The Void of Dissociation

One of the most striking and difficult things to witness in the faces of those immersed in the horrors of war and violence, especially children, is the often-visible impression of disconnect and dissociation. When the pain and shock of what has happened or is happening pushes somebody into a state of complete terror, the mind short circuits, and stops the body and brain from processing any information. You can see this happening on people’s faces and the way in which they hold their bodies. Many people can remember the face of the small Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after a bombing raid on his home, which was shown on news channels, and was deeply affecting.

Dissociation is often necessary so that a person can survive terrifying experiences, but it means that memories are stored out of awareness, often in the body, and can be very difficult to accept as part of one’s experience going forward. The disconnect can destroy a sense of narrative and self. Aspects of dissociated trauma can break through at unexpected moments, causing a person to feel out of control all over again. When people dissociate, it is not just from the bad experiences they are having, or have had, it is from everything: it can make it difficult to experience or process care or love and can make connection to others, or belonging in a community, challenging. Processing dissociated experiences takes a lot of hard work and often requires skilled empaths to help through the often painful, scary process of re-connection, sometimes years later.

Dissociation is more than a wilderness, it is a total void. In this void one loses a sense of time, space, feeling, or meaning. It is a void which can repeatedly assert itself long after a traumatic event, disrupting life-as-normal, and acting like a black-hole – unexpectedly drawing in and disintegrating all light and life in response to events which seem innocuous but remind the body of some aspect of the original trauma. Dissociation creates a time-bomb of trauma waiting to go off. Defusing this bomb is hard to achieve; rebuilding ones life after it inwardly explodes can be a very painful process.

I think that one of the most important things a person can do for those who have recently experienced the traumas of war, or any other violence in their lives, is to be there in the immediate aftermath, consistently offering love and acceptance. Even if people do not process loving responses straight away, they might process them eventually, creating counter-explosions of love, relief, and gratitude.  When people begin to integrate traumatic experiences, they might also remember love and acceptance in the aftermath, too. Reconnecting with a sense of love and safety can bring a resilience and strength which enables people to move through trauma and begin to live in a more connected-up way again.

I was cared for at my grandma’s in the wake of very traumatic experiences in my childhood. She didn’t know about the trauma I had experienced, but her natural default was to feed me, care about me, hang out with me; I was loved. I didn’t process this love fully until years later. It helped me with healing, even though as it was happening I couldn’t process it.

We don’t have to be therapists or empaths to do this work of love. Sending aid or aid money to refugee camps, supporting local projects in camps or war zones, volunteering with NGOs who are serving refugee populations, or extending genuine welcome to refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of violence in our own communities, adds up to a loving communal response.

The difficult thing about being in Calais recently was knowing how refugees there are being treated by police. The loving response shown by INGOs like Help Refugees and Care4Calais is real and important, but traumatised people continue to experience abuse at the hands of a European police force. Loving response at best counterbalances immediate ongoing trauma, rather than offering true sanctuary from the trauma refugees have already escaped. Therefore, part of a loving response is also to use passport privilege to challenge ongoing traumatisation of refugees on our borders — via public outcry, awareness-raising, and lobbying.

If we profess to love those on our borders, and have the privilege of citizenship, then we must campaign for change as hard as we would if it were a family member or friend being treated this way.

And if we seek healing and peace for all, we must still be there — with love, acceptance, and offers of belonging — years later: when the bombs have stopped falling in peoples’ home countries, when the news stories have stopped, when tyrannical regimes have (hopefully) fallen; when victims might have more space and safety to process what happened to them. We have a responsibility to create communities in which people know they are not alone, and they are seen for all that they are, that they belong, and are safe. Such communities are our only hope of healing both our local and global communities, so that we can inhabit a world in which God’s reign of love is a reality for all.

Being, left out in the cold

On of the most inhumane conditions to leave somebody in is extreme coldness. When a person is extremely cold, their body begins to shut down, and their mind goes blank. This blankness can shut down desire, love, pain, or anything which is not directly concerned with basic preservation – anything which is not the continuing beating of the heart and the continuing functioning of other vital organs. We all know that being cold creates a situation in which the only thing a person can truly think about is how cold they are. It endangers people into making decisions they wouldn’t make if they were warm — accepting situations which they might not otherwise accept, in order to preserve their life.

help refugees cold

When I am cold, I find it very difficult to pray because my body is so tense.

It is difficult to feel open and receptive to the universe when one’s body is contracting in an attempt to stave off the inescapable physical anguish of the freezing cold. That is why soaking somebody and putting them in a fridge or freezer is often used as a method of torture by regimes and governments.

When I am emotionally upset, I cover myself with blankets and the duvet. It is a natural human response to want to be surrounded in warmth when bad things have happened.

Often, refugees have fled situations of extreme violence and war. Many are traumatised and need a lot of good, long duvet days, to say the least. Instead, they are left out in the cold, desperate, and re-traumatised by the slow torture of freezing in a country which could provide for them, but instead chooses to steal their sleeping bags, destroy their tents, and tear-gas them.

I cannot bear to think of how many people in Calais in the last few days, in sub-zero temperatures, have either died from the cold, gotten illness which will cause them to die eventually, have gone to desperate measures to stay warm, have had their trauma deepened, or have lost hope. When so many people care and are sending sleeping bags, clothes and tents, but they are stolen by the police, it is especially cruel. Stopping one group of people from experiencing the literal and emotional warmth which comes from receiving nurture from another group is to deny both sets of people their humanity and to impose an extra layer of coldness on those who are endangered.

