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.

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…

Terrific People Taught Me Terrible Things: Why That Place of Worship Didn’t Have to Mean It to Hurt You

Hey there, everyone! Hope your 2016’s been warm and furthering this far. It’s been a busy, draining start for me, hence why this article is out a little later than usual.

In the weeks since I last posted, I’ve been wrestling with a near-accusatory thought: maybe I shouldn’t be blogging about my ex-Christian experiences (experiences?) if my church leadership wasn’t deliberately abusive. If the people there are… mostly wonderful. If they didn’t mean to teach me things that would hurt me so much, nearly two decades later.

What happens when a loving church (/temple/mosque/etc.) teaches you abusive things?

I don’t really… know how I feel about the people of my ex-church. I’ve come to associate them, I think, with the traumatic things that happened to me in their midst because I was forced to be in their midst. With the ideas, which I now believe to be screwed up and abusive, that they taught or learned with me. With the ways we brought those ideas to life.

But I also see, when I look at them, laughter. I see almost two decades of running jokes, soccer games, playdates, New Year’s Eve parties, summer camps, Friday nights. I see vulnerability, trust, and joy. I don’t see the categorical control that other ex-Christian bloggers talk about. I don’t see organized abuse. I see, for the most part, truly good intentions.

I see a roomful of nice people steeping me in abusive thought for eighteen years and traumatizing me for three months without ever knowing it.

What if they didn’t mean it?

There aren’t many people talking about this (that I know of.) About whether it’s still abuse if your abusers didn’t mean it. If they didn’t know. And however many bloggers or advocates there are talking about unintentional abuse, there are way fewer talking about what happens when a loving community teaches you abusive ideas.

Because what if my church leaders weren’t charismatic authorities who controlled my every move? What if my church family wasn’t a crowd of homophobic hatefuls steeped in vitriol and prejudice?

What if they’re nice people? What if they’d be shocked if they knew what belief in their god did to me?  What if they loved me, the whole way through?

If it’s hurting you, it’s bullshit

The road to hell, as you’ve probably heard by now, is paved with good intentions. For me, it was also paved with evangelical pamphlets, a campground ban on different-sex frontal hugs, Mommy, Why Don’t We Celebrate Halloween?, purity workbooks, and a horde of remarkably messed up ideas about self-worth.

As an ex-Christian escaping indoctrination, one of the biggest obstacles I face is reality confusion. A big chunk of that is doubt – not of the church or its ideas, but of myself. If I sincerely believed all that for fifteen years, with every confidence imaginable, who’s to say that what I believe now isn’t bullshit as well? What if the whole secular world got it all catastrophically wrong too? 

Truth is? I don’t. I don’t know if social justice perspectives or my therapist’s thoughts are true. But what I can do is look at how and why I realized that Christianity was full of it. It was because of how many ways it hurt me. Maybe my new worldview… isn’t correct either. Maybe there isn’t such a thing as a correct worldview. Maybe it only matters if it’s limiting me – or abusing me.

Because even though my parents wanted to protect me from disease and heartbreak when they had me poke water balloons to demonstrate the effect of sex on my purity, I still developed crushing terror and embarrassing cluelessness around the act. 

Because even though elders and youth leaders was sincere when they taught us about the emptiness and futility of a secular life,  I am still discovering that daring to live without God is one thousand times freer.

Because even though my Sunday School teachers genuinely believed what they said when I learned that I was totally depraved and a worthless rag (but also precious and created in God’s image) growing up, facts remain that “you’re nothing without me” is a tactic that abusers often use on their victims, and it created a toxic, splintered view of my young self.

It doesn’t matter if they meant it, it happened

What I’m coming to realize is that it’s okay if my church wasn’t abusive. It’s okay if they don’t preach against same-sex marriage with fiery malice. It’s okay if they didn’t manipulate, control, or deliberately alienate.

Maybe sometimes with abuse, intentions are not the deciding factor. Maybe the consequences are. If someone hurts you, they hurt you, and your being hurt does not make you “too sensitive,” and it does not make it your fault.

How much you forgive and how you choose to move forward is up to you, and however you do, you are not a bad person or survivor. This is what I’m learning. This is what I believe.

What do you believe? I want to hear your stories, your scorn and self-doubt, your anger and forgiveness. If you want to share (no matter your situation or religion), comment – I’d love to hear ya.

