Significance of Story
with Melissa Affolter
Ann Maree: Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I'm the executive director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope: Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God's redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans.
We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances, and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.
Ann Maree: I am thrilled to share with our audience a new friend to HelpHer ministry, counselor and Restoried group facilitator Melissa Affolter. Melissa is here with us today and the next few weeks to help further our understanding of story. She developed Restoried groups from a Christ centered theological framework and clinically informed perspective in such a way as to honor participants dignity, as embodied souls in need of Whole Person Care. Melissa has served in counseling, youth, children and women's ministries for nearly 20 years in the local church. She previously worked as a teacher and curriculum writer. In 2011, she completed a master's of arts and biblical counseling. Since that time, Melissa has gained additional training with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation and the Global Trauma Recovery Institute. Her areas of experience include anxiety, depression, relational conflict, marriage, family, and abuse and trauma recovery. Melissa, welcome to the safe to help podcast.
Melissa: Thanks, Anne Marie. I'm really honored and just excited to be with you today.
Ann Maree: Yep, we are equally honored and excited. So, why don't you tell our audience members who might not be familiar with your work a little bit more about yourself?
Melissa: Sure. Well, currently, I am a counselor and Content Director at Fieldstone Counseling in Northeast Ohio. Previously, as you mentioned, a little bit of my background, that would be a combination of both ministry and career type experiences, but grew up in a really small family. When I was in middle school, I sensed the Lord just calling me to some type of full time ministry. There was an impactful speaker that came and spoke at the Christian school that I attended when I was in seventh grade. And I just remember walking away from that week, where he was our guest speaker. It was a special chapel and this is for the whole week, and I knew. I wasn't sure what I didn't know at that time, if it would be missionary work or what type of ministry work but I knew from that age that God was really drawing me into some type of, probably, full time ministry work. And as that got more towards college, and then young adult years, as a woman, I still didn't know what that meant. Because I knew I wasn't sensing a call to be a pastor. But at that time, 20, 25, 28 years ago, I thought my only option was mission work, I thought, well, I have to be a missionary then, which kind of scared me to death. I did not have any real desire to sail off to foreign lands and like never see my parents or or my friends for years at a time. But I did start going on various mission trips. I would spend my summers in different countries because I was a teacher and had the freedom to do that. And so it was kind of in those contexts, along with my local church, and church staff ministry roles over those 20 years of my young adult life leading up to now where I just found myself in counseling scenarios over and over again. So even when I was a teacher, even when I was just spending time helping with our youth group and working in kids ministry and all these different scenarios, it just seemed like that was always a natural bent. And so that's, I guess, kind of a general overview of my background. I'm happy to share more specifically, if that guides your question, but that might give you a good overview to start with.
Ann Maree: Yeah, and it does lead me to what I was thinking of asking that you have a variety of career experiences. So now you've you've told me before that you kind of zeroed in on counseling specifically. Tell me how you got there? How did how did you become passionate about caring for people, specifically?
Melissa: Yeah. So I remember, from the time of my first memories in life, being very troubled, internally and distressed. I mean, I would say distressed by things I saw in the world around me in the other kids that I would, you know, play with in my neighborhood or go to school with and so just, I remember kids where, maybe their parents were going through something really hard. And I didn't fully understand it, or know all the details. But I remember having a couple of friends, even in my elementary school years, who, their parents would probably fall into some type of mental health need, whether it was diagnosed or not. I had other friends who went through really terrible relational dynamics, both in the family and then socially at school, just hearing some things, and I kind of was always the friend, that everybody would talk about those things to. But what a lot of my friends didn't necessarily know, at that time was just some personal things that were happening in my own family, that were very weighty on me as well. And our family, you know, that's a whole other story. But my parents have been so generous and loving, as we've grown together throughout the years to always tell me to feel free to share, you know, that that part of our story as a family. And so I feel safe and comfortable saying like, there were some pretty distressing things that happened in our home when I was younger, and just things I saw and didn't understand fully what was happening. And nobody really explained some of those things to me at the time. So between what I was seeing in some of my friends or in my community, and then what was happening in my home, I just had this internal angst and distress. And I would ask my parents really hard questions, just in the car was usually when it would happen, because we had a 30 minute drive to school and a 30 minute drive back home. And I would ask my dad in particular, just because he was a lot more like, inner working, deep thinker. And so I would ask him pretty big questions about, you know, where is God in these situations of suffering and like tragedy? And is He not listening? Does He not care. And I just remember the physical weight of those things felt really present to me. And then also I in that I lived in my own stories, internally, so when I played as a child, I played alone, most of the time, I liked just living in these internal stories of what was happening to my dolls, or I would listen to classical music for hours and just like play in my room by myself, and create stories, I would write little books. And so it was just kind of all those things converging together created this context where I really do bear the weight of other people's stories. I take them very seriously. And they impact me very specifically.
