Category Archives: RecoveringFundamentalist

Religious PTSD & fighting the darkness with acts of love

photoThe world events of these past two weeks have triggered a significant PTSD event for me. Growing up, our End Times eschatology was closely tied to whatever was happening in Israel. The details of what we believed are fuzzy to me now, but one thing remains: whenever Israel goes to war, I go crazy.

This usually means scanning the news for “clues” about whether this is THE END, desperate urges to stockpile food and emergency supplies followed by an urgent compunction to put my affairs in order lest Jesus return and I have no clean socks to wear because OBVIOUSLY.

Sometimes my PTSD is mild and manifests itself through detailed housecleaning (this past week I powered through all the laundry AND cleaned my room from top to bottom–which was not an entirely bad thing, ha ha). But sometimes, my PTSD goes viral.

This past week, it did just that when, on the same day, I had a devastating conversation with my father (he called me a self-centered and self-indulgent woman) and then I heard the news that Israel had invaded Gaza and also, a passenger plane had been shot down.

Winner, winner, chicken dinn–OH GOD THE SKY IS FALLING.

At first, I was stunned. I continued my morning routine in a daze.

But two hours later, my body broke down.

When this happens, there is nothing I can do but hang on and ride it out.

First came the blinding migraine that felt like an anvil had smashed into the center of my forehead. This was followed by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. I have not cried that hard in a long time. I was balled up on the bathroom floor just hanging on for dear life.

I took Excedrin for Migraine and the headache eased just enough for me to go to work that night. Yep, no matter what is happening, a Mama’s gotta keep going, am I right? So, off to waitressing I went.

I could only hope that the PTSD wasn’t going to last long.

Well, that night, the nightmares and obsessive thoughts started. I dreamed of dead babies and my grandfather roaring at me to repent. When I woke up, the question running through my head over and over and over was: Why doesn’t my father love me? Why doesn’t he love me? WHY? Why doesn’t he….?

It wouldn’t stop. During the day, the anxiety was so severe–everything seemed like a threat–that I got a second headache.

Then the mean voices started: You’re a horrible person. You deserve Hell. Your own father doesn’t love you, how could God love you? Your book is pathetic. You’ve ruined your chances of becoming a “real” writer. Look at how fat you are. You’re disgusting.

I have a friend who once told me: “Send those voices straight back to Hell where they belong.”

The only way I know how to do that is to fight the darkness with acts of love. Burrowed under the covers, I could see that I had two choices: 1. I could let the lies poison my heart and fill me with hatred or, 2. I could choose love–which meant, ACTING from a place of love.

In my experience, love is the only thing powerful enough to conquer my darkness. I was feeling so physically ill, though, that I couldn’t get out of bed. So, I started with words:

First, I spoke these words into the darkness:

“The Lord my God illumines my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28)

Then I prayed this:

“Mary, pray for me.”

Then I said:

“Jesus, have mercy on me.”

I had to say it a bunch of times before I started believing it. It seemed laughable that mere words of love could break the shackle-hold the mean voices had on my brain. Then, I opened my journal to the place where I’ve copied kind words from readers.

I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your courage and clarity
to tell the world the truth. –Amanda

I hope you come to realize what a help and encouragement your book has proven
to be for people like me. Your book is so beautifully written, so relatable and so
so discretely enlightening. –Lisa

You are a passionate, creative, generous, beautiful soul designed by God to tell your story,
your truth. Do not let mean words steal away your spirit. And don’t let mean words
create hatred in your heart. I wish I could tell you in person all the beautiful truths about you. –M.

After reading these words, I asked God to give me an idea for a way to fight the darkness with an act of service. I wanted to do something pure and good.

That afternoon I got the idea to start a ballet fund for my daughter. This gave me something tangible to do and it got me out of my racing, obsessive thoughts. As of today, you’ve donated $1,288 to Jewel’s YAGP prep fund. Thank you!

When I’m feeling this badly about myself, I try to keep a list of all the good things I’ve done each day as a way of reminding myself that I am, in fact, a good person. [I also put together a list of things I do as PTSD self-care. I will share that list with you in the next post.]

And then, there’s this: spontaneous love-gifts from my children. “Mama, we picked this lab-ender for you and tied it up with ribbons. Also, this card. We made it.”

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So, this. THIS is what saves my life: this mothering, this being of service, this being loved.

My children are my reason for living, their health and well-being are my daily motivation to fight the darkness and to make the world a better place. I love them with all that I am. Even little things like a trip to the library or cuddling up on the couch watching “Sophia the First” heals me and gives purpose to my life. Their joy helps me find MY joy. They teach me how to live. They teach me how to love. Motherhood saves my life every single day.

