I have been spending a lot of time thinking and not writing. There comes a point when you have expressed all of the surface junk and everything underneath seems so much harder to put into words. I am at a point in my life, 49 years old when things are not moving as fast for me as they were when my kids were little. I have a bit more time to breathe and time to reflect on things that I want to unravel. One of these things is stress.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t stressed. Stressed about my parent’s marriage, school, money, food, church, and god. Some might say that stress is a normal part of life and I agree with that to a point. Being stressed shouldn’t be your set point and for all of my life, it has been my normal. My first teacher about stress was my mother. She was always stressed and for good reason. Money was tight, her jobs were stress-inducing, her marriage was a disaster, and she was always afraid of missing the rapture. Along with that came other things like untreated Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She and my dad were always overly concerned about being late and so they created a child who is always early and never not stressed about time. Before we could leave the house my mother would have to check all of the nobs on the stove to be sure they were turned off and then check the door multiple times to be sure it was locked. Sometimes she would have to tour the rooms of the house to be sure all of the lights were off. She taught me to always check the backseat of the car for a masher even if all of the doors had been locked while we were away because…you never know. You never know became a big part of my life.
My experiences with the church and the UPC specifically only added to my stress response. I never felt good enough and always worried about my salvation and along with that came all of the end-time theology. The church was well acquainted with “You never know” and so they reinforced that message. You never know the day or the hour when Jesus might return. You never know you might have some unrepented sin hiding in there. You never know what book, movie or music might be a doorway for Satan to get into your heart. All of this made me one stressed-out kid and that in turn led me to be a stressed-out adult.
As you probably know we lay down these patterns as kids. Our brains and nervous systems are being formed and habits are laid down before we can even comprehend what is happening to us. So even after becoming an adult and being in a place of being able to make my own choices about what I believe my default is to be stressed. It’s funny how and when things hit us, it just hit me today that I’ve always been this way to the point of having ulcers when I was in grade school. I have always had what my grandmother would call a “nervous temperament.” So some of it is a natural disposition and a lot of it is learned. The whole time I was growing up and surrounded by religious adults I never felt the peace of god or grace. I felt like my mother, teachers, youth leaders, and others were always wagging their fingers at me saying be careful. Starting really young, “Oh be careful little eyes what you see, for the father up above is looking down with love.” Hmmm kind of a weird song, be careful because he is watching but “with love.” I learned the hard way after my interactions with Steve Dahl that I couldn’t trust myself or my body. My body could really get me into trouble simply by existing. This caused enormous stress and made me wish I could disappear. I started to feel like all men could be dangerous, also stress-inducing because well half the population were men. Along with checking the backseat, my mother would check closets and under the bed when we returned home from being out. She was checking for those dangerous men.
So what do you do when you realize your default is stress? One thing that brings me some relief is moving my body. I like to hike, go for dog walks, get to the gym, and do yoga. I enjoy dancing when I get the chance! I try to remind myself to breathe and I enjoy a hot bath from time to time. These are all coping mechanisms, what I am seeking to do is move my set point and that is not an easy task. There was a time when this would have been an impossible task. Before I started to give voice to my trauma and really deal with it I couldn’t have even approached this work but now I feel like maybe I can start. I am going to begin the process by just trying to move the needle a little bit. Rome wasn’t built in a day and so I’m going to try not to stress myself about stress. One simple thing I’ve been doing is trying to change my self-talk. When I get up in the morning instead of thinking, “I have to do all of this stuff today”, I try to say “I get to do all of this stuff today.” I remind myself that so much of my stress is self-generated and that I can cut myself some slack. I will probably post about this more after I have been working on it longer.
Does my experience sound like yours?
Today I want to tell you that you are worthy. If you were sexually abused as a child you are worthy. You did not draw that older man into sin. He made his choices and he was an adult. You were a child and children cannot consent. I am so sorry if the church did not protect you, love you, and help you to heal. You deserve love, support, and an apology. I am still stunned at Calvary Gospel’s silence. I am experiencing them as no more loving now than they were when I was a child.
You are worthy even if your family did not dress right, or if you are brown or black, and even if your family did not tithe enough. A child shouldn’t have to pay for their parent’s choices. None of us can control the color of our skin or the family we are born into. We certainly could not have controlled our parent’s actions.
