Category Archives: RecoveringEvangelicalsAnonymous

The false, glittering promise of Christian conferences


I’m done with Christian conferences. I’ve really tried, you guys. I’ve attended and listened and smiled and wept and sang my way through conference after conference. I’ve attended an “exclusive” leadership conference and been asked to provide feedback. And there was that one time when I actually spoke at a conference.

But something just isn’t working anymore. At this point I’m not sure if it’s just me or the whole system of Christian Conferences. I’m guessing it’s probably a bit of both. Maybe I just need to stop attending evangelical conferences? Maybe I need to start going to silent retreats at monasteries?

I mean, maybe if I had a How to Fall In Love With Jesus book to sell or a charity to promote or a cause to rally around–then maybe evangelical Christian Conferences would make more sense for me. You know, in a network-y, bussiness-y kind of way.

But as it is, I’m just a blunt-spoken and prickly personality With Baggage. Which is to say, I’m a former fundamentalist turned evangelical turned Catholic. Christian leaders don’t know how to categorize me. So, usually they don’t. Oh, but they’re very polite about it.

They all tell me: “Elizabeth, we just love your passion and your voice and your honesty but…there’s not a space for you in our conference/speakers list/leadership group.” Or perhaps it’s: “Elizabeth, we love you! We love you SO MUCH!” And then silence.

There is no action to back up those words. I’m supposed to believe they Love Me So Much because….they said so. And here it is: Christian Conferences are all about words, words and  more words. Speeches. Talks. Sessions. Break-out groups.

But then everyone goes home.

And reality bites. Hard.

I call it the Post-Conference Crash. For me, it feels like falling off a cliff into depression. For one thing, I’m physically exhausted. But I don’t really mind that part because BECAUSE! I’ve made all these heart-connections! And I BELIEVE something wonderful is just on the horizon! God! Is! Moving! And! I’m! PART OF IT!

And then I hit the Second Crash. This one is more painful. This is when I realize that all those sincere heart-connections I made? I’ll probably never see any of those people again. There is no follow-up. Even if there IS follow-up, it’s just not the same. After tasting IN-REAL-LIFE community, going back to Internet chatter feels almost like a betrayal.

Then I begin to wonder if all those connections I made were even real. Slowly, a dreadful realization dawns on me: I begin to realize that at a Christian Conference things were set up to whip me into an emotional frenzy. There was the heady, Jesus-Is-My-Lover worship sessions, the inspirational speeches and all kinds of weeping. Everyone was going around saying: “God is really HERE!” and “The Holy Spirit is just MOVING!” And I thought I felt it, too.

So, I fell for it. I believed it. I believed the false, glittering promise of Christian Conferences: that this was a new beginning, that God was Doing Something New, that the Holy Spirit was busting down walls, TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM! TO FIGHT THE UNBEATABLE FOE! TO REEEEEACH THE UNREACHABLE STARRRRRRR!

Oops, sorry. My Man of La Mancha is showing.

The point is, I felt it. And it felt so real.

But as the days turn into weeks following a Christian Conference, I can’t help but wonder if I’d swallowed a false promise. I mean, I didn’t really KNOW the people I fell in love with. I only FELT like I did because, well, the music. The giddy worship music. The weeping. The Weeping For the Poor African Orphans!

I mean, you don’t just weep with people over poverty and then…nothing happens, right? You weep together and you’re bonded for life and you go OUT AND CHANGE THE WORLD! Right? RIGHT?! 


Most likely you go home to piles of dirty dishes, backed up laundry and neighbors who are more interested in you maintaining your lawn than in bonding with you over Jesus-y worship songs.

I know of people who are pretty much Professional Conference Goers. They go to Christian Conferences like it’s their drug of choice. It’s like they’re inspiration addicts. I get it. I really do. Heck, if I had a ton of disposable income, I’d probably be jetting off to every conference just so I could get that high. Just so I could feel that hit one more time.

And I guess that’s where the problem is all mine. I want to feel something. And I want that feeling to last. I always dream too big and hope too much and have such wild, impossible expectations that of course, the Post Conference Crash is bound to happen.

But you know what? The Post Conference Crash isn’t worth it anymore. I’ve woken up on too many Morning Afters and felt the sickening, deepening chasm of emptiness open up inside me. I’ve waited for too many days, weeks and months after a Christian Conference for something to materialize, some glittering promise to come true.

