I Didn’t Fall From Grace, I Leapt to Freedom: Ex-Timony of a Half-Disowned Bisexual Apostate

It’s funny. If you had sat me down 5 years ago and told me that one day I’d be a blasphemy-loving bisexual apostate who had finally come out to her parents, gotten cut off, and called it all the best thing to ever happen to her, I probably would’ve laughed. Or cried. Maybe a little of both.

Certainty

Just picture it: high school aged me, little pink Bible in tow, memorizing Scripture verses in our church’s “Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed” Friday night program like any other week. I was not a picture of joyful heresy.

Back then, see, Jesus was still my everything. I was still eager servant to the God of the Universe for my forever and ever, still believed that was the only right and happy and good way to live in the first place, as my Chinese American Baptist church taught. I still sang songs like “your will above all else, my purpose remains: the art of losing myself in giving you praise” with all my heart. I still got down on my knees weekly to rededicate my whole soul to God. And so on and on.

All my life, too, I’d heard of the fabled fallaways, apostates. I could never understand how anyone could know the indescribable joy and peace and hope of Christ, live a life for Him … and leave. For what? Nonbelievers were supposed to be dangerous, blind, with empty lives not worth living; atheists were all secretly miserable. My greatest wish was that I never became one of them. At annual summer camp, I sang “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back” with tears in my eyes.

Doubt

Maybe that’s why, when I began to have my first doubts in high school, I never saw it coming. I still don’t remember when it happened, or how, or what even did happen — my brain has blocked those memories out. Was it conversations with kids at school — exposing me to a world beyond my insulated church? Websites, videos, or just a slow, wordless dawning that came naturally with my age? I don’t know.

But it began a tug-of-war that lasted years: the ever-echoing could it all be wrong? locking me in a spiral. Every week, seeing the moral and logical discrepancies in what I’d always taught was the only accurate, just, and fulfilling belief system in the world would push me to my breaking point, and I’d think “screw it all” for a few short hours until some sermon or song lyric would “convict” me to return to God on my knees.

Hiding

By senior year, I had somehow reached the point where the terror of hell and wasting my salvation couldn’t chase me back to the foot of my bed in prayer anymore. I no longer believed. I had also realized that I was bisexual. That brought a new all-consuming problem: I couldn’t let anyone find out. 

My parents, while they loved me, could be controlling, punishing, and zealous. I didn’t know yet that it wasn’t normal, but I did know it wasn’t safe. I had no idea how my parents would react if they knew I was bi and a nonbeliever, but it could be anything from getting disowned and kicked out, physically punished and trapped, sent to conversion therapy, and so on. 

So I passed my time in fear. The summer before I went away to college, the pressure of having to keep pretending I believed to everyone I’d grown up with, singing to a God I loved all my life but who never even existed, and keeping my sexuality and true beliefs a secret, all 2-3 times a week, got to me. I nearly attempted suicide a few times, but I made it to college — a liberal, Jewish-influenced university 5 hours away.

College changed everything for me. For the first time, I could say my secrets aloud. I had a lot to learn; I didn’t know who Drake and Beyonce were, I was afraid of alcohol, I didn’t know how to hang out with people. But from the very first moment, I was free to be who I’d always dreamed I could be, beneath the secrecy and fear. I went from a situationally mute high schooler to someone friendly, energetic, open-hearted, and involved in more activities and activist leadership roles than I could remember.

I continued living a double life at home, though, and it was poisoning me. Every time I went home for break, I wondered if I’d come out the other side. Having to keep pretending at church was hell, and I’m not made for hiding. I would revert to the small, powerless, trapped self I’d been, and my Christian indoctrination would rewrite my brain. I almost tried to kill myself one or two more times, and I realized in winter of freshman year that my parents could find out my secrets at any time because of short fiction pieces I’d had published. 

So I started preparing for the day my parents found out. I knew at the very least they would stop paying for college, and if it happened over break, I’d be trapped with them. So I called local shelters, memorized crisis numbers, packed a runaway bag with me at all times, and went to the campus Bible study, which was even more toxic than my church and originated from a cult. When I went home for the summer after freshman year, I truly thought that I would not make it out alive.

