During graduate school, aspiring therapists spend a year in a clinical setting learning to translate theories into practice. About three months into my clinical training at a hospice, I was starting to feel a bit more confident that I had something to offer my clients. My confidence flew out the window the day I met Sheila (a pseudonym).
Sheila’s story shaped my career as a therapist.
I felt some trepidation even before our first session because I knew from the brief notes provided by the hospice team that she was a young woman whose infant son died shortly after birth. I was keenly aware of my inexperience as I showed her to our consultation room, my heart pounding, hoping that I could offer her something that would help her through one of the most challenging losses anyone can experience. I will never be quite sure why, but during our first session, Sheila disclosed a significant history of early childhood physical and sexual abuse, a story she told me she had never shared with anyone. Part of me was saying, “I have no idea how to help her with this!” Fear of doing harm kept me from saying much at all. Working with Sheila motivated me to learn about the impact of adversity on our functioning.
All of us experience adversity.
Adversity takes many forms, including the more egregious issues of abuse and neglect and challenges such as divorce, death of a parent or caregiver, and even multiple moves. None of us entirely escape adversity. The earlier in life we encounter adversity, and the more adverse events we experience, the more significant their impact on our sense of identity and functioning.
There are many effective approaches to treating the impact of adversity. One thing they all have in common is connection. Adversity disconnects us from one another, from aspects of ourselves (such as overwhelming emotions), and even from God as we struggle to understand how a loving God can allow suffering.
Persistent challenges rob us of joy and peace, even calling into question some of our deeply held beliefs – that God loves us unconditionally and personally, that we matter, and that God hears our cries. The “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4, KJV) is a tender, sacred place. When we are traveling this difficult path, loving relationships provide a container for our wounded hearts.
We need the safety of loving relationships.
Ideally, the Church would be one of the places we experience a sense of connection and the safety of loving relationships, particularly when we face challenges. However, when that is not the case, when the Church is not a reliable source of loving relationships, we have a problem. Sometimes the Church even becomes another source of adversity.