Why order is necessary: breaking down the three boxes

During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. This post and the box of disorder were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.

I sat down at my keyboard today and wondered, Is it ok to write about writing? Do people want to read that? Which is a silly question because I have five readers, and obviously you are the five I can’t chase away no matter what I write about. We’re stuck together for life, and I’m very ok with it. But then I considered the layers beneath that seemingly innocent duo of questions and peeked at a familiar theme. What is expected of me? Am I upholding those expectations? That’s the voice of codependency and trauma. What are the rules and how do I follow them perfectly? Those questions tell me instead of writing about writing, it’s time to break down some boxes, starting with order.

I learned about the concept of three boxes from Richard Rohr, a formative voice for me over the last several years. He breaks the universal faith journey into three boxes: order > disorder > reorder.

In the interest of brevity–and because you can read more at the linked article–let’s call the first box the box of immaturity. It holds the foundational tenets which we are taught from the moment we draw breath. Whether or not we are talking about religion, we begin life by following certain rules, ways of explaining how the world works. This is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary process enabling us to grow in an emotionally stable environment. One of our most basic needs is security. Foundational rules keep us safe and provide order: the stove is hot; the street is not safe; God loves us; the sun will rise every morning.

These rules create order and provide the framework for reality. Without them, the world is a Salvadore Dali painting, skewed, unstable and unpredictable.

All of us rely on rules daily. But most of us don’t follow them blindly once we gain maturity. For instance, the rule about going into the street. It is true streets can be dangerous. But when I take my morning run, I frequently run on the street if the sidewalk is bad All streets are not dangerous all the time for all people. As I grow in wisdom I realize black and white is fine for starting, but it doesn’t remain true as I mature. The principle is true though the practice isn’t always true.

When I run in the street, I leave the box of order and venture into disorder: I ran on the street and was nearly wiped out by a car. Eventually, we reach reorder: I can avoid a collision by carefully assessing traffic patterns before assuming street safety.

Religion can be a very first-box-oriented endeavor. We make rules because we want to know and understand the Divine, which is fine. A god who is too big or too mysterious to understand is a power with which we can never connect. Knowing and understanding are key to a healthy relationship, therefore the Divine makes Herself knowable and comprehensible because she desires a relationship. However, there are parts of her being which are not immediately knowable and even those which are essentially unknowable due to the limits of human understanding.

We use these revealed truths as cornerstones on which we build our theology. God is good. The universe is Divinely ordered. Jesus is God enfleshed. Jesus’s life is worthy of emulation. We can love like God, and She desires this way of love for us. Through Love we are formed into the Divine image. These beliefs matter. They create order in our chaotic reality. When they are distorted, our minds and bodies, as well as our religions fall into dysfunction.

Unfortunately, we often remain at this immature stage. It’s easy. Other people tell us what to think and how to behave. We don’t have to think for ourselves very often. We come to see the rules as immovable constructs for all time rather than starting point for a long conversation. Yes, the stove is hot and may burn us. However, the stove also allows us to create an endless variety of food, which may lead to conversation, laughter, togetherness, and community. What is true about the stove is not ALL that is true about the stove. It’s a starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

The same is true of our religious beliefs:

The Universe is Divinely ordered, but there is more to the conversation.
Jesus life is worth emulating, but there is more to the conversation.
We can love like God, but there is so much more to the conversation.

Sometimes having more conversation is scary. Sometimes, the stove burns your house down; the street proves deadly.

Sometimes theology goes horribly, maniacally wrong.

At this point we face a sort of crisis, is it easier to continue the conversation, or do we revert to the basic tenets and never deviate? Do we conform to the rules and reject anyone who does not or cannot conform to them, calling them a heretic and casting them away from us for our own safety? Do we dare question if the original rule might not even be a true rule at all?

Where did the rules begin and who decided they were necessary anyway?

Now we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not safe, not secure, not popular, and definitely not easy. Which is why so many of us never leave the safety of the rules. If a thing is always true, we always know what to expect. We always know the outcome. We never have to worry about the consequences. So we live this way for years. Some of us live this way forever. It isn’t inherently wrong to live our entire lives in the box of order, but it’s an extremely exclusive way to live. If a set of rules is true, then every other set of rules must be false. There can be only one set of true rules.

