When Church Hurts
As a “good Christian girl,” I refused to admit I was angry at God. It seemed a dramatic cliche to thrust a fist at the heavens. But, it’s also a line not to cross, like not saying the Lord’s name in vain and avoiding penetration when flirting between sex and purity. Good Christian girls cross legs, not lines. They don’t get angry with God. It’s not allowed.
By the time I was 30, excommunicated, and formally shunned, I was no longer a “Good Christian Girl.” Divorced and shamed, plenty of people didn’t even think I counted as a good person. And now, years after that great and holy schism, I was still trying to attend church. I had heaving hiving panic attacks just walking to the narthex.
In therapy, I openly railed over how angry I was with pastors, elders, and my ex. My face hot and my neck splotched with red indignation, my therapist and I explored teachings and ideas that triggered my fears.
My rage swung wildly towards the nebulous protestant patriarchy that enabled abuse and kept women down. That denied their voice and their vote. Denied them careers, purpose, and power. Treated them like children and property. Allowed husbands to rape and spank, beat and belittle.
As I faithfully attended therapy sessions for Complex PTSD, I gradually came to name these demons. I was making progress. Tearful baby steps reassociating my body and emotions were returning me to myself.
Still, the Sunday panic held my throat. The progress wasn’t fast enough. And, it wasn’t enough to quit going: I wanted to overcome what had power over me. I didn’t want to be religion’s bitch. That’s not faith or spirituality. That’s nothing but control.
The therapist kept pressing. I wasn’t at the bottom of it. I was still protecting something — or someone. After all, there is a reason why I married a patriarchal abuser and stayed in a toxic relationship for fourteen years. It didn’t just happen out of nowhere.
What if my idea of God was the root of my disordered thinking?
My disordered low self-worth. My missing boundaries. My twisted belief that real love hurts. The compulsion that if I didn’t work hard to please the people I lived in relationship with, the high cost of failure would be to suffer and burn for all eternity in the fiery pit of hell?
All of that was the outcome of what my religion taught me about God. And for all the intentional focus my brain put on more loving attributes, my body didn’t buy it. Instead, my beliefs manifested in sweaty nightmares, panic attacks, and paralysis at the church’s door.
My therapist said these were symptoms of trauma.
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma is deeply distressing damage caused by authoritarian and dogmatic indoctrination that results in terror, helplessness, or horror, and a distorted view of self, identity, and worth. These repressive religious environments are often coupled with emotional, mental, physical, or sexual abuse. The traumatic impact is long-lasting and invasive, altering the trajectory of emotional development and an otherwise healthy person’s social functioning.
Leaving the flock adds enormous stress, as well as feelings of abandonment and alienation. The adjustment to a new life without their social system can be a shock. Sheltered people who’ve been taught to fear the secular world often struggle to find the independent thinking, confidence, and resilience needed to rebuild their lives.
Deconstruction is multi-layered and ongoing. So is healing.
Religious Trauma is not a clinical syndrome.
“Religious Trauma Syndrome” is a hashtag and a frequent claim among those deconstructing on social media, most often by those without credentialed letters after their name. What RTS is not, is a real thing. In order to be a clinical syndrome, religious trauma must meet specific criteria in a identifiable pattern, presenting the same for just about everyone. Instead, religious trauma triggers a host of symptoms, reactions, and perspectives that are unique to an individual. What was traumatic to me might not even register for you. And that gets tricky when a coach or therapist claims to be able to treat your “syndrome.”
Those who claim RTS, do so based on several factors. The key criteria are:
- being raised from childhood in religion,
- sheltered from the rest of the world,
- very sincerely and personally involved, and/or
- from a very controlling form of religion
I had met all four. So have a lot of people. Are they all traumatized? Depends who you ask. In general, I try to abstain from diagnosising others because I’m not qualified to do so.
What I knew for sure was that I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder that was complex in nature, from a history of living in domestic violence and controlling environments, and that religious triggers were a large part of the mine field I called life.
