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Religious Trauma Syndrome

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the trauma tentacle monster

A few months after I started blogging, a friend of mine came to visit. As we drove back to my house from the airport, one of the things we discussed was my recent writing habit and she expressed some uneasiness about its content and tone. She cautioned me against being too angry, too bitter, too critical, too ungracious. It was a criticism I was already growing inured to since I got a comment arguing essentially the same thing every other day, it felt like. But, this was my friend, so I tried to keep the defensiveness to a minimum. I told her I understood, but my anger was healthy and the criticisms I was making were necessary– especially because, often, those criticisms were not intended to be received well by who I was criticizing, but to validate those they had harmed.

At the end of the year, my father recognized a portion of an anonymous interview I’d given to the BBC about Michael and Debi Pearl’s books and their abusive teachings. He called me, understandably wounded and upset. “When are you going to stop?” he asked me, referring to my decision to air our dirty laundry on the internet. “Never!” I shouted, nearly screamed, at him. “Not as long as there is a single child still being abused the way I was!” It was the worst fight we ever had, and we didn’t speak for nearly a year (he has since demonstrated a real and lasting repentance, and I am very grateful and happy with my relationship with him now).

Sometime in the next year, I wrote in a Facebook comment somewhere about the way C-PTSD has irrevocably changed my life, changed my brain, changed everything; another trauma survivor told me how I was wrong, how the wounds eventually heal and the scars fade, and admonished me not to reject a path toward healing and wholeness. I was offended, and told her so. To me, it smacked of what I’d been told all my life: you can– and must– choose joy, bitterness is a poison that hurts only yourself, forgiveness is the only way to be happy … what she said felt like the secular wooey-woo version of the fundamentalist mandate to “let not the sun set upon your wrath.”

This summer has also been difficult for a lot of different reasons, and at one point both Handsome and one of my closest friends tried to reassure me that the things I was going through wouldn’t last forever, promising me they will eventually get better. But, again, it just sounded like one of my fundamentalist pastors encouraging his congregation to ignore their emotional interior because “this, too, shall pass.” Their reassurance, to me in that moment, was upsetting. It felt invalidating instead of helpful.


Last night I had a migraine, which means I needed to stay away from backlit screens so I decided to read Sense and Sensibility aloud in lieu of watching Elementary with my partner, and when I got to this passage, I laughed because I felt a twinge of oof, same:

The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in the future.

I have been mulling over this problem for almost a year now– have started and stopped half a dozen posts about it. It’s thorny, and tricky, and all I can do is hope what I’m trying to say here will be received in the same spirit I’m offering it. I shared the anecdotes above to illustrate what I’m examining is not something I’ve noticed solely “out there” in other people, but primarily in myself, as recently as last month.

When trauma survivors first exit fundamentalism/evangelicalism, one of the most crucial first steps we must take is leaning into our emotions– all our emotions, especially the “negative” ones that we were usually completely cut off from. After a lifetime spent in an authoritarian environment that controlled our emotional lives by telling us feeling anything besides joy is sinful, we need our anger and rage as much as we need air to breathe and food to eat. It’s necessary for our survival. There’s a reason why one of the adjectives in my Twitter bio is “bitter” and I’m never taking it out. “Bitter” is no longer an accusatory insult, but claimed and redeemed as a meaningful part of my recovery.

However, I have noticed a pattern in myself and my communities for a long time and am becoming increasingly troubled by it (important to note this isn’t limited to post-authoritarian-religion spaces, I’ve also experienced similar patterns in disability and mental health spaces, too). As we gather together online and in the meatspace, we can find an incredible amount of validation and support among other survivors. In an effort to make those spaces as safe and welcoming as possible, members are encouraged either explicitly by moderators and rules or implicitly by group norms to respect, and not dismiss, another’s sharing of their experience and pain. This is important, and makes it possible for people to see themselves reflected in other’s stories and understand, maybe for the first time, they’re not alone. I will never undercut the power this holds: for me, I’ve always expressed it as feeling the “scales fall away from my eyes,” that’s how transformative it was.

