Learning How to Enjoy the Beach Again

I’m a Southern California guy. I grew up in San Diego, came up to the Los Angeles area for Bible College, and have continued to serve and live in the area. I’m in no danger of being labeled a “beach bum” but I imagine I’ve spent more time at the beach than most people (especially Baptists!). I always loved the feel of the air, the sound of the waves, and, yes, long walks on the beach.

Then a traumatic event happened on a beach. One of the most enjoyable, happy seasons of my life turned into pure terror in an instant. There were emergency vehicles. Helicopters. A small single prop airplane. A large coast guard ship.

The ocean air went from refreshing to suffocating. The sound of the waves became thunder claps of merciless rage and condemnation. I couldn’t shake that for a couple years.

In the fall of 2014, I almost declined going to a Pastor’s retreat in Pismo Beach, CA. Just the word “beach” cut me. The thought of ocean front accommodations made me nervous. I took the chance, mostly for my wife’s sake. She certainly deserved this retreat.

We checked in and my heart raced. I wanted to get it over with. I was going to see the ocean sooner or later, might as well do it with some privacy. Brenna and I sat at an outdoor patio on a bluff overlooking the water. It was emotional. My eyes watered. But I didn’t fall apart. Praise the Lord. I don’t remember what we talked about. I may not have said very much in those moments.

Maybe a month later, I heard that some of my former teens were pretty worried about going on a college beach bonfire activity. I told them about my experience in Pismo Beach and offered to go with them. They all agreed to go. It was emotional for them as well. But we were all okay. I felt like I was making progress and that it was a good first step for the kids.

In the early spring of 2015, I really felt like I was on the upswing. We went on a family outing to Redondo Beach. I was just a tad nervous. I remember enjoying the long walk on the sand to a good spot. A lifeguard vehicle drove by slowly. I was fine. Then my nephews and nieces went to play in the water. I checked the power of the waves. Gentle enough. I checked their depth. Ankle deep. Occasionally mid calf. I scanned the waves as they formed even 20-30 yards out. I checked their depth again. Something got my attention from behind and I turned away from the ocean. My heart raced. I turned back to the ocean. I wanted all the kids out. I wanted the life guard vehicle to come back. I turned for maybe two seconds to look for it and I almost vomited. I turned back to the ocean. I counted children. Then re-counted. I never turned away from the ocean again that day. I couldn’t.

There went the upswing.

It’s a little embarrassing as a civilian to talk about post-traumatic stress. I’m so honored to minister in support of a couple veterans who’ve reached out to me. Oh, the things they’ve seen. Oh, the friends they continue to lose. On a MUCH different level, I’ve gone to war and been overwhelmed. “…and horror hath overwhelmed me. (Psalm 55:5)” My horrors were emergency sirens, helicopters, and the ocean.

In about half a year or so, I stopped hearing emergency sirens in the distance. The sight and sound of a helicopter stopped making me sick. But the ocean. I wanted to enjoy it again. I learned about “contextual memory” and its role in the panic response going wacky. And, more importantly, bringing the panic response (fight or flight) back to it’s divinely designed baseline.

For those wondering, I did pray. Of course, I prayed. I tried to memorize scripture. I claimed God’s promises. I gave it to the Lord. I did.

I still can’t fully enjoy a flat sandy beach. But there are a couple spots in Orange County that I can enjoy. They’re smaller coves with beautiful bluffs all around and rock outcroppings dotting the shore. The waves sound much different there. I’ve been able to change the overall “context” of a beach setting to allow my body to practice being okay with the ocean. My heart doesn’t race in our spots. The breeze feels so good again. We usually go sit and read and/or chat for a couple hours. But, often, I just sit there. It’s a blessing.

Sometimes deep, unresolved issues surface, seemingly, out of the blue. But a skilled, compassionate, patient counselor will let the sufferer talk. The dark things must be brought to the light. They need to be touched by the light of God’s word, Christ’s love, and empathetic ears.

Why does a young lady who previously appeared to be spiritually and emotionally healthy, get married and suddenly have “issues”? Is she selfish? Unsubmissive? Could it be that, just as the beach can trigger some ugly in me, that a marriage (even her own) could bring up some ugly in her? Did she have to endure years of watching a seriously dysfunctional marriage at home? Just as physical scars may need special care, emotional scars need to be tended to. The marriage might be putting her on a beach. Maybe a trusted friend, godly church leader or skilled counselor can help her see the the rocky bluffs surrounding her? She’s NOT doomed to repeating a cycle.

How can a middle aged man, after living a quiet and peaceable life for decades, suddenly find himself battling anxiety? He’s still faithful to church, walking with God, tithing, all of that. Could it be that as a teenager he suffered a major falling out with overbearing, controlling parents? His own kids now moving into the teen years might be putting him on a beach. Instead of challenging his prayer life, could someone help him see the rocky bluffs surrounding him? He’s NOT doomed to repeating a cycle.

There are many battling emotional scars that get re-opened unexpectedly. Let’s help each other see the beautiful bluffs around us. The “beach” we’re on may feel familiar, but it’s NOT the same. We have to rest in that. We can rest in that. Some of us just need a little guidance getting there. And that’s okay.

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