Julia BurnsJulia W. Burns was a psychiatrist who specialized in child and adolescent psychiatry, particularly physical and sexual abuse and trauma, having practiced in Virginia, North Carolina, and New York. Dr. Burns performed medical mission work in El Salvador, South Africa, and Botswana during her career. She also painted, blogged, and wrote poetry. Mother of three, she often wrote about her experiences as a psychiatrist, mother, and cancer patient.
Your professional background?
I’m a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I continue to have a part-time private practice, seeing children for depression, anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s, pervasive development delay. I see adults as well. I do grief work, and did do a lot of trauma work, not as much now, particularly survivors of sexual abuse. I graduated in undergraduate right here at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. I majored in music for two years, and then switched to psychology, and did graduate work in psychology, but decided at that point that I really would missing a lot of things if I didn’t get a medical degree. I went back and got all my pre-med courses and went to Wake Forest University Medical School, and then on to the medical college of Virginia in Richmond for my residency and child fellowship.
I moved from there to upstate New York, where I became the medical director of a 300 child welfare agency. I learned more about trauma in one week then I think I thought I would learn in a lifetime. I had a lot of catching up to do because I had not had any training in childhood trauma. For some reason, our society has been very slow to adapt to the statistic that one in four children are sexually abused. I took as many lectures and conferences and books as I could find, and I just learned as much as I could. I stayed with the children. They were my best teacher. We grew together and healed together.
And your family background? Where are you from?
I grew up in Lumberton, North Carolina, but I was born in Rocky Mount and lived in Sims until I was two. Both my parents grew up on tobacco farms in Eastern North Carolina. That is in my blood. I love the smell of tobacco, and I said I just wished it was used for something better than smoking because it’s just such a beautiful crop, and of course, it raised both my parents and their families and then again, me, because my dad got out of farming and became the agency manager of Farm Bureau in Robinson County. I grew up in the poorest county in North Carolina, the one with the lowest education in the state with the lowest education. I’m so proud of that, so proud of that. That is so much who I am.
I have one older sister. I learned a lot of good things growing up in my family. We went to church probably three or four times a week. That was the only thing to do back then. It was the only social life. That was where you courted, and ate, and sang and rang hand bells. If you did anything, it was in the church. That was just who I was. That was the fabric of my being. I’ve written a book about my work with traumatized children, and in the first part, I talk about my childhood. I would say in the first five or six drafts, I left out my own experience with discipline. In the last draft, I added it in. That’s the one thing I wasn’t sure, because I love my parents so much, if it would be honorable to talk about the way they disciplined in our family. It was pretty harsh, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Everybody that I knew was spanked, and we just didn’t talk about it, but I think my parents spanked a little bit more frequently and a little bit more harshly than other people.
I only learned that after probably doing a thousand psychiatric interviews. I decided to put it in my book because of the way I feel it marked me. It marks people differently. I think it made my sister more rebellious, but it made me much more … I was born to be a caretaker, and it made me want to be just better at taking care of everybody, be more perfect, so that maybe the spankings wouldn’t come. I don’t want to talk about that too much because I feel like it was a very small part of my childhood, but probably a deeply embedded part of my childhood in my physical body and my emotional body and the way I’m oriented in to the world. Mostly, I’m super grateful to my parents. What really makes a child do well is routine. Boy, we had a routine in my house. You could set your watch by the time we got, practiced piano, by the time we ate supper. My dad, he worked six days a week, but he came home at 5:00 Monday through Friday, at noon on Saturday, and we were always together. My parents did not socialize. We did not drink. It was all about the family. I’m just so grateful to them for that, so grateful, and don’t mean them any dishonor, ever.
What about being a mom?
Yeah, okay. One of the things that people ask me the most often is how do you have three children in medical training? I started four years after the rest of my classmates, so I wanted to have my first child before I was 30. I felt really strongly about that. I thought it would protect me from breast cancer, and I just was ready for a baby when I was a third year med student. Poor Andy. A lot of times I just have to drag him along, but we did it. Andrew was born the end of my third year. I call it my most wonderful creative act. My children. My three children are my most beautiful works of creation. I absolutely adore all three of them. They’re amazing. I have a 31 year old son, a 28 year old son and a 25 year old daughter. Owen was born in my second year of my residency in Richmond. I was at the VA. That was the most difficult.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was doing lots of trauma work for the first time and commuting back and forth from downtown Richmond to the hospital. That was tough, but there were no regrets. Then, Wilton was born in my second year of fellowship when I finished up. They’re just the light of my life.
And your husband, Andy? A good southern girl married to a stone-cold, Yankee?
This is a story that Andy loves to tell people. I was living in New York with my best friend. I was in between graduate school and medical school. Andy was a banker. I was 1F and he was 2J. I couldn’t get in my apartment after my first day on Wall Street. I had a temporary job working as a secretary at Chase Manhattan. He came up and said “Can I help you?” because I was unlocking two deadbolts, and locking one and unlocking one, and locking two. I thought, “Oh my God. This is just like my mother described. I’m going to get mugged in New York City.” I let him have the keys because I couldn’t get into the door. He opened the door and he walked away. When my roommate came home, I said there’s this guy that lives upstairs. He’s kind of cute, but he’s really rude, and you might be interested.
She goes, “Well, I’m not interested if he’s rude.” I said, “Well, I’m sure not interested,” but Andy was. He told the guy that’s visiting now, he told Dave that night that he was going to marry me. Dave said, “What’s her name?” He goes, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” A year later, we were married.
Who shaped you the most?
My mother. They say that successful women all have a critical mother behind them. That would be true in my case, but it was a critical mother that had a huge bosom, big arms full of love and great hugs and loved to give them. In the book is a better explanation about the relationship that I had with my mom, but she was in charge of Robinson County. She was either treasurer, vice president or president of everything, and ran the church, and she ran us. When we were little, really little … I was probably in middle school … we would get a big van. I don’t know why, but we would ride all around town. I know why we did that. We’d pick up poor children, but I don’t know why we went to the Catholic Church. I can’t remember that, but I know it was the Catholic Church because it was back when Protestant Churches weren’t putting crosses of Jesus, you know, in the bad part of a crucifixion.
