Mental Health Recovery Beyond Religiosity

mental-illness

I’ve been absent for a while, had a little setback in my recovery. I realized I was decompensating (losing progress in my recovery and personal development) and quit drinking on October 12th. Well, before you congratulate me, allow me to disclose that I have just traded one bad habit for three more – excessive consumption of caffeine, cigarettes and video gaming. I’m still self-medicating my symptoms. I’ve come to realize through journaling and therapy that I’ve always been fixated with or addicted to something since I was a child. As I was an introverted, melancholy and timid child, I developed no outlets or healthy coping skills for my balled-up emotions.

When I had my salvation experience at age 16, I found a new outlet for coping and personal growth. In ways, it was healthy – definitely healthier than what I had been doing which was mostly trying to appear something I was not so that I might feel accepted. My fixation with trying to feel accepted by others evolved into trying to feel accepted by God and, in my perceived relationship with God over the years, I grew in that feeling of acceptance. As a result, I increased my underdeveloped social intelligence and interpersonal skills.

The problem was, I didn’t stop there.

I was obsessed with being Christ-like and went far beyond healthy measures to improve my “Christian walk.” I was even more zealous than many of my church leaders. I would constantly scour my mind for any thought with impure motive, not to mention how hard I was on myself for any apparent sinful action. Confession, repentance, study of “the Word,” and continual prayer were compulsive behaviors.

I eventually discovered that talking about nothing but God turned off even the most devout Christians and began to self-monitor. I only thought it was that they couldn’t relate to me – not that I was emotionally abusing others. Ever had someone talk your ear off and just keep going on and on, not taking nonverbal cues you are worn out from the one-sided conversation? I had been quiet all my life. When I had something to talk about, I couldn’t shut up!

As I’ve gotten older, my illness has aggressed and my symptoms have required more and stronger treatments. My Christian loved ones have asked me if I’ve thought of the possibility that it’s because I no longer practice the faith. I have, actually, and am convinced my condition would have deteriorated whether or not I continued to practice Christianity. I rather imagine I’d be worse off than I am now seeking supernatural cures for physiological issues.

Now I’m making self-care a priority and taking one challenge at a time in my recovery, which is multifaceted. This is a big step for me – being okay with being imperfect, human. I’m learning to make peace with my imperfection (I’m quite selfish, actually) and just trying to restore some balance (entertain it as long as I’m not causing anyone else too much inconvenience). As for the addictive behaviors, I have resolved to diversify my interests again in other things I enjoy and this is why I am writing now.

Hope to hear from you in comments.

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The Difficult Process of Integration, The Reward of Deep Healing

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Few deconverts from Christianity sail through their recovery with relative ease – no sense of loss, no healing needed, no residual ghosts that continue to haunt their present lives. But for most of us, deconversion is a long and painful rehabilitation process. Only other deconverts know the anguish initiated by that first disillusionment. Then the long-sustained heartbreak of no satisfying resolution provided by the deity we had for so long trusted and worshipped. And finally, the painful process of deprogramming deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and behavior. The list of difficulties is much more extensive, but you know what I mean.

The purpose of this blog is to nurture further our healing and recovery. Like recovery from physical or mental illness, parts of our journey involve milestones of progress and others, painful recuperation. This post in particular focuses on a less pleasant, but critically necessary, step to wholeness. This can be quite difficult, but most often produces the greatest benefit. It requires courageous authenticity.

Following are some questions from my heart. They are not intended to resurrect unresolved pain for no purpose, but to face that which holds us back from full healing. Until then, our deconversion is incomplete. I don’t intend to live the rest of my life plagued by ghosts of brainwashing, still tormenting me in the back of my mind and affecting my current wellness. I won’t settle for being less than whole and I won’t be utterly defined by my deconversion. Facing our “demons,” answering these questions and bringing their true answers to light allows a tremendous amount of perspective… and restoration to a state better than before our deconversion began… So here goes:

What are you still experiencing as the aftermath of your deconversion?

Do you ever have doubts about whether you’ve chosen the best path for you? If so, what are they? If not, what makes your certainty now different from your certainty as a believer?

Do you ever fear apostasy and biblical punishment for it? Why do you think that is?

Is there anything positive you take away from your Christian experience? Any lessons or wisdom you still find applicable? Any values you adopted still relevant?

Honor your authentic truth. Examine your answers in light of your current knowledge and values. Integrate the former with the latter and you’ve found a path to wholeness.

