Dr. Thema Bryant is a psychologist and minister who has become one of the most influential voices addressing mental health and spiritual health. UrbanFaith sat down to interview her about her new book Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self. The interview is above, more information about the book is below.
In the aftermath of stress, disappointment, and trauma, people often fall into survival mode, even while a part of them longs for more. Juggling multiple demands and responsibilities keeps them busy, but not healed. As a survivor of sexual assault, racism, and evacuation from a civil war in Liberia, Dr. Thema Bryant knows intimately the work involved in healing. Having made the journey herself, in addition to guiding others as a clinical psychologist and ordained minister, Dr. Thema shows you how to reconnect with your authentic self and reclaim your time, your voice, your life.
Signs of disconnection from self can take many forms, including people-pleasing, depression, anxiety, and resentment. Healing starts with recognizing and expressing emotions in an honest way and reconnecting with the neglected parts of yourself, but it can’t be done in a vacuum. Dr. Thema gives you the tools to meaningfully connect with your larger community, even if you face racism and sexism, heartbreak, grief, and trauma. Rather than shrinking in the face of life’s difficulties, you will discover in Homecoming the therapeutic approaches and spiritual practices to live a more expansive life characterized by empowerment, healthier relationships, gratitude, and a deeper sense of purpose.
According to Covenant Eyes’ 2013 pornography statistics report, fifty percent of Christian men and twenty percent of Christian women admit that they are addicted to porn.
It’s an age old debate. Bigger is better. Size matters. But contrary to all the urban myths, the black man’s biggest sexual organ lies between his ears. And none of this is more evident in the African American male community than when it comes to pornography. I address men here because, honestly, they are 543% more likely to look at porn than women. As of this writing, over 451, 597,025 searches have been conducted since the start of 2013. Yes, that’s only three months! 1 out of every 4 online searches is for pornography. Unfortunately, because the church doesn’t address this issue adequately, many Black Christian men feel like they are alone in their battle to remain porn-free. But statistics have shown that 1 out of every 2 Christian men are addicted to porn (while 1 in 5 Christian women admit porn addiction). 9 out of 10 boys are exposed to pornography before the age of 18. Sadly, 2 out of every 3 young men feel that porn is an acceptable way to express their sexuality. And the pulpit isn’t exempt. 51% of pastors in a recent poll admitted that porn was a potential personal temptation. My goal here isn’t to bombard you with statistics. Instead, I want to highlight a major, potentially unaddressed problem in the African American faith community.
The reason porn is so prevalent in the faith community is because of its addictive nature. For years, the Black church has treated this as merely a sin issue, something to be expunged from a person’s life. Maybe it’s time we went a little further. Although it is important to realize that sex addiction is a sin, it is even more important to realize that sex addiction is a disease that needs proper treatment. In his work, Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, Dr. Mark Laaser describes the cycle involved with sex addiction. He asserts that frequently sexual addiction progresses from fantasy, to porn, and ultimately leads to masturbation. The former naturally leads to the latter. Sound familiar? It should. “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). The task of attempting to treat sexual addiction is to attempt to break this cycle. And, for many, that’s no easy task.
Laaser also asserts that the chemical changes present in sexual addiction mirror drug and alcohol addiction in many ways. In his opinion, it becomes important to treat sexual addiction with the same level of severity. He writes, “Just like alcoholics, sex addicts tell themselves they can quit tomorrow if they want to. They like to think they are in control, but they are not.” Here’s a video that explains the chemical changes in the brain as a result of pornography:
This is a very real issue—even for saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost Christians. So where does that leave Black men? Hopelessly left to our own vices? On the current trajectory, yes. But there’s hope. Psychologist Al Cooper stated that the allure of porn is driven by three engines: affordability, availability, and anonymity. Internet accountability group Covenant Eyes uses the imagery of a three legged stool to paint a word picture of each. Remove one leg and you make the stool much harder to sit on comfortably for someone dealing with a porn addiction. So here are some ways to remove those legs brothers:
1. Remove the Availability
There are tons of internet programs that block certain sites (here’s one). This seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how something as simple as putting a great porn filter on your computer can help overcome your addiction. For example, if I were a former alcoholic it might not be a good idea to visit liquor stores or sit in bars on my lunch break. Removing the temptation goes a long way in helping overcome the temptation. That’s why Paul was so adamant when he told the Corinthians church, “Flee!!!!” There’s a desperation associated with that word. The good thing about steadfast resistance is that eventually it will cause the tempter himself, exasperated from his futile attempts, to flee.