But I did. And even this brought troubles with it. I had not expected to survive and for the last half of 2016, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t know what the point was. I felt I’d been lucky for having kept my sexuality and disbelief a secret for this long, and it was just a matter of time before my parents found out, I was disowned, homeless, and had to drop out of college, and I thought I would kill myself or be killed when that time came. I also didn’t know how to leave Christianity behind fully; my double life kept me anchored still in that world. What did life as a non-Christian even look like?

Healing

But something happened on Christmas Eve of that year. I was desperate, drowning in the memories of how I lost my God, my self, and my family, friends, and world without anyone even knowing, and close to suicide. So I called the Trevor Life Line. A woman picked up, and we talked, and for some reason, while I was sitting on my bed with that tear-streaked phone, I understood why leaving and living in the aftermath of my fundamentalist religion was so damn hard. I saw my past self, everything she had gone through. I saw my past glowing like a path. 

I can’t explain what came next. I think of it like a fever break, forceful, sudden, and thorough as first hail, tongue of fire, riptide. I started healing. Apparently the term for this is post-traumatic growth: a phenomenon where, after trauma, your view of the world and your self evolve into appreciation, openness, adventure, spirituality, and gratefulness. And in the mountains by Vegas as the year turned 2017, that began.

I spent the next few months coming into myself. The world exploded into a wide-open kaleidoscope of possibilities, adventures, opportunities. I realized that the idea of a conventional life: 9-5 job, stationery, family and retirement, bored me. I wanted experiences out of life, and there were so many fewer rules than my religion had led me to believe. I’d discovered absurdism, the idea that life has no inherent meaning, in the autumn, and it didn’t depress me — it excited me. 

And then came March 19.

Leaping

This day, like so many other events in my deconversion, I cannot fully explain. Here, too, it’s like there was something wordless, instinctual, and invisible in me, guiding. It knew, I think. It knew that I deserved more than the hiding I’d been doing for the past five years. It knew that if this new self was to keep growing and healing, the hiding had to stop.

And so, during a late-night routine phone call with my parents on Sunday, March 19, I ended up telling my parents that I was bi and a disbeliever. The whole thing was surreal, none of it planned. It just happened: halfway through the conversation, something unknown in me reached a tipping point, and the words forced themselves out of my mouth.

After all this time hiding, I had never imagined I would be the one to tell them, to bring the consequences I was terrified of down on my own head. My parents told me they were no longer paying for college. They asked what they had done to deserve this.

But it happened. After I hung up the phone at 2 am, I curled up and cried into my stuffed panda. And one minute later I straightened myself up. I breathed deeply. And I launched into action. I told my suitemates next door what had happened, I emailed every university employee I needed to, I paced the common room floor, feeling the carpet under my bare feet, drinking in the redness of the dull EXIT sign.

Everything was a thousand times more real. I knew what lay ahead would be grueling. I knew the person I would’ve become if the phone call never happened would never exist now; instead, there would be a new one, called on to survive all that was coming.

And yet, when I woke up in the morning that same day, all I felt going forward was a deep peace. As I told friends, professors, financial aid advisers, and bosses what had happened, I did it with grace, humor, and that peace. I didn’t know if I would still be able to go to college or have a place to stay come summer; to be honest, I’d never imagined this ending anywhere but with me as a homeless dropout. And yet, in this new reality, I knew I would find a way to be okay because I had me, the me I’d been healing and growing into since Christmas Eve.

So I did all the things I needed to do to stay in college. I filed my first tax return at 5 am on a Wednesday. I wrote a 13-page letter to the financial aid office, appealing for a grant of independent status by describing my abuse and trauma narrative with details I had never told anyone before, hoping they would consider it “bad enough” for me to be allowed to try to pay for college by myself. I got a 4th job and started waitressing with no prior experience during finals season. I started a fundraiser for summer living expenses that went over its goal in 3 days. 

And through it all I found more love, support, and grace than I ever expected. From all sides. I found out I had friends who were working through college as independents and got advice (and my 4th job lead) from them. The financial aid adviser turned out to be queer with abusive parents just like me, and my academic adviser, a wonderful man with a husband, went through the same thing himself in college. My supervisor at work and my therapist advocated for me. A friend from high school shared my fundraiser on Facebook, and ex-religious friends from online, readers of my poetry and short fiction, and people I hadn’t seen from as far back as fifth grade donated and encouraged me. I made new friendships and deeply strengthened and restarted old ones.