The Pain of Deconversion, Part IV – Establishing New Coping Skills

# 10

Coping skills – methods a person uses to deal with stressful situations.

 

As Christians, we learned divinely approved methods of coping with the stresses of life alternate to the techniques of “the world.” We tended to believe our coping techniques superior to those outside our faith in that they were prescribed by God. We perceived practices such as prayer, reading the Bible and fellowship with other believers were helpful. Maybe they gave us a sense of being cared for, counseled by a reliable authority and accepted by a community who “got it.” In retrospect, we can see the flaws – the confirmation bias we exercised in seeing evidence of what we believed (and ignoring evidence to the contrary), depending on something other than ourselves to determine our behavior (and thus not taking responsibility for it) and believing ourselves to be of the few earthlings on the “right” path (how egocentric is that?). Nevertheless, we depended on these practices for coping. As deconverts, they’re suddenly gone.

How often did we, as Christians, when faced with a distressing problem, run to prayer? We believed He was there for us, that He cared, that He had the answers. It was a coping skill. For me, there was often a sense that I had “laid my burdens” on His altar and a trust that He would guide my behavior or intervene in the situation to bring resolution. In so many instances, I perceived He did do those things. I was so convinced God would help me, I saw His faithfulness operating in the most trivial things. I even attributed my own problem-solving skills to His benevolently bestowed insight. At the time, it seemed as if all resolution came from God and much of it directly through prayer. So ingrained was this dependence on the practice of prayer that I have been tempted to turn to it, though I no longer believe in the biblical God to whom I once appealed.

In establishing new coping skills, it can be helpful to revisit the old ones and determine what needs we perceived they met. Consider the following example.

We humans are social animals. A sense of belonging is a legitimate necessity. Though belonging to a faith community specifically may have caused more detriment than it did benefit, it still addressed a basic, healthy need. In looking to establish new, healthier coping skills, we can see the value of social support and seek to establish relationships that satisfy that need for belonging, provide security that we’re not alone in our experiences and promote personal growth through looking at things from an alternate perspective… not to mention the benefits of shared affection.

Maybe your perspective can help me or someone else. What coping skills did you use as a Christian? What was the perceived benefit or for what need did you use them? Can you now see anything healthy about it or the need it represented? How do you fill that need now?

Creating a New Identity

#9

[SB – I hope you find that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Your format is so much better.]

 

Hate the judgment, not the judgers.                                                                                                                           We’re familiar with the Christian phrase, “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” That we’re labeled “sinners” is somewhat offensive. There’s an essence of negative judgment, even in their attempt to be tolerant. However, I’ve noticed a similar trend among former Christians. It’s not uncommon to see terms thrown around like, Xtian, fundies and GAWD, apparent put downs of the Christians and faith we find abusive. My aim in this post is not to minimize the atrocities deconverts have suffered from the Christian faith, but to encourage deconverts not to replace the deficient identity we have escaped with a one that ties us to the old and inhibits our progress in recovery. I’m hoping you will see the connection as you read further.

A word of validation.                                                                                                                                                      Though I do not endorse disrespect of anyone, I’m not throwing any rocks, either. Sometimes deconversion is excruciating and anger is a normal step toward healing. Deconverts have suffered a ton of cruel brainwashing – feeling corrupt for having natural questions and doubts about their faith; experiencing rejection and criticism from church leaders, so-called friends and even family; and fearing themselves so deplorable to God they’re deserving of an eternity in the horrors of hell (I lack adequate words to describe the mental torture of that). It sometimes takes years to deprogram all the lies, so ingrained they become. Recovery is a process of going through the painful stages of loss, finding a new identity, purpose and new coping skills. Resentment is certainly understandable, even natural.

However, what is natural is not always healthy, productive or responsible.                                       Yes, responsible. If we carry a torch for the church, the faith, whatever – we’re looking back and not forward. I’m not talking of speaking out against the abuses of the church, the inaccuracies of the Bible or the absurd doctrines promoted. There is a way to assert one’s self with mutual respect. What I’m wanting to convey is that, regardless of what injustices we have suffered, ultimately each of us is responsible for our own well-being. If we tangle ourselves in petty arguments, condescension and mockery, have we moved from the stage of anger to recovery? Are we not still looking back? Do we dispense the type of judgment we’ve come to despise? Do we define ourselves by the pain we’ve suffered?