2. Increase YourAvailability Let me tell you, there is no way to overcome any addiction apart from God’s Spirit. Human nature drives us toward sin. Everything natural tells us that it feels right. Only the work of God’s Spirit can help us to overcome this temptation.
Jesus tells a story in the Gospels about an unclean spirit leaving a man, returning, and finding him more accessible. The man is “empty and swept out”. So ultimately the spirit brings seven other spirits with it. And Scripture says the last state of that man was worse than he was before. The problem was that this man didn’t replace what left with something (or should I say Someone) else. It’s not enough to remove the temptation. Overcoming any temptation is a three-step process: recognition, removal, and replacement.
Replacement necessitates increasing your availability to the Spirit of God. Finding ourselves empty and swept out in the porn context means those idle moments where we have nothing else to do. Sitting in front of the computer screen. www…(nothing comes to mind). Empty. Swept out. It’s those moments where decisions have to be made. Will I fill that void with my old habit (which gets worse over time)? Or will I become more available to the life-giving Spirit of Christ? The more we yield to the prompting of God’s Spirit, the less we make ourselves susceptible to our flesh. We are encouraged to walk in the Spirit, but that also necessitates making ourselves available to Him.
3. Create Some Accountability
I’m not talking about the false, “How you doings?” we toss around every Sunday before Church. Because honestly, if folks told you how they were really doing, there’d be no need for a service or a sermon. Prayer would become the focus. Hurting people walk in our churches every week, yet church culture teaches them to be “blessed”, “highly favored”, and problem-free. This can’t be any further from the truth of a lived-out Gospel within the community of faith.
When I say accountability, I mean two steps. First, is personal responsibility. Seems like Job was serious about this. This brother made a covenant with his eyes not to look lustfully at a woman. It might not be a covenant with your eyes, but find a way to make yourself personally accountable. The second step is being accountable to others: creating a space with people you trust where you can be real, transparent, and free to share. For men, this is very difficult. Most men hate talking (unless its about sports or other activities of common interest). That is, until they find someone they can trust. Throughout history, men have learned that collective effort is much more productive than compartmentalized, individual effort. Strength in numbers isn’t just a cliche, it’s a reality. When it comes to porn addiction, although it’s hard to stand alone, standing with others who have your back helps immensely. Illustratively, Scripture tells us that a threefold cord is not easily broken. Find some real, honest, brothers who can help in the accountability process.
In closing, I’m not writing this as a theory. In my college days, I had a “stash”. I know the addictive nature of pornography. But I also have experienced the power of God to overcome something that could have eventually led to my spiritual death. I’m not dismissive when it comes to the amount of temptation and stimulation men deal with regularly. But I am certain that the process described above can help overcome any temptation—including porn. If you are dealing with this issue, start with these three steps: Remove its availability, increase your availability (to God’s Spirit), and create yourself some accountability.
LIFE FROM TRAGEDY: Eli Evans, who survived his mother’s horrific murder in 1995, has found healing in his Christian faith and his athletic ambitions. (Photo: Chris Walker/Newscom)
Elijah “Eli” Evans has grown up with the knowledge that his birth was marked by murder. About 16 years ago, Eli’s father, Levern Ward, and two others killed Eli’s mother and two of his siblings in Addison, Illinois.
