Yesterday, the Presbyterian pastor at the church we attend as a family described the Holy Spirit as a “violent, invading force” which cannot be “domesticated, organized or tamed.” He likened the work of the Holy Spirit to the wild, fire-whipping Santa Ana winds we experience here in Southern California.
I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me and my pulse sky-rocketed. I thought I might faint. Panic blurred my vision. But I couldn’t escape because I was seated mid-pew. I tapped my husband and when he looked at my anguished face, I mouthed the words: Violent. Invading.
If that’s what the Holy Spirit is, then it confirms all my deepest, darkest fears. God is out to get me. God is going to take me by force and punish me for all my wrongdoings. God the Holy Spirit is a violent, invading force.
[Disclaimer: I realize that I heard this sermon through my own filter. I have no way of knowing whether this sermon was objectively OK because my brain was involuntarily triggered by the "old language," the code-words that evoke immediate bodily reactions. I'm pretty sure any normal, non-spiritually-abused person could sit through that sermon and just be "challenged" or "convicted." For me, though, it's torture: no matter how many times I think I've healed or "moved on," when I hear those kinds of words, my psyche responds with a near black-out bodily reaction.]
And today, even after the last drop of adrenaline had eked out of my system, I felt awful. I fought a deep, sagging weariness all day. And then. The worst.
I was hit with a sudden, compelling urge to hurt myself. It’s an old, familiar feeling.
During my darkest days inside the fundamentalist cult, I would occasionally lock myself in the bathroom and gouge deep, angry lines into my skin. Sometimes I used my fingernails, sometimes a sharp object. Once, I carved a bloody cross into my thigh. Nobody knew, nobody saw because I hid it beneath my long, modest skirts.
Oddly enough, the physical pain blotted out the psychological pain. I felt release.
Today, instead of hiding and hurting myself, I forced myself to articulate the pain.
“Matt,” I said. “I can’t go to church anymore.”
“OK,” he said. “Maybe someday you’ll be able to attend church without having a panic attack. Until then, I want you to talk to your therapist about wanting to hurt yourself.”
I broke down on his shoulder, weeping. That release was better than hurting myself.
He’s seen me clench my fists so hard during church that my nails leave marks in my palms. He knows I’ve sometimes tucked my hands inside my coat and pinched my stomach until it bruises. I do this to ground myself so fully into the moment and to focus my mind so intensely on the bodily pain, I don’t scream in panic.
In highschool, I used to blot out the pain with exercise. I was a competitive swimmer and I used to drive myself so hard, so intensely that I wouldn’t feel the pain, the black despair that threatened to creep across the whole of my consciousness.
Avoidance is not the healthiest coping mechanism. But hey, it works.
For eight years I’ve held out hope that I could “move on” and one day I’d find a pastor I could trust. Now I’m coming to the conclusion that the problem is not any church, any pastor or any small group. The problem lives inside me. I’m so utterly broken, so completely mistrusting, suspicious, jumpy and scared that even if Jesus was the pastor, I’d probably still have issues.
How’s THAT for a lost cause?
To be completely honest, I feel like crap. I’ve tried so.damn.hard to get beyond What Happened. But it’s been EIGHT years of panic attacks, EIGHT years of walking out of church, EIGHT years of listening to myriads of different pastors–only to experience the exact same response: total, unrelenting panic.
The only place that has brought me some modicum of relief is the Catholic Church. But even that is only a partial-peace because I have to go alone.
I am so tired of fighting through this alone.
I am so tired of playing nice, of repenting and trying again, of singing hymns through the tears, of praying and seeking.
It’s over. I’m not going to hurt myself. I’m not going to keep going back to the pain. I’m walking away–for now.
I can’t go to church anymore.