Category Archives: Recovery

God, why have You abandoned me? Oh, wait. Maybe I’m asking the wrong person…

photoPeople are going to do what they want. There is nothing I can say or do to change that.

The only control I have is over my own actions. And as my current weight can attest, even that is minimal.

Still, I’m often convinced that my problems lie outside myself and therefore, so do the solutions.

But this is not true. I can no sooner change others or get them to do what I want than I can change the color of the sky. And besides, other people do not exist merely to provide solutions for me and my life.

 So, why do I try?

Because I’m angry. And underneath the anger I am hurt. And underneath the hurt I have an unmet need. And that need has been crying out since childhood.

It’s understandable why, in the face of my urgent, unmet need, I assume The Answer lies outside of me. As a helpless baby, the solution to my needs DID lie outside myself. I was totally dependent on others to meet my needs. And when my need wasn’t met, it grew bigger and bigger–eventually becoming the permanent baggage I carried with me into adolescence and then adulthood.

I was always looking for Somewhere Else/Someone Else to fill that need. And similarly, always scanning the horizon for People Who Would Hurt Me More. So, I was always either fighting people who were supposedly “out to get me” or fleeing to somewhere else/someone else who would finally make it all OK. I thought this was my only choice in life.

What other choice did I have? Just living with these unbearable feelings? No way. Trying to SIT with all those horrific, unmet, needy feelings was out of the question. No way. I’d rather distract myself, find a new hobby, a new church, a new friend, have a baby, take up crocheting, get addicted to substances or people—anything other than sitting with my unmet needs.

But the more I sought, the emptier I felt.

Sometimes I would say: “God, why have you abandoned me?”

God didn’t answer me.

At least, not until I sat down and was still. God didn’t answer me until I stopped trying to Fix Everything. Probably God was talking to me all the time but I was too busy staying busy to hear anything.

The truth was that God never abandoned me. I abandoned myself because I believed I was inherently unlovable, unworthy, wicked and broken. I didn’t believe I deserved to have my needs met.  All I deserved was the leftover crumbs tossed to me by someone else.

I’m changing that, now.

I now truly believe I am lovable, loved and loving. I deserve to be treated with kindness and gentleness. But I’m not waiting for Someone Else to give that to me. I’m learning to take care of myself. I’m learning to give myself the care I need.

And as I began caring for myself, tending to my needs and yes, learning to love and appreciate myself–well, that’s when I found God was right here all along.

 

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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.

 

Do you have community? Do you feel like you belong?

photoI wake in the darkness, pull on running shoes, headband and clip on a pedometer.

There’s a new chill in the air. Summer is giving way to Fall. Last night, I had visions and disturbing dreams. I only know one cure for this: a challenging trail run.

And so I go. I run with friends because I’ve learned I can’t do this thing alone. I can’t get fit alone. I can’t get myself out of my head alone. I can’t heal alone. I need community.

We are a rogue, ragtag community of runners. We are not elite. We are in different stages of life and have different beliefs.

Since I began running with these women some of us have lost loved ones, gone through divorce, gotten tattoos, wept over broken hearts, changed jobs, changed diapers, changed hair color. But something remains: the run.

We are bound by pain and we are loosed by it. We grimace and grunt and sweat in the most unladylike of ways. But we also laugh and joke and cheer each other on. I get up in the dark because these are my women, this is my community and I know they’re waiting for me.

Do you have community? What does it look like? How does a sense of belonging help you?
Or maybe you don’t have community…where do you find YOUR sense of belonging?

 

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?”

“BECAUSE THE EFFING CULT LEADER THREW ME ON THE GROUND!”

“You mean the pool chair?”

“No. I mean THE CULT LEADER.”

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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…..

Redemption Song

I’ve been (mostly) offline for three weeks. I entered a time of deep silence–I actually went away for 12 days, tucked myself into quiet. I turned in my iPhone, my computer, wrenched myself away from the Internet. Somehow, somewhere along the way I’d lost myself. There was so much noise in my head. I was over-exposed, frantic, torn.

I went away because sometimes leaving is the only way you can come home to yourself. And I did. I came home to myself. I came home to my life. I came home to my family.

This is the part where I tell you that I have a very real, very scary problem with anxiety. I project a very confident, gutsy, fearless image online. But what I need you to know is that for all my life I’ve been running scared.

Scared I’ll be abandoned. Scared I’ll get Left Behind. Scared of rejection. Scared I won’t be loved. Scared of the panic that sweeps over me like a black tsunami, sucking me under. I had–what my therapists call–a traumatic childhood.

What I need you to know is that even though I am safe now, I struggle with nearly debilitating anxiety–every single day. What I need you to know is that every single day feels like a fight for my life.

I also want you to know that there is hope. This smile you see? It’s real. Because I am getting better every day. I have fought for this smile and I will continue to fight for this smile because I deserve to live a happy, healthy life.

I have found that strength lies in quiet trust. I have found that God longs to be gracious to me. I have found that God’s love for me is everlasting.

I am free to be happy. I am free to find joy each day. I am free to laugh and be silly and enjoy my life. I am free to let my children laugh and be silly and enjoy their lives.

Yes, I have a painful past. But it is only part of me. The more important part is that I have a bright future. Yes, I have made mistakes and yes, I have wept for them.

Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning….especially when these two girlies crawl up into my bed for a morning snuggle.

Joy comes when I take my sons to water polo practice and watch them play their hearts out.

Joy comes when I watch my beautiful ballerina graduate from middle-school with honors.

Joy is quietly resting in love’s sacrament….

I am Elizabeth Esther and this is my story, this is my redemption song: God has rescued me. God is rescuing me. God will continue to rescue me.

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My deepest thanks to Jennifer Imus for taking these beautiful family pictures. If you’re local to Southern California, check her out. She is one talented lady–and amazing with children! (She handled all five of mine better than I did!) Jen is on Facebook & Twitter, too.