The Broken Way: What I Learned from an African Mental Hospital-I

November 10, 2016

cape town south africa

“Why are we afraid of broken things? What if the abundance of communion is only found there in the brokenness of suffering–because suffering is where God lives? Suffering is where God gives the most healing intimacy.”  -Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way-

Sunset in Cape Town is like a world set on fire.

The pinks and red hues dipped into the Atlantic Ocean in furious delight. The waves crashed loud and the marshy, sea salt spray filled my nostrils. Behind me, a rock called Lion’s Head because of the shape of it, and the way it drapes its mountainous body around Sea Point, like a shelter, felt like a little nod from Heaven. An inside joke. Father was there with me too. I felt my soul sigh with relief. After 36+ hours of travel, I’d made it.

I’d come to this beautiful country of South Africa to serve on a volunteer team with an organization called Thrive, whose main purpose is to provide retreats for women, global aid workers who live in harsh environments and need healing and care. It’s a contagious concept. And everything is done with a kind of excellence from the fancy hotel, delicious buffet of food, to the color coordinated gift baskets. I felt blessed to be a part of it.

Over the next two weeks close to 150 women would walk through the lobby doors, look out at the ocean view, and take a deep breath. I was there to provide counseling and coaching to these women who have carried the hurts of their work like a limp with them, some for months, others for years. I was also there to see if Thrive would be a good fit for me long term to serve with.

That night I got to meet more of the volunteer team of women who had given up 2 weeks of their lives to serve missionary women. I immediately liked their joyful manner, their big huge hearts of love. I knew we were going to get along just fine.

Little did I know the highs and lows that awaited me.

I am terrified to write this and put it out into the world, but I know for me, for authenticity, for healing, it’s necessary.

I wouldn’t call myself an easy person, because I have a strong personality, I have opinions formed from years of experience, and years of anonymity where my identity was forged in the suffering, and in the healing that followed. I am not malleable, and I’m not one easily controlled. I know who I am and I know what I think, and I understand that can be scary for some people.

I’m a question asker, a reformer, a revolutionary. I am a warrior and sometimes I can be fierce in the face of protecting those I find vulnerable. I’m always looking for ways we can better serve missionary women or global worker women (whatever you want to call them) because I’ve been one and I understand the hardships of it, the loneliness of it, the need to connect with God and others again, when you’ve lived for so long disconnected from your heart just to survive your world.

and the only way out of that is to reconnect with our whole heart and soul again. And to reconnect with our Father.

This path is often a painful one, as the journey of the hero always it. And it must be chosen.

I was amazed at the women who walked through my door for counseling. To me, they were heroic.

For me, it was an answer to prayer I’ve been praying for many years. “Lord, use me. I’m willing.”

About a year ago, last November, I went through an incredibly tough time associated with a kind of nervous breakdown of undefined origins (which I’ll explain more in depth next time) but before I fully entered that abyss of darkness, a woman at Bethel church came up to me while I was on the floor sobbing.

She said that she saw me standing by a stream and I had a little bag, like David had for his stones. I was bending over the stream to pick up these beautiful pearls and place them in my bag. And she felt like the Lord was saying that these were His pearls of great price, the ones He’d died for, His daughters who were oppressed and needed healing all over the globe. And He was giving them to me.

I held onto that Word, like prophecy, like balm to my bones when I went through a season when I couldn’t help anyone but myself. When I doubted if I would ever be of good to anyone ever again. When I felt unqualified for my own call.

It was a season of deep loneliness, depression, and isolation, a season of rejection, abandonment and self doubt. I lost friends. I lost my identity. I doubted I’d ever be healed enough again to walk out my call.

And worse, it was a story that was still unfolding, one I couldn’t entrust to the world yet.

I didn’t understand yet Father’s broken path into healing, into deeper intimacy of His heart.

After my first few sessions in Cape Town with some beautiful women who were brave enough to show me their wounds and brave enough to face their own pain and then receive their own healing, my Father reminded me of that Word.

These were His beautiful pearls.

These were the ones He was thinking of when He sent me out, when He walked me through seasons of utter darkness. These were His pearls of great price, and because I’d paid the price, I was getting to see the healing, and the freedom. And I realized all of a sudden, that in the midst of this little town in Cape Town, I’d found my calling again.