The only thing that materializes, the only thing that comes true is a credit card bill. Beauty for ashes, indeed.

How to recover from a damaging church experience

Texas Sky 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? 

Not all wire hangers are misogynists. Apparently.

A few months ago, I had an embarrassing incident with some wire hangers in my closet. I had set out to organize! cleanse! make all things new!

But the wire hangers, they were acting all privileged. Hogging too much room. Patriarchal, really. Wire hangers, as we all know, are EFFING MISOGYNISTS, AM I RIGHT????

Ahem. Forgive me, this will all make sense momentarily.

The Wire Hanger Meltdown was followed by The Pool Chair Incident. Because, obviously, Pool Chair is just another way of saying Cult Leader–especially when it refuses to properly recline and instead crashes down, landing your ass on the cement pool deck.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”


“You mean the pool chair?”


And that is what we call “My Rock Bottom Moment.” Clearly, I needed help. Probably this came as no surprise to anyone but myself.

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I’d been getting emails. Messages. Tweets.

I don’t like your tone, Elizabeth. You sound different. You sound angry. Not all churches are cults, Elizabeth. Not all men are cult leaders. You’re being unfair, unkind, preposterous. Sometimes you have good things to say, Elizabeth, but your tone is so harsh. Why are you so bitter? Why can’t you just move on? Stop being such a victim, Elizabeth. Maybe you should write a disclaimer before you share your experiences because your abuse is not the norm. –Signed, A Caring Reader.

I mean, enough people tell you the same thing and you finally gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Which I did. I checked myself right into an Online Timeout. I’ve been quiet lately.

: :

Back to the story. I was angry. Very angry. Mostly, at God. And pastors. And churches. And apparently, pool chairs. Little League. Citibank. Wire hangers. Cult leaders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the anger.

Anger is exhausting. I think I read that in the book of Revelation. Which is to say, when you’re angry, you view all of life through an angry filter. It was like I put on my angry glasses each morning and went hunting for Bad Pastors, Bad Churches and Bad Theology.

This is an exhausting way to live.

I don’t know whether my rock bottom was burnout, anxiety or generalized hysteria but I’m pretty sure it was a combination of all three. The Interwebz can you make you batshit cray, this we know.

Point is, I put my ass in timeout—oh, wait. I’ve already said this. This, you see, is what happens when you’re angry: you forget you’ve already said things and then you start repeating yourself over and over until people are like: yeah, yeah, we GET IT. YOU WERE ABUUUUSED.

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I’ve been working a 12 step program. This is uncomfortable. Mainly, because at some point you have to stop talking about All The Ways You’ve Been Hurt and start taking responsibility for the ways you hurt others.

This is annoying. Also, profoundly difficult. I would really rather skip this part.

But I won’t. I’m gonna work it.

: :

I’ve been wrestling with questions:

At what point does the victim become the abuser?

At what point does my anger no longer serve me?

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I read this article about survivors of the Holocaust. The researcher was trying to find out why certain survivors went on to live meaningful, productive lives after all they’d endured? I can’t remember the details, but basically, it was that the survivors who lived long, meaningful lives maintained a deep faith and an optimistic spirit. They didn’t just define themselves by their awful experience, they proactively sought ways to make the world a better place for others–even if it was just their families.

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A whole person cannot be solely defined by what she stands against. A whole person must stand for something, too.

: :

I have lashed out, criticized, deconstructed, questioned and chided the religious powers that be. This was an important part of my journey and I honor it. But I made mistakes along the way and despite my good intentions, I have hurt people. I hurt myself.

I set out to organize! set right! cleanse! make all things new!

But I got entangled somehow. The weapons that were used against me I used against others.

The problem was not so-and-so-pastor or so-and-so-church. My mistake was playing whack-a-mole with every suspicious church or pastor that came across my radar. Sure, I can react, react, react all day. But then what?

In other words, what am I doing to build up the Church? What am I doing to edify and create new, healthy culture within the Church?

Criticism is necessary but it’s not enough.
I can’t build a culture of love and peace using weapons of hate and warfare. 

: :

I don’t have all the answers, here. But I want you to know I’m taking time to examine myself, to check my motives and sincerely seek to understand how I can use my words to effect positive change. Thank you for being patient with me…..

