During the holidays, we hear calls for “Merry Christmas,” “Joy to the World” and “Peace on Earth,” as well as other encouragements to seek the positive aspects of life.
We feel our Christian faith often demands happy thoughts and mandates a sense of well-being. Yet to many, this time of year is painful and decidedly unjoyful. Peace is elusive. Days are not merry.
Not all is merry and bright
There are many reasons why people are not able to celebrate this year. Maybe a loved one died recently. Maybe family arguments and past hurts prevent peaceful gatherings. Maybe this time of year coincides with a traumatic memory.
In my case, it’s the latter. On Oct. 3, 1993, I was sitting down to rest on a quiet Sunday afternoon when my life turned upside down. I was an Air Force broadcaster in Mogadishu, Somalia, and for the next few days, I experienced the nightmare that later became known as “Blackhawk Down.”
After surviving the first few days of the battle and experiencing catastrophic death, I began the process of trying to fit what just happened into my worldview.
How does a young Baptist man raised in the suburbs—who believes all people are good and just need God’s help to bring out their goodness—deal with moral injury? How could such a nice guy be part of something so hideous and objectively ungodly? How does this fit together? It doesn’t.
By Christmas 1993, I was sitting in a deer stand in Comanche County on a hunting trip with my brother. It was a beautifully cold morning, perfect for hunting. Yet, I still was in Mogadishu.
I missed the soldiers I went through hell with, I cried when I thought about the Somalis who were killed, and I needed more adrenaline. How does that even make sense? It doesn’t.
When I thought I’d left trauma behind
Later, when I was called to full-time ministry and left the military to go to seminary, I believed I had rid myself of these feelings and thoughts. Never mind the sleepwalking, the angry outbursts or my inability to go shopping at Walmart because there are so many people there.
I took counseling courses so I could help others with their problems, and I signed up for Clinical Pastoral Education so I could learn how to minister to the dying. How did that work? It didn’t.
Eighteen years later, after continued emotional rollercoaster rides, recurring nightmares and growing distrust in humanity—because it seemed people are really bad and need God to control their badness—I finally accepted a diagnosis. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
I started getting help. I received therapy, I was put on some medications, and I found out about the affect of sleep apnea on PTSD. God provided so many resources. He also taught me how to forgive others and myself. Healing began, courage returned and mercy reigned.
PTSD and recovery
Twenty-six years later, and I’m feeling better than I have in a long time.
Can PTSD be fixed? I don’t know. All I know is the holidays still hold some painful memories. The memories aren’t gone, just tucked away in a safe place.
I still don’t like shopping at Walmart. I still get angry from time to time. I still have nightmares occasionally. But God has given me the gift of recovery through time.
Isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas? God gave us his one and only Son. Even in the darkest times, we can find joy in that.
God gives us recovery, restoration and rehabilitation.
This became my Christmas message: God loves us so much. Although we have done some really bad things, although we carry so much hurt and anger, although we don’t trust others, God still loves us.
Eric Whitmore is a retired United States Air Force Chaplain and an associate endorser for Chaplaincy Relations of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.