But somehow the Divine isn’t as binary as all that.

The box of order is safe, but it breeds superiority, contempt, and disassociation. At its extreme, it is completely anti-community. There can only be us and them, and we are always completely right.

Order is a necessary starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

How to start a conversation

So the question becomes what now? What’s next after this round of Awakening?

Sharing the story, albeit the short version, of my journey with church and fundamental evangelicalism is an important part of my healing. But I don’t want to stay a victim, only talking about what happened and how it broke me, only focusing on the hurt and shame. I want more and better than what I’ve experienced. The only way out may be through, but sitting at the end of the tunnel looking over my shoulder isn’t moving forward.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve written about the spiritual for so long, I realize it’s where I am most comfortable. For two years I wrote very little at all never knowing what word or phrase would trigger my abuser(s). I wonder now if this fear has been part of my overall spiritual apathy. For the last year, I’ve basically pushed anything of a religious or spiritual nature away from my attention. I’m so disgusted by the fundamentalist response to an abhorrent political climate that I don’t even want to be associated with those practices or even sit in the buildings.

But I do feel that something calling me back to Center, and apparently that voice demands words, lots of words as part of the birthing process. Cutting off my Spirit is the same as ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. I’m facing the same questions that many nones and dones everywhere are asking: where is a safe space for me and others like me to have meaningful conversation?  Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to center on spirituality, but I believe it often wanders into the spiritual realm anyway, whether or not we intend it.

For instance, a good friend joined me for dinner recently; her friendship is another unexpected gift from my job. We talked and laughed about many things.  Of course, books were an enormous part of the evening. Our conversation wove through books and musicals to more intimate details of our lives, how we feel, whom we love, how we experience life previously and presently. These things have great meaning and, in my understanding at least, they are deeply spiritual because they directly affect the well-being of our soul/ spirit. When I use the term spiritual, I mean this inner part of our selves at least as much as I mean a supernatural force outside of us.

Did we speak of God? Very little.  But I still consider our conversation Spiritual.

In my experience, many religious spaces aren’t safe for these types of spiritual conversations. My friend, who is a delightful, fun, incredible, world traveling, peace corp teaching, theater-loving, intelligent individual, who makes the world a richer place by being in it, doesn’t subscribe to the conventional, religious narrative. Would the church offer a safe space for her to be fully herself, freely expressing all the facets of her self without condemnation or coercion? Would we be free to have the conversations we had in my home within a religious construct without having to correct her choices to align to a cultural norm? Would she feel safe and welcome?

Would my non-binary friends? My gay friends? My secular humanist friends?
A practicing Muslim?
A black, single mom receiving state benefits?
A refugee?
A Hasidic Jew?
A Sikh?
A Christian with questions?

The curious thing about ‘safe spaces’ is if they aren’t universally safe, then they aren’t truly safe. Inevitably, a power structure will assert itself in order to dictate and control the narrative and experience of a non-inclusive ‘safe space’  In order for there to be a power structure, someone has to be in…and someone has to be out. That’s how power works. It is always binary; it must be more real, more right, more important, more venerated, more absolute than any other narrative. When power controls the narrative, it’s always possible you could embody the next quality which falls from favor, and when this happens you will be coerced to conform or be expelled.

The question I grapple with is whether a space seeks to expand and embrace, or reduce and indoctrinate. Fundamentalist spaces are overwhelmingly the latter. Christianity has evolved into an exclusive salvation club. A relationship with fundamentalism is fraught with an agenda: can we get this person outside spiritual construct to see the universe exclusively our way as well as renounce their former experience as wrong, broken and worthless and assume our agenda? Oh, and pray the sinner’s prayer which is, after all, the real key to holiness.

I know I’m stepping on toes here. Some of my longest and dearest friends identify as Christian, and I do find them safe and open and wonderful, even when we disagree. I am speaking now of systems, not individuals. Every religious structure, or any system of power, has its extremists, its moderates and its outliers. I’m not asking anyone to justify how they experience the Spiritual (in this case I do mean supernatural power), or even if they have any form of spiritual experience at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conversation. For so long, I was excluded from taking part in it. When my abusers met repeatedly to talk about me, about how to handle and control me, I wasn’t allowed to be part of the conversation. I was reassured, however, that this type of a abuse is supported by scriptures, which were helpfully listed in the Silence Contract, in case I had any questions. Even had I been in the room, I wouldn’t have been part of the conversation because my experience didn’t matter, as long as the power narrative was firmly established.