Eli was cut from the womb with a pair of shears. One of the killers, Jacqueline Annette Williams, had kidnapped him because she couldn’t have children anymore.
The next day, the group that would later be convicted of the crimes was arrested. Miraculously, Eli survived his violent birth and was rescued by authorities. His brother Jordan, 22 months old at the time, also survived.
In December, the Chicago Tribunewrote about the young man Eli has since become: a high school student trying to set an example for his classmates and a varsity basketball and football player with NFL aspirations. Now 16 years old and living with his grandfather in downstate Illinois, he has forgiven his father for killing his family.
“I always think God has a plan for me since he kept me here,” Eli told the Chicago Tribune. “I was put on this earth for a reason, and I’m still trying to figure out what the reason is. I know it’s going to be something good because not many people could have survived what I did.”
But this contentment didn’t come so easily to Eli. As he was growing up, he bottled up his rage, which sometimes exploded into physical fights.
In a phone interview with UrbanFaith, Eli shared how his Christian faith has led him to overcome his anger and forgive his father. UrbanFaith also spoke with Eli’s grandfather, Sam Evans, about how the family learned to trust God after tragedy. Eli’s brother Jordan prefers not to talk to the media, but Eli said his brother is a major role model in his life.
‘Why Would God Do This to Me?’
From a young age, Eli wondered why God had taken his mother and siblings from him. When he was 6 or 7, he lost his great-grandmother, too.
“I was thinking to myself, why would God do this to me?” Eli said. “Why would he take away the one person who was a mother figure to me?”
After his great-grandmother’s death, young Eli started running through his neighborhood and ended up at his church. There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot, and the doors were unlocked, so he went in. He dropped to his knees inside the dark auditorium and finally let everything out.
“I looked up at the cross and just screamed out, and I was crying,” Eli said. “I was just yelling at God and saying, why would you do this to me? Why would you take away my grandma, everything I got?”
But then Eli remembered that he still had his brother Jordan, who could have easily been killed along with the rest of his family, and his grandfather.
“I felt that God was saying, ‘Hey, your brother is still here and you’ve got your grandfather,’” Eli said. “They’re my family, I love them and I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
The Evans family had recently started coming to church based on Jordan’s lead, and Eli noticed that his grandfather was happier. Sam Evans had been raised by a preacher, but after his daughter died, he had stopped going to church regularly.
“If it wasn’t for God, I’d never be able to get through the funerals,” Sam Evans said. “Picture walking into a church and seeing three caskets, not one: your oldest daughter, your granddaughter and grandson. I wrestled with God about that.”
Overcoming Pent-Up Anger
When the family started coming to church, Sam Evans started doing Bible studies with his grandsons and showed them verses about handling anger.
For years, Eli got into rough fistfights because he couldn’t control his pent-up anger. Kids at school knew his family’s history and would sometimes use it to taunt him.
“I had a couple of kids who I fought who said they’d kill my family like that, like my mom was killed,” Eli said. “I always told myself, if I could go back in the past, I could stop it all by fighting them off. But when someone threatens my family like that, it brings up stuff.”
Over the years, Sam Evans helped Eli work through his anger, and he realized his grandson was bottling everything up. “He just wouldn’t talk about things,” Sam Evans said. “You could just see it building up in him.”
Together, they turned to Scripture, and Sam Evans showed him how Jesus was violently abused but chose to model love and forgiveness.
“If someone hit me, my grandpa would always tell me, ‘You’ve got to turn the other cheek, just like Jesus did,’” Eli said.
As he matured, Eli found another outlet for his anger: prayer. He poured his anger out to God instead. By high school, he had grown spiritually and stopped fighting.
“That was my new way of letting it out,” Eli said. “Fighting wasn’t working, because it still made me angry in the end.”
FAMILY TIES: Eli was raised by his grandfather, Sam Evans (left), a part-time preacher who grounded his grandson in the faith. (Photo: Chris Walker/Newscom)
Sam Evans said he has enjoyed watching Eli grow into a mature young man.