Ann Maree: Yeah, you do sound like a very natural burden-bearer. Yeah. So and I recognize a lot of the characteristics myself, I was also somebody that asked the big questions, but I really didn't ask anybody. I asked myself those big questions, but I also did a lot of that isolation and storytelling myself. So I understand. I think, you know, that might be a good indicator that you belong in counseling, not in counseling, but in a counseling profession. Well, in counseling to it's yeah, I can say that's a true story. Anyway, so yes, thank you. Because I want to know that, that passion, but also you just kind of exemplified to me something that I'm just really, really excited about that you do do with your counseling ministry. And that is the the Restoried groups that you that you do. And we'll be talking about that as well. So our our introductory podcast, if you will call it a series that I just did with Darby Strickland, we did start out talking about the importance of story in healing and in the counseling process. And that's why I wanted to talk to you too, because you are the key person doing that for women, and guiding people through their own story. So I want to hear your perspective, too, on that. So when Debbie and I talked, we talked about the importance of language in our story, and using the appropriate even biblical words, but also even the English words, you know, for our English speaking audience, as we name what happened with the accurate words. And I feel like this is such an important piece of storytelling, for the benefit of community, which again, that was something Darby brought up. So if you don't mind, I'd like to hear your perspective on language, whether it's the English language, or it's the biblical language. Tell me more about what you've learned and, helping people tell their story in regards to language.
Melissa: Yeah, thanks, Anne Marie, I love that question. It kind of takes both of those categories. As you mentioned, there's the English language, and then also thinking, because we're spiritual beings, and as a Christian, the Bible's language for things is something that we really value and prize and hold in high regard. And so the two things about that are with the English language, partly because of my own writing, and just, I would say, pretty vast or broad reading experiences over the years to -when I was doing my undergrad, I couldn't decide what I wanted to do for a while so I tried a couple of different majors. And inevitably, they were all centered around a lot of like reading from Old World antiquities, and then, you know, I ended up choosing a history major, which as you can imagine, involves a lot of reading from a broad variety of historical backgrounds and different authors and perspectives. And so I think that really helped shape my understanding of the English language in a lot of ways. And then also going on multiple, you know, three months mission trips, where I had enough time to get a little more immersed in the culture of another country, that also has impacted how I look at or hear the English language. And so the way that comes up in my counseling and in Restoried is that I am sometimes thinking through how the English language does not accurately reflect depending on the origin of the word, and depending on even our cultural iterations of the word, the meaning can be so different from person to person. And I find that a lot of times the English language doesn't really carry the actual weight or depth of what is being talked about. And so early on, both in my individual counseling and in Restoried if we talk about like a feelings chart, or different vocabulary words, so to speak, I'm really just using that as an introductory way to try to expand the person's general vocabulary, because it's pretty often that the women will respond with, ‘Wow, that word is very impactful, and I never would have thought to use that word’. Probably my favorite example, that I think of regularly is, several years ago, I heard another biblical counsel, Rachael Rosser. I heard her at a biblical counseling conference speak on trauma in a breakout session. And she used this phrase, anguish is normal, but peace is possible. And that phrase stuck with me. And I actually use it and cite her. In my Restoried groups. There's a week that we pretty much just take that phrase and spend that time of our session, talking about those words and talking about the tension that's between those two realities - which is something new we'll get into more as we talk, I'm sure - but as far as the vocabulary part, I'm thinking, okay, English vocabulary who, who uses the word anguish very often in their day to day way of describing life. And yet, time and time again, these women will tell me have phrase really resonates for me. I have been in anguish, and I have not felt like I could figure out how to describe that because sadness, desperation, fear, those things just feel too small. You know, maybe it hints at it, but it doesn't encompass it. And they really identify with that word and that phrase, and then if you think about that, with the second part of your question about, you know, the English language, and then biblical terms, anguish is biblical. We see it all over the Psalms. And so that's where we will spend a lot of time and restore it as well is tying in that phrase with, where do we see the psalmist, like pouring out before the Lord, his anguish at all kinds of things, his enemies, pursuing him, his own internal wrestling with different thoughts and sins and weaknesses, and wounds and all these things. So yeah, I think those two categories, obviously overlap the English language and biblical language. And so I don't want to sacrifice one for the sake of the other because God placed me in a particular timeframe in a particular context. So the English language is, where I am. But I love being able to see how there are these connecting points that I think we're just quick to overlook or miss.