But the truth is, I am hungry for spiritual conversation, the kind which meanders and wonders, the kind which is deeply intimate one moment and hilariously sacrilegious the next.

Do you know that I stopped laughing for a while when the abuse I experienced was at its peak?  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but these days, when I laugh deeply from my center, I find myself thinking, I forgot how good this feels. Laughter is an experience my soul missed even though my conscious-self wasn’t aware of the lack. While I often say I am the funniest person I know, this type of laughter really only happens in conversation with another soul. I am profoundly grateful now when I consider how many people in my daily life elicit this response from me. They are my safe spaces, my spiritual spaces even if we never speak of God in any of Her identities.

So this is where I am. Seeking safe, spiritual conversation. If we happen to stumble on God, however we experience the Holy, while we’re at it, well, that’s alright too.

Post-evangelical: This is my real life

This post is part 3 in a series. Read part 1 and part 2.

“How you do anything is how you do everything.” ~ Richard Rohr

Divorcing church is a messy business. They get to keep the moral high ground and we get mimosas on Sunday morning.

I actually wish it was that easy. Divorcing church means there is a great big hole in my identity now, one I am in no rush to fill. At least weekly someone asks us, Where are you going to church now?

We aren’t.

I can barely stomach the thought. I won’t speak for Craig, but he’s in no rush, either. We spend most Sunday mornings on the front porch with coffee and fresh air, reading, talking, resting. It’s communion enough for now.

I recently examined an idea: love can’t exist in isolation. This concept then became a foundation for the argument that christians must participate with a church congregation, or we aren’t truly learning and experiencing love. Looking at my life now, I am far less isolated than at any point over the last three years. I give love; I receive love-love which isn’t control and coercion wearing an “I love you” t-shirt- on a daily basis. Home, work, friends, family. I have a full, glorious life. I agree we don’t experience love in isolation, but I reject the idea that church is the single vehicle to provide a loving environment.

Because I am naturally introspective, I have to discipline myself every day not to wallow in victimhood or go too far down the rabbit hole of what might have been. I also work very hard not to villainize those who abused me. Mostly they are sadly short-sighted men who believe they are gatekeepers for something sacred, blind to the fact that sacredness isn’t found in form and function but in being. Theirs is a narrow vision.

It’s likely they will never acknowledge the damage they caused or the pain they inflicted. They certainly didn’t see it even in our final meeting, which focused on condemnation, rebuke, and correction, not of my actions, but of my emotions and experiences (an emotionally abusive tactic known as gaslighting). Small men with narrow emotional skillsets make for a cold, small kingdom. They are welcome to it.

I want something bigger, warmer and more welcoming, for myself and for people I love.

At least once I every day, I stop and take a breath and tell myself, this is my real life, and I am my whole self in it.

When I practice this, I feel like I could fill my lungs forever with clean, fresh air. This grounding is necessary after I spent so many years trying to escape reality.

Each day, I remind myself that all men are not ‘those’ men, especially men in authority. I work with a number of very fine gentlemen, who in no way mirror the misogynistic patterns which undergird evangelicalism. Every day I relax a little more. I stop waiting for the hammer to fall. I am respected and appreciated. I am also stretched and challenged which is another great way to keep from spiraling into destructive thought patterns. Working with the public is good for me, broadening my worldview and constantly challenging my capacity for kindness and patience.

I focus a great deal on my physical well-being: sleep, exercise, diet. Being well in these areas supports my mental and emotional well-being. After decades of imbibing the message that our flesh, our physical self is fallen, sinful, broken and of little value How did that become good news in any universe? How did any religion think that message would elevate anyone spiritually?

I’m discovering what it is to love the body I inhabit. The walking, talking, feeling flesh. This body which survived cancer, chemo, radiation, pregnancy, miscarriage, c-sections, injury, repair, mountain climbing, scuba diving, shark tanks, a half marathon, eating, and intimacy, breastfeeding, and letting go, grief and joy and anger and shame – this is my one and only amazing and beautiful body. It is not a polluted mess which holds my soul captive until I finally “go to heaven.” It’s the glorious vessel that translates my experience in the world every moment. The more I love my self, the better I am able to love the world around me.

