The first bird seemed dead or near death. She sat frozen after flying into the doors of my high school. I knew how she felt. I was like a zombie back then, my body filled with what my mind wouldn’t accept – grief, anger, and loneliness. It drained me. I shed weight and light until I was a shadow.
I picked up the bird and moved it toward a tree, so at least she could die in peace. She flew out of my hands, a shock of life. I clung to that moment through the rest of high school and well into college. I used it as evidence that God was working in my life as I sunk deeper and deeper into my faith. I didn’t know that was death, too. To fit into Christianity, I was bleeding my true self away, wearing the mask of a freed, spirit-filled believer. I thought this was flying, but I had just traded one death for another.
The second bird was still fighting. Washing on the beach shore, she was battered by the waves and trying not to drown. I knew how she felt. Years after high school, I was still fighting, too. I fought the grief of my past and persistent doubts about everything I believed. I felt everything but compassion for myself. Anxiety electrified me, even though most days, I trained myself to ignore just how deep it went.
I picked up the bird and moved it far up the shore. There was no resurrection this time, no eruption of flight. I’m sure she died there, but at least I gave her a quiet place where she didn’t need to fight. I realize now that that’s all I ever needed. I didn’t need prayers or church or the Bible. I didn’t need promises of healing or strange hands on me casting out demons. They never let me rest.
I thought freedom could only be found in flight, but maybe, it’s just a quiet place where I can let go.
I’m at the point in my life where I’m considering going back to church.
Shocking, I know, but it isn’t just about me. If it was, honestly, I would probably never be the kind of person who gets up on Sunday morning. Just thinking about it makes me kind of queasy. I’m definitely not there yet, but I’m going to make it a goal to work on with my spiritual director. Why? It’s important to Chris.
He’s a church boy. He gets up super early every Sunday and does the soundboard for the service. He wants to go to groups. It’s such a big part of his life, and it’s been slowly separating us from each other. It’s not like he’s been pressuring me, but it’s still something we aren’t sharing.
We went to a Christian concert a little while ago, and it was in a church. I felt kind of weird walking in, but I didn’t feel the need to rush out. The music was really good, which was the only reason I went, and even a bit “edgy” for the crowd. I’m pretty sure Chris was the only man doing any kind of movement. Danny Gokey was the headliner and at one point, he started talking about new seasons. Chris and I feel like we’re moving into a new season, and if I try going back to church and groups, that will definitely be new to me.
I’m faced with a question though: how can a new season start in places that are so familiar, in a negative way? Churches, generally, all feel and look the same, especially the ones Chris goes to. They even smell the same. How can something good and new come from that? I know, I know, God can do anything, he makes all things new, yadda yadda, but I still have to get my ass through the doors. My mind knows it’s not the same place, but my body is trained well. It’s hard work to retrain the thing. Even going to a different church isn’t really an option, because I’ve been to so many, there isn’t a church environment I haven’t seen or experienced. All of the “sets” have memories attached to them. And I’m not going to ask Chris to change churches just because one might not provoke as much of a trigger for me. Arg, the things we do for love.
I’ve basically decided to not expect miracles, but if one happens, awesome. Church isn’t going to suddenly become this amazing, transformative experience, but it doesn’t have to be the place I dread most, either. I would be fine being okay sitting through a service and finding my real spiritual fulfillment through other channels. I do still want a group, that’s more important than services, and I believe that’s something I deserve. That’s where I really need a new season.
A big part of my spiritual “therapy,” I guess you’d call it, has been identifying and focusing on my “safe places.” These are the sensations and states of being that make me feel closest to God. When they’re cultivated, I can think about trauma and ground myself in safety, so I’m not disrupted by painful memories. I’ve found five safe places:
Floating in the ocean in Jamaica
I experience different aspects of God in these places. With Yoshi, I feel adored and significant. With Chris, I am accepted, respected, and loved. While walking, I am strong, free, and flexible. In nature, I am free, rooted, grounded, and open, like the opposite of claustrophobic. When I remember floating in the Jamaican water, I am completely at peace, held, and still.