Ann Maree: Yeah, and even as you're talking, and I've experienced this as well in my own counseling, when I've been receiving counseling, and the counselor will say a word. And I'm like, Yeah, I never thought of using that word. But that is actually the perfect word for my experience, and then that becomes part of my language to describe. And again, we do a lot of helping the people we give care to describe, specifically, instead of even using - we talked Darby, and I talked about the the labels - and that's so very important because you can't heal from a label, but you can heal from those specific things like what you're saying, you're flushing out with the word anguish, you're flushing out what we know to be suffering. And you're putting terms to even our doctrine of suffering, right. And I think that's so helpful. So and I'm so glad you you gave us your perspective too. On that note, though, and I do this - which I probably just did - people who have been traumatized tend to over explain, and so how do you help them articulate their story concisely? Or do you? Maybe you don't? And so maybe answer which way you do? And then why or why not?
Melissa: Yeah, I really appreciate this question because similarly, I've looked back at myself and thought, yeah, I think I over explained myself in that situation or in that conversation. And so just wanting to be careful to think clearly about that. Like, why what, what prompted me to do that, is there something I can take away from that. And so I try to apply that same perspective when I'm working with the people I counsel or the women that I meet with and Restoried. I will say on the front end early in the relationship, whether it's individual counseling relationship or Restoried, I try to be very slow, to provide direct clarity or helping them sort of, be more concise. Now, as you can imagine, in a group setting that has its own challenges, because you have time limits and when you have multiple people in a group, but I think generally, whether it's with individuals or in the group, yeah, I try to be slow to do that in the beginning. But the way that I tried to start at least getting us kind of in a direction is to provide some resources. So timelines are one of the things that I use pretty frequently. And I like to give the women varieties of different types of timelines because a timeline that works for one person might not work the same for someone else. Obviously, their trauma, their story, their background is going to have its own nuances, depending on the time in their life that it happened, that key things took place, their memories might be very fresh, or they might be very foggy and far off. And so we're not going in or at least my approach is not to go in and try to like, pull out each memory and unpack it and tell the full story of it. But it's to help them initially, like you said, to give language to how that how that was experienced by them. So even if they're not telling me every detail of the story, they're telling me this is generally what happened, this is how I felt about it. I mean, you've probably experienced this too, these are the stages where people will apologize quite a bit saying, I'm so sorry, I'm all over the place. Like I shared this thing that happened when I was six. And then this thing that just happened last year with, you know, my, my partner who, you know, hurt me in this way, or, you know, so that you've got all these… it can feel very disoriented, and like we're jumping all around, and they'll be very quick to apologize for that. And so in those early stages, I'm mostly just reaffirming to them, you don't need to apologize. That's okay. It's normal. So I'm just helping them understand it's actually very normal to really sense that the chaos or the disoriented nature of your story. And I think that is what leads to the over explaining is because there's that disoriented feeling, we start to just try to compensate almost by over explaining, because we've probably felt like, oh, in order for someone to actually believe me or understand, I have to make sure I share every detail, or give every disclaimer about what really happened here. And so I take that really slow, but timelines are a huge help. The one that I seem to get the most positive feedback on and I, I believe that I first learned of it through Esther Smith, a resource that she has on her website about timelines. And it's, but I think if you Google it, you'll find lots of variations of it. But it's basically like a post it note type method, where you can take post it notes, and you know, create either memories, or even if you don't know the exact memory, maybe it's a certain season of your life where you just really remember that was a particularly painful, harmful or hurtful season. And so we'll start with, okay, let's start with these kind of categories of your post it notes and then start building them into your timeline. And usually, that tends to help with the concise part, like where they're able to start seeing, like, oh, there's a trajectory here of like, this