It’s a damn fine world, let me tell you. I’m not eager to “escape” it for anything.

Every day, I awaken a bit more. Freedom is like that, expanding, unfolding calling us to keep moving further up and further into this reality we call life.

Am I a Christian? I don’t know, and what’s more, I’m not sure I care. So many labels are just baggage, as though they could tell anyone anything of value about our unique and shining selves. I know I trust Jesus – the man, the myth and the legend. I know His narrative will always be my native tongue. I will continue to study other cultures and practices, but it’s likely I don’t have enough years of life left to speak any other narrative as fluently. I am at peace with this. I embrace my love of spiritual and contemplative practices. This is me, wholly me, a silly, nerdy, bookish, questioning, wondering, belly-laughing, contemplative, eclectic gypsy down to my marrow.

I believe we grow up more than once in our lives. Biologically we have no choice. Our bodies and brains will mature with or without our consent and with very little effort on our part. But emotionally and spiritually, these are maturities we work towards. These require our blood, sweat, and tears. We can choose to take the easy path and hang on to the patterns and traditions handed to us as children, and we may be well contented in those. But we will always expend tremendous energy defending and protecting them when they rub up against other patterns and traditions which we see as threatening. We can remain children throughout our lives.

Or we can relax our grip, an act of tremendous courage. Opening ourselves to the value of other patterns and traditions is the only way for our primary experiences to assume their proper place in our lives. These events mold and shape us, but they do not define us. Other traditions and practices have intrinsic value even if they seem strange and unfamiliar. We can learn from them, and those who practice them, without erasing our identity. In fact, it may enhance our identity.

I’m open to the possibility of returning to the church one day, though never one that isn’t inclusive or which has no women in lead roles. But even if I embrace those traditions again, it will be loosely, with the understanding that they do not create or save me. Only the Divine within has that power. I can freely participate in whatever resonates with my soul, understanding that those harmonies exist anywhere I go. I am the incarnation of God (or Source, or Universe, or Buddha or Allah…name your identifier) even if I never darken the door of a church again. Here is where I find peace. I don’t need a label to understand this.

When people asked Jesus if he was the Christ, he always answered with a question: Who do you say I am? We have spent millennia answering that question, in beautiful and horrible ways. Not a single one of those definitions have the power to change the essence of the One who tabernacled with us and in us. He/She is.

I AM…me. And will spend the rest of my life reveling in the experience of being one with the Universe which never ceases growing and unfolding.

Awake

Read part 1 of the Awakening series here.

…And then I woke up

The cracks were already forming, of course.  I simply hadn’t acknowledged them. The event which finally woke me wasn’t terribly difficult or dramatic. It was small, and a little petty, and strangely enough had nothing to do with the on-going emotional abuse, but it blew open every door I kept quite securely shut. I was gutted, wondering what the hell I was doing in a place where there was no space for me as myself – only me as an ideal someone else dreamed up.

Sick and sad, I turned to therapy. Fortunately for me, I chose my own therapist this time.

Look if you really want to wake up to yourself, I highly encourage seeing a good therapist. Ask around. Get recommendations. You don’t have to be sick or a danger to yourself and others to benefit from conversations about reality, even shitty reality. Maybe you just need someone whose only objective in the relationship is for you to be whole and to thrive as your best self. That’s what I found in therapy.

My therapist shook me up, woke me up and ended each session by encouraging the hell out of me, every other week for a year. She gave me permission to walk a path away from strict fundamentalist doctrine and ideology. She helped me see the reality of a relationship that would never be anything but toxic without radical change. She identified emotional and spiritual abuse.  She even warned me there would be a cost to choose a different path. I wasn’t unaware when I walked away, but I finally understood my soul was more important than the dance.

During this time, I explored other narratives and other experiences. I am fascinated by sacred spaces. I explored religion and philosophy, reveling in the similar narrative flow from every one of them: growth making us kinder, gentler, wiser, more open and loving, always moving closer to a Divine Source. I moved further away from evangelicalism as I saw my native faith narrative narrow, becoming anti-people groups, excluding wide swaths of humanity as different, sexually, ethnically, ideologically, and therefore wrong.