I know we were in the Catholic Church, and we taught them Sunday School and we gave them juice and cookies and then we took them back home. We went to the Cancer Institute and wrote letters and read the bible. I mean, everything I am, breathe, think, everything is infused with my mother … My dad was a big backdrop for that. A little more accepting, a little more stoic and quiet, but very loving, very interested. Neither one of them … I hate to admit this, but I was cheerleader. That was the only thing for girls to do back then. They never missed a single game and went to most of the out-of-town games. Even though my mom was working full-time, which was really unusual, she was always carpooling the cheerleaders. If there was a boy that showed up in the driveway, she was home in about five minutes, you know. My mother, my father.
Tell us how you gained such broad experience as a psychiatrist and counselor?
When I graduated from my fellow in Richmond, I thought I was going to stay and do twin research and be an academic researcher and psychiatrist. Andy ended up getting a call from a friend of the family, who wanted him to move up there and go into business with him. Against my will … In our family, we do allow this occasionally, the “everybody gets a vote,” but the one carried, that happened … we ended up in upstate New York. Instead of being an academic researcher, I was a rural psychiatrist. I was the only psychiatrist within a 300 mile circle between Albany and Syracuse. There was one other psychiatrist at the state hospital, but they didn’t see any private patients. Again, I saw more Tourettes in one week then I thought I would see in a lifetime.
Julia Burns: When I moved to Chapel Hill, I think this is so funny, everybody says, “What do you specialize in?” I’m like, “Well, I specialize in everything.” Nobody likes that answer anymore, but I specialize in everything because I was the only person to call. If it walked in the door, if I didn’t know how to do it, I had to call Duke or Chapel Hill or Yale, or figure it out. That’s who I saw. Whoever called, I could see and I could help. As people say, what ages do you treat? I say 2 to 92.
Your recent personal experience influences your professional work?
What I do in my practice now is I got really sick three years, and as you can tell from my previous answers, I had really also been a Christian, but there’s something about what happened to me where literally the person doing my biopsy was weeping. I was like, “I’m really in trouble here. I’m going to die.” That just gives you a big 360. I had always prayed for patients, and I still continue to pray for my patients, especially a lot of my patients have been hurt by the church, or the authority figures in the church, or “Christians” in authority roles over their lives. It’s not appropriate for me to pray for all my patients, but as I get to know my patients, if they like me to, if they’ll let me, I will enter into that place with them more and more.
I am studying now healing prayer, and I’m doing that at the church. Just having people come up after church, pray for them for healing like I did for you right before we started. I’m very comfortable with that. I’d like to marry that in a little bit more, but I’m cautious of that because the governing forces in our world right now, in America, have separated those two worlds and its secular governing bodies. I want to be true to the mission that I am assigned, whether it’s by God or by people. I want to honor both.
Tell us about the trauma you encountered involving child abuse as the psychiatrist?
When I moved to upstate New York, my youngest daughter, she was two months old and the middle son was three and the oldest was six. That was a very busy time, but a really wonderful time in our lives. I was looking for a job part-time, and I got employed by a child welfare agency, and that’s when I started seeing the trauma. I had children coming in and something about the resonance of what I am, and who I am, makes children feel very comfortable. I was hearing stories after stories after stories that other treatment providers were hearing and experiencing things with children that were profoundly disturbing, and were not getting really accounted for in their treatment plans.
Julia Burns: I lived in that gap between when I was able to hear about trauma, but I wasn’t sure what we were to do with it, and nobody was doing anything about it. Our treatment plans were based on aggression, and biting and kicking and spitting. We weren’t saying, “Why does a six year old go to school and bite his teacher?” We weren’t asking those questions, and for some reason, I did.
How did this affect you? Angry with God
I was wounded in the process of listening, and I became extremely angry with God. I totally blamed God for the things that I was hearing that were unspeakable. They were so unspeakable the medical profession had turned their back on it. Now, I was in a social work system that was turning their back on it. I was living in a place where there was no reality, and eventually, it made me crack up myself basically. I stopped working there, and I was praying “God, what were you thinking about? Help me. Help me organize this. Help me to think about this. Help me to do something about this.”
I wasn’t getting a good answer, so I got Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” A friend was helping me, and I started reading it. It’s like 13 chapters, and you’re supposed to do something but you’re also keeping a journal. The night before I started writing, I was praying to God. I want to heal children. I want to heal children but I can’t do it if I’m so wounded myself and so angry and so broken.
And you had a life transforming dream?
So, I had the dream. I think it was on a Friday, or Thursday. I can’t remember the days of the week. We could look it up. 1998. I date and time and everything and put my name because I want people to know if I say it, it’s true. It’s a doctor’s note. This is what happened. Everything is date and time. I have all my journals. I had the dream say on Wednesday, and I started writing on Thursday night in the middle of the night. It was the next night. Got it?
Please describe the dream for us.
So, I had this dream. I think it was December 11, 1998. My daughter and I … I love the ocean and the beach … we’re sitting on the front of a beach cottage, and Wilton looked over at me. She said, “Mom?” I said, “What?” We were just having the best time. It was so peaceful, and there wasn’t a lot of peace in my life then. She goes, “There’s a big ol’ tidal wave coming in.” I said, “Really?” She said, “Yeah, we better run. Look, everybody’s running. Look at all the people running around us.” I was like, “We’re not going to go anywhere. We’re going to sit right here. We’re going to be fine.”
Sure enough, the tidal wave came. It washed over us, and it was gone. Everything was new and pristine and beautiful. I said, “See? I told you we’re going to be fine.” We wanted to go swimming. That’s what we loved to do, swim in the ocean. She said, “Look, there’s a store open over there. Let’s go over there.” We went in there, and we bought a little blowup raft. It was like a dragon that you sit in, you know, and it’s got the head. We got a little bit of food and I said, “What are you guys doing here?” I said, “Didn’t you get washed away by the tsunami like everybody else?” They said, “Oh, not us. We’re the glorious ascension at the Five and Dime.” I was writing in my journal. The next night I go to bed, and I wake up in the middle of the night and I went to my walk-in closet. It’s not the house I live in now, but I got up because I didn’t want to bother my husband.