“It’s kind of cool when I get a call from a teacher saying, ‘He doesn’t let people pick on the underdogs,’” he said. “There is a sense of pride there. It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s taking a stance.’”
Eli harbored anger against his father for years, but around age 11, he decided to forgive. Now, he can talk about the tragedy without getting angry.
“It was a hard thing, a long process,” Eli said. “But as I got older and more spiritually developed, it got easier for me.”
Eli’s father, Levern Ward, was sentenced to life in prison; the other two convicted killers, Jacqueline Annette Williams and Fedell Caffey, received death sentences that were later commuted. Williams has sought release from prison, and Caffey has been hoping for a new trial. The Evans family hopes they’ll stay locked up, but Eli said he’s not going to allow the outcome to affect him.
“I’m not going to lose sleep at night, and my family shouldn’t lose sleep either,” Eli said. “I let that stuff go a long time ago. I put it in God’s hands and that’s what I want to do again. Whatever happens, it’s in his hands, not mine.”
Eli believes it would have been right for the killers to be put to death for their crimes. But since they’re still alive, Eli has thought about eventually meeting his father.
“I wouldn’t go see him at this age,” Eli said. “If I did go see him, it would be with my brother, we’d both be older, and it would be a decision we both made.”
Sam Evans is interested in ministering to people coping with tragedy, who sometimes reach out to him after hearing about what the Evans family has been through. He’s ordained and preaches occasionally.
“I want to encourage people to look to the Lord for comfort,” he said. “If I can do that for somebody, I’m willing and able.”
LOST SOUL: Amy Winehouse in London on July 23, 2009, exactly two years before her death. (Photo by Shaun Curry/Newscom.)
This week, Amy Winehouse’s official cause of death was finally announced, three months after the singer was discovered dead in her London home on July 23. After initial autopsy results came back inconclusive, the coroner determined that Winehouse died from consuming an extreme amount of alcohol. According to test results, the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was five times the drunk-driving limit. Her doctor said the troubled star had resumed drinking in the days prior to her death, after a short-lived period of sobriety.
Besides being a talented artist, Winehouse was emblematic of the numerous celebrities today whose public battles with substance abuse are regularly in the headlines. By the end of her life, Winehouse’s struggles had stretched to the point of becoming fodder for jokes and riddles (“Q: What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? A: Her last one!”). Sadly, our society has grown so accustom to addiction that we now laugh it off. But for those in its grips, it’s no joke.
We asked LaTonya Mason Summers, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based mental health therapist, to comment on the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and what we can do to help those affected by it.
UrbanFaith: After Amy Winehouse’s death, the Huffington Post featured a commentary by Rabbi Shais Taub which asked the question, “Was the World Powerless to Stop Amy Winehouse?” In other words, are there addictions so strong and pervasive that they’re beyond human understanding and control? How would you answer that?
LaTonya Mason Summers: The word choice is interesting here, and I agree: the “world” was powerless to stop Amy Winehouse. But it was the “world” that fueled Winehouse’s addictions. Not “world” in the sense of the “earth,” but “world” as defined by Winehouse’s frame of reference — the background, culture, and lifestyle out of which she lived. Addictions are strong, pervasive and hard to understand and control, but it’s even more difficult when one tries to stop addiction by their own strength and understanding. It is reported that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. Drug and alcohol abuse is a byproduct of something far deeper. Oftentimes, it’s a symptom of low self-esteem, unresolved trauma and abuse, rejection and abandonment, and mostly fear. We do a great disservice to addicted persons when we focus on their addictions and ignore the underlying problems.
We see so many celebrity drug and alcohol addicts today that our culture has almost grown cold and callous to it. For instance, before her death there was a website devoted solely to the question of “When will Amy Winehouse die?” We see celebrities such as Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston, and Charlie Sheen, and we make jokes about them. How does this affect our culture’s understanding of addiction?
