When Religion Turns To Abuse: How The Church Gave Me PTSD And What Helps Me Heal
It's a sunny day in early 2020. My eyes are fixated on the front tire of my bicycle, which is spinning over hot Florida pavement. I've made the six-mile journey to the end of the trail, and it is now time to head home. My feet are pedaling at an even pace. Paramore serenades me through plastic earbuds. My breathing is steady. My thoughts are clear. I feel good.
But without warning, something inside of me shifts. Intrusive thoughts swarm like a plague. I start to feel uneasy and a little nauseous. I feel full of fear and existential dread. As if someone has flipped a switch. And I'm just responding. I think I can pedal it out and push through with physical movement. So I quicken my pace. But my lungs close tight like a fist. My breathing is shallow, and I can no longer see the path ahead because my eyes are clouded with uncontrollable tears.
I can't keep going. I have to get off this bike. My body hits the ground. I am gasping for oxygen. I've experienced this sensation before, but never without a trigger like this. Since I was a child, I have had panic attacks- and pre-existing asthma doesn't help the situation. I know how to compose myself, though. I stay on the ground for a while, take a puff through my bright yellow inhaler, calming myself down; breathing my way back to a "normal" state of mind. I slowly pedal back home to the comfort of my husband's arms. I call my therapist. I work through it.
Ten years earlier
I was slumped in shock in the living room of my home. Twelve familiar faces were circling around me, intervention style. Their eyes were burning through me—Bibles at their sides, with hands clinging to tissues. I was nineteen at the time, but I was still a child to them. These faces were heavy with disappointment, and they were taking turns letting me know just that.
They were there to bring me back to god. They believed that he had given them the authority to do just that. They felt that because I was partying on the weekends, exploring my sexuality, and questioning my faith, I was being pulled under satan's evil grip. Each one took a self-righteous moment to let the judgment and shame roll off their tongues, spilling out and spreading around me like toxic sludge.
This was when they revealed that they had been watching my every move for quite some time. They had been illegally tracking my digital activity and communications. They installed a keylogger program on my computer and phone that gave them full access to my life, even the most secret and private moments. They printed what they considered to be the worst of it, gripping to a stack in their laps as they shamed me for what was inside them. I had never felt such a deep violation of privacy before that moment. I felt humiliated and small and confused.
As the night progressed and they didn't get the response they hoped for, I was physically detained and prayed over, accused of things I didn't do, held against my will, and even threatened by a grown man with a closed fist. They took my computer and car keys, and an attempt was made to conceal my phone; they didn't want to give me the opportunity to call someone to pick me up. There was a moment that night when I felt so terrified that I fell to the floor and felt that familiar weakening feeling: racing heart, numb face, tight lungs, a panic-induced asthma attack. I was given an inhaler, but not before furious purple faces hurled their rage, accusing me of faking it entirely. Thankfully, within a few hours, I managed to get the hell out.
Making The Connection
It took some time to realize the connection between these two events. And also how they connected with other personal obstacles I've faced over the last decade. For the first year or so after what I refer to as "the intervention," I suffered severe night terrors that would render me thrashing and yelling in my sleep until my husband could shake me out of it. These terrors eventually mellowed out into regular nightmares, but the themes remained the same: entrapment, humiliation, and shame. I laid my head down almost every night for ten years, anxiously anticipating having to re-live that night all over again in my dreams. And more often than not, I did.
I also experienced a gradual increase in anxious behavior. I developed social anxiety, something very new to my big personality. I was a proud, self-proclaimed social butterfly for all of my youth. But over the years, I felt an overwhelming and growing sense of shame, as well as a loss of identity. Additionally, I developed concentration problems, motivation deprivation, bouts of severe depression, and crying spells I couldn't explain. I became very jumpy and easily frightened. My husband could walk into a room unexpectedly, which would ignite my fight-or-flight, resulting in a blood-curling scream. I was easily angered and always irritable. I adopted body aches and pains I couldn't explain. I could feel myself slowly slipping at first and then quite a bit more rapidly as the years progressed. When gravity pulls any object down, its velocity increases every moment it remains in motion. I was that object in motion and spiraling out faster every single day. I needed to find out a way out, or I was going to hit the ground hard.
It took a lot of research, therapy, and introspection to realize that I was experiencing symptoms of PTSD. This came as a surprise because I was misinformed about what PTSD is and what kinds of events can cause it. I assumed that only people who had been through specific and severe trauma (such as violent assault, live combat, shootings, etc.) could experience PTSD, but that is not the case.
According to Mayo Clinic, "Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event."
Symptoms of PTSD can include:
Negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world
Hopelessness about the future
Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
Difficulty maintaining close relationships
Feeling detached from family and friends
Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
Feeling emotionally numb
Being easily startled or frightened
Always being on guard for danger
Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
Irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behavior
Overwhelming guilt or shame
With the help of a professional and recommended reading material, I finally realized what was causing me to feel so out of balance all of the time. I had not recognized the serious impact of this trauma on my mental/emotional/psychological well-being. I did not address the initial shame and guilt that was passed down to me not only that night but so many times before and after that event. I was basically raised in the church pews. Every week my Sunday school teachers and Pastors would team up to remind the rest of the congregation and me that we were naturally corrupt and in need of a savior. To be a true follower of Christ, I had to die to myself so that only god would show through me. And if I failed to do so, I was deserving of the worst kind of punishment in this life and the after. When I broke away and had nobody else around to punish me, I resorted to punishing myself. Eventually, I shamed myself into a shell, regurgitating the toxic sludge they poured onto me so long ago. I never had the tools to recognize the effects, so the effects festered inside until I cracked under pressure, without warning, on a sunny afternoon bike ride.
Churches overstep their boundaries every day, using their platform to control rather than support. They bring people in under a mask of love and acceptance but reveal their true intentions once you're in too deep. Here are some of the ways I've worked to overcome my religious trauma. I hope they can help someone else overcome whatever they've been through at the hands of the church.
Realize your feelings are valid. Even if others don't understand it or try to gaslight you into thinking what you went through wasn't a big deal, you must recognize that your feelings and experiences are valid. Religious trauma is real, and if you've grown up in a church, you have likely experienced some form of it.
Join groups such as Facebook groups, other online forums, or even in-person meetings for survivors of religious trauma. I have personally never gone to any real-life meetup. Still, I am a part of several online communities that provide a safe place to talk about these difficult topics without feeling ashamed.
If or when you're ready, don't be afraid to be open up about your experience. Make art, write, or share your story with others to heal and create purpose from your pain.
Cut toxic people out of your life. If your church family cannot accept your new choices and beliefs, they've got to go. It is important to find a community outside of the church so that when you break away, you're not alone. Find people who love you despite your religious affiliation and care more about the person you are inside.
Find your identity. Discover what makes you happy, especially if the church forbade it. Watch dirty movies, read raunchy books, date around, do shrooms in the forest, rock some heavy cleavage- whatever makes you happy and allows your freak flag to fly high (please do this responsibly. And legally *wink*)
See a counselor or therapist that specializes in religious trauma. Everyone responds to therapy differently, but this is where I was given the tools I needed to recognize what I was going through and make a plan to heal from it.
This is just a random, condensed list that worked for me. You might find that only one of these suggestions aids you in your path to healing. Or even none at all. And that's ok. The important thing is that you look inside and find your own way. Below are some resources you can use if you've been struggling with the effects of religious trauma or need help identifying those effects. You can also feel free to reach out to me via my contact form if you need someone to talk to about your experience. Remember that you are not alone. You deserve a life that is unchained from religious oppression. You deserve acceptance and you have the right to live free.
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