These women were the joy set before me for which I’d endured my own cross, and for which Jesus had endured His. Their freedom was a price He had bought and paid for, and now I was there to just hold their hands as they accessed it.

It was one of the most profound, inexorably beautiful moments of my life. The moment I realized what I was made for, and the moment I understood why I’d had to go through the things I did.

Some people believe you can have beauty without pain and light without dark, that there isn’t a symbiotic relationship. I don’t believe that. 

As any mother whose ever gone through labor knows, it is hard work, and it is suffering, but at the end of it all it is worth it, and you’d do it all over again, because of that reward, that joy, the joy of that child in your arms, set before you.

I don’t have my own physical children yet. But I have birthed things in the Spirit before, things which I’ve sown, things which I’ve bled for, and paid the price for, and in that moment I could feel that this was the reason. These women they were the face of that child that erases the memory of pain. Their healing was His reward and it was my reward, a gift from Him, like a medal one might receive at the end of a long race.

And if that’s all I’ve ever done on this planet, than I am grateful for that one glimpse of what it feels like to have found your purpose.

I am blessed to have known the love of the Father and to have released it, and to see everywhere that breath goes, life breaks forth in bloom.

And you know it has very little to do with you, you being just a conduit of grace, just a channel, just a vessel. You know the best things happen when you just get out of the way.


That’s part of what Father was teaching me on this trip.

So of course after the apex of my revelation, after the opening of the prison doors, and the joyous shout of freedom from His daughters, the rumblings began, the trembling that would try to destroy me.

Some people don’t believe in any “dark force,” that there is any real ominous presence that might push back when we are spreading love, healing, and God’s light into the world. But having lived overseas on the mission field, I can tell you it’s not just the “spooky” paranormal, it’s just not the stuff relegated to sci-fi movies and TV shows, it’s REAL and when you begin to take territory in a battle, there is darkness that will push back to establish equilibrium.

And just as that first retreat was leaving, and the second group of women were showing up for their chance at wholeness, I got locked in my room. Like literally. Locked in. What they called a door mechanical failure. For an hour. They had to break down the door from the inside.

And me on the floor trying to remember how to breathe. Because part of me remembered I’d been here before. Enclosed. Trapped. Out of control.

I could feel the cold, dark fingers closing in around me. I knew what this was.

I had gone into battle without an army of other soldiers, I had advanced my position without considering the enemy territory I was in, I didn’t have a team, or a covering, or reinforcements. I just thought that me and Jesus alone were strong enough to handle it.

But I underestimated the power of the work we were doing and how rattled the enemy was by it. I underestimated my own exhaustion.

The energy of the retreat had altered with the new group of attendees. The entire volunteer team felt it. There was a hardness we were going to have to break through, and the only word that came up for us was “withered.” Whatever was to happen on this second retreat, it was important on a deep spiritual plane.

I was about to take some heavy hits I believe were orchestrated to take me out of the game and not accomplish that which was set forth for me to accomplish.

In the natural, you can say that I most likely had a panic attack or PTSD episode triggered by previous trauma.

You can look at what happened to me over the next several days and from a clinical perspective you can say that the cluster of nerves in my brain around the amygdala sparked fire and visceral fear and that this then set off a chain reaction of events in my brain which coupled with lack of sleep, stress on by body from recent IVF cycles, and prior trauma, led to a heightened sensation of hyper vigilance, and an experience of “re-living” associated with PTSD/DID, which then spiraled into a more psychic event, and a reluctant surrendering to hospitalization in an African mental hospital. Which was even more terrifying for me.

The scientific explanation seems like a simple one. Dissociation or brain chemistry, or a mental personality disorder, or some other label that makes it easier for us to find an explanation for the inexplicable. Perhaps all three.

I’m in healing, and recovery and lots of therapy to unravel the truth behind my story. I am still being curious. I am still listening.

But for me, a strictly scientific explanation it is only part of the story, and a malformed one at best. Because for me the natural and spiritual are deeply intertwined and feed into one another.

