How to recover from a damaging church experience
When someone has endured a damaging church experience, I've noticed one common theme: they leave exhausted. Burned out. Some are on the brink of a physical breakdown. Here are some simple tools I've found helpful in aiding my own physical, spiritual and emotional recovery.
I hope something here is helpful for you, too. (Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comment box!)
1. REST: Special care must be given to physical health. People emerging from high-demand groups have often neglected their bodies for months or years. It's not their fault. They've been so busy working for the church that there was literally no time to care for their own needs. They are probably chronically sleep-deprived. They probably haven't been to a dentist in a long time. They may be severely overweight or underweight. When I first left my fundamentalist cult, I was unable to mentally process what had just happened. I needed SPACE and REST. I needed to care for my physical needs FIRST before I could even begin to unpack the emotional and spiritual impact of what I'd just endured.
2. SUPPORT GROUP: Ideally, a person emerging from a damaging church has an outside network of friends or relatives who can help him/her transition to life outside the church. If not, finding a support group/therapist is vital. Depression and anxiety flourish in isolation. Leaving a church can sometimes feel like a divorce. It's important to find support as soon as possible to sustain a sense of community and avoid the dangers of isolation.
3. DAILY JOURNAL: Keeping a daily journal to record the experience of "church withdrawal" is enormously helpful. Many people emerging from a harmful church probably stuffed their feelings or ignored them. It will be difficult at first to jot these things down. Begin with one sentence. Keep it simple. Example: "Today I ate oatmeal for breakfast." Or: "I feel anxious about finding a new job." Or: "I miss the Smiths today." Journaling is a way to get to know yourself--maybe for the first time. This is extremely important in the process of recovery from a harmful church.
4. LOVE LISTS: Some people call these "gratitude lists" or "counting blessings" but that might sound too 'church-y' for people trying to recover from a damaging church. I like to call them "love lists." I find something I love each day and record it in a separate book (not my daily journal). For me, these are usually "mental snapshots" I took each day. Example: I loved watching my twins play make-believe today. Other ideas: create a Pinterest "love" board and pin favorite fashions or pictures from each day. I've discovered that when I consistently keep a record of things I love each day AND things I'm thankful for each day, my happiness grows.
5. Affirmation Box: Depending how deeply involved you were in a church, you probably experienced some kind of thought control. It's important to "deprogram" your mind by placing new, fresh, positive thoughts inside your brain. I have a little recipe box where I stash quotes, poems and positive affirmations. I keep some on my mirror or my purse each day where I can see them. I read them aloud to myself before bed. I copied verses that name God's POSITIVE attributes so I could re-think how I understood God. I also created a CD of songs called "New Brain" and it was full of non-triggering music. If I have vivid dreams, I write them down the next day. It's important to remember that your brain was affected by the church environment. But your brain CAN heal. :
6. Service Projects: As you begin to heal physically and spiritually, you will discover you have more energy! One of the best ways to keep the positive recovery going is by helping others. I try to do at least one thing each day that is purely altruistic. I love making people happy. And helping others actually helps me, too. This can be as simple as: walking around the neighborhood and engaging in friendly chat. Giving someone a ride. Bringing sharpened pencils and paper to a school (schools are always running out of copy paper!). Writing an encouraging note to someone.
What simple tools have helped YOU recover from a harmful church (or life) experience? Do you have a story to share or something to add?