My Battle with PTSD
By Jonathan C. Brentner
My expectation of Jesus’ appearing and a glorious eternity with Him is not merely something about which I enjoy writing; it’s deeply personal and because of that sparks great passion within me.
It was a restored hope of forever that the Lord used to place me the path of healing in my battle with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
I am not an expert on this disorder (far, far from it). My purpose here is simply to write about what caused my PTSD and how the Lord brought remarkable healing to my deepest wounds and fears.
My Nightmarish Experiences While a Pastor
I am not a veteran of war and I fully realize that these survivors of combat experience much more severe symptoms than I can imagine. My battle with PTSD has deepened my empathy for these men and women who so bravely served our country facing the terrors of war.
My nightmare occurred during my second pastorate. I was relatively inexperienced as a pastor and sincerely tried to improve as criticism of my ministry began. However, it seemed as though the harder I tried to please my critics, the more mistakes I made and the opposition intensified.
One of the older women in the church voiced the disapproval of my work with these biting words: “You’re ministry is a joke!” She repeated this accusation after countless evening services making sure everyone heard her. Several in the church defended me, but that did not deter her loud outbursts that still ring in my ears.
Things at home were even worse for me during this time. My wife had fallen into a deep depression and frequently expressed her disapproval of me in harsher tones than my worst critics at the church. We went for counseling, but that did little to relieve the tension at home.
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, my effectiveness diminished as both a husband and pastor. Distracted by fierce disapproval at home, my ministry suffered. The increased opposition at church stripped away my self-confidence for dealing with issues at home.
I resigned from the church and continued working at a factory, a job I had begun earlier as attendance at the church dwindled.
As I began to look for other pastoral openings, a revelation crushed all my hope of ever returning to the pastorate. My wife admitted to a lengthy romance with my closest friend and strongest advocate amidst my turmoil as a pastor.
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 fierce emotional pain I feared would never end.
I felt as though life itself had betrayed me. What was next? Could it get any worse?
A Respite From the Grief
As the shock wore off, I returned to school at The University of Iowa to pursue an MBA degree. My emphasis in finance and accounting proved to be a good fit for me and I pursued a career that fit with this interest.
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 where 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.
With the busyness of studying and working, I pushed aside the ugliness of my past. I looked forward to far better days ahead for me.
My walk with the Lord deepened during this time; I felt closer to him than I had in many years. 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). I also became active in the singles ministry at my church.
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.
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 from it. My wife’s discontentment with me caused a downward spiral of fears inside me.
My wife expressed her desire to leave me and became more emphatic about this over time. As her anger toward me became more vocal, it inflamed fears inside me. As my anxieties grew stronger and negatively impacted our married life, her dissatisfaction with me intensified.
My counselor diagnosed my symptoms as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); he said my anxieties stemmed from unresolved fears of my past, during the tumultuous years of my second pastorate. Remarriage, the tensions in our relationship, and my wife’s desire to leave reopened deep wounds of my past, which triggered the unresolved terrors associated with them.
I fell under the grip of repeated panic attacks that grew stronger and stronger. 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 horrible panic.
What was happening to me? How could I feel so anxious apart from any conscious worry or threat? How could my calm suddenly turn into dark terror?
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. From this point forward, I recognized the devil’s role in these attacks as he struck at the area of my greatest weakness.
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 failure as a pastor and the shame of two broken marriages plagued me night and day. My future looked bleak; I believed the Lord could no longer use me.
I will never forget how the Lord spoke to me that night at the concert. As Steve Green introduced his next song, In Brokenness You Shine, I heard the Lord speak these words into my heart, “Jonathan, this song is for you.” After that, it seemed as though the crowded auditorium became strangely vacant, as though 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 restored wholeness to my heart. Jesus caused hope to come alive in my heart just as the lyrics to In Brokenness You Shine said He would do.
This 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.
It was not that any of my beliefs changed regarding my future hope, they didn’t. However, I began to give eternal realities more weight than the things of this life (see Rom. 8:18). As I did, the Lord opened my heart to His healing of past wounds and the calming of anxieties that still raged inside me.
This did not happen immediately; it took a few years as I remained focused on my eternal hope and later read a book by John Eldredge entitled Wild at Heart. The Lord used his words on dealing with the wounds of our past to give me the courage to confront my panic attacks.
Instead of fleeing from these nighttime assaults as I had done in the past, I stood my ground asking and waiting for the Lord to give me understanding of the cause behind the fears and panic (besides the fact that it was my enemy, the devil, using his demons to stir my anxieties). And, Jesus answered that prayer in a big way.
I remember one night in particular when the Lord used a significant panic attack to reveal the nature of my deepest wound, a deep and long-held inner conviction of being utterly unlovable, unworthy of love, and as a result undesirable to others. The wound likely first appeared during the bullying I experienced in high school and deepened significantly with the rejection I felt during the time of my second pastorate. This revelation came with much pain and many tears, but brought so much relief!
This disclosure became a significant turning point as my panic attacks greatly diminished in frequency and intensity after that night.
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. Recent events had caused worries regarding my future to resurface. I began my time of prayer submitting my future anew to the Lord and confessing the troublesome anxieties that had crept back into my soul.
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. That evening I experienced the Lord’s love as never before in my life.
The touch of my Savior’s love that night vanquished all the remaining effects of PTSD. He set me free from all the burdens, shame, and guilt of my past and brought a wonderful, lasting peace to my heart.
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 overflowing joy out of great sorrow, hopelessness, and turmoil. He can shine His light on the ugliest of circumstances and restore the worst of broken lives.
It was my hope of eternal joy that put me on the path to healing. This did not come as result of simply knowing these things, but from giving eternity more value than the things of this life. It took a complete breaking of all my aspirations and dreams for this life to enable me see that what mattered the most was what I could not see (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
And, the Lord has since restored my life in remarkable ways. First, after several more years of singleness I married Ruth, who is the kindest and most loving woman I have ever met. I thank the Lord each day for bringing her into my life! Secondly, the Lord opened up a still growing writing ministry for me as an author of one published book and as a blogger.
I believe Psalm 30:5 aptly sums up my life. It ends with these words: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”