How to avoid a dumpster fire

This is an actual conversation that happened at my house last week (details blurred to protect my integrity)

Craig: I saw (unnamed) at (event he attended).
Me: REALLY?!?! Did you tell him he’s a jackass and kick him where he wishes he had balls?
Craig: Yes. I decided utter annihilation was the best way to handle the situation rather than communication and conversation.
Me: Whatever, you totally talked to him like a person and didn’t kick him anywhere. Hmph.

Friends, this is literally my marriage in a nutshell. I want to punch people in the throat and call them names, and my husband has actual productive conversations and doesn’t take my interpersonal relationship advice. It’s ok though, I recognize my need for improvement. Believe it or not, I am trying. Whether I choose to exercise my better social skills and values usually depends on how vulnerable I feel. The more vulnerable, the harder it is for me not to throw the first punch.

One of the ways I am learning to be myself again is to let down my defenses. It isn’t easy to leave an abusive relationship without feeling like everyone else is the enemy. In my situation, I was often told “people” (always nameless) were watching, calling, complaining and it was up to them (men in leadership) to uphold these complaints, rebuke and punish me. This pattern went on for years. I was never allowed to know the identity of those who monitored my every move. I actually began to believe that every person in the vicinity was a potential enemy and that no place was safe.

I’ve been unlearning this false reality for a while now, but when I feel threatened or emotionally overwhelmed, all my defenses slam back into place. My sharp edges emerge. I plot how to hurt them before they hurt me. These patterns aren’t healthy, but they were the lens of my reality for a long time. I’m learning to create space before responding in order to step back and remember not to come out with my flame flower already blazing. My healing process is awkward and imperfect. I’m growing into new patterns slowly, but I am softening.

Learning to be soft and open is a long process after trauma. When we are wounded we tend to guard the area where the injury occurred so it doesn’t receive further damage. But eventually, if we don’t move in natural ways, the ways we are designed to move, we become stiff and stunted where once we were supple and smooth. I feel stiff and stunted most days. It’s easier to resort to defensive techniques and name calling then it is to open to pain again. I tell myself it’s better to drive people away and be safe than to allow them close where they can wound me again.

I know these feelings aren’t based in reality, but they are easy and known. Easy and known can feel safe and true, even if it isn’t.

I don’t want to be a cynical, snarky, and mean person, not even when it gives that little zing of naughty pleasure. I’ve achieved expert level skills in the game of caustic comeback, but it’s not really the reputation I desire. In fact, this narrow, fearful, binary thinking of us vs. them is what led to the abuse which damaged me. In seeking to shut down and silence the ones I see as my “opponents,” I become like the very ones who damaged me so deeply.

I sure as hell don’t want that.

I don’t want to perpetuate the type of treatment I experienced. I want to be soft and open and loving. I want to hear what someone else has to say, which is hard to do when you’ve already punched them in the throat. I want to be warm and welcoming and speak with intelligence and compassion. I may eventually even overcome muttering “jackass” under my breath when I see them coming, even if I don’t go for the throat punch.

I have these heroes (my husband is one) who are strong and emotionally self-aware and able to hold conversations (without crying) about things they feel passionately without being prickly and defensive. I’m starting to love myself enough again to see the value in “the other” more than the value of being right and putting them in their place. I keep practicing vulnerability so these healthy responses are my go-to behaviors rather than all the self-protective bullshit I currently employ.

I’m working on it, working on me. Every day I’m unlearning the lessons of religion and replacing them with the truth of being human, and frail and fraught with error and filled with the Divine even so. Me, you, them, everyone. All of us needing a little less annihilation and a little more space to be heard.

The day I said what I wanted

” We don’t need to call everything we are doing ministry. Just call it Tuesday. That’s what people who are becoming love do.” – Bob Goff

It continues to be a surprise to me whenever I realize a new sense of freedom. One of the insidious traits of emotional abuse is its subtlety. Power and pressure exert themselves gradually until, like the parable of the frog in the pot of boiling water, you are stuck in a very dangerous situation. There are so many things I stopped doing or saying for fear of the potential repercussions, even when no one overtly coerced me to stop (though that happened as well). It was easier to alter my behavior bit by bit, cutting off pieces of myself, until, over time, I was carrying entire dead limbs around as though they were still part of me. I realize, now, how much of a shadow self I became, walking, breathing and talking, but not as myself. I was a three-dimensional projection of an identity someone else invented.