It was like this. It was just like Shakespeare in Love. It was just pouring out of me. I’ll sing it to you. Here it is. I don’t know it by heart. I know a lot of things by heart, but not this. It was the first poem that I wrote, or the first song that I wrote. It’s: I sing a song for the abused child, the song no one wants to hear. Who will feed her? Who will care when she is born? It’s the song of a child alone in the womb, tainted with heroin and crack. It’s the song I know, and it’s the song I’ll gladly sing telling of the hate and the tears of a child who will never learn to trust. The child who suffered so much before she was born, that when she was born into the life of abuse she lives, she had little chance. It’s the song of so many who never had a childhood. That was the first one. 10,000 later, here I am.
Tell us about Chelsea, one of the children who inspired your book
This is a beautiful little girl, who was trying to save her own life, but she was acting out sexually in school but nobody could get her to say anything. They knew what was going on, but we live in an age, again, where we’re in between knowing how to help people best. The little girl was screaming out her pain, but she wasn’t using her words. She came to see me, and she sat in my lap and she started trying to hump me. She was really like a waif, little thin thing. I just softly put her on the floor like that’s not what we’re going to do today. I didn’t say a word, though. That’s where children stop talking is when they sense disapproval. I just placed her on the floor. It’s taken me probably 30 years to figure out why I got all this information, but I’ve slowly started piecing it together. She got distracted with the toys, and then she got up like she was going to walk out the door. Again, I didn’t say anything because I knew she was non-verbal. She was mute. I knew that if I interfered in any way that she was just so trained to do what adults had told her to do, that if I did anything, it would be what I wanted and not what she needed.
I didn’t say you can’t go out. We’re doing a psychiatric interview. I didn’t do any of that. I thought she was going to leave, but instead she started basically… I want to say this nicely so people can hear it… inserting the doorknob into her mouth… That’s the best way to say it… and gyrating as she was doing that. Then, that lasted about 15 or 20 minutes and then she did it to the hinges of the door, all the ones that she could reach, which wasn’t the top one but the bottom two. I don’t know why I was in this room, I can’t remember, but anyway, there was a huge chalkboard in the room so then she started licking the chalkboard. She licked every inch of the chalkboard. That took about an hour and 15 minutes. I just sat there. I didn’t say a word. I just let it unfold, which was how I had the gift of listening. When we finished, I walked out, and I must have looked really awful because my nurse said, “Dr. Burns, can I get you something? Can I do something for you?”
I said, “Well, yeah, you can clean the door and the blackboard in my office.” Chelsea’s ready to go, she was in placement, back with her foster family. I went outside and I threw up. That’s the only time I ever have.
What happened next? The reaction of your colleague?
I walked around the block, got my head together because I had a whole day of work to do and I did my new patient evaluations in the morning. My face is getting really red. I can feel it. We got her into a good placement from that, and the next day, I saw the psychologist that had interviewed her. I said, “What did you find? What did you say?” You’re looking for validation when you’re living in a world like that. You’re looking for somebody else to step into that world with you. “She said nothing, she wouldn’t talk.” I said, “Didn’t she try to hump you or anything?” She said, “Oh she did, but I told her she was naughty, to stop.”
Severed Spaces and Stripes
Julia Burns: So, I wrote this poem about Chelsea, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to read it but we’ll see.
Doug Monroe: May I ask how old Chelsea-
Julia Burns: She was about seven or eight.
Doug Monroe: Seven?
Julia Burns: Six, seven, or eight. Something like that. She was teeny. She had Failure to Thrive. This poem is called, this song is called “Pink Lines, White Stripes.”
“Somebody is hiding. She lives there. Her body wedged tight, lidless eyes pressing, ironed white sheets with tiny pink lines. Stripes sever wide white intervals …” Dang. I sent this in to an agent yesterday and I just saw a typo. I misspelled sever. Oh man. Anyways. I’ll start over. I won’t start over but…
“Someone is home. She is hiding behind the curtain invisible as spirits hover and view the beating terror. He enters though the dresser barricades the opening. Six doors arise erect sentries guarding the secret. The girl conceals her body. She is hiding. She is home. Light filters through the crack, pink tattered wallflower exposed as the door groans, and he plunges into a hole far too fine. As he finds the almost invisible under the pink and white ironed linens that veil her, and she flees. Fly with her. Fly as he unfastened her body. Depart as the angels fiercely surround the separation. Sustain this hidden life. Spin out, out then and beyond, sleep blown backward. Sway away, east lies west. Disconnect from his entry, as a filter of golden thread spins you away…”
Julia Burns: See, this is what the little girl’s doing while it’s happening … “The ladder runs moonbeam to garbage dump…” God is still present, even though we humans decide to stay in the garbage … “Return to get paid in full, but whirl now into a wider air. Sky fly past the television where her brother lies watching Barney Fife drop his bullet again, where mother lies sleeping, curled in half, blank bitterness her only bedfellow. Divide into vapors that flatten as the splay away. Climb higher than the blades, the lying backpack and dresser leaning on the floor. The TV’s hum and green leaves vibration. Hang upside down in rhythm. Swing on the handle of the Big Dipper. Sing broken lyrics with the fish on a star, and let the song sway, the musical roar separate and sustain the hidden hole.
In the distance, each silent scream reverberates as shattered fragments scatter. Somebody is hiding. Someone is home. She lives in cooling drool, ladened, oozing. Ironed sheets, pink thin lines severe white clean spaces. She lives in there. Bite her and she bleeds.”
In the book, each chapter has a song and a story. Of course, I have a song and a story. We all have a song and a story.
Can we solve this problem of child abuse?
