“Help me, I’m afraid” – Excerpts from a Survivor’s Diary (Part 1)
In this “Excerpts from a Survivor’s Diary” miniseries, I’ve gone back through some of my old diaries, pulling out pieces that snapshot what it was like in the thick of the things. I’ve chosen a few pieces to share that highlight points along my journey that I think many can relate to, as well as reveal some deeply problematic systemic issues within fundamentalist Christianity.
“I pray Lord that I have not caused my friends even a fraction of the grief I have experienced from them. Lord, I pray I have not hurt Emily as badly as I think I may have and I pray that she does not feel a scar on her or our friendship from me or from me telling her how badly she hurt me, when a lot of it was my fault. I pray you would heal the divide between us”
“Dear God, help me. I’m afraid. Afraid of losing all that I hold dear. I understand if things are a little different with Emily and me, but I really don’t want to lose everything. I want to be on good terms with her so that no one is left hurt and things aren’t awkward. Emily thinks I don’t invest enough in our friendship, but how am I supposed to invest even more when I feel like I’ve poured in everything? How is it we are both left feeling used and like the other person is on the receiving end? I pray my apology today touched her. I pray she’s no longer upset or hurt. Help me make things right.”
These excerpts break my heart. While I have some milder childhood trauma from growing up under the performance culture of fundamentalist Christianity, I believe the events that transpired when I wrote these diary entries at 19 years old in early 2011 are what solidified my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. April 2011 is when I bought a plane ticket to go visit a friend. I had met him a full year before at a Christian college youth conference. He fascinated me because he was a progressive Christian and I had never encountered such a freeing, holistic and healing way of experiencing Christianity before. We talked every day, and I decided that I wanted to spend a week and a half visiting him and his family in another state that summer. I was an adult, albeit a young adult, and I had always had an adventurous and independent spirit so it seemed like a fun and grown-up thing to do. My intentions were innocent – wanting to see someone I deeply valued, exploring another part of the country, spending a little time away from the small community I had spent my entire life in…
My fundamentalist church community however, did not see it that way. The moment news got out that I would be visiting a boy, all hell broke loose. My Christian friends had full-blown meltdowns, yelling at me and telling me that I would be ruining my reputation and theirs too, since they were associated with me. My best friends and my very close sister fueled vicious gossip; intentionally contacting people to tell them the news. They told other friends, they told their families, they told my boss, they told youth leaders and they told the pastor. My parents knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it. They sided with my sister and reprimanded me for making her life more difficult, for stressing her out and damaging her reputation. My sister emailed my best friend (news travels fast in small communities) telling her not to worry because she would be sure our parents stayed on “their” side, and that our parents had always had “a VERY glossy view of Sarah” but she would correct that. She became intent on decreasing their opinion of me, which she accomplished quite effectively. She then told my friend that the ministry I was a student leader in at my college, which was in no way associated with our church, had “low standards and loose morals for letting Sarah be a leader.” So, apparently an entire organization has low standards because one student on their leadership team is planning to visit a friend and his family for a week over the summer? You know, normal teenage kid stuff that I had missed out on? Being out of sight from the church for barely over a week? I wouldn’t even be alone with him! It wasn’t a romantic getaway by any means. We got accused of dating and sleeping together. Then my sister and friend proceeded to DRIVE TO MY COLLEGE which was 45 minutes away, to physically approach students in my Bible Study group there and TELL THEM TO LEAVE the ministry because my influence was so incredibly dangerous. They successfully convinced two students to leave, both of whom had thoroughly enjoyed our ministry and previously expressed a deep sense of calling there. Both of them ended up in abusive relationships with much older men shortly after following my sister’s advice to leave. It breaks my heart that neither of them had the support of their loving college community to help them through that time.
But that’s not all. Next, my boss at the Christian family farm I worked at, who was part of my family’s church and related to my best friend, got wind of the situation and started verbally and emotionally abusing me every day at work. He daily threatened to fire me and reminded me that he was watching me around the community and that my actions represented his company. The company was already a terrible place to work as they offered low pay and controlled their employees’ personal lives, making sure our decisions matched their religious standards. The bosses were incredibly manipulative and set up traps for their employees – like posting a very strict dress code in a discreet corner of the building without announcing it, and then reprimanding me when my shorts were one inch above the knee instead of at the middle of the kneecap. Every day at work I had already constantly been on edge, terrified of breaking an unknown rule. But then again, that had already been every waking moment in the church for as long as I could remember.