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Mary heard my prayer. She sent my children to comfort me.

Sometimes my recovery looks like a miniskirt, sometimes it looks like a maxi dress. Plus a hat. Or a headscarf. Don’t judge.

Guess what? You don’t just “get over” trauma. When you’ve suffered long-term childhood abuse, it’s not like it goes away. It’s so deep inside you, that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the pain and the YOU.

This is me telling you that I struggle every day. This is me telling you that most mornings I wake up and my default state is despair. This is me telling you that I have to WORK HARD to think normal, healthy thoughts. I have to WORK HARD to believe new things like: I’m loving, lovable and loved.

This is me telling you that it DOES get better and you have permission to craft your recovery in WHATEVER WAY helps you heal.

And because I want to be honest with you, I’m gonna share what some of my recovery work looks like. This is super embarrassing for me to share, but hey. Maybe it will help someone out there feel like they’re not such a freak show. Because guess what? What happened to you? That abuse you suffered? It wasn’t YOUR fault. And sometimes, maybe you need to slap a maxi dress on it.

So. This is what my recovery sometimes looks like.

Safety

My Safety Shield has magical powers. But mostly, it just makes me feel better.

Recently, I had a particularly nasty “Triggering Incident” which turned into a full-blown, batten-down-the-hatches-we’re-all-gonna-die panic attack. Followed by a week of PTSD symptoms, double-dosage medication. And my Safety Shield Outfit.

Well. OK, I guess it’s not a REAL Safety Shield. It’s a long, billowy dress. I wear it because it covers All The Things.

I have affectionately dubbed it my My Safety Shield. Because when I wear it, I feel super safe and calm. It’s like having a magical shield all around me and nothing bad can get inside.

Because sometimes? When panic blindsides me? When the PTSD is so bad I can’t eat or sleep and have to close all the shades in the house and hide under the covers? Well, there’s only one thing that helps me feel safe. There’s only one thing that gives me the courage to get out of the house and back into my life: Head-to-toe clothing. Plus, a headscarf. Or a huge hat.

It’s like my own personal hug machine. Or a weighted blanket. 

I still don’t know WHY wearing an UBER-modest outfit sometimes makes me feel all better, but it does.

Also, it’s very comfortable.

I can sit, kneel, bend over and sit cross-legged with ease. No more pinching. No more sucking in. No more accidental panty-exposure when I bend over to pick up a kid. Just comfortable, safe, CAN’T-TOUCH-THIS Safety Shield.

Sometimes I pretend my Safety Shield has magic powers like: it makes me invisible or lets me hear conversations happening a mile away. Mostly, I pretend that my Safety Shield transforms me into a “normal” person who can leave the house and do normal things like go to the grocery store–even when I’m in the middle of a PTSD Week.

I don’t like to wear My Safety Shield out in public–mainly because I don’t want to run into anyone I know and have to explain things like: “No, I didn’t convert to Islam, I’m just freaked out the Rapture might happen and I’ve been left behind.” Because AWKWARD.

But sometimes, I have to go out in public, even during a hard PTSD week. Maybe we need milk or food or allergy meds and so, I am compelled to wear my Safety Shield outside.

I gotta say, it’s an interesting experience.

People treat me differently.

Servers and cashiers and bank tellers are more polite. Respectful. The first time it happened, I thought it was a fluke. But after it happened EVERY TIME I went out in My Safety Shield, I realized something about my wearing head-to-toe dresses caused people to behave differently towards me. I don’t really understand that–and I’m not sure I’m happy about what this implies (we live in a systemically oppressive, patriarchal society?)–but it IS true that people treat me differently when I’m swathed in yards of fabric.

And wearing my Safety Shield almost guarantees there will be NO no leering or cat-calls from men. No dudes wagging their nasty tongues out of car windows. No unwanted contact. To be honest, it’s nice. It’s just….calm. Like I can go about my business without feeling men’s eyes on me.

All I know is that sometimes my recovery looks like head-to-toe clothing and a headscarf or big hat. All I know is that it helps me feel safe.

Usually, my frayed nerves and anxieties calm down after a week or two. That’s when I can tuck my Safety Shield back into the far corner of my closet and put on my regular clothes again. Or maybe a miniskirt.

These days, I try to live like I’m no longer a victim–even if that means wearing odd clothes, changing my hair color or just setting alerts on my phone that remind me to pray the Serenity Prayer every three hours.

