Book Review: “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog”

I recently finished listening to Bruce D. Perry’s, “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: what traumatised children can teach us about loss, love and healing” during my solo car journeys and short morning runs.

Straight away, I need you to know that this is an incredibly powerful book. It chronicles Dr. Perry’s journey in understanding how trauma impacts children, learning how to make a difference in those who have undergone trauma, and sharing the stories that helped him with both of those things.

If you have a history of trauma yourself, this will not be an easy read. The stories are told with vivid details and the impact of those traumas will have a familiarity that may be difficult to deal with. However, if like me you have a passion to support those whose lives have been ravaged by trauma, the insights throughout this book are priceless and worth the cost of entry.

As I believe this book is a “must read”, I’m not going to give it all away here. There are three stand out things that I learned from the book that I want to share with you though:

1. Retelling a traumatic event is only therapeutic if the person who was traumatised is in complete control of that retelling. Otherwise, it is just more trauma.

Over the years I have referred a number of people to counselling agencies to help them get more support with their PTSD. A lot of these individuals often found themselves worse off after a few weeks of counselling, even after a few months of counselling, than they were when they started. I now believe this is largely due to this point.

Dr. Perry shares how he would often meet with a new client every week for months before the client would share about the traumatic event that led to them needing help. Week after week would go by in silent colouring or even just sitting in a room together, waiting for the client to decide when and what they would like to share. And when they did decide to share, because they were then in control of when, how much, and the point that they chose to stop sharing – it brought forward important healing.

Because time is precious, and we know talking about what happened is an important part of the healing process, we often gently push people into sharing their experiences. “Tell me what happened” gets expressed in a hundred different ways, but it never leads to that healing if we are the ones who initiate it and have control over it. Next time you are in that position, try to be more patient and wait for the person you are supporting to take the lead.

2. In addition to our stress arousal response system, we have an equal but different response to stress called dissociation.

I hope by this stage we are all familiar with our stress arousal response system that triggers our brain to fight, run away, or freeze in times of danger. The purpose of this system within our brains is to PREVENT us being hurt in a time of threat. Like me I am sure you see this response in individuals a lot, especially through angry outbursts and intense panic attacks.

However, sometimes our brains interpret the threat we are facing as being inescapable. In other words, our brains work out that no amount of fighting, running away, or freezing is going to stop us from being hurt. So, our brains enter a dissociative state in order to SURVIVE the threat that we are facing. This dissociation is a disconnecting from reality, and particularly your body, as if you are no longer in it. Your heart rate will drop massively, your breathing will slow, opioids will be released deafening your body to pain, the hippocampus stops recording memories, and the brain prepares to survive whatever is coming.

Perhaps someone you support has experienced this survival mechanism. It is common amongst young children who suffered abuse, and is more common in females than males. Just as our brains can develop a hypersensitivity to the arousal system, we can become hypersensitive to the dissociative system as well. Some PTSD sufferers who use self-harm to cope will be manually putting themselves into this dissociative state, even if they don’t realise it, to try and survive the stresses that now feel inescapable; because it helped them survive when the threat really was inescapable.

3. The most powerful tool of both prevention and healing when it comes to trauma, is a community of healthy relationships.

One of the stories in this incredible book that I found most emotionally moving was of a little boy whose class of fellow six year olds became a powerful therapeutic community because Dr. Perry took the time to explain to them why the boy’s brain was different to theirs and how they can help him develop it.

Relationships are so important, especially at the beginning. The more time a new born baby is given healthy attachments and care at the start of its life, the more likely it will be able to recover from whatever trauma awaits it around the corner. A child, or adult, in a healthy community of relationships to adults and peers is much less likely to experience PTSD after a traumatic experience. A child, or adult, in a healthy community of relationships to adults and peers is much more likely to recover from trauma and develop their brain to a state of high integration.

In a society of family break-down, gentrification, the loss of communal gathering points, and increasing isolation – is it any surprise why so many young people are struggling more and more with the impacts of trauma? I believe that this is part of why God’s vision for church is so important, now more than ever. We need these communal spaces of safety (no judgment), where we are seen (accepted and valued) and soothed (treated with compassion and empathy). There is no where in our communities other than church that could possibly offer this on the scale and degree of diversity needed. We need the church more than we ever have.