We are more than deconverts.                                                                                                                                                   At least, I am. I’m moving forward. I have a life, an identity and interests outside of my deconversion from Christianity. Yes, it was a big deal. I’m still dealing with the aftermath. However, I will not let it consume me or inhibit my current and future happiness, my wholeness anymore. My blog is about healing and moving forward. I invite others to join me. What have been the greatest challenges for you? What has helped you? How can we help each other heal and build our lives by our own design and values instead of having it molded for us into the image of an impossible standard? As we seek to recover, let us take the high road. Honor our truth. Honor our pain. And do it without getting stuck there, getting lost in it, making another dysfunctional identity of it. Let’s take responsibility for making recovery happen.

 

I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.

The Pain of Deconversion, Part III: The Terrors of Hell

 

 

#6 pic of hell

For most of those who’ve been fully immersed in, then left the Christian faith, the process of deconversion is not over when he/she comes to believe the biblical God does not exist or that the Bible is not inerrantly true. There are residual effects of the deep programming of Christian doctrine – or brainwashing as some call it – that result in a great deal of distress for the deconvert, and that is to put it lightly. Not the least of these are the terrors of hell.

If the church’s teachings on the doctrines of hell are not disturbing enough, there are plenty of scriptures in the Bible for the scrupulous to refer that foretell the danger awaiting the unbelieving, the cowardly and the rebellious. For one who had long believed in the Bible as being the inerrant Word of God – regardless of how illogical one has come to believe the Bible is – these warnings sting and bite at the mind. It often goes something like this:

After a believer has resolved through logic, reason and experience that the biblical God does not exist, she then embarks the process of rebuilding her life – establishing a new identity, developing new coping skills and finding new meaning and purpose. However, biblical warnings of God’s wrath for the unbelieving tend to spring up from the ashes of the faith he left and raise questions of whether, in abandoning the God he once loved, he is destined now to be thrown… “into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[1] Thoughts like, “Oh, no – this is happening just like the Bible foretold it would in the end times when, if possible, even the elect will be deceived,” and biblical passages like the following come to mind.

“For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, having known it, to turn back from the holy commandment that had been delivered to them.” [2] And “For if we deliberately keep on sinning [not believing in and following Christ, for example] after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury  of fire that will consume God’s enemies. Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”[3]

Terrifying indeed. The horror of fearing you are destined for eternal torment of the worst kind. It’s been well said: Hell is a place on Earth.

Actually, it’s a natural response to the programming. Spiritual experiences are moving, emotionally charged and impactful on the brain. The doctrines of hell are associated with the experiences, which go deeper than an intellectual level of acknowledging the problems with faith. They’re unconscious. It takes time… and reprogramming.

There are many great resources out there for the deconvert in looking critically at the Christian doctrine of hell. They’ve helped me a lot. I hope others will list some in the comments and I will too (as soon as I can relocate my favorites). For now I’d like to reference Amusing Nonsense’s “Never Good Enough” post. Something that has helped me is remembering what I went through in trying to maintain my faith and how the God I thought I knew didn’t do anything to assist me. I clung to Him to the end of my strength because grace was nowhere to be found. I had never, as a Christian, believed He would allow that to happen. As a result the existence of the biblical God is disproven for me. And so has been his hell.

[1] Matthew 13:42

[2] 2 Peter 2:21

[3] Hebrews 10:26-31

JOHN PAVLOVITZ has some good perspective at http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/03/07/no-christian-we-dont-deserve-hell-and-we-probably-neednt-worry-about-it/.

Please share your thoughts.

Spirituality after Deconversion?

How does an agnostic respond to an outrageous text?  “OM?!”

Taking a break from normal programming. The Pain of Deconversion is a little taxing. Be back on it real soon. A new post is needed. Spirituality – ah, yes! Always so intriguing to me. I don’t know that I can call myself agnostic anymore. I have resolved that I believe in something more, at least for now. Who/what is/are he/she/it/they? I’m open.

Any former Christians out there discover a sense of spirituality that doesn’t offend your reason, mental health or sense of self-worth? It’s not so preposterous. Many healthy-minded and intelligent people have a type of spirituality. They’re just not overly fixated with it. I, Shawna the recovering scrupulous, vow to never become obsessed with the supernatural, paranormal or woo woo again… (Are you convinced?) BRING ON THE NEXT BIG ADVENTURE!!! Damn, that last one nearly killed me.