We can solve it. We can absolutely solve this problem, but awareness is lacking. There’s not a single feel good story of a child that was in foster care, children that I took care of that rise to the top and make it that don’t say we knew something funny was going on in that house. We took that little boy an apple… We’d drop him an apple when he walked to school because we thought they might not be feeding him. We knew that something bad was going on in that house. Even the social service workers weren’t … My theory on that is I had one time heard a judge tell a two-year-old that if she hadn’t shaked her tooshie at her grandfather, he wouldn’t have raped her. Seriously. Exactly. We need to tell those stories. We need to hear those stories. We need to teach those grandfathers, who were perpetrated against themselves as young children—it’s a never-ending cycle—that we don’t behave that way, that that’s not allowed. Yes, it’s very solvable. We haven’t even gotten started on all the ways we can solve it.
Seeing child abuse and experiencing cancer, were you angry with God?
Well, that was all part of my journey when I was trying to figure out how to heal without being hurt myself, trying to figure out how to help. I felt like the little boy with his finger in the dike. I did hurt myself with my anger. There’s no doubt that that was part of what hurt me. It’s so underwhelming, but eventually, I just figured out that it wasn’t God that was sexually abusing my patients. It was other people. It sounds silly, but I just was able to embrace that wholly, and that God’s heart was breaking as much as mine. I almost had, well, I’m pretty sure it was a metaphysical experience, or mystical experience might be a better way, when I had my cancer. I was like, “Why me? I don’t hardly let my cellphone come near me. My children have never seen me eat fast food. I don’t drink much. I exercise. Why did I get cancer?” At first, people would tell me, “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts. My ways are higher than your ways. Don’t ask that question. Just seek healing. Be confident. Be strong in the fact that you’re going to be whole again.”
A Great Insight
About a year or two out from that, I realized something that was very profound for me. Again, it might sound simple. God didn’t watch over and give me cancer, that I, as God’s child and a steward of his earth and his kingdom, gave his people cancer. I gave Him cancer. He didn’t give it to me. We’re giving it to Him. We are Him. God lies in our heart, right? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God. There was nothing else in the beginning but the Word. God is in our heart. We are in God’s heart. We are all one. Really, I saw this great speech the other night, Prozac and Jesus. He said, “God loves us. He deeply and profoundly knows us, and he still loves us and third, we are on a journey of wonder from God and to God.” Wow, right?
Whatever we have done, whether it’s used preservatives… I do a lot of gut/brain connection consultation now because I feel so right about what I’m doing… but whether it is put preservatives in food or poisons on our golf courses, whatever we have done to cause the cancer rate to be double and triple what it is in developing nations. We have done it. God did not do these things to us. I don’t know why that took me until I was 60 to figure out. That, I can’t tell you.
How did you learn of your cancer?
Yeah. March 21, 2014, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. I had been in pain for about two months, and I thought I had mastitis. That’s what it comes as, as an infection. I got two or three rounds of antibiotics, and I was getting ready to go take a trip with my son. I was in so much pain. I was working, seeing patients, and I was waiting for Duke to call, finally, from the breast cancer, and they never called me. I had been in a book club with a doctor of oncology at UNC, and I shot her an email. I was like, “Lisa, I just Googled my symptoms and it looks like I could possibly have this really rare, aggressive breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer.” I said, “I’m sure that’s not the case, but I’m in so much pain and I’m leaving town, and I think I ought to get checked out.” Within two or three hours, I had four emails, but I was still clueless because I just had never heard of such a cancer hurting so much outside.
It’s like when you’re nursing your baby, and your ducts get inflamed. Antibiotics helped, but it wouldn’t go away. That’s why the doctors were confused. She said, “We’re going to call you in the morning.” They called and they said, “How about come in at 8:00.” I said okay, that works. I said, “Should I bring my husband?” They were like, “Yeah, let’s have a breast party.” I was like, “Who wants to have a breast party? Definitely not me.” Anyway, Andy came and he picked me up, and we were driving in to the hospital and he looked at me and he said, “Julia, we’re not going to get worried about this. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you that we can’t take care of.” The first two or three doctors I even saw that day were like, “Oh yeah, you got on the wrong antibiotic.” I’m telling you women this so you’ll know about this. This is very dangerous. The first two or three doctors I saw that day were like, “You need a different antibiotic and it’s fine.”
Then, about four hours into the whole day… It was about a 10- or 11-hour day… an attending comes in, and you could tell, boy. She meant business. She goes, “Didn’t you notice this big thing under your arm?” I said “Yeah, I knew it was a lymph node, but I thought I had an infection.” She walks out, and then two or three other doctors come in. I’m like uh oh. They were moving me up and down floors, and up and down rooms. I walk out through the waiting room… It’s really funny to me… my husband is Velcroed to his phone. Of all days, you want to talk about God having a sense of humor? His cellphone wouldn’t work. I don’t know what happened, if the battery wouldn’t work, but anyway, he was sitting out there 10 hours knowing that we were going down a big ol’ bad place and he didn’t have his phone. I’m running past to go upstairs to get another test, and I said, “Call Rick and tell him to pray.” That’s my cousin, his partner. “It’s not looking good.”
A Doctor Gives Julia and Andy “the Word”
So, he gets to go in with me for the biopsy, and I told you she was weeping. That’s when I really got scared. I said, “I hardly ever drink.” She reached over and patted me on the shoulder and said, “You might want to have a little drink tonight, honey.” I’m like, “Get your hands off of me. I’m not having a drink tonight. I don’t have cancer.” I stood up. She made an appointment for my chemo, and my port, and my heart ultrasound. I got up off the table and I said, “Can’t we wait until the biopsy report comes in before we make all these plans?” She said, “Julia, let me tell you something. Today is Friday. You’re going to get your biopsy report on Tuesday. You’re going to get your port on Wednesday and we’re going to start your chemotherapy on Thursday. That’s for seven months.” I don’t know why she felt the need to give me this. I’ve never had a doctor communicate quite this well before. Then she said, “You’re going to have surgery. Radical, major, extensive surgery, and then you’re going to have radical radiation.” And that’s what happened.
Too late for detection to help?
