[Trigger warning: description of fundamentalist church service, description of PTSD-type symptoms]
October 21, 2012
I am sitting in a church pew for the first time in a while. I didn’t want to be here but I am on a weekend trip with my parents, and come hell or high water my parents will be in a church on a Sunday. This is a “sister church”, one of the same denomination as the church I grew up in. People from this church and from my old church go to the same conferences. The pastors occasionally swap pulpits. And if the family metaphor works, then I’m the embarrassing black sheep second cousin who never wanted to be part of this family, anyway.
But here I am. The musty smell of this old decaying church building housing a young congregation is as familiar as the blue hymnbooks (Trinity Hymnal, Baptist Edition) and the strident tones of the pastor’s voice. This church is mainly made up of young families: ardently religious fathers, mothers whose talents are only allowed to shine in the kitchen, endless strings of children who will grow up homeschooled.
I’m wearing jeans (jeans in church! I’d never had the audacity, growing up, to even wear jeans to Wednesday night prayer meeting) and although it’s warm, I have my coat clutched around me as though anticipating a hasty exit. I’m on the edge of the seat, flipping absently through the Bible I’m glad I remembered to bring on this trip, every nervous tic I possess scrambling for my attention. I’ve already chewed my nails as far as I can, and we’re only part way through Sunday School (which is basically just another church service, but you can’t skip it and it starts at nine in the morning and then you have to sit through two more church services after that).
The rage starts building in my head partway through Sunday School, when I get a load of hot steaming misogyny thrown in my face. The man who is teaching the lesson calls on people to read Bible verses (this counts as “participation” I suppose; real discussion isn’t often found in churches of this denomination). The teacher starts at the beginning of the room and asks one man to read a verse, then the next man, then he skips the next person in line because she is a woman. She’s a member of the church, she’s a very “godly” woman, but she’s not allowed to even read the Bible out loud in a Sunday School lesson, because that would be a woman speaking in church, and that’s not allowed. I stare down at the carpet, trying to control my anger, imagining what would happen if I were to stand up and start speaking, right there. What if I were to speak prophetically about the ignorance and abuse and oppression perpetuated by these people? Or what if I were simply to speak out of the years of pain and self-loathing wrought in my own life by the myth of female inferiority?
Then, I could not believe my ears, this Sunday School teacher began calling on children (male children only, of course) to read. A boy barely old enough to stumble through sounding out the words on the page was asked to read a verse. And this boy, this five or six year old boy, was unknowingly being forced to enact the myth that spiritual authority is assigned based on gender. He was given more spiritual authority in that church sanctuary than several adult women who had consciously chosen to follow Christ yet had been skipped over in the reading of the word because apparently the sound of a woman’s voice in the official assembly of the church would be insulting to God or…or SOMETHING. I still can’t wrap my head around it. The more I thought about it, the more upset I became, and I started to shake and cry.
I didn’t stop crying until part way through the morning service, and that’s not because I calmed down emotionally, I merely got a handle on the physical signs. There were things which made me cry harder, like when the pastor literally prayed, “Thank you, Lord, that we know the value of your holy day, that we are not spending it in vain amusements like other people who go to the beach or do yard work, but we spend the whole day in your house…” or when we were singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and I couldn’t even get past the word “merciful” because my mind got somehow stuck on the thought, you all claim God is merciful and mighty but you would not even share a meal with a gay Christian. But there was something else. It was the whole familiar ritual. The prayer, song, Bible reading, song, prayer, song, intro to sermon, prayer, sermon, prayer, that took up nearly two hours twice every Sunday of my life. The pastor’s inflection, the offhand references to things that “we know,” except we don’t all know that, it’s just something that everyone of that particular denomination happens to believe. Every time the pastor said “we” and “us” and “the people of God” in that uniquely superior way, implying that the exact, niche kind of Christian that church is, is the best and perhaps only way to be truly Christian.
Why the tears? Why was I so upset? I thought it over out in the car, waiting for my parents to get done with the afternoon service (I was kind to myself and didn’t make myself stay for that). Maybe this is what all people from the outside feel when they sit through such a church service, I thought. But that’s not necessarily the case, I’d seen plenty of “outsiders” sit through church services without crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t exactly settle on any particular answer but I knew that if this was what conservative church services did to me, I couldn’t go to any more of them. The whole experience felt traumatic. I couldn’t even express any of my thoughts or feelings about it to my parents without bursting into tears again.
Sometimes it’s only when you return to a circumstance that devoured your entire past that you can understand just how far you’ve come. Even now I can hear in my head how the people populating that church would talk about my experience. I’ve strayed from the Lord, and the Holy Spirit chose to convict me. By staying out in the car I was rejecting God’s presence. What a terrible, back-slidden sinner I must be if simply sitting through a church service can cause me to have symptoms that sound like borderline PTSD.
And I tried, for months, to process the experience. I’d already rejected the “I’m a terrible sinner” reason, especially since I can sit through services at churches of other denominations without becoming upset at all much less to the point of crying and shaking uncontrollably. I felt alone and confused. I hadn’t experienced any specific abuse during my time in that conservative denomination. They hadn’t specifically tried to brainwash me, or keep me completely isolated from the outside world (my parents had kept me mostly isolated but, I reasoned, there’s a difference between all isolated and mostly isolated). I’d heard horror stories of cult-like churches which were much, much worse than anything I’d experienced. How in the world could I justify to myself such an extreme emotional reaction to the mere fact of being in a church service?
Then, several months ago, I first heard the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome.” I could hear the people I grew up with rejecting it immediately as one of psychology’s demonic lies meant to lure people from the truth. But as I read about it, I knew this was describing a reality in my life. Other things came back to me: my extreme overreaction every time someone from my past contacts me expressing concern or trying to control my behavior or trying to argue with my opinions. The way I can’t even talk to authority figures (old pastors or my parents) about the ways I disagree with them without crying uncontrollably and feeling an overwhelming fear of rejection. My symptoms weren’t as bad as some people’s but it all made perfect sense.
The author I was reading had done significant psychological work with people who were dealing with what was basically PTSD stemming from a prolonged traumatic experience, simply because they grew up in a fundamentalist-type religious atmosphere.
As I’ve become more involved online, I’ve come across bloggers, people on twitter, and a whole community of people (Homeschoolers’ Anonymous) which have helped me understand I am not alone. There are others who are feeling the same things I’m feeling, others who have gone through the same experiences and come out the other side, some who are still Christians and others who aren’t.
Am I okay now? Hardly. Just last weekend, for instance, I met a friend’s religious mom and that simple interaction triggered a highly emotional dream about trying to run away from home and being stopped by my parents and other people from my old church. But I’ve found hope as I’ve identified that the experience I’m going through isn’t unique, heard other peoples’ stories, and realized life gets much better and there is so, so much more out here in the real world than I’d ever been led to believe growing up.