The New Misogyny: “bro-culture” pastors, sexist Christian comedians and abuse apologetics disguised as female empowerment

When I was growing up, the Christian misogynist wore a suit and tie, poured on enough cologne to slay an elephant and toted a Bible the size of an encyclopedia. This pastor boomed Biblical pronouncements from the pulpit and quoted lots of Scripture to defend his abusive, anti-woman teachings.

You know, I kinda miss the Old School Misogynist. At least he was obvious. At least he didn’t pretend to be all pro-woman.

These days, the Christian misogynist is far more subtle. He probably wears hip clothing and may even use feminist jargon to disguise his underlying sexism.

These are the pastors who tweet and talk endlessly about their smokin’ hot wives.   These are the “Christian comedians” who write dating manifestos about why Christian “girls” don’t have boyfriends. Apparently, reading your Bible at Starbucks is NOT attractive to these men. Maybe you should try wearing white shorts to a prayer meeting.

What makes me ill is that these are men are my peers. These guys are not my Dad’s age. These guys are not my grandfather. These men should know better.

It’s even more discouraging when you call their views offensive only to be told by their yes-men, “Hey, can’t you take a joke?”

This is the New Misogyny: when huge bloggers like Jon Acuff claim that sexist jokes about women help “clear away the clutter of Christianity so we can see the beauty of Christ.”

This is the New Misogyny: when bestselling Christian authors tell “girls” how to live a better love story by being a supporting character in a story a man is writing. [Note: Don Miller took down that post, but I never heard him recant his harmful view of women.]

This is the New Misogyny: when Prodigal magazine publishes sexist articles under the guise of satire and “truth telling.” Oh, yes.  John B. Crist believes his sexist humor is excusable because he’s JUST TELLING THE TRUTH.


[Note: Prodigal removed that post w/o explanation]

This is the New Misogyny: when a popular author of many books on Christian ministry and spirituality asks women why they don’t comment on his blog and then he dismisses their answers.

This is the New Misogyny: when a woman engaging theology blogs under a male pseudonym is treated with greater respect than when she comments as her female persona.

This is the New Misogyny: when “Biblical Marriagists” claim they’re empowering women while defending the very theology that oppresses them.

You guys. What is happening, here?

It’s not that I doubt the sincerity of all these Christians. In fact, it’s their sincerity which troubles me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years in an abusive church, it’s that the most dangerous abuse apologetic comes from a sincere heart and good intentions.

And the most subtle form of spiritual abuse is cloaked in messages of empowerment.

I guess when you’re hip and sincere, nobody suspects you of misogyny. You can tell the same lies about women that have been told for thousands of years and all anybody will see is the sincerity of your heart and your precious nerd glasses.

*due to an anti-feminist website sending an influx of trolling commenters, comments for this post are now closed.*

A ring by spring or else you #FAIL godly womanhood!

Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Oregon. When I wrote about evangelicals’ hypocritical outcry against Victoria’s Secret, Melanie reached out to say she’d seen the fallout of purity culture among her own female students. I asked Melanie to write about that for my blog today. You can find Melanie at Ain’t I A Woman?, a site dedicated to examining the messages Christian culture sends to women telling them who they should be. Thank you, Melanie, for your contribution to this important conversation. EE.

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Kara was an amazing student: smart and composed, funny, a talented singer and actor, a woman whose strength I admired. Several weeks before graduation, I took Kara out for lunch to celebrate; she’d been my student assistant for the first four years of my teaching career, filing my paperwork, making my copies, doing everything necessary to make my life as a new faculty member easier.

But during our celebratory meal, Kara admitted to feeling like a failure. Despite everything she’d accomplished during her time at our evangelical college, she hadn’t received the “ring by spring” Christian college students tend to joke about: no fiancé or steady boyfriend, even.

Because she’d failed to live up to Christian cultural expectations for women, all her other accomplishments and gifts accounted for little–perhaps nothing. 

I was only mildly surprised by Kara’s admission. A decade earlier, when I also graduated from an evangelical college, I had the same sense of failure; though I’d been by most measures a successful student and athlete, I didn’t have that one thing that showed I’d been blessed by God, the engagement ring reflecting God’s apparent desire for me to find The One.

In the years since my lunch meeting with Kara, I’ve counseled many other college women who leave school after four years feeling like they’ve failed, or that they’re damaged, or that God doesn’t love them as much as God loves their soon-to-be-married friends.

