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.

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.