The Pain of Deconversion, Part II – Loss of Identity

A quick recap: Most of my experience as a Christian over the course of about 13 years seemed positive, but ended badly. When I went to the university to complete my upper division courses, I faced questions I thought I had resolved in my walk with God and new ones which poked holes in my certainty about the validity of the Christian God and authority of the Bible. Additionally, I started taking a medication prescribed for the depression that ensued the crisis of faith caused by my education. The med disallowed the mystical experiences I’d long perceived that God had his hand on my life. These two conditions combined led to my deconversion.

As an aside, it may offend Christians as it once did me that I use the word “mystical” to describe experiences of God personally intervening in my life and in the world around me. I use the term because I believe it adequately describes what happened from a more objective view. I no longer perceive that the biblical God supernaturally intervened in my life, related to me personally or imparted to me his Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the experiences were real to me and valid in their own right. “Mystical” implies “spiritual” which gives the experiences validity. The word is inclusive of all spiritual experiences of various religions and beliefs and this is the part that would be hard for a believer who views Christian experiences of God as in a league of their own – superior to any experiences had by people of other faith. That being said, there may be few of the Christian faith who would read this blog and acknowledge my experiences as genuine. It is more likely they would view my journey through the Christian faith as a counterfeit one (as I would have when held their belief systems). Such a conclusion would satisfy their inability to explain how one who had been a true Christian would desert the faith at all.

So, on to the point of this post: loss of identity and recovery from that aspect of deconversion from the Christian faith. In my own experience, my self-identity prior to my salvation experience was self-loathing. I felt particularly inferior to others and only escaped the pain of it in fantasizing about a life where others loved me. When I heard the gospel message that Easter Sunday of my 16th year, it made sense to me in a way it never had in all the times I’d heard it before. It was like God turned on the light and was telling me he loved me – me! He was calling me! He wanted me! He wanted to make me okay. He even wanted to make me good. I believed in the sacrifice of Christ to save me from my sins and invited him into my heart that night.

I had a new identity. I was a child of God. I was loved immeasurably. My entire self-concept wasn’t transformed instantly – that would come later as I grew in the knowledge of God’s infinite love. Nevertheless, the acceptance of God could never be fully internalized because, in and of myself, as the Bible asserts, I was nothing. My positive self-concept was entirely dependent on His love for me. You can see where the problem with identity came in when I lost belief in that love.

That wasn’t all, though. My identity as a child of God gave me a sense of meaning and purpose.  I grew in this perspective as I had countless experiences of perceiving God was using me to show his compassion through loving others and his faithfulness in answered prayer. I was what others called a prayer warrior. I often perceived that the Holy Spirit was giving me his words as I prayed and felt that God’s power was moving through me. Consistent experiences of this type and myriad others over years built one upon another, bolstering not only my faith, but my belief that I was fulfilling his divine call to expand his kingdom of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[1]

As I lost faith in God, I had little else to instill in me a sense of meaning and purpose for living. I had a grown son who had just moved out and left me with an empty nest and a husband who loved me, but didn’t demonstrate it in the ways I most needed it. I numbed out on heavy doses of antidepressants and escaped through alcohol and gaming. It got much worse than that, but I’m not yet ready to disclose all of it.

In recovering a sense of identity apart from being a child of the one and only, all-powerful God, I focus on what’s important to me. What a freedom! No more self-chastising for wanting something selfish. I have values and I like them. I think they’re ethical and satisfy my conscience (a conscience which is not so damned demanding as it was before – freaking unrelenting!). I am developing a healthier self-concept of myself in that I count without God making me count anymore. As a Christian, it was not what I thought or believed that mattered – it was all God. Now I view my own perspectives as valid and I can internalize the acceptance I receive from me.

There are healthy things I am taking away from my Christian experience for my self-concept. One is that I believed life was “not about me.” I think this keeps me grounded. I am one of billions of humans in this world and no more important than anyone else. I do, however, see myself as having a part to play in my sphere of influence if I so choose to take it. I can have a positive impact. The difference now is I take responsibility for that contribution (and the credit) and allow myself some guilt-free self-interest along the journey. That’s a big perk.

