How trauma has made me more compassionate

Last election season, a video came through my Facebook feed. I don’t remember if it was connected with a candidate or not, but I do remember it went something like this. “What if every morning a truck drove around to the cities’ homeless and offered them a day’s wages for a day’s work. Wouldn’t that be a good idea?”

Two years ago, I would said “Yes, what a great idea. It separates people with a good work ethic who are just down on their luck from people who are lazy, or drug addicts maybe.

But that wasn’t my response this time. Without hesitation, I asked myself “But what about the people who can’t work? What about people who have a physical disability, but just as importantly, what about people with mental impairments. You know, the one’s who may look able-bodied on the outside but are fighting an invisible battle?

What about the person who hears voices? Or the one with depression so severe that it feels like there’s a physical weight keeping her from standing up? What about the person whose social anxiety doesn’t allow her to walk into an unfamiliar building without throwing up? What about the veteran who can’t be around a construction site without having a flashback?

These conditions are invisible, but just as debilitating?

Two years ago, I would have said, “Yes, offering work to homeless people separates the wheat from the chaff and rewards those who are willing to work, but on that day, I instantly thought about the ones who suffered invisibly.

Having a mental illness has changed me; the terror of living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) has made me painfully aware that there but for the grace of God, go I. (Of course that’s a terrible saying, because God has not removed his Grace from people with mental illness…but that’s a theological post)

A few months after that, I had another epiphany. My family and I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. over the New Year holiday. We stayed in a hotel on Embassy Row in a lovely part of town, and on the way to the closest Starbucks was a small park that served as the camping ground for a few homeless men.

As I walked past them on the first morning, I expected to experience the anxious string of questions that had always been my normal reaction. What if they talk to me? What if they’re crazy? How do I respond? If they ask me for money, is it better to give it to them or not, because they’ll probably just buy alcohol with it anyway? And what will whoever I’m with think about my choice?

But as I came closer, I felt no fear. One of them started to stir, and I didn’t put my head down and speed passed. I looked at him the way I would look at anyone I passed on the street. He said “good morning” and I greeted him back. He politely asked for money and without hesitation I dug into my bag and handed him a $5. I honestly didn’t care what he might do with it.

You see, in the last several years, I’ve experienced depression so crushing that there was no way to escape it except death. I’ve experienced anxiety so debilitating, that the only thing my body allowed me to do was pull the covers over my head and pray for death. I’ve experienced depersonalization so intense that I had to hold my hand up in front of my face and wiggle my fingers to make sure my brain still controlled my extremities.

As far as I was concerned, anything that kept a person alive, or standing, or able to speak, was a lifeline. Maybe it was coffee. Maybe it was cigarettes. Maybe it was a drink.

It wasn’t until I was half a block away that I realized how much the last few years have changed me.

I’m not saying “look how virtuous I am now.” I didn’t do anything. It was life that changed me. What no number of sermons about the Good Samaritan were able to do, trauma did.

Of course going through it was hell, but I wouldn’t unlive it for a minute. I am changed. I’m closer than ever to the person I always hoped I’d be.

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