Church PTSD? Are you kidding me. There is no such thing. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something you have after being in combat or a victim of sexual assault, surviving a plane crash or maybe a tornado. How the heck can church, of all things, cause PTSD?
Okay, let’s all take a breath. What’s going through your head right now?
Were the beginning statements ones that crossed your mind when you saw the headline?
Or were you squirming in your seat because it triggers unwanted feelings of your own experiences?
Over the past couple years, I have come to terms with my own mental illness. I have discussed it many times and even shared some of the darkest points of my life, partly in hopes that others will know they are not alone and partly for my own sake, getting it out in the open and shining a bit of light on the darkness.
I also have been no stranger to discussing many of the issues I have faced within the church being a transgender woman. But the one thing I really haven’t wanted to admit or even realized for that matter is the mild form of PTSD, if it is that, due to the betrayal and painful experiences caused by people in the church.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is complex and each person reacts differently, both physically and emotionally, after they have experienced a traumatic event. Multiple factors before, during and after traumatic events play a integral role in how a person responds. Many times the onset of PTSD doesn’t happen until months or years after the traumatic experience(s).
By no means do I want to take anything away from those men, women and children who suffer debilitating forms of the disorder. But as a society, we shy away from talking about mental illness, let alone talking about PTSD. We have fallen short of truly considering the long list of things that can cause the disorder, recognizing the symptoms and how best can we help heal the wounds left behind.
Trauma, as defined by The PTSD Workbook by Dr. Mary Berth Williams and Dr. Soili Poijula, represents any injury, whether physical or emotional, to yourself or those close to you. Even witnessing injury to others is enough to be a traumatic event in your life and those events can be enough to cause long lasting affects for someone.
Church PTSD, also called Post Traumatic Church Disorder (PTCD), is most commonly experienced as a result of two different circumstances. There are many people who have suffered severe spiritual abuse at the hands of a manipulative church, pastor or theology.
Wende Benner, a spiritual abuse survivor who grew up in the homeschool environment of the Bill Gothard theology, has been outspoken about her experiences. She was raised in an oppressive and abusive environment that, to this day, still tries to invoke a harmful influence in her life and the lives of her family. “I think of uncovering the trauma is like a cone shaped spiral. As I’ve lived my life post-abuse, it’s like I started at the bottom. Everything was traumatic. But I didn’t have a big picture of why and how it affected me.”
The other group of individuals that experience PTSD from the church are those who have been the victim of a single or repeated attacks from people they trusted in the church. These experiences can be so emotionally damaging that it is like being involved in an emotional train wreck or earthquake.
Regardless of what the cause is or whether the effects of those experiences are severe or mild, PTSD is real for these people and has, to some extent, interfered with their lives.
Though I have known some of the road blocks I have with the church, I am just now figuring out just how it is interfering with my life and being able to be an active member of a church body. I am only now putting tow and two together and understanding the connection of my past experiences and how I am today.
There have been several instances that have led up to how I am now but one event in particular would rise to the level of traumatizing. It was shortly after I had fully transitioned. I had shared my journey with someone I thought I trusted in the church I was currently attending. I was interested in being more involved in the goings on in the church and she told me that the pastor would like to talk with me about it.
The day of the meeting came and my friend met me at the church which I thought was a bit odd but put it out of my mind. She escorted me to the pastor’s office where the pastor and the pastor’s wife joined us. I took a seat on the couch, catty corner from the door to the office with the pastor behind a big desk, the pastor’s wife to my left and my friend in a chair which was positioned between me and the door.
I instantly felt trapped.
I quickly realized that I had been ambushed.
In one short sentence, the discussion quickly turned from my desire to be an active part of the congregation to how they felt being transgender was against “God’s plan”. I was totally unprepared to counter their twisted dogma. It was as though my legs had been cut out from under me. At that point emotionally, I couldn’t return their volleys of condescending and hurtful rhetoric.
They had done their ‘research’ and hit me with every example they could find of people who had de-transitioned. They talked about what I have since learned is conversation therapy practices. They spouted scripture about how God made man and woman. They said they loved me and only wanted the best for me. But I knew they would never accept me for who I was.
They said they would pray for me and I knew exactly what that meant. They would pray that I would come to my senses and turn from my sinful ways and return to living as a man.
When it was all over, I couldn’t walk to my car fast enough. I felt absolutely gutted.
I had one last obligation with that church and for some stupid reason and against my better judgment I fulfilled it. In doing so I learned that the conversation, that meeting in the pastor’s office, the one that I thought was private, had been shared with others. Not only had I been ambushed but people in church leadership had betrayed my trust.
