PTSD,  Religious Trauma

“An Outside Force is Controlling Me” – Excerpts from a Survivor’s Diary (Part 4)

“I’m feeling really scared about my health and my emotions are so out of whack right now” – 4/21/11

“I still struggle at times about letting fear grip me and letting my emotions distort a situation. Sometimes it seems like an outside force is controlling me, like I’m being oppressed by demons” – 5/29/13

“I’ve had a rough few weeks emotionally, and last Thursday it all paramounted, and I was depressed and scared and confused about the future and my health.” – 5/30/13

“I was reading Isaiah 42 this morning and right now I feel like that bruised reed from the passage. I literally feel physically bruised right now. My muscles are so weak and sore and I’m so afraid! I love my life and I don’t want to die. I can still do so much for you, God! I know my value isn’t just in what I can do for you, God, but I feel like I need to convince you to let me live. Please, God, don’t let my health and strength deteriorate. Its so frustrating to keep getting back normal test results when I know I’m not okay!” – 1/14/16

“I’ve been having mystery health issues lately, like dehydration, weakness and muscle pain, and have found no answers. But now it seems to maybe be related to my anxiety and overworking. Lord, heal me! I am working hard for you. Don’t let that hurt my health, and please heal my anxiety.” – 4/4/16

These excerpts are written over the course of five years – from 2011 to 2016 – and they snapshot a day in the life of an undiagnosed religious trauma PTSD survivor. It can be terrifyingly confusing not knowing what’s wrong with you. I had no concept of Religious Trauma other than my own experience. No one in my life was talking about it or any other mental health topics. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t move past what had happened to me in my old church. But then again, I had lost quite literally everything and couldn’t imagine not being affected by it. I lived in fear of the next time it would happen.

It took 10 years from the point of initial traumatization to finally gaining access to a diagnosis. I had to endure ten years worth of frantic moments and days and weeks full of anxiety, depression, confusion and despair all while trying to figure out on my own what was wrong and attempting to get help. I dedicated much of my spare time and energy to researching trauma and it’s treatment; seeking healing in a wide variety of ways. In 2020, those ten years of undiagnosed trauma had taken up the entirety of my adult life at that point. For me, adulthood was a ten-year lonely pilgrimage with very few friends or mentors or doctors who understood or believed me.

PTSD is a very physical disorder, not just a mental one. When trauma disrupts one’s brain chemistry, the physical bodily functions that are normally regulated by that brain chemistry are thrown out of whack. I dealt with constant thirst and hunger, dry skin, frequent infections, unexplained weakness and fatigue, sharp muscle pains, debilitating back pain and muscle atrophy (even as I was staying active and exercising as I always had). I didn’t know that all these symptoms were connected to a common cause and for about 2 years I went to hundreds of doctors appointments, taking every test I could, desperately seeking answers.

Receiving back normal test results over and over and being told that I was fine, felt like going crazy. Usually medical tests can’t measure trauma as a cause behind symptoms but I didn’t know this. Between the emotional manipulation I had suffered in my childhood fundamentalist church and the narcissistic and emotionally abusive relationship I was currently in as a result of that childhood, I was already being told from multiple sources that I was crazy and it was all I could do to grasp onto some semblance of who I believed I was.

Intense emotions – anger, insecurity, self-doubt, depression… feeling on edge all the time, the suspicion of being unsafe, misinterpreting people and situations and not knowing what was real definitely made me wonder if I actually was going crazy sometimes. I wondered if my tormenters were right. I wondered if I was the problem, if I was some kind of human lemon that should be tossed in the trash.

I wrestled with whether God was punishing me for some hidden sin. I tried to barter with God and convince God I was worth saving from death. My health issues were so debilitating and painful at times, there were moments where I legitimately thought I might be dying. I went through all this basically alone because no one would take me seriously. I seemed healthy and normal on the outside. Because of the performance culture I had grown up in I thought maybe I had to convince God to keep me alive by pointing out how much work I could do for the kingdom.

But that’s not all. I even considered the possibility that my mental and physical struggles could be demonic oppression; a dark spiritual force much more powerful than I. Growing up in a religion that offers no mental health education and only spiritual answers for every problem leads to ridiculous conclusions like that.

My guesses were more accurate than I realized when my attempt to put my agony to words resulted in me saying it felt like an outside force was controlling me. It wasn’t demons, but there was an outside force – it was a mental disability called PTSD and it did indeed come from outside of me. It came from abusers who claimed to love the same God I did but who valued their religion more than my life. The disorder they gave me controlled the way I perceived reality, the emotions I felt, the thoughts I had, which experiences I could enjoy or would find terrifying, and even the way I lived inside my own physical body.

Looking back I’m impressed to see my speculation that my physical health problems might be stemming from anxiety. As someone who isn’t a scientist or a doctor, I was ahead of my time. The PTSD underlying my anxiety was certainly the culprit, but at that time it wasn’t widely understood that mental trauma could have a physical effect on one’s body. Easily accessible information from places like trauma-dedicated Instagram accounts weren’t popular yet.

It’s heartbreaking to see these diary excerpts spread out over the course of five years. Five years! I should have been enjoying my early twenties and the excitement that comes from becoming an adult and finding yourself. I should have been happy and carefree. My biggest worries should have been what classes to take at college or which places I wanted to travel to, not wondering if I might be crazy! Not frightened I was dying! Trauma stole so much from me.

My young adulthood wasn’t only agony; there were lots of good times, too. But I’m still angry about what was lost – what could have been. And rightly so. The church robbed me of so much joy and life and innocence.

The good news is I was strong-willed and scrappy and stubborn and I trusted myself even though I had been taught not to. I was resilient and determined and kept pushing forward no matter what. Even when I wanted to give up, even when I felt hopeless and depressed, something pushed me forward. I learned how to save myself. I had no other choice.

Finally in late 2020, I had been out of ministry leadership for a few years and was no longer part of any of the church groups that had terrorized me. I was living in a different town on my own in a new life I had built from scratch. I had put geographic distance between me and the wolves that hunted my life. I felt safer. I was making measurable progress on my mental health. I had escaped my abusive relationship and was happier than ever with the love of my life. I regularly shared my story through writing, and had co-founded an intentional living community and a trauma support group. I worked hard to land a government job with excellent health insurance and succeeded. Things were good overall. And that’s when I finally received my PTSD diagnosis.

I cried. Ten long years of anguish and fear and uncertainty and self-doubt and misrepresentation and unfair assumptions washed over me. Half a lifetime of suffering felt tangible and vindicated and validated and resolved all at once. I was right and they were wrong. What they had done to me really was bad enough after all! A fancy doctor with a lot of letters after his name said so. I had an officially-produced document in my hands stating I was diagnosed with a legally-recognized disability caused by trauma. This piece of paper would qualify me for ADA resources such as reasonable accommodations at work if I needed them, access to the healthcare I desperately sought, and even a service animal if I wanted to pursue that.

I sobbed. A lifetime of sorrow surfaced and released. I laughed with joy and awe and relief. I had an urge to frame that silly piece of paper. I sent screenshots to a few friends and family members. This was it. My entire adult life of struggle and injustice and confusion and dismissal and minimization was now summed up with one concise phrase. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While a diagnosis might feel limiting or discouraging to some, not to me – I was free. At 29 years old, at last 19 year old Sarah received the affirmation and support she had deserved all along. She was powerful and free.

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