Posts

, ,

The long term reality of religious abuse

In my book (It’s Life Jim…) I cover the subject of mental health openly but fairly lightly.

Although these days I help many work through the debilitating trauma of religious abuse and it’s impact on LGBT people, I realise I haven’t actually shared much of my own struggles – only snippets really. I was wondering why I’ve avoided it, and I realise it’s because of the stigma. I’m afraid that it will invalidate me – that if I share too much, I will have no credibility in my work with Silent Gays and just be relegated to the rubbish heap of nutters!  But life is about facing our fears, so here is my day to day reality… (pull up a comfy chair, it’s going to be a long one)

The first layer of fear was from very young, realising I didn’t fit the expectations of family and society (although I couldn’t express it as that at the time). I was ADHD but it wasn’t a “thing” back in the 60s so I was constantly being judged for being a space case and a dreamer. I couldn’t focus for long on anything, always wanting something new and getting bored far to quick and most of the other classic “symptoms”.

The next layer was hitting puberty and finding that I had zero attraction to girls and it was the boys who would send my hormones on a rampage. But it was taboo to even talk about it. So I lived a conflicted dual life in my most formative years.

The next layer was the impact of religion, enforcing the stigma that anything outside of “normal” heterosexuality was living a dreadful sin. This drove me ever onwards to find a “solution”, get healed/cured/changed/whatever – anything but live in the excruciating pain of guilt and shame caused by the religious beliefs. This became the most damaging part of my life, as I pursued every imaginable way of becoming straight.

During all this time, through two marriages, numerous different church denominations, doctrines and theologies, and endless counselling, I fell deeper into depression and suicide ideation. But I couldn’t even let anyone know that either! I was already a “loser”, if not to those around me, most certainly in my own mind – I was a failure.

Finally, I embraced the “gay conversion therapy” practices of Living Waters for 15 years, clinging to the hope that this was going to finally change me and bring the freedom I was so desperate for. But of course, it didn’t. The depression became worse and I would become crippled with anxiety, but still I had to hide it and use every ounce of strength I had to live day by day. My marriage was an absolute sham, and my wife constantly shamed me. So often I felt like I would “explode” – what exactly that meant I’m not sure, but that was the feeling.

My wife died, and I collapsed. I had lost all my reference points, I didn’t know how to process what was happening and depression and anxiety left me needing “real” counselling (not Christian pseudo counselling) and medication. Thus began the slow climb out of the pit.

Here’s the reality though that so many of us who have been through something like this suffer. We “walk with a limp”. I don’t mean that in some nice wise sounding metaphor. I mean it as a limp with a bloody open wound that although it doesn’t stop us from getting involved in, and enjoying life, does mean we are always walking in the pain and effects of our injury. We do our best, and yes, it’s unbelievable better than what we lived through, but the wounds never seem to heal.

To put that into my daily practical affairs, here’s what my own “wound” is like.

I have ADHD, so my ability to focus is limited, unless I lock on to something that absolutely captivates me and then I can’t leave it. I am impulsive, get bored quickly, forget stuff, remember the wrong things at the wrong times, and all the classic ADHD stuff. But after the meltdown when Min died, these symptoms became heaps worse. I could pretty much work around them in the past, but now they are extreme. I have regular bouts of depression still, although not crippling like they used to be, and I’m sooo thankful for that! I get anxiety attacks too. At first they were pretty bad – things like freaking out in the supermarket and bursting into tears. But I still get them. I’ll start to get nervous and tense for no reason and keep thinking I’ve forgotten something really important.

I used to be pretty good with complex technical information and did well as a technical writer and instructional designer, but another aspect of my meltdown was that as the ADHD and anxiety had increased, I lost the ability to comprehend that sort of information any more. This has been a source of incredible frustration and sadness, especially as I was a bit of a wiz with electronic music and computers. I’m also a qualified trainer/facilitator but the thought of teaching IT or Health and Safety Systems (as I used to) sends me into a panic!

As a result, I couldn’t hold a job any more. I’m pretty much a liability, never knowing one day, or even one hour to the next, what my mental state will be. Pressure, expectations, deadlines etc cause my mind to go blank, which sets off anxiety because I can’t function, and become fearful that I’ll let people down. So I went on the sickness benefit (thank you New Zealand for your wonderful social welfare system – even if it does have it’s problems).

About a year ago I decided to try getting work again and coming off the benefit and the meds. It’s been one crazy year! I ended up doing security work, simply because its pretty chilled with low expectations, but there was constant pressure for long hours at crappy pay to cover the bills. 12 hour night shifts, brain numbing day shifts standing around, which for an ADHD person is living hell! I finally had to quit a couple of months ago because I could feel my brain falling back to the point of breakdown again.