None of it was really, in my case, very helpful. It just wasn’t that kind of cancer. When my cancer gets found, it’s everywhere and what I’ve learned since then is that you’re born with thousands of stem cells, but by the time you have a localized tumor… Mine was six by nine centimeters. It didn’t shrink that much, maybe two or three… you’ve got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of stem cells and those are just cancer producing cells. This gradation that we have, a one through four. By the time you have a lump that’s palatable, you have systemic cancer. Fact, whether or not they can see it on the microscope, on the pathology report. I’m proud to say that UNC never… My pathology report was so bad they never read it out loud to me. They probably did in conferences, but I was on several experimental things. If anybody needed to look at it, they would just point to the monitor. That made me really happy, and really nobody in the family has read it but me.
Matter, mind, or love?
The only other thing I’ll say is that I did really well. I continued work, except when I had my surgery. The radiation was the worst part. It was really awful, but I worked almost all the way through it but about six weeks. Then, I was on a one year clinical trial. This is the funniest thing to me about healing. I didn’t think too much about healing before I got sick, but after I got sick, I really thought a lot about it because I wasn’t ready to die. I learned all these techniques. Talk about being able to do a whole day on it, I could do a whole day on this. I think it’s so interesting that Christians love to talk about what the Bible says about things that Jesus never talked about. Ever about. I’m not going to mention them because I don’t want to be controversial, but a lot of things Jesus never mentioned, we are so sure that He thinks it’s not a good idea. He healed thousands and thousands and thousands. Sometimes, he healed three and four hundred people. It’s like be well, boom, and the masses were healed.
It wasn’t just one at a time. We never want to talk about that like that’s something shameful. That’s in the Bible, now. That’s all over the Bible. I’m working to reconcile that with my own traditional beliefs in medicine, on how that affected me, how that’s going to affect my patients in the future and how that’s going to help me to bring in people that want Christian healing maybe in line with traditional medicine. There’s a movement afoot that maybe different diets and alternative medicines, especially for illnesses that don’t have good treatments, like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, lots of things that Jesus mentored for us that we totally dropped the ball on in the mainline churches. The funny story that I like to tell about that is I just think it’s hilarious because a lot of people love me, and they asked me in my prayer group… I got very involved in my prayer group when I thought I was dying, and I believe they saved my life. Lots of people loved me and didn’t want me to die and were praying for me.
How did others react?
They see me, and I look really great, right? I don’t look dead. They say, “Julia, how are you? You look great.” If I say I was healed by the Holy Spirit with a little bit of help from traditional medicine, people don’t like that. They’re kind of, “Hmm, what’s wrong with her?” But if I say, “I decided to listen to God instead of my doctors,” they’re like, “I’m so glad you did. That’s so great.” They like that. They love me. They’ll pat on me. What we have to do as Christians is learn how to get the vocabulary to speak to people about the healing miracles of Jesus Christ that live here and now today, and are available for everyone, everyone, without scaring or ostracizing or making people feel that they’ve been judged. And I don’t really know how we’re going to do that.
A nation of Christians against Jesus? Strange
I have two more stories about that, and one is way back when I started writing, the poems just pouring out, pouring out, pouring out, I had been writing for two or three years and I went and took a poetry class up at Hamilton College with Ivan Marki. He was my first mentor. He thinks my house in Clinton is going to be a museum one day, and he said it way back then 30 years ago. Or, 20 years ago what it was. He just helped me. He was great. He was from Hungary. He was teeny. He was like five foot by five foot. He just loved me, and he was so good to me. I took some classes with his students, and he said, “Julia, I just don’t …” He didn’t go to church. I don’t know what his beliefs were. We never really talked about it, but he said, “Julia, I just don’t understand these young children. If you want to talk about the Buddha, they’re so open. They’re so interested. Mohammed. They’re so inquisitive, but if anybody says Jesus, the energy in the room just goes.”
He goes, “We can’t talk about Jesus.” This was back in 1998, and it’s only gotten way worse, right? Or better, depending on your… Jesus was a beautiful, kind, loving mystic. One of the questions was about Buddhism. If we ever had to talk about what I loved from Buddhism about Christianity, it was that Jesus was a kind, loving mystic. Westerners don’t like that for some reason. Jesus was a beautiful, non-violent mystic who healed. Let’s redefine Jesus without changing his name. That’s what I think we’re supposed to do.
Another Healing Miracle and Mystery
The other story I have, this is quick, is that I had started this little breakfast club, and one of the guys, he was a philosophy professor. We were close, very close. I helped take care of his wife in the assisted nursing after she left. I don’t know how we got so close, but we were. He was not a believer, and he was a severe alcoholic, but shortly after I met him, he had end stage liver disease. He stopped drinking.
He went to Philadelphia somewhere to get a liver transplant, and they told him you’re too sick, go home and die. You’re too sick. Get your will ready. He kept coming to the breakfast club, and we only met once a month, but every month we kept thinking he wasn’t going to show up. He looked like he was 12 months pregnant. He was in bad shape. Everything else in his body was completely emaciated. He was sick. I never prayed over him because I didn’t know about it really then, or think about it. I prayed for him, but I didn’t pray for his healing. He just started getting better. The reason I like to tell that story is because one of the reasons that people who get healed don’t like to talk about it is they feel guilty. Why was I healed and he wasn’t? The people that weren’t healed, or they have a family member that wasn’t healed, they don’t feel good about it. Then, the people that didn’t get healed, they don’t feel good about it, right? People being polite don’t like to talk about healing. I think that’s one of the reasons.
I can tell you Russell was completely healed. He didn’t believe in God. He was an Islamist, but he was a huge specialist. One of the international, renowned knowledgeable… First person to know about I don’t even know all the things he knew. I can’t even call them by name. Iran, Iraq. Way back before they had different names. He didn’t pray to God. He didn’t believe in God. He didn’t believe in healing, and yet, he was healed. It’s a mystery, and we have to be happy with the mystery. We have to live into the mystery of healing. Boy, but nothing would make him more embarrassed because you know, I was really a believer that he had been healed by God. I didn’t know how I could facilitate that but I thought that’s what had happened. We’d be sitting down for breakfast, an analyst, that was analyzed by Theodore Reik, and a philosopher and a child psychiatrist and another psychiatrist. I was like, “Russell, how does it feel to be a living, walking miracle?” He would turn beet red and just have another bite of his omelet. He couldn’t even talk about it.