“Mad Survivor, Bad Survivor”: Why I’m a Grinch This Christmas and Not Fucking Sorry About It

I was 17 and writing “GOD IS A STRAIGHT WHITE MAN AND HE IS KILLING US” too big in my notebook as the sermon droned on. I was 17 and giving the finger too openly to the cross hanging on the church wall. I was 17 and choking myself too obviously as everyone around me started singing the next hymn.

I was 17 and my friend was telling me to respect the church despite my trauma while the trauma was transpiring.

I am 18 and I have alternated between nearly forgiving and nearly hating her over a dozen times since.

I’m ex-Baptist and angry as fuck about it

I was born and raised Baptist, and if you know me, you know that gentle and forgiving and subtle do NOT describe my approach to talking/blogging/tweeting/shouting about it.

I have not forgiven. I have not come to terms. I am fucking pissed. I’m pissed that I was taught I owed a man in the sky my everything. That in middle school, my mom had me poke holes in a water balloon and told me that’s what having sex would do to me. That growing up I thought gay was a sin, and then finally the day came when I thought I was a sin.

But what makes me even more pissed is the fact that as I’m writing this, I’m saying rein it in. Pare it down. Gear this so it applies to more than just you. That I’ve edited/reedited the above paragraph for hours, denying myself the right to grab all the fucking skeletons the church crammed in my closet and hurl them onto the bedroom floor where everyone can see their inexcusable filth. That I’m choosing to package my anger even now, because rage? It isn’t readable.

Be a good little survivor now

I am angry. I post too much about Religious Trauma Syndrome on Facebook. I overshare online and ramble in person and I beat that damn horse bloody. I don’t keep the disgust out my voice when I talk about Christianity. I avoid every openly identified Christian I can and make faces when I can’t. During random angry spells, I snap and mince and stonewall. I’m not friendly when I do it. I’m not succinct. I’m not digestible. I’m mad and bitter and resentful and I don’t give a fuck who knows.

According to some people, I’m not surviving right. I should forgive my ex-church family, because they meant well. I should suck it up and make peace with Christianity, because it’s not fair to associate your trauma with ALL Christians. I should stop being rude to people at church. I should be a Good Survivor, like Tumblr user kielbasanova brilliantly laid out:

“The Good Survivor will never use the term “victim.” Victims are weak, survivors are strong. The Good Survivor must always be strong. 

The Good Survivor won’t lash out at you without warning. The Good Survivor has no anger, no rage, no bitterness to display.

The Good Survivor will learn to forgive and move on with their lives.

The cult of survivorship

According to The Good Survivor, it’s okay that I’m angry now because I’m 5 months out of my abusive situation and into recovery. It’s not okay that I be angry 5 years from now, or 15, or 50. It’s not okay if I never forgive. It’s not okay to call myself a victim, ’cause victims are weak, they had things happen to them, they suffered passivelySurvivors are strong, they make things happen, they actively leave the suffering in the dust.

Feministing’s Dana Bolger beautifully delineates how people who’ve been through abuse/trauma/disorders are expected to jettison their rage and distrust and despair and apathy if they want their suffering to be respected by others.

The idea of the victim-survivor transformation is linear, and directional. You’re a victim until one day, you “speak up,” you report, you go to therapy, and poof! you blossom into a survivor. You “put it all behind you,” and then there’s no turning back.

The cult of compulsory survivorship ignores the cyclic nature of healing. The good days. The bad days. Healing is nonlinear, messy, disruptive, and unpredictable.

There’s a timeline to all this. When I realized that what happened to me was fucked up, I got my Victim Card. When I officially decide to engage the emotional (and financial – meds, therapy, the time I spent unemployed because I couldn’t function; and physical – the potential anxiety, stress, and eating habits I took on) demands of “recovery,” I cash in Victim for Survivor. And when I forgive the perpetrators for forcing me through all this? Well, I’m a Full-Blown Recovered. Bully for me.

No. I am a victim just as much as I am a survivor, and there are plenty of people out there who feel the same way (check out the comments if you need examples.) Damage was perpetrated against me. I’m creating an identity apart from that damage. Both can happen simultaneously.

The Christian cult of survivorship

Dr. Marlene Winell, coiner and champion of Religious Trauma Syndrome (a form of C-PTSD developed by some people who leave fundamentalist religions) broaches how the Good Survivor mentality gets real fucked up when the holidays roll around. Even if religion hurt you, you’re gonna smile your way through the holidays because we’re all supposed to be happy, and even if you can’t do that, you’re sure as hell not gonna cry.