The point is, I’m fashioning my recovery in a way that works for me. I am no longer a victim to circumstances. I have tools to help me deal with the inevitable triggers of life.

And THAT gives me hope that I AM getting better.

Maybe someday I won’t ever need my Safety Shield again.

 

Top 5 Reasons People Join Cults {hint: it’s not because they’re stupid}

People don’t join cults because they want to join cults. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I’d love to join a cult today!” Another misconception is that people join cults because they’re stupid or uneducated. THIS IS NOT TRUE. (In The Assembly, we had plenty of highly educated folks). So, please. Check your condescension. If people KNEW what they were getting into, NOBODY would join a cult.

The reason cults exist is because NOBODY believes they’re in one!

Sure, having a good education (and especially exposure to lifestyles other than your own) might render you a little less susceptible to the glittery, sparkling promises of a cult. But pretty much, if you’re a human being–you can be seduced.

And that’s what cults are all about—seduction. Becoming enthralled.

People join cults because they fall in love with a beautiful dream.
They see something they desperately want or need.
They feel like they’ve found The Answer to life’s problems.

If you’re capable of falling in love, you’re capable of joining a cult.

Only later–much later (preferably after they’re married or otherwise “tied down”) do they begin to see it was false advertising.

Growing up in a cult, I learned one big rule: outsiders only see what we want them to see. New visitors saw well-behaved children, wholesome teenagers, intact families. What they DIDN’T see was that from a very young age, I was coached on how to “reach out” to visitors.

In the aftermath of my book being published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people who remember meeting me as a child. Invariably they comment on how “cheerful” and “outgoing” I was. They remember me hugging everyone enthusiastically. They remember me singing at the top of my lungs during church meetings. These sincere people are shocked that behind closed doors I was suffering near-constant abuse. B-b-but! You were such a HAPPY LITTLE GIRL!

I can only shake my head. Oh, yes. They were seeing EXACTLY what The Assembly wanted them to see.

I was TRAINED to be that way. I was SPANKED if I didn’t behave exactly the way my parents coached me. I had to behave like that because it was survival.

So, why do people join cults? Well, like a successful marketing campaign, cults know how to sell:

1. We Have What You’ve Been Looking For: Do you crave meaningful relationships? Are you tired of superficial pursuits? Do you long for abundance, happiness and wealth?

2. Sense of Urgency: TODAY is the day of salvation! What if you die tomorrow? Will you have ANY regrets???? [SIDEBAR: when I was "witnessing" to people, I would get super frustrated when they replied, "Well, if I die tomorrow then I'll be glad I lived a good life." I was like: Nooooooo! BE ANXIOUS! BE VERY AFRAID! Otherwise this whole formula doesn't WORRRK!"]

3. Sense of Purpose: Did you know God has a Great Plan for your life? Do you really want to miss out on that? Join our cause. God is REALLY MOVING in our generation. Together, we can change the world. [SIDEBAR: this whole phrase about "God IS MOVING in our generation!!" really annoys me. Newsflash, guys. God has moved in EVERY generation. God didn't suddenly start MOVING once evangelicals figured out how to build mega-churches. Or win political elections. When I was growing up we were all: yeah, Christianity existed and everything. But it didn't really START until like the 1500's when Martin Luther nailed a letter to a church door. I mean, THAT'S when God REALLY started moving!"]

4. Sense of Superiority: we are the TRUE believers. We are the PURE ones. We are reclaiming what’s been lost. We have uncovered hidden truths. You won’t find this anywhere else. You might be a nobody in this world, but in OUR group you’ll be special. [SIDEBAR: I often call this "The Special-Ness Syndrome." The more SPECIAL a church thinks it is, the faster I run away.]

5. INCENTIVES!!! Look at all these beautiful women following Jesus! Look at all these godly, spiritual men! You could have TRUE intimacy. No more broken hearts. You will find a wife who respects and serves you. You will find a husband who loves and provides for you. You will find a community of like-minded people who will help you and you will never be alone again!! [SIDEBAR: in cults--as in everywhere else--sex sells.]

——————————————————————

Further reading:
IS MY CHURCH A CULT? 
WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS SUFFERED SPIRITUAL ABUSE
IS MARS HILL A CULT?
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE INSIDE A CULT

Top Ten Signs of a Potentially Abusive Church

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: what are some signs of a spiritually abusive church? My book, “Girl at The End of the World,” tells my story of growing up in an abusive church. But I thought it might be helpful if I shared a list of “red-flag” warning signs here on my site as well. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing. EE.