Of course, being wrong in the evangelical construct means going to hell. We were, still are, condemning entire groups of beautiful, hurting people to the depths of hell-a construct I no longer believe in-  and we felt right and morally superior about doing so.

You can see why I often feel to sick to talk about my experience.

The most discouraging aspect of American Evangelicalism is how little room there is for diversity. Sure, they welcome people of color, but they will demand the same fidelity of diverse humanity as they do of those born to the fold: mold to accepted patterns, fit the standard template, disassociate from unsanctioned ideas and activities. The church follows a white man’s cis-gender narrative. Diverse voices don’t get seats at the important tables. Not in my experience.

My experience with church was one of a constant echo chamber where the same platitudes and polished answers were repeated over and over again with little thought to why or who said them so long as the message is consistent. Add some lights and high volume music filling every empty space, men running on and off stage in varying degrees of excitement or generated reverence and there is very little room for individual thought or contemplation. Race to the altar call, herd the chosen out and bring in the next group. Repeat. Service after service, week after week after week after year.

Now we’re all good Christians.

I don’t think I’m better than people who follow this tradition and find God, I only know I don’t find Her there.  I won’t pretend that manufactured emotion equals a spiritual experience. I’m awake to the fact that by evangelical standards, I may not even be a Christian anymore. It’s a jarring realization, an identity shift of astounding proportions.

Modern evangelical theology with its certainty and literalism is not something which sustains me any longer. I’m exhausted of hearing growth and freedom promoted, but dependence and control being practiced. This has been my experience with the church for nearly twenty years. I know it isn’t everyone’s experience and for this, I am grateful for you. We all need communities where our essential selves are welcomed and encouraged. I have not found that in the evangelical church.

I’m awake to the fact that I’m never going find it there. While I may be questioning whether or not I’m still even a Christian, evangelical is a label I know can never wear again. The radical polarization of fundamentalism is something which makes me viscerally ill. This illness manifested itself in panic attacks and anxiety, physical illness and borderline PTSD. My body was trying to wake me up to the damage my psyche, my soul, experienced on a weekly, often daily basis.

If you’re wondering why we stayed, why we kept pushing, why we didn’t cut and run-I wonder that too sometimes. For a while, I stayed because my husband and I were traveling the same path at different speeds, and he wasn’t ready to go as soon as I was. I tried to protect him ( from what? From me? From heresy? from being forced to make a choice? ) by not being honest about how deeply I was affected.

Let me interrupt for a moment and be very clear, my husband only ever held sacred space for me to grow into myself. He always has. He also takes very seriously his financial responsibility to his family and his deep love for the church, a love I have never experienced the way he does. I firmly believe his willingness to allow me that space is what ultimately led to the final breaking point. When push came to shove, he was only ever and always in my corner.

I stayed because this is where my children’s lives are rooted now, and I wasn’t willing to turn their lives over again, even at great cost to myself. We stayed because we had and have real relationships with real people who do love us for our real selves, and those relationships sustained us.

We stayed for the money. We stayed because somehow the unknown was still more frightening than our reality. We stayed because we make choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. It took to the end of the chapter to fully know if our choices were wise. We make choices, and we live with them, or we make changes and live with them instead. Over and over again.

Near the end, as we signed more silence contracts and kept submitting resumes in every direction I said, “They will have to fire you. I’m not walking away from here for nothing.” This was my choice. I knew the cost, calculated the risks and walked forward. We needed more time and a clear path out of the hell we were in. We got it at last, but not before I knew without a shred of doubt that professional church was a role I never want to be associated with in any way ever again. Period. Also, exclamation mark. The Universe closed the door, locked it, shoved me out of the building, burned it, crushed it and brought in a tornado to carry away the debris.

Say, Hallelujah.

Continue to part 3

Awakenings

Before reading this post, you may want to see this post and also this one to understand more of the story.

Looking back over the last few years, I feel as though I’ve undergone a series of awakenings. When we were at Rob Bell’s show last weekend, he said, Once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee. He’s not wrong, but what I know is you can try really hard to pretend like you don’t see it for a long time.

I don’t actually believe there is only one path a person is destined to take in life, just as I don’t believe in soul mates. Our life is an ever-evolving series of choices and actions and possibilities. Where we end up is completely up to us. I don’t even believe that the wiser the choice, the greater the likelihood that we will live happily ever after because I know shitstorms happen for no reason whatsoever. Ask the people in the Florida panhandle which choices could have changed the path of Michael. No one is immune.