Thank you for reading this far, I hope you support Dr. Perry’s great work by purchasing a copy of this book and learning what you can from the masterclass in trauma therapy that sits inside these incredible stories.

Recent Feedback – Mental Health Training for SWYM’s The Academy Students

Over the course of Monday 29th April 2019 and Tuesday 30th April 2019 I led a total of 8 hours of training for The Academy students at South West Youth Ministries in mental health. This included:

  • An hour about emotions, what their purpose is, learning to recognise them, and raising emotional literacy amongst children and young people. Creating glitter calm jars to support young people in intense emotional states.
  • An hour on childhood development, the different roles of different parts of the brain, and helping children integrate the parts of their brains.
  • An hour on adolescent development, supporting young people through the challenges those changes bring, and embracing the opportunities those changes bring.
  • An hour on positive mental health and how we can be more proactive in helping young people identify their strengths and apply them to both the good and bad seasons of life.
  • An hour on the impact of trauma in childhood, how it alters development, supporting children and young people that are in hyperarousal or dissociative states, and the importance in healthy relationships to mitigate and/or recover from traumatic experiences.
  • An hour on crisis support, looking at all the major mental illnesses and how to support children and young people struggling with them. Creating weighted pillows with mermaid sequins to provide anxiety relief and sensory distraction.
  • An hour on the theology of sexuality, creating spaces in our youth groups that are empathic and compassionate towards those struggling in this area, and improving our cultures of friendship.
  • An hour set aside to provide one to one time with each of the trainees to discuss anything that came up for them personally over the sessions, or any further questions they might have.

There were three students on this course, all engaged in youth work in schools, churches, and projects in different parts of Devon. I asked them each to fill out a feedback from about the training I provided. In four different areas they ranked me from 1 (awful) to 6 (excellent). Here are the average scores from their reviews:

  • Session Content – 5.66
  • Session Delivery – 5.33
  • Interaction Level – 5
  • Use of Media – 6

Here are a few quotes from the students:

“It was amazing to learn about trauma and the effect on the brain.”

“Learned so many great theories that I can practically apply to my current work place / context.”

“I learned a lot about development, different mental health conditions and ways to help young people.”

Resource: Trauma Informed Churches

I recently came across Betsy de Thierry and a project she has set up called “Trauma Informed Churches”.

The mission of “Trauma Informed Churches” is to equip churches to enable traumatised children to feel safe and be understood in churches. We seek to inform, educate and equip churches as they support families with traumatised children.

On their website you can find resources helping you understand what trauma is and how it impacts children, strategies for supporting children who have been through traumatic experiences, and ideas to help your church be more proactive in being a helpful place for those who have been through trauma.

Betsy de Thierry herself is also available to train those working with children in your churches, and/or provide consultation to your churches on improving your system and creating safe spaces. You can find out about that here.

Hope it helps!

Exchanging Gardeners for Holy Moments

I had the immense privilege of preaching at Christ Church Woodbury on Easter Sunday (21 April 2019). Why not grab a cup of tea, find a quiet corner, and have a listen?

Listen here

God had laid on my heart a message centred around holiness, understanding what it is, seeing it around us, creating space for the holiness of resurrection, and sharing those moments with others.

My prayer is that as you listen it creates a holy moment for you.

Today is the darkest day of the year.

On 21 December 2018, my wife and I officially closed the church that we had planted over 12 years before, and moved my office out of the building it used. Words could not ever adequately tally what we gave to partner with God in building that church over those twelve years. So, to say it was a hard day, would be a massive understatement. I was also at the time having therapy to work through the grief I was feeling, which ended up being more about the impact my childhood was having on me now. I wrote this, on that day, to help me process what was happening.

Thoughts On Closing a Church

“Today is the darkest day of the year.

I wonder, has the darkness become so familiar that it has moved from foe to friend?

Darkness has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember:

As a child, the loneliness of the dark became a companion in my own loneliness.

Hours were spent hiding behind cloaks in darkened wardrobes and tunnelling to the depths of the worlds beneath my bed.

