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.”
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.
Those of us who were raised in the church often have a particularly complicated relationship with our parents. When our parents don’t fit society’s requirements for being abusive, and yet we feel profoundly harmed by our parents, it sets up a unique internal struggle: confusion, guilt, and often a mix of anger and justification for our caregivers’ choices.
Its especially hard if we love our parents and want to be close, but feel pushed away by their actions. We often take on the responsibility for their behavior, thinking if only we tried hard enough we could be different than them and still have a healthy connection.
But we can’t lift both sides of the relationship. While our parents might love us and might have met our physical needs, they still put us in an abusive situation and often neglected our emotional needs. As much as we might love our parents and even feel empathy for them, there often comes a point when we need to confront them for the abuse they either caused or enabled.
That’s what this letter is. It’s an actual letter I wrote to my parents recently when things yet again came to a head. Feel free to use any of these points with your own parents, if it would help you.
P.S. – My parents aren’t horrible, evil people, and yours might not be either. But that’s the thing with high-demand religion – it makes good people do bad things.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I wanted to take a few minutes to open up and be vulnerable enough with you to let you know how the communication dynamics in our relationship are affecting me.
It’s very hard to talk to you about anything beyond surface-level topics because you get so frantic and wound up and defensive and full of fear and anger. The way you both keep bringing up harsh and judgmental sentiments over and over, never letting it rest, and the way you make passive aggressive comments about heavy topics – seemingly to “get me thinking” about it or to get a reaction out of me – it starts to feel like harassment and it’s hard to enjoy my time around you without being always on edge.
Going forward, I am setting the boundary that I will not discuss political or religious topics with either of you anymore. It is an unfortunate solution, because I would prefer to be able to chat back and forth as equals about whatever is on our minds, but the way you talk about these things makes that seem impossible. I feel preached at and cornered and you seem to listen only enough to form a rebuttal. That’s not a respectful, reciprocal relationship.
I don’t want to be around the anxiety-inducing negativity and I also don’t want to see you living your own lives in fear and anger either. Life is short, why be consumed by that? Enjoy life, make the best decisions you can for yourselves, focus on the things that make you happy, and give others the freedom to do so as well.
You told me recently that you feel you have to walk on glass around me, because I “take things SO personally”.
I do take it personally when my own parents repeatedly defend my abusers (the church), yes.
I do take it personally when my parents keep pushing the same ideology on me that originally traumatized me and gave me the lasting injury of PTSD. I will always take that personally.
I do take it personally when subtle jabs are made in my presence and pointed at people who are just like me and fit my demographics. This includes me and the people I love in your insult – so yes, I take that personally.
I do take it personally when my beliefs and decisions are misrepresented and distorted, and people who share my values are painted to be villains. I take that very personally.
I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you don’t understand the depths of cruelty I experienced from the people and culture at your church.
I assume you don’t realize just how important my faith was to me (it was everything) and just how far the church had to push me and torment me, to get me to leave. I didn’t want that. I would have stayed if it was safe.
You say you care deeply about me, and I believe you, but…
1) you’ve never actually asked about my abuse or to hear my story, and you seem to prefer I don’t bring it up,
2) you’ve never asked you how can help,
3) you’ve never asked or talked about about ways you might have been complicit in what happened to me,
4) you’ve never stopped defending the people who abused me,
5) you’ve never stopped promoting the beliefs and lifestyles that harmed me,
6) you’ve never approached me with an openness to learn and willingness to only listen without a defense,
7) you’ve never clearly affirmed that you do in fact believe me, and defending the church makes it seem like you don’t (that’s one of the worst things an abuse survivor can experience, not being believed)
8) you’ve never apologized for the ways you were involved – such as believing lies about me, talking to people about me behind my back, blaming me for what I went through and placing me in that community in the first place (even when done with good intentions).
Again, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you don’t fully understand all that happened and that you wouldn’t want to do these things on purpose. But there still comes a point where each of us needs to take responsibility for our actions and I believe in this situation we’ve reached that point.
You don’t have to walk on glass around me, just please
1) don’t defend my abusers,
2) don’t keep pushing traumatizing ideology on me,
3) don’t make frequent judgmental and negative comments around me
And I believe the best and maybe the only way to do this, is to
4) not discuss politics or religion together.
A few final thoughts – before you say something negative about a person or group of people, ask yourself “Is this loving? Do I know this person’s entire story? Do I know their motivations? Am I 100% certain if I lived their EXACT same life and suffered everything they have suffered, that I wouldn’t end up in the same situation?” The world would be such a more beautiful place if we all saw the humanity in each other.
And I’m tired of your frequent, passive Doomsday comments that are always out of the blue and jarring and pointless unless you are purposefully trying to upset me. It puts me on edge and makes me nervous to be in situations where it could happen again. This affects my ability to spend longer bouts of time with you.
And finally – Please, just let me be me. Give me the same freedom you yourselves have, to be who you want to be.
I love you both very much and I’m taking the time to say all these things because I want to have the closest and healthiest relationship possible.
I’m not finding myself, but finding my worth
I’m not lost, only trained to be invisible
It takes courage to be who you really are
Just you and nothing and nobody else
Unveiled for the world to see
No facades, no apologies
I’m learning to love myself again – or maybe for the very first time
I’m rewiring my brain to believe I am good – not disgusting or evil or broken
I can trust myself – and they were wrong
I was created with inherent glory and nothing, no one, can strip that away
That’s what it means to be made in the image of God
Why was I the one who got away?
Was I somehow special?
Was I just lucky to be exposed to a different viewpoint? No…I’ve seen others presented with the same information and respond differently.
Why did I leave?
Was I different from birth?
Is there something in my genetics that makes me question everything? Something that makes me less likely to follow blindly? No… my sister has the same genetics and she continues to dive deeper in.
Why did I have the epiphanies?
Did an outside force change me along the way?
Did something happen in my childhood that made me realize something wasn’t right? No… My sibling and I shared most of the same childhood experiences and I’m the only black sheep.
Why did I wake up to the inconsistencies, harsh judgments and lies?
Am I more compassionate? Certainly more than some, but no… that’s not it – I know plenty of compassionate, misguided people.
Why did I learn to think for myself when I was trained not to, and the cost was so incredibly high?
Am I wiser? Bestowed upon by the Spirit? No…that doesn’t seem right. I’ve seen many people ask God for wisdom, yet come away with different conclusions.
Why did I rebel when I was always so obedient before?
Was I chosen? By whom? No…I doubt it. Certainly there are others more capable who could have been called out and enlightened. Those with more bravery, charisma, charm…
Why did I escape?
Where did I find the strength to willingly lose everything? How did I gain the resolve to pick apart my entire reality? Perhaps I was equipped by the God I was accused of rejecting. But no…It doesn’t make sense for God to rescue me and not the others.
Why was I given a second chance at life, even while I was so narrow-minded? Where did I learn to start again from scratch?
Am I following my true calling now? No…I’m not doing anything grand – just taking care of myself and my loved ones and trying to be happy.
Why do I now have this life I call my own?
Why do I get to finally say I am safe? Scarred and broken, but free?
Was it just some random happenstance? A meaningless coincidence? No…I feel a sense of purpose deep in my bones, and though my life isn’t impressive somehow it is still enough. Back then, I was never enough.
Am I special?
Am I lucky?
Am I different?
Am I chosen?
Am I called?
I will never know
I will always wonder