I worked for a community mental health clinic in downtown Seattle for the first two years after graduate school. The clients at this location were considered the most severely traumatized and chemically dependent residents in the city. On my first day of work, my supervisor gave me a list of over eighty clients with a handful of names that were marked with an orange highlighter. We were talking about my caseload when he said, “It is a lot of clients, but the names in orange are the people you need to pay particularly close attention to. They are among the highest utilizers in King County.” I nodded my head as if I understood the implications of his words. Little did I know I would spend more time with these orange names than I would with my wife in the first year of our marriage.
A high utilizer is someone who has a special knack for ending up in emergency rooms or involving the police or fire department in their day-to-day affairs. Where some choose to rant or vent through a Facebook status update, high utilizers go for a more graphic, performance-art approach. Their theatrics have led me to tears of laughter and their violence has held me up against a wall at knifepoint. A memorable part of my job became the time I spent in our staff meetings comparing client stories. On one occasion, I shared about a client who plucked the tear ducts out of his eyes so that he could get a prescription of his favorite pain medication, which reminded a colleague about a client of his who ran in front of a metro bus in the hopes of being awarded a large enough financial settlement to move to Hawaii. Instead, all that client got was life without a spleen. Ostensibly, my job existed to help clients reach mental health goals, but I learned it had more to do with allocating tax dollars for mental health clinics so that we might prevent bodies from being splayed across a windshield on our morning commute.
Later that first afternoon I went into the records department, an eight-by-twelve-foot room filled nearly floor to ceiling with thick maroon folders containing our clients’ life stories. I took about ten files back to my desk to familiarize myself with a portion of my caseload. To date, it is the most gruesome literature I have ever read. The first five files I opened changed my life—a toddler set on fire for disobedience, a boy raped by his father for six years, a nine-year-old girl sold into prostitution by her mother, an immigrant raped by a group of men as she attempted to cross the border, and a man who lost three children and his wife in separate events within the span of a year. The amount of sexual harm, cruelty, and grief in these stories is still too much for me to metabolize. When confronted with such trauma speech crumbles, meaning evaporates, and powerlessness intensifies.
Without exception, each client had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and some type of chemical dependency diagnosis for cocaine, heroin, alcohol, or meth at some point in their life. For the first time that I can recall, addiction made sense. My paradigm for drug users shifted from a posture of condemnation to a hybrid of relief and lament that they found a substance capable of giving them a brief intermission from all the brutality they had undergone. Those who are traumatized do not choose drugs because they want to be rebellious teenagers or irresponsible adults; they are choosing a chemical that is powerful enough to address the powers of evil that have been unleashed against them and within them. How is it that we have become so judgmental of drug use and so blind to their trauma? The tragedy, far more than the drug use, is the trauma. Woe to us who forget this.
It has always struck me that the first person in the Scriptures to name God is a teenager who has been traumatized. Hagar, whose name means “stranger,” was an Egyptian slave who was purchased by a wealthy couple in the midst of their infertility issues. Hagar was acquired for the sole purpose of conceiving an heir for the patriarch of Israel, Abraham. As the story goes, the teenager conceives a child but also develops an attitude with Sarai, the patriarch’s wife. Sarai responds to this attitude with a premeditated “mistreating” of Hagar. The Hebrew word for mistreatment is also used to describe the violent treatment the people of Israel experienced as slaves in Egypt; it can also connote sexual assault. The author of this passage in Genesis is underscoring that this slave has undergone an experience so severe that rather than stay in Sarai’s home, she would prefer to head out to the desert, where by all accounts, she will die.
It is in the desert where a miraculous thing happens—the presence of God finds Hagar near a spring. That description may seem lovely, like the prime location for your next Middle East vacation, but think instead of this spring as a treacherous watering hole in the most dangerous part of the world that you have ever been. The individuals who tend to gather this geography are not the people you want your children to marry or grow up emulating. The angel of the Lord finds Hagar here in this unexpected place and asks her the best questions any friend, spouse, therapist, or pastor could ever ask someone about their life: Where do you come from? Where are you going? The voice of God is curious and the ears of God incline to hear her trauma.
The angel of the Lord directs Hagar to return to Sarai—which, I hasten to add, is in no way a biblical mandate to return to a relationship of abuse or trauma—and promises to bless her with a son and with descendants who will be too numerous to count. Hagar is so moved by this encounter and blessing that she is compelled to say, “El Roi,” meaning “the God who sees me.”
This is remarkable. It is a stranger, a foreigner, who is the first person to name God in the Scriptures. Although her knowledge of Yahweh is exceedingly limited, Hagar recognizes that this God is concerned with her trauma and will move with compassion toward her.
A few weeks after starting my job at the clinic, I acclimated to a new reality concerning my patients. The absurdity and oddness I observed in these men and women were, I realized, not only characteristics of their trauma. They were also estranged because they did not have the access, ability, or desire to bow to our modern idols of capitalism, denial, and power. These gods allow most of us to maneuver our lives away from pain as we settle for surrogate sources of comfort. In spending time with this population, I began to get a sense of something out of a Twilight Zone episode—I began to think that maybe we, the stable ones, are actually the most troubled.
One Friday afternoon, I was covering the front desk after our receptionist went home sick when the most unusual woman came through the doors. Her walk, her clothes, and her face—they were all ancient in a futuristic, Star Wars sort of way. She leaned her arms over the reception counter and carefully examined my face for a good ten or fifteen seconds as she chewed gum with the tenacity of an iconic 1980s aerobic instructor.
She stopped chewing and said, “You must be new here. I don’t believe our eyes have met.”