I never found Narnia on the other side of that darkness.

Maybe that is what I was looking for.

The darkness of night never felt dark enough under the moon’s spell of light.

So I would wander into the pitch black dimension of the forest behind my home, ironically lit with the vividness of my imagination.

Was the darkness friend or foe?

The memories are fond, but each one finished with fear drawing me away from the dark and into the light.

Whatever the case, the familiarity enabled me to step into the darkness of the lives and stories of others with ease.

Stories of childhood accidents, trauma, and abuse.

Stories of betrayal, unceasing pain, and grief.

Stories of shattered dreams and haunting ambitions.

Narnia never seemed to be at the back of those wardrobes either.

Hours spent searching the darkness for the lost and vulnerable, helping the wounded hold on to life, and painting a picture with my vivid imagination of what this dark forest looks like in the light.

Years of sacrifice and compassion towards others, driven by the small boy of my past who is haunted by loneliness.

As hard as it was, the darkness gave me purpose, worth; it provided the space for me to reflect the One in whose image I was made.

As others rushed away from their darkness I spent a decade rushing towards it.

Although fear always drew me back to the light, if I’m honest, it is in the dark that I felt most at home.

Today is the darkest day of the year and is supposed to be the end of the darkest season of my ministerial career.

‘Good things are ahead.’

‘God blesses his faithful servants like you.’

‘This has all been preparation for something better.’

‘God has great things in store for you.’

Say the voices of those calling from the safety of the light.

Do they not know?

As exhaustion rips my body to shreds I push to rise before the sun so I can rest in the pre-day darkness of morning.

To me, darkness is sacred space.

Darkness is holy.

Is it friend or foe?

I am still not sure.

What I do know is that as the seasons turn on the peak darkness of today I am grieving the fading darkness more than celebrating the rising light.

As I struggle to imagine a world without darkness I find myself not wanting to.

The world seems to think it is time to work in the light, but there is so much left to do in the dark.

Maybe this time I can find a few others who feel at home in the dark to join me.

In the meantime, tomorrow is not the darkest day of the year, and it’s coming.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you are closing a church and feeling alone, feel free to get in touch with me – it is nice to have friends who know. If you feel at home in the dark like me, I would love to chat about how we can keep revealing Jesus in these places.

Grace and peace.

Resource: Suicide Safety Plans

I recently came across a great resource for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and the people that support them.

It is the Staying Safe website and you can find it here. On the website you can find videos, templates, suggestions, and encouragement in making a plan to help you stay safe when things feel so dangerous and fragile.

This is what the website says about itself:

“The Staying Safe website is a potentially life-saving resource developed by 4 Mental Health, with invaluable with invaluable input from our Expert Reference Group of international academics, people with lived experience (including of surviving a suicide attempt, self-harm, supporting a friend or family member or bereavement by suicide), suicide prevention experts, mental health practitioners, general practitioners, policy makers, public health experts, sector experts, educationalists and concerned citizens.

StayingSafe.net offers compassion, kindness and easy ways to help keep people safer from thoughts of harm and suicide, seek support and discover hope of recovery through powerful videos from people with personal experience.

The website provides vital ‘Safety Plan’ guidance tools jointly funded by NHS England, with easy to print / online templates and guidance video tutorials purposefully designed to help people through the process of writing their own Safety Plan to build hope, identify actions and strategies to resist suicidal thoughts and develop positive ways to cope with stress and emotional distress.

Tragically, suicide takes far too many lives, yet suicide is preventable. Anyone struggling to cope or experiencing deep distress may begin to think about harming themselves and consider suicide as a means to escape their emotional pain. It can be incredibly difficult to think clearly during these times. Everyone is encouraged to PREPARE for possible difficult times ahead BEFORE they happen, by completing a Safety Plan.

During times of deep distress, Safety Plans become a vital and valuable reminder of:

  • What people can do for themselves to get through difficult times
  • Practical ways they can make their situation safer
  • Who to contact for support
  • Where to go or who to contact in an emergency

It is 4 Mental Health’s hope that anyone currently in extreme distress can share our hope that recovery is possible with the right support and that one day keeping a Safety Plan will be common place and regarded an extension of wellbeing and self-care.

