Life Has No Purpose, and That is Freedom: Vignettes from an Ex-Christian

It’s been years since that night. Those nights. But I still remember them, still turn the memory over in my palm like a small river stone: the bonfire bristling with thick snaps of sparks, soft crackles, insistent heat. The stars glimmering quietly in their shadowy seats up above the glassy black lake, among the silhouettes of towering trees.

There I was on the hill, surrounded by believers, the air laced with cricket song and sweetish smoke, the cold sliding down my throat. In those moments everything felt alive and thrumming, sacred and old. It was easy, then, to look up at the dark summer sky and see God. To feel him moving among us. To love him. Oh, more than anything, to love him.

It was so easy. Easier still to rise when the preacher called, pick my way down the incline and take a stick from one of the servers, stare deep into that flickering fire as I prayed for God to forgive me for not giving him my all, to help me do that now. Easiest of all to throw that stick into the flames, a symbol of my decision to follow God for the rest of my forever. He was my God, and I was his. We were the fire. All else was just smoke. 

– – – – – – – – – –

I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 then. In my life, I’ve thrown a lot of sticks into a lot of bonfires. Walked down a lot of church aisles, knelt on a lot of different spots on my bedroom floor. Growing up Evangelical, pledging my wholehearted servitude to an invisible being every few months was a given.

For little me, it quickly became a sacred and comforting ritual. Sit in a pew and listen to a sermon. “Convicted by the Spirit,” realize in horror and shame that I hadn’t been giving all that I was to God. Immediately come before him, “broken,” lavishing him with passionate apologies, praise, promises. Humbly ask that he “reveal to me his plan” and help me, despite my selfish, weak soul, to “live for him.” No matter the cost.

Vowing my eternal allegiance to the God of the Universe was easy. All I had to do was throw a stick into a fire. I watched it burn. Afterward, when I closed my eyes and sang, all of creation sang with me. What else was worth singing for?

– – – – – – – – – –

My knees to my chest, bare feet on the cold hardwood floor, I shifted a little. One of the legs of my bed was digging into my back. I don’t know how old I was – 14, 15, 16? However old, I was small. I felt small.

The words had been there in my head for I don’t know how long. Once, when I was younger, I was brushing my teeth when a centipede slithered out of one of the holes in the bathroom sink and I screamed. This feels like that. Like those words had been hiding, hideous and horrific, just behind the porcelain.

I knew what the words were even though I had never thought them. Now, it was time to think them. I put my hand flat against my bedpost to steady myself. The words spoke themselves. What if, they whispered. What if this relationship with God isn’t working. What if this relationship with God isn’t working because it was never going to work. What if He’s not there. What if heaven is empty. I sat so still. But no bolt of lightning came. No light erupted through the ceiling. No blindness struck. What if heaven is empty.

– – – – – – – – – –

I swing my legs gently, letting my heels bump up against the cobblestone ledge of Chapels’ Pond. The sky above me is a melt of blue, fletched with soft-edged clouds. I sigh and rub my eyes. I’m tired. I’m tired.

Behind me is the Christian chapel on my college campus. I just spent three hours sobbing uncontrollably in its sanctuary while my computer grinded out Tyler Glenn’s solo album, EXCOMMUNICATION. I burst out with bitter laughter when I got to “keep on living, keep on living, keep on living.” When I heard “I found myself when I lost my faith,” I lost it.

It’s been 2 years since I started college, leaving my family and church behind. But I haven’t forgotten the summer before I started college, the summer I realized – that God I threw sticks into bonfires for, he was a monster and a myth – and all the rage hate disgust confusion terror and desperation made a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. I also haven’t forgotten the summer before this year. Both summers, I stood in front of my bathroom sink with a cup full of chemicals on my lips.

I didn’t expect to last this long. There’s a little person in me who isn’t a fan of tomorrows. Now that God’s gone, for her, there’s no point in living. And even if there is, it won’t last long anyway. In the closet in my dorm room there’s a plaid red backpack. In my head is the length of time it’ll take to walk to the nearest homeless shelter from my parents’ house. After all, once my parents find out I’m a queer nonbeliever, it’ll be over. They’ll disown me. They’ve threatened over less. And once that happens, I’ll either die or finally down that Drano. I don’t want to survive. What purpose is there in living? God and I used to be the fire. Turns out I’m just the stick.

