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.”
Being born into a fundamentalist religion is like being born with your leg in a trap. You are afforded only two options – slowly suffer and die, or greatly injure yourself escaping. There is no damage-free way forward.
Being born into religion is “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” in perhaps the truest form. Sure, technically you can leave anytime – but you will have to gnaw your leg off first. Or you can stay – keeping your body intact, never undertaking the unthinkable – but forever unable to live as you were created to; not really living at all, but deteriorating and dying.
Staying is less acutely painful. If you don’t move much, sometimes you can barely feel the hard, cold clamp on your leg. You can almost ignore the persistent throbbing. You are a prisoner with a narrow existence, but by staying you don’t have to make any choices. You can even convince yourself you have no choices. This is how you must live – God has decreed it.
Or you can lose your leg, excruciatingly – but then you are free. Maimed, and not who you once were, but free. The prize is grand if only you can maintain the resolve to stay the course and endure the mind-fuck of self-mutilation for the sake of saving your own life.
But everything is not suddenly okay at the moment of escape. The way forward will not be as pleasant or peaceful for you as for one who had not been born in a trap. Those who were lucky to be born free may walk with healthy legs throughout their lives, effortlessly frolicking where they please. They know not the torment of counter-intuitively cutting away a part of yourself you never should have had to lose. They have never fought your battle between body and mind all while keeping faith in something you’ve never experienced.
The healing journey is long and you’ll never be “normal”. Legs don’t grow back. PTSD has no true cure. But you will come away with treasures the freeborn will never own – proof of your power, wisdom worthy of a shaman, faith in your own divinity, and a mystical calling you’ve never been able to ignore.
A survivor never feels safe for very long. For us, safety is a dream always just over the horizon, a rare gem at the end of a rainbow.
When you risk everything to break free from the confines of your reality, leaving behind the steepled box as the only place you’ve ever known – it’s a leap of blind faith. A survivor’s instinct will often tell you that leaving would be too dangerous. Sure, things are pretty bad, but at least you know what you are dealing with. Outside is unknown. Besides, you’ve been threatened with what could happen if you leave.
A survivor has to hope against hope that they can trust their intuition, that they knew something on the inside just isn’t right. That’s quite the feat when everyone and everything in your life tells you one thing, but your heart tells you something different. It’s courageous trusting in your own sanity and goodness when you’re in that mess. Leaving is rejecting the only instincts you know how to use, stepping off the edge and believing something you’ve never seen will catch you.
Leaving hurts. You must break out through stained glass windows, bleeding knuckles punching away the beautiful prison walls, gaining scars that will bear witness to your power, trusting your cuts can be healed on the other side – trusting there even is another side.
For those of us who will now live with PTSD for the rest of our lives because of high-control religion, every moment of existence is a test of endurance. With every breath and every heartbeat, we strain to shut out false alarms and critical voices whispering: “You are bad”, “You will be punished”, “You are always in danger”.
For survivors of religious trauma, this present crisis in our country is particularly terrifying.
Survivorship is years of training our brains to know we are safe when we don’t feel like it. Its hundreds of little moments repeating to yourself “I am free” when cages seem to lurk in every shadow. Its feeling like you can’t make it any farther but clinging to mantras: “I have the skills now to keep myself safe. I can recognize red flags. I won’t ever go back. What they think of me doesn’t matter anymore.” Those words carrying you through… finally starting to relax, finally finding peace… and then the ultimate bait and switch.
Blindsided, church walls suddenly come crashing down all around you and the water you were once drowning in floods out into your neighborhood, your city, your country. Nowhere is safe. No hill is high enough.
You have no control this time. You can’t just walk away. Leaving an entire country is possible but very difficult. And how can you know they won’t follow you then, too? Your safety is up to the whims of a powerful, hard-hearted minority, just as it was before.
The cold grip of your nightmarish past squeezes you by the throat. You can barely breathe. As you start to lose consciousness and the blackness closes in, frantic thoughts flicker in and out of your awareness. “Was I wrong to leave? Would it have been safer on the inside? Were they right all along? Would it have been wiser to remain in their favor? After all, they take care of their own.” Their list of requirements for belonging is long and impossible, but “perhaps I could have somehow worked hard enough…?” Silence.
The church is chasing us down and following us into our secular lives. They will never be satisfied with totalitarian control over just those inside of their building. It’s baked into their theology. They believe the Almighty God has called them to rule over the earth and subdue it. Forcing people to look like them and act like them is at the core of their religion.
A survivor never feels safe for very long, and one often wonders if safety will ever come around again or if they just got a lucky break. In fact, maybe safety isn’t even real, maybe it is a mirage, a fantasy in the minds of rebels and Jezebels.
A survivor never feels safe for very long.
This is today in the life of a survivor.
As a religious trauma survivor coming out of a high-control environment, most of my life I HAD to care what other people thought.
I had to care what they thought about EVERYTHING I said and did, or else my life would be intentionally attacked.
The excuse was always that we should “guard our reputation” but all that really meant was appeasing a nosy, critical and vengeful congregation of a couple thousand who barely knew each other.
I grew up constantly on edge, listening for inflections in voices, watching flickers of expressions on faces.
Forever seeking acceptance, wearily staying a step or two ahead of the condemnation lurking in the shadows at my back.
The first time I made a decision based on what was best for me and not on what others thought, I was excommunicated. I was 19 years old. The decision? Visiting a male friend at his family’s house.
