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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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. 

Rambly Thoughts on Survival in the Age of Trump

These past two weeks have been a doozy, hasn’t they? It seems like the night of Tuesday, November 8 was just the start of a string of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. And this upcoming Thanksgiving week, for many of us who are closeted nonbelievers or queer people with very religious families or communities, is gonna be even more hellish.

I didn’t see what happened on Tuesday night coming. At all. I didn’t believe for a second that just over half of the people who voted would choose to put their confidence in a man who has openly and boldly run a campaign on anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and misogynistic (etc.) language, but is also woefully inexperienced and ludicrously inconsistent in the very policies he claims to pursue, and I mean ludicrously.

But as I sat with friends and fellow students and watched the map on the screen turn redder and redder and redder, I watched that faith slip away. Down to the very moment Donald Trump finished his acceptance speech, I hoped against hope that this was wrong. They counted wrong, or he’s about to admit that this was all just one big fat fucked up social experiment and then turn the victory over to Hillary.

But, as we all know, that’s not what happened. Instead, we woke up to what felt like a different world, and many people – people of color, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, sexual assault survivors, queer people, etc. – on my campus felt absolutely devastated. Before November 8, they believed that the majority of Americans would prioritize their lives and freedoms, that blatant and unabashed prejudice would be enough for make voting for Trump unthinkable. It wasn’t. Not only was their sense of safety lost as prejudiced attacks peaked around their country, but their trust in their neighbors was destroyed as well. Some people decided to cut out all relationships with Trump supporters out of their lives completely, losing childhood friendships in the process.

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, though, one thought in my mind stood out to me: I’ve been here before. I know how to do this. 

Losing trust in other people’s goodness? Knowing that friends and family value misinformation and lies over your liberty and equality? Feeling even less physically safe than you did before?

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

As many of you know, I was raised Evangelical. I was insulated in a very Christian bubble: taught to believe that nonbelievers are dangerous, foolish, and wicked, that life without Christ is utterly empty and worthless, etc. I could go on, but it’s a story I’ve told on this blog so many times already.

When I realized that everything I had been taught to believe, love, and trust in was not only illogical, but straight up abusive, my world came apart. I have been rebuilding a new one ever since.

One thing I realized, once I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid, is that I couldn’t come out and say it, or I risked losing everything. It was and is so painful to keep pretending I love a god whose loss I barely survived, whose loss I’m still surviving today. But I had no other options if I wanted to stay safe. If my parents ever found out that I was a nonbeliever, AND queer, I didn’t know what they would do, but I doubted it would be pretty and I did not want to find out.

All of that ^^^ makes for a hell of a week/month/summer whenever I have to head back home for a break. So when, after the election, people began asking “how am I supposed to sit across the table from people whose votes are an affront to my very worth as a person?” all I could think was welcome to the club! Let me show you around.

And when people kicked into gear, saying things like “we have to organize, we have to plan, we have to be ready for what’s coming,” I just thought about the escape plan in my head, the runaway packed and ready at all times in my closet, the ways I trained myself to be cold and unafraid and to do what must be done.

All this to say, in a new era where we have no idea what the President-Elect of the United States intends to do, what he will try to do, or what he will actually be able to accomplish (he’s already doubled back on several policies: for instance, now he’s cool with same-sex marriage and also Obamacare), I feel like I’ve got a little training. When you find out that people aren’t who you thought or hoped they’d be, when you can’t wrap your head around why they do what they do, when you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, this is what you do.

You process it all.

You let yourself grieve the loss of what you believed.

You stay critical of mainstream messages about your situation (like this is all solely due to white supremacy! and every single Trump supporter is a racist piece of shit!)

You remember, like your professor said, that accepting simple answers to complicated problems is just another form of ignorance. 

You try to understand, no matter how tough, where the other side is coming from, and whether any can be won over or helped to see the flaws in their thinking.

You do your research, triage, figure out worst-case scenarios (will your family disown you? // is Trump gonna eliminate the EPA, strike all regulations on coal and fracking, deport undocumented immigrants, block anti-discrimination laws for LGBT+ people, etc.?)

You plan, and do little and big work to survive (figure out the nearest homeless shelter and how to get there // donate if you can, call representatives, organize in your local area)

You stick with people who get what you’re going through, but don’t let it become an echo chamber.

What comes to my mind, in the end, is this: so far, I have a 100% survival rate. I have survived everything that’s come my way, more or less. I have survived it all. Even when I believed for certain that I would not. Even when I hoped and dreamt that I would not, because I could see no reason to.

This last bit is for fellow people who are scared, hurt, angry, etc. by this election. Queer, immigrant, non-white, survivor, whoever you are.

I’m still here. You’re still here. After whatever you have already been through in life – after it all.

We can survive this too. If you need help or a friend, reach out. If Thanksgiving is gonna be tough, brace yourself for it and come up with an emergency plan in case it gets to be too much. Allow yourself to feel what you feel, but keep thinking for yourself, in response to both what you see on liberal social justice-y social media and what you hear from Trump supporters around the dinner table. Think of what you can do to damage control what Trump may or will do, and start doing that; plug into community organizing groups, if that’s what you’re into.

So far, we’ve survived it all. People before us have survived far, far worse. This isn’t easy, but if you’re like me, you’ve been here before, and you’re still here. You’ll survive Thanksgiving, and you can try to survive this too. I know you can.