The first step is knowing you're not alone in the suffering, and you're valuable. You're worth the blood of God on the cross, and that this is not the end, that you're not trapped. There's always a way out. There's always hope.
There's always a light, and God will bring people in your corner that will help support you, and he will answer those prayers. That's Dr. Elizabeth Stevens joining us today on Focus on the Family to share how she's found healing from trauma. Today we're going to offer hope to anyone who's suffered severe pain and loss. And parents, this will be a program that won't be appropriate for children, so please direct their attention elsewhere.
I'm John Fuller, and your host is Focus President and author Jim Daly. John, there's a popular saying, God won't give you more than you can handle. I used to hear that as a child, you know, when I was going through the difficulties of losing my mom and dad at a young age.
But that doesn't really solve the problem, right? It feels like it's unbearable at that time, and I don't know that that's, albeit, well-intended statement. It doesn't capture the emotions of the moment. It does feel at times that it's too much, and God, why are you doing this?
Why is this happening to me? In the Bible, the authors of the Psalms don't gloss over painful experiences. They express their hurt and frustration plainly to the Lord. And boy, if you're in that spot where some things are happening in your life and you don't understand why, let the Lord know. He can take it. He wants that conversation with you, trust me. The Psalmist, and I love this in Psalms 34, 18, the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit.
It's almost like a prerequisite. When he has your heart in that spot, through circumstances in this sinful life, it's almost like the Lord can mold you and shape you into what he's looking for. And our guest today is going to encourage you to honestly confront the pain that you may have experienced in your life and to go deeper in your relationship with Christ.
Yeah, this is, I think, going to be a really hopeful program for us. Dr. Elizabeth Stevens is a psychiatrist and retired U.S. Air Force major. She's the founder and CEO of Advancing Warriors International, a faith-based discipleship program for veterans and first responders. Dr. Stevens created the program after her own battle with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. And we're going to hear more of her story today. The conversation is based on a book by Dr. Stevens that Focus on the Family is very pleased to publish. It's called Unshackled, Finding God's Freedom from Trauma.
And you can get your copy by clicking the link in the program notes or call 1-800, the letter A in the word family. Ellie, welcome to Focus on the Family. Thanks for having me.
We so appreciate it. And you have a very unique story, but the pain of your story is not unique. People experience things in their lives that really wound us, right?
And that's what I'm looking forward to. And I appreciate your vulnerability that way because it's not easy to talk about some of the darkest moments in your life, right? Right. Let's start with the PTSD issue. Maybe a broader question is just what people in combat, you know, this is typically something we see with military personnel, PTSD. Describe PTSD and the fact that it's not contained to a military environment.
Right. So post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder that they've characterized in the DSM-5. So it's a diagnostic tool for psychologists and psychiatrists. And so what it does is it categorizes trauma based on are you experiencing a life-threatening situation or sexual assault and then having a cluster of symptoms associated with it. So usually it's hypervigilance, it's avoidance, it's intrusive thoughts. Sometimes people will have nightmares, flashbacks, things like that. And it's a change in the way people think.
It's just negative cognition can bring on depression, can bring on a lot of negative emotions as well. And so it's just categorizing that in a cluster of symptoms. And then that's where you get the diagnosis. So it could be combat, it could be a car accident, it could be any kind of life-threatening situation, or it could be the sexual assault piece.
Right. Some kind of trauma typically. And that triggers that response. Let's move to your story. You did experience trauma. Let's talk about the hiking accident that you had and what happened.
So I'm very much goal-oriented person. I tried to do the 14,000-foot peaks, all 58 within the first year that I moved to Colorado. So I was on Longs Peak and I had done a lot of intense, very exposed peaks and had no problem. And I was hiking down Longs Peak and I had the hiking poles and my hands were in the straps of the poles. And it was a freak accident. I don't really remember the details, but all I can think of is slipping on a boulder and then I couldn't brace my fall with my hands. And I just went head first into the boulder in front of me. It hit a bang.
So when they say like life flashes before your eyes. And so I felt like I was back. I was in a pool and I was drowning and I actually had a potential drowning accident when I was like four years old.
Oh my goodness. And so I felt like I was drowning at that moment. And I thought, well, this is it. And it was extremely scary. And then when I came to, I couldn't see and I felt like I lost all my teeth. And so I thought I was blind and it was just, it was very, very scary experience. But it turned out I had blood covering my eyes from my head wound. And so thankfully I could see and I had all my teeth.
