“I think I’m sick. Mentally ill, I mean. I’m wondering if it’s a result of what I’ve been through. In other words, I wonder if it’s Christians’ faults – all the rejection, all the consequential self-loathing and depression. I’ve been taught my whole life I’m not good enough. Not good enough for God. Christians say I’m just filthy rags and it’s a miracle God loves me. It’s only by his grace, without him I am nothing, blah blah blah. Not good enough for people – my convictions of what I feel is right, what I am passionate about and what makes me “me” is supposedly damaging to young Christians, so I need to hide myself. I could be a bad influence!” – 7/16/15
I wrote this in my diary when I first started suspecting I might have long-term debilitating mental impacts from the church. It had been about 4 years since the initial trauma and I still hadn’t quite “gotten over it”. This was 6 and a half years ago, and even that recently there were far fewer resources available online for religious trauma survivors and those deconstructing their faith. I had no way of knowing if what happened to me was a widespread problem or an isolated incident. For years I waded through a sea of uncertainty and confusing symptoms totally alone. With no access to mental health education there was no way to prove it, but I was starting to suspect this disturbance was something that could be diagnosed.
Daily I wrestled with how I had been vilified in my church of origin just for asking questions and dreaming up new ways of doing things. They said I was doing bad things and I was a bad person, and yet these Christians’ actions were directly causing what I could tell might be lasting damage. Somehow that didn’t add up for me. It didn’t make sense that I could be the bad guy. I felt like a victim. My inner sense of justice was screaming at me. This wasn’t right! This was outrageous! The entire system the church was built on, ideologies that made up the fabric of my reality, the ways they had shaped my understanding of my own inherent value – all of it might be supported by something that was simply not true.
Realizations and research started crumbling the foundations I had stood on since I could walk – it was validating and terrifying. My mind and heart raced – if that wasn’t true, then this wasn’t true, and then maybe this other thing wasn’t right either, and then… what WAS true? Could I ever know? What about aspects of my faith that were still important to me? Did I have to throw out those, too? What if I could never fit in at church again? I wrote this excerpt in the middle of a two year full-time ministry internship that gave me purpose and fulfillment and meant the world to me. What if following the truth cost me everything? Again?
It was not easy trusting myself. It seemed I was the only one waking up; noticing the lies and double standards. How could I think I was so special to become enlightened? How could I believe my emotions and intuition when I was taught they were always lying to me? How could I want what was best for me if all my desires were sinful? If I was so depraved and warped and filled with evil, my suffering must be my fault somehow, right? I probably deserved it.
Different parts of my brain warred against each other constantly. I tried so hard to submit my feelings to God. I tried to be humble and forgiving and repentant. But somehow I couldn’t go back. My disintegrating mental state was constant glaring proof that something about evangelicalism just wasn’t okay. If everything the church taught was right, then why would it hurt me? If their way was the best way, why did it leave a wake of destruction?
My mind and physical body had been exhibiting significant trauma symptoms for about five years at this point without me understanding what it was, and it wouldn’t be until a little later this same year that I would come across an article titled “Post Traumatic Church Disorder” posted on Facebook by a friend. It was written by a young pastor who had noticed a trend of men and women in ministry experiencing trauma symptoms related to their experiences there, and he drew parallels between their symptoms and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, the author wasn’t a mental health expert and the article wasn’t written in a scientific way, but it resonated with me. I was plagued with almost every one of the symptoms he listed. A light bulb started to come on and I realized there might be a name for what was happening to me. I might have PTSD. Somehow, from that moment on I knew in my heart that I did have PTSD, even when all the Christian mentors and friends in my life told me there was no way. Even when mainstream tropes about PTSD didn’t fit my story. Even when I didn’t have the privilege of accessing mental health care to receive a diagnosis. I felt the truth in my bones.
It would be almost another six years beyond finding that article when I would finally be able to see a psychiatrist and be officially diagnosed. But my journey between this diary entry in 2015 and my diagnosis in late 2020 was one of learning to TRUST myself. I had been taught I was bad, but I knew I wasn’t. I had been told the church was always right, but they weren’t this time. My gut feeling about having PTSD was downplayed again and again but I was certain of it. I heard so many times what happened to me wasn’t bad enough to have trauma, but I had the symptoms and the logic to prove it was. It had been pounded into my head that my feelings and thoughts were corrupted by sin, and yet it was my thoughts and feelings that ended up saving me.