Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Healing Hand of God

When you look back over your life do you think of times where some seemingly random decision ended up making some huge impact for your future? Like the person you sat next to in math class ended up being a lifelong friend? Or the advice you actually listened to from a friend’s dad ended up pointing your compass in a really new direction? Well, my decision to enter therapy to deal with my tremendous pain was not a random decision at all but one that was a very real and very calculated one. And it was driven by the pain itself and my desire to break the cycle of abuse in my own new family.

I really wanted to protect my wife and children from the poison that had been passed on to me by my family. The decision I made to step into my own healing was a decision that has had so much impact in my life I can hardly measure it. It has impacted my own life, my wife’s life, my daughters’ lives, and the lives of people whom I have brushed shoulders with for years. I am so grateful for everything it took to get me on my journey of healing. I want that for each of you reading this who may be at that same crossroad in your life.

If you had asked me what my goals were when I started therapy I would have said it was to figure out how to deal with all the pain and try to change my life for everyone’s good. Yet as I got into the deep work of psychotherapy there were times when my mind was unable to respond. I was not in the mood. I was unable to connect to the feelings. I just didn’t “get” what was being asked of me in therapy. During these experiences, my therapists explained that I really was making progress, though it would probably not be tangible to me initially. My mind was opening, a little bit at a time, to the memories I had buried deep inside. What I could not understand at the time was that my opening up to those memories would one day give me back myself.

Doesn’t it sound strange to have an unresponsive mind? It’s like hearing at a hospital that “the patient is unresponsive!” But in my case, when it came to my feelings, it was true. It was evidence of something seriously wrong and there were times I wasn’t sure the feelings would ever come back. I really wondered if they existed anymore.

The cognitive therapist I worked with had his work cut out for him in helping me reconnect with my emotions. What he had to work with first was to help me tame my hyper-vigilant mind that was always trying to protect that wounded child within me. I guess my intellect was still instinctively trying to protect my heart. I was very good at this since I had used it as a coping method from the time I was a very young boy. It must’ve worked well for me. But now, as the suppressed feelings began to emerge, I imagine my mind did not want to deal with the massiveness of what was stirring deep within.

Eventually this difficulty that caused me not to be able to connect with myself and my emotions began to ease. When that happened there were times I experienced a deluge of emotions! A small trigger is all it took and I would find myself right in the middle of the experience of the past abuse and the entire range of emotions that went with it. Depending on the type of abuse event being revisited, I would experience sadness, anger, despair, loneliness, isolation, feelings of shame, a sense of betrayal, rage, feeling abandoned, hopelessness, anxiety, fear or terror. What was hard to handle was how lightning fast I could be back “in” the experience with no preparation and no warning . . . and no skills yet to begin to cope with it.

While I was in the middle of experiencing the feelings the therapists would often assist me to identify the beliefs I had formed while I had experienced the specific abuse. The therapists helped me rethink my beliefs about myself as I was thrown back into the abuse events again and it was essential to my growth that they helped me change my thinking. There is a proverb from the Bible that says “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” I could see the truth of that being played out each time I was able to think differently about my past. Sometimes I would actually be able to sense myself coming into a new understanding based on a true and realistic assessment of how horrible the abuse was. At other times this was much harder to do in the real time of re-experiencing the abuse.

I struggle to find a way to explain this to those of you who have not experienced being thrown back in time to a past trauma. It’s like waking up to an oncoming train on a video that is 5 feet in front of you and telling yourself it is simply a movie and not a real train about to run you over. The first time it happens you honestly think the train is going to plow over you. Over time you begin to be able to tell yourself it is no longer a real train, but one you are remembering. But it takes practice and it can be helpful to have professionals processing it with you.

One important area I worked on, with my therapists, was the violence of my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. who was a preacher. In order to begin working on healing, my therapists would have me physically lie on a mat on the floor, on my back. They would have me relax and settle until I was very peaceful. Then the husband of my therapist team would suddenly begin to reenact some aspect of the violence, similar to what my father had done. He would drop books on the floor and begin to yell and scream and hit things and throw things and rage at my mother, or at me. He and his wife had a very specific purpose in doing this. They were helping me reenact experiences similar to what I had experienced, but were giving me new tools to think very differently about what was happening.

The wife of my therapist team would cry and whimper and say things like: ‘there’s nothing I can do for you Mark, I can’t help what is happening to you Mark, there is nothing I can do to stop him Mark, you are on your own Mark’. Or she would scream with terror. Or she would say: “I warned you what would happen if you did that Mark”. Or she would threaten to call the police or run out the front door of the house/church building. Then the husband of my therapist team would threaten her or act out beating her as she screamed in terror.

Remember all of this was reenactment to help me go “back” to my early abuse experiences and to bring the light of truth to them. The therapists played the roles of my mother and father and other people in my life to help wake my emotions up to reconnect me with what had happened. During the early experiences of reenactment all I could do was just lie there and lie there and lie there on the floor. Partly that was because I honestly couldn’t feel a thing. Later my therapists explained to me that the laying still was a learned response. That as a child I had not had normal childhood needs met. Children are very adaptive little people and if they cry out to their parents and caregivers and aren’t given care, they quit crying.

What the therapists were attempting to do all throughout this initial part of my therapy was to help me connect with feelings of betrayal and being alone in the world as a small child. This was very terrifying and brought up incredibly vulnerable feelings of despair and hopelessness. The therapists were trying to help me connect with the feelings of this reality of the level of betrayal I had experienced as a child. Because I was laying there on the floor experiencing the feeling of being able to “do nothing” to help myself, I was able to understand what the therapists were wanting me to see. That it does not take long for a small child to stop crying if their cries do not get their needs met - or especially if their cries are met with physical abuse.

