Healing from Religious Trauma

I’ve spent the last couple years trying to resolve what has turned into chronic pain in my neck, shoulder, and lower back. First I was working with my chiropractor, but it kept getting worse. I couldn’t turn my head enough to check my blind spot when driving. I couldn’t stand for more than a couple minutes without my lower back seizing up. I started seeing a physical therapist weekly. After more than a year, he’s got me lifting weights regularly to strengthen my core and my back. 

I got a new chiropractor who was much more helpful. The massage therapist couldn’t make a dent in all the knots between my shoulder blades, so I paused for a year on that until physical therapy relieved some of the tension. I get Acupunture once a month.

I saw the orthopedic specialist and got x-rays and CT scans in both my neck and lower back. This resulted in trying out various drugs like Lyrica, then a cortisone shot in my neck. This did very little to help. 

I began working virtually with a somatic therapist who specializes in religious trauma to start working through the trauma that resulted from being brought up with Christian Fundamentalist parents and my subsequent marriage to an abusive partner. I also found a local somatic therapist who could do body work in person, as she could work more hands on with the energy that is stuck. As Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book – The Body Keeps the Score.

Both somatic therapists asked me what I do to release my anger. I felt my answers were inadequate. And so I looked for a better way. That’s when I took up Muay Thai.

For the past three weeks, I kick, punch, knee, elbow, and block my way through a one hour class with super friendly people. I leave utterly exhausted both mentally and physically and feeling so good about it. Jessica, my therapist, told me to note how my body feels when I’m punching and kicking. I feel like my kid self, defending my space in a crowded home of nine family members. I feel some release. But I feel like I’m only scratching the surface. I’m hoping this 48-year old body can hold out long enough to stay in this for a while because I’m really enjoying it. Even if I’m usually the oldest person there.

I left Muay Thai last night feeling pretty pumped. It wasn’t as exhausting as usual. I’m feeling more connections with the people I’m working with. It’s a good community, very friendly. 

Marriage as I Experienced it

I just saw a picture of this sculpture by Beth Cavener and it hit.

This is marriage for the Evangelical woman, for the Fundamentalist woman, for those who buy into complementarian ideals.

This was marriage for me. I imagine it’s marriage for many women.

The White Hind by Beth Cavener
The White Hind by Beth Cavener

I photographed a wedding a while back. The bride and groom’s interactions reminded me of my wedding 20 years before. I tried to describe this to my assistant as we drove home. The way he leaned away when she tried to kiss him on their wedding day. The absolute poison of trying to meet the expectations of the parents, the patriarchy, the church, the “Bible clearly states” folks…

So much effort went into that laced veil of purity. It was the death of her.

High School Graduation

I grew this kid in my body. It took the better part of a year feeling like there was an alien taking me over and another year supplying his nourishment. What an incredible privilege. What an amazing human he is! When he was just a few weeks old, I walked past a neighbor’s house across from the elementary school where he would spend many days. This stranger warned that before I knew it, my little baby would be graduating from high school. 

That was yesterday. 

How did we get here so fast? 

When he was little, I heard “The days go slow and the years go fast”. And wow! They went fast. He’s everything he should be at 18, with good friends, a loosely formed plan for his education and career, a passion for justice and treating people with love and understanding. He’s full of joy, loves music, and he’s fun to hang out with. I like him so much and I’m so proud of him. 

I keep breaking down in tears because this milestone marks the end of a certain phase of parenting which I’ve found deeply fulfilling. I’ve loved raising this kid. And I’m so excited to see him spread his wings and fly.

Follow the Rules

“Why Can’t You be More Like Her?”

My friend’s parents said this to her, speaking of me and my sisters. If they only knew how many spanks it took to break my spirit and get me to comply before I even had words. That wickedness was beaten out of me—the defiance that James Dobson told my parents needed to be crushed. They believed I was born sinful, with a wicked heart. Anything but immediate obedience was punished, usually with a wooden spoon. This was followed by a hug which needed reciprocating, and a small speech about how it’s for my own good and she’s hurting me because she loves me. It turns out that breaking a child’s will at this stage is extremely damaging. I’m only just realizing the extent of this in my 40’s.

By the age of 4, I figured out the safest way to exist in my family was to comply. If I stepped out of line, I would be punished swiftly and harshly. It was not worth it. So for the next 30 years, I did my very best to follow the rules. All of the rules. I was told authority is put there by God. So all authority was to be obeyed, without question or hesitation, unless it was a direct contradiction to the Bible. Nevermind that the Bible contradicts itself. I didn’t question the fact that my parents’ love hurt so much, nor the idea that a loving, all-powerful God would send most of humanity to hell for an eternity of conscious torment. I was shut down inside, just trying to survive. Surviving with a smile, because any emotion other than joy, peace, and gratitude was really frowned upon.

