The journey in and out.

The journey in and out.

Please note: My par­ents and I have a pret­ty good rela­tion­ship. They’ve expressed to me that they don’t read my blog, and we all agree that’s prob­a­bly for the best. So I’d appre­ci­ate it if you didn’t con­tact them about my writ­ing. If they don’t want to read what I write, it’s kin­da dis­re­spect­ful to bring it up to them. Also note that I won’t tol­er­ate crit­i­cism of them in com­ments, either. Please be respect­ful of me and my fam­i­ly, and under­stand that ana­lyz­ing a belief sys­tem and the behav­iors that come from that sys­tem is very very dif­fer­ent from crit­i­ciz­ing peo­ple. I’m grate­ful to have them as my par­ents, and none of my writ­ing is a crit­i­cism of them as indi­vid­u­als or as par­ents. Thanks for under­stand­ing.

Neil Carter of God­less in Dix­ie recent­ly shared his con­ver­sion sto­ry on his blog, talk­ing about the dif­fer­ence between con­vert­ing and decon­vert­ing. This, of course, made me extreme­ly nos­tal­gic and intro­spec­tive, as I am wont to be any­ways. In part, I began to con­tem­plate my jour­ney in and out of Chris­tian­i­ty — par­tic­u­lar­ly my three con­ver­sion sto­ries, and what they tell me about how my for­mer faith oper­at­ed.

(I’d like to let you know ahead of time that I’m going to talk rather frankly about sui­cide, self-harm, and dis­or­dered eat­ing in this post.)

The first time I Became a Chris­t­ian, I was 3 years old, gro­cery shop­ping with my mom. She says I saw some­one in the store and asked, while she was load­ing me and the gro­ceries in the van, why he was so sad. She replied in the sim­plest way she knew to answer tod­dler-me: he prob­a­bly didn’t have Jesus. Not want­i­ng to be sad like that man, I bowed my lit­tle head and asked Jesus into my heart.

Sec­ond time, I was 7. We were at a West Vir­ginia Bible con­fer­ence, and the teacher that night real­ly ham­mered home the idea of hell. I was ter­ri­fied. I mean, I was an already anx­ious child who’d already qui­et­ly attempt­ed sui­cide mul­ti­ple times. I was beyond ter­ri­fied. I talked to my dad for a long time that evening and prayed again. I con­sid­ered this my Real Sal­va­tion until…

I was a month shy of 14 years old. I remem­ber the date for this one, actu­al­ly — March 11, 2001. I’d been sui­ci­dal off and on my whole lit­tle life, but con­cen­trat­ed­ly for the past cou­ple of years. I was self-harm­ing, over-dos­ing on what­ev­er painkillers I could find semi-reg­u­lar­ly, and anorex­ic. I kept try­ing to find com­fort in the Bible as I was taught to do, but I’d just downed anoth­er fist-full of pills. In the after­math, wait­ing for the famil­iar numb­ness to set­tle in, I opened my Bible to read Romans 7. Vers­es 14–24 were my sort of “mea cul­pa” — I often turned to them them over and over again to remind myself of how wretched I was. Verse 24 in par­tic­u­lar stuck with me — “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliv­er me from this body of death?” I broke down in con­vul­sive sobs at this point, feel­ing so akin to the phrase “body of death” and feel­ing in my bones that there was no deliv­er­ance from the hell that was my exis­tence. Then I read the next verse: “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” I slow­ly stopped cry­ing as a weird sort of peace flood­ed my body. I put my Bible and jour­nal down, went to bed and slept all night for the first time in months.

At 3, at 7, at 13, I was deeply impres­sion­able. My entire life, every­where I went, revolved around fun­da­men­tal­ist or evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­i­ty. Of course I believed. But I took it even fur­ther than that, from ages 14–24. I con­sid­ered my last con­ver­sion sto­ry to be my true con­ver­sion sto­ry, because after that night I was a dif­fer­ent per­son. I’d always believed in Chris­tian­i­ty, believed in Jesus. But now it was my deci­sion, not just a deci­sion-by-proxy. Now I was real­ly His and con­scious­ly ded­i­cat­ed to Him. I start­ed more deeply inter­nal­iz­ing and per­son­al­iz­ing what I’d always been taught at home, Chris­t­ian school, and church: I was so bro­ken and worth­less with­out God, so my only hope was to cling to Him as much as I pos­si­bly could while try­ing to trust that no one could pluck me from His hand.

That was eas­i­er said than done, I’m afraid. Fun­ny how men­tal ill­ness can’t just be wished or willed away, even with help from On High, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing of your entire out­look on life is that you’re inher­ent­ly devoid of good­ness. So I’d tamp down my fears and anx­i­eties and depres­sion best I could through Scrip­ture and hymns. If I failed, I’d admit I was liv­ing in sin through enter­tain­ing such thoughts, for not tak­ing every thought cap­tive, for being led astray by unre­li­able feel­ings. I stud­ied the Bible on my own vora­cious­ly for the first time with­out any­one telling me to, mem­o­riz­ing large pas­sages, apply­ing pat­terns and prin­ci­ples I gleaned from the text to my life and try­ing to apply them to the lives of my class­mates and peers (most of whom were less than enthu­si­as­tic with my new-found fer­vor).

