When Moving Forward Means Going Back

Albuquerque & Personal News

Green chile everywhere. Hot air balloon festivals at dawn with a thermos of hot chocolate. Dry, blistering summer days. First swim lessons. My second-grade guinea pigs mating and reproducing while I cared for them on a school break.

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico from age four to eight — those are a few of the memories that stick out from those years. I haven’t been back since I was a child. Now, it looks like I’ll be returning at least 3 times over the next two years.

Last week, I was accepted into the 2019-2021 Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) that is based in Albuquerque. The CAC is a center for spirituality that merges contemplative practices with an equipping for service and justice work.

The Living School is a two-year program, mostly online with three in-person extensives, that admits 205 students per cohort. It is in its essence a Jesus-centered program but incorporates genuine good-faith exploration of perennial wisdom including other religions, honest historical studies, and academic psychology.

The Living School is a “third way” answer to prayer for me — as someone who frequently finds myself at intellectual odds with religious paradigms but still feels a deep call to divine love and service, I didn’t know if there was a place for me. Father Richard Rohr’s work has helped me find common ground between science/humanism and childlike faith, both of which can fluctuate between helpful and stunting, both of which tend to be dead ends without the other (at least for me).

I’m honored and excited for this opportunity. But, I’m also nervous.

For one thing, this is the first time I’m really committing to something since being hurt by systems and people for not fitting in correctly. It’s hard to trust again.

For another, I’ve recently been working through some childhood traumas that have affected me way more than I realized until making therapy a priority this past year. I won’t go into detail, but one was repeated sexual abuse and another was a period of bullying at school.

Both happened in Albuquerque. Both when I was just six or seven years old.

Going forward in my spiritual maturity means literally going back to the place of my earliest traumas.

Trauma & Therapy

I’m a little bit terrified of going back to the same roads, the same landscapes, from a time that my brain has worked so hard to block out.

Yet… there’s something redemptive and beautiful about it. Like, of course this is the way forward.

It’s through.

In grad school and in my personal time, I’ve been studying a lot about trauma. I’m working on some longer writing projects that will go into more detail. The science that is emerging about the way our brains and bodies store trauma is complex, fascinating, and sometimes daunting.

The traumatic things that happen to us don’t just disappear with time and distraction. They are stored inside us, and they can affect us from the inside out until we deal with them.

That sucks, man.

But that’s not the whole story.

  • Trauma CAN be processed with patience, gentleness, and support. I’m emotionally healthier now than I’ve ever been, even before my rock bottom moments, because I’m not repressing or running away from the difficult stuff and I’ve surrounded myself with genuinely supportive people.
  • Trauma response is about keeping us alive. When we go through something awful, we might not have the resources to fully deal with it right in that moment. Maybe it jeopardizes our worldview or our understanding of God (“Why would God let this happen?”). Maybe we don’t have the social support or healthy coping tools to process it fully. So, our brains — and our bodies — tuck it away so that we can keep on living.
  • Trauma therapies are expanding in the most amazing ways. Scientists are finding chemical compounds that can reverse the effects of depression in our brains. Cognitive Behavior Therapy and spiritual practices are exploding, empowering people to be to take more control of their lives, building resilience and self-efficacy.

For me, this is such a powerful evidence for the inherent value of life.

I think in simple terms, the God I imagined growing up was transactional and formulaic.

If I pray and believe and study the Bible and take believing action, everything will work out how it’s supposed to.

I tried so hard to make Life fit into my view of God. Now, I learn about God by actually looking at Life.

Life is resilient and redemptive.
Life is tenacious.
Life is designed to let us learn from our past, not to be trapped by it.

Therapy has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, and it’s not because my therapist is magical or anything. Therapy means I’m devoting consistent time to checking in with myself and staying accountable to re-wiring bad habits and thought patterns. Therapy means I’m investing in my own well-being. Therapy means I don’t have to be scared of my emotions or experiences because I can learn how to work through them.

I’m of the opinion that everyone from a strict religious background (times 1,000 for women) should consider seeing a therapist because most of us have been taught not to listen to our own bodies in order to fit the narratives and doctrines we were taught.

This is just a friendly reminder that God created all of you. Your emotions, your intellect, your sexuality, your capacity for joy and pain alike.

They all belong. All of you belongs. It’s possible to live as a whole human, guided not by exploitative legalism but by sincere values. Personally, I think that’s exactly what God wants.

Therapy is just one of the conditions that helps me heal and flourish — there are others like supportive relationships, exercise and nutrition, reading constructive books, and making time for things I enjoy. But for the person feeling increasingly trapped by thoughts or emotions, therapy might be the place to start.

I remember feeling nervous about the idea of opening up to someone in such a vulnerable way. If it’s your first time, consider asking a friend to drive you for your first couple of sessions so you can talk about the experience afterward and make sure you feel comfortable there. The 3-session rule can be helpful: by the third session, you should feel generally positive about your therapist or counselor. If not, you can find someone else. And you can build trust over time, at the pace you are ready for.

Most cities have subsidized counseling programs that are inexpensive or on a sliding, need-based scale, so please don’t ever let resources keep you from taking your wellness seriously. You deserve compassionate care. There is always a way.

I’m definitely excited about the learning and the community that the Living School will bring. If I can manage it, I’ll stay in my Master’s program as well — I’ve decided on a Counseling Psychology concentration which will hopefully pair well with the contemplative aspects of the Living School.

But the thought of going back to Albuquerque is still complicated.

In this case, it seems like the way forward is to go back.

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