I have two disabilities. One is minor, the other substantial but also invisible. My minor disability is extreme sensitivity to light. I can’t go outside on a sunny day or use my laptop, watch television, or even attend a college basketball game without sunglasses. I carry and wear them habitually, it’s not a real big deal.
Many’s the time, though, otherwise “woke” people have teased me for wearing sunglasses in a movie theater or on a Zoom conference. Same old comments, upon which I respond with the same old replies. Considering what all too many others have to deal with, it is a slight affliction indeed.
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the invisible disability. It is serious. Through college, military service, decades in heavy construction, even in dangerous situations and trying times, though, I didn’t even know I had it. I got counseling after my divorce, and of course when I went into ministry. No counselor picked up on it. I did my Career Assessment, Div. School, and five quarters of Clinical Pastoral Education. All that time, all those experts, and no one suspected.
Isolated symptoms would occasionally emerge, disrupt my life in some way, then vanish back into the subconscious from whence they came. The rest of the time, I was just one more blue-eyed, straight white male.
In the years since my PTSD emerged, I have blogged about it from time to time. I have not, however, described the events that unleashed it. This piece will make obvious the reasons for my long hesitation. I write this now as part of my own healing: an uncomfortable task. Reading it may make others uncomfortable. Still, healing and insight often lie on the far side of discomfort.
The roots of my PTSD lie partly in family instability. My father was blacklisted during the McCarthy “witch hunt” years. We moved a lot while I was a child, as he searched for work. Time and again, that meant being enrolled in a school, then pulled out after a few months and re-enrolled in a different town. That was a challenge for a shy, introverted boy. Part of my PTSD lies in extended sexual abuse during some of those years. Part of it lies in being bullied as an adolescent. Those multiple sources are what make it “Complex” PTSD. It lay latent for decades. Even after emerging, it manifests in unpredictable ways.
Sadly, my PTSD emerged through interactions with my own fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers at a series of workshops for UU clergy: “Beyond the Call.” The story doesn’t speak particularly well of me, nor of the way we ministers sometimes treat one another. I believe that’s precisely why I need to gird my loins and write about it now. There’s a lot of Unitarian Universalist Association and UU Ministers Association language around tolerance and diversity. My case illustrates, tolerance and diversity can be elusive and difficult.
From my teens, I felt keen interest in issues of justice and inclusion. I tried to be sensitive, and often was. But in plenty of ways, I was as clueless about the subtle realities faced by disadvantaged groups as anyone else from my background.
That interest was part of why I decided to become a Unitarian Universalist minister in the first place. At the same time, as a white Meadville Lombard student in Chicago, I could tell there was a lot I didn’t know. I became part of M/L’s “Undoing Racism” task force. I also took a University of Chicago Div. School course on Black Theology, to help myself better understand the world as seen through non-blue eyes. For the record, I was the only white male UU in that course. Later, I also took a course at Chicago Theological Seminary on “Multi-Cultural Religious Education.” I was the only UU there at all, and the only straight, white male.
In both courses, I listened to painful experiences of people who faced racism and homophobia every day. I learned to try to see past my straight, white male ego, open my ears, close my mouth, and really listen to people whose experience was beyond my ken. I didn’t always “get it right.” I still don’t. I did learn that the world felt very different to people with very different backgrounds from mine.
The fact that I was the only white male UU student interested in either of those courses says something. For all that we Unitarian Universalists aspire to “celebrate diversity” and practice “radical tolerance,” I suggest that we don’t do either particularly well. We’re human. We get fooled. Slip-ups are inevitable.
As Rev. Theresa I. Soto puts it in a recent UU World article, “Unitarian Universalism sometimes defaults to a narrative which makes disabled people invisible and troublesome simultaneously.” That applies to my disability, which really is invisible most of the time. But I think it also applies to the way we too often treat non-heteronormative, non-male, and non-white people, as well. “Invisible and troublesome simultaneously.” Our intentions are almost always the best. But our default reaction, too often, is to treat any significant difference as—“invisible and troublesome simultaneously.”
Several years ago, I was one of 19 ministers selected for the first Beyond the Call series of workshops. For the uninitiated, in UU Ministers Association minister-speak, “BTC is a program jointly developed by the UUA and UUMA. . . for in-depth study, ongoing collegial reflection and engagement in a critical area of advanced ministerial competence.”
The first series was on “Preaching and Worship Arts.” I believed I could give and receive in this area, so after long hesitation, I decided to apply. When I was accepted, I felt both thrilled and intimidated: self-conscious as a small-church minister in “fly-over country,” rubbing elbows with some of our Association’s most prominent figures.