Right. And was someone with you? Yeah, I had a friend hiking with me. Okay, so that's helpful. But over time you didn't bounce back. And I don't know where you were at at that point if you had already become a psychiatrist and so you knew you had the, at least the, the mental tools to understand what was going on, but it was kind of a delayed healing and describe the fog, I guess if I could call it that. So I was expecting to go back to work the next few days on Monday. So it happened on a Saturday. I was expecting to go back to work. So I was in utter denial.
I didn't think it was that big of a deal. And so when I went to get ready for work, I just kept throwing up and I couldn't keep anything down and ended up having to go to the ER. And that usually is a deep concussion.
Yeah. And so I went to the ER and they sent me to my primary care and said I needed a brain rest for a month at least. And so, but it was, it was a weird, I'm usually, I'm a type A personality.
I, I like to be goal oriented and always doing something productive with my time. And I felt very carefree. Like I didn't, I didn't have any worries and everything was going to be okay. And that was very odd for me.
Yeah. A shift in personality really. And so that lasted for the first few weeks or so. And I, looking back on what happened and the order that it happened, there was a major shift after those first few weeks where everything changed and I became very irritable, extreme migraines and had a huge setback. And that, again, that's a good indication there's a problem, right? For someone that might be experiencing those things when you see a big change in personality or irritability, anger, those kinds of things during that time.
And this, this is where it starts getting deeper and very personal. And this is probably that moment, John, you talked about that with kids around, you might want to get them in a different place, but during your recovery, you actually were with a, I think a physical therapist and something terrible happened. And that happened actually a few years after. Few years, but you're still going through the healing process. What, you know, in the right appropriate terms, what happened? So I had just, I had just gotten out of the hospital and it was my, my journey of healing. And it was all, there were a lot of setbacks, a lot of healing a little bit and then having a major setback and a lot of frustration. And I, I tried to really put my trust in professionals to help. And a lot of the times it was, they were either not help me or say, well, we can't help you or what do you want?
What do you want to try? And so I went to a physical therapist and wanted to work on a lot of the whiplash injuries with my head and neck. And he ended up sexually assaulting me in the wrong areas.
And he did have alcohol on his breath at the time. And it was, it was a major setback for me again, but I had experienced flashbacks at that moment of a previous assault. And so, okay, so that wasn't the first time. And, uh, but this again created a response, an emotional PTSD response, correct? Just that trauma being triggered. How did you manage that? What did you do with that?
Um, where did that go for you? So the first few years, it wasn't until probably two and a half years that I actually acknowledged any trauma that I had had other than my traumatic brain injury. I blamed everything on the physical brain injury because I wasn't willing to go to anything deeper, any other major soul wounds. And so I pushed it down.
Um, and that's, that's what I typically would do. If something is stirred up, I push it down unless I am confronted with someone who legitimately cares and empathizes and asks probing questions. Uh, then that's when I started to open up and started to realize what was the real deep wound that happened. Do you think, um, you know, I've thought about this too, just with things that have happened to me when I was a child, but there's also a function to that. It's almost like a mechanism God's given us to keep going. Um, the, the stuffing it down, the compartmentalization of those traumas. And I, you know, so there is, there is the ability to continue through, you know, comments like pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get going.
Those are the things you hear. And so correct me if I'm wrong, but you know, as a survivor that way, that was, has always been kind of my mentality. We've got to keep moving forward.
Let's go. But I hear you clearly saying it's important to come back around, even though it may help you function in your day to day tasks, you got to come back and confront those deep wounds for the health of your soul. Right.
Is that fair? So what I, what I learned was that the deep soul wound, so you could call a moral injuries or moral wounds and they're, they're doing a lot more research on that and how it really keeps PTSD kind of stuck in prevents people from healing. Um, but it's, it's agreements that people make. Um, or an example would be, I'm never going to trust another man again. Right. Or I have to do this all on my own.
I don't have anyone to help me. And there could be lies that people buy into and they block God out of that part of their heart. And so instead of inviting God as their protector, they're trying to protect themselves and push through.
Yeah, go ahead. And so unless someone is able to address those lies and those deceptions, they can't move past it. I was going to say that often is described as someone that eventually opens that area of their heart.
They talk about opening the dark closet and allowing the Lord to get in and do the work only he can do. It's probably something you've heard in your, your own practice from people. Right. So I think for that person listening, that's one of the things that we want to make sure that they're hearing from us. You know, you're not less than, because you've had trauma. My goodness. You know, it brings tears to my eyes thinking about how people get stuck there and they tend to load guilt onto themselves and you know, it wouldn't have happened to somebody other than me.