  1. Personality Centric: a pastor whose charming, charismatic, intense, persuasive and intelligent personality holds unquestioned sway over his/her congregation. He/she is treated like a celebrity. Not held accountable. Not held to same standard of morality as the rest of the congregation.
  2. Operates Independentlyno oversight, doesn’t answer to an established denomination, there is no way for grievances to be filed or addressed, even in cases of outright abuse the police or civil authorities are not called.
  3. Engulfment: “true members” of the church devote their WHOLE lives to the church, center all their activities around church activities, discouraged to have friends outside the church, family members who express concern about the church are cut off, leaving the church is the same as leaving God.
  4. Busyness: a plethora of required/mandatory-without-saying-it’s-mandatory activities that fill up the weekly schedule, giving time and energy for free to various hard labor projects (cleaning and cooking for pastor’s family, for example).
  5. Stalking: Big Brother-type monitoring is called “just keeping each other accountable.” Calling to “just check in” if a member misses church meeting. Approving clothing, daily decisions, watching online activity for “problematic” opinions and posts–all under the guise of “spiritual care” for the person’s soul.
  6. Coded Language: an ingrown church has developed a special, insider language/lingo that only those who have been there for a long time understand. Sometimes common, everyday words are given different definitions particular to that church; ie. “keep sweet” is a phrase used in some polygamist circles that means women should behave in a church-approved way.
  7. Unrealistic Promises: members of an unhealthy church are often seduced by big talk about all the wealth, blessings and riches God will give them if they just devote their lives to this church. Delivery on these promises is rare. Those who do not experience God’s blessings are told they have “weak faith.”
  8. Courting Rituals: a man must seek leadership approval (above parental approval) before seeking “to court” (or date) a woman, courting couples must follow a prescribed set of rules according to arbitrary traditions established by the church; ie. no kissing until the wedding day.
  9. Shunning: if someone leaves the church, church leadership requires all other members to ignore this person until they “repent.” New church members are told to shun family members who don’t support the church. Parents are told to shun “rebellious” teenagers. Husbands are to shun “unsubmissive” wives. The church comes first in all relationships.
  10. “The Ends Justify the Means:”  a spiritually abusive church justifies all kinds of oppressive behavior by saying they only desire to truly serve and love God. “We’re doing this for Jesus, so it’s OK!” ; ie. spanking children to “break the will” because the end result is a child who will love and serve God for his/her whole life. Be wary of a church that emphasizes “purity of doctrine” over the WAY it treats people. Methods and processes matter. The ends do NOT justify the means.

A tale of Mrs. Judge-y Pants and how she learned that being honest was better than trying to be good

stairsI read a phrase in some 12-step literature recently and it precisely captured the way I’ve been trying to live my life in the last few years: “We are working hard at being honest, not good.” Honest, not good. Oh, yes THIS.

Growing up in a cult, we were ALL about being holy but NOT so much about being honest. (You know you have a problem with dishonesty when you’re more concerned with looking holy vs. being holy). *Raises hand* *Fidgets uncomfortably*

Outward appearances, man. We had THAT whole deal down to a mother-bustin’ science. And I mean that literally: mothers busted their butts (and their mental health) making their families look all holy. I should know. I pretty much lost my own sanity trying to live up to all the Standards of Godliness.

It was a destructive way to live. But it also felt so….addictive. Control: that’s some powerful stuff, right? Having EVERYTHING all figured out. Being 110% certain about God and Christianity and how everyone ought to be living their lives. CONTROL. Control is as addictive as any drug. It’s like believing you’re in charge of when and how the wind blows.

tree

Ironically, those who worked the hardest at being good ended up as the biggest hypocrites. I’m pointing the finger at myself, here.

Since leaving the cult eleven years ago, I’ve abandoned a lot of Be Ye Holy baggage. Meaning: I stopped trying to be good a long time ago. I took up drinking and swearing. I quit God–for about a week. I bounced around from church-to-church. I went to therapy and went to rehab. You know, THE USUAL.

It’s been a long process of figuring out how to be a whole person.

It started by getting really honest with myself. Can I just say right now that being honest is WAY harder than trying to be good?

I mean, at some point I had to stop blaming the cult for every problem in my life. Note to self: taking responsibility for myself sucks. I would really prefer to sit on the couch eating cakes all day while God–that magical genie I’ve always imagined Him to be–fixes my problems.

But this is not how God works.

As I wrote in my book, Girl at The End of The WorldI heard this story somewhere that when you ask God to move a mountain He says “OK!” And then He hands you a shovel. In other words, you gotta do the work.