But I think God helps me to remember that story so that we don’t have any recipe about what creates healing for other people.
Others can heal you
I think what helped me with my healing is that when I was diagnosed, I was really scared. It was on Friday. I went to church on Sunday, and I grabbed David’s hand, our minister, and I said, “I’m dying. You need to pray for me.” We walked into the library, and one of the mainstays in the prayer group was in there, of course. He said, “You need to pray.” We got to pray. I don’t think people believe you when you say you’re dying. They said we meet on Wednesdays, why don’t you come back. I was on pain meds. I wanted to work. My work is really important to me, and I didn’t want to work on hydrocodone. I was afraid that wouldn’t be good. I was afraid to drive on hydrocodone. It was going to limit my life if I had to take pain medicine. They just prayed that I wouldn’t. The next day, I started painting, I started writing, I started driving. I stopped taking my pain pills. This one prayer, a group of women who looked at me and said, “Do you believe that you’re going to live?” … Did I already say this?
I said, “I don’t. I can’t hold that intention for myself,” and they said, “Do you have anybody else that believes it?” I said, “Everybody. Everybody that I know in my family.” They said, “Well, that will work.” Especially my middle son would come up, after four hours of chemo and the hospital. “Get up, Mom.” I was in a Fitbit study, where if you walk after chemo, or walk all the time, you can see if it does less damage. “Get up. You’re not sick. We’re going for a walk.” Everybody in my family. I would have visions of myself playing down at my creek with my children and my grandchildren fishing. Holding visions of the future. I think it was prayer, my family… My husband waited on me hand and foot for two years. I could hardly even get myself a glass of water some days. I never saw him cry. I never saw any fear. I saw nothing but 100% confidence that this was eventually going to go away.
When I had a really bad experience in the hospital that I’m not going to tell you about, but when I came home and I was really sick because I had hemorrhaged after my surgery… The surgery went really well, but something happened afterwards… He’s not a blood person. He doesn’t like to talk about blood, but when he had to do my drains, he was the best person I had. My daughter, who’s here, she never missed a single treatment for seven months. I had to go every week. She was there every single day, and a lot of her friends came. I took my prayer book, and my friends, of course, were praying for me all over. I told everybody. I’m a big believer. Tell everybody. Get everybody. Now, since I’ve read don’t tell people that it’s going to scare, and I would tell people don’t read about my cancer. Hold me whole in your imagination and well and doing something in the future. They say you don’t want people praying for you that think you might die, but I’m like, “God’s not that simple. He’s not that easy to confuse.” I told everybody.
What We Think and Eat
So, I had the prayer, I had the family support and then, when I got well, about two years out, I was at my athletics place working out and the director said, “I think I’ve got somebody you need to meet.: I like to stay home, don’t like to drive. If I got to get a massage for an hour, I don’t want to have to drive for an hour to get there, and traffics getting worse here. The only thing I said is, “Where does she live?” Not what does she do, I said, “Where does she live?” He goes, “I think she lives about 10 houses down from you.” And Shoshawna has become my soulmate in this walk for health. I do Ayurvedic medicine, which is religion. I mean, it’s not a religion. Excuse me. It’s a regiment out of India. That was intuited by the sages 3,000 years ago. It is about daily hygiene. It’s about nutrition. It’s about supplements, like we use ghee instead of butter. We don’t eat a lot of animal products, but we do some. And, um, spices. Excuse me.
Diet and spirituality are “musts” for cure
In two years of treatment, I never had anybody talk to me about diet. That’s wrong. That’s another big hole in our medical system. They can’t talk about it because the food pyramid, and once they get into it, it’s like Big Pharma. They just can’t talk about it. Everybody’s on their own individual journey, but we’re all ending up in the same place. Christian prayer, or some kind of prayer and spiritual healing and nutrition. Those are the two big front runners. Clean water, exercise. These are all the front runners for good health.
Do people think about worldview?
No. People do not know the idea of worldview. I think that’s why I’m so happy that, for me, I was a Christian from when I was conceived in my mother’s womb. I have so many parts of the Bible memorized. It’s just woven into me, and I feel so fortunate and grateful for that, but I’d never thought about my worldview. If you asked me if was Christian, I would say yeah, but I wouldn’t know what that meant in the context of those other worldviews that you and I looked at.
Do our answers to worldview questions shape how we live our lives?
Yes, and I have had a lot of experience with that, but my favorite one is that I think we might have been violating a federal law probably when we prayed in school when I was growing up, but that’s how it was. Then, we said the Pledge of Allegiance, and we never started an athletic event without that. When they really cracked down on the separation of church and state, meaning that you can’t have spirit in the public-school system, spiritual worship… I don’t know, it might have been at the same time, but the family disintegrated. There’s just so many things that are causing our children to suffer. I had a teacher come to me and say that they adopted the Stephen Covey model. I can’t remember the things, but it’s about sharpening the saw and about doing good. Stephen Covey, you can look it up if you’re interested.
Once they taught the teachers that, they taught the teachers, then they top-downed it to the students, everything went down. Absenteeism, bullyism, vandalism, even accidents. You cannot take a human being, who is physical, emotional and spiritual, and say we can’t talk about a third of how you are. We can’t talk about that. You’re not going to succeed. Now, I am not going to sit here and have any ideas about how it could be put back into the school, but Stephen Covey suits me. I’ve always wondered if we couldn’t do Buddhism one week, Christianity, Islam. Whatever we need to do, but we have to get the spiritual component of people’s wellbeing, and it does inform their behavior. It informs their growth. It informs their kindness and their compassion, and it forms who they are. We just had one little boy that we helped get into a different school. He went from 4th grade in a public school to 4th grade in a school where they can talk about spiritual development. He, the first week, seemed really happy. My son said, “What’s going on? Do you like your new school?”
He goes “Yes.” My son, “Why do you like your new school?” This little boy’s 10. He said, “Because they like me. They like me.” Wow, right? I have worked for 35 years with 10-year-olds who, if they don’t get plucked up out of their environment by somebody, and I don’t mean taken away from their family, but plucked up and loved on and cared about, they’re going to be carrying weapons. They are going to be running drugs. Not because it’s bad or good, it’s because that’s what everybody else is doing. That’s what they’re living in, and before you know it, they will have had some petty crime and a rap sheet with four things on it, and they’re no different than my children. They just didn’t have a chance to see that maybe there was another choice for them.