I say all this to say, I’ve been awakening to a wider view of…well…everything for over ten years, a span of time which both humbles and astounds me. There was a time when I absolutely was “that Christian.” I knew the answers. I knew the scriptures. I understood the way the universe worked and if you didn’t agree, it wasn’t because there were more possibilities than I imagined, it was because you were wrong (and probably going to hell for it.) It doesn’t make me proud to say these things, but it does help me understand that most of us are doing the best we can with the information we have. If the universe is still expanding, I can hardly expect less of myself given enough time.

I can list the events which triggered my more recent reawakening, but I can’t specifically remember any one thing that started the whole ball rolling years ago- maybe it always is rolling and we only notice it after a great distance is traveled. I do remember being troubled by a narrow and seemingly fragile view of God. I have to believe any god worthy of worship is quite able and willing to defend Themselves if necessary, and we don’t have to be so afraid to examine them, critique them and question them. If a god can’t stand up to these things, then They are no God. Obviously, I had questions- I always do – eventually, those questions brought me around to our concept of church. Friends, let me warn you, if you thought God was sacred, you ain’t seen anything. When you dare to examine, question and critique church, now you’re truly tipping sacred cows.

There are a million and twelve details to the story of leaving Florida, but let’s shorten it to: Contract of silence, “resignation”, kicked out of the church. All neatly wrapped with the gospel of church discipline with the corresponding scriptures.

The second verse is the same as the first, add nine years and a lot more fear.

I speak lightly of it now but that was a terrifying time for us. Leaving Florida was a move we never saw coming with three young children and a great deal of debt. I wasn’t working, so no help there. Our severance was based on our isolation from anyone associated with the church, so we were also essentially friendless. We needed a lifeboat and fast.

Here is the point where we could have chosen a different pathway. We didn’t have to go back into ministry. We had multiple opportunities presented to us at this time, including a church which differed drastically in style and holds more loosely to the concept of doctrine and theology than the one we recently exited. I don’t know how my life would have differed had we chosen another path. I also don’t regret the one we have chosen, because where we are now is exciting.

Given an array of choices, we went for geographic distance, but the church where we landed was a carbon copy of the one we departed from both then and now. Perhaps there is comfort in familiarity? Perhaps the price was right? Whatever our reasons, we came. And I tucked my wondering, my questions, and my evolving thoughts away neatly and deeply in an effort to keep my family safe and my life tidy.

I was fine for a time. It’s easy to play a role, even an ill-suited one, when you are also busy raising a family, settling into a new place, dealing with the financial fall-out, figuring out an entirely new culture. It’s easy to spout the standard rhetoric when it’s already deeply ingrained. No need to think about anything, just put on the soundtrack and dance, dance, dance. Which I did, for years.

And then I woke up, again. For keeps.

This is the first installment in a series of posts about Awakenings. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

The things we trade away

Yesterday my daughter shared some of her feelings about how abused women are treated by our patriarchal culture. I’m so proud of my daughters when they share, and also terrified. I’m terrified because I know how the response in times I have shared has affected me. Deliberate transparency has been a tool used against me by men who sought to control and fix me. More and more I find that when women are transparent about our anger, men are quick to tell us why we are wrong. Put a Bible in that man’s hand, and he’ll use scripture to punch you too. I’d rather spare my own young women these experiences, but this form of sheltering does them no favors, not in the world we live in today. So, I do my best to let them express themselves and not interfere– with varying degrees of success.

Enter my rage.

When my daughter bared her heart, one of the perpetrators of my abuse chimed in. The emotions sweeping through me were so fast and so fierce they literally took my breath. My hands shook; my face flushed. I immediately felt powerless – powerless to stop his words, powerless to change what was happening, powerless to protect myself or anyone else from the punishment that was sure to follow.  This is what surviving trauma feels like, terror often coming out of nowhere.

I wish I could pinpoint the moment I began surrendering my power. Why did I do it? What made it seem like a good idea? Sometimes I blame the money. We made a lot of money in ministry.  People may say money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell buys health insurance and groceries and a place to live and college tuitions and so many other things that make happiness easier to come by. For a long time, it bought me the freedom to be home with my ladies as they grew up, which I desperately wanted after staring down my own mortality.

