The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened. They find themselves unable to communicate their condition to those who remained at home, resenting civilians for their blind innocence. – David Brooks
This past Sunday I went to church. “What’s the big deal with that?” you may ask. Millions of people all over the world attend church on Sundays. For a person who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), going to church or any place where people congregate can be daunting, if not impossible.
I have attended church ever since I was born and it has always been a place where I found peace and guidance. Raised in a Southern Baptist church I love the old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Softly and Tenderly”. Most of my social encounters as a child involved church. During my career in the Federal government I lived in many places all over the country. People ask me how I could ever feel at home. I tell them I always found a church to attend. When you attend church you have a family; a family that drives you crazy and you disagree with on occasion, but when the chips are down they are there for you and you for them.
When I was deployed to Afghanistan I attended church services. At my forward operating base in Kapisa Province, a chaplain would come once a month from Bagram Air Base to hold a service. Not many people attended but a few did and “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” When I moved to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul I would go with a group of people in an embassy van to Camp Eggers, a NATO facility, on Sunday nights for services led by the U.S. military. Several people who had musical instruments provided music and those services were so special to me, a welcome break in my 12 hour/6 day work week.
Once when the service was over and another woman and I were waiting for our ride, I heard rapid gunfire off to the left. When we got into the van we were prevented from taking the usual route back to the embassy. We were stopped at one checkpoint and it was obvious that something was up as the guards were in full tactical gear and on high alert. One opened the door and screamed at our Afghan driver, “You’re not going anywhere! We’re on bulldog! We’re on lockdown!” Not a novice to such situations I settled back to wait for whatever was going on to be resolved. The woman with me had never been exposed to this level of alert and she got out of the vehicle yelling at the guard to tell her what was going on and demanding we be allowed to go to the embassy. I grabbed her arm and told her to get back into the car. I explained that we needed to be calm and let the military do their job. She was visibly upset and close to tears. After about 10 minutes we were allowed to go to the embassy where we went through another checkpoint where a bomb sniffing dog checked our van for explosives and then a last checkpoint where the hood was lifted and we went through a much more thorough check than usual. I asked the guard what was going on. He said something was happening at the CIA Annex, which is adjacent to the Embassy. It turned out to be an Afghan employee who had worked at the annex for two years had shot a civilian contractor and a gunfight had ensued until he was shot and killed, hence the gunfire I had heard. As you can see, even going to church in Afghanistan can be fraught with danger.
When I returned home to Maine I found that integrating back into “normal” life was not so easy. Being in a crowd could bring on debilitating panic attacks and it was difficult for me to sit with my back to a door. I went with my daughter to her church and I was so nervous I was shaking inside. I sat in the last row in the seat farthest from the door, hoping that out of my peripheral vision I could see if an armed person came in and I would be able to disable him before he killed anyone. I knew people would think I was insane if they knew I was having these thoughts in this beautiful, peaceful church. Finally, feeling I could not breathe, I left the service early to go sit with my daughter who was teaching in the children’s church. That was over two years ago and I have not been able to attend church until this week.
I had not planned to go to church Sunday. I was happily enjoying my morning when I felt the need to attend. I quickly got dressed and starting looking up times for churches close to my home. Several started at 10:00AM and I was too late for those services, but one church a little farther from my home started later. My plan was just to sneak in inconspicuously, get the closest I could to the back then slip out after the service. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church I noticed it didn’t have a front door. I saw some red double doors under a carport in the back and tried those but they appeared to be locked. I walked around the church thinking there must be a door I just didn’t see in the front. As I tiptoed in my high heels across the grassy lawn I realized there really was no front door. I continued around the building and a side door opened and a man stuck his head out. “Where is the way in?” I asked. He said to go back to the double red doors. “They’re locked, “I told him. “No, they just stick.”
By the time I got in I was late and everyone turned to look at me. I slunk to the nearest pew, totally embarrassed. Then the preacher started asking me questions. “Are you in the right place? Is this where you meant to come?” On and on. I just wanted to grab my Bible and leave but I was immobilized by my discomfort. We sang several songs and they made me feel a little better but when the preacher gave his sermon several things he said just rubbed me the wrong way. This is what I had been afraid of; that I would not be able to sit quietly and I would make a scene. “Just leave,” I kept telling myself, looking uneasily over my shoulder. Instead I turned to the book of Matthew and began to read the words of Jesus. His teachings of love and acceptance calmed me enough to allow me make it through the rest of the service.
When church was dismissed I shook hands with the preacher, my insides shaking from pent up emotions. I noticed a bench along the back wall that would have been perfect to sit in had I the opportunity to scout it out in advance. Although everyone was very welcoming, I don’t think I’ll go back to this particular church, but I will try again. While it had been a stressful situation, arriving late and having the focus turned solely on me, I felt triumphant in the sense that I toughed it out. I didn’t jump up and make a scene when I disagreed with the preacher. Nothing bad happened. No one came in and shot up the church. I survived, just as I survived going to church in Afghanistan in spite of real danger.
PTSD robs you of simple pleasures like attending church, or fairs, or concerts, or movies – any place where there are a lot of people. I made a tiny baby step Sunday toward claiming my freedom to enjoy all those things again. It will be a long time in coming and I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely safe in a crowd, but I can see a future where I can sing “I’ll Fly Away” without actually flying away.