The Good Survivor narrative goes on steroids when you toss fundamentalism in the bowl and mix well. I can speak to the Christian side of things, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

See, when you’ve got an utterly perfect, good God up there who saved you from yourself and forgives you for hundreds of misdeeds a day despite your selfishness and weakness? There’s no way you can’t forgive someone who’s hurt you, even if they abused, raped, or traumatized you. It would be unthinkably arrogant and ungrateful to stay bitter, to not “move on” (code for: forgive and shut up, not necessarily in that order.) It’s a neat little way to:

1. Pressure the victim/survivor/survictim? out of speaking about what the suffering imposed on them and calling the perpetrating people, ideology, or system to task for it.

2. Enable the perpetrators to keep hurting the wronged parties, or at least keep them from leaving.

3. Reassure other believers that their religion is innocent or absolved of any wrongdoing, and therefore, still the Only Right Thing to Believe In.

Yeah, fuck that

I am uninterested in “accepting” what happened to me. I reject the idea that I must forgive to live a full life. Anyone who tells me that an integral part of recovery is stopping my blogging and tweeting and advocating can Amazon Prime themselves to hell. As for this Christmas? I’m probably gonna be “moody,” because I’m gonna have to keep pretending that this religion didn’t take and take from me until one day I found myself standing on thin air, naked, cold, and utterly lost.

It is not my job to inspire people with my story of how so much was denied me, of what I was indoctrinated with, and why I chose despite it all to forgive and love. That’s great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the only way to be a good survivor or a good person. I do not owe the people, church, or religion who hurt me any forgiveness. It is possible to keep making noise and being angry, and rebuild my life and identity, at the same time. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.

So if the mood calls for it, I might glower as I sip my tea. I’m not gonna smile wide for the camera if I’m not feeling it. And I refuse to welcome in those who hurt me – and yes, those who simply remind me of that which hurt me – as if it’s necessary for me to live a full, happy, free life.

Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Yule/Kwanzaa.

Or not.

Up to you.

Take the Red Pill: A Letter to Questioning Christians

Dear Questioning Christian, Scared Christian, Queer Christian, Abused, Disordered, and Traumatized Christian, and “Christian”:

Take the red pill.

I’d bet money that any ex-fundamentalist, when asked if realizing that their answer bank to ALL the big questions was horrifically 2-D is like starring in a debatably less weird version of The Matrix, will answer with a resounding YEP. 

See, if you’re doubting, if you’re hesitantly curious or furtively Googling or silently mulling, if you realize that you might not believe in all that stuff anymore? You’ll end up with two choices. You can continue compartmentalizing your questions and take the blue pill – in which, let me be clear, there is no shame. We all take the blue pill during our lives, repeatedly and frequently, and it’s the only way we can ever get to the second choice, after we weigh the fear and risk and pain: to formally acknowledge to yourself that you’re not fully on board with the Christian life anymore, and take the red pill.

We took the red pill, but it didn’t go down easy. No, we touched the tips of our tongues against it, grimaced, hurled it across the room. We balanced it on the crowns of our teeth for months so we wouldn’t have to taste it. We summoned the courage to swallow it but we retched. We finally swallowed it and then we made ourselves throw it back up again.

But there’s only so long you can corral the part of you that’s ensnared in doubt and the part of you that’s terrified of what you’ll lose if you give that doubt an audience. You could end up breast-stroking through the eternal flames of hell. You could be kicked out, disowned, shunned by the church family. You could be left cold in a world you spent your whole life keeping away from with a 1000-foot pole and an upturned nose. I know. We know.

But pill casing doesn’t hold up forever. Eventually it disintegrates into a powdery mess. Eventually that shit gets all over the place. Eventually you have to bite that terrifying, monumental, revolutionary red bullet.

Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning. The pill doesn’t work in 5 minutes, 5 days, even 5 months. Instead of releasing a healing payload, it incites a full-body revamp to accommodate that payload. It’s a rougher ride for some of us than others, which can result in Religious Trauma Syndrome, a form of Complex-PTSD, always a fun party guest.

I’ll be frank. Overcoming an fundamentalist upbringing can be ass, especially with RTS. It’s cleaning up the brainwashing (ironically.) It’s being terrified of God’s wrath or convinced of your worthlessness even if you don’t believe anymore. It’s waking up in the morning and wondering what was abnormal or wrong about any of it. It’s the dissonance you feel when people treat your childhood like a lurid spectacle, a juicy news story, or a Sad Life Show and the fury when people gaslight and invalidate you.