Freedom

After it all, just before finals, I heard that dependency override to the financial aid office was accepted, and I applied for financial aid. What I heard back still floors me.

I won’t need to pay for any tuition out of pocket, other than the usual loans I’ve already been taking. I’ve been given free on campus housing this summer through a job (in the financial aid office!) with someone who’s been unbelievably generous to me this whole way. And with my new waitressing job? I am gonna be okay. 

But I’m so much more than just okay. I am thriving. On a level I’ve never seen before. 

I enjoy going to work because I love the people I’m with. I make good money on my tips, and I’ve heard that I’m good at my job for someone who’s just started. Waitressing is throwing all the areas of situational mutism that I need to recover in my face, and while it’s definitely hard, I’ve grown so much as a person just in the past 2 weeks.

I’m planning to get the blasphemous badass tattoos I’ve dreamed of this summer, and I may finally change my name to my preferred, Max. I’m going to sharpen my harp skills at a Renaissance music camp on full scholarship for a week. I’m hanging out with friends, making new ones and learning to connect.

I’m going back to my old high school, empowered by finally being out, to make things better for LGBTQ+ people, while I also organize Asian American advocacy events, plan LGBTQ+ resource improvement at my university, and try to build community and resources for people who are recovering from and transitioning out of religious communities just like me. 

Life is an adventure now. Life is open, and full of possibilities, and while the world can be sketchy and complicated as hell, I’m all in it now, and it in me. I wanna travel, to live an unconventional life, to become and grow and heal every day. I am not just the person I always dreamed of being as a closeted, scared, traumatized born again Christian kid … I am becoming someone I didn’t even know I could be, and falling in love with them.

Before I lost my faith, my self, my world, I was supposed to go to a Bible Institute. Become a missionary, live my whole life for Jesus. Now, I’m a soon-to-be-tatted bisexual apostate, financially independent from her family, recovering from situational mutism, depression, disordered eating, and religious trauma, and an aspiring community/clinical social worker dedicated to empowering ex-religious people. I never saw this coming, but I’m so happy it did.

There’s a poem I read today that I think sums this all up. Fittingly, it’s “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins.

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

 

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.

A Better View: The Power of Stories We Rewrite About Ourselves

I’ve been having lots and lots of thoughts and epiphanies about recovery lately. About who I am, about the way I tell the tale of my life, and about the future I hope to have. Really, this is a post about storytelling and recovery and identity and life, and where all those fun things intersect.

Last September, I took a trip to the woods. It’s a beautiful, serene park, a place I started going to in the spring when things were at their worst for me. Just before the summer began, I sat on a hill in those woods and hurt. Ached. I felt so raw, so much agony, because I was heading into an era that I truly believed I would not survive. At the same time, I was losing someone who mattered really deeply to me. I felt so alone and in pain and unsure. 

When I left those woods, I promised to the sharpening golden light, the fallen limb, the evening air, that if I survived all that I was about to go through, I would come back.

And I did survive. And I came back to those woods, that September. I came upon the same spot I had sat in a few months before, in all that blinding, drowning hurt. And I did sit in that spot again, for a little while. Taking in the impossible fact that I thought I would not live and yet I did anyway. 

But after a bit, I stood up. I started walking up that hill. I sat on a crest just above that spot, and the view changed. I was still hurting. I still felt lost and unsure, and I had to deal with everything that had happened over the summer, and all that was still coming. But the view changed. I could see where I had sat last summer, and it reminded me of where I was now. There was a cool breeze where I was, and I felt safer, taller. A better view.

The Stories We Tell Can Trap Us

All of that struggle and loss, set in those woods months, changed the way I see things, the way I tell my stories about myself, the way I give power to a perspective.

Not so long ago, I read a great article by Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie about the stories we tell ourselves. He wrote,

If being human means anything, it means telling stories. Everything we do is tempered and directed by the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and nothing can change a life more thoroughly than discovering a new story in which we find ourselves…

And he’s right. There are a few stories I’ve been living with – living under – for a long, long time. The most obvious one is Christianity’s story of who I am and who humanity is. Of what the good life is, and what my future can and should be.

