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’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.
“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.
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.
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.