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
I’m proud of me. It took a long time to be able to say that but I take pride in who I am. I take pride in being different. I am proud of my ability to love people regardless of their gender or their body parts. I’m proud of the journey I took to self-acceptance.
Growing up evangelical it took a long time to make sense of my gender and sexuality. It’s easy to underestimate how integral those aspects of our identity are to the core of our being, how we see ourselves and how we experience the world.
It wasn’t just the outright anti-gay messages that made this process so difficult, it was also the lack of any variety, diversity or individuality whatsoever. It wasn’t just the strict “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood” indoctrination, it was also the stolen opportunities to know or love anyone living outside those limiting roles.
Everything was so binary, so black and white. You were either this or that. If you were this, you needed to like that and if you were that you needed to like this.
If you were seen as a girl, you needed to like dolls, and tea parties and pink dresses. And you had to like boys – only boys. You would be quiet and polite, of course. You would be scared of spiders and snakes and heights and going out after dark and you would need boys and men to help you and comfort you and protect you.
If you were seen as a boy, you needed to like trucks and army men, camo and baseball caps. And you had to like girls – only girls. You would be loud and rambunctious and no one would teach you manners because boys will be boys. You would like showing off and having big muscles and getting dirty and you would help all the little girls who weren’t as strong or brave as you.
As a little girl, it was absolutely predestined that I would marry a man someday. There wasn’t any question about it. Remaining single wasn’t an option ever discussed. Becoming a wife and mother someday was a give-in. When I was really young it didn’t bother me too much, my fate was matter-of-fact – that’s just how it was.
It didn’t take long though, for little Sarah to toddle around the yard helping her dad with stacking firewood and wonder my mommy was always inside cooking and cleaning. It didn’t take long for her to notice that her body looked more like her mother’s, even at 5 years of age and to notice a creeping fear of growing up and turning into someone she didn’t feel like she really was. My heart breaks now realizing how early the feeling of being trapped set in for me.
This was all still fairly sub-conscious though, until maybe 5th or 6th grade when I first reckoned with my sneaking suspicion that I didn’t totally fit in. It entered my awareness watching princess movies – realizing I resonated more with the prince doing the rescuing than the princess waiting around for it. I felt angry that the princess usually seemed helpless and weak. I was old enough to realize on some level that the generation I was born into was under no control of mine, and if I had been born earlier in history I would be forced to dress and behave as the princess I was watching. But I wanted to be strong, have a grand adventure, and save the day. I wanted to run mightily through the woods, feel my muscles ripple as they carried my frame, and let my hair stream out freely behind me. I didn’t want to sit around in a castle all day with no part to play in the story other than being a pretty thing to be admired. I couldn’t understand why some girls were okay with that.
It wouldn’t be until sometime in my twenties when I was able to hold the complexity of gender and face my trauma enough to know it didn’t have to be either-or. But for years I struggled with anger around being born female because I wasn’t allowed to see any other way of being a woman. I was kept from knowing anyone else like me existed.
Following those princess-movie-epiphanies, I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be a woman. But that didn’t make sense either. I didn’t want to BE the man. I didn’t want to LOOK like the man. I just wanted to be FREE like the man. I liked being a pretty girl, but I wanted to be pretty AND strong. I wanted to play an important role in the story and be a fearless leader and I wanted a man to fall in love with me someday. But I wanted to rescue a princess too. I wanted the admiration of women and to feel their touch. I wanted to be able to take care of another girl and guide her and love her. I admired the softness and elegance of highly feminine women and I was drawn to the strength, bravery and outspokenness of fierce women.
Most of these feelings were hiding in the shadows of my mind where they were rarely seen clearly.
My church didn’t have as many anti-gay sermons as some, but that’s partly because 20 years ago no one was talking as much about either gay rights or depriving them.
I do vividly remember our pastor saying once “studies have shown that gay people don’t live as long, so we are actually helping them even though they don’t like it! We want them to live longer!” He didn’t bother telling us where these “studies” came from or what the evidence was.
My middle school youth group leader ignited rumors when she cut her hair short. My friends started whispering “is she, you know…?” All because of a haircut! Later however, she did actually end up coming out as lesbian. She was immediately forced to quit her job and leave the community. The scandal permeated the entire church for a bit. My sister freaked out because they had shared a hotel room when going on a mission trip. I remember being upset my youth leader was gone becuase she was the only one I felt totally safe with and I had really looked up to her and her faith perspectives. I remember thinking it didn’t make sense that one of the best people I knew was somehow bad enough she couldn’t be around.
