It has taken me almost sixty-four years to admit and understand how much trauma I have had in life. In 2009, I saw a counselor for the first time. Over the next twelve years, he helped me understand my past (and present), peeling back the layers of my life one ply at a time. This process was excruciating and painful, but necessary. While we talked about the various traumas I have experienced in my life, no attempt was made to understand them collectively. Left unanswered was how these traumas affected and informed my present, how they affected me psychologically, and how they influenced my decision-making.
Late last year, I started seeing a new counselor. While I talk with her about many of the same things I talked about with my first counselor (both are psychologists), my last session with her showed me how deeply I have been affected by trauma. She recommended I read Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which I am currently doing.
As I painfully and honestly reflect on my life, I can now see and try to understand past traumas, especially those during a five-year period in my life: 1968-1972.
During this period of time:
- I attend five different schools.
- I lived in eight different houses.
- My parents divorced and remarried (Mom married her first cousin, a recently paroled robber and drug addict, and Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby).
- My mother, who had been repeatedly molested by her father and had battled mental illness most of her life, tried to kill herself numerous times. In one year, Mom overdosed on prescription medications, pulled her car in front of a truck, and slit her wrists. At the age of eleven, I came home from school and found Mom lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. (In 1991, Mom killed herself. She was fifty-four. Please see Barbara.)
- Dad had an affair with an unknown woman.
- Dad was investigated by the FBI for robbery and the ATF for illegal gun sales.
- Dad embezzled $10,000 from Combined Insurance Company.
- I contracted measles, mumps, and chicken pox in one year, missing thirty-nine days of school.
- I was treated for muscle and joint problems (wrongly labeled “growing pains” at the time).
During this period of time, Mom and Dad stopped being parents, leaving me and my younger siblings to fend for ourselves. My parents didn’t abuse me, per se, they abandoned me, leaving me to fend for myself. Mom tried, when mentally stable, to support me, but such times were rare. Dad? He was AWOL. (Please see Questions: Bruce Did Your Bad Relationship with Your Father Lead to You Leaving Christianity? and Questions: Bruce, How Was Your Relationship with Your Father?)
I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Trauma was not acknowledged or talked about. In fact, such discussions were frowned upon. I was taught that Jesus changes everything, that he was the answer to every question, the solution to every problem. Instead of dwelling on the past, I was told to move on, let go and let God. Pastor after pastor said that not having victory in my life was a “sin,” a lack of faith, trust, and dependence on God. Imagine being a traumatized child sitting in the pews hearing that your problems were insignificant in light of the suffering of Jesus on the cross; that all your “problems” will magically disappear if you get saved and follow Jesus. I would later learn that the very preachers preaching these things had their own traumas, their own secrets, their own “sins.” As an adult and a pastor myself, I learned that these preachers of holiness and godliness were just as fucked up as I was. In fact, I never met a preacher who didn’t have traumas and secrets, things they hid from congregants because church members expected them to be winners.
By not helping me embrace, understand, and deal with my trauma (and by not encouraging me to get professional help), my pastors, youth directors, and teachers unwittingly furthered the trauma in my life. Their words and behavior towards me left deep, lasting scars. How could it be otherwise? Trauma begets trauma. I entered college, marriage, and the ministry with deeply-seated, unresolved trauma. This, of course, caused all sorts of problems in my marriage, relationships with my children, and the churches I pastored. Is it any surprise that a young life of constant upheaval and moving fueled an adult life of upheaval and moving? That even now, I am restless, a wanderlust spirit?
It’s regrettable that I had to wait until I was almost sixty-five years old to fully understand how trauma has shaped and affected my life. Will I finally put these traumas to rest? Maybe. I now know there is a lot of work I must do, with the help of my counselor and family, to find peace and happiness in my life. Maybe it is too late for me. Maybe not. All I know to do is try . . .
My Evangelical critics will see this post as an admission that I was damaged goods, that I had no business being a pastor. Maybe. I am more inclined to think that my trauma helped me to be more kind, loving, and compassionate towards the people I pastored; people who had their own traumas. I don’t know one pastor who doesn’t have baggage. I spent thirty-five years, both as a teen preacher boy and a seasoned pastor, interacting with pastors, youth directors, evangelists, and missionaries. I know their secrets, their traumas, their sins. Trust me, things are not what they seem. I suspect that can be said for all of us.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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Everyone has baggage, albeit some (like you) have more than others. But you are at least honest and willing to look at your life and try to change, even now! That takes courage, my friend.
In my family we are going through dealing with trauma. Each of us is dealing with it in different ways. None of it is easy. Wishing you well in your journey. Trauma is real.
Thank-you for continuing to share your heart, Bruce. I respect your mind and I learn much from you but I am in awe of that heart.
They talk about the neuroplasticity of the brain and how children, especially very young kids have this amazing quality of adaptation and survival. I think this is obviously connected with that phenomenon we call ‘heart’. Heart and mind go together in life. The Christian message is bunk, fouled with the punishment paradigm and cave-talk of sin and retribution, heaven and hell but the human heart can be changed through hard work, its true. It is not a magic worshipping and bowing to some Authority but by doing the hard human work that you are doing, learning to be honest with yourself, learning what harm you have done to yourself and therefore others too and being willing to stop, to say, ‘No’, and to seek ways to be in the world without diminishing it.
I think you are a good man, the best kind of American. I am so grateful your teetering nation has your voice. I think your heart is changing all the time now, better and better every day. Perhaps the human heart is not only built to be broken but to heal too, to be more truly alive, to be more than saved, to become more and more human.
Thank you for sharing that information with us. I think it is a very giving person who can lay out their lives like that and admit they are not perfect – and the reasons why – like most of us. I can’t remember if I told you this story before but here goes:
I was in class of about 80 students in 1990, all of us in an Education program at a local University. We had speakers who would come in and address the class on various topics. Once, we had a fellow who had been a terrible alcoholic. By terrible, I mean he had been on the streets for years, lost his first family, and had basically been on skid row before he got sober. He asked for a show of hands in the auditorium, to indicate who among us had had an alcoholic parent. I was astounded by the response. I looked around in somewhat of a daze when about 80% of the hands went up. Many of us had tears in our eyes to realize that our ‘issue’ was so widespread. It was also eye-opening to realize that so many of us had gravitated to the ‘humanities’. I have always felt that the one issue – having had an alcoholic parent – made us all very compassionate and understanding of the young people in our care who might not have the wonderful lives that appeared on the surface, just like those other 80 students in my adult class that day. It was one of those pivotal moments in my life, as they say.
Bruce, I’m commenting before reading anyone else’s comment, so that I can respond as though we were sitting having some A&W together and you just shared this with me. 🙂
It’s not too late.
I’m grateful you are acknowledging your trauma and beginning to understand the impact it has had on your life.
Peace often comes in pieces.
I think this post is your most important post yet . . . and I’ve been reading you forever! 🙂
I read that book last year, and several more like it. There’s a complicated interplay between our pasts, our current health problems, our life choices, and our mind/body dynamic. Nothing is simple. Everything is multifactorial.
I also found a lot of help from the curable app as well. Some of the content is free, but it’s about $60 for a year to access all of the info. But some of the content is duplicated from some podcasts that are free at https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/like-mind-like-body/id1265323809 and https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/tell-me-about-your-pain/id1503847664
I’m joining an online 6 week support group next month for managing the long Covid experience, led by a licensed therapist.
Again – an excellent post.
Your courage and bravery in sharing this and being open is to be applauded. Your critics can be weasels in the dark, you have more conviction than any of them.
Ben, I totally agree with your comment. 🙂👍