Over the years, when I’ve been part of a functional Worship “team,” my need to begin ahead of time has never been a problem. At UUMA Heartland Chapter Retreats, where I was long-time Worship Coordinator, we sometimes did collaborative Worship. We would discuss via e-mail beforehand, along with any music I might present. People wound up happy with the result. At Beyond the Call, though, my early preparation and love of music both caused trouble. My Peer Group didn’t care to discuss Worship ahead of time. They also declined to even entertain my offers of music.
The suspicion was, at times, palpable. For example, if one Peer wanted to do a certain prayer or reading, that would be happily included, sight unseen (or unheard.) But my eagerness to do one of my own songs met disapproving silence. At one point I was accused of wanting to “show off.” At another, a Peer told me they’d be willing to consider it if I would send them recordings of my songs beforehand. I believe she meant to be helpful. But her advice also implied an assumption, at least to me, that I needed to have a CD out, (which I didn’t at that time,) for my offer to be worthwhile.
It was the third Workshop before I banked up my courage, stood up for myself, and insisted on doing one of my songs. Afterward, one Peer expressed surprise that it had gone well. That might have helped earlier. By this third Workshop, though, our group process had devolved into dysfunction and my PTSD was in full eruption.
Unable to plan ahead, facing reluctance bordering on hostility toward my music, I experienced a long sequence of what I now recognize as “triggers.” I didn’t yet know I had PTSD. All I could say was that “I just feel totally out of rhythm.”
I’m trying to avoid a litany of “he-said-they-said” negativity, here. I, myself, was not beyond reproach in my own conduct. The other group members were operating according to their best lights. We were all well-meaning, imperfect human beings, bouncing off one another in group process which had been insufficiently thought out in the first place.
I felt discouraged and anxious. No one, including me, fully recognized what was happening. I believe I was coming to be seen as a difficult colleague. I can’t blame anyone for not recognizing my emerging PTSD. I hadn’t even recognized it myself. It’s unfortunate, though, that no one there had enough Peer Group training to recognize small group process itself, headed over the edge of a cliff.
Looking back, I failed to stick up for myself in a healthy way. Then again, much of my PTSD rises out of years of childhood sexual abuse and bullying. As a sexually abused, bullied child, my learned response to stressful situations was to emotionally shut down, disassociate, and follow orders. I survived my childhood that way. I also got through a range of tough situations as an adult: basic training and four years in the military and years of heavy construction work as examples. Again, I handled those challenges without anyone ever even dreaming I had PTSD.
But I was ineffective in advocating for myself at Beyond the Call. I kept telling myself, I knew my talents and capabilities. I had gotten along fine with colleagues over the years in other settings. If I just kept plugging away, I told myself, doing my best, things were still going to work out in the end. In the eyes of my Peers and our Dean, though, I suspect that I was coming to be seen as sulky and difficult.
I made mistakes of my own, big ones. In that third Workshop, I delivered a sermon which contained genuinely insensitive ethnic statements. Unintentional though it was, (isn’t it always?) looking back, I don’t think the term, “micro-aggression” would even define my gaffe. I make no excuses. I feel terrible about it to this day, and did much soul-searching in the months following. What I came up with was the not-original realization, it’s precisely when I think I understand a situation that I’m most capable of messing it up. I also believe that applies to more people than just me.
I hope I adequately expressed my apology at the time, though I was so emotionally “shut down,” my apology may not have sounded like one. In the moment, as soon as the criticism began, my heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach. There was, I realized, not going to be any “work out in the end” here. It would be all I could do just to survive the remaining time and chalk it up to experience.
At the same time, I can also provide a concrete example of the different way my Peers looked at one another as opposed to the way they were seeing me. In that same session, another male Peer delivered a sermon with an unmistakably patriarchal vibe to it. Repeatedly and humorously, he described his wife as this sweet, not fully rational person, who just couldn’t keep from losing her—and his—car keys.
Not a word was said about that. For my own part, I didn’t speak up, either. I was cowed by then. But just as much, I also felt I needed to sit with my own gaffe, try to learn from that. Nor did I want to sound as though I was trying to get out from under my own misdeed by criticizing someone else’s. His was not as serious as mine, anyway.
The criticism of my gaffe continued into social time that evening, with rising voices. I know enough about mistakes a straight, white male such as myself can make—that sometimes straight, white males such as myself need to just “shut up and listen.” I did my best to do that, to hear out what I had gotten wrong without trying to make excuses or indulge in “what about-ism.” If one says something offensive, intentional or not, one does need to listen to what makes it offensive.
At the same time, there were layers of complexity, here. This was all taking place within the context of our dissolving group process and my own gathering storm of PTSD.