You are worthy even if you made mistakes, snuck into the movies, or listened to top 40 radio when your parents were out. These things are not sins, they are a normal part of growing up. No one perfectly listens to the adults in their life. Normal human development dictates that teens challenge adults, it is how we grow and become independent.
You are worthy if you wore a slit in your skirt, asked too many questions, or got bored in church. If you kissed a boy behind the church camp auditorium when you were supposed to be inside, if you faked being sick to stay home from church, and even if you faked speaking in tongues because you were afraid to disappoint your parents.
I see you trying to pretend that you are ok, trying to heal, trying to deal with the coldness coming from the people who raised us. I see you dealing with trauma, being the family outcast, never being 100% sure if you made the right decision when you left the church. I see you wondering if you should have kept your mouth shut about it all.
I understand not being educated properly and how that stays with you all your life. I understand playing small, staying invisible, always waiting for something bad to happen. I understand feeling weird in the world like you can never quite fit in. I understand the world not understanding where we come from and how exhausting it can be to try to explain.
For the men out there I see you too. Struggling to come to terms with what has happened to the women you grew up with, ministered to, your sisters and friends. I see you having many of the same struggles as I have only different at the same time. I know that there are survivors among you and when you are ready to tell your story we will be there for you as you have been there for us.
Consider this my love letter to all the survivors out there no matter what your damage is. You are worthy. Please don’t let those who refuse to ask for forgiveness, who refuse to take responsibility, and who choose to stand in judgment rather than lend aid define you. I see you as strong, brave, and overcomers. We have overcome the lack of love, support, grace, and normal human kindness we should have received as kids. We have found each other and created a life raft for one another and any new survivors who choose to join us. You are good even if you are not perfect. You are worthy.
Yesterday I finally finished Ronna Russell’s memoir! I posted a review on Goodreads.
“This book was not an easy read. I grew up in a UPC church as well and at times it all hits too close to home. The author is so brave in her telling of her story! This is a wonderful read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Christian denominations that exist on the fringe. The author’s vulnerability allows us into a world that many people never see filled with rapture anxiety, purity culture, and the pressure to be good enough. Beyond the church and the damage, it caused is a story of hope, self-acceptance, and self-love. She touches on religion, family, love, lost love, and finding and accepting oneself. I’m grateful she shared her happy ending because it gives hope to all of us raised in that atmosphere. I can’t wait to read what she writes next!”
I love memoir’s and this one is even more special because I can relate to it so strongly. It is not often that I have the opportunity to read about another woman’s experience within the UPC. When I talk with other survivors their stories always share common threads. For many, the fear of the rapture and hell is very real and then there is the sense of never measuring up. Normal sexual milestones tend to be suppressed and twisted leaving women feeling wrong and dirty. Secrets are everywhere and there is a knowing that comes with that. They are only secrets because they are not openly expressed but that is not the same as no one knowing or suspecting.
Ronna’s story isn’t just about the bad times it is also about hope, determination, and self-discovery. I owe her a special thanks because she has been an encouragement to me with my own writing. Women supporting women!
My parents had a rocky relationship. I can’t remember them being happy. My mother came from a small town and moved to Madison after high school. She married the first guy she dated and it did not turn out the way she expected it to. My mother went into the relationship with expectations that my father did not share. She assumed he would follow the rules of the church and those rules were very important to her. My father was a serial cheater, drinker, and poker player. My mother dealt with most of that but the cheating was a deal breaker. They did not immediately divorce because my mother believed that divorce was a sin. So she hung on and they were on and off for much of my young childhood.
I know very little about my dad’s past. I know he was born in Mexico and that he became a citizen of the U.S. I do not know where in Mexico he is from and I know next to nothing about his family. He never shared things like that. It was very rare for him to talk about his past and sometimes his stories did not add up. It is a sad part of my story because not knowing his family or anything about that part of my ancestry has left a hole in my heart. I often wonder who they are and I wish I could ask them my questions. Maybe then I would understand my dad better, maybe if I spoke with them I would know why he seemed so broken.
My father was unreliable. He did not pay child support and that kept my mother and me in poverty. He had a habit of disappearing. He often would not show up for visitation. I would wait for him to drive up and many times he just never showed. After hours of waiting my mother would coax me into bed. As I grew older my resentment started to increase. By middle school, I became aware that he only came around when he was between women. I started to feel like a consolation prize. Our relationship became strained. When I was little I was a daddy’s girl. I loved him fiercely and forgave him for every terrible thing he did. As I was approaching my teen years I could see who he really was and it was pretty ugly.
