ME: “I’m the Black Sheep of my family and the community they raised me in. I’ve always been demonized as a strong-willed child and a rebel.”
THERAPIST: “Why do you think that is?”
ME: “I’ve just always been different. I’ve never been able to be what they want. They told me I’m bad when I tried so hard to be good. Looking back I can see now it’s a strong sense of justice that makes me seem angry to some people. Also for as long as I can remember I’ve had a driving urge to find the truth. I could never blindly obey or accept easy answers that didn’t make sense. That’s put me at odds with my upbringing. My search for truth has taken me places I wasn’t allowed to go, and my intentions have been consistently questioned and misinterpreted.”
THERAPIST: “That sounds incredibly difficult. How do you think your life would be different if you weren’t the black sheep?”
ME: “I think I would believe in myself more. I wouldn’t constantly question myself or wrestle with a gnawing doubt in my own goodness. So many people have tried to convince me I’m crazy. Why?!”
THERAPIST: “Maybe they are trying to convince themselves you are crazy. Because if you’re crazy, they don’t have to listen to you. I’ve noticed a pattern in your life where people try to take away your voice. Not in obvious ways, that would be easier to deal with. But in manipulative under-the-surface ways, even trying to tell you that what they’re doing is best for you.”
ME: “I know! It happens over and over. Why is it always me? I’m the common denominator. Is something wrong with me?”
THERAPIST: “No. You’re a Truth-Teller. People don’t like that. It makes them uncomfortable. The Black Sheep of the family is almost always the Truth-Teller.”
Eyes down; display humility. Don’t dare question authority.
Be quiet and kind; don’t look him in the eyes. Avert your gaze, stay polite, use manners always.
Submit, obey, follow. Empty yourself until you feel hollow.
Listen, don’t speak, have self control. Suppress your emotions, remember your role.
Serve, give, smile, sacrifice. Set yourself aside no matter the price.
Slouch your shoulders a little bit; just enough to show you’re not a threat.
Step aside, get out of the way, be flexible. Don’t be a burden and make yourself small.
“What do you want to do today?”
Oh, whatever you want.
“Where do you want to eat?”
Anywhere is fine.
“How do you feel about ______?”
I honestly don’t know.
“You should be more assertive.”
I’m not sure how. I’ve never been allowed to take up space or time with any of my own opinions, emotions or needs. I have always existed for the sake of others. It has been almost 15 years since I left and I’m still digging out the parasitic tendrils of toxic religion. That’s proof as good as any that I was a Good Christian Woman.
With the rise of the deconstruction movement, and the internet making connection more accessible and isolation more difficult to enforce, survivors of religious trauma are coming forward in droves. Our stories are being heard in greater numbers than ever before. Documentaries are going mainstream exposing the atrocities committed by various Christian denominations. Because of our bravery, its finally coming to light in recent years just how toxic the Evangelical church is, especially through the lens of mental health.
Its getting harder for the church to hide their narcissistic and abusive behavior. It’s becoming more obvious that gaslighting is their weapon of choice. Perhaps the ultimate form of this gaslighting is consistently lying about the source of, and solutions for, mental illness.
Congregants are constantly attacked with “Do not be anxious about anything, but make your requests known to God” and “Depression is a strategy of the enemy. Trust God and give it to him!”, “God wants healing for you, all you have to do is pray.” “Stop acting hopeless like unbelievers – continue in the joy of the Lord and abide in his peace.”
While the Evangelical Church would have us think that mental illness is a result of disobedience, many are discovering that for them, the church itself is actually the cause of their mental health struggles. Following their teachings means living constantly on edge, trying to please everyone all the time. It means being responsible for other people’s emotions in order to avoid rumors and judgment and straight up attacks on our lives. Unsurprisingly this leads to chronic and crippling anxiety. Faithful involvement with your neighborhood congregation often means being trapped in a suffocating group that consistently insists you are evil and flawed to your core. It means being surrounded with reminders that you are worthless if not for God’s pity. Obviously this can develop into life-destroying depression. Being beaten into submission both physically and emotionally, and then rejected, betrayed and shunned for looking different usually causes Post Traumatic Stress and a lifetime of severe dysregulation.
The narrative handed to us in church is that mental health issues are a symptom of not being devout enough. But in fact, it is precisely our very devotion and commitment to the church that erodes our mental health! If we were less devout, we would also be less damaged. The closer you are to the flame, the worse you get burned.
If we seek help, we are met with “You aren’t trusting God enough” “Spend more time at church” “delve deeper into your faith” “repent!” but its those very actions that hurt us in the first place. If, in our attempts to heal, we listen to those we’ve been conditioned to obey, we become more and more exposed to the source of our painful symptoms.