The hopeful part in all of this is that I’m learning to do the work differently. Instead of TRYING to be good, I’m working hard at being honest.

When I practice daily, radical honesty–goodness naturally follows.

: : :

sand

In the last two years I’ve been reading 12-step literature and attending 12-step meetings in the (desperate!) hope of rewiring my brain. It’s become really clear to me that even though I left the cult, the cult didn’t leave me.

I have issues.

Inside me there lives a hardline fundamentalist. I call her “Judge-y Pants.” When Judge-y Pants comes out to play, she’s..well, she’s judge-y. She’s harsh. She’s critical. She’s demanding.

Basically, she’s a biatch with a huge KJV under her arm.

For one thing, Judge-y Pants is always in a state of panic. She runs around yelling about the world ending, cashing in 401ks, fleeing to the hills and don’t forget the canned goods.

This is no way to live.

Point is, I got 99 problems and that biatch is one.

So, I go to therapy, pray every day and attend 12-step meetings to pin down my insane, chaotic, flighty brain. I’ve tried drinking and cussing and over-eating and Arguing On The Internet and well, NONE of that never gave me the long-term serenity I so desperately crave.

It DID make me 30 pounds overweight, though. So. Yay, cleavage?

But I want long-term serenity. I’m tired of intensity and freak-outs and meltdowns.

I’m doing things differently these days.

I’m making daily to-do lists, and following a simplified schedule and cutting out anything that triggers my need for action! adrenaline! CHAOS!

crochetBasically, I’m living like an 80 year old woman whose idea of fun is crocheting and watering her potted plants.

 

FYI: living like this? Being all calm and stuff? It’s hard work.
It feels completely ABNORMAL.

: : :

Growing up in a cult, you have this wonky sense of normalcy. Normal was frantic urgency. Normal was END OF THE WORLD-omg-we’re-all-going-to-Hell intensity. I was always living on the edge.

I’ve heard this is similar to kids growing up with alcoholic parents or in deep poverty. You always have to hustle and be hyper-alert because you never know when The End will come. You’re just running and panicking all the damn time.

Even after I left that environment, I didn’t know how NOT to live like that. I didn’t know HOW to live peacefully. Calm felt boring.

It’s taken a lot of therapy, but eventually I’ve realized that I’m addicted to intensity. Even though I hated The Crazy, at least The Crazy was comfortable. I understood it. I knew what to expect. And even though I could see how living on this razor-sharp edge would eventually kill me, I preferred The Crazy.

This is how you know you have a problem: you keep returning to The Crazy even though you know it will kill you. 

Hi, I’m Elizabeth and I’m addicted to chaos.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be sitting by the pool crocheting.

pool

 

Top Ten Ways to Misuse The Bible {from an ex-fundamentalist guilty of ALL ten}

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The worst use we can make of the Bible is to use it simply as a source of proof verses.
–Matthew The Poor, The Communion of Love (pg. 20)

  1. Read the Genesis account of creation as a science text.
  2. Insist that every verse shall be interpreted literally.
  3. Pick and choose which verses shall and shall NOT be interpreted literally.
  4. Assume your interpretation is God’s interpretation.
  5. Use Bible verses as ammunition in theological debates.
  6. Say: “If it’s not in the Bible I don’t believe it!”
  7. Subject Scripture to an individualistic, Americanized lens; ie. “The American Patriot’s Bible.”
  8. Elevate intellectual assimilation of Scripture over spiritual understanding.
  9. Use the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation to create charts and timetables that predict The End of the World.
  10. Know All The Words without living a life to back them up.

Top Ten Ways to Use the Bible Respectfully

  1. Read the Genesis account of creation as it was meant to be read: as a figurative story for non-literate peoples, understanding that the point is still the same; mainly: God created the Heavens and the Earth.
  2. Respect the various genres in the Bible and interpret them accordingly: i.e. poetry is not intended to be interpreted literally. However, it IS wise to believe Jesus means what He says in St. John 6 about the Eucharist.
  3. Refrain from picking and choosing which verses to interpret literally; deferring YOUR individual interpretation to the wisdom of theologians who have done that work for you over 2,000 years.
  4. Unless you are God, your interpretation is not God’s. Humility is best served when we preface any statements with something like: “My church teaches…” or “This is what I believe” instead of: “God says…”
  5. Remember that while you may win the theological debate with your battering-ram of verses, you won’t win any hearts.
  6. Understand that before Christians had the Bible, they were Christian. The Bible as a book is a modern luxury for us. But even without it, we can come to a saving faith in Christ.
  7. View Scripture as words for ALL peoples–not just white, Anglo-Americans who vote Republican. Choose a translation accordingly.
  8. Intellectual assimilation of knowledge is ME working, spiritual understanding is GOD working. Remember that sometimes God reveals His greatest truths to children! So, spiritual understanding of Scripture is not about knowing All The Right Verses. It’s about yielding to God’s love and letting God reveal what He wants to me.
  9. Remember that Jesus said even HE didn’t know the day or hour of His Second Return. So, maybe just let go of End Times predictions. What will be will be. And all will be well!
  10. The brightest witness of faith is a life LIVED faithfullyBe a doer of the Word, one day at a time. A heart full of LOVE is far more powerful than a mouthful of words. Love, always.