When some­thing didn’t make sense, it was because God’s ways were high­er than my ways and I just need­ed to trust that He knew what He was doing. I had no oth­er tools to exam­ine non­sen­si­cal things. In fact, I’d been explic­it­ly taught my whole life to accept instruc­tion from the Bible and my author­i­ties with­out ques­tion. So when life expe­ri­ences didn’t line up with what the Bible or my men­tors taught, I believed I was the prob­lem. I didn’t even think to exam­ine the teach­ing. When depres­sion would over­take me again, it was because I wasn’t putting my full trust in the Lord, not because depres­sion is a seri­ous chron­ic ill­ness that can’t be cured by wish­ful think­ing and prayer. When I began exhibit­ing signs of PTSD from being sex­u­al­ly assault­ed in col­lege, my fear was not of God and was proof that I wasn’t ful­ly trust­ing in His per­fect love that was to cast out my fear, not a phys­i­o­log­i­cal response to trau­ma.

I also became hyper-focused on what my role as a woman was in the church and in the world. I’ve talked about this many times before: the more I stud­ied and lis­tened to ser­mons and thought through bib­li­cal teach­ings, the more things I cut out of my life. Things like music that wasn’t “hon­or­ing” to the Lord, hav­ing short hair (because it was a shame for a woman to have short hair), per­form­ing music pub­licly (because that was tak­ing on a lead­er­ship role), speak­ing at all dur­ing Bible stud­ies (because I was to remain silent in the church, and the church was when­ev­er believ­ers gath­ered).

Not only this, but I took my “spir­i­tu­al gift” of “exhor­ta­tion” quite seri­ous­ly. I was the per­son who would tell my unsaved LGBT friends that I loved them too much to not talk to them about Jesus and what He thought about their “lifestyle.” I told a friend in an abu­sive mar­riage to remain with their spouse because divorce wasn’t pleas­ing to God. I med­dled in rela­tion­ships when I thought they weren’t god­ly enough. I rebuked friends for not being appro­pri­ate­ly respect­ful and obe­di­ent to their par­ents. I was absolute­ly ded­i­cat­ed to being as Christ-hon­or­ing as I could while try­ing to be a pos­i­tive influ­ence on the rest of my friends for the same end.

Until I couldn’t any­more.

Until the ques­tions wouldn’t go away any­more.

Until the depres­sion and sui­ci­dal wish­es were so con­stant I found myself twitchy around my art knives or dri­ving across bridges on tall moun­tains.

Until I couldn’t stop won­der­ing what the dis­cernible dif­fer­ence was between nonex­is­tent deities and ones who demon­stra­bly didn’t inter­vene in the realms of their cre­ations.

Look­ing back over my con­ver­sion sto­ries, one par­tic­u­lar para­graph from Neil’s post jumps out at me:

For most of us, church­es got to us while we were still young, and they roped us in before we were old enough to real­ly think for our­selves. They taught us how to think about these things before we had the chance to devel­op our own crit­i­cal think­ing skills, and then they took advan­tage of our emo­tion­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties dur­ing our teen years in order to get us fired up about the things that mat­ter most to them.

There had always been a dis­con­nect between what I was taught and what I observed and expe­ri­enced, between blind faith in invis­i­ble things and repeat­ably testable evi­dence. But as a child, as a teen, even into ear­ly adult­hood, I wasn’t giv­en the words to rec­og­nize the dis­con­nect, or even the tools to inspect or decon­struct my beliefs to see if there was any mer­it to them out­side of want­i­ng them to be true.

And so, when I came home, friends, friends who encour­aged me to think for myself rather than insist­ing on con­trol­ling me, cre­at­ing tiny safe spaces for me to ask the ques­tions I’d squelched for years. The peo­ple who were safest to me, who were gen­uine­ly good and empa­thet­ic and won­der­ful peo­ple, were every­one I’d been taught to fear and con­vert.

I dis­cov­ered that I’m not bro­ken. That I’m not prop­er­ty. The sto­ries I’d always believed about myself, how depraved and unwor­thy I was, were the great­est pos­si­ble exac­er­baters of my exist­ing depres­sion and anx­i­ety. Good­ness exist­ed out­side of super­nat­ur­al input, and the more I con­tem­plat­ed and searched for com­pelling evi­dence, philo­soph­i­cal­ly or sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, that a super­nat­ur­al realm or per­son exist­ed in a mean­ing­ful way…the more I real­ized there sim­ply was no evi­dence.

It was utter­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, this real­iza­tion. Ter­ri­fy­ing enough to keep me rel­a­tive­ly silent for almost a year. But in the end…in the end, the shack­les were gone and I could breathe freely.


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