On a chilly day in January 2017, I nervously started my seven-month counseling internship, where half of my time was spent at Victory Mission Men’s Shelter in North Springfield. Victory Mission began in 1976 when Rev. and Mrs. Everett Cook saw the needs of homeless people in downtown Springfield and started distributing sandwiches and coffee from the back of their station wagon.
Over the years, the organization has moved beyond outreach to focus on empowerment through intentional programs and its emergency shelter. My job was to counsel the men in their recovery program. This is where I was quickly introduced to the stories of men who went through some unbelievably adverse situations in childhood and/or as adults. What they had experienced was trauma.
What is Trauma?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes individual trauma as resulting from "an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
There are 3 kinds of trauma: acute, chronic, or complex.
In those first few months at my internship, I heard story after story about all kinds of abuse, violence, neglect, abandonment and poverty. As I would come to discover, there was even more trauma to be unpacked.
I am now a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist (CCTS-I), and a Certified Biblical Counselor. This May marks five years walking with men through trauma at Victory Mission. I have met with over 500 men, and this is what I have discovered so far.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Each person at Victory Mission takes the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) test. It is a 10-question test covering each category of adverse experiences before the age of 18 years. It has shown an intriguing link between childhood trauma and chronic diseases, as well as social and emotional problems.
According to the CDC, an ACE score of 4 or higher brings three times the risk for depression, a four-fold increased risk for alcohol use, and a significant increase in the risk of 7 out of 10 leading causes of adult death, including; heart disease, stroke, cancer, COPD, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and suicide. People with 6 or more ACEs died nearly 20 years earlier on average than those without ACEs.
Throughout my five years at Victory Mission, the average ACE score among the men with whom I work is 6. The most common confirmed answers were poverty, physical abuse, emotional abuse, separated or divorced parents, substance use in the home, and witnessing a mother or mother-figure be physically abused. Out of 500 people, only 26 had parents who stayed together. That is only 5% in five years who had parents who were never separated or divorced. Nearly 95% of the men did not have a stable or present parental figure in childhood. This was shocking.
I have had the honor of walking with these childhood trauma survivors, who are now adults, in trying to figure out how to journey through life. Trauma has been known to short-circuit how the brain stores and processes memory. It can cause the brain to remain in a state of hypervigilance. This is what I have observed in these trauma survivors. I have seen how drastically trauma has impacted these men through their reported anxiety, nightmares, hypervigilance, anger, irritability, suicidal thoughts, and shame.
Dr. Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery says that “traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.”
That is exactly what I have observed in these men, but there is a light up ahead!
Responding to Trauma in Others
As a faith-based counselor, and in the midst of all of these adverse experiences and pain, I have also discovered there is hope.
I have seen men learn to adapt to a new normal as God heals them one step at a time. I strive to do two things: connect and empower. Through connection, I want to build rapport with them as I invest in understanding them better. This means I try to listen well, ask good questions and avoid assumptions.
We go slow, create space, and work on building resources so I can meet them where they are at. I empower them by restoring volition and by validating their experience, encouraging small decisions, and helping them recognize their own power. I want to avoid quick solutions, honor their storytelling, and thank them for sharing. Their speed is the right speed and God is faithful at the pace they set for themselves.
Slowly but surely, I have observed these men begin to understand they are having a normal response to the abnormal traumatic event. Their view of God, themselves, and others began to gradually change. Their quick responses and nightmares also began to slowly change. They also started to deny the temptation to let their circumstances define them. Their trauma has drastically impacted them but it does not define them. They are not felons, Schizophrenics, or criminals. They are people. People with great worth and purpose who God loves no matter what.
Trauma hijacks the truth, but when they are able to regain their voice and truth in their life, then they can begin to be healed and continue to adapt as a survivor of trauma.
My conclusion is this: Please be kind to one another. Trauma hits all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. We are all walking around wounded to some degree. You never know what someone has been through. Listen to understand. Do not minimize their pain. Listen again when they want to share more. Thank them for sharing, pray for them and remind them there is hope.
Kevin Stratton serves as the counseling director at Victory Mission in Springfield, MO. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist (CCTS-I), and a Certified Biblical Counselor (ABC). Kevin also spent18 years working for churches in Missouri and Texas dealing with youth, media, worship, discipleship, and care ministries. He has been married to his beautiful wife, Carey, for 12 years. They have a daughter Esther (8) and a son, Ezra (4).