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Transcript of Safe to Hope Podcast: Premiere 6 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.

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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 le