My dad had high expectations. If I got sick or struggled with anything he would blame it on my mother’s bad genes. I was a reflection of him and therefore I had to be perfect. He was emotionally unavailable. I could get affection but I could not talk anything through with him because everything was always about him. I have come to believe that he had some sociopathic tendencies. Perfection was not about how you treated people it was about what you looked like and how successful you were.
In middle school, my dad started flirting with my friends. By high school, many of my friends did not want to be around if he was around. The church already treated me badly because of Steve Dahl, then on top of that my dad was a creep. In high school, I became aware that he was dating girls my age. At one point when I was around 16, I told him about Steve Dahl. Then the unthinkable happened, he told me that he knew it was happening the whole time. He figured Steve was tired of his wife and would eventually marry me. This crushed me and it changed the way I saw my father forever. I did not cut him off but it was the beginning of the end. My dad never saw an issue with a man having a much younger wife or even multiple wives. I have no idea where this thinking came from. It seemed to grow stronger over time.
When I was in my twenties he was sent to prison. He was convicted of molesting my little step sister. After prison they deported him. He never forgave me for not supporting him in court and I only spoke with him twice after they released him. He has disappeared from my life.
I have daddy issues. I am sure that my father’s bad parenting is partly why I was so vulnerable when Steve Dahl came into my life. Knowing that my dad knew what was going on and did nothing to help me has given me self-worth issues. Men, in general, failed me during my childhood. Whether it was the babysitter’s husband who touched me when I was in elementary school, my pastor who did not report the abuse that happened at his church, my abuser, or countless others. My only real positive male relationship during childhood was with my grandfather. This brings me to God, Yahweh, Jesus, whatever you choose to call him. He really did not show up for me either. He was silent. I felt rejected by him as well.
This story is tragic and so I’m going to try to end it on a happy note. I did get some good things from my dad. I am very tough and strong-minded, I hold myself to high standards and I’m a hard worker. I have some charm and charisma which I’m pretty sure comes from him. I’m also in a much better place spiritually. I have stopped chasing after god. I have embraced a spiritual path that feeds me and where I feel accepted and respected. At times my daddy issues bubble up and then I have to work through some new layers. There is so much more I could share about my dad and maybe I will in a later post. Sometimes writing all of this down drives home how sad it all is and it becomes too much for me to handle all at once. I’m grateful I survived my childhood and I’m grateful I am in a better place now.
Once when I was in therapy the therapist asked me to envision my child self. My mind went to a field we had near my childhood home. I would run around that field playing Wonder Woman. I went sledding with my dog down the hill beside the field and I would make crowns from the dandelions I found in the grass. When envisioning my child self my mind immediately took me to that place and sitting in the grass making crowns and placing dandelions in my hair. That little girl was still pretty carefree but that wouldn’t last for long. By that time I had been exposed to rapture theology and my parents were struggling within their marriage and we were poor. Even with all of that to worry about I was still an adventurous, imaginative, happy-go-lucky little girl.
We started attending Calvary Gospel on and off in 1978. By 1980 I was becoming pretty entrenched. You might think that Steve Dahl was the first thing to interrupt my girlhood but I don’t think that is true. What came first was fear. Calvary Gospel was awash in it at that point. Sermons like the one that lead to my salvation were not the exception they were common. My world kept getting smaller and smaller. It seemed like everything was a sin and the devil was everywhere just waiting to deceive and maybe gobble up a little girl like me. The seeds to all of my anxiety were planted, watered, and tended there. How can you be a little girl when all you can think about is hell, the rapture, and what sin you might have committed while just going about your day? It didn’t take long before innocent things like watching cartoons on tv or listening to the radio could be enough to damn me for eternity. This is where I learned to make myself small and it has impacted my life in a very negative way. I became super fearful and so I stopped taking chances/risks and instead tried to stay safe. Safety is good but it can go too far. I believe all success requires being willing to take some risks.
Soon I learned that women were supposed to be quiet in church. Women’s role in family life was to be submissive to the husband and to raise the children. I was never asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I think it was assumed I would be a quiet submissive wife. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a minster. I would line up all my dolls on the sofa along with my stuffed animals and Barbies. We would have church and I would lead the worship and preach the message. At about age 10 I stopped dreaming about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Soon my goals shifted to being an evangelists wife and going to a UPC supported music school. I knew that a good ministers wife needed to know how to sing and play an instrument in order to support her husbands work. I went from being the leading lady to being a support player. Wonder Woman was long out of my reach.
