “Dennis has issues” problem. Reluctantly—but also with genuine relief—I told Don that I thought it best I not continue. He replied, “We’ll support you in that.” Looking back, that use of the word, “support,” seems to exclude more than it includes.
I did tell him about my Chaplain Residency training, and the fact that group process can go toxic if not properly supervised. I implored him to get input from experienced CPE Supervisors. His response was non-committal. He said, “When the program is finished, we’ll consider input from all participants.”
A day or two later, I realized—I was acting like a person who had PTSD. I took a couple of online PTSD tests, scored in the “moderate to severe” range, and contacted my Primary Care Physician. She referred me to specialists, confirmed that diagnosis, and later wrote a letter for me to pass on to Don Southworth and the Deans. She outlined my PTSD diagnosis, along with the fact it had remained hidden, in part, because I had developed strategies (including early Worship preparation) to keep the symptoms at bay. My inability to employ my self-care strategies at Beyond the Call, she wrote, had resulted in an “escalating series of triggering events and the delayed diagnosis.”
At that point, I was still hoping against hope I could rejoin the final Workshop. Perhaps this new information could be taken into account. PTSD is, after all, a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates “reasonable accommodation.” In my case, that would include being able to discuss and prepare Worship ahead of time.
After acknowledging my doctor’s letter, however, Don Southworth stopped answering my e-mails. He had also directed me not to contact any of the Deans or other Beyond the Call participants. I mailed him a couple of old CPE evaluations, which described me as a helpful and supportive teammate, but those went unacknowledged, as well. I felt that I was treated as an administrative problem, to be as efficiently disposed of as possible.
In the end, I learned, my colleagues were told that I had dropped out of the program for “health reasons.” The whole group sent me a very kind, hand-drawn sympathy card, filled with well-wishes and condolences. It was a heartfelt message, and I did appreciate it. Reading their responses, I also gathered that my doctor’s letter was barely mentioned, if at all, and certainly not the part about the “triggering events.”
I was angry about that at the time. It seemed to me that my demise was treated with less than full transparency. Looking back, though, I think it was just a function of cognitive dissonance. The narrative that I was less than a good teammate had become so ingrained that my physician’s explanation simply bounced off. And after all, as we learn in systems thinking, the person who names the problem is all too likely to be seen as the problem.
I still treasure some collegial relationships that began at Beyond the Call. That’s with members of the larger group, however. My own Peer Group’s members became, to me, the visible face of my Complex PTSD. On the rare occasions when I happen into a former Peer at a UUA or UUMA event, I simply go numb. My heart begins to race, my breath gets short. Even seeing a Facebook post by a former Peer will cause my breath to catch.
I did bring myself, after many months in treatment for PTSD, to initiate conversation with my former Dean when I ran into him at a national march. I thought I owed that to him and to myself. He is, again, a brilliant and fundamentally decent man. He meant no harm. Nor did anyone else. No one knew I had PTSD. Good will does not always produce a good effect: it didn’t in the insensitive sermon I delivered. Without the necessary prior input on group process, our Dean’s good will did not produce a good effect either, at least not with me. That’s just the way these things can happen with a mismatched group and intense group process.
I also have to admit, being human, that if our positions been reversed—if a different Peer had been the odd person out—I likely would have responded no better than anyone else. I would like to think, however, due to my previous experience with Peer Group scapegoating, I would have eventually recognized it for what it was, and said so, even had I not been on the receiving end.
To this day, while acknowledging my own many mistakes, I also feel—strongly—that I was never given a fair chance to be the good teammate I would dearly love to have been. Certainly, I don’t think it would take a great deal more than conversation with a board certified CPE instructor. to gain crucial insight in how to better manage small group process.
I note that, years later, Beyond the Call is still chugging along. I hope subsequent Beyond the Call programs have taken small group process more seriously, and that participants are receiving what they signed up for. Small group process doesn’t usually fall into dysfunction. But when it does, the facilitator does need to be prepared.
As for me, once “released from the bottle,” the djinn of my PTSD was not about to be pushed back in. For fifty years, I had gotten through college, military service, construction work, divinity school—plenty of stressful situations—without even knowing I had it. Now that it was set loose, though, it was a constant, exhausting drain on my energy. On my PTSD counsellor’s advice, I retired from parish ministry a year later.
Another lasting effect was that, due to the way my latent PTSD got catalyzed, ministerial colleagues became the “faces” of my PTSD. It took years before I could join a gathering of ministers without feeling triggered: racing heart and shortness of breath. I became, you might say, “minister-phobic.” It’s taken a lot of work in counseling, anti-anxiety medication, and determination on my part, continuing to take part in UUMA events, until I’ve once again become able to interact with colleagues with relative equanimity.
One extremely healing step came when current UUMA Director of Collegial Practices, Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, invited me to assist in the Ministerial Formation Network. That work has enabled me to take part in our movement in a healthy and satisfying way, and appreciate the fine new spirits who still aspire to serve our movement as ministers. That is, for me, a great source of satisfaction and hope.
Two and a half years after my demise, of course, UUA President Peter Morales and UUMA Executive Director Don Southworth both committed communication gaffes that certainly put my Beyond the Call sermon blunder in perspective. Both were men in powerful positions. Neither of them faced the group dynamics or, as far as I know, the PTSD symptoms I faced. Even so, neither of them chose to “stay in the conversation.” Both resigned within a couple months of one another.
The irony of their demise still fills me with conflicting emotions. Part of that is just sadness, that we can’t be both wiser and kinder to one another in so many ways, particularly we who do have the social power. And that our leaders couldn’t—frankly—better lead when things went wrong in their instances.
If we’re really committed to “restorative justice,” we are, in fact, called to “stay in the conversation.” People of the dominant culture, including myself, are going to make mistakes. There has to be a way to work through such times without bailing out on the one hand, or exorcizing the sinner on the other.
I’d like to think I was willing to stay in conversation with Beyond the Call. But my e-mails to Don Southworth were not getting answered. (And for months, I couldn’t even look at the names of my former Peers or my Dean without being triggered.) I have to say, I wouldn’t wish my symptoms through summer, 2014, on my worst enemy. Seriously.
For the longest time, I grieved those stillborn relationships, and dreamed of finding a way toward a deeper conversation, a mutual consensus about what had gone wrong. Slowly, gently, my PTSD counsellor led me into reluctant acceptance—such a conversation was never going to happen.
It would have meant acknowledging my PTSD as the real disability it was, for one thing. Even more difficult, it would have meant acknowledging the flawed dynamics of our group process. It would have required the guidance of a trained moderator, with all parties committed to the process. And it would have required abandoning the more comfortable narrative: that I was the problem in an otherwise smoothly functioning system.
It took a long time for me to let go of hard feelings. These days, I’m just concentrating on being as healthy as possible, sharing the gifts I have to share, and learning what I still (and will always) need to learn.
I do reflect that, having my own flawed perceptions, I’m not in a position to judge anyone’s sensitivity around white supremacy or ableism: Peter Morales, Don Southworth, my Peers, or anyone else. At the same time, unless they’ve felt the sensations I feel when my PTSD is on the loose, I would ask that others not judge me, either. Post-traumatic stress is the most excruciating experience I’ve ever gone through. It’s not realistic, when those stress hormones are pumping, to expect anyone to act with equanimity.
Let us, yes, be honest with one another, particularly with colleagues and particularly with issues of privilege. We of the dominant culture do need to be held accountable, I am committed to that. But acknowledgement of one another’s flawed humanity is necessary, as well. I get angry and frustrated, too. We all make mistakes. I’ve learned the hard way, you never know what mountain the other person is trying to climb.