Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Lived Experience

Written by: on April 20, 2023

My goal in writing this essay is to provide a different lens on unresolved posttraumatic experiences and how these experiences are a lurking crisis in our society. The first section is a high-level overview of Van Der Kolk’s book. The following section is a personal account of a lived traumatic experience. And lastly, is a list of the insights that became crystal clear to me as a leader.

Overview: The Body Keeps The Score

Bessel Van Der Kolk has been active as a clinician, researcher, and teacher in posttraumatic stress and related phenomena since the 1970s. His work integrates developmental, biological, psychodynamic, and interpersonal aspects of the impact of trauma and its treatment. In his book, The Body Keeps The Score, Van Der Kolk argues that trauma is not just a mental health issue but a physical one. He shows how traumatic experiences can alter the brain’s structure and function, leading to various symptoms, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain. He also explains how trauma can disrupt the body’s natural systems, including the immune, digestive, and cardiovascular systems.

One of the critical insights of the book is that trauma is stored in the body, not just in the mind. Van Der Kolk explores how trauma can be released from the body through yoga, mindfulness, and neurofeedback techniques.

Another critical aspect of the book is its exploration of the impact of trauma on childhood development. Van Der Kolk shows how childhood trauma can affect a person’s ability to form healthy relationships, regulate emotions, and feel safe in the world. He argues that early intervention is critical to preventing the long-term effects of trauma.

Lived Experience

I was physically abused at the age of 14 by my stepfather. The beating was so severe I spent a week in the hospital. During the first four days, I was in and out of consciousness and barely recognizable. The physical effects were evident on and in my body for the following year. The emotional effects have lasted my entire life and then some – which I’ll address later. As far back as I can remember, I never saw myself as a victim after the event. However, my mother and stepfather were the real victims.

My mother continued to experience verbal and physical abuse for many years. She finally left my stepfather years later with my four half-siblings. As a result, she experienced a different sort of trauma. It was a trauma caused by unimaginable poverty and hardships that no one should suffer. Today, at 89 years old, she has never had the benefit of any therapy or alternative healing practices to aid in reconnecting her mind and body. But I’ve watched its toll on her over the years. At a minimum, unfulfilled hopes and dreams. At its worst, bitterness and an unforgiving attitude directed at a man long since gone.

Years before my mother married my stepfather, he had served in WWII in the jungles of the Philippines. He was a cook – because it was one of the few jobs available to Black service members (the other option would have been digging the latrines). He often described how he would sit in the dark of night in the jungle listening to the Japanese soldiers broadcasting messages designed to entice the Black soldiers to stop fighting for a country that hated them. Upon returning to the U.S., he experienced firsthand the Jim Crow segregation – not in the South – but in his backyard in Philadelphia, PA. To this day, I believe he had PTSD from the war, even though it had not been diagnosed until much later in our war vets.

He’s gone now. But his anger from the racist treatment was palatable. As was the fear from the indelible scars of sweating the many terrifying nights away in a jungle fighting for this country that called him a ‘boy.’ Unfortunately, he also never had the opportunity to receive mental health treatment for his emotional issues. Consequently, my mother and I were the recipients of the adverse effects of PTSD.

The posttraumatic experiences we endured as a Black family in America are more common than we like to think. These experiences, like many others, are exacerbated by the underpinnings of poverty, racism, and poor healthcare systems. In her book, The Trauma of Racism, Alisha Moreland-Capuia explains that racism causes posttraumatic stress upon the mental and physical body, comparable to a constant state of fear. A fear that no human body was designed to withstand for long periods. Studies have shown a direct correlation between chronic inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, addictions, and more as a result of traumatic stress. [1]

One of the real culprits resulting from racism is the mistrust of medical and mental health professions brought on by decades of deception and mistreatment of Black Americans by these same helping professions. Consequently, Black Americans typically do not avail themselves of mental health treatments. So the families suffer in silence emotionally, and the dysfunction perpetuates and manifests in subsequent generations. I have no doubt that neither my mother nor my stepfather would have agreed to see a mental health professional to undergo treatment.

I was different. Years later, I saw the impact of the physical abuse I experienced in my teens manifest in some adult relationships. So I sought help for those specific situations. But I had been left to navigate and process the unresolved traumas from childhood through the early stages of my adult life. After the near-death beating, no one in my family recommended counseling after the hospital stay to help me process the event. Thankfully, I had friends who listened and helped as best they could. And so I did what most people of color in my generation did – I set my face like flint and resolved to succeed.

Lessons for Leaders 

  • Pastors are not counselors. Pastors frequently offer counseling support to members. However, there are times when the issues are beyond the pastor’s training, and referring to mental health professionals in a timely fashion is urgent.
  • Develop a diverse list of mental health professionals that can represent the multicultural differences of people in your sphere of influence.
  • Expect wariness, reluctance, and avoidance in the initial stages of mental health discussions with some from different ethnic groups.
  • Increase personal awareness that most traumas from racism are deep-seated.
  • Develop strategies to bring awareness of the issues to others, being prepared to assist or make referrals to help people process the problems that might manifest.
  • A few Christian topics to help people heal from the devaluing caused by racism are identity in Christ and exploring cultural identity.