A.C.E. did not help. I attended the church school and those old PACES did not show women doing much other than working with kids. We did not have many great electives to take and the work itself was not inspiring. Most of the time I was bored out of my mind. I went in a bright straight A student and left hating school and just wanting it to be over. No one ever talked to me about college or offered to help me with picking a career. The staff seemed just as miserable as the students. It was not an environment that fostered curiosity, questions, or deep thinking. It was learning by memorization, no real thinking required. Things that could not be taught that way, like algebra turned into a nightmare for me. I am a kinesthetic learner and I love a good discussion. There was no place for any of that within my Christian education. In my late high school years, I toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher but nothing ever came of that dream. The idea of college just became too much to try to figure out in the midst of all of the other things going on in my life. Even being a teacher was a downgrade from another childhood dream of being a doctor. Public school in the 70’s taught me I could be anything, the church and Christian school undid all of that.
Steve Dahl took what little bit of self-esteem I had and crushed it. That experience made me feel dirty and sinful. I had a pretty good body image before he came into my life but that all changed. I started to see my body as a sinful trap that kept ensnaring this godly man. I felt betrayed by my body because at times I enjoyed the attention he gave me. I started to see my body as something that needed to be hidden, controlled and prayed for. I certainly did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I did not feel created in god’s image. All of the things that made me a woman seemed evil and wrong. Eve was my mother and well we all know how things went for her.
Catching a husband seemed important. I worried about being attractive but not too attractive or attractive in the wrong way. I was half Mexican and so that added an extra level of difficulty. I could not get a straight answer about who it was ok for me to marry. At that time interracial marriage was considered wrong and there were no other Mexicans in our congregation. I felt that my being half Mexican meant I needed to find a Mexican husband, and that seemed like a tall order. I dated Caucasians boys but I always felt the undertone of racism that existed there. I would not be anybody’s first choice. I was tainted by my molestation and the color of my skin. I felt lesser. My parents were not part of the in crowd and that also lead to me feeling like a second-class citizen. It made me feel even smaller.
Yesterday I was talking with some other survivors about who we could have been had we not grown up in the UPC environment. We all feel like girls interrupted. Our childhood interrupted and corrupted by Calvary Gospel church. Our innocence was stolen. We were not allowed to be kids. The adults always seemed to have their minds in the gutter and so every innocent thing became an opportunity for sin and especially sex to invade our lives, and yet no protection was offered to keep us safe from the real dangers. Predators were protected and supported while victims were scorned and not to be trusted. We received a substandard education and the church seemed to care more about whether or not our skirts had slits than whether or not be could go to college. The adults in my life didn’t seem to care about the lack of food in my home or about the devastation that my abuse caused in my life. If they had done that one thing, protected me from my abuser my life could have been so different. If they had offered loving support and reassurance my life could have been so much better. They took beautiful, bright, and hopeful young girls and turned them into anxious, fearful, and damaged women.
Now as we try to raise awareness about what happened to us all the church can do is scorn us. They can’t seem to understand or they don’t care to see what they have done to us. These things are not things you just move on from it takes hard work, support, and a lifetime of striving to overcome. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t been striving to be better no matter what our damage is. We don’t desire to be bitter we desire justice and we hope to save other children from the fate we have suffered. We were girls interrupted but now we are women seeking to bring about change.
Last year my word for the year was restoration. I wanted to go back to the time before I was so afraid. I wanted to see my body as a miracle and a blessing and I wanted to say goodbye to shame once and for all. I worked to remember who I was before my worth was called into question. Last year was a big year. My life has totally changed. I feel like my life has been restored. I’m taking chances again and I’m daring to go after what I want. I’ve stepped out of the shadows and I’ve become more engaged in my community and politics. I’ve been reunited with old friends and found many new friends and supporters. I’ve learned I’m not alone thanks to #metoo/#churchtoo. I am not the person the church might like you to think I am. I’m not bitter, I’m strong. I’m not trying to engage them in spiritual warfare, I’m trying to seek justice for my child self. I’m trying to tell the truth and speak for all of those who cannot speak for themselves. Wonder Woman doesn’t seem so out of reach now.