The day before I was to fly out for our first of four Beyond the Call Workshops, I also received, out of the blue, an angry, “royal ass-chewing” from one of my Congregation’s members. The man did apologize later. But my nerves were badly jangled even before my first Beyond the Call experience. Unknown to me, that also jarred my latent PTSD into restlessness before I even got off the plane.
Things got off to a poor start right from the beginning. Again, rhetoric aside, ministers don’t always act pastoral around one another. We’re often unnecessarily competitive. Nor, too often, do we deal well with difference among us. That can apply to even small differences. Add to that, this was the first Beyond the Call series. No matter how much real love and care go into designing a complex program, it will have “bugs” the first time around.
Three senior ministers, to whom we referred as the “Deans,” designed the course. The real effort they put in was plain to see: it was rich with information and experience. Unfortunately, they also elected to use small group process as the default teaching format. Without, I think, putting much thought into the intricacies of small group interaction in practice, or the potential for small groups to fall into dysfunction.
Compare this with the training Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Supervisors receive on small group dynamics. This is not because CPE students are other than well educated adults. It’s because they’re human and the experience is highly evocative.
One thing that can happen in a CPE “Peer Group,” as they’re called, is what CPE Supervisors sometimes term “scapegoating.” For any number of reasons, one member may not fit in well with the others. CPE being intense, this can result in the majority turning on that member, unloading their tension on the “scapegoat” in the form of harsh criticism, rejection, and exclusion. It’s pure group dynamics.
In the five quarters of CPE I took as part of my own theological education, I watched this play out twice. The first time, it happened to another man in my Peer Group. In such cases a CPE supervisor is trained to support the excluded person, modeling relationship with that person, even to the point of annoying the other members.
That first time this happened, I was part of the majority. I felt frustrated, even resentful as our Supervisor seemed to “side with” the man the rest of us found annoying. Later, in his Final Evaluation, the Supervisor explained that he acted to prevent “scapegoating”—his term—the unpopular member. I didn’t appreciate his explanation at the time.
Looking back later, though, beneath our professed religion and reason, our Peer Group was following primal group instinct. Only through the Supervisor’s careful guidance, supporting the excluded person, did we regain functionality by the end of the term.
The second time, to my consternation, I was on the receiving end. That was a whole different education in small group dysfunction. I was a non-theist. The group began to see me as anti-Christian, less than honest in my motives, even sneaky. Even with the support of our Supervisor, an Episcopal Priest, I went through some rough weeks. This time around, I really appreciated the Supervisor’s strategy of companioning the excluded member–myself. We got through this one, too, and finished that unit and the Chaplain Residency in functional relationship.
Going back to Beyond the Call, intense as Worship preparation can be for ministers, I’m going to refer to our small group by the CPE term: Peer Group. I found more similarities than differences in the dynamics. And for all the love the Deans put into developing the program, they had not considered small group pitfalls. No thought was given to real trust-building going in, or for potentially negative group dynamics. They also decided that each Peer Group would collaborate and present one Worship at each of the four planned weekends. Again, with no thought on how that collaboration would play out in practice. Each Group was expected to work out the details unmoderated. As ego-intensive as Worship preparation is, that would never happen in a well-facilitated CPE Peer Group.
Where this became problematic for me was that our group’s rhythm of Worship planning was mismatched. I was the odd person out. I begin Worship preparation weeks ahead of time. (I was a novelist before becoming a minister. Drafting a piece, then setting it aside for seasoning, then rewriting is standard practice in creative writing. Over the years, I’ve even offended some colleagues by harping on this.) What I didn’t know was that this practice also kept my latent PTSD at bay. As long as I was busy on an upcoming presentation, my anxieties remained manageable.
This was the opposite of my Beyond The Call Peers, who were all standard weekend “sermonizers.” They saw no reason to discuss Worship before we gathered, or even to acknowledge my e-mail attempts to discuss it. Comfortable in their own rhythm, they showed no inclination to make room for mine. My “difference” in Worship preparation was both “invisible and troublesome, simultaneously,” to apply Theresa Soto’s words to a wider spectrum. And in the moment, I myself didn’t understand the clashing dynamics well enough to effectively ask for an adjustment I needed more than even I realized.
Making matters even worse was my love of music, songwriting, and my aspiration to get my music “heard.” I love to share music. At the same time, music making also provokes anxiety for me, even in good times. I’ve been told I have a nice singing voice and I take pride in the lyrics I write. But I’m not a trained musician and my guitar skills are only basic. The physical act of playing guitar and singing thrusts me right into body anxieties that rise from my years of childhood sexual abuse. Again, because I had evolved strategies to manage my anxieties under most conditions, I never suspected that PTSD lay at the root of them. Neither did anyone else.
Go on to Part 2 here: https://revdennismccarty.com/a-question-of-process-ptsd-and-btc-part-2/