C-PTSD, Depression, Family, Fear, isolation, Rapture, Shame, Trauma, Uncategorized, United Pentecostal Church

The Process of Leaving and Dealing With Trauma

When I speak with survivors one topic comes up over and over again. The people in their lives who love them cannot understand why they continue to suffer from trauma and pain from the past. Friends, co-workers, and people they interact with online often seem to want to give them the same advice. They want to offer you a quick fix and often that fix comes with a warning about not forgiving or holding onto negativity for too long. What they don’t realize is that the process for working through trauma can take a lifetime. Forgiving and “moving on” is not going to resolve the trauma responses coming from the survivor’s body. It can seem like someone has moved on but if you’re not inside their head and their body you can’t really understand. Triggers can make it hard to not think about things and can effect the body in some very real ways.

When first leaving an abusive group you’re probably in survivor mode. You’re trying to figure out how to get away and then how to live without the community you may have been in since birth. People who have known you all your life might shun you or feel the need to warn you about hell and the coming end times. You may lose family and will most certainly lose friends in the process. Often you end up feeling much more alone than you could have ever imagined. You may not have the social skills needed to maneuver in the new world you find yourself apart of and you may lack job skills or be poorly educated. Add to this a fear of hell and the rapture and you can see why just getting out and acclimating to the world can be a very tall order. Once you’re out you may find yourself dealing with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and loneliness. I consider this to be phase one of three phases.

When I started phase one I was a teenager. I went from a very insular community out into a big world that I was not ready for. When I left the church no one came looking for me. I struggled through the realization that they didn’t care. I always suspected that but when it became a reality it hit me hard. I went to public school for a year and found I had nothing to talk to my peers about. When I was in the church I felt weird like I did not fit in and then when I went into public school I felt the same way. Everyone was planning for their future. I thought I had good grades and could have gotten into college but I had no one to help me navigate that journey. Neither of my parents attended college. By this time my mother was already pretty sick and preoccupied with raising my bother and dealing with her abusive husband. My father’s attitude was that if I had a husband I did not need an education. He felt the same way about driving which meant I did not learn to drive until I was much older. I discovered that I had missed many of the milestones that my peers had experienced and would continue to miss them because I had no way to know what was normal and how to get those experiences for myself. Over time I came to realize that my Christian school had supplied me with a subpar education. If I had someone to help me navigate the gaps I could have taken classes to fill in what was missing, the issue is I did not know what I did not know. I worked in restaurants for a long time and got a little apartment for myself. I did what I had to to survive and tried to tell myself that I had time and everything would be ok. I was always afraid of a wrathful god. When I cut my hair and pierced my ears there was this moment where I was just waiting for lightening to strike. This new world was both exciting and scary.

The next phase comes when you finally feel free from the group and you try to convince yourself that you can live without them and just get on with things. Many people I speak to can be stuck in this place for decades. They convince themselves they are doing great and have just left it all behind. Reality is usually much different. Sometimes during this period addictions will show up as a coping mechanism. Many survivors try to fill their lives with activities, family and work in an attempt to forget about the trauma, but the unresolved trauma is still there like a ticking time bomb. During this time if you talk about your trauma or pain people will often slap you on the back and say something like, “But you’re away from them now so life must be good!” This is phase two.

I left my abusive group and then jumped right into another one. I hear that is not uncommon. I only stayed in that group for a couple of years before leaving. During this phase, I reveled in my freedom and filled my life with having children and experiencing as much as I could after a life of real restriction. The pain of my past never went away. It was always lurking in the background with it’s best friend fear. I tried to listen to what pop psychology told me. I tried to release the past and I tried to forgive. I tried to get on with my new life. Now I’m not saying those are bad ideas, all I’m saying is that they are a very simple answer for an extremely complex problem. They did nothing to address my C-PTSD and in the end, I just ended up feeling more broken because I couldn’t just get over it. Over time I got more and more sick. I have always had insomnia but as I’ve aged it has become much more constant. The underlying stress and anxiety brewing within me caused me to have severe stomach issues that I am still trying to heal. I also have asthma which I do not think came from the trauma but it is well documented that mental health has a big role to play in how severe asthmatic symptoms are. My body was trying to send me messages and I just kept turning the music up louder and trying to convince myself I was ok.