And I invited it or I created the environment. I mean, just all that self-talk that you go through that is really unhealthy. And I want to make sure people realize that we've got caring Christian counselors that you can call us here and get started on that recovery, that healing journey. And we're going to hear more from Ellie about the length of time it took and the other things that she dealt with. But I think her book Unshackled is a resource. If it's not for you, there's got to be at least one person in your life that needs this.
Yeah. Get a copy of the book and connect with a counselor when you call 800, the letter A and the word family, or click the link in the program notes and you'll find resources and help right there. You know, all those circumstances, the head trauma, the assaults, those things put you in a real intense loneliness and depression. Describe what that's like. I think one of the difficulties for some people is they don't know where they're at emotionally. And I, I think I can say there were times in my life that I was probably really depressed. I didn't even realize it because I tend to be an optimist, but circumstances in life are weighing me down. And I would just smile, but inside there was pain. So help someone who may not be in a place where they could really self-diagnose that I'm not healthy right now.
Right. So for me, it was, it was pretty intense. It was an intense darkness. It felt like I had a huge weight on me and I could barely move. And there were some days where I didn't move. I didn't want to eat. I didn't want to get up and do anything. I had suicidal thoughts.
A lot of, a lot of darkness. I, I ended up blaming myself for the sexual assault because I let that person in my life and I had an intense hatred for myself. And so it was a lot of shame, a lot of guilt feeling just dirty. And, and I felt like I didn't really have a way out.
Wow. And so it was this in my mind and growing up, having a relationship with Jesus and following him my whole life, I still held onto him knowing in my head that he's going to make a way, but every other aspect of my being didn't feel like it. That's really intense when you think about it. I mean that self loathing being so deep that you would be thinking about taking your life.
I mean, that's a pretty common connection, right? For people who are in that place. How do you battle through that? I mean, what were the steps that you felt not, not even so much from a professional, but from the Lord, how did the Lord begin to help you sort that out? A lot of it was, I was, I was stripped down. I couldn't, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't achieve anything.
I couldn't perform. And that's who you were. Yeah. Wow. And then that just added to the problem, right?
Right. And so it was in the moments of darkness and despair that I still, I still listened to the Bible. I can read. So I listened to the Bible app. I still listened to podcasts. I still prayed, but there's still, there felt a lot of distance between me and God. And there were several points where I felt him comfort me and I felt his love at a deeper level than I've ever felt before because in one point I was, I was listening to a passage and I had these strong thoughts in my head saying, why are you blocking my love?
And I just started bawling. And it was this, just this moment of, wow, like I've, I am blocking God's love. I'm blocking him out because I'm just sitting in my shame and sitting in my guilt and I'm blocking his forgiveness. And so it's those moments where, where God was wooing me and drawing me closer to his heart. And I was, I was still at a distance.
I was the one keeping distance because of my shame and guilt because I felt like I don't deserve any of this, but that's the point. That's grace. Ellie, that person that may not, they're still in that spot where they're blocking God's love.
I mean, they're probably thirsting for the answer to that question. They just heard you describe it is, I mean, where, how, if you're not there, how do you get there to say, yes, Lord, I want more of that. I want to feel your love.
I think the first step is acknowledging it and, and asking for it, because if we seek, we'll find and, and he's, he will answer those prayers. And during my journey, I remember countless times saying, I can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore, but I'll hold on. And I held on a little bit longer and he came through. Yeah. And you described that that is a journey, not like an instantaneous thing.
At least that's what I'm hearing from you. It wasn't like you prayed a prayer and boom, it was all better. It was just believing a little bit more every day that God did love you, that he was for you, not against you for those that, you know, they've been on that journey, that struggle, and maybe it's so insignificant day to day.
They don't feel any different. How do they rely upon God even more to begin to feel that kind of healing? I remember when I was about four years old, accepting Jesus as my savior as a free gift and having that, knowing that I did bad things and I needed him to save me. But throughout my whole journey, it was this, it was this lifelong journey of, well, but I have to prove my worth and I have to be pleasing to him and make sure that I have his favor. And so, it wasn't until that was all stripped to where I started realizing, wait, I already have his favor without having to give anything to him. To earn it. To earn it.
I can't earn it. And so, it's just that concept of understanding grace, understanding that we have his unconditional love no matter what. No matter what we do, no matter what we don't do, he loves us the same.
And the more, I think, people having unconditional love from other people in our lives can help give us a tangible evidence that, okay, that does exist. I had my mom with me the whole time and she's a very forgiving person and she's a very unconditionally loving. I could do the worst thing imaginable, tell her and she's like, well, I forgive you. So, that really helped me see that forgiveness, but it still wasn't enough. And it wasn't until I did a sin that I was like, wow, I can't believe I did this. Like, I basically chose this man over God and I can't believe I did that. And that really helped me with not being judgmental with other people in their sin, but it also helped me understand the depth of God's forgiveness. If he can forgive me for this, wow, he really loves me.
