A Missionary’s Story of PTSD and Healing

June 29, 2017

missionary story ptsd
For years I have been fascinated by trauma and PTSD. Having experienced much of this myself, I’ve studied to help those in war torn regions and missionaries heal from their pain.

What I’ve learned is trauma and PTSD can often be a silent killer among missionaries and aid workers.

I teamed up with my strong and vibrant friend Jessika Tate, a fellow missionary, whose story of battling PTSD inspired me. There’s a fierceness and compassion in her eyes as she holds her coffee cup and shares her story at my kitchen table in Redding, California. You would never know she’s been through a 2 year struggle, ending in her healing.

“Greenery twelve feet high towered around us on the single track dirt road as we entered rebel dominated territory in a war torn village in Congo. Clouds of dust and ash from molten lava rock billowed behind us in the truck as we rolled in. To our right was the amazing Justice Rising school we’d come to work with, one of the last few outposts of hope amidst so much death. It was dangerous but we felt called to go there. Children still played in the streets even though the night before they’d heard gunshots. Mamas laid their blankets outside on the grass to let them dry, the majestic hills behind them in the distance. Their lives went heroically on even in the middle of terror.

When nightfall came, the gunshots began only thirty feet away. I heard a small boy scream as he was hit, and a mother wailing. I’d just played with that boy the previous day. I could hear around 5 men talking just outside our hut. I was terrified they would try to jiggle the lock and get in. I huddled deeper into my bed. My heart was beating outside my chest and my breath came in shallows. The worst case scenarios of what could happen to me ran through my head: rape, losing my life. I wondered if I would have the courage to throw myself in front of a bullet to save the other two volunteer girls in the house if it came to that.

“I think the hardest part was being unable to do anything when the very people I’d come to help were hurt right outside my door, and I couldn’t save them.”

Her blue eyes filled with tears.

“That part still gets me.”

Weeks later, back in America, when the outbursts of irrational anger began, the nightmares and flashbacks, the overwhelming anxiety, Jess didn’t have a name for the symptoms she was experiencing. She would wake up in cold sweats. She would jump at the thud of a closing car door.

Eventually the idea of falling asleep frightened her. But she felt completely alone.

“No one ever talked about it in my church. I thought I might be going crazy. I was in ministry and I was broken. There was so much shame. I was prayed over a hundred times. People wanted me to have joy. But I didn’t have any joy. I couldn’t even hear God’s voice.”

After her third failed attempt to get help from a therapist, Jess became suicidal.

“It was the thought that I’d never get better that stole my hope. I didn’t take the medicine because there was so much stigma around it. If I could go back, I would take the meds just so I could sleep, and be able to make better decisions.”

Jess is not alone in her experience.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

1 out of every 9 women develops PTSD.

Research confirms that 94 percent of missionaries experience trauma on the field, with 86 percent of these people being exposed to multiple incidents, yet only half of these individuals reported suffering PTSD symptoms.

Trauma involves a painful, emotional experience or shock which overwhelms one’s ability to cope. Missionaries and aid workers are often exposed to dangerous events like robberies, sexual violence, accidents, war, and suffering.

Stress happens when an individual perceives that his or her demands surpass his or her coping resources and the effects of this strain affects some people more than others.

But trauma and PTSD can develop after a series of events.

Another interesting facet of trauma is that the events which often seem the most traumatic, do not always cause the most stress.

Sometimes it is the events that may not be considered very threatening which have a big impact.

Questionnaires have revealed that many missionaries can cope well with political instability and war situations because the conflict is external and not aimed at them personally. However,

“Personal criticism and conflict in relationships can be more difficult. Also the stress of ongoing frustrations should not be underestimated.” -Dieke

Many missionaries experience cumulative trauma, which is not tied to one specific event, but many difficult events over time which range from vicarious trauma, conflict on the field, rejection, to guilt and feelings of failure.

However, missionaries rarely admit depressive symptoms because they view depression, brokenness, or PTSD as a sin or lack of faith.

Sometimes their organization wants them to “toughen up,” “buck up” and keep moving forward. Unless treated, this can lead to burnout and the death of a missionary’s dreams.

Suffering is inevitable in our calling. But God doesn’t want us living as martyrs with a broken or divided heart.

Jess had a spiritual experience and shared her testimony on video here, where someone danced over her and she could feel a presence being released from her back. After that the physical symptoms of PTSD completely left her.

Jess is grateful, but recognizes her story of physical healing is not the norm.

Her emotional journey has taken much longer. It took time and therapy to deal with negative thought patterns, triggers, and feelings of rejection.

“It’s been a process. Learning to trust God and others again, that took time.”

Jess returned to Congo to support the work of Justice Rising not long after, and didn’t experience any PTSD symptoms. She often prays for people who are experiencing PTSD so they might know the joy she possesses.

But many times, healing is not a one time event. It’s a process. It takes commitment.

Here are four ways to heal from PTSD:

1. Normalization

You are not going crazy even though you might feel like it.

These are normal reactions to an abnormal event.

Having fear doesn’t mean you are not spiritual enough or there’s something wrong with you. You can take a PTSD screening quiz to see where you are at. Medication can often help bridge the gap to help you deal with your physical symptoms of anxiety and sleep while you build your emotional capacity.

2. Safely sharing

Seek out an environment or person where you feel safe and tell your story. Disclosing the unsolved trauma and accepting it as a past experience to be integrated into life is a crucial part of healing. Dr. Grant discloses in his research:

“Being unable to share feelings of rage, terror, and helplessness with understanding peers is sometimes more devastating than the actual trauma. Stifled despair is deadly.”

This is often done through counseling, inner healing, and the help of EMDR techniques. It can also be helpful to have weekly to bi-weekly processing of toxic stories in a debriefing setting such as in a group of supportive peers, on an as needed basis.

3. Acknowledge triggers and have a plan

Triggers can be anything that cause you fear, shame, panic, or a reliving of the past experience. I’ve found practicing Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills to be particularly helpful in my own case as well as having a self-care plan. Just because you are triggered doesn’t mean you are having a breakdown. When having a flashback, root yourself in the present. Locate the sound and say out loud to yourself, “It’s just a car door closing.” Touch objects in your present environment: “I am in the park. I am touching this chain link fence. I am not in danger.”

Be self-aware and trace where your fear is coming from: “Why am I feeling afraid? Is that thought true? Is that actually happening?”

4. Speak truth over yourself

One thing Jess says helped her the most was having hope. For her this came in the package of writing out Scripture verses and placing them all over her home as affirmations. They were messages of truth that reminded her who God was and who she was in the middle of it all even though she struggled to believe it. Romans 15:13 being her favorite.

When I asked Jess what one piece of advice would be for anyone struggling through trauma or PTSD, she said,

“Just don’t give up hope. You will get better. Find safe people and tell someone. Don’t suffer alone. This doesn’t have to be the end of your story.”

Jess and I hug as she leaves my house. I am struck by her beauty and resiliency. It gives me hope that together we can overcome anything.

One person’s pain can open a pathway for another’s healing.

Have you or someone you know experienced PTSD?

*If you think you might be experiencing PTSD, don’t suffer alone. Reach out to find people and resources to help you.

For further reading:
The PTSD Workbook