But as I sit at that pond, legs swinging, something begins to ripen inside me. Words swell up from a place I haven’t been in a long time. What if, they whisper. What if you’re right. What if there is no point in living. A bird swoops down to settle among the leaves. What if you don’t need a reason to live, except to just live. A little orange fish nips at a lily pad and the pond puckers with tiny quiet ripples. Would you ask a birch what it’s doing here? Would you ask the rain its purpose? Would you ask Jupiter why it spins?

What if you’re right. Life is meaningless. There’s no point in being here. There’s no plan for your life to be revealed, there’s no one to follow or serve, there’s no single sacred reason to keep breathing. The sky’s blue is deep as a voice now. You’re here because your mom had scientists cook you up in a Petri dish. There are no rules. No expectations. You’re here. You’re now. What are you gonna do with that?

And suddenly the backdrop of death I’ve been carrying around with me for so long falls away, and I see life, I see everything ahead of me. And it is vast and bright and beautiful. 

Whatever you want. You don’t have to die. You can plan to survive what your parents will bring you. Save up. Fight for your voice back. Recover from God. Change your name. Get tattoos. Forgive yourself. Wake up early. Sleep late. Skip math class. Go hang gliding. Learn the back handspring. Study Polish. Move countries. Make friends. Lose them. Write blog posts no one might ever read. Kiss a girl. Get drunk. Camp out in a national park. Roast marshmallows over the stove. Let people see you. Let people love you. Let yourself love.

I don’t know how to leave God once and for all. I don’t know how to make him leave me. But I want to learn, I think. I think I can try to learn. No matter how long it takes. How hard it gets. I have lost my God; I have lost myself; I have lost the fire, and the stars, the hill and the lake and the cold. Look at how little I have left to lose. Look at how much I have now to gain. I still have the smell of smoke on my skin. But maybe, just maybe, with time and a whole lot of fresh air, I could make my own sparks.

Cover image by ninniane of Flickr ]

Nothing Good Dwells in Me: How We Wrestle Self-Worth Back from Christianity (Part 2)

Nothing Good Dwells in Me is a 2-part series about rebuilding the self that Christianity destroyed. The first article was a more personal exploration of how my church taught me, intentionally or not, how worthless I am. Today, we’ll look at ways to start changing that thinking.

Last time, I laid out a few key (and disgusting, and toxic, and just plain stupid) beliefs about myself and my heart and my destiny (oh my!) that growing up Baptist taught me. You know, the standard human-as-lowkey-worm spiel: my heart is deceitful and foolish, nothing good dwells in me, trusting in people is accursed. The usual.

Even if my church never intended for this to happen – and I believe they didn’t, since they tried (and failed) to keep us from hating ourselves too too much with the occasional “remember, you’re a child of God now! You are incredibly special and important!” – they really should’ve realized that if you teach a kid that they’re both incomprehensibly horrible and amazing, horrible will win out every time. Captain Cassidy and Neil Carter explore the abusive and dissonant aspects of this weird-ass dichotomy, if you’re interested. Like Neil points out:

But what do you do when the damage has already been done?

What do you do when you’ve stopped believing that God exists, but somehow, inexplicably, he is still in your head – trapped with a stalker ex and no restraining order?

When some nights you can’t shake the feeling that living without extreme self-deprecation isn’t right; that you don’t deserve freedom; that you are Bad to the core and the very existence of your body and soul is immoral?

2 ways to build self-worth… plus, anything you’ve got to add!

There are two key strategies I’ve learned to shut up the echoes of Christianity in my head and start telling my own narratives instead. I’d love to hear yours! 

1. Ego files

Okay, so I ripped that name off my therapist, and I kind of want to come up with a new one, but the concept itself isn’t new to me. It’s really helpful for people like me who grew up thinking [fill in life struggle] was normal and right and have to fight in order to acknowledge, validate, and celebrate their survival.

I know what mine looks like – on particularly bad nights I’ve written it all out over and over again, maybe even got it memorized down pat. It might be hard at first to let yourself brag about what you’ve done, and recognize that what’s not commonly considered an achievement might be huge and important for you. Simply being alive is the first on my list. Hey, sometimes that shit is hard!