It’s quite a clever plan, when you think about it. It’s easier to manipulate and control those who are mentally ill, so helping us heal isn’t in the church’s best interest. Blaming the sickness on the patient and not on the disease keeps us right where they need us. Convincing us the contagion is actually the cure traps us in a loop. Desperate people take desperate measures and most of us will keep clinging to dynamite if we truly believe it will relieve our pain. After all, our religion has the solution to everything. We just need to stop relying on our own understanding, turn off our minds and do what we’re told.
Shame on you, church!
My only consolation is knowing the truth is coming out brighter and louder now and people are fleeing at a higher rate than ever before. Deep, dark secrets are exposed en masse – the oppressors’ worst nightmare. It is a slow and arduous battle, but we are on the winning side of history. We’ll weaken the enemy and take that victory with our own stories as our weapon of choice.
I didn’t know what freedom was
But I sure loved the feeling
I didn’t realize it then, but I had found my escape
Let goodness lure you in, you can trust it
Listen to your body and you will be free
Those who can make you feel flawed have the power
Suddenly you need them
To fix you and tell you how to be
Journey alone and your voice gets louder
The cacophony fades away
I’m not finding myself, but finding my worth
I’m not lost, just unseen so frequently – by even my own soul
They gave me blinders – “wear these to fit in”
Now I couldn’t see where I ended, and they began
What would feel real if truth could speak for itself?
Hundreds of little shards of glass
Broken bits of me
Arranging them together as a sparkling mosaic
Each one reflecting my spirit
I’m joining the resistance by not hiding
Sharp and bright – this art is dangerous
Drawing attention is a threat to the weak
They protect themselves by rattling the strong
They cower at authenticity
Celebrating myself is my chosen act of rebellion
Two decades of stained glass and steeples, pastors and preachers but never a therapist. Surrounded by Bibles and hymnals; prayer requests welcome, but never a “negative” emotion.
A Good Christian girl counts her blessings and remembers God has a plan. She always practices etiquette and good manners; she only says nice things, she’s never a downer.
Christian mothers wagged their fingers at my furrowed brow, “You really would look so much prettier if you smiled more”.
Sunday School classes centered on seeking the joy of the Lord, having a good attitude and never complaining. Questions were allowed if they had “easy” answers; anything else was backsliding. A Good Christian Girl doesn’t rock the boat.
“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.” “Everything happens for a reason” “God works in mysterious ways.”
Church leaders promised if I trusted God I would be okay. After all, I was a Good Christian Girl and God was on my side. So I trusted and prayed, volunteered and obeyed, but the truth is, their promises turned up empty.
With a cheery face and a scream trapped in my lungs, I was drowning. For far too long I was silenced with a smile.
Living in a box too small for me, there comes a breaking point. So much was stolen from me in the name of Goodness, but I’m surviving and finding my strength.
Now on the other side, I don’t need to find a silver lining. I’ve been learning a few lessons of my own. My innocence, my health, my happiness weren’t obstacles to my virtue. Suffering isn’t always refining.
There doesn’t have to be a greater purpose to a loved one’s death, or abuse, or a diagnosis. Hardships don’t have to be lessons and trials aren’t signs I need my faith tested.
Not everything is worked out for my good. I wonder where I would be if trauma hadn’t held me down? Sometimes evil injustice wins, and it’s not because of my hidden sins.
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. And it’s not a crisis of faith.
Now I let my experiences shape my beliefs and not the other way around. There is no magic wand waving in the sky. I choose to trust myself.
Gone are the days of silent submission, fake smiles and shallow answers, and to hell with linear religious narratives!
I’ve found love in all the wrong places,and encountered peace where it wasn’t supposed to be.
I’ve discovered a sense of purpose in what I was told would be meaningless,experienced joy in situations I was warned would bring pain.
Healing has come from the very things I was taught would damage me, I even felt the safest from decisions that were supposedly dangerous.
The truth I was looking for turned out to be unorthodox and the saints I’ve met have all been sinners.
I’ve encountered God among the ungodly and I have come face to face with goodness in perhaps the most surprising of places – I have found it in myself.
Now I really have to wonder – what exactly did they try so hard to keep me from?
I’m learning to find my voice again and 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.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
This is a version of a piece I wrote for the deconstruction magazine Hyssop & Laurel. For those of you who have been following for a while, you might recognize it as a reimagination of two of my past works “Silenced with a Smile” and “Finding Love in all the Wrong Places”. It also includes brand new content. This piece I’m sharing now is very similar to my published version, with a few edits.
This writing was an attempt at describing my mental health journey while living through religion and coming out the other side. There is a lot of darkness, but also so much light and healing to be found.