We must cry out, repeatedly, until the powers of this world are so tortured by our cry that they can no longer continue. It is already getting too late in the day. The sun is down. The wind is biting. We must feel the moral chill in the air and set our souls ablaze for justice.

Entering the wilderness, or trapped in the dark…?

On departure from the ferry at Calais one of the first things we saw was this:

These two barbed wire fences are designed to keep refugees from getting onto lorries and boats from Calais to the UK. Further up from this there is a third layer of barbed wire on the floor between the two fences. The site of the old ‘Jungle’ camp, once home to thousands of refugees, now lies beyond these fences. The fences stretch on for a couple of miles by my reckoning. Notice the flood lights, the cold weather, the overcast skies. Later, we saw debris from where people had been living strewn across the side of the road; groups of young men huddled around fires staving off the cold and damp.

I am struck by the vast distance there is between choosing to enter a wilderness space, and being trapped in one. Our passports were checked at the border, and our car searched, but our passage was smooth because we had the “right” passport, because by chance we were born into a situation of relative privilege.

For many of the refugees here, Calais is more of a trap than a wilderness place. The displacement is not chosen, this is not a journey of enlightenment but of fleeing violence and war. It is more like the journey Jesus made as a child when his family fled to Egypt to escape tyrannical King Herod, than it is like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness as an adult. Most people here are  traumatised and desperate to be reunited with family or start a new life in the UK.

Nevertheless, it is a wilderness of sorts. Calais is for many people a bleak place, far from home, cold, and dangerous, where refugees have to trust in the grace of strangers for survival. There is an end-of-the-world type feeling cloaking the whole town, dystopian images never far away, and eerie emptiness created by the absent-presence of people living in hiding from the sight of locals and police.

“…he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13)

On the cross somebody taunts Jesus saying, “save yourself! If you are the son of God, come down from the cross!”. But sometimes people are trapped, like Jesus was. They cannot come down from their crosses, God does not swoop down like superman and make things right, oppressive regimes injure and kill God’s people every day. We have to trust in resurrections of all kinds, even when the world appears irretrievably cloaked in darkness.  We have to trust in angels and accidental saints – messengers of light – to minister to us in these wilderness places and we have to pray that when children of God are forced into these spaces, we can become those messengers of light ourselves.

calais light interfaith sun

In a prison cell, the mind will latch on to glimmers of light – a smile, a song drifting through the walls. At the end of times, whether literal or metaphorical, the forces of dark and light meet. The cross meets the resurrection.  Let us hope that the light shining in the darkness shall not be overcome by the sinister forces at work in Calais. Let us see God with and in those who are trapped by borders, barbed wire, and brutality. Let us pray for resurrection, for forgiveness of those who have taken part in the inhumanity here, and for those who are trapped here to be held in the light.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 4-5)



Welcome to The Wilderness

In this blog I will reflect upon the wildernesses I have encountered during Lent, and beyond. These will be literal, metaphorical, and emotional wildernesses.

calais tents

First up will be my journey across the waters to Calais where I will work in Help Refugee’s aid warehouse with a group from the centre for Reconciliation and Peace. The wilderness of Calais’ refugees is literal: those living in the forests and wastelands of Calais are far from home; have not been welcomed into a safe sanctuary; are far from comforts; and food/shelter are scarce. This is almost the definition of wilderness. There will be other kinds of wildernesses there, too, which I can only begin to imagine.

I will document other wildernesses I encounter during Lent, and reflect on the significance of these wild places for how we understand God, ourselves, and each other.

Jesus (and us) in the wilderness…

Jesus entered the wilderness for 40 days before he began his earthly ministry. There he was tempted by the devil to perform acts which would distance him from God. He refused to be tempted; he re-affirmed for the benefit of ‘the devil’, and perhaps to reassure himself, that the word of God is sustaining; that we are only to worship God, not the devil, money, personal power, or glory; that we do not need to manipulate God to be sure of God’s love.

In the wildernesses of our lives the things which might usually sustain and nourish us are far away. In these moments we can find ourselves endangered by temptation to sustain ourselves by all means necessary, even when it means supporting death-dealing forces (like global capitalism, violence, or oppression). Sometimes we stop trusting in the love which has surrounded us from birth (God’s love), and seek to (unconsciously) test out God’s love; sometimes we are insecure, and have a poverty-mindset when it comes to love. Incidentally, love is not lacking in consciousness of some of these refugees living in the wilderness of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camp:

Wildernesses are places where we face down our personal demons, and come face to face with things which could cause us to distances ourselves from God, or from love. Specific temptations are different for each person. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness give us a glimpse of Jesus’ potential downfalls; the places in his heart where he was most at risk of separating himself from God. This is a Jesus many of us can relate to: in discourse with ‘the devil’ in our ear, and grappling to stay true to God’s call of love.

Ultimately, Jesus does not give in to the devil in his ear. But the process is an important one. Jesus has to face his demons, honestly, and at length, before he can enter his ministry with integrity, strength, and a secure trust in God. We can learn from this by knowing what our wildernesses look like, being mindful of when we are entering them, and knowing our personal demons — so that we can face down our demons before serving God, or others. We don’t have to be perfect, but we do need to be aware when are most in danger of distancing ourselves from God, so we don’t inadvertently serve injustice and hatred, instead of justice and peace.

What do your wildernesses look/feel like? What calls you away from God, love, or social justice?