My spiritual director pointed out that it’s interesting that there are five things, like fingers on a hand. I immediately thought of the book title, “The heart is a muscle the size of your fist.” It’s a novel about protests and I haven’t actually read it, but the phrase sticks with me. In my head, I connect a fist or a hand with the heart. The key to spiritual fulfillment is to hold the Five within myself at all times, so no matter where I go or what I experience, I can rely on them. To help get a visual sense, I painted a picture:
Each color represents a different part of the Five, and they all seep into one another and come from the heart. The heart has cracks from my traumatic experiences, but that’s where the color bleeds from.
The Five represent my essence. When I feel stressed or conflicted about something, disturbed by a past memory or triggering event, I’ve been turning back to whatever part of the Five best supports me. Sometimes it’s lying outside on the deck with Yoshi, looking up at the trees, just listening to the sound of the leaves. Other times it’s going for a walk without my headphones and just really focusing on each step, letting my arms move, breathing more deeply. In the past, I would focus too much on what was bothering me. I would run it back through my head over and over again, writing it down, picking it apart, analyzing it. That process has led to revelations, but I’m tired of it. One of the reasons why I didn’t want to go back to regular counseling was because I felt like I would have to rehash all the things wrong with me again. My spiritual director isn’t so interested in the details of things. It’s more about how memories and experiences fit into the bigger picture of what I believe about God, myself, and others. Most importantly, it’s about moving forward and not letting trauma define me. She’s all about “respecting” the trauma and having compassion towards it – it’s not as if I’m denying the impact of anything – but healing comes from immersion in the Five, not the trauma itself.
*trigger warning* Contains descriptions of dreams involving needles
I’ve always had a weird thing about witches. By “weird thing,” I mean legitimate fear that one would cast a spell on me and manipulate my actions. When I was involved in really extreme, charismatic spirituality, a few authority figures told me I was vulnerable to the spirit of witchcraft. I didn’t really know what that meant. They said it was about the need to control everything, because a witch’s power is all about controlling the elements. Looking back, I feel like “spirit of witchcraft” is just a really bizarre and terrifying way of saying “control freak.”
In college, I wasn’t really as scared of witches as when I was younger, but there was a new fear creeping in. A fear of my sexuality. I became more scared of men and drawn to women, and even though I didn’t believe being gay or bisexual was a sin, or even that the lifestyle was, I was afraid I was wrong. I would dream about a dark-haired woman a lot, and became convinced an evil spirit was visiting me. I abandoned the hyper-spiritual, casting-out-of-demons-constantly lifestyle soon after, simply because I was so exhausted, but I never really “deprogrammed” myself from it.
I read a lot from different spiritual authors like Rachel Held Evans, and went to regular counseling where some of my sexuality issues were resolved. I was able to acknowledge that I was bisexual, but because I was engaged to Chris, I never had to unpack it more than that.
My spiritual life is nothing like it used to be, where every panic attack was treated like an expression of demonic forces or reading the Bible was a desperate attempt to defend myself. But I still dream. I think dreams are the soul’s way of remembering things we wish we could forget.
This week, I dreamed that a witch attempted to take over my body by sewing a long line of thread through my ankle and earlobe. Every time I pulled out the thread to free myself, she would patiently start again. I kept repeating buzz words and phrases I had learned from charismatic teachers back in the day, but nothing worked. Finally, the spiritual counselor who had the biggest influence on me (and who was the one told me I had been molested and then offered no guidance as to how to deal with that revelation), showed up, and the witch went away. She would be back, though, and I was suddenly in one of my old houses lying in bed, in the dark, with tiny needles embedded in my skin. I couldn’t move, but I could hear people outside. They were preparing for the witch’s arrival, and said that I had to let her partially into my body before they could get rid of her. There was a lot more to the dream, but the most notable part was when I was able to see into the witch’s past and see her. I remember really worrying that she would look like one of the actresses I’ve had a crush on for a while.