When we have a culture entertained by reality TV shows, court and crime TV, and sensationalized Web broadcasting — not to mention today’s popular music — we can’t help but have a desensitized society. We are no longer afraid of or empathetic toward anyone or anything because we’ve been there and done that through TV and the media. So, why wouldn’t we have a “When will Amy Winehouse Die?” website?
Unfortunately, we live in a society that “dumbs down” addictions but tacitly gives a “thumbs up” to its portrayals. Remember when there used to be cautionary documentaries on drugs and alcohol, and on people who struggled with them? Now, we have reality shows that glorify dysfunctional behavior. No wonder we are ignorant. Understanding addictions is no longer newsworthy.
How do you counsel a person with a serious drug addiction? Where do you begin, and what kinds of things should family and friends understand as they’re trying to help that person?
I used to set up and run treatment programs for adolescent and adult substance abusers. I absolutely loved that line of work, but it was emotionally tough. After 11 years of doing it, I stepped away to work solely with mentally ill people. The public sees addicted persons as weak people who lack self-control and deserve every consequence they face. But can you imagine the level of shame, guilt, frustration, and hopelessness that those substance abusers felt by the time they got to me? Imagine having failed everyone, including yourself, family, friends, employers, and the legal system — not to mention God. I always started treatment by instilling hope and restoring the addicted person’s sense of worth. It was much easier to establish rapport, trust, and motivation that way.
God forbid I say this, but oftentimes the families were more sick than the addicts. In fact, family members would wind up on my couch before the addict would. Family work is important in substance-abuse treatment, because the family members can make recovery hard. They help too much. Their helping sometimes hurts the addict. When my patients had toxic families, I’d send my patient to a treatment program in another city or state so they could get better.
Over the summer, former NBA star Jalen Rose was sentenced to 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Some wondered if the treatment was overly harsh because he was a black celebrity, since others have gotten off easier. Do you think jail time is an effective way to steer people clear of destructive behavior involving alcohol and drugs?
In my experience working in the court system as an advocate for my clients, the courts made it worse. The punishment given rarely fit the crime. The probation officers were inconsistent. The judges sent mixed messages by punishing minor crimes with maximum sentences and vice versa. Jail time is punitive, and punishment does not work when the drug or alcohol use is secondary to something else. Addicts don’t mind punishment because they typically feel useless and worthless anyway. That kind of punishment affirms what they believe about themselves. However, I am not saying they should not suffer consequences for drunk driving, drug use, etc. I am saying that offering them rehab while they’re incarcerated might yield greater results.
What kinds of miracles have you seen in your work with people battling addictions?
LaTonya Mason Summers
Goodness, the stories I can tell. I’ve had a hand in imparting into the lives of addicted persons who are now pastors, business owners, and even addictions counselors. I had a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her to me as a last resort. She had refused other counselors, and I assumed she would do the same with me. After I asked her parents to leave, the girl opened up to me like a book. (It wasn’t because of anything special that I said to her, but other professionals simply had failed to remove the parents.) The girl was a cocaine user and held me by her confidentiality rights, so I could not tell her parents. We made a pact that if she stopped using I would keep her secret. I cannot tell you the anxiety I had for weeks thinking something would go wrong. I collaborated with her physician to drug test her weekly to ensure the girl’s abstinence. After three months, her parents called thanking me for my help. The girl had returned to a healthy weight, her appetite had been restored, and her mood had improved. Today (four years later) she is a successful college student studying psychology.
Among the celebrity success stories that stand out are Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual victory over substance abuse. It only came after several stints in jail and a long, public battle. What kinds of things contribute to a successful road to recovery, and when do you know that someone is legitimately recovered?
My biggest weapon is instilling hope. I do this by challenging the addicted person’s mentality and perspective. I am a cognitive behaviorist, which means I help change the way people think. I do not know what works, as I have often thrown up my hands on clients who later recovered. Then I have lost clients whom I thought had arrived. All I really know is, pray hard in each session. I ask for God’s help. I ask Him to give me the words to say, and I hold on to Isaiah 50:1-7, believing I am called as a therapist.