As a Christian, I was told the story of broken humanity. That being human means being inherently wicked, and weak, and selfish, and damned, and blah blah blah. The good life, I was told, meant being God’s slave and damn grateful for it. Of course, in much nicer code, but that’s what it was to me. This blog is obviously the product of years and years of undoing the damage of those stories.

Taking the Power Out of the Story (and Writing It Back In)

I’ve been realizing that there are larger stories about who I am, what a good life is, and what my future can look like that I’ve been buying into too. These are not religious or personal. These are cultural.

For instance, I’m thinking about graduating from university early. And the reality of that has made me think about what life after college might look like. What do I want it to look like? I have a pretty good idea of what that would be, and it’s tied right into how I imagine my recovered self to be.

The thing is, I’m really not into the typical stories of living out your life in a modern Western society. A 9-5 job, an apartment or a house, getting married and having kids, retiring. It sounds like something – something familiar, and thrilling, and ancient – is missing. I don’t want a simple life. I have no idea what that means, but I know it.

Last night I, uh, kinda sorta read an 83 page thesis on alternative perspectives of recovery from mental illness (Alexandra Lynne Adame, University of Miami, 2006). I know, I know, not exactly my idea of a Saturday night activity. But I was curious about what recovery could look like, if there were any other options for me.

And what I read was fascinating. Basically, in the 60s and 70s, lots and lots of people who had been abused and traumatized by the mental health system formed a community. They called themselves “psychiatric survivors” and “ex-patients.” They redefined what mental illness and recovery meant to them.

It was no longer about reducing your symptoms, or giving so much power to a diagnosis label. It was about holistic wellness, finding community and peer support, and seeing how your environment and systems of disadvantage could be responsible for your disorder (re-termed struggles, extreme emotional states, and crises) just as much as your brain chemistry. Recovery is not just about having an individually happy life, but making the world a better place for others who are being affected by the same structural issues you were. 

And I really dig that. I really dig the concept of taking power out of a story. For psychiatric survivors, there was so much power held over them by the medical model of illness and recovery that mental health professionals had given them. They were told that their illness was all in their brain, and that while they could come to function better in society, they’d never fully recover, making them dependent on meds and therapy and treatment that traumatized them for the rest of their lives.

So I can see how activism, community, collectivism, holistic wellness, and rewriting the story could be really empowering to psychiatric survivors. I’ll be adopting parts of the way they see their illness/struggles and recovery/wellness myself.

I’m also thinking about how I can apply this lesson to the bigger stories I’m hearing about a good life. A 9-5 job, a house, kids. I can be more skeptical about what I’ve always been told about the good life and who I am. By reshaping common cultural stories of life, future, identity, purpose, and spirit for myself, maybe I can find power. A better view.

Stray Thoughts in 2017: Being a Person, Community, Unexpected Good, and Loss, Like a Peculiar Fruit, Like Something Burning

Hey, we’re officially two months into 2017! So far, it’s been a mixed bag. A lot of great. A lot of no good, very bad nights and days, with the kind of trauma plot twists that are so horrific that all you can do is laugh. And a lot of unexpected good in between.

I thought in this post, I’d just mention a few things on my mind lately. Because there’s no one huge topic I want to write about right now – just a couple competing issues orbiting me like moons…

Just for some context, 2017 is a big-ass year for me. I’m now working 3 jobs (it sounds like a lot, even if it’s only 6.5-10 hours a week, and all very chill). I’m involved in leadership and community on campus like always. And I’m also taking the enormous step of trying to recover – from situational mutism, from depression, from Christianity, of trying to turn on my heel away from everything that has shackled me for so long and just peace on out into a better life. One that is both hell and heaven to make.

Been thinking lately about how to be a person. It’s probably no surprise that with everything I’m doing lately, I burned straight out two and a half weeks in. Right now, I couldn’t tell ya what kind of place I’m in, but it’s not where I was. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to relax, have fun, and casually exist. So my life right now includes a lot of me saying “nah” to commitments I would’ve jumped on before. “Fuck it” is the power phrase of the day.

Been thinking lately about belonging to a communityFor quite a few nights, I was really messed up (we’re talking suicidal), freaked out that the communities I’m in now would turn out to be toxic just like my church was. That I’d lose this home too – the first home I’ve had since I lost my church, everyone I loved and trusted, and the person I was. And that I’d just keep going through life finding and waking up to and losing homes. 

