My Battle With PTSD: The Rugged Path to Healing
By Jonathan C. Brentner
This is an article from last fall. I am posting it again so newcomers to my blog can read about the Lord’s amazing work in my life!
My expectations of Jesus’ imminent appearing and a joyous eternity with Him are not simply things about which I enjoy writing; they are deeply personal to me. They provide an incentive to keep using my gifts to serve the Lord amidst disappointments, failures, and even fierce opposition.
My hope of forever also keeps my perspective balanced between now and forever by reminding me that eternal realities are so much more valuable than the fleeting things of this life. That, however, was a lesson I learned the hard way!
It took the Lord working through much pain and chaos in my life to change my earthbound outlook on life and through that to put me on the path of healing in my battle with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
I am not an expert on PTSD (far, far from it). I share my experiences so that I might help others who may also be struggling with lingering anxieties and deep wounds from their past.
My Nightmarish Experiences While a Pastor
I am not a veteran of war and I fully realize that survivors of combat experience much more severe PTSD symptoms than I can imagine. My struggles have deepened my empathy for those men and women who bravely served our country facing the nightmarish terrors of war and now suffer the consequences.
My nightmare occurred during my second pastorate. Everything went well for a couple years and then everything changed as I encountered harsh criticism regarding my preaching and ministry. Although I tried to improve, it seemed as though the harder I tried to please my critics, the more mistakes I made and the opposition grew more aggressive.
One of the older women in the church voiced the disapproval of several in the church with these biting words: “You’re ministry is a joke!” She repeated this accusation after countless evening services making sure everyone heard her. Some in the church defended me, but that did not deter her loud outbursts that still ring in my ears.
The opposition at church added financial pressure to my predicament; some stopped giving at the insistence of those who believed I had failed as a pastor. This intensified the pressure I felt to make things happen (never a good motivation to say the least). The harder I tried to bring about the required church growth, the more I failed.
The financial woes at church added considerable stress to an already tense situation at home. My wife had earlier fallen into a deep depression with major mood swings. I tried to encourage her, but my efforts fell far short. I did not understand what was happening or why she had become so angry with me in such a short amount of time.
I felt like a ball in a pinball machine bouncing between angry outbursts at home and hostility at the church. As the clanging of each bounce grew louder, I became increasingly fearful of my future. However, rather than face my anxieties, I buried them deep within me. Somehow I would make everything work and come out on top. That did not happen.
As opposition to my ministry intensified, I resigned from the church and continued working at a factory, a job I had begun over a year earlier as attendance at the church had dwindled.
Although I loved preaching about prophecy, I valued my success as a pastor over my life in eternity. As a result, I barely survived the trauma of being forced to leave the job I dearly loved.
Months after my resignation, my wife admitted to a lengthy romance with my closest friend and my strongest advocate amidst my turmoil as a pastor. He had stopped by many times to encourage me during my turmoil as a pastor. Was it any wonder that I did not suspect such betrayal from someone I trusted so much?
This disclosure stunned me as nothing else could have done. I remember long walks crying out to the Lord, nights without sleep but full of tears, and deep piercing emotional pain I believed would never end. Even at work, I often could not stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks.
I wanted to run far, far away from God, from His people, and from everything life seemed to be. Looking back, I realize it was my unwavering belief in Jesus’ resurrection that kept me from running; I knew I had nowhere else to go to find life.
A Respite from the Grief
As the shock wore off, I returned to school at The University of Iowa the following year to pursue an MBA degree. My emphasis in finance and accounting proved to be a good fit for me.
Through a series of promotions during the next several years, I moved up from a second shift data entry operator to a position as Senior Financial Analyst at the company I had begun working while in school. I found surprising enjoyment in being a number cruncher; I loved my new career of managing the finances for various government contracts.
I soon forgot about the ugliness of my past as I pursued success in the business world.
My walk with the Lord gradually deepened during this time. I continued to write adult Sunday school curriculum for David C. Cook, something I started during my final year as a pastor (and continue to this day).
During this time of spiritual renewal, however, I remained unaware of the powerful fears that raged below the surface of my consciousness waiting to ambush me at the worst possible time.
Terrors in the Night
Many years later, I met a woman whom I thought was the answer to my loneliness. She was not. Our marriage got off to a rocky start and never recovered. My wife’s discontentment with me caused a renewal of past anxieties inside me that caused much conflict in our relationship.
My counselor at the time diagnosed my symptoms as PTSD; he said my panic attacks stemmed from unresolved fears from long ago, especially during the tumultuous years of my second pastorate and conflict at home. Remarriage and the problems in our relationship had reopened and aggravated old wounds buried inside me.