Anyway, being able to brainstorm, or even keeping a Word doc, of things you’re proud of or the person you’re becoming or want to become – it can do wonders. Asking a friend what good they see in you, if you’re both up to it, can also add a few things to your ego file.

2. Disprove worthlessness

Sometimes, though, my brain does not want to play nice. Sometimes I can’t help but compulsively believe that me not being inherently sinful or Bad is a stupid idea, and anyone who says that is stupid and worldly and therefore very bad too.

When that happens, when I can’t believe in my worth, I find it really effective to disprove my worthlessness. For example – okay, if I feel compelled to believe that I am inherently sinful, who says? Why am I inherently sinful? What does sinful mean? Who came up with those standards, and why should they somehow be more correct and noble than all the other religious standards in the world?

A lot of times, I end up feeling better. A lot better. Even though Christian ideology makes no sense, and logically I know that, it can be really hard to believe it – the indoctrination temporarily rewires my brain. (I wish we had a word for that. Ideas, anyone?) Like with an abuser, challenging those toxic claims can suddenly make intimidating “truths” much less intelligent or powerful.

Those are mine! How about you? Anything that does or doesn’t work for you? I’d love to hear it! 🙂

[EDIT: Also, forgot to tell you all that I’m 19 now! I survived to another year. That’s going on my ego file for sure! :)]

[ Photo by auntjojo, courtesy of Flickr ]

The Allostatic Load of Christianity: How Toxic Theology Can Stress The Shit Out of Us

We’ll start with a 2-min science lesson: Allostatic load is what happens when we’re always running from the bear

There’s this thing that neuropscyhologists talk about sometimes called allostasis. Now, this is gonna get a little scientific, but bear with me! I’ll break it down for ya. With bears.

When we meet life’s challenges, our bodies lose energy. Allostasis is the process of replacing it. Allo- = different, -stasis = equilibrium – so when something in our bodies changes, allostasis balances it out.

Whether that’s prolonged hunger (a bear ate all my food!), a sudden and huge need for energy (the bear is trying to eat me!), etc., our bodies will adapt – for instance, mining energy from fat reserves if we’re starving, or pumping us full of adrenaline so we can run from Angry Glutton Bear. 

Allostasis, in this case, might look like us sleeping a lot to replenish the energy we lost running and not having enough food.

It gets tricky, though, when we don’t have the time or resources for allostasis to happen. Imagine if there were 40 Angry Glutton Bears always chasing us around and scarfing up all the food. We wouldn’t be able to get those power naps we need to catch up on the energy spent from being hungry and living on the run.

And eventually? We’d enter a state of permanent stress, and allostasis would fall behind. That creates an allostatic loadOur bodies would start bearing (hehe!) the burden of being tired and hungry all the time. We might get aches and pains; we might be more prone to catching a cold; we might heal from bear scratches slower. Allostatic load is the wear and tear on our bodies when we aren’t allowed to recharge from stress. 

That’s why people with chronic stress – whether we’re abuse/trauma survivors, mentally ill, or balls-deep in toxic Christianity, etc. – can get un-bear-ably exhausted!

Christianity is the bear

I first read about allostatic load on The Crazy Herbalist, and if you’ve got the time and patience, I highly highly recommend the article. It’s actually part of a brilliant series on CPTSD and why/how our bodies and minds respond to neglect/trauma/abuse. I won’t lie, that series turned me into an emotional wreck these past 3 days. It’s changed the game on how I see my trauma, upbringing, and depression. But that’s a post for another time!

Like The Crazy Herbalist pointed out, allostatic load doesn’t just have to be physical. It can be psychological and spiritual too. If you’ve ever resonated with the phrase “I’m Tired with a capital T,” well, that’s allostatic load! And I think Christianity can make us Tired.

There are so many different and exquisitely terrible Christian ideas we can look at for an example, but let’s start with this amazing post I read on Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings today.

From babyhood they said “You are a dirty sinner, there is nothing good in you, you are destined for hell because of your nature.”

So we, small humans, awoke to a world where toddlers need the sin and foolishness beaten out of them with switches and wooden spoons and belts.