In the next Christian community where I made my own decision without agonizing over what other people thought, it ended up in me almost being fired from the organization I had faithfully served and dedicated myself to for five years at the time. The decision? Allowing a male-bodied person I knew closely who had no where else to go, to sleep on the floor in front of the heater in the dead of winter in my community house with roommates who also wanted to help. Sounds to me like Jesus’ example of the righteous: “I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you cared for me.” and yet I almost lost the Christian community I dearly loved as a result.
After escaping that kind of high-control environment half a decade ago, I have since lived by the mantra that it doesn’t matter what other people think.
“Never again will I be a prisoner to other people’s opinions!” I told myself. “Let them gossip and judge, they can’t keep me down anymore.”
Anytime I felt anxious or insecure I repeated to myself “It doesn’t matter what other people think!”
Except it doesn’t matter what other people think… until it DOES.
Recently a large amount of money was stolen from me by well-off Evangelical family members who had access to Caleb’s estate. They justified it by asserting I didn’t deserve the money because I wasn’t Christian enough.
I was targeted as a victim of theft because of what other people think.
My future will be less secure now because of what other people think.
As a result, it will be more difficult to secure housing and provide stability for myself and my children in the years to come because of what other people think.
I received less support in the wake of Caleb’s death because of what other people think. A surprisingly large handful of evangelicals thought I deserved widowhood and should fend for myself because they didn’t approve of my “lifestyle”.
I have lost very dear friends and many other relationships I wanted to keep because of what people think.
I daily suffer from damage to my mental and physical health because of what other people think – their actions and reactions resulting in my complex PTSD.
Opportunities have been withheld from me because of what other people think.
Years worth of peace and happiness have been taken away from me because of what other people think.
I do all I can to not let others have power over me, but in the end I can’t control everything.
Unfortunately, the grisly reality of it is that what other people think does matter and believing any differently is naive.
But instead of telling myself what other people think doesn’t matter – I can commit to a willingness to pay the cost for what other people think.
Unfair as that is, there is a cost each of us must pay in order to own ourselves.
For some, the cost will be low – those with supportive, accepting communities are afforded the right to individuality and freedom of choice.
But the cost of self-ownership is particularly high for those of us fleeing abusive religious environments.
Toxic and dangerous people will think what they want to think and do what they want to do – regardless of who they victimize along the way.
If you fight against that reality by submitting, pretending or hiding – those people own you.
Of course there are always cases where one might have no choice but to hide or pretend for their imminent safety. That is an injustice I am all too aware of.
But indenturing myself to the opinions of others to avoid the cost of my freedom will always end up a much higher cost in the long term. It takes bravery and resolve to accept that and choose to pay the cost for what other people think.
These last few years I have paid dearly, but I own myself.
I will continue to periodically make payments on my freedom for the remainder of my life – but I am my own.
My abusers aren’t free – they constantly have to watch their backs from others who are just like them.
But I have no master, I bought my freedom with everything I had.
“Ten spears go to battle … and nine shatter. Did the war forge the one that remained? No… All the war did was identify the spear that would not break.” – Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer
Trauma didn’t make me stronger. It revealed my strength.
Trauma didn’t make me better. It proved I am good.
Trauma didn’t teach me anything – I sifted through the sand looking for diamonds and gleaned goodness where I could find it, rare as it was in that hell.
My abusers gave me nothing of value – in my own wisdom I recognized a kernel of truth amid their array of lies and took it with me, leaving behind the rest. I get the credit for lessons learned and growth gained in the chaos, not the havoc wreckers.
Abuse has no silver lining – the hidden treasure was always my ability to emerge from the deadly storm alive, never the merciless wind or harrowing waves.
Trauma has no upside – it held me back, knocked me down, inflicted serious injuries. Yes, I got up time and time again. Yes, I nursed my wounds and healed them as much as they could be healed. But without the setback, who knows how much farther I could have gotten? What more could I have accomplished without years of my energy going toward surviving something so unnecessary and harmful?
Trauma is fundamentally and irredeemably bad – always. The urge to find a bright side is a coping mechanism for avoiding the unpleasantness of sitting with the finality of an immutable and irreparable event – a moment passed, frozen in time; once birthed, eternally existent. Looking for a reason or projecting meaning is a surface level distraction from the pain and unfairness of it all, a wrestling with our own powerlessness against the past.
The blessing isn’t the unthinkable survived but always the survivor. Trauma reveals those who are made of gold so when passed through the fire they emerge changed, but not destroyed. Trauma reveals the extraordinary person otherwise overlooked in an ordinary life.
Trauma is never good – the person who weathers it without becoming a monster is good. The person who can escape a changing maze, who can set their broken bones despite the agony, who doesn’t give up after being pushed down again and again – that person is good. The person who is clever enough and creative enough to invent new ways of escaping, resilient enough to keep inventing when they are exhausted, and shrewd enough to seek help – that person is good. The person who can experience injustice without repeating it, the person who can look outside of themselves while carrying something so consuming – they are good. Trauma never is. If the bleakness of it all is too much and you need to find the light in the darkness – look to the survivor, the hero of the story, whether it is yourself or a person you love. The survivor is hope in a depressing narrative. Don’t give credit to abusers or the trauma they inflict by looking for the silver lining – instead celebrate the person who is gold.