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  • Writer's pictureSydney Vincent

Religious Trauma: What is it and how can we Move Forward?

To this day, I’m not sure if I would be able to walk into a Catholic church without feeling a twang of a strange hurt. It almost feels like I don’t belong, or someone is always watching me. I should know deep down, when it comes to my relationship with God, all of that isn’t true. Yet, it still lingers. I can’t listen to worship music anymore. I find it hard to lead a Bible study when I sometimes cringe at the words I read. This circle of doubt and guilt runs its way around my head constantly. I get anxiety or even flashbacks of things that seemed so miniscule at the time but mean so much now. These responses or effects are not uncommon amongst those who have left the church or have issues with it. In my last piece, “Exit Stage Right: Why Are Young People Leaving the Church?,” I explained just a few of the reasons why people around my age have left the congregation, whether it involved not having the answers or sexual abuse, the list goes on. Yet, in this piece, I will discuss the after effects of leaving the church in which doctors and therapists have studied and concluded on. But, perhaps the most important part, I’ll talk about how to recover from leaving the church, and how this discussion can open more avenues for healing.

Religious trauma, according to Sherri Heller in Haley Jakobson’s article “Everything You Need To Know About: Religious Trauma,” is “a form of psychological abuse and brainwashing that inculcates the shameful message that we are sinful and must live in a constant state of penance and atonement to escape the ravages of hell and God’s punishment. This kind of fall-redemption theology uses fear to ensure dominance and control. Essentially it sets up Stockholm syndrome with the spiritual/religious leader and with one’s idea of God.” (Heller, Jakobson). That’s a lot so let’s unpack it. Heller starts with distinguishing religious trauma as a form of “psychological abuse” and “brainwashing.” These terms by themselves are quite harsh. They caught me off guard when I first read it, even caused a little resistance in me. However, after some thought, I think they fit this context. As a child, I feared that if I missed a homework assignment and got a demerit in Catholic school, I would be deemed a bad kid and not perfect. Even to this day, the influence of other people’s perception of me affects my everyday life and I hate it. This constant need to be a perfect, cookie-cutter Christian was instilled in me from a young age, and I thought it was normal. Only now do I realize how detrimental that is not only to my mental health but also my emotional health. And I’m sure not alone in this feeling.

Moving to the next part, Heller’s take on shame and penance is really fascinating to me. Never once did I leave a mass when I was a kid feeling good about myself (except on Pentecost when they handed out free cupcakes with candy flames decorating them). We were told about repenting and that we were always in the wrong. That we needed to do better. Yes, we are sinners. We all are. Yet, why are we not allowed to know that and strive to be better people in good faith and kindness? It wasn’t until I went to a new church and congregation that I felt the goodness of God after the service. I had been invited by my friend Sarah, whose father was the pastor at an Evangelical Free Church. His sermon really took my breath away. Though I don’t attend that church any longer, the pastor’s welcoming message and kindness towards others in the service, and afterwards, really changed my view on church. It showed me that I didn’t have to live in the shame and guilt of being a human anymore, but to recognize it and go forth with a well-intentioned heart. But it’s not that easy for some. Coming back to Heller, she explains that the shame revolving around sex, sexuality, and desire is common, yet not impossible to overcome. She explains that, “dismantling a belief system is a fundamental step in arriving at what is real (ie- the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church and its history of protecting pedophiles of the cloth reveals hypocrisy and moral depravity) and what you personally hold as true and moral” (Heller, Jakobson). Reverting back to the brainwashing aspect, we see that understanding and persevering over the shame and guilt of the Church takes time, since the dogma is so well indoctrinated into us. But it can be done.

The end of the definition comes to a certain conclusion. The idea of the church being a form of Stockholm syndrome explains it well. Growing up, I had never questioned the issues of the Church, nor did anyone else. It was just life and the way it went. It was only after I went to public school and college, when I told friends stories of church and my Catholic education, and saw their strange looks and reactions from the seemingly normal stories did I realize things weren’t right. I had become so desensitized to the suppression, conformity, shame, and purity culture I had grown up with, that when I found the world didn’t work that way, I went into shellshock. I desperately searched for Jesus, prayed every few hours and read my Bible and only listened to worship music for months. I prayed myself to the bone until I snapped. I snapped from Stockholm syndrome. I snapped from the people and places that I thought I could trust in everything, but couldn’t. I severed all the ties and now I’m slowly working back towards Jesus, though it’s rough. Religious trauma is a beast with a tight grip.

I remember expressing at a young age that I thought girls were pretty to a so-called-friend in Catholic school. I thought it was normal for girls to think this. Religion class the next day was about Leviticus 18:22. I never mentioned it again, shoving it so far down to the point of denying myself confidence and happiness within for years and years. The entirety of my childhood was experienced by a shell of myself, unsure of who she was, picking out boys to like because I wanted to fit in, and telling myself that dresses were more comfortable than jeans. If only I could go back and tell myself it was okay, that I was good enough. Would that be enough?

Let’s look at the opposite. Young boys and girls are sent to camps, unknowingly and unwillingly. They know who they are and they are proud of themselves. Others not so much. Their parents have made a decision. The kids come back from these camps as shells. They walk through life, denying themselves happiness. Church goes from every Sunday to just Christmas and Easter to never again. They settle, they live, they die. They were kids.

Others see their protectors violating privacy, their bodies, slaughtering their people. Since when does a religion do this? Since when does a religion hurt people to the point of murder, suicide, abandonment, self-loathing? When did Jesus preach this? It pains me to think of this.

So where does this leave us? Hopeless in growth and healing? Absolutely not. Estee Hirsch, a therapist also featured in Jakobson’s piece, explains it as this: Your history will always be a part of you and it will inform the person you are today; but by working through your trauma you can create space within yourself for more empathy and understanding. There is no such thing as erasing the past. There is only growing past it, and healing from it. Though many fall victim to recreating and reliving it. But, as living proof myself, there is a way to pass it. My Catholic upbringing was a massive part of my life, not to mention my only way of life from many years. Yet, even without it, I still feel whole. For me, it just took a new interception of God, away from the Church and its people, but by myself. I found the one-on-one relationship to be the strongest tie to God, not the family or congregation. Though worship music still makes a shiver go down my spine, I find that Bible study is coming along easier. I’m not fully healed, nor do I expect to ever be, but this step forward, this growth from yesterday, and the day before, is the start of a long journey that I am proud of, and not alone in.

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