The UPC church is famous for their holiness standards. When I was young (70’s and 80’s) the standard was for women to only wear dresses or skirts, culottes for gym class. You had to have uncut hair and that meant no trims or going to the hair salon. We were not allowed to wear any makeup or nail polish. We were to be “shamefaced.” Jewelry was not allowed except for a wedding ring and a watch. There is more but I would be here all day if I really went into it.
Once I had my salvation experience I embraced this standard with gusto! It was expected, you could lose your salvation if you deviated from these standards. This made me very worried about my mother. She did not embrace their standards, although she would never wear pants to church. That was a leftover standard from her childhood. Because she had short hair most of the time she became the target of gossip within the church and the other ladies did not approve of her. This made my life harder, we were in but not all the way in. My mother felt their judgment and felt bad about it, I don’t know why she did not comply all the way. She had a stubborn streak so it may be as simple as that.
We were very poor. My mother often worked two jobs and my dad never paid child support. My step-dad was disabled so he wasn’t bringing much income in. It did not take long for these holiness standards to become a problem within my family. My mother landed an amazing job driving the city bus in our town. She did not have a college degree and so she struggled to find a good job. When she landed the job with the city that was a big deal! It meant union wages and insurance. There was one big issue with her taking that job. She had to wear pants as part of the uniform. Now she wore pants in her daily life, but for some reason when people found out she was taking this job it became a huge issue. People knew that you could not wear a skirt on that job and they were very critical of her. Some went so far as to tell her she would go to hell for taking the job. My mother took the job because we needed the money and benefits, and so the church never looked at her the same after that. I remember one kind woman, she was also working poor, who told my mother she wore pants to her job too. She told my mother she was doing the right thing by taking the job, that woman was the lone voice of support.
I started the 6th grade right after my salvation experience and I was devoted to wearing skirts or dresses to school every day. I did wear shorts in gym class because that was a required uniform and my mother would not make a fuss about it on my behalf. I had exactly three dresses/skirts I could wear. One was too nice for every day and was really meant to be a church dress. That meant I had two outfits to wear to school. Now I understand that lots of kids are poor and do not have tons of clothes but being UPC did make my situation harder. I could not just walk into Goodwill and buy whatever fit, it had to meet their standard. I was a size 2/3 at the time and so finding clothing was not easy. Plus I had to have pantyhose to wear to school every day. I tried to be very careful and make them last as long as I could, but I was 11 so snags happened. The standard was to have your legs covered, this meant pantyhose or tights.
Halfway through my sixth-grade year, I joined the UPC school. I was being picked on at school for being different and only having two outfits. I was also being picked on for being half Mexican. My family decided that putting me into the Christian school was the answer. My church ran an ACE school. I will post about that at another time, that school needs its own posts. The church school had a uniform and so I hoped that would make my life easier. It did not. My mother had two uniforms made and I had two shirts to wear. The uniform was a navy blue vest and skirt or a red set. She had one of each made. I learned after I started that no one wore the red set so I only had one uniform. This meant washing my uniform every night and then ironing. We were required to wear pantyhose or tights and dress shoes. Then for gym class, we had to wear culottes, I had one gym uniform and gym happened three days a week.
Again I know that being poor is common but I feel it is harder when holiness standards are in play. It is harder to find things to wear when you are living that standard and then layer on the stress of finding the right thing in a thrift store. The other part of this is about compassion. No one ever offered us used clothing or any financial help. I went to school on a scholarship, I never knew who provided it. The church had many people willing to help in that area but not willing to help with day-to-day needs. Then they would judge you for not being perfectly within the standard. To be honest I never remember my church doing anything to help the poor. Their attitude was that if you were poor you should look for sin and see if there is something you need to repent of. Maybe you did not have enough faith?
There was a class system at play. The more money you had the more likely you were to be an elder and given a position of power. The higher your hair the closer to god…lol. Then you can add the race layer onto that. I was half Mexican and so I was never seen as equal to the lily-white kids. I tried to compensate for these issues by being a very pious kid and by being super involved in ministry. I was able to rise a bit out of my class by doing those things. The UPC church I grew up in cared so much about their holiness standards but no so much about caring for the poor or sick. Charity and compassion was not something I learned there.
I’m not sure what I will be posting about next. Does anyone have any questions?