But, I am growing convinced that sometimes what starts as validation can become retraumatizing. I think it’s possible for the support and encouragement to finally acknowledge all the hurt and pain to become conflated with barring the illumination of a path toward equilibrium, integration, and healing. Obviously, I understand why this happens. When I hear “it gets better, here’s how” in the throws of my suffering and consequently reject it, I am operating from a similar place as Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne: “resolved against ever admitting consolation in the future.” Add a heaping side-dish of a lifetime of being guilted and shamed for my emotions, and “giving them up” in any way feels like ceding my abusers emotional manipulation and control. In the heat of the moment, I think it can genuinely be difficult to suss out the difference between my friend telling me I was being too critical of fundamentalist churches and my partner trying to reassure me.

Another aspect of this is what my therapist and I have termed the “trauma tentacle monster.” I went several years without processing any of my trauma, burying it as deep as I possibly could and almost vindictively squashing down any sign of it coming to the surface. Because of that, the trauma tentacle monster grew. It fed on those memories I kept in the dark and slowly creeped and oozed its way into every single part of my life until it was utterly impossible to escape it. Things that, at first, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my trauma became connected to it, became a trigger. Once the connection was made, getting the tentacle cut off and unstuck took serious effort and time.

I’m not a licensed therapist so take this with the necessary grain of salt, but: I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I’m the only person in the world with a trauma tentacle monster living in my head, and I’ve seen signs of them lurking under the surface in friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and occasionally rearing their head. Sometimes those trauma tentacle monsters lash out at the people around it.

I am coming to believe that spaces built for trauma survivors can, completely unintentionally, feed the tentacle monster and allow it to grow. It’s possible for the monster to even thrive in those environments, for it to exploit the steady stream of validation and connections (as well as for harmful individuals in those communities to capitalize on the existence of all our hidden monsters, to weaponize them against each other).

What I’m not at all sure about is what to do about any of this. We need our communities. We need our safe havens. We need the validation, the support, the ability to bravely share our stories. I believe those things are essential … but we also need healing, and to know that healing is possible. The trauma tentacle monster can be fought, can be beaten.

Really … we all just need therapy. A lot of therapy.

Photography by Quinn Dombrowski

the not-so-ridiculous reasons people leave church

Every once in a while, someone I know on Facebook will share a joke or a meme that makes me grit my teeth because it makes me feel dismissed. Most recently it was this one:

10 reasons

I’m sure we’ve all seen these sorts of things before, or heard something similar from a pulpit. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a pastor talk about “some bitty that got her feelings hurt because ‘the pastor didn’t shake my hand!’” I’d be rolling in money. These “jokes” have always made me wonder if I was really just that out of touch– am I missing some huge exodus from church because the pews are too hard?

So, I reached out to a few groups, posting this meme and asking if they’d stopped attending church for one of the listed reasons. I also posed a similar question on Twitter:

The responses I got back were heartbreaking. They shattered me all over again because they echoed the pain I felt on being forced to realize that church is not a safe place. I used to finish that sentence with “for me,” but sometimes, I drop the modifier. I know it’s possible for people to find a safe haven in church even though they’ve been hurt by it before, but I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say those people are finding safe places in spite of American church culture.

The reasons I got back from people fell under a few significant headings, which are in no particular order below:

The constant homophobia and mistreatment of queer people.

For some it was because a friend or family member was excommunicated for their orientation; for many others it was because they themselves were queer and were demonized by their church. In my own case, I was constantly correcting the pastoral staff at my last church for misgendering the trans people who attended, but they outright refused to listen.

Political figures, ballot measures, laws, and political ideologies were openly supported from the pulpit.