For a second time, I stood there eviscerated.
Needless to say I never went back. I knew even if they continued to use Meggan as my name, they would never accept me for the woman I am.
This particular incident was not the only negative encounter I have had with people in the church. In seven years I have had to walk away from four churches. I have encountered everything from unspoken disdain to out right hate from people I thought I trusted and people I considered good friends.
Even with these traumatic experiences, my faith in Christ was shaken but has not waned. I can’t say the same thing for my faith in my fellow Christians. These experiences have left me with a high mistrust level. Just last year, when I was invited to dinner to the home of one of the pastors of the church I had been attending for a few weeks and found out the senior campus pastor was going to be there as well, I flashed back to that horrible meeting. Even without knowing any details of the dinner, my brain automatically went to the worse case scenario.
During church services, a single line from a hymn will make me tear up.
In a sanctuary full of people, I can feel claustrophobic and absolutely alone all at the same moment.
I sit in the sanctuary wanting to pull something relevant out of the sermon, yet I am unable to fully concentrate on the message. Even though I have found friends in the church, I look around to those sitting there. My mind wanders to thinking about what these people would think and how they would react if they knew I was transgender. I find myself always listening for triggers. Those key words that might reveal where this pastor sits in regards to LGBTQ issues and to being transgender.
I have attempted to reach out to the leadership of different church bodies where I have attended but rarely received anything positive in return. The few times I have met with pastors, it has always ended in me feeling attacked or they just can’t bring themselves to accept me for who I am. I have gotten to the point where I am not sure what is worse – being ignored or made to feel small and inhuman for making the choice to live an authentic life.
Whether or not what I experience rises to the level of PTSD as defined by the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013), I’ll let the professionals diagnose that. But when I look at some of the most common signs of PTSD, I can’t help but recognize in me many of the same issues.
- avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind us of the trauma
- loss of interest in activities and life in general
- feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
- anger & irritability
- guilt, shame or self-blame
- hyper vigilance, on constant “red alert”, feeling jumpy and easily startled
- feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- feeling alienated and alone
It is not as though I haven’t tried to find an affirming church. I’ve attempted to reach out to the leadership of different church bodies where I have attended but rarely received anything positive in return. The few times I have met with pastors, it has always ended in me feeling attacked or they just can’t bring themselves to accept me for who I am. I have gotten to the point where I am not sure what is worse – being ignored or made to feel small and inhuman for making the choice to live an authentic life.
I know there are church bodies out there who are welcoming and affirming. I know there are places where I could finally put the traumatic experiences behind me. But worship is a personal experience. Not all denominations or individual church bodies are for everyone.
Maybe it’s misguided and maybe I am a bit naive, but I continue to believe there is the possibility of having a contemporary, evangelical body that can be affirming for the LGBTQ community. I continue to have faith that there can be a place, no matter the denomination, for people who have experienced hurt to heal. Isn’t it Christ himself who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” If that’s not a mission statement for a church, I’m not sure what is.
Wounds caused by trauma take time to heal and that process is unique for each person in recovery. The list of techniques to aid in the healing process is long and not all work or are appropriate for everyone.
Some people have even found healing in the most unexpected circumstances. For Wende, healing took a huge leap forward with the birth of her own children. “One of the biggest turning points in recovery for me personally was having children of my own. With the idea of God as my parent I realized the things I had been taught about God were things I would never, ever do to my kids because I loved them so greatly. I finally realized the things I was taught in my youth would actually be abuse if I did them to my own children. So how could a good, loving God/parent do such things to me?”
“It has been a long journey of unraveling the lies and truth. In many ways I have needed to tear everything down and rebuild my beliefs and views of life over again. But, every moment of hard work has been worth the freedom of knowing it is acceptable for me to be my own person, to have my own thoughts and desires, and to know I do not have to sacrifice my whole self in order to love my family.” Wende Benner – Homeschoolers Anonymous
But regardless of the methods used in the healing process, at the core to healing is love, support and understanding. This is something that the church needs to comprehend.
The number of hurting people continues to rise. Whether they suffer from PTSD or not, the hurt needs to come to an end and the damage done needs to be healed. Far too many people are running away from organized religion because they have seen the worst it has to offer.
PTSD is called a disorder for a reason. It takes the natural order of our lives away from us. It interferes with who we are and who we can be. This is something that is absolutely contrary to what Christ wants for our lives. The church needs to remember the parting words Christ gave to the disciples was one of peace. He said. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
For more on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you can check out the following links:
There is also a Facebook group geared to healing Religious Trauma.
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