Amidst the aforementioned bullshit, you find yourself swamped with even more questions. Did anyone else from church end up like this? Was it your fault for enforcing the teaching on yourself? Are you making this all up?

Look through your church’s doctrine. Think about the lessons you’ve been taught. I listed some common messages that I grew up with and I have seen many other deconverts talk about. Read them. Ask yourself if they resonate with something inside you.

An example of why humans are naturally sinful is how babies cry from the moment they are born. 

Does it seem ridiculous that voicing the need to have your body fed, to have your physical needs met so that you can continue living on Earth, is considered morally wrong, selfish, and worthy of condemnation to hellfire? (Although, maybe not all of the above teachings are off… I’ve definitely seen some sinful deep V’s in my time.)

A lot of us grieve what we lost in the full-hearted “pursuit of a relationship with Jesus Christ.” When you take the red pill, with time, it becomes clearer that things you might have sacrificed for the religion you loved might have been given up in vain. It hurts. A lot.

Let me be clear. For many of us who deconvert, it’s a years-long, confusing, suppressed, even subconscious journey. It’s vacillating  between I still believe in some of this and I feel like there’s something off about X belief, but I don’t know what and it’s way too scary/dangerous to figure out what, so I’m gonna shove it aside. Maybe forever. Even after we reach a tipping point where we admit to ourselves that we can’t keep forcing the doubts out and decide to let ourselves question – after we take the red pill – we don’t magically find the answers. We make our own answers, and that’s different for every one of us.

We explore different religions. We go atheist. We do a combination of both. We are angry, forgiving, or both in different amounts. We feel utterly and terrifyingly lost and alone. We feel like idiots. We feel like victims. We feel like survivors. Some of us bike sort of aimlessly for, like, hundreds of miles for years. We all have a different red pill. There is no Deconversion Schedule™ that Every True Deconvert follows, although some of us have brainstormed common stages.

Welp, that’s depressing.

Deconverting is a lot. It’s something I would never wish on someone not already in or entering the process. But I WOULD urge it to anyone who is. Because deconverting can feel like shit, but getting off the Jesus Train to Nowhere can be, and I’d bet many of us would say is, the best thing to ever happen to us. When a world falls to pieces, when a relationship seemingly takes a headshot, that sucks.

But it also frees up the emotional space and, for many of us, the first real emotional energy to build a life and narrative unpoliced and unbound by abusive spirituality. Plus, we realize that things we always hated and were terrified of (dating, Harry Potter, the gays) are actually 1) normal and 2) a lot of fun to get involved with. Up to and including the gays.

Ever since my first day of freshman year, I:

  • got a free, competent therapist who has a wonderful That’s Bullshit face, great taste in Netflix, and a real handle on… everything that is me
  • had the privilege of going by my preferred name, Max, for 4 days
  • use my preferred pronouns (repping that ey/em/eir) freely without fear of judgment or danger
  • am involved in campus clubs, learning 3 languages, have a beautiful squad of supportive friends, and am Vice President of a queer club despite thinking “gay” was a curse word just 4 years ago
  • chose recovery from depression and binge eating
  • got a free binder from an actual non-binary employed and established adult who is not the only one on campus (?!?!)
  • and best of all, had the energy for the first time in my LIFE to occasionally be who I truly am: social, cheerful, warm, and queer. as. fuck.

I’m Max, I swallowed the red pill, and I’m not gonna lie, it tastes like ass AND chocolate on the way down and that can be really confusing. Depending on where you are in this journey, this can be absolutely terrifying and overwhelming. It might also resonate with a voice inside you. You might need to take a break from this letter. To forget you ever read it. To drown your doubts. To plunge headfirst back into what you’ve always believed. That’s okay. Do that if you need. Be safe.

But please know, if you decide to take the red pill? If you ever think you might want to but don’t know how? We are here. I am here. We’re a community, with a sense of humor and real grit. Below, I’ll list some bloggers who have helped me, and you can also view the Resources list I compiled for leavers of multiple fundamentalist religions.

We’re leavers, pill takers, world shapers, falling in love with a life way, way fucking better than Christianity always told them it would be. We are very much alive. We’re forging new happinesses, finding new gods, forgoing the old chains. So. Dear questioning Christian, scared Christian, queer Christian, abused, disordered, and traumatized Christian, and “Christian”:

When the time comes, take the red pill. We are right here with you.

