Grief,  Mental Health,  PTSD,  Religious Trauma

Silenced with a Smile

Navigating grief and mental illness is different with religious trauma. For two decades, I wasn’t allowed to feel anything “negative”; I was supposed to be thankful, to count my blessings, and remember that God had a plan. For far too long I was silenced with a smile.

If I was happy, people would like me more, I was told. Always have etiquette, practice good manners, say nice things, don’t be a downer. Sunday School lessons centered on seeking the joy of the Lord; having a good attitude and never complaining. “You’ll feel better if you look on the bright side.” “You should volunteer, you’ll see others have it much worse than you.” “Follow God and you’ll be blessed.” They said I would look prettier if I smiled more. In fact, even today it’s still hard to post this picture.

I was promised if I just trusted in God I would be okay. But the truth is, a lot of times I wasn’t okay. Sometimes I’m still not.

I am diagnosed with complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and depression, and this year I’ve been battling heart-wrenching, life-shattering grief. While I am a person of faith and I have experienced the power of God, it’s also true that mental illnesses, trauma, and grief don’t go away by trying harder to be happy or by mustering up enough faith. They don’t go away by shaming the victim, telling them they are overreacting, or demanding they get over it. Mental disorders don’t get better by suddenly realizing that you don’t have it so bad after all. People CAN get better by having access to the right resources: counseling, medication, education, and kindness from their community. Not always cured, but better.

Mental illness is not your fault. Your grief journey is not taking too long, you’re not traumatized because you just didn’t trust God enough, you’re not depressed because you don’t have enough faith. My C-PTSD is the result of growing up in a fundamentalist religious community. I was the victim of spiritual abuse and during the times I most needed help I was blamed for what I was going through.

Barely out of high school, that abusive community pushed me into the arms of another abuser and when I found the strength to leave and start a life of my own, I was accused of breaking my vows, rebelling, and throwing away my faith. In my mid-twenties I thought I was done surviving the unthinkable when I found my life partner, Caleb. He was my healer, protector, and lover; a man who saved my life, and one the church wouldn’t have approved of. Tragically, he passed away earlier this year, throwing me into a grief journey darker than any trauma-healing obstacle course I had ever crawled through.

I’m surviving all over again; this time finding hope in feeling Caleb’s presence, living in the confidence he gave me, carrying on his work and loving the people he loved. I’ve experienced inexplicable mystical encounters where I’ve heard from Caleb and been visited by him since his passing; an absurd impossibility per the church. All of this helps, but I don’t need to find a silver lining. There doesn’t have to be a greater purpose to his death, or my abuse, or my diagnoses. Life can just downright suck, and sometimes that’s it. These events can be unfair, a goddamn injustice, and mind-numbingly infuriating.

To “look at all the good that’s come out of it”, I say “Caleb’s life was not a problem, he didn’t have to die for good to come about. My innocence, my health, and my happiness were not obstacles to my well-being, my character, or my wisdom. I have forged out of hell-fire every ounce of my joy and healing because I’m a co-creator with the Divine, not because any of these things should have happened. I don’t have to be okay with it and I don’t have to get over it. I don’t have to believe this was all part of the plan. I can be angry, I can doubt, I can wrestle. I will let my experiences shape my beliefs. I will trust myself. Gone are the days of silent submission, fake smiles and shallow answers, and to hell with linear religious narratives.

I’m learning to find my voice again and my idea of God has changed. I have no interest in a God who can’t handle emotions or the messiness of being human. I won’t engage a God who doesn’t allow for mysticism or spirituality outside of a teeny tiny box. I can’t follow a God who “allows” horrific things to happen. But somehow the more I unravel the indoctrination, the more sacredness I find. Sometimes when I let myself sit in the darkness, I see the Light inside of me and I realize that maybe God is more like me than I was taught; maybe She is angry too.

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