Fortunately for me, it seems a dying soul can be reanimated.

Even though we’ve been out of church for six months, it wasn’t until the final severance check cleared that I stopped feeling the weight of fear. For the first three months, we depended on those checks as the pieces of Craig’s new career fell – so excruciatingly slowly – into place. After that, I won’t lie, we just wanted to make sure we received every bit of guilt money. We gave a lot to that place, I didn’t plan to leave any part of myself behind, including my money, when we left. Selfish? Probably. I’m out of F—s where that’s concerned.

My rebirth is an ongoing process where I discover pieces of myself in forgotten corners and entire rooms of my soul that I’d closed off and shuttered. I’m rediscovering my love of a daily deep belly laugh. I look forward to Craig coming home from work, not that I was ever sad to see him before, but he always brought the weight of ministry home with him along with an emotional darkness from a toxic work environment. We still have bad days, of course, but these are regular bad days. We know tomorrow probably won’t be more of the same. Six months later, I am still profoundly grateful for this truth.

All of these pieces make up the picture for what happened at Aldi last week. But before I share the story, you should know, I have actively avoided seeing people associated with ministry. I haven’t felt free to talk about my experience, and sometimes, I still have anxiety attacks. It’s better to avoid triggers. But I’m finding my voice again, and the fear is smaller now, much more manageable. My mantra is no longer, “in and out and no one sees me” every time I go into a store. Everywhere Craig goes it’s a festival of reunions, I just want to walk away clean.

But on this particular day, I did see someone. Someone who publicly shamed me in the past for my political views. Not a church leader, another male who felt the right to put me in my place because patriarchy is the theology on which he was raised.

We exchanged the normal small talk; he inquired about Craig’s job. When I responded with a brief description of his career he responded, Mmmmm-hmmmm. Still in ministry.

I couldn’t think of a way to vocalize what it meant for a man to tell me AGAIN what my life centered around, not even someone outside the sphere of abuse. No one gets to do that. We are not “in ministry.” We are most certainly and completely out of “ministry”. If I have my say, we will never “do ministry” again.

These days we love without agenda, coercion or fear. We do not feel the need to convert the world to our way of thinking. If anything, we’ve converted to the “dark side” ourselves, seeing the Divine in more ways and more people than we’d dared before. The kingdom just keeps getting bigger now that we’re outside the walls of religion. No, we are not in ministry, the exclusivism and religious overtones of that word make me want to vomit directly on my shoes.

But I was too frozen to say that, instead I paused a moment and said,

Well, he does still ask people for a lot of money.

He walked away and then? Well, then I laughed. I went out to the parking lot and held on to my knees and laughed until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I texted Craig. I came home and told my children because I dared to look patriarchy right in the face and laugh at its rigid and restrictive definitions. I said exactly how I felt about ministry and I didn’t give a damn who heard about it, or what they think of it.

The problem with religious words is how exclusive they can be. We use them to define who is out and who is in. This person who identifies as an evangelical Christian, when he works with students, it’s ministry. But when this person on the LGBTQ spectrum dares to take a role with students, it’s part of the subversive gay agenda. And if a Muslim should enter those spaces, well then the entire system’s going to hell. Good works are good works only if the “right” person engages in them.

On the other hand, what if Craig’s job didn’t involve college students and education, but instead he opened a bar and bartended for a living. He’s a pretty amazing guy, and his heart has room for all the world, plus one. If he worked at a bar, all the traits which made him a beloved pastor and which make him a fantastic college administrator would be right there with him. But he wouldn’t be in ministry, right? Be honest, what would you call it? What about your religious friends?

It wasn’t long after Jesus departed Earth that humanity began establishing dividing lines: people who eat this way; not people who eat that way, people with this piece of flesh cut off; not people with this piece of flesh still on. We aren’t sure of our position so we put others beneath us as a buffer. You’re in. You’re out. Sheep. Goats. We stopped letting people explore and define their own spirituality not for fear they would get it wrong, but for fear that somehow it might prove to us that we’d been wrong all along.