And then I realized that I’m thinking about people and communities all wrong. Can you guess who the culprit is? (That’s right. It’s Christian indoctrination. Gold star.) I guess if you grow up being taught that people are divided into groups of goodness, joy, love, and safety vs. wickedness, blindness, deceit, and danger, well. Let’s just say I never explicitly realized that humans are not whole good or bad.

But they are flawed – sometimes inexcusably, sometimes not. And that’s up to you. You decide who you want to stick around, who you want to stay the fuck away from, who you enjoy for the time being. Just because someone turns out to have fucked up, or to do something wrong or that you don’t agree with, doesn’t mean you have to shun and condemn them. All this time I thought I did. But instead – you trust your heart, but keep your eyes and ears open to the person in question, to other people’s experiences with that person, and to your own blind spots. Love wisely. 

Also been thinking about unexpected goodnessThe first week back in college was amazing. Recovery felt like it was going great. Then came the second and third weeks, and just… WOW. No. They were horrible on my mental health. But the Monday of this week, it was unexpectedly so easy to be a person and to work toward recovery, it felt like. And quite a few people care about me, it’s been revealed to me, in ways I didn’t expect, from places I didn’t expect. And I’m taking note of that now. I’m lucky and I’m glad.

And I’m thinking about how what I’m going through now is survivableI know that to other people it might sound crazy, but in the end, it’s chill. Just today, for example, I found out that the church that I have to go to in order to keep my family thinking I’m still a Christian? Yeah, it was founded by a former cult leader. And that’s just the most recent plot development with this situation. But my response was to just laugh. Honestly still is.

Thinking, last of all, about loss. So strange, going through hell yet knowing that you would not exist like you do now if you hadn’t. I lost someone, and I miss him in many ways, but they are littler and fewer and easier to breathe through as time goes on. I know that his sudden leaving was something I had to survive for months and months, that left a mark which shaped the body of the spirit I have today.

And I will always miss him and wish he hadn’t left and hope by some chance he’ll come back to work here, but I also have learned in the raw agony of losing him how to love and let go in a dozen different times and ways, to do life while knowing he’s out there doing life too, and that hopefully he’s happy-healthy-safe-secure as he does it —

And one day, maybe as we do life in separate parts of this planet, our paths will cross and we will do a little of our lives together. I know he’d like that. I didn’t make what he said up. I won’t forget it. And when that time comes, I’ll come look him up.

Strange, how the loss of another person will morph and ebb in you as time goes on, how it changes shape and taste and shrinks and rubs away at the edges, like a peculiar fruit, like something burning.

They Said Walking Away from God was Impossible. Watch Me.

From the very beginning, they said there was no walking away. They said I was in the palm of God’s hand, and nothing, no power of hell, no scheme of man, could ever pluck me out. They said no matter what happened, even if I somehow (gasp) stopped being a Christian, if God wanted me, he would always find a way to bring me back to him.

From the very beginning, God was it. Being “on fire” for him, serving him, being a living sacrifice for him, dying to myself so that he would increase – that was always the only life worth living. That was the only life that was possible to live.

I was born and raised in a church that taught that I exist is to stroke God’s ego glorify God. It proclaimed that without a relationship with God, without completely surrendering and sacrificing your life to him, without killing the self you were before you dedicated your very being to him and begging him to break and reshape you according to his will, well, life was completely and utterly empty, void of meaning, dark. Worthless. (Cue the crashing piano.)

It painted non-Christians as unsafe, depraved fools, conspirators, and enemies. It said that these poor people were like clueless babies, and we, the enlightened and blessed, were to, ah …humbly preach God’s message. This way, they too could have the only thing that made life remotely worth living. (Misery loves company?) It said that nonbelievers knew, deep down, that God exists. Those atheists were just denying it because they didn’t want to have to give up their lives to God. Can’t imagine why not.

And those people who left? The people who believed for years and years and years, who studied the Bible and sang and tithed with the rest of us, who were even worship leaders or Sunday School teachers or pastors themselves? They were never true believers. Because no one could ever know the only True Love in the universe and walk away from it.