was a time in my life where this was really the theme of my life. Or they'll see an area where they're like, this is when my life took a very specific turn, whether it was for something really positive and strengthening or something really hurtful and hard and painful. So those are a few of my initial things. But over explaining is, I think it's one of the things that if you do this kind of work, you have to come at it knowing that that's what you're going to experience. And so if you don't have the patience for that, or you find yourself frustrated by that, that's something we have to take to the Lord each time that we - because we're humans, like, we're not, we're not super humans, you know, like, - we don't have the compassion level of Jesus. I mean, we are called to that. And that is our aim. And we're being renewed to that day by day. But, of course, there's times where the over explaining can feel very hard too to really stick with. And so that's the inner work and that we have to do on ourselves as well.
Ann Maree: I am so glad you answer this question. I mean, in conjunction with over explaining from, you know, coming out of a traumatic experience, there's also that tendency, just not to be able to think clearly. I have a friend who is going to love this podcast because she should have had stock and post it notes. That is an awesome way to think about doing a timeline. That's really helpful. I'm so glad you said that. I'm going to do it for myself, you know, way to organize your thinking. And I'm going to ask you for the other the other resources to put in our show notes but so just moving on a little bit, because I personally I want to you help women with this aspect of their story. Especially, and I want to hear from you, how do you help women see the sacredness of their story when that story is just really, really messy. And I know you know this, there are some really messy stories. And I don't mean that in a condescending way that the people are a mess. But the circumstances are really messy.
Melissa: Yeah. When I was reviewing my notes for today, this was probably my favorite question, I think, partly because it just reads with such a meaningful starting point. And then also, that word sacredness is something that came up for me a couple of years ago, when I was engaging with a particular counselee that I worked with for a long time. And it just felt like when I looked back on the years that I spent walking with her through her story, there was this feeling that I didn't know how else to describe but that that was sacred work. And I think that's also been really influenced by you know, I did some of my training with Diane Lanberg online, so obviously, it's not quite as personal but I've still gained the benefit of just from her posture, her demeanor, the way that she would talk about her work. I could sense immediately, like she views every interaction with every counselee, every group that she would speak with, as sacred work. And, I just that, that really impacted me. And so the timing of that education piece that I had with her was right around the time that I had spent several years working with this one particular woman. And what stands out to me, when I think about how would I help women see their stories, through the lens of sacredness is really just that, I think of passages like we're where we hear that God keeps track of our tears in a bottle. Every time I've ever encountered that passage, or heard someone reference it, to me that just rings sacredness. Like that takes intentionality. You know, we don't keep track of each other's sorrows. Right. Like, that's not something we as humans usually do well, partly because, as humans, we couldn't, like we wouldn't, I mean, we would get crushed under the weight of that if we kept track of every single sorrow that that people share with us. And yet, we get a taste of it in doing this kind of work, because we are hearing these stories day in and day out. And so I think of that passage, that phrase, I think that implies a carefulness, a very deliberate nature to God's love for us. And so to me, that just is really the picture I see them when I'm sitting across from a woman or I'm meeting with my groups. Especially if it's a week or a day where I, you know, I, as a fellow human, I might feel like I'm rushing into this appointment from time to time and I'm trying to get my posture back in a good place and the approach towards this person, I want it to be a sacred approach. I don't ever, ever want to take this lightly. And just think that somebody's just, oh, they're just, they're just talking. They're just laying it out for me. It's not casual. It's not flippant. Which kind of circles back to the question initially about the English language are so they tie together. I mean, we're so flippant and casual in the way that we handle each other in life. And I just don't ever want to do that to someone. I don't ever and I know I will, I don't have but my desire is that I would never harm someone by being flippant or careless or casual with their story.