In. Out. Goats. Sheep.

I know how humbling that oh shit moment is. Oh shit, I got it wrong and I was a terrible person to many people with my rules and my doctrine and my certainty and my exclusion. This is my lived experience so often these past few years.

It hurts to know the hurt I’ve caused, the ways I have misrepresented Love in the name of correctness. Oh shit, indeed. But it’s also so divinely beautiful to know I could be so incredibly wrong, and still so incredibly loved. In response to this, the only thing I can do is try to love better, deeper, less exclusively. I’m not in ministry, with its eye toward heaven, I’m in love with this world and the people in it. I don’t give a damn who’s in or who’s out. I no longer believe in Out. There’s only love, and I’m all in. We’re all in.

Which brings me back to Aldi. Over the past few weeks, the room in my soul where I have the freedom to say what I want, a room which I tightly closed several years ago, has been leaking. I’ve said things behind the anonymity of keyboard that I was terrified to say face to face. I’ve unnamed and named, but safely, within the confines of my own home. Until last week, when I opened my mouth and said NO. Maybe the words weren’t no, but the soul cry was.

No, you don’t get to define my life anymore.
No, you don’t get to elevate anything I am related to with religious underpinnings.
No, I’m not who you say I am, nor is my husband, nor my children, nor my choices.

No. No. No.

This whole freedom thing? It just keeps getting better and better. I’m in for the long journey.

The Sacred Myth of the Hysterical Woman

A few weeks ago, I planned to drive to Nashville to visit my family. I’ve been in a new-to-me car since the summer, and this was our first road trip together. Unfortunately, the traffic was horrific, including a closure of the major interstate I needed to get home. Fortunately, GPS directed me, and everyone else, down a side highway to avoid the area, but the traffic only worsened, bumper to bumper, stop and go, as far as I could see. I was actually considering turning around to go back home when my entire car shut down. It didn’t make a funny noise; it didn’t flash an engine light.

It all just stopped, engine, electrical system, power steering, power breaks – all of it. One hundred and fifty miles from home.

I womanhandled the car over to the shoulder, activated my AAA (hallelujah hands for AAA ya’ll. We’ve used them enough this year to pay for ten years of membership), and awaited the tow truck. At 4:45 on a Friday evening, I had no hope of anyone diagnosing the problem before Monday, so I also awaited my husband to retrieve me and take me home knowing full well we’d have to return for the car the following week.

Monday morning, the car ran perfectly. When I called the mechanic to get a report, he stated he could find nothing wrong. No codes were showing; no problem cranking her up.  He even took her on a twenty-mile test drive. My response was this: I did not imagine that my car shut down while driving with me inside it. I’m not making this up. He, of course, was gracious, taking the car on another long test run, checking any possible issue, and still finding nothing wrong. We picked up the car, which Craig drove home because I wasn’t speaking to her. We still don’t know what happened on the road that day.

But the words I said to my mechanic are ones I can’t seem to stop repeating in various situations:

I did not imagine my experience. I am not making this up. I don’t want to be seen as one of those raving, hysterical women.

The raving, hysterical woman is a sacred myth culture uses whenever we women make power structures, usually established by men, uncomfortable. It’s used to deflect from the fact that there is a real problem, and those systems are responsible for that problem. When women question the status quo, we are dangerous.

I think of Dr. Christine Ford, who was violated so many years ago and stayed silent, knowing she would not be believed, knowing that naming her shame would only make it possible for others to dehumanize her further by invalidating her experience. She would be held responsible for her own victimization by being too drunk, in the wrong place, dressed inappropriately, too much of a party girl. What I saw on the stand during her testimony wasn’t a raving, hysterical person – Kavanaugh filled that role nicely and was found sympathetic – but a blazingly courageous figure, staring a male-dominated and traditionally androcentric system in the face stating, I did not imagine this violation. I am not making this up.