Key dysfunctions in traumatized people:
- Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
- Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
- Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction
For kids raised in controlling religions, the world is portrayed as a scary, threatening place. We have to watch where we look, what we hear, and who we talk to with vigilance. Our job is to get in with lost people just long enough to witness to them. We need to pressure them to pray the sinner’s prayer, and if they won’t, we’d better leave quickly. Unless lost people get saved and come to church with you, they aren’t your friends. You can’t risk coming under their influence.
Other dangers to avoid include feminism, liberals, birth control, science, parties, rock music, women who work outside the home, women who lead men, bad words, and Catholics (considered apostate by evangelicals).
Dr. Marlene Winell is the trailblazer in religious trauma awareness and a grandmother of sorts in the movement. Church trauma isn’t native to one religious group or denomination, but traumatizing environments do have some common core doctrines. I’ve found fellow sojourners from the Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and from fundamentalist groups of every Protestant denomination.
“The first key doctrine is eternal damnation or annihilation for all unbelievers. This is the terrifying backdrop for the salvation message presented to all newcomers and all children born into the faith. Eternal torture. Lakes of fire. Outer darkness. Separation. Salvation is available, yes, but it’s not enough to ward off anxiety. What if it doesn’t take? What if the prayer wasn’t right? What if we’re not good enough?
Second to the doctrine of hell, the other most toxic teaching in fundamentalist churches is that of ‘original sin.’ Human depravity is a constant theme of fundamentalist theology, and no matter what is said about the saving grace of Jesus, children (and adults) internalize feelings of being evil and inadequate. We’re worms, worthless and filthy rags. But we need to be saved. But we’re so awful we’re barely worth saving.”
A believer can never be good enough and goes through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation, similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When they say they have a ‘personal relationship’ with God, they refer to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of ‘love.’
Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, a ruling male whose word is the law. The sincere follower ‘repents’ and ‘rededicates,’ which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and perhaps a period of positive affect. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get damaged the most.”
Compound this with an abusive spouse and church-sanctioned domestic violence to keep an opinionated woman in line and what you get is a woman who can’t tell if her abuser is her husband or God himself.
I resonated with a lot of what she said, although nowadays, I avoid extremes, even in the opposite direction. A lot of her work strikes me as fundamentalism towards the other side. Winell’s writings seem to focus on all religious belief leading to trauma, which I just don’t buy. And I love that, because it means I’ve learned to listen to myself think, and I’ve finally grown enough spine to avoid replacement gurus.
Researching religious trauma and finding others on similar healing paths was illuminating. Toxic religion scored lines into my psyche, and wove together irrational connections, leaving me with debilitating anxiety, depression, grief, and anger. And when I left it, the costs were real. No part of me was left untouched.
As it turned out, I was angry at God. Or, at least, I was angry at their idea of God. Somehow, I was still able to see a difference between a universal life force and humanity’s systematic co-opting of spirituality to maintain control. I realized what was happening was that as I worked with my trauma-informed therapist, wounds were being articulated and then dealt with, and the result was that I had new space in which to form my own thoughts and ideas.
It was powerful to finally get to a place where I could see the distinction between what I’d been taught about God and what I felt in my own soul. I don’t think religion all on it’s own leads to trauma but I do believe the church can do better, and that most denominations should take a hard look at their practices and behaviors.
Leaving has been an extended divorce. Sometimes, more like a death. But there’s freedom in being able to finally grieve. There are boundaries around experiences and fewer blurred lines. I can see what’s for me and what’s not. There are triggers to avoid, like prescriptive advice I didn’t ask for or Easter imagery or purity culture. I don’t expect trigger avoidance to change because I’m finally in a place where I realize there’s no requirement to subject myself to most of it.
Traumatic experiences shatter basic assumptions, beliefs, and feelings of safety. Healing restores them. I knew I was getting better when I heard a snip of an old hymn and felt warm nostalgia instead of triggered hot panic. Church has been in the backdrop of my entire life, and the memories I have with friends and family are mostly good. It would be impossible to tease them out apart from their religious settings.
Confronting the religious roots of my violent marriage was the key that unlocked everything. My therapy sessions gained momentum; we could name all the monsters, which neutralized the power they held over me. I developed healthy autonomy, delayed but better late than never. And, with fellow Religious Trauma survivors, I found a new community of people who love others for who they are, without fear or agenda or control. As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”