There’s that whole bisexual fear again. In my head, I’m totally comfortable with it, but underneath is a different story. As soon as I really confront it, it freaks me out. If I wasn’t married to Chris, and the possibility of being in a relationship with a woman was more of a reality, I would need some serious counseling. Now, I don’t know how much it matters. The dreams never bother me, and I know they’re not real. I think it might just take time. I just assumed I was over all that stuff with casting out demons and being stalked by a witch spirit who was making me like girls, but maybe not. I figure the farther away from it I get, time-wise, the less it will affect me.
For our first small group session, we did an active listening exercise where we described a moment where we felt most alive. Mine was about a morning in Jamaica, the summer of 2011, where I and a few friends got up early to swim. The sun wasn’t scorching yet, and the water was just cool enough to be refreshing. I floated on my back, eyes closed. The last few years had been extremely rough. My soul felt like a raw piece of meat that had been beat with a mallet. It felt like my body and mind were set against me, determined to kill me.
Some people feel most alive when their adrenaline levels are high, but I’m the opposite. For me, high adrenaline levels mean I’m afraid, that I’m in danger. There’s a theory about anxiety that it was biologically important back in the days when life was really dangerous, when we lived without much shelter and death by wild animal was common. That anxiety kept us alive and told us to run when we encountered danger. Now, however, most of us don’t need that much anxiety. I certainly don’t – I’m not in a bad area, I’m pretty much white-passing, and I’m not being hunted by animals. That adrenaline/anxiety sparked up at every little thing, and told my body that sitting in class was a life-or-death situation. I didn’t feel “alive” in those moments, because I wanted the feeling to stop. I wanted to shut it off. I wanted to be dead, because at least then I could have peace and quiet.
Floating in the ocean, my ears beneath the waves so the only sound was my own breathing, felt like being alive. I felt whole, my mind and body not fighting. It was sort of weird, too, because I also felt disembodied at the same time. That felt like freedom, like I had found a way to escape the chaos of the physical, and just be. Recapturing that is not easy. The closest I get is when I can’t sleep at night, and I lie down in Baxter’s room. It’s the coolest room. The sleeping bag is slippery, and feels a little like water. The only sound is faint rustling. After a half hour or so, I feel calm again, pieced back together, and I can go back to bed and fall asleep.
What this taught me is that my soul is connected to the ocean. Whenever we go to the coast, I know that I could live by it forever. When I’ve visited deserts, like New Mexico, I feel off-kilter, like something is missing. The ocean has its rhythms, like a pair of lungs, and follows the moon. It’s steady, but also not predictable. It’s totally, completely alive.
At night, thoughts just trickle down like raindrops into my brain. I really can’t control the onslaught, and I never know what form they’ll take from night to night. Last night, my thoughts turned to my year at Northwestern. It seems like an eternity ago, and I realized that I couldn’t remember a lot of peoples’ names. It was a relief, though, because most of them were people I didn’t actually know. They just knew the few people I did know, extending far out into the college life I never shared. I forget sometimes what a hard year it was. I’m honestly shocked that I made it through alive. At my worst, I had imagined crawling into the oven in the little kitchenette in the dorm room I shared with two other girls, and at my best, I successfully went to class, to the on-campus therapy, and check-ins with my hall director who needed to make sure I wasn’t going to kill myself. Even at my best, I was just surviving.
The thoughts of that year just kept streaming in last night, filling me up, like I was an inflating balloon. Chris snored peacefully beside me, and Yoshi had gone downstairs, so I couldn’t occupy myself with petting him. Instead, I went into Baxter’s room and lay on the sleeping bag I always kept in there for just such occasions. He wasn’t interested in playing with me, so I put him back in his house and lay on my back, listening to him rustle in his bedding and toilet paper tubes. With each breath, I tried to imagine thoughts leaving my body like air, as if I was decompressing from a deep dive. I wanted to become completely flat, even with the floor, and not swollen up with strange emotions.
Memories kept flying in, like the first week of living on campus where the college hosted an ’80’s costume party, and I sat watching three girls from my hall put their long hair in side ponytails, with off-shoulder sweaters and neon eyeliner, and the only ’80’s look I could possibly pull off was Joan Jett, because I owned a lot of black clothes and my hair was short like hers.
Not too much of a stretch, right?