To be fair, I didn’t do the best job of taking care of myself. I tried. I’m still learning. Because I know I have triggers. I know I am sensitive to certain spiritual environments and I know I need sleep.

But self care was hard with our rigorous routine. Gradually, the long days and jet lagged, sleepless nights, and stress, began to wear on me. I am someone because of my history, who is more sensitive to these disruptions in my environment, to the pressure that others can put on you and that you can put on yourself. In America, in my own world, I have safety guards in place to ensure that I follow a good care plan, but under someone else’s leadership, in the busy schedule, I wasn’t able to carve out time to do what I needed to stay sane.

To also be fair, most of the staff and volunteers who knew what was happening, on the Thrive team, were incredibly amazing during this entire ordeal. They did the best they could do without very much information or experience in dealing with my particular issues. They loved and created safe space for me to ride out what had started that I couldn’t stop. They are not to blame for the subsequent pain or shame or re-traumatization that ensued.

I truly believe God placed specific women around me as angels, who could be safe places of protection in the middle of what felt like I was being torn apart.

The locked room incident was an unfortunate event that triggered my history of trauma. Trauma that is still being understood and defined for me. 

But I believe the exhaustion also provided a way in the natural and spiritual to cause some damage. It was the perfect storm.

So yes, call me a rebel, or a trouble maker, a crazy person. Call me anything which can pluck at the foundation of my reputation, but with the deepest of humility, I’ve recognized my limitations, and my weaknesses, and I need a God who can cover those, who can be strong where I’m not. And I need space and time to meet with Him to remember I am just dust, and to be refilled.

I need His peace.

And I did find it, in the least likely of places, in the barred up windows of an African psych ward. So this experience, for me, is not without redemption.

Before I wrote this, shame raised it’s ugly head and told me I should bury this story.

I should hide it and cover it up with nice platitudes of pictures of oceans and beaches and testimonies of the women I’d served because people don’t want to hear the hard and scary stories, and people would call me crazy. Or worse, a failure. People would call me unqualified, when all I really am is a Wounded Healer.

Shame told me to lie to you the people who follow me, too protect myself and my ministry from people who would misunderstand.

But if I’ve learned anything these past few years about letting go of perfectionism and walking into the light of authenticity, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Sister Liz and Sister Glennon,

It is in the telling of these uglier stories that we step into our deepest freedom. But we only do this, if we are very brave.

It is you who follow me who I’m trusting enough to be my most raw and vulnerable with, to show the underside of my belly and trust that you will be gentle. So please remember that in your comments. I am still tender, there are still soft spots. I still need the sacred space of suspended judgment and defying the urge to label.

You might be asking yourself what is someone who has a history of trauma doing counseling other people?

Well I guess I can only say I’m a broken vessel, a pot of clay, and in my cracks Father breaks forth some glorious light.

So bear with me, please. Especially in the second half of my story which I’ll share next time.

I am fighting for wholeness.

To be continued…..


What is Father teaching you through your own broken way?

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  • fgcrest2

    Thank you for being brave and authentic! The world is filled with painfully broken people who need to hear YOUR voice! You are a beautiful soul whom God is using to give others access and awareness to their own painful trauma! Praying as you journey! ❤️ Proud of you!

    • Thanks so much for saying that it means a lot to me!

  • Patricia Cole Rausch Fultz

    Oh Sarah, my heart resonates with your vulnerability. As a former missionary myself, and a very broken vessel who is used by God anyway, I send you love and blessings and many prayers for healing and strength. You will go on, you will continue to be used to pour the Father’s love on His beloved daughters. Just breathe, and rest in His comfort.

    • Thank you so much for saying that Patricia! It helps to know there are others out there who’ve experienced trauma and healed.

  • Heather Nelson

    Thank you so much for your courage. As a missionary who loves my work with Deaf indigenous children, I am struggling with mystifying symptoms. Your courage has greatly helped me understand and get help, so that I can continue doing what God has called me to do instead of leaving the field. I praise God for you. Please keep writing!! It helps more than you may know……

    • Thank you so much Heather, that means so much to me. It’s not often easy to write so vulnerably, so your words help me continue to be brave. I’m glad you are getting the help you need. You’re so worth it!