And even if they somehow did? Well, God would hunt them down, just like he did Jonah. He would shipwreck us and we would come back. Someone we loved would die, or we’d lose our jobs or houses or minds, and God would use it to show us just how very powerless and useless we were without him. How generous.

All my life, all along, the message was crystal clear. Since some lady at the beginning of time chomped on a forbidden fruit, obviously all of humanity was utterly depraved forever and deserved to be eaten alive by worms for the rest of fiery eternity. Duh. I was worth less than a used tampon by my very nature.

But God, bless his heart, had the generosity to get tortured to death on a dead tree, even though nobody even asked, thus saving us all from ourselves – all for the low, low price of killing our spirits and pledging to unquestioningly obey and serve God forever as his children, slaves, and bride all rolled into one! And this was the epitome of love, by the way. So much so that non-Christians didn’t even know what real love was.

I have decided to follow Jesus, I sang, over and over and over. No turning back. No turning back.

I’ve heard that C-PTSD is especially tough on people who have got no concept of themselves before their trauma. They lived in danger ever since they could remember. It was all they knew. 

For myself and others who were raised in Evangelical/Baptist/Fundamentalist Christianity, leaving feels impossible because we have no concept of being people without believing and living out all this crap. It’s like we get Jesus Juice through an IV.

And then we stop believing. And that alone is hell enough. It takes months or years and some of us barely survive. It’s been roughly 5 years for me, and I’m still barely surviving it some days. Just the mere idea that I once knew the “Truth” and walked away from it – I never once imagined that could happen to me. And besides, I knew nothing about the secular world. It was supposed to be dangerous and utterly empty and depressing and blah blah blah. Even if I wanted to leave, how would I?

But it turns out, you can stop believing. Your entire world can melt away around you. And for a long time, yeah, it’ll blow your mind, because almost everything you loved and believed in turns out to be a bullshit casserole – there’s layers on layers of just how fucked up it all was. And for so long too, you’ll be shell-shocked. Because you don’t know how to exist, how to LIVE, without serving God, thanking him for everything, constantly apologizing and afraid and guilty and alert. Because you weren’t supposed to escape. And there will be so many others you know who didn’t, so why did you? 

But you are here. Surviving. And slowly, like a thaw, you learn how to live. And how to leave. And oh yeah, it’s fucking terrifying, and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. But there is a point, a constellation of many points actually, where you actually start to want to be a person and live without God. To own yourself for the first time. And you may not see it coming, but it happens. And you’re doing it, as messy and awkward and funny and hard as shit that it is. Look, Ma, no hands!

There is no one point when you simply leave. You’re always leaving. It’s the art of leaving. You leave when you drink for the first time and a girl puts her hand on your thigh. You leave when you wake up late on a Sunday and the birds are chirping and you got nothing planned. You leave when you pick up a new hobby, strike up a conversation, start saving up for that tattoo. You leave from breath to breath as you exist, as you do and recover and feel and build what you want. You leave by living. And it’s fucking awesome. Ex-fundies do the impossible every day. Call us stuntmen.

They said I could never have a fulfilling life without God. I say, watch me.

2017 Resolution: This Story is Mine, and God No Longer Gets a Part.

 

 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in yet another Sunday church service, waiting for it to finally end because look, they had lunch ready and there were meatballs and listening to a pastor spout off about how porn is satanic makes a girl hungry, damnit!

But prayer time dragged on. And on. It was about that time in service when people were praying (and crying) on the floor, and there was this one person who was just going at it. Sobbing so hard. Minutes passed. I was a little freaked out. But honestly, more hungry than anything.

And then finally someone appeared in the front of the room. Hallelujah. Meatball time.

If only.

I wanted the guy to open his mouth and say, “alright, time for lunch, let’s wrap it up!” That is not what the guy said. Instead the guy said, “today, in this church, a boy was just saved!” And everybody clapped. (Except me. I shuddered and whispered good game, obviously.)

At that point I was still young and naive. I was still hoping that meatballs were gonna be a thing. Except that wasn’t meatballs coming round to the mic. It was a kid, the one who just got “saved,” and he was a complete and total wreck. He had a piece of paper in his hands. He stood in front of the mic and he opened his mouth and my dreams of meatballs and emotional stability for the day shattered into a hundred little pieces.