They said “Only with Jesus are you worth anything.”

So as small children we begged Jesus to come into our hearts and make the dirty clean.

They said “Because of your sin, God cannot look at you, Jesus had to die. You killed him.”

So we mourned that we were so sinful that God couldn’t look at us without someone else standing in our place.

…and so on.

Look, it’s not hard to see how Christianity puts, to borrow The Crazy Herbalist’s phrasing, a “big-ass allostatic load” on its believers. It is constantly telling us, in 101 creative ways…

  • that we suck by default. Not even because of what we do… but because we are human.
  • that we’re nothing without God, and we don’t deserve him. Every time we sin, we nail Jesus to the cross again. 
  • that our bodies are dirty. I couldn’t even wear tank tops around my dad or twin, because, ya know, didn’t want to Make the Boys Stumble.
  • that romance and sex are Bad even spending time alone with a boy or kissing can destroy part of you. (As a side note, Passport2Purity is a bitch.)
  • that we owe God EVERYTHING we are – thought life, social life, sex life, career and life choices, free time. Anything less than 100% of our existence is selfish.
  • that we should be happy and forgiving all the time. After all, Jesus died on the cross for you to be happy and trust in him, so how can we have complaints? This can compound our non-religious problems, like keeping us in abuse or not taking time to relax –> EXTRA allostatic load.

We have to carry that with us. ALL THE TIME. Everywhere. Sermons and Bible studies and songs reinforce it. We have to take the ideas that we’re inherently terrible and deserve hell and need God to change us and don’t deserve to feel bad about problems with us. 24/7. 

And if you have an abuser/rapist in your life? It’s even worse. Being abused? You can’t hate them, that’s murder in your heart, and besides, if Jesus forgave you, you’d be horrible not to give them a second chance. Been raped? Don’t tell anyone, because you probably tempted them, and besides, now you’ve lost the gift of virginity for your future husband.

And the worst thing about all of this is? There is no respite. There is no way to ease the immense guilt, thought policing, body shame, worthlessness, and fear of messing up. Because you don’t just stop believing, not when you were raised in it – unless you’re one of the lucky ones. Oftentimes, Christianity is OUR WHOLE LIVES. It’s our social circles. Our comfort. Our purpose and worth. Our confidence in the universe. Our relationship with Jesus. Our career and education may be shaped around it. Our communities may discriminate against us if we leave, our families may disown us. And what if we’re wrong and we go to hell after we die?

So we stay longer. And all of that just creates one big, fat psycho-spiritual allostatic load.

That can manifest in any way. Often we come out of fundamental religion with huge feelings of guilt, panic, distrust, shame, grief. We can be traumatized by deconverting. And we bear (again, hehe!) the brunt of all the mental energy we burned under such toxic ideology – that chronic stress may have worsened or given us anxiety, eating disorders, depression, panic, PTSD, medical problems, and a host of other undiagnosable issues.

And the problem is that it doesn’t just go away. We have those problems for good now and if we can’t work them out – which takes time, therapy (money/a ton of mental energy) and social support systems we may not have – the allostatic load can grow. We relieve our allostatic loads by processing all the shit we never got to in the first place and learning healthy ways of living, behaving, and thinking, but everyone does it differently.

I’m wondering… how does allostatic load translate for you? How did Christian ideas stress you out without letting you destress? Did they manifest in physical ailments? Mental strain? Relationship problems? Did they make any of those problems worse by discouraging you from getting help? Comment below – take a “load” off. :+)

I hope the Christian allostatic load is something you will bear in mind…

Fuck-All Optimism: Where’s the Balance Between Staying Social and Processing Abuse?

I’ve been hunkered down for the past few weeks, barely leaving the bed, pincering all my free time between Netflix, international news, and my guilty Facebook game pleasure… New Rock City. Not very sexy, I know – but hey, trauma can’t always be hot.

This all began when I started mulling over the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-level optimism that I’ve come to realize helped me truck through years of depression, emotional abuse, and religious bullshit all on my lonesome. See, I’ve always had this adamant faith – no, knowledge – that I will get betterThat beneath all this crud, I’m an exceptionally energetic, social, and driven person. That I am going to build a life I love with my own two hands, and learn to let other hands help me along the way. 