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p.s. This post will make WAY more sense if you read my book: “Girl at The End of the World: my escape from fundamentalism in search of faith with a future” :)

I’ve gained thirty pounds–oh-my-gosh-did-I-just-write-that-on-the-Internet??? #ElasticWaistedSkirtsForEvah

I’ve gained thirty pounds. I had to write that sentence first because it’s the scariest one to write and I’m in a rip-the-bandaid-off kinda mood. Hopefully, the rest of this post will be easier to write.

OK, and now I’m crying.

Sooooo…..this ISN’T gonna be easy to write? Ok, never mind I’ll just send this post to the trash…NO!

KEEP GOING, EE. KEEP WRITING.

*deep breath*

I stepped on the scale this morning for the first time in three months and honest to God, I TOTALLY thought the scale was broken. I was like: Maaatttt! What did you do to this scale??? It HAS to be wrong!

Matt: “Why are you getting on the scale? Did you WANT to have a bad day today?”

No. I just wanted to know the TRUTH.

And the truth is: my scale is not broken.

I mean, I kinda sorta suspected things were getting out of hand–I haven’t been able to get into my jeans and have been wearing loose, flow-y skirts for like four months–I just didn’t realize HOW out of control I’d gotten.

I stepped on the scale this morning because I finally hit a moment where I was like: I feel uncomfortable. Where did this belly come from and why is it in my way?

So, I got on the scale.

I’ve gained thirty pounds. 

I’m writing that again because CLEARLY I’ve been in a good bit of denial (#ElasticWaistedSkirts4Evah!!!!!!!) and CLEARLY I needed a reality check.

You guys. How is this possible? How is this even happening right now? THIRTY EFFING POUNDS?!

Just when I think I’ve Overcome All The Things and Survived All The Crap–well, THAT’S when I get to work on ANOTHER area of my life???? Seriously, universe??

I‘m so BLESSED with ISSUES that now I get to examine my relationship with food?????

Awesome. Juuuussssstttttt awesome.

YOU MEAN I HAVEN’T ARRIVED???????

I would just like to state for the record that this is entirely UNFAIR.

Doesn’t the Universe understand that I’ve SURVIVED enough crap? Doesn’t the Universe want to hand me a size 2 body without my having to work for it????? It seems like just yesterday I was prancing around in my stinkin’ cute little size 2 dress. Granted, I was also eating mindfully and exercising regularly.

And now, 10 months later, that dress is tucked way, WAAAYYYY in the back of closet and instead, I get to face the awesome truth that I haven’t been exercising regularly and also? I’ve been eating. A lot.

More Truth: I’m an emotional eater.

This past year has had MORE than its fair share of emotions: writing a book, writing it again, writing it a THIRD TIME, editing a book, having my book published, my family entering the Catholic Church, adopting a rescue dog, figuring out my mental health issues and finding a medication and dosage that works for me…

SO YEAH. A lot of emotions. And apparently, a LOT of comfort food.

I am human. I can’t handle all of that stress without SOME kind of comfort. This past year, I chose food.

This is the weird thing: I’ve never been happier. I’m content. I’m calm. I feel like I know my purpose in life. I‘m working my recovery using the tools I’ve learned in therapy and my 12-step programs.

For the first time in my life, I’m not in horrible emotional pain every day. I’m stable.

So, why can’t I be stable AND slender?

Why do I have to be happy AND chubby?

WHY CAN’T IT ALL BE PERFECT? WAAAHHHHHHHH.

Alright. I’m gonna stop whining now. Because. There ARE upsides. For one, cleavage. For two, chocolate. Can I get an amen?