Frequently associated with this was the not-so-implicit expectation that everyone in the church be a conservative Republican. I’m not a fan of any politics being preached from the pulpit, conservative or liberal, but in America the dominant narrative in our churches is conservative. Tied into all of this is the common belief in American Exceptionalism and nationalism– that American patriotism is a part of being a Christian.

The church protected abusers.

This is the one that really broke me. I was flooded with stories of child sexual abusers being given leadership positions and subsequently using their power to attack more children. There were hair-raising instances of church leadership point-blank lying to members asking about the safety of a convicted sex offender who went on to rape multiple women in the church. I heard about pastors being shuttled around denominations where they would continue to assault new victims. One person recounted a story of how a child was sexually assaulted by one of the Sunday school teachers, and while the child was denounced from the pulpit, the teacher escaped any consequences. This should never happen, but it does, on a level that feels almost routine.

The church refused to accommodate, understand, or show empathy to those with disabilities.

Most often I heard this from people who have autism, or are the parents of children with autism. Children with autism, or a sensory impairment of some kind, especially suffer in church, and the reactions of church members was to shame and ostracize the parents of those “spoiled rotten brats.” I know that, for myself, I couldn’t participate in church service because there was nothing for someone who wasn’t able-bodied to do. One person said that their allergic reaction to perfumes was treated like a joke.

Women are treated as less than men.

This was the biggest reason why we left our last church. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too, and refused to even consider the idea that silence in the face of oppression is wrong. Many people talked about abusive relationship dynamics being endorsed from the pulpit or in private counseling sessions, of blatant misogyny in the sermons every Sunday, of being refused to use their talents and gifts to serve because of their gender.

The church did not care about the community.

This was one of the more repeated reasons, and I know it was something that annoyed me about the last church I attended. There was plenty of money for bulletins and pens and donuts and coffee and giving away flat-screen TVs and putting on lavish Christmas spectacles, but less than 10% of the budget was dedicated to helping either church members or the community. How many churches have I been in that had a coffee shop in the lobby but it had never occurred to them to have a soup kitchen?

They had experienced spiritual abuse.

Many couldn’t experience a church service without experiencing flashbacks and panic attacks. I’ve had to leave many a service because of a trigger. For those of us who have experienced Religious Trauma Syndrome, we’re more aware of the ways that pastors can abuse their authority. The first red flag I got at my last church was that the pastor was completely unaccountable to anyone. Supposedly the staff was in place to help keep him in check, but they were far more interested in defending his terrible behavior than they were in addressing it. For a long time I thought I was only reacting to ghosts from my past, but over time I realized that wasn’t it. I was reacting to my past being repeated. For many who shared their stories with me, this was often the case. They recognized the red flags and couldn’t stay.


In doing the research for this post I googled “stupid reasons why people leave the church,” and, sadly, I wasn’t disappointed by what turned up. Among the 24 million results there was “7 Really Dumb Reasons to Leave a Church,” “5 Stupid Reasons People Leave the Church,” and “3 Stupid Reasons Millennials are Leaving Churches.” I read through maybe twenty different articles on the subject, and I realized that many of these pieces are actually including the list I’ve given above. Except, to these people, it’s described as “being offended,” or “disagreeing with the pastor,” or “they want so-called freedom” or “their feelings got hurt.”

It’s not that the people who make these memes or write these posts are unaware of the reasons I gave here, it’s that they don’t think these reasons are legitimate. The unending putrid tide of misogyny and homophobia? Just us “being offended.” Thinking that nationalism should not be a part of Christianity? We’re just “disagreeing with the pastor,” (which, in the meme above was given as “reading a book makes me more of an expert than the experts”). Try to explain to a staff member that what the pastor just said was narcissistic or abusive and we just “got our feelings hurt.”

They look at people like me, like the hundreds of people who shared their experiences with me, and they see “7 Stupid Reasons to Quit Church” instead of listening to the pain and horror in our voices.

Photo by Phil Roeder