Phase three is what I like to call the “wake up” phase. Sometimes it happens suddenly and sometimes in little things that add up to a creeping realization. By this time the addictions are at a breaking point or maybe you just don’t sleep anymore. However it displays, you reach a point where you can no longer ignore the toll the unresolved trauma has put on your body. Things will pop into your head that you just can’t shake and you can no longer make excuses for. I feel people often reach this stage when they are in midlife and things slow down a little. They have age and experience which causes them to view the world differently. They are fully adults now and are in a better position to judge where they came from. This is usually a crisis breaking point. Illusions fall away and the past you have been hiding from is waiting there for you.

My phase three went on for a very long time. Over the years the creeping realizations would make it hard for me to ignore what happened in the past. When my oldest child reached the age I was when I was molested I realized how little she was. I could see how sweet and innocent she was and I had a bit of a crisis. These things would happen from time to time over the years. As I matured I could see clearly the past decisions that the adults made around me during my childhood as monsterous and cruel. For a long time I would make excuses for them and try to find ways to not face up to how bad things really were. Once I started writing this blog I started to really wake up. It felt like blindfold after blindfold was ripped from my eyes forcing me to look at the trauma I suffered and get real with myself about the repercussions of it. This can be really hard, when you get to the point where you can’t look away. You can no longer deny the truth in front of you or make excuses for people’s bad choices. It forces you to change the way you think and can really change your life in profound ways. Some people lose what remaining family they have, some people just realize the depth of what was done to them in childhood. With all of that comes fresh waves of grief, anger, anxiety, fear, and so on.

Once you can see the trauma you suffered clearly then you have to get to work on healing yourself and figuring out how to live in your new reality. This is where I am right now. I left the UPC when I was 16, I’m now 49, that’s 33 years to get to this point. I am one of those people who is always working on myself, I’m introspective and I’m always seeking self improvement and it still took me 33 years. This is not a quick process and I suspect I will be healing from it forever. I am ok with that and I hope that you can be too. One of the hardest things is when the people you love or just the people you want to like you seem annoyed that “you’re still dealing with that?” They question why you can’t just forget and be happy. If you love me or even just like me some the best thing you can do for me is accept me where I’m at. Understand that this isn’t something that is just going to go away. It is something I’m working on all the time. Sit with me when I’m sad and don’t try to fix it, just let me know you’re there. Take me out for coffee and listen even if you’ve heard it a million times. Lastly try to remember that I’m doing my best.

 

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Childhood, Education, United Pentecostal Church

Leaving

Since I started blogging about my experiences within the UPC church people have been asking me how I left. I think of it as death by a million cuts. As my teen years went along things became more and more obvious to me. The hypocrisy and racism were pretty hard to ignore. The only man of color in a real leadership position had that position because he was an amazing worship leader. I felt because he performed for them they honored him with elder status. Most of the people of color in our congregation were poor and ignored or shunned. My pastor taught that interracial marriage was unacceptable unless you came into the church already married that way. My dad was from Mexico which made me only half white in their eyes. When I asked the adults around me who it would be ok for me to marry they mostly shrugged at me. You might think this was signaling that I could date who I wanted but you would be wrong. Some of the boys I dated had parents who did not care that I was half Mexican, others flat-out told their boys to stay away from me for that reason. My pastor never talked about this issue from the pulpit, it was more understood and whispered about. It was assumed. I’ve got many stories about racism within that congregation and I’m sure I will share them with you eventually.

Molestation. My being a molestation victim meant that I was branded as a slut. Remember I said it was treated as adultery. Again carried out mostly in whispers, but every once in a while blurted out and those times were pretty painful. I was a super Christian in those days, trying to be perfect in order to gain God’s acceptance. Some people were kind but for the most part, I had a scarlet letter pinned to my chest and they would never let me take it off. This also impacted my dating experiences. Boys would tell me about the lectures their fathers gave them regarding falling into sin with me.

Being a bright kid and knowing what the Bible said meant that I could see the cracks. I could see that the rich had more of a voice. I could see the lack of forgiveness and compassion. I could see how many of the men in positions of authority treated their wives badly. As time went on I could barely stomach being in church. I went from sitting as close to the front as possible to sitting in the last pew refusing to sing or follow along in my Bible. Weirdly none of the adults in my life seemed to be alarmed by this. No one could see me drifting away, or if they did they did not care.

