Backing Slowly Away from Hell: Post-Traumatic Growth and Deconversion

“Sometimes you can only find heaven by backing slowly away from hell.”

Carrie Fisher quotes are a great start to any blog post, amirite?

Seriously though, I’ve got that quote up on my dorm room wall in red-orange pen, complete with a grinning skull doodle that I like to think Carrie would’ve appreciated. It’s there because it’s a really great way to sum up how my deconversion from Evangelical Christianity, and my struggle to survive in a new and godless reality, has been for the past five years. Backing slooowly away from hell, and a damn deep tan to go with it.

See, I was raised an Evangelical Christian, and being born again, being on fire for God, being in a singular and transformative and divine relationship with Jesus, that was everything to me. It’s what I based my imagination of the future, my goals, my social life, my thoughts, my speech, my daily routine, my values, my beliefs about the whole world, all around.

And then in high school, over a slow and shattering period of time, I quietly lost my belief. I realized that what I’d been taught wasn’t just wrong, it was toxic. But when I lost my belief, I lost my God, and I lost my very self. I went on pretending I still believed, not knowing how my parents would react, and the added agony of hiding it all meant that my relationships with my best friends, my church family, and my parents withered away.

I went to college. I was struggling with depression, dissociation, situational mutism, social anxiety, and the trauma of growing up and emotionally leaving the community and lifestyle that I was still physically trapped in. And then I met a man we’ll call Jonathan. And I loved him – human to human, I loved him, because he showed me love and grace, and with him I healed. He was there with me when I became obsessed with my spiritual trauma, when I went full hermit and descended into my depression and disordered eating. He saw me, witnessed me, and he was with me, unlike anyone I knew before.

And then he left. He left his job at my university right before the summer of freshman year, a summer I fully believed I would not survive, because I was going back home, and I expected the pain of hiding my loss to kill me. And that summer was hell. There was a pain, and an agony, and a redness in me, day after day. It also hit me that if my parents found out I was gay and godless, I wasn’t guaranteed safe, so I packed a secret duffel bag, memorized shelter numbers, planned out bus routes. Some days I was drowning in that red pain, because when Jon left, it was like he had died, and I had died with him. After all, he was my therapist, so I didn’t know if I’d ever see or speak to him again.

But I did survive that summer. In fall semester of sophomore year, I had to deal with the unpleasant, unexpected surprise of, uh, still being alive. Fall semester was another type of hell. I was alive, but I didn’t think it would last. There was something coming that I’d have to survive and I didn’t see the point of trying. I couldn’t see a future. Almost everything I’d believed in and loved had been a sick lie. I had lost myself, but never gone about creating a new one. I stayed in my room. I started compulsively visiting the nearby chapel, crying my eyes out, asking aloud how I was supposed to leave God behind when I had no idea how or what that even looked like. Winter break, I almost killed myself.

And then 2017 came.

And I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know how to make a story out of this. I don’t need to, I think, or even want to, really. But it was like the breaking of a fever. And suddenly, I began to heal. I can pick out touchstones in that process now, small moments when my direction changed:

After the summer, like a cool slow breeze, I began to allow myself to imagine a future. It started with a 3-second byte: me, holding a mug, walking into a room in a cardigan. And it grew, very slowly. I wanted to do social work, help other people who were struggling to recover from their faiths like I was.

Before winter break, like lightning, like a rushing tide, sitting minding my own business in my therapist’s office, I wanted to live again, and I swear I felt my future self touch me. Out of goddamn nowhere. 

Moments after the clock struck 2017, I felt like my spirit pivoted, and all the hells I had been through were behind me. I was facing forward. I didn’t know how to live without God, to make a life despite the fact that I’d always heard that non-Christians were miserable and purposeless and destined for destruction. But hell if I wasn’t gonna try. Because I was tired of wasting away and hurting and feeling so damn lost. I was done with it.

It’s February now. And it’s still so hard to explain – but my God, I think I want to live. I am changed. Where I once believed that my only purpose in life was to glorify God, now I believe that life doesn’t have a purpose at all, and it’s incredibly, gloriously liberating. Absurdism freed me. I have learned how to love and let go at the same time, and while I will always miss and cherish Jon, after months of processing and hurting, I know I am a different person because he left, more gracious, more inspired, more tender. And I’m figuring out who I wanna be through who I can be, discovering just how damn much I love the idea that life doesn’t actually have as many rules as I thought.

I was thinking about all this last night – how I am changed through it all, miraculously, unbelievably, because I never saw any of this coming. It just happened to me. Again, like a fever breaking, like a chemical reaction. Old bonds were broken, new ones formed, structure reshaped and properties transformed… it’s a whole new look, boys. I feel brighter, cleaner, fresher. I feel renewed. I feel alive.

It turns out that this type of change is called post-traumatic growth. I stumbled on this idea by complete accident this morning. Post-traumatic growth is a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. According to the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group, it’s got 5 major areas: awareness of new possibilities in life, warmer relationships and kinship with suffering people, a sense of personal strength, a greater appreciation for life, and a change or deepening in spiritual beliefs.

While people who go through trauma can face post traumatic symptoms, including PTSD itself, they also change, they grow. And that is true for me, so true. I feel myself, my own spirit, changing shape and color and tenor. I would never want to relive everything I went through. But I also know that I am healing, and that I have learned invaluable lessons from some (not all) of the ways I was hurt.

Don’t get me wrong, it was hell, and I’m not in heaven; I’m not glad I went through any of it. But I am really starting to like who I am now. I’m excited to see who I’m becoming. And I hope that you out there, you hurting/suffering/lost person, will find growth in your own way too. Even if you have to back ever so slowly away from hell to feel it. It’s the only reason this happens in the first place.

And don’t forget, if you’re already backing slowly away from hell, try and make s’mores while you’re at it.

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