Love,
Max Tang

Thanks Without the God (Or: This is Gonna Be a Hell of a Thanksgiving)

Thanksgiving week is drawing close, and if you’re like me, you’re awaiting this Thursday with a dry mouth and a very, very nervous laugh.

It’s going to be my first Thanksgiving after months lived away from a home I now see was toxic all along. It’ll be my first Thanksgiving where I can say I am choosing recovery. Where I’m backed by supportive and compassionate friends, a therapist I love. The firsts this Thanksgiving are enormous and incredible, even surreal.

College changed everything for me. I don’t even know how to describe it all without rambling on or getting emotional, so… I’ll do both. Reflecting on all the truly amazing privileges I’ve been given (read: no longer having to pretend I’m many people I’m not for my own safety), I don’t entirely believe it all. Here in college, I:

  • have dropped the straight Christian double-life that sapped the life from me for years,
  • go by ey/em pronouns and an androgynous name (Danni – based on my birth name, since tuition-paying parents can’t yet stomach Max),
  • have space and a great therapist to recover from emotional abuse/religion/binging/depression,
  • and best of all, I now have the energy to be as social, engaged, and vibrant as I always wanted to be. I can be myself. Breathtakingly. Simply. Finally.

THAT IS ALL I EVER DREAMED OF. These standards are high to me, but to a cis straight person who wasn’t raised in fundamentalism and emotional abuse, they’re probably basic human rights. I trucked through high school and a traumatic summer to, for the first time in my life, be myself: a non-binary non-believer better equipped to cope with the depression and binge eating that a double life only amplified.

And holy shit… I’m HERE. I’m here. I’m here. I can’t explain the surreal bliss that comes with just hanging in there for the sake of a future… and finally, suddenly, looking around and realizing that that future, the stuff you daydreamed about for years, is now your present.

* * * *

That said… I’m not home-free (pun intended) yet. Thanksgiving is approaching and while I have a shit-ton to be thankful for (I won’t even try to start listing), the pressure of returning to a home and church whose toxicity I now see very clearly is big.

Compounding the fear of retraumatization and the stress of resuming of double life is the elephant in the room: I used to love Thanksgiving. I used to spend it listing literally everything I could think of to be grateful to God for, from air to peppermint stick ice cream to parking lots. And clearly, that ability to find value in the world hasn’t left me.

But… how do I shift away from thanking God and praying fervently and tearfully over zer immense grace and mercy? After 18 years, is there a chance that indoctrination might overwhelm me when I’m back home and cause a breakdown? Who do I thank for all that I appreciate?

My brain has been wired to pay homage to someone. After hearing Something cannot come from nothing so many times, I instinctively return to the idea that someone’s responsible for everything. But I no longer trace it all back to God. To be thankful for the mashed potatoes in the dining hall, I don’t thank God for creating the culinary arts, ingredients, or cooks; I thank the cooks, those who grew and processed the ingredients, and whoever popularized mashed potatoes in the first place.

* * * *

My gratefulness will now be people- and society-focused: returning credit and praise to human beings instead of robbing them of their agency for the sake of God’s glorification. My approach, I think, will be to excise God from the equation.

How about you? How are you handling the upcoming Thanksgiving? What ways are you using to approach a new gratefulness, sans God?

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

What “Hope” Do I Have in Your Christ?

I’m Max, and I was a cradle Baptist

I begin this post as the first article on my blog about growing up Christian – and growing out of it.

I’m Max, and I was a cradle Baptist. My parents were two founding members of a small church, and per their desire to see me grow up with the same love and subservience to God, I attended Sunday School before I could read. Over the years, I became deeply versed in the all the usual suspects – memorized Bible verses, sang all songs, led the worship team. And along the way, there sunk into my heart and mind a toxic cocktail of Biblical interpretation and lifestyle that plagued me until my final years of high school.

There are so many things that went wrong with my Christianity, and possibly the Christianity I was taught and showed, that I could talk forever if I didn’t separate it all into chunks. And so tonight, I’ll be talking shame and guilt.

“God Deserves Your Everything”

If you’ve never heard the Gospel, buckle your seat belt.

Consider this: All human beings are absolutely horrible people from birth. Just awful. We are flawed permanently in our very souls, simply from the act of living, and nothing will prevent us from suffering for all eternity to make up for it. Well, nothing… except one man. As debauched as we are – literally, even filthier than used tampons, we’re told – there is someone who can save us.

Thousands of years ago, he came to take our eternal punishments in our place, even though there was nothing for him to gain except a way to demonstrate his everlasting love in the face of our desperate wickedness. To avoid damnation and show our gratitude for such kindness, all we need to do is devote our entire lives and beings to this man. And why wouldn’t we, after what he’s done?