Ann Maree: We have the same love and respect for Diane Lanberg. And for good reason. I think she really does usher you in to that very thought process. I think of caring so much for the person that you will consider what they have to say carefully, just really carefully. I was just thinking about I just wrote this recently about Psalm 139. How we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and if abuse has taught us anything in working with abuse victims, it is that we are very complex. And just your recognition of that in approaching somebody and approaching them for the purpose of hearing their story, that was just - it's just really rich. And that's, that's not only what I hope for, for us as counselors, but I would even say that's what the victims and the women in crisis need, that they need that. You know, I guess, for lack of a better way of saying it's the Jesus with flesh on. And I mean, you just mentioned something that we aspire to be Christ like in but also I mean, we, as counselors could easily say, we should also aspire to hold those tears in a bottle. We should actually, that is a God that is the image of God in us. We are called to. Yeah, we're human. But we are called to also care for women and others. Well, and yeah, anyway, I'm over explaining again. So on that note,I actually got this question on Facebook from somebody recently. ‘How do you help women locate redemptive elements within their hard story.’ And again or if you don't, you know what's the reasoning? But yeah, I'll let you answer that.
Melissa: Yeah, I think this is such a great follow-up question to the previous one. Because I think if we are aiming to honor the sacredness of someone's story, then we will as we're doing that be walking with them towards a redemptive perspective. I think where are our labor or our wrestling can get complicated as counselors, as biblical counselors is trying to like, figure out. ‘How do I do that with each person who's going to have a different, a different pace, a different style of interaction?’ And so again that carefulness is really where we have to start from. I can't just jump straight to okay, how can I, how can I help her see the redemptive qualities of Christ or the redemptive qualities of what He's doing in her life at this present moment. How can, how can we get there like today? You know, and so I think the way I described a similar thought to someone recently - it was on a different subject, it wasn't on abuse and trauma, but I think the theme, that idea still applies is - our theological depth can sometimes create this barrier to coming alongside of people with compassion. I think because we have this theological depth but then we have this fear of, ‘is my faith really so fragile?’ ‘Is my theology so fragile that it couldn't handle hanging with someone for, for the time that's needed to get to this redemptive perspective. You know? And I think that comes from a good place like where we really want to be able to honor God first and foremost, but then also we're thinking about the gospel going forth in about, you know, is this person really aware of all that God is for them and through them? And in them we feel this urgency right to kind of get them to that place. And I just, I always want to be so careful that we don't rush there out of out of fear because our God is so much bigger than that, you know, He doesn't need me to create this timetable of like, well when are we going to get to the redemptive purposes of God in this person's life? If I really believe what I say… I believe about my theology, then I know that that work of the Spirit is going to bring it all together at just the right moment and in just the right ways. And so my role that I see in that is really just coming alongside them and lamenting and I know that has been something that I've heard more people talking about in recent years - especially the last couple of years - but I've been really making a focal point of my Restoried groups for the last 5, 6 years and I have found that each round of the groups, that probably is the time that the women feel the most skeptical about, initially, whether it's skeptical of like, out of fear or just skeptical as in like, they've never heard of it, they've never seen it modeled but then it's also on the back end and ends up being the week that they usually look back and say, ‘I think that was probably a turning point for me.’ Most of them are in church settings have been in church settings and yet they'll stay pretty quickly, ‘Like, I've never had people lament with me over what happened in my life, like nobody's ever done that with me.’ And so we will spend quite a bit of time talking about those tensions. Going back to the anguish as normal but peace is possible. Lamenting is really doing just that we're sitting with those tensions and we're saying this is the truth like is my… the reality of what happened to me. But then this is also true and these things can be true at the same time and I may not feel like experientially, the truth of everything exactly the way that I want to or the way that people maybe tell me that I should, unfortunately you know. A lot of these women are saying people have told me I should do this. I should do that. I should feel this way, respond that way. Lamenting gives them a place. Just bring that all before the Lord and say, Lord, only you can actually really show me like what what is true about you because everybody else can tell me all day long but He has to show us, He has to reveal that. So I start with lamenting which builds on the naming because you mentioned earlier the naming and the vocabulary so you're doing that to kind of lay the groundwork for them. Now I actually know what I'm lamenting. I'm not just sad for the sake of being sad, or I'm not just angry for the sake of being angry because a lot of these victims and survivors, they don't know why they're angry still. They're frustrated with themselves that they're still angry. And so, the practice of lament gives you a place to actually take the energy of that anger.