They believe these things, because they’ve bought into evangelical lies about what it means to be a godly woman.

My students, both men and women, hear those lies everywhere. The lies are embedded in the Christian popular culture artifacts they consume: in books and blogs, in music lyrics, in sermons, on websites and Facebook posts and Tweets. The messages are embroidered on t-shirts that claim Modest is Hottest; they are stitched into the fabric of purity balls and engraved on purity rings.

The message young people receive from Christian popular culture is this: to be a godly man, you must of strong mind and body, adventurous, courageous, a leader, protector, warrior. The world is open for a godly man to explore: have at it!

And to be a godly woman, you must be of chaste and pure body, demure, silent, a keeper of the home, a womb for your offspring, protected by a husband. The world is not open for a godly woman to explore, because the world is not her domain.

Given these kind of messages, it’s no wonder that studies completed over the last two decades reveal that male Christian college students graduate feeling more confident than when they arrived on campus, and female Christian college students feel less confident than when they started school.

Imagine the young women who has heard she is to be silent, but discovers in college that she has a voice to use; or who has learned that her greatest gifts are as a homemaker, but discovers in college she has a vocational calling; or who has not remained chaste, but continues to hear that keeping her body pure is the one thing she can offer to a beloved.

How can young women understand gifts, callings and self-conception when Christian culture has given them a narrow definition of who God wants them to be? How do they reconcile what they feel in their hearts and minds as they enter adulthood with what their Christian leaders, families, and pop culture have told them?

Recently, a number of writers (including Elizabeth Esther, in this excellent post here) have pushed back specifically against evangelicalism’s purity culture, critiquing the ways sacrosanct artifacts like purity balls and rings objectify girls in ways that can be just as damaging as the bogeys Christians tend to hold up as truly evil: Victoria’s Secret, pop icons, rock music that sexualizes girls and women.

Although I’m as eager to critique Victoria’s Secret and Beyonce as the next person, it’s extraordinarily problematic for Christians to avoid interrogating their own culture as well, and the ways evangelicalism also objectifies young women by focusing on their pure bodies—and later, their fertile wombs—as the best, most glorified assets those born female can offer to others, without giving so much as a nod to women’s other potential gifts as leaders, thinkers, doers in the world.

So here’s a suggestion: Why not refrain from focusing every Christian message for young women on the importance of purity and modesty and preparing one’s self for marriage and family? Why not avoid language implying that girls need to save themselves for The One, and that this should be their most important endeavor until marriage? And why not avoid the message that God blesses those who do find The One? Because, of course, the implication is that those women (and men) who are not married are not blessed.

Most crucially, we can tell those born female that they are created in God’s image, every part of themselves; and that by being created in God’s image, girls and women can also have strong minds and hearts, an adventurous spirit, an assertive voice, the capacity to lead others, the ability to speak truth.

Because until girls hear they are more than their purity, more than their bodies, more than their potential as a future spouse, they will lack the confidence and the freedom to be all God meant for them to be.

And this, in my mind, is truly scandalous.

Precious and Free

I took the children to a park we haven’t been to in a long time. When they were little, we went almost every day.

The park looks different now: old, weathered, worn-out. Two of the slides had been torn out, the holes boarded up with plywood. There was graffiti on two benches. So many weeds–a missing drinking fountain.

I used to go to that park when I was a lost, floundering young mom desperately trying to rebuild a new life after the cult. I was 25 with 3 kids under 3. I felt so alien in mainstream America. Everyone seemed so normal and I felt like such a freak show. I mean, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be friends with a woman who grew up in a cult.

So, I poured everything into my husband and children. I gave all. I clung to the remaining pieces of my disintegrating faith.

T.S. Eliot once wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

That’s what I was doing. I was shoring up fragments, desperately trying to cobble together a life–a way of being–after everything had been destroyed.

One spring, butterflies came to the park. They fluttered over us, dozens of them in the spring sunshine. There were daisies growing in wild abundance that year. And sometimes, while the children played, I just sat quietly under the trees and listened to the sound of wind in the branches above me.

I was so different then, so blindly optimistic, so sure willpower alone could save us and restore us to sanity. We took family pictures in that park. We picnicked there. I was so certain that if I just kept doing the right things, kept praying, kept reading my Bible, kept trying to build a new, religious scaffolding upon which to hang my worldview–things would get better.