I also consider Vonda Dyer, Julia Williams and other brave women of Willow Creek Community Church who overcame years of religious cultural conditioning requiring they acquiesce to male authority and protect men as spiritual leaders, in order to speak up about how they were violated – their bodies, their souls, their humanity. In religious circles, speaking out against an “anointed” figure in the church, almost always male, is tantamount to urinating on the Bible. These “divisive, angry, hysterical women” ( the word ‘women’ couched in these terms will sound as though the speaker is spitting as the word leaves the mouth ) with our drama and our fragility and our inability to see the bigger picture for the greater good. How dare they?

How dare we?
They did not imagine this violation. They are not making this up.

It would be easier and more comfortable for me not to identify with these bold women.

After all, I wasn’t sexually violated, not touched, not held down against my will, in fact, many of the violations I suffered happened without even my presence in the building. So how is it possible that I consider myself violated as well?

Ultimately what happened to these women, to women every day when they are violated, isn’t an expression of sexual desire. Sex may be the vehicle of abuse, but it isn’t the motive. It’s also not the only vehicle. Emotional and spiritual trauma are even more common and less recognized because ‘they aren’t a big deal.’ The damage they inflict is invisible. The act of violating a soul or a human body usually stems from a deep need to express power – to show a person he can do what he wants when he wants and there is nothing she can do to stop him (or them).  When women have the audacity to express ourselves, our independent feminine thoughts, ideas, visions, emotions, experiences, sexual desires, identity, or existence, we must be reminded of our place.

This “reminder” can take many forms.

Afterward, women experience a form of gaslighting meant to push us into the stereotype of the hysterical woman. It usually starts with denial: that never happened; you are making that up. We may be demeaned by labeling us in derogatory terms: “emotional, divisive, etc.” We may be diminished by calling our character into question: she dresses like a whore; she’s angry (somehow this is a derogatory stance for women); she deviates from the male definition of a “good woman”. We may be dismissed: our experience isn’t how it really is, we are wrong, it didn’t happen that way. We are often silenced, whether through shame, coercion or direct physical intimidation. I have experienced all of the above.

Even if our bodies are not physically violated, demeaning, diminishing, dismissing and silencing are violations, a type of soul rape.

As women, we have normalized these events, which happen to us almost daily, and we often swallow our anger, pretending it’s not a big deal. We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. If we are in a religious construct, we don’t want to go against a Divine Being who seems to be made in the image and likeness of the very men who violate us.

We don’t want to be seen as raving, hysterical women. Who will believe us? How will we be taken seriously in the face of power systems which have existed for hundreds, even thousands of years? Why speak up at all?

Every day, when I sit down to write, as I dare to share my story, I think about these things. I am angry. I have been violated. What happened to me should not be normalized.

But I know what people will say, they’ve said it for years. I’m divisive. I should be able to overlook the harm to one person by a toxically masculine institution in the face of “all the good things they do.” I’m a troublemaker. I’m a raving, hysterical, liberal, snowflake feminist. Or my personal favorite, “Jesus would want us to forgive them.”

Bullshit.

That’s what I tell myself every single day. That’s all bullshit. The abuse and violation I experienced are real. They are systemically rampant in America and perhaps nowhere more so than in our churches where women are oppressed, silenced, denied and diminished as part of the doctrine the institution promotes. Women are angry because we should be angry. Our sacred forms, our souls, are being violated. We are something less-than-human in the eyes of the powerful.

We are cute, amusing, tolerated, patronized, prized and dismissed as too simple or too fragile to understand the complexity of the dominant male narrative. This theology is a violation of our purpose and our personhood. My body, with its curves and its breasts and its propensity to leak alarming fluids – blood, tears, milk – isn’t an invitation for men to exert any form of control, sexual, spiritual or otherwise.

If it seems I am angry, it’s because I am. Not only for me but for the Bathshebas and the Marys and the Dr. Fords and every woman whose story and body and soul have been appropriated by the masculine power systems to defer to a male-generated norm. We aren’t male property.

We angry women belong to our selves. We are vibrant, bold, powerful, beautiful. We make the male narrative uncomfortable. We threaten the foundation of male-dominated power structures. We don’t stay in the places men put us. We speak truth to bullshit.

I did not imagine my experience. I am not making this up.