It was this concept that haunted me most through elementary and middle school. After all, if Jesus had endured the worst torture known to mankind in order to keep me from burning in hell for my badness, shouldn’t I be giving all of my energy, skills, thought, and time to him? There were two things I knew, reinforced again and again by hymn lyrics, sermons, catchphrases, and Sunday school lessons: (1), I was worthless, disgusting, and deserving of death without God. And (2), Jesus had performed the ultimate good deed of the entire universe for me, the ultimate evil.

In light of this, everything I ever did, thought, desired, or even dreamt was now on the table. There were no excuses when you remembered what Jesus had done and how terrible and vile I was before I accepted him into my heart (…at age 8). “Say nothing you would not want to be saying when Jesus comes.” And so I became my own watchdog, policing everything I did and was both consciously and unconsciously.

I should always be praying to God, thanking him for all his wonder and majesty and goodness, from the moment I woke to the moment I slept. My every desire ought to glorify him. I should forever be ready to give everything I had to others, and help them when they needed it, even if they didn’t ask. My life evolved – or devolved – into a flurry of self-policing and a perpetual reminder of how worthless I was, and how I should always be looking to give myself to others and thank God for his exceeding kindness.

Burnout: It’s a Cycle

For obvious reasons, this mentality didn’t hold out well for long. From an early age, I fell facefirst into a vicious cycle of phases marked by intense horror, guilt, self-hatred, disgust, and rage. I did not break it until my deconversion in junior year of high school.

The cycle always began with a very long period of “forgetfulness” – that is, neglecting to remember God’s awesome immensity and love, and to respond accordingly by regularly thinking of him, thanking him, and “passing on” that love to others via cheerful attitude and helpfulness.

Eventually, there would come along a stressor – be it sitting through a “wake up call” sermon in which a preacher reprimanded his congregation about how “lukewarm” and “ungrateful” they had grown toward their amazing God, or simply remembering what I’d been taught in Sunday school. I would be struck by God’s Ultimate Good and my Ultimate Worthlessness, feel convicted of my despicable sins, and decide to launch myself headlong into A Godly Life.

And so I’d embark on a very short period of so-called “Godly Living” – a time ruled by obsessive thoughts on God. I would feel constantly encouraged and motivated to keep “being sanctified” – forever propelled further and further into the art of giving my energy, skills, and time to things that God liked.

But there’s always trouble in paradise. To praise God and offer gratitude for his gift of existence was to acknowledge how horrible I was, and it was a dichotomy of hating myself and striving to be as perfect as God was. And it was not sustainable. Within a week, a day, or an hour, I would catch myself not being as devoted to the Lord as I should, instantly despise myself (how hard could it be to “love God” in this way given what he’d done for me? who did I think I was? how arrogant could I be?), and eventually give up. I would fall into a period of normal thinking and living, until the next stressor came along. And so the cycle began anew.

A Chronic Guilt

As I grew, this toxic pressure ate away at me more and more. I began to expect that I would fail at this obsessive helping, praising, and acting cheerfully around others. I began to believe if I was the only person in the world who was this much of a failure, and in doing so, really buy into the myth that I was a disgusting, worthless person at my core. I broke down in the shower; I shook my head and cried at worship songs; I shouted at myself in my room. Sometimes I slapped myself, somehow believing that this would magically make me able to fulfill all of God’s desires 24/7, as I always wanted to.

The insidious part of this entire cycle is how self-renewing it was – and permanent. The more I failed to “obey God and be a good Christian,” the more I believed I was truly awful, which made Jesus’ death even more important and worthy of praise in my eyes. And there were always, always things that would remind me of my severe worthlessness and God’s deservingness. The cycle continued and continued until, in high school, I finally realized how incredibly abusive this was: and that I had never truly believed in God all along.

I think this is why, in my struggles with depression and the ways it has stunted me, I am so oriented toward progress rather than perfection. Even as I write this, I can’t even think of perfection; it’s unattainable, it’s poisonous, and it’s mythical. Instead, I judge myself by how I grow every day, and call each “mistake” or “failure” a learning and growing process – and it is. Sometimes I still feel guilty when I don’t pray for a meal or sing a hymn with all my heart, even though I no longer believe that the God of the Bible exists.

But I know that today I am a far better person, free of that cyclic guilt and shame and the shadow of God’s “goodness.”