I had such dreams then. Such hopes. I kept my focus on outward things, on doing and working and trying. But sometimes, during those quiet moments under the trees I sensed something was amiss inside me—that the cult wasn’t external. The cult was within. 

But I didn’t let myself go there. I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to live in denial. Just before the twins arrived I was reaching this point where I couldn’t ignore the darkness anymore. I was keenly feeling the loss of myself. I was beginning to think God had abandoned me…but then, twins!

Suddenly, I had new purpose! I was busy again! Nothing mattered but the new babies. Once again I could stop feeling that deep discomfort about the problem within me. Once again, I gave all. I gave every last bit.

But this time, my body couldn’t keep up. I had been placing these kinds of demands on myself since childhood. Cults keep people so busy and frantic that you are living blindly–rushing from one thing to the next without ever slowing down long enough to realize: something is terribly wrong, here. You sense something is wrong but you tell yourself it’s OK because you’re burning out for God.

Without knowing it, I had simply recreated the chaotic, frantically busy environment of my childhood. I was no longer burning out for God, I was burning out for Little League and PTA and enriching activities for my children! I was also recreating toxic relationships. I became enmeshed and entangled in other people’s problems. I tried to fix and solve and rescue people from All the Problems. And then, when they didn’t take my advice I became resentful, angry, obsessive and would lash out.

I filled up my life with more things–good things!–but always more things. I didn’t know that frantic urgency was unhealthy. All the other good Americans seemed to be doing it! No matter how much I did, I never felt good enough.

What I learned the hard way was that either I’d stop the crazy or my body would stop it for me.

Two years after the twins were born, I broke down. I was depressed and constantly sick. I was chronically sleep deprived and so totally exhausted that it took my doctor commanding me to TAKE A REST for me to finally realize that it was possible to die of “natural causes/burnout” by age 32.

Slowly, I began prioritizing taking care of myself.

The answer to my recovery was not a new religious system and it was not going back to the old one, either. The answer to a healthy life and healthy relationships was not in attending church, volunteering in the PTA or doing more for others.

The answer was to start taking care of myself. The answer was to love myself.

I began with a small step: getting enough sleep at night. Then I began exercising. Then I started eating a little healthier each day. I went back to therapy. I began a 12-step recovery program.

I now understand there are no shortcuts to living a healthy life and having healthy, equal-partnered relationships. I am learning to detach with love from people and relationships that are toxic and unhealthy. I am learning to develop relationships slowly, taking as much time as I need to discover whether I like this new person and how to create healthy, appropriate boundaries for them. I am learning that I can’t be everyone’s best friend.

I am learning to feel my uncomfortable feelings, the ones that come from building new, healthy habits and patterns of behavior. Like running, building a healthy life feels painful and uncomfortable at first. But there is a difference between healthy, healing pain and unhealthy, damaging pain. Before I started getting healthy, I tolerated unhealthy discomfort: high-levels of drama, spiritual abuse and becoming ensnared in other people’s problems.

I’m no longer trying to escape my past or run away from it. I’m no longer trying to escape my present moment. I’m learning to recognize the things I can change and the things I cannot change. I am learning to live less frantically.

I now understand that God never abandoned me. I abandoned myself.

I found God again by taking care of myself. I am learning to trust God again because God loves me unconditionally.

I accept that things will never be perfect. There will be weeds, broken playgrounds and missing water fountains.

But there will also be patches of daisies growing in wild, unexpected abundance, precious and free.

Belts and spatulas: a story of spanking, fear, failure and redemption

I had the pleasure of “meeting” Josh Barkey online awhile ago and was struck by his gentle spirit, vulnerable honesty and commitment to art. He has written a book called “Immortality Stories” and I wanted to honor the journey he has traveled. Here is part of Josh’s story. I think it will resonate with many of you. EE.

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The worst part was always the waiting.

“Your dad will be home soon,” she’d say, “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done,” and I’d trudge the long hallway to crumple onto my bed, fighting the tears.

I did not, of course, ever actually think about what I’d done. What I thought about was the ball of acid-coated lava rolling around in my gut, sending shooting tendrils of dread out into my extremities. I thought about the belt, or spatula, or whatever happened to be in vogue that week.

I thought about the command to “Lean over the bed;” the sharp, stinging pain; and his unheard after-words as he wrapped me in his arms and explained why it was I’d had to be spanked.

