Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Journey Of A Thousand Miles Begins With One Step

If you have lived on this planet for long you know it is a place where you get hurt. Some hurts are physical and some are psychological but the hurts come and there is a recovery period that our bodies and psyches try to initiate. If your boss fires you from a job you loved that is going to take a whole lot more time to heal for most people than a need to heal from your co-worker who didn’t like your idea in the brainstorming meeting. There are varying levels of emotional hurts in life and there are some amazing mechanisms within the human mind and psyche that allow us to attempt to heal those hurts. The problem can come if the psychological trauma is too great and when we do not know how to assist the psyche.

We can make analogies here to physical trauma. If you have a normal immune system a scratch to your skin is something your body easily heals. But if you suffer a compound fracture or a serious internal injury from a car accident, the chances are very good you will need the specialized care of physicians who are trained to deal with these types of traumas.

The tricky part about a psychological trauma is we often don’t see the person’s initial trauma, much less the emotional scars many abuse victims carry. So it is no wonder victims of abuse often begin to try to cope on their own. Alone is the sad truth about abuse for its victims. And some, like me, appear to do “okay” for awhile. But I think for those of us who have had abuse beyond a certain level we come to understand that we just can’t go it alone. As time goes on the poison in our souls is so painful it is like telling a person who has four broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a lacerated spleen to just “buck up and figure this out.” And we get advice like this from some people!

Perhaps those of you who have suffered abuse will come up with different analogies but it’s as if we have suffered multiple broken ribs, a collapsed lung and internal bleeding and people keep accidentally bumping into us; and the pain becomes so intense we simply can no longer take it. And we begin to stand up to it and often give voice to our pain. Finally! But to those who are around us it might look like we just went from a normal Tuesday to a Wednesday and they will not “get” the profound point of no return we have reached with our pain. It’s true, perhaps the falling apart looks to an outsider like it happens in a moment but often the pain has been building up for years. And years! And finally it reaches a critical mass we simply can’t overlook for one more minute. And sometimes the ways we fall apart and start telling people about our pain is not particularly pretty. And very often makes NO sense to us much less to anyone else.

I finally turned my attention to getting help at the age of 37. I had been gone from ‘The Place’ for 18 years and had an increasing sense of urgency about my need for therapy and knew this was not going to happen magically by itself. I knew it was going to require an intentional and deliberate focus to find a therapist and begin to deal with my soul pain. Though I did not comprehend the path that lay before me I had to take that all important first step! Looking back I now truly realize a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

For my first experience with a therapist I knew I needed a professional who was trained in the Bible as well as counseling. I started my recovery process with a cognitive therapist, working with an individual who was a doctor of psychology, an attorney, and a pastor. I started with a cognitive approach to therapy, in terms of examining my thoughts and beliefs and working to learn correct beliefs of the Bible and correct thinking about my life.

I had spent years being told half-truths, negative thinking, horrendous judgments of people and outright lies and I needed an individual who could assist me who was skilled at clear and accurate thinking. Cognitive therapy makes sense to a lot of people. The Bible says “as one thinks in his heart so is he.” The way I was thinking was clearly hurting me, so the examination of my thinking would be key. I made some good progress with this.

Even then, the first few sessions I was skeptical. You see, I had a raging storm deep in my heart but I had great difficulty believing ANYONE would be capable of helping me. I had learned the insidious message of arrogance and superiority from my father. What an irony. And how absurd that I who was a truly sick and broken human being would come to the professional and even then argue with his knowledge even though I had little of my own in this area! Here I was broken to the core from continual abuse yet at the same time holding an attitude of arrogance which had been deeply infused into my heart. I could almost chuckle now that the first therapist I picked was also a pastor and a lawyer, but at the time this decision was deadly serious to me.

One of the first things my counselor assigned me was to begin reading. The idea was to begin to override the control of my father by getting me to read different perspectives on things I had been taught by my father about the Bible. This was very helpful for me with the level of brainwashing my father had done in our lives. He had kept us from ever using our minds and being comfortable in even walking through a line of reasoning he had not personally pre-ordained for us, so this was a very uncomfortable but necessary process.

My cognitive therapist would also use a lot of questions, both to learn my experience and what my thinking was, and to encourage me to begin to develop alternative views, perspectives and beliefs.

Many of you who have been reading my blogs know the work that would be cut out for this therapist knowing of my upbringing. Because he would have to help me tackle some things my father taught me that were very wrong. My father got so many things wrong. He was wrong about God and His immense love for us. He was wrong about God’s forgiveness. He was wrong about the human heart. He was wrong about women. He was wrong about marriage. He was wrong about the preciousness of little children and their vulnerability. He was wrong for beating us. He was wrong about the way people should be treated. He was wrong about the value and purpose of work. And he was wrong in choosing not to love his children and his wife. How wrong could one man be? But for me, as recipient of the deadly and sick teachings of this man, the undoing of the wrongs he perpetrated in my thinking was more critical to my healing than the wrongs he perpetrated against my body.

Let me give you an example of the bad teaching my therapist had to help me fight against. My father taught that helping people in need – the hungry, oppressed, lonely, in jail – was foolishness and unimportant. Truthfully, my father never mentioned these concepts except to mock and ridicule them so that the idea of taking any caring or loving action along these lines literally never crossed my mind.