It’s so weird what comes up in the dark, with no distractions except the sound of a hedgehog drinking water. I kept picturing the little lounge area of my floor, Red Hall, even though I rarely spent time there. Then there was the “prank” some of the older girls played on the freshman when we first moved in, that there would be a table set up where any boys who came to visit would have to sign in. When they revealed that they were joking, it wasn’t really that funny, because we did still have to always keep the doors open if we had a gentleman caller, and they could only visit one day during the week. I truly can’t remember if it was part of the prank that we had to also hang little paper dolls on the door if there was a guy there, or if that was real. I knew that none of that would apply to me, prank or no, so it was a weird way to start the year.
That was also the year that I got really into charismatic Christianity. After one especially intense devotional session with one of the girls sharing her story of being abused, I started getting worked up during the prayer session, and when someone tried to put their hands on me to pray, I flipped out. I ended up being held down on the floor, growling. When I finally calmed down, I was exhausted, but didn’t want to go back to my dorm to my roommate who never came to the hall Bible studies, and who did not understand either my depression or hyper-spirituality. She might have been in a cult. The other roommate, who was more receptive and open, was out with her friends. I don’t remember if I talked with my RA about what had triggered the spiritual attack (panic attack, as I now know it was), but I don’t remember feeling safe or reassured afterwards. When I think about that time and my relationship with the girls in the Hall, I’m left with a big question mark. It feels like I bled all over the floor all year and everyone kind of avoided it. Occasionally, someone would ask how I was, listen intently, and I would feel better.
During the year, I felt like I had some allies in my battle, so when I decided to transfer, I wanted to end the year well. I hung out one-on-one with the girl whose testimony had triggered my attack, and tried to connect with her using the only spiritual language I really knew: charismatic crazy talk. I thought she would understand, but by the end of our conversation, I could tell she thought I was insane. I never saw or talked to her again. The older girl who I had met with during the year was nowhere to be found when I moved out, and when I texted her during the summer about getting coffee, she was always busy. My RA unfriended me on Facebook until I refriended her, and she accepted. We never spoke of why she deleted me. Unless I’ve forgotten about that, too.
I’ve blogged about these experiences before, and I’m not bitter or mad about them. It was so long ago, and so much has changed since then, I kind of feel like telling myself, “What the hell, get over it.” And most of the time, I am over it. Last night was the first time I’ve really thought about any specific memories in a long time, and I’m not sure why they just appeared again. Maybe because I’m starting this small group and on the threshold of new relationships with Christians again, and some old fears are trying to get back in, like bloated ticks eager to feed on my blood again. Vivid image, I know, but that’s what it feels like. So I lay on the floor in the hedgehog’s room, breathing in and out, until I no longer felt like my chest was going to stretch apart and my brain was too tired to absorb the raindrops of thoughts. I checked on Baxter one more time, who jumped angrily when I touched him, and went back to the bedroom. Chris was no longer snoring.
I write my prayers; I have trouble articulating them otherwise. I don’t share them. This one, though, I wanted to share. It summarizes what I’ve been feeling spiritually for quite a few years now.
I’m at the point where I don’t know if I would recognize Your voice if I heard it. No, that’s not true. Your voice is this quiet, in this room, as cars go by in the rain like steady white noise, like waves. What does the voice say?
I can feel myself become calm. My heartbeat slows.
I guess I’m just not sure if that’s “good enough.” Most of my conversations about You now are like seeping wounds, barely just scabbing over. I feel like all I have to tell people is how the church let me down, how Christians let me down, how the different denominations (Lutheran, Episcopal, Evangelical, charismatic) let me down. I don’t really have a silver lining. Is that because something is wrong with me?
I guess the one good thing from all that I can tell someone everything You are not. You’re not loneliness in a crowd of girls at a Christian retreat, or an angry argument over Facebook, or the agonizing fear of demons in every corner. You’re not silence from friends after a church collapsed. You’re not shame. Rage. Hate.
But…what are You, then? Am I starting from scratch? I feel like my insides are scraped clean, ready to be filled with…what?
Easter season is about rebirth, right? I guess that’s what I ready for.