My dad is a gentle man. A kind man. He did not enjoy hitting me.

But he was taught that a father who loves his child hits his child, and he loved me more than his own distaste for violence. He wasn’t about to “spare the rod” and spoil his child, so he acted out a ritual we both hated, and told himself it was the Right Thing to Do.

Sometimes I wonder how, with parents as loving as mine, I ended up being so afraid. Afraid of God. Of myself. Of life.

How did fear worm down into my heart? How did fear of an uncertain future push a recent college graduate into a relationship for which he was not yet ready, taking him to the altar and beyond? How did fear become so entrenched that he was unable to communicate in a way that would make his wife feel fully loved and cherished, saving the marriage so that his own son didn’t have to grow up between two homes… so he didn’t have to try to figure out this spanking stuff on his own?

I don’t know.

Life is too vast and complicated, I think, to ever blame a fear or a failure on just one thing. To say, “This, Josh, is why—despite everyone’s assurances that you were a natural-born writer and painter and odd-angled thinker—you were never able to believe it, take the step, and just Be who you Are.”

But I wonder, in this my thirty-third year, if perhaps those long, fear-filled hallway trudges might have something to do with it.

I wonder if now, having written my way free of enough of my own fear that I could take my son aside and say I was sorry, and never again would he be spanked, I wonder if it might just be safe to acknowledge that it is never a good thing to instill fear in a child.

That making is oh-so-much-harder than breaking, and that freedom to live at peace with yourself, God, and the world is only ever found when all the weapons have been beaten into plowshares. When belts just hold up pants, and spatulas only ever mix up cookie dough, as God intended. 

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Josh Barkey is a writer and all-around artist who lives in an ivy-draped shed in North Carolina, and has found the courage to plunge into life as a full-time Maker. If you’d like to read more and support him in this, you can find the website for his new book at, or visit his blog at

I was spanked as a child and I turned out ok. Didn’t I?

It’s late on a night during Holy Week. I’m alone and I’m trembling because I have seen into my heart of darkness and it’s brought everything back….

I was spanked and spanked and spanked and I turned out OK, didn’t I? Look how successful I am! Look at these works of my hands, taste this fruit and tell me it’s not sweet.

I watched Zero Dark Thirty and I didn’t flinch. Not once. I understand torture, see. I know when it’s necessary and I know how to do it. I sat there and watched it and suddenly, I saw something else: I saw my heart of darkness. I could do that. Oh, God. I could do that.

I know how to flip the switch inside my icy heart and simply turn off the empathy so that their cries don’t touch me. This is how I was trained.

When my firstborn baby was six months old, I started spanking her. I packed a layer of ice around my heart and I went very, very calm. I even smiled. I spanked her calmly and systematically without a hint of anger. I wasn’t out of control. I got results. She was so very, very obedient. A model toddler. I broke her. Just like I’d been broken.

This is my heart of darkness: I know how to break children.

Because I was broken this way.

I was spanked and I turned out OK, didn’t I? I follow God with all my heart and I was raised up in the way I should go and I have not departed from it. Yes, yes. Such good, holy fruit.

But I am broken, see. They broke me with wooden spoons and paddles and kitchen spatulas.

After the church fell apart, I thought surely they’d see the light and apologize for spanking me from infancy. I waited for years. But nothing.

And one day, I finally broke. One day I said goodbye.

When you set out to break a child, other things get broken, too. You don’t get to decide which things get broken. You might spank your child to save their soul from Hell but all the good intentions only pave the way to it.

There came a moment when I stopped spanking my children. This story is in my book. It didn’t stop all at once. But there was A Moment. A moment that changed me, a moment that made me realize I was on the same road paved by good, holy intentions. The same road to breaking a child.

I stopped. I stopped. Dear God, it took far too long but I finally did stop. And my children were spared. Most of them don’t remember a thing.

So, yes. I turned out ok, didn’t I? I still smile and laugh and live responsibly. I am a good citizen! A loving wife! A dutiful mother! You would never know that for years I cut myself. That I still equate pain with love. That I still believe I’m not good enough. I still have nightmares and struggle terribly with anxiety and dark waves of depression.

You would never know that a broken will=broken relationships.

But yes. I was spanked as a child and I turned out OK, didn’t I? DIDN’T I?

No. I turned out “ok” IN SPITE of being spanked.