It was the perfect storm. I came into the marriage with buried anxieties from my past and my wife entered with high expectations stemming from deep wounds in her previous marriage. My struggles shattered her trust in me; her angry response to my issues and frequent verbal abuse inflamed my PTSD symptoms. She wanted what she had with her previous husband, which I could not give her.
She spoke often of her desire to leave me. For more than a year I resisted her pleas for a separation. Eventually, however, I realized I had no other choice but to go along with her plan that we sell our home and live separate lives.
As the turmoil at home grew, my panic attacks intensified. At times, these assaults sprang up out of nowhere. I remember feeling completely peaceful one night as I fell asleep. Then, at 3 a.m., I woke up overwhelmed in a state of great terror. What was happening to me? How could I feel so fearful apart from any conscious worry or threat?
On this particular occasion, I battled the anxiousness with Scripture and prayer for an hour before I again felt the Lord’s peace again in my heart. I also began to recognize the devil’s role in these attacks as he sought to take advantage of my weakness as he did that night.
A Song Restores My Eternal Focus
During this time I attended a Steve Green concert. As I walked into the auditorium that evening, I knew my life was over. Thoughts of my failures as a pastor and husband plagued me night and day.
I will never forget, however, the way God spoke to me that night at the concert. As Steve Green introduced one of his songs, In Brokenness You Shine, I heard the Lord speak these words into my heart, “Jonathan, this is for you.” After that, it seemed as though the crowded auditorium became strangely vacant and Steve was singing only to me.
The lyrics pierced my soul that evening and ignited the process through which the Lord calmed my fears and healed the deep wounds of my heart. Jesus caused hope to come alive in my heart again just as the words to In Brokenness You Shine said He would do.
My renewed anticipation of a joyous forever seemed more than enough to get me through this life even if my circumstances never improved or even got worse. After the concert, I wrote about my hope of eternity and how that eclipsed my feelings of despair and fears regarding my earthly future.
It was not that any of my beliefs regarding my future hope changed, they hadn’t. However, I learned to give eternal realities more weight than my troubles; something Paul wrote about in Romans 8:18. As I shifted my ultimate hopes to forever, the Lord opened my heart to His healing touch.
It still took time for the Lord to heal the deep wounds of my past that continued to cause the middle of the night attacks. I later read a book written by John Eldredge entitled Wild at Heart. The Lord used the words this book to give me a strategy for dealing with the devil’s assaults.
Rather than flee from the fears of my past, I stood my ground asking the Lord for insight into the wounds causing them.
I remember one night in particular when the Lord used a significant panic attack to reveal the nature of my deepest wound, a long-held inner conviction of being unlovable, unworthy of love, and as a result unwanted by others. This wound began during the bullying I experienced in high school and deepened significantly with the betrayal I felt during the time of my second pastorate as everything caved in on me. My attacks were but a symptom of deep wound inside my soul.
This disclosure became a significant turning point as my panic attacks diminished both in frequency and intensity.
A Touch of the Savior’s Love
In the lyrics to In Brokenness You Shine, Steve Green used the phrase “your love surrounds.” He sang of the Lord coming to us in our grief and lovingly staying with us regardless of what others might say or do.
These words came alive for me a few years after the Steve Green concert.
After work one day, I went for a long run listening to songs of praise on my iPad Shuffle. Later, I spent time alone with the Lord in my prayer closet. Because recent events had caused anxieties regarding my future to resurface, I began my time of prayer submitting my future anew to the Lord.
A few moments later I asked the Lord this question, “If you were seated right here next to me in this closet, what would you say to me?”
Before I finished the question I heard his response in my soul, “I love you!” Tears streamed down my face from both joy and amazement.
The touch of my Savior’s love that night vanquished all the remaining effects of PTSD.
This is my story of how the Lord delivered me from PTSD. It’s not a pretty story but then again, my life shows how God can use the worst of times for His glory and bring joy out of great sorrow, feelings of hopelessness, and utter failure. The Lord can shine His light on the ugliest of circumstances and make the shattered pieces of a badly broken life shine again. It took time, but He did that for me.
As a young pastor, I could cite 20 reasons why I believed in the pretribulation rapture; but sadly, I placed a greater worth on the success I could achieve than on my hope of eternity. Once the Lord broke my fierce self-centered pride through failure, suffering, and loss, I learned the importance of valuing my expectation of heaven over earthly success and accomplishments (see 2 Cor. 4:17-18).
The Lord in His great mercy and grace has restored my life in remarkable ways. First, after many more years of loneliness and singleness I married Ruth, who is the kindest and most loving woman I have ever met. I thank the Lord every day for His steadfast love in bringing her into my life. Second, the Lord opened up a writing ministry for me as a blogger and author.
Psalm 30:5 aptly sums up my life: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”