I don’t know when I began trading my power away for these things, I only know that I did. Piece by piece – my control, my desires, my abilities, my identity and eventually even my voice. I gave it away. I signed it away. I did it. I did those things. I was an instrument in my own unmaking.

I feel shame when I talk about this, shame so deep it almost buries me. You know why women who are victims don’t speak up? I do. I know it every day, all the way down to the deepest cracks in my soul. Those cracks will never go away; the only thing I can do is to accept that they are part of my terrain.

What I am slowly learning is the things I may have done wrong, don’t excuse what happened. Just because I willingly surrendered, doesn’t make it right that they were asked of me, or demanded of me as the relationship evolved. Fear and gaslighting aren’t tools of love, they are weapons of power and control and they are wielded by those who feel they are entitled to use them. And, in my case at least, not only entitled but morally mandated to put me in my place by whatever means necessary, a terrible, holy duty.

I’ve internalized a great deal of rage over the last few years. This rage has manifested itself in anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression – the list is quite extensive. Sometimes I struggle with anchoring myself in reality. Sometimes my brain feels shrouded in fog. All of these are symptoms of internalized anger because I believed expression would lead to punishment. I believed because it was my lived experience, over and over again.

All of these concepts and constructs played a role in my emotional response to a person with a history of abuse trying to influence my daughter last night. I wanted to shut down, suck in my anger and disappear just like I always have. But then I didn’t.

Six months isn’t enough time to undo all the toxic messages and ideologies I’ve absorbed. I may spend the rest of my lifetime dismantling those things. But it’s apparently enough time for me to decide unaddressed bullshit isn’t something I’m willing to leave lying around any longer.

Instead of taking that anger and stuffing it down, I pushed it out. I pushed back. I called bullshit. It was freaking terrifying and totally civil and all of twenty people saw it. But I don’t care. It felt like fireworks and marching bands and unicorns with wizards on their backs shouting “RIDIKKULUS!!” riding across my soul. I took back my voice. I grabbed on to my power and held tight. I made anger my tool instead of my enemy.

I called bullshit. And I keep calling bullshit to the message that what happened to me was done in love, was a loving act. I reject that toxic “love” and the claim that it even resembles love. For every woman who has ever heard that weepy, “I love you” while she cowers, hoping the next blow won’t fall I say THAT IS NOT LOVE!  It’s power and it’s control and it’s ego and it’s fear and it’s small and it’s toxic and seeks to kill, steal and destroy but it sure as hell is not love.

For years and years, I traded away bits of myself, for money, for an image, for religion, for a fragile, hypermasculine god, for comfort, for fear of the unknown, for fear. I rode all the way to the end of the tracks and dropped off the edge.

But I’m still here.
I’m an angry woman. I’m not swallowing it anymore.

 

 

Walking on Eggshells: thoughts on trauma, anxiety and healing

“Living, growing up, working or worshipping on eggshells creates huge cracks in our sense of safety and self-worth. Over time it can be experienced as trauma.” – Brene Brown

I had a bit of a battle with an old companion yesterday. Anxiety came knocking, and it took a while to convince that bitch to leave. I’ve hit life hard since returning from vacation, working over forty hours each week. I’m juggling five work and school schedules with only three cars (and occasionally two). I’ve altered my eating habits and cut out alcohol. I’m running again, and I’m trying to get no less than seven hours of sleep every night.

I am also someone functions better with a nice margin, space, both physical and mental, where I don’t feel the burden of expectations pressing down on me. I have a long ugly history with perceived expectations; it’s one of my toughest battles, still. Because of this personality trait, all these transitions mean I must also make an equal amount of marginal space for processing the demands of life or things get ugly.

Last week was no respecter of my margins. And here’s the thing, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were some things about last week that were quite good. But when it comes to needing that pressure-free space, I find both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ events are equally stressful if I don’t have the margin to process the experiences. Some people, like my Hunky, can leap from event to event to event with ease. But I can’t.  I will manage for a short period, but that only means I need an equally long recovery time on the other end.