At least I no longer have a heart of stone. At least now I have a heart of flesh.
And now I weep with those who weep.

Were you spanked as a child? Was your will broken, too? Were you spanked to “save your soul from Hell”?Comments will be moderated to protect safety of shared stories.
This comment box is for sharing, not debating.
Anonymous comments accepted. 

UPDATE, 3/29/13: my most sincere thanks to those of you who have shared your stories with us. Your bravery, vulnerability and honesty inspire me. Due to the busy holiday weekend, I am unable to further moderate comments so I am closing the thread. As always, my email is available if you would like to send a private message. Much love, EE.
Happy Easter.

How to recognize unhealthy personal boundaries in yourself and others

As I’ve been reading (and re-reading) Take Back Your Life, I’ve found myself having moments of epiphany and moments of embarrassment. The moments of epiphany happen when I deconstruct a harmful system and suddenly understand how it works. The moments of embarrassment happen when I realize how I’ve perpetuated cultish behaviors in my own relationships.

I’ve slowly come to realize that it wasn’t enough for me to leave the cult. The cult was inside me. Yes, I was victimized in the cult but I’ve also carried those harmful ways of behaving out into the world.

I’m really committed to working on that!

For the past six months, my husband and I have been in some pretty intense marriage therapy. One realization we had was that by staying SO BUSY since leaving the cult, we’ve never slowed down long enough to examine the harmful patterns of behavior we carried outside it.

As we’ve prioritized our recovery, I’ve had these moments of embarrassment where I realize how deeply affected I was–and still am–by my childhood cult. I am learning to let go of my embarrassment and come to a place of acceptance. I learned these behaviors as a child who was born into a cult. It’s not my fault. Now that I can see what I’m doing, though, I want to learn how to change it.

One of the major problems I’ve had to address are my lack of healthy boundaries. From birth I was trained to let others violate my personal boundaries. I was trained in “first-time obedience” and literally could NOT say the word “no” to an adult. It has been very difficult for me to reclaim my ‘no.’ I still struggle with knowing how to set my own personal boundaries and respect the personal boundaries of others.

Time and again I’ve mismanaged relationships because I lacked basic boundaries. I routinely let unsafe people in while keeping safe people out. I frequently trusted the wrong people. To me, someone with unhealthy boundaries looked “safe” because it looked normal. I overlooked their bad behavior because I knew how to tolerate abuse. My dysfunction might be dysfunctional but at least it’s MY dysfunction. Unhealthy boundaries felt normal.

I had a total epiphany moment when I read “Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries” on page 171 of Take Back Your Life. Here is an abbreviated list:

*Telling all
*Being sexual for others, not yourself
*Being nonsexual for others, not yourself
*Going against personal values or rights in order to please others
*Not noticing or disregarding when someone else displays inappropriate boundaries
*Not noticing or disregarding when someone invades your boundaries
*Giving as much as you can for the sake of giving
*Taking as much as you can for the sake of getting
*Letting others define you
*Letting others describe your reality
*Believing others can anticipate your needs
*Believing you must anticipate others’ needs
*Practicing self-abuse (cutting yourself)
*Being deprived of food or sleep
*Being unable to separate your needs from those of others

It was pretty eye-opening for me to realize I could check off almost all of these signs.

And I have been on both sides of the unhealthy boundaries coin. I have been victimized as the result of unhealthy boundaries and I have hurt others who have unhealthy boundaries. Sometimes I have let unsafe people too close and they end up hurting me. I have also drawn people in and hurt them. I feel guilty about this. I am learning to acknowledge my wrongdoing and take personal responsibility for my behavior without shaming or punishing myself.

I am learning to accept my human limitations, own my personal rights and accept the limitations and rights of others. One area of progress is that I’ve finally learned that 99.99% of the time, people aren’t attacking me personally. For example, when someone writes a hurtful comment, I am now able to realize they are generally speaking from a place of pain themselves and it’s not about me at all.

I am also learning to moderate my emotions so that I neither catastrophize or minimize events. I am learning to maintain a positive outlook without being blind to reality. I am learning that it’s OK for me to say “no.” I am learning that love doesn’t hurt.

I am learning that real life and real relationships require a lot of work but that freedom is priceless. Things really CAN get better. And even if external circumstances don’t always improve, I, myself, CAN get better! It’s empowering to know I get to decide! I am taking back my life one little day at a time!