How to destroy a child’s spirit

But it turns out that those years I was getting spanked multiple times a day, between the ages of 1 and 4, are when some really important childhood development is supposed to take place. When I should have been developing a sense of my own autonomy, personal power, self-will, I was instead getting punished for disobeying. When I should have been learning how to develop friendships, compassion, self-acceptance, I was simply trying to follow the rules and keep from getting hurt.

Like my parents, I read Dr. Dobson’s Strong Willed Child when I became a mom. I started out raising my babies the same way. I have such deep regret about this.

Between the Lines

So many conversations we could have had. So many I wanted to have, about so many lines from any Josh Ritter song. Or about when you told me you had a happy childhood and I thought until recently I had too.
But then the words got caught in the back of my throat when I started thinking about how differently I see that now, and how much damage all those spanks did, and how it stops me from speaking. Like when you told me about your first girlfriend, and I thought about telling you about how I was a virgin on my wedding night, after 10 years of dating a man who would later become so emotionally abusive I lost any sense of self worth. It all felt like too much to speak out loud.

I tell myself all the words he surely meant to sayI’ll talk until the conversation doesn’t stay onWait for me, I’m almost readyWhen he meant let go                   -Sara Bareilles

I listen to Between the Lines and grieve the loss of something that might have been so good. How I wished we could have loved each other forever. So perfect it seemed. But I’m only beginning to work through the damage of not being allowed to develop my own autonomy as a young child. My “no” never had any power. Compliance was my only safety.
I have agency. I know this in my head, but not in my bones. Instead, my muscles ache and knot up with chronic pain. My body absorbed all those years of disdain and hatred from the man who slept to my right for 11 years.

11 years later, I’m still trying to work it out.

The words got caught in the back of my throat, and you never really knew me. Never knew what thoughts were in my head. Didn’t know much beyond my dad recently dying. And not being close with my mom. I never told you about the damage they did with their high-control religious fundamentalism, or my abusive marriage, or how much I needed to heal, which could really only be done in a relationship like the one I wanted with you. You hugged me once, so tight and long, I thought I might heal with you. Still, I could not get a single word out.
Instead, we traded physical for emotional intimacy, which was nice but didn’t last. And I think it was an easier substitute for something that could have been so much richer. So now I am here, devastated at the loss of something that could have been, but never was. Like a seed that sprouted, only to get scorched by the sun for lack of water. There wasn’t enough time or intention. I wasn’t brave, strong, or whole enough. You weren’t available or safe enough. What a tragedy.
You filled baskets of rocks as I worked to put a good face on it. We made a good team, I thought. Then it was over. 

Fresh Wound

We walked through the grass finding our way to the spot
Where the grass rectangle lay freshly cut like a wound that hasn’t yet scarred.
I stood there on top of the earth, my dad’s flesh rotting six feet below.
What a strange thing. I didn’t like it.
We propped the dying poinsettias back up near where I suppose his headstone will soon go.
The deer had their way with the flowers and the grass above dad’s buried coffin.
He has returned to the earth, though it’s blocked by that hideous box
And nature is doing its thing now.
As above, so below.
I couldn’t stay long in that place, where the sky touches the lawn.
It was gloomy and cold in all the ways it can be.
Pelican Point shorelineInstead we went to see the waves crash, and the surfers live.
We ate at Barbara’s Fishtrap, then I touched the water and the sand.
I stood at the shore, feeling it.
I feel more there. I feel better there.

Texas Sky in May

Texas Sky in May

Lighting splits the sky

Nearly blinding me for a second

Thunder clapped so loud and close

I jumped

Rain falls and splashes my legs

As I sit near the edge of the overhang

So I can see as much lightning as possible

Without getting struck

Mother Gaia

Doing a belly dance In the sky

It doesn’t seem so angry

Just powerful

Showing how big nature is

And how small we are

And how time passes slow and quick

And how these thunderstorms are nothing new

Not new, but still exhilarating

To someone watching

From under an overhang

From California

Where such things only happen at the start

Of a pandemic

And wild fires

And a new normal

Which never quite becomes so


Letting Go

Grieving is the process of letting go of attachment. When it’s done, all that’s left is love.

-Lynne Twist

So, all of life carries a bit of grieving as we let go, as things change.