One of the words that commonly came up, when people were describing at the Washington conference their experiences of having been in a cult environment in the past, was the word ‘trigger’. This word signifies an event in the present that evokes very powerfully something from the past that was highly unpleasant or traumatic. The individual, in experiencing a ‘trigger’, has a past event replayed in his mind in a way that is highly distressing. Triggering is a concept that is frequently used in the context of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder, normally shortened to its acronym PTSD, has been identified and described for some 35 years. Before it was included in the third edition of American Diagnostic Manual of mental disorders in 1980, it had existed as ‘severe shock’, ‘shell shock’ or ‘gross stress reaction’ . The new PTSD diagnosis was able to be used to describe the survivors of the Vietnam war and others affected by notorious disasters in the 80s and 90s. For us in the UK, the Lockerbie plane crash and the Dunblane shooting constituted the most memorable public traumatic events. In such incidents trauma spreads out in waves from those immediately affected to enfold those who are bystanders, members of the wider community, not to mention those who have the task of physically removing the traces of the horrors that have overtaken the communities. To some extent the horror of such events touches everyone in society.
Not everyone who witnesses terrible things or experiences goes on to develop PTSD. But among those who do, maybe through having to experience the endless loop of reliving the traumatic event, it is a highly distressing mental condition. It is in this context that the word ‘trigger’ comes to the fore. The event that sets off the trigger may be of little or no consequence but it powerfully reminds the sufferer of what he or she went through in the moment of trauma. The soldier who saw comrades blown up in war, may react violently to unexpected noise. The woman who has been raped may find that any form of touch makes her freeze and tense up. In both these situations the individual has been forced to experience again an event which had once completely overwhelmed the human capacity to process and assimilate what was happening. Something else that took place afterwards brought the original event to mind, had the power to set up a highly distressing reaction in the individual concerned. This trigger reaction is not only distressing and unpleasant but it is also mentally disabling. Normal functioning and living is put on hold for minutes, hours or even days at a time.
There is much more that could be said about PTSD, (Cindy has sent me details of an up-to-date online presentation The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD) how it manifests itself and how it may be treated, but I want to move on to considering how traumatic stress affects those who have had abusive experiences in a church context. What might these experiences consist of? One whole area of traumatic experience might centre on the moment when an individual found themselves excluded or shunned. This, I have suggested, cuts deep into one’s experience of personhood and sense of self-worth. Although physical violence may not have been involved in the event, feelings of shame and intense abandonment may have been involved in the event. Another traumatic moment might be the shock of betrayal when there is a realisation that the Christian follower has invested years of loyal service to an organisation that is through and through corrupt and self-serving. What had been heard as the word of God was found to be the words of a dishonest and maybe greedy leader. Another area of church life, on which Chris may have something to say, is the constant exposure to guilt and shame. This is subsequently recognised to be part of a subtle and deliberate attempt to control the individual. Even after it has been so identified, the trauma of feeling constantly guilty has been so internalised that it cannot be easily shaken off. There are in fact numerous areas of awareness that are constantly drummed into member of extreme high-demand churches and groups, which continue to cause inner havoc long after the member has left. We might mention the habit of obedience without question so that independent thinking is almost impossible. Some of the particular experiences of belonging may not of themselves be trauma in the narrow sense, but they, taken together, can leave the ex-member with a mountain of baggage and traumas which affect him or her every bit as a survivor of Dunblane.
This thinking about the survivor of a cultic church and that of a disaster having areas of common experience, no doubt needs further working out. Perhaps in the earlier paragraphs I have focussed on a survivor of a disaster or trauma which has lasted perhaps only a few minutes or hours. The survivor of a trauma connected to a church or cult may be the survivor of a less intense experience, but one that has lasted for years or even decades. These two areas of experience do however seem to share the same effects in the way that past events constantly threaten to overwhelm into consciousness and disrupt and disturb the task of ordinary living. To quote one of the criteria for PSTD, ‘the disturbance must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas functioning important to the person’. That anything to do with God could have such a terrible legacy in its wake, is a horrifying indictment of the way that Christianity is sometimes taught and practised in our world. Jesus came, not to bring distress and disturbance, but light, freedom and the fullness of life.