I mean, how else does anyone get through 4+ years of varying degrees of bullshit?

I’ve got no doubt where this, well, Fuck-All Optimism comes from. When you grow up being told that God works all things for good, you learn to see even cancer diagnoses, funeral RSVPs, and D minuses as opportunities to “grow closer to God” and “see his sovereignty in everything.” Literally everything is always going to be okay, because God’s got this shit figured out.

While I definitely don’t believe God is up there doodling some cosmic blueprint for my life anymore (and let’s be honest, if ze was, ze’d be drunk as fuck), I still maintain that I’ll recover, and you can always mine big beauty from little gratitudes. And this is a paradigm I’ll likely never drop. It’s what drove me to survive, and disbelieving would strip me of what I’ve always been sure of amid years of deconversion, gender exploration, and identity sculpting.

I’ve got Fuck-All Optimism. It’s what makes me so energetic and full of love for the world, and it’s what keeps me surviving on crappy days. But it does have one downside. Simply put, it irons my question marks into exclamation points. All the I feel lost and I feel that I lost what do I dos, the what triggers panic attacks, the I’m just plain sads, Fuck-All Optimism tends to paint over that mold with bright yellow paint. There must be a balance between this strange force which makes me believe unshakably in myself and find incredible wonder in the world… and the ability to let myself feel tiny and lost and hurt. But where is it?

FAO isn’t gonna go away. But so far, it’s got a track record of making me forget how much pain I’ve been through and still have to come to terms with. It makes a habit of making me pretend all is well to myself because admitting that I have to process shit and that’ll take a long time means that depression will gobble up more of my life despite my finally being away from abuse. And I don’t think radical positivity is sustainable if it means my mindfulness levels must bottom out. So… balance. Where the hell do I find it?

I don’t know. And it’s okay to not know. This is what I’ve got a support squad of friends and an incredible therapist for.

But I’m wondering – whatever your situation, how do you find a balance between processing grief, abuse, and trauma, and continuing to be social, positive, and energetic? Do you? Pro tips and amateur suggestions alike are welcome.

Vulnerability: Toe-Dipping Feels Like Skinny Dipping

The past month has been incredibly hard. I’ve been struggling a lot. Choosing recovery has helped tons, but with religious trauma and the knowledge that I binge eat added to the plate, it’s all just… a lot.

I always prided myself on my openness about my mental illness – I told my (Chinese) church that I had depression before being baptized, I talk freely (and often unsolicited, hehe) online about my story and optimism, and I even made a Facebook post mentioning that I’m struggling with depression, emotional abuse, religious trauma, and binge eating last week.

But these past 2 weeks, I realized that I’m not nearly as open in person. In fact, I made it through my depression (and the emotional abuse and stirrings of deconversion, though I didn’t realize it) all through middle and high school without relying on anyone in person. There were few talks with my mother or best friend, but my main and only support system was through Tumblr. I’ve made several friends ever since I joined the website freshman year and I’m forever grateful for every word of encouragement and compliment I receive there.

Yet now I’m in college – with a proper therapist (who actually specializes in religious diversity and trauma, which I find so serendipitous), a liberal environment where I can go by the pronouns I want and live freely… the list goes on. I am not in the same abusive home I was for 18 years, and with this space I can finally root out all the shitty thoughts I was indoctrinated with by my religion and become who I want to be. A big, big part of choosing recovery is bringing my support system off the screen and into the flesh.

It was so hard, but I told my therapist everything that’s happened the past week, and for once I wasn’t infectiously optimistic about it all. He seemed extra quiet and even saddened, and he encouraged that I try my hardest to reach out to at least one friend and ask for help. So… I did. The first friend held my hands the entire time and reassured me that he wouldn’t stop being friends with me, whether depression makes me withdraw or not. He’s also committed to making sure I eat healthy amounts of food. Later at dinner, I told most of my other friends the same thing, making it pretty vague and lighthearted.

The heaviest part of the day happened a few hours ago: I sat on the couch, legs in a friend’s lap, and told her and 2 other friends about my story with depression and the trauma of leaving Christianity. It was so difficult, and I cried a lot… but I couldn’t ask for a better response. They sympathized with how difficult it was, and how I felt weird about crying while I told my story. It still feels so surreal knowing that people in real life know what I’m struggling with. I’m used to carrying all of this weight all by myself and I finally see just how much weight that is to bear alone.