For more information about StayingSafe.net, please contact info@4mentalhealth.com”

Remember, suicidal thoughts are often the result of deep emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. Spend some time with people that you can be honest and real with, especially those who can help you laugh. Seek help from a GP if you are struggling to sleep, because rest is so important right now. Learn to recognise the signs that things are getting worse, and use your plan to interrupt that cycle. It may take time, but things will get better.

Recent Feedback – SWBA Study Day

On Saturday, 30th March 2019, I led a training day for the South West Baptist Association on “Mental Health & Young People”. This included:

  • An opening 1 hour session introducing the topic and discussing how we get the culture towards mental health right in our churches. We also looked at stress and anxiety, their impact, and how to help young people manage them.
  • A 45 minute seminar on the impact of childhood trauma and how to support young people with that past well.
  • A 45 minute seminar on positive mental health exploring using “character strengths” to help our young people develop the traits necessary to have good well-being and be successful at dealing with what life throws at them.
  • A closing 1 hour session exploring how to develop our churches into safe spaces, helpful resources, the importance of good listening skills, and some top tips in relation to anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, psychosis, and self-harm.

Around 70 people attended the event in Exeter, Devon. I asked for those there to fill out a feedback form on the training I provided, and 29 people did so. In four different areas they ranked me from 1 (awful) to 6 (excellent). Here are the average scores from their reviews:

  • Session Content – 5.59
  • Session Delivery – 5.66
  • Interaction Level – 4.38
  • Use of Media – 5.24

Here are a few quotes from the day:

“I’ve learnt not to feel so inadequate around people with M.H. issues. You’ve given us so many tools & strategies & they’re all really creative & fun. I can’t wait to use them! This training is a must. Everyone should do it. We need to be so much more aware as a society and not just leave all these issues up to the “experts” to sort out. We can all become semi-experts / helpful friends”

“An encouraging and inspiring day to help us go out better equipped and informed to help young people with their mental health.”

“I really enjoyed Matt’s intro session. I came in with the question ‘What does positive mental health look like?’ & this was answered.”

“Really thorough training, you know what you’re talking about and I’m so glad I could be here today!”

“Matt recently led a ‘Mental Health & Young People’ Study day for over 70 people, many from amongst our family of churches in the South West Baptist Association. The teaching hit exactly the right balance between presenting medical information and practical application to the lives of those in our churches and communities. Matt’s style is both knowledgeable and accessible which was hugely appreciated by those who attended the day. It is my pleasure to commend Matt as a tutor in Mental Health, particularly within the specialist area of younger people and churches.” – from Carl Smethurst, Regional Minister – Mission, South West Baptist Association

Seeking Secrets

Whilst preparing for a training day that I was leading recently, I came across a series of videos made by Jubilee Media and posted on their YouTube channel. In the videos, people are invited to write down their biggest secrets, most painful memories, proudest moments, etc. on a piece of paper – anonymously. Then, a series of strangers sit down in a chair, choose a piece of paper, and read the secret out.

To say that these are powerful would be an understatement. For me, one of the biggest things that stood out as I watched these videos was how often the person reading the story had a shared similar experience. We often get convinced that we are alone in our trauma, pain, and struggles; but this is rarely true. It usually does not take long to find someone who has experienced something related to what we have when we begin to open up and share.

This was certainly true of my wife and my experience when we shared about our stillbirth and miscarriages. Time and time again people we shared with would go on to tell us of their pain that they had kept hidden for so long. On one hand, to become aware of so many others hurting is deeply heart-breaking; but it is also deeply comforting to know that you are not the first person to survive walking down this road.

If you have time, take a look at some of these videos, and maybe consider opening up to and sharing a bit more of your life’s story with someone you trust today.

For me, this why the story of Jesus, God himself, dying to rescue us from our shackles of brokenness is so poignant and powerful. We can know for certain that God knows what it is like to despair and lose hope, to journey into the hell of life. And alongside that, we can know that Jesus survived that hell and has promised to walk beside us as we journey through our own.

Today I pray that you know Jesus’ presence on your journey.