Religious Trauma Syndrome - Part 1

I still pray sometimes, in the waking moments of the day or in the times when I feel anxious, prayers escape my lips in exhales. I spent years honing this discipline, training my mind to turn to prayer the moment a need confronts me. I also trained my mind to memorize bible passages and spent over $40000 learning at a bible college and gaining a degree I no longer see any true value in. Nowadays when I find myself in a situation where I’m forced to silently participate and endure through a long-winded prayer before a family meal and when I even think about dusting off the bible that sits under a stack of other books in our office, I feel an unexplainable panic rise in my diaphragm and catch my breath. It’s as if those times and spaces are haunted; they hold the burden of so much pain and broken trust.

I’ve listened to Jamie Lee Finch’s book at least ten times and each time new realizations surface and connect. “You Are Your Own: A Reckoning With The Religious Trauma of Evangelical Christianity” has become for me the lit path off of the plane wreck of my deconstruction. As she shares her own story of growing up in and then leaving conservative evangelical Christianity, she also offers insights from her research into trauma and, more specifically, religious trauma syndrome. There are a few key revelations I gained from this book that have particularly hit home for me this idea of religious trauma; the validation of my own experiences and trauma, the impact of purity culture on my psyche and body as a sexual assault survivor, and the possibility that the doctrines I was introduced to as an adolescent may have not only triggered but exacerbated my mental illness.

Through my first listen it didn’t really hit me that I could be experiencing religious trauma syndrome. It’s not like my own experiences were of extreme abuse or neglect. However, it was after a particularly difficult therapy session that, in relistening to Jamie’s words, I realized that the reason I seemed to well up in tears every time I talked about my history with God and church may have been because my body was telling me to reexamine abusive doctrines and narrative I was taught in religious spaces. My therapist asked me if I spent any time in the weeks between our meetings thinking about or processing this history, which I had not. Therapy has been the only space in the last several months where I didn’t push away any thoughts relating to God or evangelical Christianity immediately as they surfaced. She challenged me to be open to these thoughts. This new openness and a second listen to “You Are Your Own” opened the flood gates and for a few weeks I felt like I was drowning in my own past trauma.

Jamie writes “the conversation about trauma has become more subjective. After all, who can define what is disturbing about an experience better than the individual having the specific experience themselves? What one person finds distressing, another may not, and an awareness of that subjectivity is crucial to any attempt to understand the full reality of religious trauma” (Finch 61). I try to remember this subjectivity when severely gaslighting thoughts arise to try to diminish my healing. Gaslighting* the self is something else I’ve been trained to do. But I will fight to trust my body. Jamie taught me that. She goes on to explain “Trauma occurs when an event or situation creates an unresolved impact on an organism and can be quite succinctly defined as an ‘overwhelming event.’ It is an individual person’s unique threshold for what is ‘overwhelming’ that determines the development of Post Traumatic Stress and eventually PTSD” (Finch 62).

I am looking at my own story through a different lens now, scrutinizing the teachings of my youth and paying attention to how my body is responding to those teachings. I am finding this process quite arduous and extremely exhausting. I don’t feel that I have the words or the capacity to expand on specific points right now, apart from the already mentioned points about purity culture and mental illness. Each of those will have their own blog post (coming soon). If you are interested in learning more about religious trauma syndrome, I highly recommend Jamie’s book, for which I will leave a link below.

I am also open to continuing this conversation over email or in-person and you are welcome to leave your thoughts in the comments, although, fair warning, I will not tolerate any gaslighting.

Finch, Jamie Lee. You Are Your Own: A Reckoning With The Religious Trauma of Evangelical Christianity. 2019.

*gas·light /ˈɡaslīt/

verb gerund or present participle: gaslighting manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.

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