Childhood Trauma and Healing
Okay. I love to tell the story about Steve Pemberton. “A Chance in the World.” It’s a great book. Read it if you can. He was raised in a horrific foster home. I saw him at the Children’s Home lunch a couple months ago. He’s written a book, “A Chance in the World” by Steve Pemberton. My book is “My Record is True” by Julia Burns. Steve is now a vice president of something at Walgreens. There is nothing that can happen to you that we cannot have healing for, that cannot be redeemed. Everything can be healed. Having said that, people do get informed, of course, by their environment and their worldview. We only have to look at ISIS to understand that. Now, we do have a lot of people defecting into ISIS that weren’t raised that way, but a lot of people that jump on to a radical movement like that have a major mental illness. They aren’t really involved in the philosophy.
There’s different kinds of people that glom onto a terrorist group, but that’s just an example that when children are raised in a war zone, I think even… Wow, I hate to say a wrong statistic, but it’s an unbelievably high number of African-American young people that have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from living in a place where there’s regular gunshots. The number I want to say is too scary, so I’m not even going to say it. You can look it up, but it’s very high. Environments inform our behavior.
Human Mustard Seeds and “Swing Votes”
Change is always possible. Absolutely. I’ve just seen it too many times. You see people that come from really great environments that don’t do well, and again, we have to believe in the mystery, but that puts to me more pressure and onus on those of us who are in a place to help children have an environment where they can prosper, because what I say is that so many people… America’s a great example of that… so many young children are living in poor environments where drugs and guns are everyday occurrence.
I call them swing votes. Some people are going to do good, like Steve Pemberton, no matter where they’re planted, and some people are going to do bad no matter where they’re planted. I’d say the majority of kids, let’s say 60%-80% anyway, are what I call swing votes. In the wrong environment, I had one that I tutored for three years that’s in boarding school now, but he was starting in 4th grade to get involved in the wrong things. Carry drugs. His mother plucked him out and put him a different school. Now, he’s going to do something very different than his trajectory was going to be. That’s why I like to speak out about this because it does make a difference what we do. Whether it’s in the public schools, or in the parks, or in the programs that we have for young children, it does make a difference.
What do Buddhism and Christianity have in common?
I think the thing I love the most about Buddhism is the very clear way that they have Four Noble Truths. Oh, why did I get cancer? I don’t want to have cancer. The first noble truth. Life is suffering. Life is suffering. I’m doing this from memory, but the desire to end suffering causes more pain. If you follow the Eightfold Path, that is the way towards enlightenment and the end of suffering. It folds right over very nicely on Christianity, but I just learned something from reading it that way. Life is suffering. My mother always said that’s not fair. It’s like too bad. Life’s not fair. There’s the first noble truth in Eastern North Carolina. The second is that what causes us the most pain is our desire for it to be fair. I don’t know. It just helped me. I don’t know, when I read Thich Nhat Hanh and talk about Jesus, I feel Jesus being pulled out in three dimensional and in a different way for me. Again, Jesus is a mystic, is a kind, loving person.
Thich Nhat Hanh implores all Christians to not convert to Buddhism, to stick with their Christian roots and their grounding, and honor their ancestors and the religion that they were brought up. He’s not trying to convert anybody, but he is a great devotee of Jesus Christ. What Christians would say, and what my prayer group would want me to throw in right here, is that Jesus Christ gave us the Cliff Notes. It’s not that any other religions are wrong, but Jesus came after, and he gave us the Cliff Notes. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. Whosoever believeth in me shall have eternal life.” I mean, can’t get much simpler than that. Jesus didn’t come to say, “You’re doing this wrong and you should do it that way, and you shouldn’t be this way.” He came to make it easy for us. He came to say, “Love one another as I have loved you.” We want to make that hard.
Do you believe in objective truth?
Yes. More than I used to, I do believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. I think that, what happens… I am no theologian, but I believe that hell is the place that I created for my heart when I expelled God and said I am not of you, because if you did that, I will not worship you. That was a place I put myself. God did put me on the planet, but again, we went back to if you want to take the metaphor, or however you believe in the Garden of Eden, we polluted the earth, and we have to live in the creation that we have made together with God. That’s hell, is when you take the light of Christ that is indwelling in your heart and do something that hurts you. Whether it’s pornography, it doesn’t matter what it is.
Can you define religion?
I don’t know if I can answer the question, “What is religion?” I thought that was really funny the first time I heard that atheists believe in God because how can you say you don’t believe in something if you don’t believe it exists? I loved that. I love little riddles and things like that. I think because I rotate in a world where I’m always working with the disenfranchised and the abused and the hurt, and I was so hurt. I feel like I have to meet people, especially in the office. The only thing I’m getting paid for is to meet people where they are, and see if we can get their function better and their heart, and their state, their emotions calm. I’m not going to do that by having a lot of theories about what is and what isn’t. I meet people with the place that they are, and honor that. That’s what I try to do. I had a little trouble with that when I first got well, particularly with my family.
Julia Burns: I got really scared, and maybe a little rigid with some of my family members and it didn’t go well for me. Let’s put it that way. I try not to do that anymore.
What do you think about the spiritual word? Angels in This One
Well, I tend to not talk about this a lot because I think people are uncomfortable with this. If they’re uncomfortable with earthly healing, they’re really uncomfortable with the spiritual world. The Bible’s really clear about God having armies and angels that can live up here and intercede down for us. Even the most resistant to any kind of religious faith, or even God, all know about angels, and want angels to intercede for them, and pray for angels to help them. It’s another thing in our Western society that we aren’t that comfortable talking about. A friend of mine just went to Italy, back to one of her hometown’s, to her roots, and they get the Madonna and they get her out of the church—a lot of European towns do that—and they carry her up. It takes three days to get to the top of the mountain. They know that they’re being assisted in that journey by spiritual beings. And my family in Eastern North Carolina, I think the less material possessions and wealth that you have, the more you believe in that because the more it has to be manifested in your faith.