This weekend, I had planned a do nothing, go nowhere kind of weekend, my favorite kind. But those plans…didn’t happen. They didn’t happen last weekend either. Yesterday when we all started talking about our schedules for this week, I felt the flush of anxiety start to creep over me: the familiar ringing echo in my ears, the hot prickly flush over my chest, the buzzing in my fingers and toes, the constant need to look over my shoulder. “Here is a list of expectations, and I must meet it.”

Oh, Anxiety. It’s been a while. And no, I haven’t missed you.

I first began experiencing anxiety AFTER  I started going to therapy. I know right? Therapy is supposed to reduce anxiety.  However, what therapy revealed to me was some toxic areas in my life which we weren’t able to disengage from. I would need to do a serious compartmentalization dance, keeping my emerging-self separate from my pastor-wife self, which isn’t really a wholehearted way to live.

Ask most pastor’s wives in the evangelical church and they’ll tell you, we aren’t paid, but we have a job description with an expectation list about three miles long, anyway. It’s not healthy, but it’s true, and as I was informed towards the end, “That’s the way things are and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

You can see why other people’s expectations and I aren’t on speaking terms.

I am my own person. Yes, I am married to another human whom I love deeply, but I am not defined by his work or his position any more than he is defined by mine. We each have our own work. Sometimes our work intersects, but most times it doesn’t, and there is nothing wrong with this way of sharing our lives. We also have theological and ideological differences. What’s more, our individual belief systems have changed and evolved as we have changed and evolved and matured, sometimes those changes intersect, for us they often intersect, but even when they don’t, we love each other and move forward together.

Ours is a pretty healthy relationship.

But other areas of our lives weren’t so healthy. If you have ever seen a plant grow in or near a constricted space, you have seen that the unconstricted side grows healthy and strong, but the other side will grow stunted, twisting in on itself until it withers and dies off.

Going to therapy opened a thousand doors for me. My therapist saw things in me that no one else had ever spoken aloud. She built me up in ways I hadn’t experienced from anyone besides my husband in a long time. She empowered me and challenged me, and I began to finally grow into the wildly free and open space that was my self…my soul.

The more I grew, the less inclined I was to meet the ever-changing, ever-tightening list of expectations compiled for me by people who barely knew me beyond my job description. Make no mistake, in fundamentalist environments, an empowered woman who goes off-script is a dangerous woman, a force which must be managed, rebuked, fixed and controlled. Eggshells, anyone?

This tension mounted for years, while we tried to leave town and move on, door after door after closing on us while anxiety gripped me tighter and tighter.  My growth stunted, and I withered. When I am stuck in unhealthy behavior patterns, I avoid conflict at all costs. I tried checking off all the expectation boxes, tried disappearing, tried “putting on a happy face.” I even tried all three at once. But inevitably, anytime I began to feel more like my whole-hearted self, a rebuke of some sort followed. Usually, my husband bore the brunt, as if he were responsible for all the ways I never measured up. The more I tried to protect him from harm, the more harm I seemed to cause, around and around in an increasingly toxic spiral.

This was not a healthy time for our relationship.

I honestly am not sure any other set of circumstances than what has ultimately unfolded would have allowed us room to walk away so completely and begin to experience healing so fully. I have received margin in glorious abundance.  We have new lives and new identities now, but trauma leaves echoes and shadows which reach out sometimes and caress the familiar broken places. I may not have reason to be anxious now, but I still wait for the other shoe to drop, even though the footsteps of the persons wearing them are so faint now they are barely a whisper in my soul.

Yesterday, I wrestled with expectation and anxiety. Expectation and I go back decades,  church wounds are part of the scars from these battles, but those seeds were planted long before religion was part of my identity. We may battle for the rest of my life, but now that I am learning to live wholeheartedly, her voice is less insistent. Some days I don’t hear it at all. Anxiety and I only go back a few years, so I am hopeful her voice will soon be entirely gone.

What I know is this: an experience can be traumatic whether or not the parties involved intend to do harm. My story is my own. There are other voices who won’t see or tell this story the same way, and who will deny the validity of how I feel, what I experienced and the wounds I carry. I hope anxiety will one day be a thing of the past, a response to an environment that was toxic to me. Telling my story is part of what makes the anxiety dissipate. It cannot stay in a space where I will not permit it to flourish and grow. My experience is real and valid. Though the ground under my feet is no longer fragile eggshells, I still sometimes wonder if it will hold my weight. Thank goodness I am learning to fly.

Take that, anxiety.