The thing about this particular lie that was so insidious was that it completely went against the teachings of Jesus. Jesus never stopped talking about and modeling love! To anyone and everyone! So, when my therapist began to help me see how wrong this teaching was it caused me to have to rethink the whole Bible. My father had made fun of Jesus. A lot! So, I had to take the time to go back and reread the Bible with a new lens and realize how horribly wrong my father’s teaching had been. But in the process I had the foundation of my previous world, the world he created, completely shaken. If my father was so wrong about this fundamental teaching about whether God was love then what else had he gotten wrong?

And I think intellectually it’s easy to think “well, you got some new correct facts in your head so it was all good then, right?” Well, actually the kinds of belief systems we believe in as children are really hard to change. Early life teachings cling like barnacles to our souls! So when I say I was aided by a cognitive therapist, know that it was hard work to really dig into and understand each step of the lies my father perpetrated on us. And each new thing I tackled made me feel like the sand was shifting under my feet. Tackling all the lies took time and a lot of emotional work to resolve. And the process often caused me extreme emotional distress and insecurity!

Here is an example of this torment and insecurity. My father taught all of his children if we ever left ‘The Place’ we would go to hell and we would be banished from our family. And to be sure, when I left, I WAS banished from my family. But Wait! A husband is supposed to leave his father and mother and hold tight to his wife. And the two are meant to become one.

For a husband and a wife to establish a new family is the right way. Staying under the control of a father for life is horribly wrong. Yet for years I had to wrestle nagging inner conflict to feel safe and secure that I was doing the right thing by leaving my father and having my own family. My father should not have attempted to keep a death grip on all of his children for life. And I should not have had to fight so hard just to feel I was doing the right thing by leaving! But that’s how it was. For a child, early life teachings carry enormous weight, and when the teachings are wrong the consequences are far-reaching and deep-seated.

So for me the first year or so of my treatment was appropriately dealing with and dismantling the wrong teachings about God. That process was extremely helpful as I was beginning to heal. But there would be another step that was also vitally important for me to step through. And that was to reconnect with my feelings.

After a couple of years of work with my first therapist, my feelings began to emerge and I began to experience significant distress and pain. I want you to think about the impact of that statement I’ve just made. After a couple of years, feelings BEGAN to emerge. I can imagine some of you must be thinking “Seriously, it took you two years to get feelings?” If you, or someone you know, have suffered from ongoing abuse, the fact that feelings can no longer be accessed is very common. But it can be hard to comprehend for those who haven’t experienced it.

Though my first therapist may have been qualified to assist me with the intellectual and theological side of my healing, a very necessary part of the process, I believed I needed a therapist whose specialty was the feelings of the heart, not the thoughts of the mind for the next step on my journey. I believe both are important and both are involved. The work my first therapist did with me on the cognitive level was critical but I knew I had more work to do.

I found a married couple who each had special skills and together seemed to have what was needed to assist me further. I made the change to the new therapists with much apprehension similar to the early days with my first therapist. This is to be expected as the therapeutic relationship is one that requires boat loads of trust! I encourage you in your journey toward healing to realize it may take time to find a good “fit” with a therapist for you. Keep going until you find just such a good match!

In this next phase of therapy my hope was to revisit emotional experiences from my growing up years and resolve those experiences with a very different outcome from the initial experiences. While that statement may not make sense on a first reading, I am talking about my therapists guiding me through a process that helped me learn how the human mind has freedom to respond to situations from our past with a variety of new responses. These new responses will be based on new values or new understanding that allows us to see and respond differently than in our past.

Next week I will write in detail about this important healing work of revisiting emotional experiences from my growing up years and resolving them with a very different outcome.

As I think about my own abuse I realize some of you may not relate to the specifics of my particular and unique story. I find it difficult to try to summarize 20 plus years of my healing process into a few illustrations because each day of my healing journey was a bit different. The best analogy I can come up with would be like me going on a 20 year trip and taking a few snapshots every week and then showing you my pictures at the end of the trip. The pictures would be part of the truth. But just part of it! There would have been hugely important days on that trip where a picture was never taken.

As I give you what are similar to “snapshots” of parts of my healing process I just hope it will help you connect up with important parts of your journey. Or the journey you are about to begin. So if any of my snapshots don’t make sense to you or don’t fit your experience that is okay! Toss them! Your experience is the one I care about in this blog and I only hope my feeble snapshots encourage you to take further steps on your journey. Because your journey is your life. Your precious life that you only get to live once.

I hope so much for you that you will seek healing or continue along your healing path until the poison that has been dumped on your precious soul is gone. And even along that journey I hope that you will have better moments and then better days and then better weeks. Until one day, perhaps, you realize you are somebody new. That is my hope.

If you have questions or thoughts about your experience that this blog brings up please write to me about them!

Mark Phelps


  1. It’s a fact that getting hurt physically and emotionally is a part of living in this world. If our body is suffering from sicknesses, accidents and abuse, our mind also suffers. What’s important is that all of it can be healed in many ways. There are doctors, psychologists and attorneys that can help each and everyone of us by counseling and listening to our stories. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful read, Mark! Kudos and more power to you!

    Sabrina Craig @ Medical Attorney NY

    1. Thank you very much for your comment Sabrina!!

  2. As if getting hurt physically isn't bad enough, the emotional hurt takes much longer to heal, if ever. :'(

  3. I so admire your bravery, self awareness and focused determination to confront your painful past so honestly and thereby overcome any anger and hostility that remained. Your journey is amazing, awesome and inspirational. Mark -Thanks so much for creating this blog and sharing your story of healing with us.