My ancestors in Eastern North Carolina, there was a family lore of healers back when there weren’t antibiotics. I mean, if you think about it, just my mother’s generation, their parents just two generations back sometimes didn’t name their children until they were one or two because so many of them died. I grew up hearing a lot about healing, faith healing… It wasn’t Jesus healing. It was that they were healers. I hadn’t never really quite thought of it that way… And stories of angels. My mother grew to be embarrassed about that, though, because I remember once when I was 13, we were in a car accident, and we flipped two or three times, and they just happened to be in a car ahead. One of my dear friends was in the car and she got thrown out, and the car landed on her hair. My mom was, of course, being the mother was the first one back. Are they dead? What’s happened who’s alive? What’s going on? Because they saw it in the rear view mirror.
She saw my friend laying on the ground with the car on her hair, and a man in a white suit was standing beside her. He said, “How can I help you?” My mom said, “I’ve got to get this car off of this girl’s head. Off of her hair.” He said, “Okay”, and he reached over and picked the car up and moved it off my friend’s hair. Then, of course, it’s a chaos of ambulances, because there were six kids in our car and there was another car, I think, involved. She had broken her leg. It was a flurry, and when the flurry ended about 15, or 20, or an hour… I don’t know. I was gone to the hospital… My mother turned around to thank the man, and she couldn’t find him. She would never exactly say that she thought it was an angel, but she did. My mother was that sandwich generation of when in America, we stopped talking about things like that. She would never tell that story. If we said, “Tell the story, Mom, about the man in the white suit.” She would just tell us.
From that generation, where they had to have angels, to our generation, where we think we’re so self-sufficient, we’ve lost that. That’s nice a vocabulary to bring back into America as well.
Who sees the miracles in your life?
I want to tell one more interesting story about that. The angels in our life, which I think is so funny because I think it’s not fair for me to say what my husband is, but I will think he’d be okay with me saying he doesn’t like to go to church, so I go by myself. He goes once in a while, but in our family, when we have a miracle, it’s always my husband that sees it. When I started writing, we had a lot of miracles, and I’m just busy. I got things to do. I got children to save. Woo, I’ve got to stop all those perpetrators out there who were perpetrated against. My husband’s like, “Julia, did you see there were 10 gold finch on the bird feeder? Julia, did you see we have the bluebird nest out in the box? Julia, did you see that rose blooming out there in January in four feet of snow?” I’m like no, but then I look and I’m like there it is. Instantly when I see it, I see it as a miracle from God. He just sees it.
I don’t see it. I think that’s why we have to let people experience. One time, I was at a healing conference. I was praying, and praying and praying. He was down there, and the blue stork came down in the creek and bathed for 30 minutes about four feet from him. Now, when’s the last time you saw a blue herring bath for 30 minutes in front of you? It’s interesting to me.
Is America better or worse today?
I think that in some ways, it’s better. Everybody around here is watching this Vietnam documentary that they’re putting on PBS. You can say that we weren’t polarized then, that we were polite. We were all wearing our white gloves to our young boys’ funerals and being real kind about it. Then, there were these weird hippie French people out there protesting, because they seemed to have enlightenment about the Vietnam War that LBJ and McNamara and those guys didn’t have. Was that better than what we have now? Would we have that kind of civility about the Vietnam War now? No. We’ve lost our civility, our compassion, our willingness to listen to each other, but I almost wonder if it isn’t America in its adolescence. We’re evolving, and now we’re 13 and you’re not spanking me. You’re not taking the keys to my car. I have great faith in America. I love America. I went and got my hair done today for this at 9:00 on Friday morning, the same time Momma used to go, and I didn’t even realize it until I was sitting in the chair.
He said to me that he had called his country… I’m not going to say because I don’t want to embarrass but it’s a different country. It’s been in the news a lot, and he’s going to go visit, and he tried to get a hotel room for two men and he can’t do it. I said, “Aren’t you glad you live in America? Isn’t this a great place to live?” He said, “Yes, what’s wrong with Americans? We’re not grateful. I’m so grateful to be American.” You can hardly understand him when he says it, but he means it. Is politics different? No. Are people different? Yes, and thank God for it. We’re always evolving. Look at me. I’m talking about six-year-olds having oral sex with a doorknob, right? I couldn’t have done that in 1992 when I started. Nobody believed me. I would say urge a little bit of restraint and a little bit of back and forth in the conversation. We could use a little better manners, but I think we’re doing fine.
What do you think of mainline churches?
Yeah. I love this question. I have a heart for the mainline church. I grew up Methodist. It’s in my book, too. When I moved to Chapel Hill, I became an Episcopalian, because I wanted to go to the shack and drink a beer on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday and not be told I was going to hell. I stayed an Episcopalian for 40, 35 years, and when I moved back here, I went to the Episcopal church. It was just too political for me, and I went back to the Methodist church, which has some political values that maybe aren’t exactly in step with what I believe, but the Methodists that I go to the church with, they pray. They believe in prayer, and they believe in healing prayer, and boy, that’s what I needed. About three or four months after I joined my church is when I got sick, and I’m sticking with them, but you can find something wrong… One time I had a really bad thing happen at the church and I called my cousin. She’s a PK, a preacher’s kid.
She said, “Julia, let me just say this. If you want to go to church, you have to really, really, really try hard.” It’s like being a member of any group. It’s going to have a lot of bad stuff going on, but I’ve not noticed anybody quitting their country club because somebody got drunk and passed out in the parking lot. If you get a group of people together, you’re going to have a lot of bad things happening, and you’re going to have a lot of good things. Good things that happen when you sit at home by yourself. That’s my two cents on it.
On America, an optimist or pessimist?
I love America. I love being an American. I would like for us to follow other countries as far as diet and sustainability. European countries, which don’t have to argue about whether GMO’s are safe because they just don’t have them, and they never have. I would enjoy that about America, but I love America. It’s a great place. We can weather any storm, I believe, and we believe in praying together and staying together. I’m very optimistic.
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