Ann Maree: Oh, that's great. Yeah, because the Psalms are of sadness and suffering, but there is anger and, you know, some of the words that the Psalmist uses - and I was going back, just to few seconds ago to something else that you were saying, you said something about the work of the Spirit - and so it’s, I don't think this is what we do as biblical councillors, but we might have this tendency to think of the goal in counseling is resolution, if you will. Other language would be fixing, you know, fixing it, fixing her, fixing the problem, whatever. If those are the goals then yes, what we do, you get that anxiety to see redemption quickly, right? But that would, that would make us perfectionists. It would, you know, perfectionism I should say, you know, assuming I guess that a person, a fallen, a person in a fallen, sinful world can get to that place because sometimes they don’t, right. I mean, you experienced this too - and this is not to be discouraging - but sometimes the brokenness is just so so deep that, you know, maybe it'll be on the other side that they have that restoration and redemption and know it but what can we do in the meantime and you're just saying it, you're just were walking with them we’re reminding them you know, lean on our hope when you don't have any let me show you where it is. Let's talk about that. Hope how did how did David get there? You know, how is Paul there? How do, how do we just take the next step? And oh, by the way, if you take a step backwards, that's okay too. That's all right, but just, yeah, being that, that pillar, they can lean on through the process. And, you know, sometimes we're in a weak spot and we can't do it as well either. But being committed to those that we care for so that we can.
You can learn more about About Melissa, and the Restoried groups in our show notes. You’ll also find links to Melissa's website and the Fieldstone Counseling webpage. Also included are links for some of Melissa's quotes and Esther Smith's blog post on creating a timeline. Join us again in two weeks when we continue our conversation with Melissa on the Safe to Hope podcast. Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our executive producer, is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written, mixed and edited by Ann Maree Goudzwaard with assistance from Matt, McQuade. Music is from The Detour from the Integrity music release, Faithful: Go and Speak, and is licensed by Integrity music. Thanks for listening. We'll see you again on the next episode of Safe to Hope.
Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our Executive Producer is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written and mixed by Ann Maree and edited by Ann Maree and Helen Weigt. Music is Waterfall and is licensed by Pixabay. We hope you enjoyed this episode in the Safe To Hope podcast series.
Safe To Hope is one of the resources offered through the ministry of HelpHer, a 501C3 that provides training, resources, and the people necessary in order for the church to shepherd women well. Your donations make it possible for HelpHer to serve women and churches as they navigate crises. All donations are tax-deductible. If you'd be interested in partnering with this ministry, go to help her resources.com and click the donate link in the menu. If you'd like more information or would like to speak to someone about ministry goals, or advocacy needs, go to help her resources.com That's help her resources.com
We value and respect conversations with all our guests. Opinions, viewpoints, and convictions may differ so we encourage our listeners to practice discernment. As well. guests do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of HelpHer. It is our hope that this podcast is a platform for hearing and learning rather than causing division or strife.
Please note, abuse situations have common patterns of behavior, responses, and environments. Any familiarity construed by the listener is of their own opinion and interpretation. Our podcast does not accuse individuals or organizations.
The podcast is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional care, diagnosis, or treatment.