I honestly don’t know when a person is legitimately recovered, as I believe it’s a lifelong process. Like those of us who are not addicted, we have our own lifelong battles — we try to stop lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, cursing, overeating — everyone has a Goliath they must face. And can any of us say we’ll ever arrive in this world? From my perspective, messing up is just as much part of the recovery process as getting it right is. And, if you get it right all the time, how do you know you’re recovered?
Is it possible to effectively treat addiction without addressing the spiritual aspects of the problem?
Absolutely not! I’ve had to learn how to minister without saying “God” and “Jesus,” so that I can reach everyone. However, I know how to make others want what I have. I was mentored by a man who told me, “I may not be able to make a horse drink the water, but I should be able to make him thirsty.” And that’s the approach I take in therapy. I see myself as sowing seeds, believing someone will come behind me and water them, and eventually increase will come.
Addiction is spiritual. I believe an addict’s zealousness can be indicative of the great calling on his life. He just needs to move that zealousness away from destructive behavior to purposeful, life-giving behavior.
There are two things you cannot be in the traditional Black church: a gay male and a pregnant teen. Let me cut straight to the point to avoid off-topic debates — although, according to God’s Word, these two individuals have sinned, our decision to rank their sins as the highest on our list of unforgivables is misinformed and potentially destructive.
Yes, I know this scripture: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev. 18:22, NIV).
Or this: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body[a] in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3-5, NIV).
But I also know this one: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8, NIV).
The fundamental error in the way we approach sexual sin in the church is that we often fail to allow God to be the judge and redeemer and instead expect for the guilty parties to grovel before us for forgiveness. GO AHEAD, READ THAT TWICE.
God forbid that the gay community thinks they can get married and be like us. And for Pete’s sake, don’t these horny teens realize they’re ruining their lives and bringing another life into the world to share in their misery? But how many models of solid marriage and physical self-control do we see from our religious and civic leaders? As Wil LaVeist stated in his article, “Gay Marriage Paranoia,”conformity to the world should be a bigger concern to Christians than attempting to impose our values on it. It’s important to preach righteousness from the pulpit, but it’s just blowing smoke if you cannot present a proper example of holy living.
What’s more, so many churches present paradoxes that confuse the younger generations. They condemn homosexuality from the pulpit but employ obviously gay worship leaders and attend conferences featuring celebrity preachers who have been embroiled in sinful scandals. Two things are happening here. On one hand, a pastor feels a responsibility to condemn the sin, but on the other hand they have a heart to restore the lost. Unfortunately, they often clumsily handle this in the pulpit and are more likely to push away someone that could benefit from their sensitivity to the issue.
Others are less pure in their motives. Many people feel like a person cannot be pardoned until they have fully received the punishment for their sin. They feel they have a responsibility to rebuke the guilty party until that person feels absolutely worthless. When is the last time God verbally assaulted you? Think about it, that last time you did that ugly thing that you’re thankful no one else knows about, God forgave you the same as the time your issues became a public spectacle.
When Jesus confronted the adulterous woman regarding her transgression, he simply said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:1-11). He knew that true repentance would be determined not by how much sorrow that woman exhibited over her failure, but by how she chose to live her life from then on.
Perhaps we could learn something from Jesus’ response.
Is there caution tape around your church? On Sunday morning, does it feel more like a courthouse where people are tried and sentenced than a hospital where the Great Physician can work His miracles?
Let’s try this in our churches. Let’s create a space where people can be honest and learn from their mistakes. A place where they can confess their sins and heal without fear of condemnation.
If we find ourselves judging someone or feeling self-righteous because we beat up some poor,misguided transgressor with Scripture, let’s remember that it’s God’s job to judge and convict. And let’s also remember the sins that person didn’t see in us, and join them in rejoicing over the gift of God’s forgiveness.