I’ll end with a quote from Van Der Kolk. On page 137, Van Der Kolk writes, “I gradually came to realize that the only thing that makes it possible to do the work of healing trauma is awe at the dedication to survival that enabled my patients to endure their abuse and then to endure the dark nights of the soul that inevitably occur on the road to recovery.”


[1] Alisha Moreland-Capuia, The Trauma of Racism: Exploring the Systems and People Fear Built (Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland, 2012), 5.



About the Author


Audrey Robinson

13 responses to “Lived Experience”

  1. Audrey,

    I appreciate your honest in this post. I also appreciate you pointing out that pastors are not counselors and to know when we are limited and when we need to call in for professional help. It is so important to support people during these traumatic events from all sides including from mental health professionals.

  2. Audrey – Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing the heartache and trauma you and your family of origin experienced. I am grateful for your list of recommendations for leaders and will pass these along to my church (especially how you emphasized the importance of muti-ethnic sensitivities in all aspects).

  3. mm David Beavis says:

    Audrey, I am heartbroken by the abuse you experienced at the hands of your step-father, and I am amazed and inspired by your resilience. Thank you for sharing your story and highlighting the unique extra layer of trauma Black Americans possess.

    You wrote, “A few Christian topics to help people heal from the devaluing caused by racism are identity in Christ and exploring cultural identity.” Is this part of your research for your NPO? I am excited to see how it turns out!

    I am “in awe of the dedication to survival” of your trauma in your story (as Van Der Kolk writes in the final quote you gave).

    • mm Audrey Robinson says:

      David, thank you for your comments and compassion.

      The Christian identity aspect is one I am planning to integrate into my NPO. However, cultural identity as it relates to racial healing within people of color is a new finding that surfaced this semester. I’m praying about how to integrate – this could be another NPO!

  4. Caleb Lu says:

    Audrey, thank you for telling your story and for telling the stories of your mother and stepfather.

    Amen to all the leadership lessons. Resources that might be culturally specific are so important! There are so many cultural nuances at play with trauma and mental health. Even in creating a sense of safety, the familiarity and shared experience of someone who understands some of those nuances without needing to ask can be helpful.

  5. mm Audrey Robinson says:

    Caleb, thank you for reading and for your comments.
    There is so much work to do in this space.

  6. Kristy Newport says:

    I have read your post and echo the sentiments from those who have commented above.

    Do not feel compelled to answer this question but I would like to ask-
    What was it about your own therapy which helped you most? How have you made healthy steps in addressing the trauma you suffered?
    If your mother could have received help, what would this have looked like? What would have been the areas you would have liked her to explore?

    Thank you Audrey for sharing this tender piece (pieces) in your life journey. You are an example of one who has overcome.

    • mm Audrey Robinson says:

      I wish I could point you to specific therapies for the actual event – but I didn’t receive any. All I know is that even before I gave my life to Christ I had a knowing in my spirit that if I carried any hate it would destroy me. I was eighteen.

      I’ve come to learn that in the Black community one of the reasons the Church is so important is because that is where healing begins. The singing, the high praise, the worship are all so animated because of the release of stress and pain. This has been proven in mental health studies. (I’m generalizing here about all the Black churches are animated.) However, recall the worship experience in South Africa. And so the healing began in me – years later in the Church.

      I also began work in the community to help those less fortunate – especially women in prison. I taught on a variety of topics but after many years I realized I was the one who had been helped.

      For my Mother, I would have started her on solid Biblical teachings on grace and forgiveness and a more holistic yoga mind-body awareness journey.

      There’s so much more to unpack and I can “see” the questions swirling in your head. We will have to continue in Oxford.

  7. Alana Hayes says:

    Wow! This is a lot to process! I echo the others with thankfulness for you to feel comfortable enough to share you mothers, your step-fathers, and your remarkable account of your past. You are a warrior, that I know for sure! Your mother is a warrior! Your step father is, too…. I can hear in your words the forgiveness which echos that you my friend have put in the work!

    I cant fathom all that you endured as a child, but I’m thankful for who are are today. A Warrior!

    I would also like to know what Kristy asked,” What was it about your own therapy which helped you most?”

  8. mm Shonell Dillon says:

    Overcomer, I thank God for your continued healing. My NPO and my practice are focused in this area. It gives me chills to hear stories of trauma’s faced by survivors. I believe that Pastor’s need to hear that statement one more time because they continue to blast individuals that seek therapy (especially in the black church). I don’t have a question but I thank God for you and the work he will have you produce because of this part of your story. Be blessed.

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