At this point, my mother was married to an alcoholic. She met and married a man who had joined the church. As soon as they were married they both stopped attending altogether. Some of this is because my mother’s remarriage caused a big scandal within the church. The pastor gave his blessing because my mother divorced due to adultery on my father’s part. Because this wasn’t a well-known fact a few of the older women in the congregation brought it up at a church business meeting and made a big stink. Also, not everyone agreed on when it was ok to divorce and remarry, they would defer to the pastor but that did not stop them from gossiping. It got ugly and my mother never forgot how they treated her. Because my stepdad was a drinker I ended up moving in with my biodad. My dad was basically never home. He spent most nights with his girlfriend and so I was living alone. Neither of my parents were involved in my church life and they were both too involved with their own lives to parent me. So the decision to leave was all mine.

You might remember that I quit the quiz team and my coach was very unhappy about it. Soon after that, our church built a huge new building and the school moved with the church. This new building was way out in the country where there is no city bus service. For many years I carpooled to school and when I couldn’t do that I took a city bus. Many of the older kids with cars had graduated and the one monitor I could catch a ride with was no longer working at the school. So basically I had no way to get to school. I started to ask around and it became clear that I was not going to be able to ride with anyone. I tried to meet with my school principal and he always seemed too busy to sit down with me. With no parent to help me deal with this, I felt stuck. Finally, on the Sunday night, before school started, I tracked down my principal and told him about my problem. I explained to him that I had no way to get to school. I also told him that because I was living with my dad I had access to a public school within two blocks of my home. He argued with me about what a bad idea going to public school was, but he also offered me no solution or help. I tried to be nice at first and I explained to him my position and argued that all of my Christian education had prepared me to be out in the world. By the way, I only had one year left so I would have been out in the world by the next spring. After going around and around he started to get very heated with me, almost desperate sounding. I was confused, what did he want me to do? He told me that he suspected if I walked out that door to attend public school I would end up in hell. This infuriated me, and I cracked. Remember I wrote before about that little flame that had been kindled in my adolescent heart, well now it was ablaze and threatening to burn the room down.

I did not say another word to him as my heart felt like it might explode out of my chest. I tried to get out of the building as quickly as possible. My dad had agreed to pick me up after church so I knew he was waiting in the parking lot. As a side note, not only could I not get to school but the church was basically out of my reach too unless I rode the Sunday school bus. I lived at the church so this would cut out all of my activities except Sunday morning service. As I was storming out a friend tried to stop me and asked if I was ok. I looked at him and the words “I’m never coming back” slipped out of my mouth. I knew it was true, but I only knew it in that moment. It felt like time stopped. He was my age and we had been close since age 8. He knew what I had been through and just looked at me with very sad eyes.

I never went back. I was done with them but God still haunted me for over a decade. I tried many churches and eventually ended up at a Southern Baptist church. That is a story for another day. What I’m about to say is probably the saddest part of this post. No one ever came looking for me. No one called to see why I disappeared. No one sent me a card or stopped by my home. They did gossip about me. I ran into someone years later who asked about my child. I did not have a child. The story was that I left because I became pregnant and was ashamed. Of course, that is what they thought. The truth is, I gave birth to my first child at 22 after being married for two years. Even in my angry state I was shocked that I did not hear from any of them. I was involved in many ministries, didn’t they wonder what happened? I had many adult friends, to this day none of that makes sense to me.

Thankfully I started my first real job and I met some really friendly kids. I also made friends in public school. I learned that the world was not as scary as they taught me. All the monsters came from the church and my mind. Hell, the rapture and the antichrist lingered on the edges of my mind. I’m 47 years old and have not gone to church since my late 20’s, at least three times a year I have nightmares about the rapture. They show up by surprise and make me feel uneasy for days. I have anxiety issues and all it takes is seeing the wrong image or hearing the wrong thing and I have flashbacks. The seeds planted in my childhood were seeds of abuse. Every time I think I have beaten the monster in my head he finds another way to get to me. The good news is I am free now! I have found a religion that is less toxic and I’m grateful that the Universe guided me out of that pit of vipers.

D