My best friend at the time was the Emily mentioned in the diary excerpt above (I see no reason to keep anonymity for abusers). She had narcissistic behaviors and emotionally manipulated me and abused me for 4 years in plain view of the entire church community, who did nothing. Her status as a “good Christian” and as a member of a powerful family in the church was all that mattered. Growing up in this controlling and manipulative environment, I didn’t recognize that what she was doing to me was not normal. Subsequently Emily’s abuse set me up to be abused by my first partner, Sam who had even worse narcissistic behaviors. Emily spent hours telling me horror stories about “people in my situation” (referring to me visiting my guy friend) whose lives had been ruined because they were no longer able to volunteer at youth group or lead worship or lead in any way in their church communities. For someone whose entire life is wrapped up in one insular community, this is the same as being told you will never be able to move up in your career ever again, and you will in fact actually be demoted. I deeply loved Emily at the time and our friendship meant the world to me. I had done everything in my power to serve her, getting little in return. She used me and took advantage of my admiration of her. My heart was shattered when she went on to tell me that she could no longer be seen with me in public because of the way my actions would represent her and that people would assume she supported my choices.
To say I was extremely traumatized by this whole situation would be a gross understatement. It was a roaring cascade of falling dominoes sending my life and everything I had ever known crashing down around me. I had always been the “good Christian girl”. I cared SO much about doing the right thing and being close to God. But here I was painted as a Jezebel, a rebel, a slut, a wayward and worldly soul, a backslidden heathen who was throwing away her faith. My character was attacked, my beloved best friend hated me and actively worked to make others hate me. My dear sister acted like my enemy and turned my parents against me. I had always been very close with my dad but now he was distant and quiet. He was disappointed in me. I lost my job, my livelihood, because the emotional abuse and daily tears and panic attacks were too much to handle and I had to leave. I didn’t even feel safe in the new life I had built at the college anymore since they had chased me down there.
It was all an elaborate mindfuck. I didn’t know what was real or true anymore. Was I really a bad person? Had I always been bad or did I become bad? Was visiting my guy friend wrong? Was I trying to run away from God? I didn’t think so, but maybe there were evil desires hidden in my heart. Surely it must be terrible of me to cause so much anguish for an entire community! But… I had a deep internal sense of justice and this just didn’t feel right. In fact, this was infuriating! This didn’t seem like what God would want at all. I could recant and minimize some of the damage, but… I felt this was a sick and twisted way to treat me and I decided to hold my ground.
It was during this time I realized I wasn’t safe, and tragically my brain would actually never feel totally safe ever again. That is what PTSD is. During this traumatic time, I had the epiphany that I actually had never been safe – even throughout my happy childhood, even when all my friends and pastors still liked me. Because this insignificant, innocent decision I made – the smallest step toward autonomy – if it had happened anytime in the past, it would have received the same reaction then, too. I had felt safe only because I had luckily played by the rules. But if I had at anytime in the past, made the slightest misstep in that minefield – I would have been blown to pieces then, too. I suddenly knew that all along I had been shakily balancing a tightrope since the very day I was born, and it was only now that I had fallen off it. It hit me that I couldn’t trust anyone at all. My tight-knit family, my dearest friends, people I had known for 19 years, all of them betrayed me in an instant. If I couldn’t trust the people I had known my entire life, how could I trust anybody new? If I couldn’t trust the people I had chosen as my closest support, my confidants, could I even trust myself? My judgment, my decisions?
As you can see from my diary excerpts, even in the midst of the anguish and abuse I was suffering, I was distraught over whether or not I had hurt my betrayers, and I still took the blame. While they were accusing me of evil intent and an ungodly heart, a snapshot into my mind through these diary excerpts proves that I was more Christlike than they. I was writing along the lines of “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Even though this fateful decision to visit a friend permanently changed the course of my life and the fallout destroyed everything I had at the time, I have no regrets. Even though their reaction stole opportunities from me such as the chance to have lifelong childhood friends, even though I now live with an incurable mental disorder, I stand firm in my choice. The fallout wasn’t my fault. I did nothing wrong. I was a normal young adult doing normal young adult things – exploring, traveling, making friends, adventuring, growing in my independence. I’m grateful that I escaped such a dangerous community that looked harmless on the outside, even if that is what it took. They might have destroyed the life I had with them, but today I have a far better, safer, healthier life that I own – it is mine and they have no control over me. They can’t take anything away from me anymore. They controlled me for a while, but they went too far and they lost me. And goddamn it, I am a hell of a lot happier and freer than any of them and I’ll bet they’re fucking jealous.