But at some point–and I’m pretty sure THIRTY POUNDS is that point (dear God, please let this be my rock bottom and not FIFTY POUNDS)–I’m gonna need to get back with the program. I need to start exercising again–consistently. I need to be mindful about my eating–which means tracking it.

And I need to pay attention to the deeper issues, here. Because there are ALWAYS deeper issues. The truth is, even when I was at my skinniest, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a fat girl.

Yay, me. I have a NEW issue to work on. Food Sobriety, FTW.

Can you relate? Who wants to join me?? Or just throw some encouraging words at me!!

“I’m depressed and living hurts too much…”

The following is a “deleted scene” from my book (available March, 2014). It is the story of my two-week stay at a retreat center specializing in emotional healing and codependency issues. I am sharing this story in the hopes that those who have suffered similarly will know they are not alone and those in positions of religious authority will understand the devastating, long-term impact of spiritual abuse. Comments are open. Be kind.

I.

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I’ve been out of an abusive church for years but I’m still making the same mistake: I still don’t take care of myself. I keep burning out. I survive on caffeine and adrenaline.

By all measures my life is far better than it used to be. I should feel healed.

But my skin is on fire, elbows and feet flaring with psoriasis scales. I want to unzip my skin and crawl out of it. My hands shake, full of fear and trembling.

I’m going to a two week retreat center because I’m depressed as hell and living hurts too much. There. That’s the honest truth.

I grip my boarding pass tightly, so tightly my knuckles might start sweating blood. I stare at the bar-code as if I can somehow decipher the meaning behind the lines, trace the trajectory that led me here—trembling in an airport, blindsided by one glaring, uncomfortable truth: fundamentalism worked; it successfully broke me.

In the very core of who I am, I still believe I’m not good enough. No matter how successfully we’ve rebuilt our lives, no matter how recovered we look—deep down, I’m still a frightened little girl.

Something is missing.

I get in line to board my flight because I need help, because I am serious about my recovery. I now understand that there is no quick-fix that will permanently cure me. Extricating myself from what I experienced is like sorting the wheat from the chaff—the good is sown in with the bad.

I am going into treatment because I am determined to get better.

II.

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“We don’t break our horses, we invite them into a partnership with us,” Alyssa says, her bright eyes sparkling beneath the broad brim of her cowboy hat.

It’s my third day at the retreat center. We’ve been standing on this windswept hill for what seems like an eternity doing nothing but watch horses. Horses standing. Horses grazing. Horses doing absolutely nothing. Alyssa tells us that being still and simply watching horses is an exercise in developing our inner observer.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be observing, here, other than my raging boredom.

Being still is damn uncomfortable.

“You’re on horse-time now,” Alyssa says. “For those of us accustomed to rushing around, being on horse-time is really difficult. When I first started working with horses I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes.

I shift my weight from foot to foot, ball my hands into fists and push them into the pockets of my windbreaker. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to control a horse without breaking her and I certainly don’t understand how being on horse-time will improve my relationship with myself and with God.

Still, there is something about Alyssa’s way of being that intrigues me. She is loose and easeful. She walks gently, slowly and intentionally. She talks casually and easily to her horses as if they’re native English speakers. I have no idea how this is working but it’s obvious the horses understand her because they gently respond.

I am utterly baffled. This is a language I don’t understand. I am not accustomed to gentleness, partnership and relationships between equals. I am accustomed to harshness, black-and-white hierarchies and mutually destructive relationships. The language Alyssa shares with her horses is utterly foreign but I can clearly see the results: mutual respect and implicit trust. This is love.

Quite unexpectedly, I see the connection to my own life and it takes my breath away.

I learned to relate to God through punishment.

My first experience of God happened beneath a paddle. I was spanked until my will was broken.

I was spanked until the deepest belief I held was that love is punishment.

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In the treatment center, I have homework.

My program director has instructed me to create a timeline of my life, listing all major events and relationships in chronological order. “The point of this exercise,” she tells me, “is to discover your own, unique relational pattern.”

It takes me a several pages to complete the time line. Then, working from a list of signs and characteristics, I color-code each relationship with my most common behaviors.

When I’m done, an obvious pattern has emerged.

It is uncomfortably, devastatingly true: I have unrealistic expectations of others in relationships, I seek to avoid rejection and abandonment at any cost, I mistake intensity for intimacy and most of all, I feel a deep sense of worthlessness and therefore use relationships to relieve emotional pain.

I’ve attached to friendships, correspondences, Facebook “friends,” blogging “friends,” attended conferences in hopes of finding that Perfect Best Friend, bounced around churches hoping to find The Perfect Church, emailed bloggers I adored, texted, weaseled and grasped for relationships to fill, fill, fill—fill what? A bottomless chasm of aching need.