Dear God,” he said, “only you know how much of a piece of trash I am.” That was his opening. He was sobbing so hard he could barely whisper. As his “testimony” went on, sometimes he couldn’t even do that. He called himself a liar of liars. I was crying with him at that point. He looked broken. He looked so broken.

He spit out the phrase “Internet porn” like a knot of wet hair, and my mind flew back to the sermon we’d all just heard, the one where the pastor proclaimed that porn was under the cloud of Satan (wherever the hell that is), the one that I joked off in my head but had probably ripped this kid’s heart to pieces. That one.

This boy was breaking my heart. I wanted to reach out and hug him. I was crying and shaking. This boy, standing right in front of me, was so convinced that he was disgusting, worthless. He was so ready to enter into an abusive relationship with God, the kind that had almost killed me, that I’m still to this day trying to survive. He looked and sounded so broken, that’s all I could keep thinking. In that moment, I thought, he looked anything but free.

And as I was sitting there, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, brokenhearted, the founder of the church sprang out of her front row seat, took the mic, and said, “He is free now!” And everybody clapped.

She talked and talked on. She was talking about nonsense. The boy stood next to her, saying nothing, motionless, his head slumped to his chest, staring at the floor. It was like there was nothing in him.

At one point she said, “Let’s all sing Our God Is So Good!” And everyone sang, except me, who was staring at this woman by now with unmitigated horror and hate. Did everyone else in the room really think this was normal? They applauded this boy for saying that he was a piece of trash. Three separate times.

We eventually did get to lunch. I wasn’t hungry by then, but I still ate. At least one thing that day went right. The meatballs were great.

A girl struck up a conversation with me. She looked me in the eyes and said, “yes, before that boy got saved God saw him as trash, and even now that he’s saved he’s still a piece of trash.” On the way back I wanted to scream. PEOPLE ARE WORTH SOMETHING.

Which is, I think, what leads me here. Today.

It’s been months and months since something happened that rocked me to my core. I thought I was going to die. I’ve spent months since wishing that I did. I didn’t want to live. I knew I was going to get cut off from my parents for being a queer nonbeliever. I didn’t want to survive that. I didn’t see the point. 

But the day after that service, wanting to live came. I was sitting down with my eyes closed when it came. I was trying to imagine a future (an exercise in impossibility, it felt like.) But it came. It came without warning, like a riptide, from somewhere below my throat. It was visceral, sudden, full-bodied, and all of a sudden it was like all of my being was lunging toward that one image of my future self. And God, this sounds so corny, so dramatic, but I swear in those moments, I felt my future self touch me.

I want, I thought, a life without him.

A life in which God has no part. He has always been a part of this. He has been my father, my master, my owner. When he existed I belonged to him. There was no other reason to live. When he stopped existing, I felt like I did too.

I still carry him in my heart, my mind. Still talk to him, still make myself relive the horror he put me through, still get triggered by things that remind me of him.

Ever since that day at the pond, with Tyler Glenn blaring in the background, I wanted to leave him behind. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to leave something that lived in my own head and heart. I didn’t know how to live a life without either loving God or mourning him. Without flashbacks and fear, longing and loss. 

But I’m ready now, I thought, sitting there with wanting in my chest. I remembered the boy, broken, in church while all of his supposed friends applauded him on.

I saw, there, that there is nothing left for me in church. I saw all of the pain and horror that I had been put through as a believer. That’s what I needed to finally hate him. To say, enough. To say, I’m leaving you, I am above you, I deserve and deserved more than you. To say, you are an abuser, and I will be bigger than you ever were. I’ll create a life in which you have no part, neither presence nor absence. You are no longer a factor. 

So that’s what I’m doing in 2017. I’m building a life separate from him. He always said I was nothing without him. So wrong. I am everything without him.

I will do what has to get done to survive on my own when my family cuts me off. I will try to recover – from depression, situational mutism, binge eating, religious trauma. I will do my best in school, learn because I mean it, work toward grad school and a social work license. I’ll have fun along the way, damnit. I’ll drink, love, hangglide, visit parts, play with dogs, wake up late on Sundays. If God was a “real life” abuser, this is the part where I set the GPS, pack the car, take the dog with me.

Take a good last look, God. I’m leaving. 

“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