I was in high school when it clicked that my uncle and his long-term roommate were a gay couple. I was very close to my uncle. He was such a delightful person who brought joy to my life, so it confused and distressed me that my family made him hide who he was around me. It never stopped bothering me that they acted like he was something to be ashamed of.
Once my teenage best friend randomly told me she wasn’t allowed to be friends with “gay people” in case it made her gay too. Around the same time, I noticed when leaning in to hug a close female friend how natural it would have felt to kiss her and I wondered why that would be seen as weird, if we both wanted it. To me it seemed a natural way to show affection to a person I loved closely.
When someone in my young adult years suggested I might be bisexual I wasn’t convinced. It seemed to far “out there” to be the true me, I thought. I didn’t feel that edgy.
In college I noticed feeling butterflies around some of my best friends and as I got older and enjoyed longer-term intimate friendships with women that nurtured my soul, I experienced feelings and attachment I could only really describe as being in love.
In my mid twenties I moved to a progressive city where I joined an inclusive and affirming church. For the first time I was part of a faith community where diversity was celebrated. I LOVED it! I got to do life with so many interesting people and I was accepted just as I was. I didn’t have to fit a label. No one asked or blinked an eye if I held hands with a woman or said “she” when talking about my date. I started noticing I didn’t only have crushes on cis-gendered people and the term pansexual floated through my mind. I learned about gender identity through casual conversation. Other people’s stories taught me I don’t have to identify as trans to feel out of place regarding society’s expectations of my gender. The term genderqueer was helpful. Lots of my friends identified as queer and there wasn’t even a need to “come out”, because no assumptions were made.
It wasn’t weird to anyone that I presented as feminine and “straight-passing” but often felt more masculine. No one was fazed by my attraction to men and women and people of all genders. It was just another way of being in this multifaceted and magical world. Around town I saw and interacted with so many people just like me and so many who were not at all like me and it was absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing how much healing inclusive community brings.
Nowadays I don’t really worry anymore about what labels or categories I fit into or what hobbies I “should” be interested in, or clothing style I’m going for or if I’m “queer enough”. I just do what I like and wear what I like and love who I like and I think that’s the best way to be.
I see now all I ever had to do was be myself and embody love.
It took over two decades to find this peace. I finally learned I don’t have to be someone I’m not in order to be me. It’s been a long journey and I’m proud of me.
It takes courage to be who you really are;
Just you and nothing and nobody else.
Unveiled for the world to see.
No masks. No apologies.
But it’s not always as simple as having guts;
Not always as easy as being fierce.
Owning yourself takes dedication and grit, but also fortune and fate.
Breaking away requires strength and commitment, courage and … privilege.
Freedom requires hard work and firm boundaries and lots of good luck,
Because courage won’t get you very far swimming with sharks.
Not everyone is safe leaving the shadows, stepping out into the light.
Not everyone will be loved and supported if they come out of the closet.
Not everyone has the privilege of ruffling feathers or the safety net to rock the boat;
Fallout isn’t distributed equally.
Sometimes the brave thing is to keep hidden until it’s the right time or place.
Sometimes it’s the strong thing to keep up an act when you so badly want to quit.
Not everyone is timid who waits,
Not all are scared who test the water or linger just inside the mouth of the cave.
It’s wise to recognize “these people don’t deserve my authenticity”.
It’s prudent to spend your change wisely, to weigh the necessity of being a sacrificed lamb.
When the time is right, you will know
Deep down if the only obstacle is fear or pride.
Protecting yourself is valiant; a calculated escape, equally bold.
In the meantime don’t lose heart, stay the course; strategizing, planning and waiting, choosing moves carefully.
Some warriors battle the front lines, publicly heroes.
Others fight in secret, never celebrated, undercover agents.
Spies hide, and guard their secret identities.
Soldiers carry weapons, wear their armor. Neither are cowards.
To those still in disguise, I see you.
To those playing the long game for the best chance of success – I’m proud of you.
Your time will come, your secret is your sword.
You will know when to use it.
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.