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"Trauma has a geography."

“Trauma has a geography.” Our heads nodded in agreement when David and I heard this insight spoken by counselors Bob and Judy Pardon during a healing retreat at Fall Creek Abbey. We knew from our own past suffering and from those we companion that our brains pin traumatic memories to the location where the trauma took place.

  • Like the location where you experienced sexual abuse or rape.

  • Or the place where your spouse confessed to infidelity and asked for a divorce.

  • Or the clinic where you had an abortion.

  • Or the school where you were bullied.

  • Or the exact room when you got “the news” and the bottom fell out of life.

  • Or the hospital you went to for chemotherapy.

  • Or the stretch of highway where you were involved in a serious car crash.

For us, what instantly came to mind was the geography of the trauma we suffered during the last year of our tenure at a mega church. For the next couple of years, we found ourselves unable to drive past the church building without a visceral response that felt like reliving the trauma all over again.


Yet I hadn’t thought about the geography of our recent trauma until this morning while sitting on the screened porch at the Lily Pad, our tiny cabin in SW Michigan. We drove up yesterday to spend a few days recuperating from all that transpired the last four weeks. We had an intuition that it would be good for us to come to our “happy place” to begin the process of metabolizing the trauma.


It makes more sense to me now that our instinct to move away from the location of our trauma might be just what we need to digest the impact of the trauma. If I understand the concept of trauma, it’s physical, like geography, and is our whole-body response to a life-threatening event over which we have no control. And, by the way, life-threatening includes anything that threatens the life of the soul, as well as the body.


That’s how it felt the evening after David’s second surgery when he was moved to a PCU floor on a breathing machine. My daughter, Bri, and I were anxiously waiting for him (for hours) when they finally brought him to his room. The nurse turned to me and asked, “Are you planning to spend the night?” I stammered a bit and replied, “Well, uh, do you think I should?” She responded, “Yes. With him on this much oxygen, I’d hate to have to call you in the middle of the night to come back.” I looked at him, at his sorry, sad eyes, and he said imploringly, “Please stay with me.” Of course. Of course.


The best way I can describe that moment and subsequent moments is the sensation of a “free fall.” Like in a bad dream when you’re falling from somewhere high and you don’t have anything to grab hold of; any ability to stop, slow down, or control the descent. You have no idea when things will end, or how they will end. You feel absolutely powerless and helpless. That’s the experience of trauma.


And that’s the trauma I’ve brought with me to a different geography, one that is a contrast to our life in the city. Every direction we turn, we’re surrounded by natural beauty. The lake, forest, and prairie; the songs of birds and scuttle of black squirrels; and this morning, a soft, gentle rain. In this moment, all of it feels medicinal to my soul.


We will recuperate here for a few days, taking in “what just happened,” spending time praying and processing with God and one another. We know from our history with Jesus, the gracious and compassionate Lover-of-our-souls, that it will take time for all that has happened to be assimilated so that we can return to the geography of home and abide there without living in unreasonable fear of what will happen next. As with any sort of spiritual progress, to be continued….


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