I nodded with a smile and said, “You are correct. This is my third week. What can I do for you?”
She glanced at the clock. “Well I know you are about to close for the weekend. I just need to know where my party is and I will be on my way.”
I told her I had no idea what she was talking about. She looked at me with a bit of irritation. “Oh, of course you don’t know yet—but the city of Seattle throws me a party every Friday night.”
At this point, I was thinking almost exclusively about the appropriate clinical diagnosis for the woman. My internal dialogue went something like this: “Schizophrenia? Possibly, but not enough disorganization. Narcissistic personality disorder? More than likely—who in the world says something like that?”
I chose instead to be playful with my incredulity and asked, “Now why would a whole city throw you a party?”
Delighted, she stood straight up with a strong and playful dignity and proclaimed, “Well, I used to be a heroin whore, but now I’m clean, I’m sober, and I’m beautiful. Every weekend the city throws me a party to celebrate my life. You should come; it’s the best dancing in the city.”
I googled clean and sober parties in Seattle, and sure enough they existed. I wrote the address of her party on a card and she thanked me, spun around, and danced out of the clinic.
A week later, she returned to the clinic, requesting a meeting with her case manager. Unbeknownst to both of us, that was now me. I walked out to the lobby to meet the woman who had our receptionist page me, and when I did, we both laughed, realizing we had met the previous Friday. She told me her name was Stacey and requested my assistance in helping her apply for a hair academy. We filled out the application online and concluded our session by confirming the details of her clean and sober party that evening. After declining another dance party invitation, I retrieved Stacey’s chart to write a progress note from our session. When I opened her file, chills ran through my body. I had read her file before. This was the woman who was sold into prostitution by her mother on her ninth birthday and had remained in that life for over fifteen years.
Stacey’s life and presence remain completely astonishing to me because I’ve come to recognize that she understands more about the nature of trauma, addiction, and healing than I could ever hope to learn. She knows that her lifetime of trauma and decades of addiction were not grounds for condemnation or alienation; she knows that they were the very events that formed her beauty and invited her to dance in the delight of God. This is a woman who, like Hagar, knows what it means to experience the sight of God, a sight that is curious and kind.
The mission many churches faithfully commit to year after year is one of service to a broken and hurting world. The complexity of this mission is that it often sets us up to believe that brokenness and sin reside mostly out there in the world and not in us. The result is a patronizing engagement with the people we make the focus of our mission or outreach. We refuse to see ourselves as the sick ones, and we therefore live as if we need no physician. A litmus test for whether or not your ministry falls into this trap is to discern whether you understand yourself to be more troubled and in need of the gospel than those you serve.
This is why beautiful concepts like charity and service must be held in check from time to time; they can morph into sophisticated methodologies that neuter the severely traumatized and addicted from offering us anything but needs. Instead, what I suggest is that when we hear stories of trauma and addiction we should suspend our instinct to help and learn to listen and watch for the movement of God. If you want to meet Jesus, head out to the places and people you have largely dismissed and listen to them tell stories. Sometimes you will be unable to discern whether you are hearing stories of suffering or joy.
Christianity is fundamentally a faith in the trauma and resurrection of Jesus. The powers of evil believed their weapons of torture could defeat God, but paradoxically it is the trauma and death of Jesus that liberates the world. If we want to reveal the story of Jesus, we will be asked to confront the traumas that surround us. There will be seasons where this confrontation looks more like sorrow or anger for the traumas that have visited us—the loss of a brother in a car accident, the honesty to admit that sexual abuse existed in our family home, a friend who used access to our vulnerable stories to slander our reputation. But there are other seasons in which the trauma we confront is of our own doing—the recognition that our control has fractured the relationships with our spouse and children; the reality that we have hated ourselves for decades and it now contaminates everything, from our eating to our buying and the very theologies we embrace; of a gender that is responsible for so much of the degradation and violation of women.
The wonder and wisdom of the gospel is that God’s trauma addresses both these storylines. The atonement Jesus procures for us is the announcement that we are sinners who struggle with lust and anger but also the good news that this sin is not grounds for separation; it is the very soil in which the work of redemption will grow forth. Furthermore, Jesus’s death is also God’s invitation to be restored. It is God’s invitation to turn and face our wounds, to find the One who chooses not to be immune to or offended by our pain, and who instead becomes so acquainted with our pain that he offers his splayed and broken body for our nourishment and forgiveness.
In the years I have spent working with trauma, I have learned about the efficacy of good treatment, but I have learned far more about the nature of repentance. Repentance is not feeling guilty and doing our best not to make another mistake; it is turning to see the prodigal God who waits for our return so that a party can commence. This is Stacey’s God, and I long to know the delight she has found.
What I’ve learned is that I will know God most in my traumas. When I sin and when I am harmed by others, I often see Stacey’s face, as she playfully smacks at her gum, leaning over a counter, and looks into my eyes. It is as if she is asking me, “Jay, where is it that you come from that you would fall into this area of sin and violence?” And in other seasons she looks at me and says, “I wonder, now that this harm has happened to you, where will you go?”
Brene Brown, a professor who has spent her career researching authentic leadership and shame, has discovered that our capacity for wholeheartedness—what we might commonly refer to as wholeness, healing, and joy—can never be greater than our willingness to be broken hearted. If I am to live with a whole heart, then it will be to the degree that I am willing to enter into the depths of what I have experienced. How do I hold onto the reality that I have done great harm to others and to myself while also being vulnerable enough to open my wounded heart and body to receive comfort and kindness? Stacey’s life offers me the best answer I know—to read the thick maroon files of my life’s violation and pain and to be willing to ask others where to find the party.