I don’t have a drinking problem. I don’t have a substance abuse problem. I am hooked on relationships.

I stare at my timeline and I see the source of my relational pattern: lack of nurturing and attention while young triggered feelings of shame and inherent worthlessness. If I am ever to fully recover, I will need daily connection with a higher power Who loves me unconditionally. The key to my emotional healing and my spiritual future is letting God love me.

And there it is, the missing piece: I don’t know how to receive God’s love. I don’t know how to receive grace. The core of my spiritual struggle is with self-loathing.

IV.

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This is what I understand: there will never be one, final cure for my religiously wounded heart. I will always bear the scars. And there will even be times when I feel the pain anew. But each day, I can choose to take care of myself. I can choose to let God love me.

This is what I know: I can’t save the world from fundamentalism, but I can save myself. There are things I cannot change, but I ask God for the courage to help me change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is my story: God has given me a future and a hope.

This is my song: I am not afraid.

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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? 

Packing for the end of the world…er, I mean: for camping.

photoIn my fantasies, going on family vacation is full of “making memories” and good old fashioned fun. We’ll make lanyards and sing songs around the campfire! We’ll go for an invigorating hike and take in the breathtaking views! We’ll roast marshmallows!

For whatever reason, I always seem to leave out the reality of family camping trips: dirt, ticks, kids whining, bad food, camping gear falling out the back of our camper on the freeway, fungal camp bathrooms, irritable park rangers, other loud campers, blowing a tire on our car, keeping the camper clean, dirt, mud, somebody poking an eye out with a hot wire hanger, dirt, exhaustion, work, dirt and more dirt.

We used to own a pop-up trailer and it was fun the first time we went camping. After that, it was just exhausting. You always had to crank this or jack up that, manhandle the fold-out couches/beds, duct-tape this and jury-rig that, only pee and never poop in the bathroom, use the kitchenette faucet but the not the bathroom faucet. Every time we pulled into camp, it took at least three hours to unpack everything and by then, I was ready to go home.

I think I could enjoy family vacations again if I could just do this thing called: adjusting my expectations. Mainly, I need to stop fantasizing about All The Memories We’ll Make and just be pleasantly surprised if we all arrive home in one piece.

If I can go into a family vacation expecting we’ll break down on the freeway like ten minutes into the trip or that I’m not going to sleep well for an entire week or that things are Just Gonna Get Dirty And It’s OK–then maybe I could enjoy family vacations again.

I feel like I need to do this for the kids’ sake. After all, they only seem to have fantastic, amazing, when-can-we-do-it-again? memories from our camping trips and family vacations. They barely even remember The Great Rain Out of 2005 when it rained for days, flooded our campsite, soaked half our food, muddied everything and freaked me out so badly that I fled into town and booked myself into a hotel room. To me, that was the WORST trip ever. But all my kids remember is how much fun they had splashing around in the puddles.

After the twins were born, we quit family vacations for a few years. I mean, there was just so much stuff to schlepp and I we didn’t have a personal sherpa. We only took a few Mommy & Daddy Alone trips because I figured *I* was the one who needed a vacation. But now, the twins are five and I’m suddenly seized with that feeling of: they’re growing up! ack! we need to make memories!

The older kids have told the twins about our trips to Yosemite–remember when Jude almost drowned in the river? yeah, ha ha that was AWESOME! and remember when we went surfing at Refugio State Beach over Thanksgiving weekend and that one guy was FRYING his turkey in peanut oil?–and the twins just stare at the older kids like: wow, our family was such a cool family before WE showed up!

And then they turn to me: “Mommy, why can’t WE go on a trip? When? WHEN? We wanna go camping in the rain!”

O, children. Ye know not ye ask.

But they won’t listen. Excuses, excuses, the say.

They have a point. The twins aren’t babies anymore. My book is almost done. The older kids can help around camp. Oh, dude. I’m gonna have to do this, aren’t I? Worse? We sold the pop-up camper. We’re gonna have to do this family vacation IN A TENT.

Or maybe I could just procrastinate and then, whoops, it’s time to go back to school!

I know what I’ll do: I’ll pretend we’re preparing for the apocalypse. As long as I can get myself into a IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD! mentality, I can whip up enough adrenaline to pack, wrap and stack our camping supplies in record time. Nothing motivates me like impending fire and brimstone.

Being raised fundamentalist has its benefits. The End of the World may not be at hand, but at least I know how to kickass at camping!