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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then 2017 came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.