How do you think about trauma? Do you think about trauma? Can you live a perfectly happy and privileged life and still wake up one day unable to get out of bed and unsure why? It took me years to admit I had anxiety. It took me even longer to understand the root of that anxiety was firmly attached to trauma.
“It’s not that bad,” I’d tell myself. “Trauma is something reserved for survivors — people who have really been through something.”
I still can’t step into a church without wanting to rip my insides out. It’s not because I don’t believe. I have spent the last 10 years breaking apart my beliefs and stitching them back together. I picture myself grinding down the judgement, fear, and shame I carried with me for most of my adolescence. Crushing them into a fine powder, almost like the ashes of a loved one — maybe even myself. I carry these remains in my outstretched hands with deep, deep grief. I let them drift into the wind, only lowering my palms when every last grain is gone.
What’s left is belief in a God that loves and accepts all of us, regardless of what we call Them, what sexual orientation we are born with, or what belief system we die with. It’s the sort of patched together spirituality my high school Bible teachers would have best disdainfully labeled “Universalism.” Something that was wrong. Something I’d go to hell for believing. Something that was “of this world” and not of God.
I’ve been afraid to write about what I believe, because I don’t have it figured out, really. And something deep inside feels I should be able to defend it.
I spent more than two decades doing and believing what other people, mostly men, told me to. But it didn’t start to unravel until my last two years of college. I started working at a local coffee shop. It plugged me into a new community and introduced me to people I’d never met going from Sunday church to Tuesday worship to Wednesday church to Thursday Bible study. I began to feel known and connected to myself, and others, in ways I’d never felt before: independent, empowered, and accepted.
But a guy from the campus Christian fraternity told me I should quit that job because it was taking my attention away from “more important things.” And so I quit. I stopped dating a good Christian guy and other guys told me, “It’s OK, we all make mistakes. I bet you can make it right.” I led him on for months because I thought something inside me was wrong. Broken. I hosted a Christmas party, and had someone pull me aside to tell me they’d never thought they’d see alcohol in my house. I stopped hosting parties.
I started dating my husband, and then I second-guessed it. Years of Bible studies (starting in middle school) had conditioned me on how and for whom I should save and prepare myself. My prince charming was supposed to single me out, “pursue me,” make me feel like the white-lillied princess I’d spent 20+ years cultivating myself to be. JD didn’t go to church, called me on my bullshit, and treated me like an adult, not a delicate flower. I broke up with him almost immediately and turned an empty bedroom in my college house into a ‘prayer room’ as my rebound.
And then, one day, I stopped listening to them.
A guy from that same Christian fraternity came into the coffee shop and tried to greet me with a hug like he’d probably done dozens of times before. And I couldn’t. I physically shrank away from him, backed behind the counter with my hands actually outstretched to keep him at bay.
I muttered something about customers not being allowed behind the counter and needing to get back to work, while he looked confused and slightly embarrassed. I didn’t know what had happened. All I knew was that in that moment, this unassuming man represented all of the hurt and judgement and shame I’d felt from “The Church” over my lifetime. And I suddenly felt like even a warm hug from someone in that community would burn me alive.
I’d like to say that I was empowered with an immediate sense of self — confident in my decisions and beliefs — but every day after that otherwise unremarkable day I have struggled with what I believe and how it impacts every other aspect of my life.
I can tell you that I started picking up shifts at the coffee shop again. That JD and I reconciled two weeks later over tacos and Cokes. That my final months of college were some of the warmest, fullest, and most meaningful of my life. Full of acceptance and belonging.
I can tell you that I stopped going to church. And that learning to cope with transition and life outside of organized religion remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done and continue to do.
In my first session with my California therapist, she asked me what I believe. It was physically difficult for me to choke out the words, “I pray.” That might not seem like much, but it has taken me many years, innumerable therapy hours, and a lot of courage to get there.
I’m seeing a new therapist here in Oklahoma, and for the first time, we’re working specifically on my experience with religious abuse. Trauma.
We’ve started with what she calls “parts work,” where I speak to certain parts of myself — in this case, the religious part. She asked me to visualize what this part of me looks like.
That was easy. She’s around 19 years old, her beliefs are changing, and she’s isolated in grief. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to because she fears judgement, and she feels alone.
“Give her someone to talk to,” my therapist said. “Tell her she’s alright. Tell her she’s safe. Tell her you’ll listen.” And then, she hit me with it: “Tell her you won’t judge her.” I realized immediately that I’ve judged that 19-year-old girl for almost 15 years.
So I’ve been checking in with that “part.” I’ve been asking her how she’s doing. I’ve told her, “Look at you now. Look at how strong you were then to challenge your whole worldview and keep yourself safe and growing. Look at you fighting and softening and not giving up. I see you, I accept you, and I believe in you.”