Yeah. And you're not measured by those things. I mean, I think that's the human frailty, right? We can't understand unconditional love because we don't feel it and we don't give it in this life.
And that is what the Lord wants to teach us. You had that spiritual healing over a period of time. What kind of time marker would you have given that? A year or two years, three years? How long did it take you to go from that self-loathing suicide ideation to understanding God's love, believing that he believes in you and that things were better?
It was probably around two years. I finally went to a Christian therapist. Yeah. After trying non-Christian.
Right. And I ended up really sharing my heart with her and opening up to her where I hadn't really opened up to anyone else. And she would give me scripture and she helped me see that God wasn't measuring my performance, that the measuring stick was abolished with the cross.
There's no measuring. And she helped me see that I was pure and radiant and spotless and without blemish to God. Because of Christ.
Because of Christ. Right. Mm-hmm. That is the good news.
Right. So visualizing myself as that pure, spotless, without blemish, bride of Christ really shifted things in me. How did you overcome those relational barriers that you've hinted at, not being able to trust men? You're married to your husband now. Look at the smile.
That's great. So how did you get through that barrier? It took a lot of soul searching. And the biggest breakthrough for me was when I realized that I was basically in my own prison cell, protecting myself from another trauma, another betrayal, another hurt. When I recognized I was doing that and I surrendered that to God and invited God to be my protector, that fear just started melting away. And so it was a freedom that I hadn't felt of like, wow, whatever comes my way, God's going to transform my character and grow my heart to become more like Christ through whatever trauma comes.
So I don't have to fear the next trauma because I know he's got me. Man, that's phenomenal. That is healing.
And that's so beautiful. Let's, boy, the time has just gone by. But that last question, which in some ways I feel is an unfair question, both as just being a Christian, but being a psychiatrist who's a Christian, those folks that are listening that are struggling, they're wallowing in that soup of despair. If I could paint that picture, they may have struggled for years. They just heard you say it took about two years. They've been in this place for 30 years and they haven't been able to break free. They haven't been able to be unshackled, the title of your book from those wounds and those traumas. What are some steps that person can take right now to move in a better direction?
Obviously, what they've been doing isn't working, right? And I would say I'm, I'm still in the process of healing. I'm not fully healed.
And there's, there's always going to be something that is we're wounded in some area and we were constantly in the process of transformation. But the first step is knowing you're not alone in the suffering and you're valuable. You're worth the blood of God on the cross. And that this is not the end that you're not trapped. There's always a way out.
There's always hope. There's always a light and God will bring people in your corner that will help support you and he will answer those prayers. And so it's, it's that praying for community, praying for God to help bring healing and transformation. And there's amazing resources here at Focus on the Family with, with counselors, with people who are professionally deal with trauma, hurt, pain, depression all the time. And so finding, finding those resources, finding someone that you can process through some of the things and just, just talking about things and having someone to listen is extremely important.
It is. And it kind of does give you that sounding board, if I can use that term to say, okay, am I thinking about this appropriately as a Christian? And that's a great invitation, Ellie, for people to contact us. And I want to turn to the listener and say, you've heard it. I mean, I so appreciate Ellie's transparency, her willingness to share her wounds. That's not easy. So thank you for that. And then to hopefully this is exactly how it works.
There's no magic formula. Ellie's sharing her heart. And I know there's people listening that have had deep wounds. You need to get in touch with us. That's the, that's the whole beauty of what we're trying to do here at Focus as ministry is to help you further your relationship with the Lord and to become healthier as a husband or wife or as a father or mother.
These are such important things for you to do for your family to get in a better place. So get in touch with us. We often say, if you can help us with the gift, we'll send you the book as our way of saying, thank you.
That certainly is true. If you can't afford it, this is one of those resources. We'll get it to you and trust others.
We'll cover the cost of it. So just get in touch with us and start to deepen that journey of healing for the sake of yourself and those around you call, let us know how we can help. Our number is 800, the letter a and the word family 800-232-6459 or check the program notes for the links. Ellie again, thank you so much for being with us. It was such a pleasure to meet you and I'm glad we're publishing this book with you. Thank you. And once again, thank you for joining us today for Focus on the Family.
I'm John Fuller inviting you back next time as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ. Above all else, everyone wants to know what's going on? What's going on? What's going on? It's a jam packed 28 hours and album 73 of Adventures in Odyssey. Available now on the club and download coming soon to CD. Learn more at adventuresinodyssey.com.
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