I have been challenged over the past several weeks by a significant case of vertigo. As my doctor and physical therapist have explained, a virus attacked two nerves in my inner ear, resulting in a loss of hearing and a loss of equilibrium. The hearing loss is thankfully minor, though most likely permanent. The loss of equilibrium is more bothersome, but treatable and correctable with vestibular therapy and time.
Vestibular therapy is a wonderful example of the Lord’s glorious creation of our bodies. It depends on the brain and nervous system’s ability to develop alternate pathways to regain balance and coordination when those abilities have been compromised by damage or disease. In my case, the initial severe vertigo—I was unable to read the clock while lying in bed because it appeared to be spinning around the room—resolved without therapy as my brain recognized that the signals it was getting from my inner ear were not correct. But to fully recover, I have needed the focused exercises prescribed by my therapist to help my brain learn to disregard the incorrect messages from my damaged inner ear and to develop new mechanisms to correctly determine my orientation in space.
As I have embarked on this therapeutic adventure and experienced the awesome recovery work of my brain, it has occurred to me that my experience in working to overcome vertigo is very much like the recovery work needed to overcome the spiritual and emotional damage we sometimes experience in our sinful world. When we suffer neglect, abuse, and/or trauma, especially as children, the “inner ear” of our heart becomes damaged, and it receives messages that are incorrect: “I deserve this;” “This is my fault;” There is something wrong with me;” and “I am bad” are a few examples of the default emotional responses that some of us have developed as we have listened to the lies created by abuse or trauma. And these responses remain intact into adulthood as our hearts continue to respond to faulty perceptions driven by lies from our past.
Vertigo recovery begins when the brain begins to recognize that the messages it is receiving from the inner ear are faulty. Emotional and spiritual recovery begins when the individual begins to recognize that his or her default emotions, self-talk, and perceptions about self and others cannot be trusted. This is truly as disorienting as vertigo! And just like I have needed help from a vestibular therapist, an individual recovering from abuse or trauma needs others to recover. Sometimes a therapist is important; but with or without a therapist, these individuals need relationship with others who can help them experience God’s truth about themselves. Slowly, over time, the lies of shame can be recognized as lies and rejected, and the truth of value before God can be embraced.
I have found vestibular therapy to be amazingly helpful but also agonizingly frustrating. Even as I make significant progress, there are times each day when my brain becomes confused and I become disoriented and/or unbalanced. It is frustrating to know what the problem is, to be working on treatment, and yet to continue to experience episodes that are less than coordinated. My therapist assures me that this is “normal,” but it seems and feels to me that I should be making better—and faster—progress.
The same is even more true for the individual recovering from past negative experiences. We may feel that once we know the truth, we should be able to apply it consistently and therefore recover quickly. But the distance from head to heart can be a very long one, and it takes perseverance over time to reject lies about who others say we are (either directly or by their treatment of us) and embrace who God says we are. My therapist tells me that the strategies that I am learning now will become automatic. The same is true for recovery. The strategies that we work so hard to learn will eventually become automatic, and we will regain the spiritual and emotional balance and coordination that we’ve lost. But again, both types of recovery occur most effectively in the context of relationship. Just as I need my vestibular therapist to help me reteach my brain, so those who are recovering need others to help them experience the truth of God’s personal love and grace so that their hearts may re-learn—and then live in the light of—truth.