This is my life – I never know from day to day how my mind will be. I’m really good at putting on a happy face, and I’m always the funny guy, but I’m broken. I’m happy, in fact life has never been better, but my wounds are deep and I simply can’t function in life as we are supposed to.

What happens is that the mind is deeply scared from having to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms all its life. A life of shame and guilt creates patterns of thoughts and reactions that simply don’t suddenly leave, especially as you get older and the responses are so ingrained. Things that may appear “normal” life to others trigger me into confusion and anxiety. I can start the day with the best of intentions and find that suddenly my brain has totally lost the plot and I can’t complete a single thing I’ve planned.

I can however, communicate! I can write with passion about religion and being gay. I can talk to a crowd for hours about it! I can take people on roads of self discovery. I can run workshops and seminars, and feel incredible compassion and empathy for the broken like myself. But ask me to sort out technical stuff like my website, and accounts and running a proper organisation and I grind to a halt – despite the fact that in my past life I was very capable and even had small business management qualifications.

These days I’m trying to find part time work that I can actually handle, that pays enough to cover the bills while I try to build some online work to finance my passion of helping others.

Anyway, I’ve rambled somewhat, but only in the hope that I’ve created a picture of the ongoing effects of mental illness. I’m at peace in many ways with it all however, as long as I allow myself to roll with it. If it’s a “bad” day, I try to just chill out in the knowledge that tomorrow will be different. Not always easy of course when I’m often faced with daily simple tasks, but I’m getting there, despite the niggling shame that persists for not being “normal”. Things like mindfulness meditation have been the biggest help, as well as long walks on the beach.

That’s my “limp”. That’s my life. It’s a good life, but only if I let it be a good life in the full acceptance of my limitations, embracing all that I am right now, with all its mess and unpredictability. I love who I am now. I have no regrets. I don’t live in constant shame and guilt any more. I want to live, and live that life to its fullest, which is amazing considering most of my life was spent figuring out ways to kill myself and spiralling through chronic depression and fear.

Yep, this is me, warts and all!

Unity or Uniqueness?

There are many reasons why we love religion: purpose, meaning, security, community and so on.

One reason, that I find is overlooked to some degree, is a desire to unite humanity with common beliefs so that we can all get along and live loving, meaningful lives. We think that if we all believe the same way, we will have world peace.

This is, in itself, an understandable and noble goal. In fact, in a way if we really did have the same religious beliefs it would solve a heck of a lot of problems.

In the real world though this will never happen, although most Christians believe Jesus will return to rule the world and everyone will become Christians or burn in hell (or something to that effect).

To embrace this idea however is lazy – really lazy. In fact it’s everything that’s wrong with religion!

We cannot all believe the same thing no matter how hard we try. There have been, and still are, thousands of groups trying to create communities and organisations that all believe the same theologies and doctrines. Every church’s main focus is to make sure everyone is on the same page, faithfully shaping people’s lives to match their particular denomination’s rules.

Religion demands (overtly or extremely subtly) that we all become clones. Like it or not that’s the bottom line. Sure, we can have varied lives and roles in our community. As long as our belief system matches everyone else’s we can do whatever we like.

Solving the world’s problems and creating a better world however, requires hard work – just not the type of work Christians (and all other religions) think.

It requires that we actively go out of our way to encourage uniqueness.

You see, even in a tight church group, no one has exactly the same beliefs. They can say they do, but it’s impossible. Every mind is different. The way we all process information and our environment is different. We respond differently to everything, with different emotions. The variations are limitless. And yet we pretend that we are all in unity – until someone expresses the fact that they see something differently. We give them a certain amount of liberty, but if their thoughts run too far off track we have to bring them back into line. We have to help them force that unique thought process back into our particular group’s mould.

History has shown that this never works – ever! And it never will. It’s like “whack-a-mole”, eventually the moles always win.

The key to growth is through accepting our uniqueness, and helping each other discover our own unique approach to spirituality. We need to help each other discover how to live with integrity (the “concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.”). It doesn’t matter what we believe if we do so with honesty and integrity, and that, most importantly, we display love – for ourselves and others.

To force uniformity of beliefs is to bring death.

To encourage freedom of beliefs with personal integrity brings life.

When I say to Christians (and all religious people) “it’s time to grow up”, I get slammed for being arrogant and patronising. And yet, after thousands of years of religion, it’s clear for those who really want to see, that unity through religion has failed. It’s failed in a way that is horrific. It really is time for all of us to grow up as a species.

Time to love each other for who we are, not who we think we should be to appease any religious expectations.

 

 

(Originally published 13/9/17 on Jim’s Awesome Blog)