Self-Deprecation and Woe
Last week I went to a very important appointment where I had to address the issues of my past, particularly around my mental health history. As I reflected back upon where I was before 2011, I realized the personal hell I went through. The depression, rage, and confusion as I struggled to regain my sense of self…the loneliness, uncertainty of life purpose, friendlessness. I realized that as painful as it was and it is to look back, all of that was a burning away, a necessary life process in order to get me out of the grime and into the gold.
As I continued forward in my journey, I reflected on how the very establishment that sought to help me through the refining fire left its own burns along the way. As the years pass, the wound is less charred, faded to soft tender pink, rippling over until its barely a scar, one I hardly notice unless I look closely.
But that day, I did. I spoke to someone last week about how in recent years I had acquired some post-traumatic stress from an ex-husband, and then there was some religious trauma. I spoke almost flippantly, letting those all-too-familiar words roll off my tongue, hoping they would slip carelessly away, leaving me free to continue onwards. But this man pressed me for more information.
“What do you mean by ‘religious trauma’? Do you experience panic attacks and such around this issue?”
I took a deep breath, held it, closed my eyes, released my breath, and opened my eyes. Slowly, cautiously, hunting for the right words to fit my meaning, to fit the torture I felt then and even now, and not trying to block it out with daily living, I began. “I used to not be able to walk by a church, or even go in, or see someone at a cafe reading the Bible, without feeling my heart contract, this inability to breathe, to run. This fear that I wouldn’t be able to leave would come over me, just from walking by or whatever.”
But how? How did this happen to a woman like me, fully grown with an advanced degree and a background in critical thinking?
It started slowly. The church that promised unconditional love and family became such a dominating force in the landscape of my life that it colored my decisions, life ambitions, each waking moment. The purest notion of “God’s love surpassing ours so that ours pales in comparison” was cast in shadow by the church’s persistent insistence on our unworthiness of his love for us. We were constantly berated with this rhetoric in a way that sounded pleasing, as if we had come to that decision on our own.
Their usage of mind control tactics, such as circular reasoning, began to erode my critical thinking skills and self-awareness. I became unable to make a decision without crippling doubt and anxiety. I felt more and more insecure and unsure of myself. I lost my ability to accept and believe in love.
The church dictated what books we were to read and what not to read, what to watch on TV and what not to watch, what movies to see and what not to see, music to listen to and not listen to, and even more insidious, what sort of people we were to include in our personal lives. The church, the pastors, and leadership decided all of this for us. They knew what was best for our spiritual growth and we were lost without them, or so they taught. This was and is Calvary Chapel.
When I left the church, I was frightened by the world I had been taught to fight against. After being involved for the six-plus years I had attended, I had become isolated from family and old friends. I didn’t know what my next move would be or where I was going, only that I could not, would not go back to the church. I had to leave. I had to be free. But I didn’t know what that freedom truly meant.
The first few years after leaving, I felt a gradual return to knowing myself. More and more, I made the realization of just what the church was, just what it had done to me and all my friends. I journeyed through all the stages of grief and came out barely breathing and with a sense of despairing hopelessness. In the early years, I reacted with anger and anxiety, yelling and pleading for my friends to leave too, but only hearing the rhetoric used against me again: “God is good. The church isn’t perfect, but He is.”
It was debilitating. It was one of the tactics they used to try to ensnare me again. A popular tactic abusers use to keep their victims in silence: that is, try to lessen the truthteller by making her seem crazy, vindictive, or worse, full of sin. Once again, I was left with despair, uncertainty, and self-loathing.
As the years have rolled by, I have grown stronger and found a way to forgive those who wronged me within the confines of the church. I can look back at parts of it with fondness. I am no longer angry or at war. I have moved on and continue to do so. I have surrounded myself with other survivors and thrivers, who like me, left either Calvary Chapel or a church similar to it and have faced the same journey as mine.
But still, I can feel the wound, especially last week when I looked at it. However, it helped me realize something. It helped me come to terms with my inability to accept love from others or even myself. It showed me just why I doubt my own self-worth and loyalty and love from others. It all stemmed from that time of my life. I wasn’t a child then. This was fairly recent in the grand reckoning of my entire life, and it was a relatively short blip on my existence, but the stain of the trauma remains even after seven years of deep, heartfelt talks with friends, lots of laughter, and even more tears. Even after all of that, there is still a shred of the abuse.
I hope that, by writing this, I can release it and continue on my journey to true freedom.