Again, a trained Peer Group Supervisor finds a way to companion the person who is being separated out. That really should have begun no later than the second weekend. Our Dean, though, was carried along by the group’s dynamics, same as the rest of us. Rather than companioning, when I committed my sermon gaffe, he led the criticism. Again, it’s not that the criticism was other than valid. It’s that there were layers of complexity–group dynamics playing out–that needed to be addressed, but never were.
Our Dean is truly an accomplished and decent man. I still respect him. I have no doubt, then or now, that he felt real compassion for my by-this-time obvious suffering. But plainly, there had been no prior consultation from a trained CPE supervisor or anyone else on pitfalls to watch for and how to react. I believe he could have/would have responded effectively, had there been. But plainly, no one had foreseen a need for such information.
At the next morning’s Worship, another Peer Group led us brilliantly through what might be called a “Station Worship.” They had set up four stations, each with a different ritual, which we were to perform, one by one. One was a “washing” ritual. The leader stood beside a table, on which rested a bowl of water and some washcloths. She invited us to dip a washcloth and symbolically wash away our weariness, doubt, negative feelings. It was a beautiful concept.
But all my injured limbic system heard was the phrase, “wash away.” Pain—shame—flooded my mind. Inner words: “So. Fucking. Filthy;” overwhelmed me. Sexually abused for years, on the rare occasions when I was brave enough to ask for help, help hadn’t come. Therefore, the shadows at the center of my brain still whispered—it had to be all my own fault. I was bullied through middle school and sexually bullied my first year in high school. Again, I was rarely brave enough to ask for help, but even when I did, help never came. At my insecure core, then, that too was all my fault as well. Now my heedless insensitivity, my straight, white cluelessness—this was also all my own fault. “All great Neptune’s ocean” could not wash away my shame and filth. How much less one little, damp washcloth.
I physically sagged, burst into tears, and had to fumble my way out of the room, crying like a wounded child. I found a bathroom, grabbed a yard of toilet paper, wiped my face, blew my nose. I walked around outside for awhile, regathering myself. When I finally did return, Worship was still going on and no one seemed to have noticed my odd behavior. Or at least they didn’t say anything to me about it.
I was re-triggered the last day, as well, practically collapsing in tears again. Not anyone’s fault, really, just another tidal wave of emotion washing over me. No one, myself included, saw any of this coming. At the same time, this primal pain was more than just my “white fragility” acting out. I can listen to criticism and learn from it, I’ve shown that in plenty of situations. Find any person with PTSD, spend three extended weekends poking away at them, and see how much better they hold up.
So allow me this gripe: I’ve taken part in plenty of group projects over the years. I’ve generally been considered an enthusiastic and supportive teammate. I have five CPE Evaluations, a Career Assessment, Internship Evaluation, and three Fellowship Renewal Evaluations to prove it. But in that moment, no one at Beyond the Call seemed to suspect that a participant visibly, repeatedly dissolving into tears—might be a sign, not just that I was totally fucked up—but that perhaps something in the process might be less than perfect.
One thing that kept me going was growing relationships with Beyond the Call colleagues who were not in my Peer Group. I got along fine with them, and cherish some of those relationships to this day. That, it seems to me, also says something.
That Workshop weekend ended, I returned to Parish work, life went on. As the fourth and final Workshop approached, though, my anxieties once more ramped up. I was dreading the next Workshop, particularly pulling together our next Peer Group Worship.
Again, I readily acknowledge that much of this has to land at my own door. I was deep into my own primal reactions with my small group Peers by this time, a toxic barbecue cooked up by years of sexual abuse and bullying. My primal response is, too often, to “go along to get along” outwardly, but with increasing resentment and despair deep inside. Those feelings would be so deep and repressed, even I wasn’t aware of them unless and until they exploded in anger. Far better for me to have just stood up and said, “This is what I can do for Worship. Surely we can find a way to make that work.” But I was reacting from my own, deep trauma rather than healthy, learned behaviors. I don’t think that makes me unique. It was just an unfortunate “perfect storm” of my own negative dynamics, coupled with unmoderated group dynamics within my Peer Group.
I was primed for a blow-up and one came. June, 2014, a message exchange between myself and one of my Peers—pretty mundane on the surface, really—but powerfully triggering to me. Stress hormones flooded through me, producing near panic and vivid flashbacks of humiliations I had undergone as a teenager. I responded with an 11-page, extremely agitated e-mail to the Deans and my Peers.
I don’t doubt, reading that unhealthy e-mail had to be unsettling. Flashbacks from past bullying and sexual abuse found their way in. Also, I often process things by writing about them. I’m doing that right now. But that can also, sometimes, leave me open to sharing thoughts before they’ve been properly filtered. Looking back, that e-mail would be most informative as a view of me trying to understand and explain what I was going through—with my forebrain and limbic system locked in primal battle over which one of them was going to tell the story.
The next morning, I received a phone call from then-UUMA Executive Director, Don Southworth.
Go on to Part 3 here: https://revdennismccarty.com/a-question-of-process-ptsd-and-btc-part-3/