When I was unable initially to “cry out” when the scary things were being reenacted around me, it helped me to see what had happened when I was a small infant. The only way for me to stay safe from my father’s raging, as a small infant, was to lie completely still. That was something I learned to do as a coping skill. And that this learned skill now was no longer helping me in my adult life and relationships. So, these exercises, which can sound rather callous on the part of the therapists was actually a part of my healing. Because as I began to reconnect with my feelings as a child they were able to help me process the emotions I should have been able to express as an infant and growing child. I was starting to feel what it felt like as a little baby boy who had been left alone in a world of anger and violence. And I was learning to cry again!

Since my body was safe when my therapists were working to reenact my abuse, it eventually allowed my mind the safety to connect to the feelings of the young child experiencing the violence so often displayed by my father, and the horrific terror that went with it. My therapists always explained exactly what they were doing and why, and assured me I was still safe and if needed, they would stop. But, their goal, and mine, was for me to reconnect with NORMAL feelings you would expect anyone to have from the level of abuse I experienced. They truly created a safe place for me to begin to heal. Safety is something abuse victims long for and I was getting to experience some of that with these experienced, caring therapists.

Sometimes when I was actually connecting with my feelings again as I relived an abuse event I would feel truly terrified. Sometimes I would just feel sad. During the first few months, I was unable to cry at all even though I was able to begin experiencing sadness in my heart. I was still too frightened to cry. By connecting to the feelings, it was similar to re-experiencing the violence . . . and utter aloneness. And initially, apparently, I still didn’t feel safe enough to cry. Remember, when we were children and cried out, crying just got us more abuse. And more pain. To finally be able to cry with the help of these therapists was a huge step for me.

I was a highly motivated patient as I was doing this work with my therapists. But in spite of that motivation and desire I had to work very hard at opening my mind and my heart to the reality of doing this healing work. I would also count on the Lord to help me. Every time prior to an appointment with my therapists, as I drove to my therapists’ office, I would pray, asking the Lord to be close and to protect me and allow me to heal.

I asked the Lord to stay close to me, in my heart, so I would feel able to open my heart and let His strength replace my weakness and brokenness. I told the Lord, also, that it would be very important for me to know He was with me, because I had begun to sense the fear and terror I had felt as a little boy and I really did not want to face these feelings again, by myself. In answer to my prayer the Lord was with me each time. Each time! Sometimes I was more aware of His presence than others, but He always felt near.

I remember years later trying to describe this to my brother Nathan. I explained how the Lord held tightly to me through every terrifying moment and each moment of brokenness I had relived during my years of therapy and had kept me safe. I explained that, of course, The Lord did not literally hold onto me. It was my mind being open to and accepting the clear promises He had made in His written word and taking Him at His word. It was a matter of faith! As I reached out to The Lord, He held onto me and clung onto me and drew me all the closer to Himself. This experience has often made me think of some of the people The Lord helped when He was on the earth. Now when I read things in the Bible about Him helping people, I relate to it in a different way since I’ve had firsthand experience of it myself.

God’s presence in my heart was a gentle strength, gentle and comforting. He was calming and consoling. He was reassuring and affirming. He provided insight and understanding about what was happening deep within. He constructed strength and peace and gave me joy in those places deep within my heart where there had been great fear, confusion, brokenness and despair. He gave me a strong sense of well-being and assurance as he helped me begin to forgive through great compassion and understanding toward my abuser. In the very core of my being he confirmed the beauty and joy of living where there had been the lingering ashes of mourning. I came to know his goodness and kindness toward me personally in the midst of these experiences. I felt a calm I had never felt before. He reminded me of others told of in His word that had reached out to Him to be made whole. I was now one of them.

For example there was the woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years who suddenly came from behind Jesus and touched the hem of His garment. She said: “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.” Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that moment. And many others were brought to him, all who were sick, and begged Him that they might touch the hem of His garment. And all who touched the hem of His garment were made perfectly well.

And there was the blind man, born blind from his birth. When Jesus saw Him He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing.

And there was the leper. A leper came to Jesus, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.

And the great hymn Amazing Grace talks about our being blind and then seeing and our being first lost, then being found. All of these have come to mind as I try to find a way to explain what I experienced with the Lord’s compassionate work in my life during my healing therapy experience. As far as I am concerned, I am that blind man. I am that leper. I am one of those who was in great need and I reached out to touch the hem of The Lord’s garment. And the Lord within me clung onto my heart and my mind. He knew His word had been used to cause great damage deep in my heart. So He was the one that saw to it that my heart was restored at the deepest levels possible, restoring me to full life again, with His word and the healing work done with my therapists.

God brought light into the dark places in my heart! He revealed the deep and secret things down in my very broken self because He knows what is in the darkness but He also knows light and wholeness dwells with Him. God uncovered the deep things out of the darkness in my heart and brought into the light the black gloom and the shadow of death that was within me. He literally gave me new life at the very core of my being. The healing work He did in my heart causes me to feel safe and secure in my relationship with Him, and I am so grateful! His compassion and love cause me such great delight; pure joy! I felt His presence throughout all my years of healing work. I truly experienced the healing hand of God in my life. Oh how I love Jesus!

I will get into the details of the work I did to deal with the anger that was within my heart from all the years of abuse in my next writing. For me it was necessary to work through the terror and much sadness before I was able to connect with anger. But the anger came and it came on like a storm.

In my next writing I will get into the details of the work I did to face head on the anger that was within my heart from all the years of abuse. But for now, just be encouraged. Healing is an amazing thing and if it could happen for me it can happen for you.

Mark Phelps

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