For once, I don’t feel optimistic to the point of muting my sadness or exhaustion, which I’m glad for. This just… is. I was vulnerable and it felt less like dipping my toes in than plunging in headfirst, even though I didn’t even tell my full story. But I did it, hard as it was. And I have a feeling I will be very grateful.  Things have changed, although it doesn’t feel like it yet. We’ll see where it goes. ❤

“Choosing recovery:” It’s not just thought, it’s constant and courageous action

Hi everyone! It’s been quite a while since the last post, so this one will be a bit longer to catch you all up! I’m glad to be back! I’m currently a college freshman and, it’s been a pretty wild ride… in the best and worst of ways.

In my first 4 days on campus, I was exactly the person I’d always knew I was beneath depression, toxic religion, and abuse. I had all the energy I wanted to socialize non-stop – such a drastic change from middle/high school. But… then my father called with an ultimatum – change my nickname back from Max to my birth name Daniella, or he’d stop paying tuition. From August to now, I’ve also realized I have symptoms of trauma and seen depression and apathy start to make a bid for my heart as winter approaches.

Granted, I’ve also started seeing a therapist who, after years of a rocky road with “mental health professionals,” is more than I’d dare ask for. I’ve got a squad of understanding friends – and, of course, the clarity and room to grow that comes with living 5 hours from an abusive home. I’m also way more active on campus than your average person – involved in club, food drive, and festival leadership positions that make me so happy. I even won a scholarship for my involvement!

But emotionally, I’m a wreck. This whole way, I’ve been believing that seeing my therapist and being aware of problematic thoughts and habits entail recovery. Choosing recovery is a phrase you hear a lot in the ED community… but strangely, it’s not popular with depression, anxiety, abuse, or trauma.

With eating disorders and addiction, you’ve got to keep choosing to eat healthy (or not binge) and to avoid using your substance – straightforward, but hard as hell. But for my struggles? How do I “choose recovery” from depression and religion trauma? I thought about this a lot today, and here’s what I decided.

What if therapy isn’t all there is? What if choosing recovery doesn’t just involve realizing shitty ways I think and act, but choosing to grow away from them by changing my actions? 

I’ve been thinking for the past few days that there’s no way I can give up the incredible, incredible peace, friends, and opportunities I have on this college campus without a fight. After all, I spent years living just for the moments I now have in front of me. How could I just let myself slump back into who I once was? But maybe that fight actually manifests not solely in thoughts, but primarily in actions.

In everything I have a choice. I can spend the rest of the day hiding in bed like I always used to, or I can take a shower. I can avoid social interactions or I can square my shoulders and take the risk. I can gorge myself on the Ferrero Rocher sitting on my desk, or I can go to dinner.

This is what I realized: IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD. It’s supposed to be something I’ve got to push through. It’s supposed to be an hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute deliberate and courageous choice. Maybe instead of saying I can’t get out of bed, I start saying I am not getting out of bed – it is a choice I am making without bothering to fight back. And then, maybe I get out of bed.

Tonight, I’m going to try to brush my teeth, shower, and change; go to dinner; go to a meeting; and finish my work while hanging out with friends. I’m going to be scared. It’ll be hard and I’ll constantly face nay-saying thoughts of you can’t fight this, why bother trying, just hurt yourself or die. But… I ran a gauntlet all this way to get to this treasure of a place. But… this place in life is all I EVER fought for. But… I think there’s more to the fight than this.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote Carrie Arnold’s blog ED Bites – which seems to have become an anthem in the ED recovery community!

The problem is that you don’t just choose recovery. You have to keep choosing recovery, over and over and over again. You have to make that choice 5-6 times each day. You have to make that choice even when you really don’t want to. It’s not a single choice, and it’s not easy.

Carrie Arnold

I think choosing recovery is a constant and courageous choice to act and think differently. And tonight, and maybe even tomorrow, I’m going to see how it goes. 

Wish me luck, and I hope this view of things helps you in some way along your recovery too!

Love, Max