[1] Romans 14:17

The Pain of Deconversion, Part 1: Loss of Security

I guess you could say I’ve already gone through the deconversion process. I can honestly say I am no longer a Christian. I don’t meet the criteria – that is, I don’t believe the Christian path is the only “correct one.” As other former Christians can attest, deconversion is an excruciating process. There is the loss of identity, loss of community, loss of security and not the least, the terrors of hell. Even my values and morals were wrapped up in my experiences of and beliefs in God. From the time of the crisis leading to loss of faith and eventually the time when you are in successful recovery, the whole process can take months to several years depending on how entrenched you were in the faith. In this post I will talk about the loss of security and how I am dealing with it.

My certainty was the first thing that my crisis of faith eroded and, as my security was dependent on that, my assurance that God was in control in my life and everything would always “work for good” to my behalf was jeopardized. There’s something you need to know about this security. It was the sweetest thing and something I still miss, though I am no longer able to buy into it. This assurance had become, over years of “walking with God” and perceiving His faithfulness in my life, a seemingly impregnable foundation beneath my spiritual feet so to speak. It felt so damn rock solid. It was something upon which I rested in peace when my mind was confused, troubles of life stormed me or when I had questions and doubts about God. There was, in everything, an undercurrent of peace, especially when I turned to him in prayer. I could and did talk to him about everything that troubled me and, it seemed, my anxieties were always resolved in a reasonable amount of time, fulfilling the passage, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”[1]

That wasn’t the only thing that gave me security. I had experiences – countless ones – building one upon another that bolstered this assurance. Often I perceived he brought his kingdom of love and righteousness in situations I had been praying about in some enlightening and ever new revelation of his glorious character. I perceived he spoke to me frequently, sometimes through a person, through prayer, through “His Word,” a life experience and a myriad of different ways. The experience of hearing his voice was always wonderful. Though at times he showed me things about myself that were unpleasant or I would feel convicted to do or not do something that was extremely difficult, the end result of obedience was always peace and joy.

As an aside, I have a mental illness which obviously contributed to many of my religious experiences. I certainly exercised confirmation bias and read divine intervention into everyday occurrences. However, I will clarify that, though I experienced delusions (having inaccurate interpretations of perceptions), I never had auditory or visual hallucinations (inaccurate perceptions). My perceptions were and are accurate. Even in sound mental health, the whole collective experience (until the end, that is) was so pervasive that, even now, it’s difficult to chalk up to mere predisposition and coincidence. The faith is debunked. There’s no question of that for me. But now I wonder – could there have been some universal laws operating that would explain my experience? …A topic for another discussion.

Back to the security issue. So, when I went back to college in my mid-thirties, things went great for the first two years. I obtained my AA in liberal studies and was none the worse for wear. I loved school. It was when I transferred from community college to university for my upper division courses that the trouble started. Initially, my impression of that institution was that it was a godless place – there was no true knowledge of God at all. Right away I was able to discern the deep prejudice against the Bible and the Christian faith that existed there. In my accurate perceptions and analytical mind, I still see that prejudice. To me at the time, that smacked loudly of demonic activity. Additionally, university views were so radically opposed to my understanding of the beautiful God I knew and his people (at least the ones with which I mostly associated) that they seemed purely evil. I felt as if I was God’s soldier, doing spiritual warfare every time I asked a question that challenged a professor’s assertion that the Bible is not true or that the church of God was generally intolerant. That was only the beginning of trouble, though.

As I got into my 2nd and 3rd quarters at university, I began to encounter questions about God and the Bible I thought I had already resolved and others that were still unanswered. I was faced with the cold, hard evidence of the inconsistencies of the Bible, the processes of redaction and revision by scribes and theologians and historical inaccuracies. I took my questions to God as usual and with confidence that he would either give me theological/apologetic insight or a peace that there were things I did not need to know as had consistently happened in the past. For any Christian readers, I will clarify that I was following the divine prescription for a healthy Christian walk: prayer, study of the Word and fellowship with the saints. That being said, my confusion and dissonance grew. Small questions became gaping holes in the answers that once satisfied me. I consulted my pastor and other believers who were able to offer little consolation – mostly that it would pass. I became depressed and started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed a med that helped with the angst of not being able to find answers to my questions with the side effect of not being able to perceive the “touch of God” in my life anymore. I cried out to God in earnest for over a year with no answer. I reviewed my journals (“Remember” is an instruction oft repeated in the Bible) and comforted myself with insights received from the Holy Spirit in the past.

Eventually, I stopped seeking fellowship, stopped reading the Bible and gave up on trying to go to God who had been silent for so long. This didn’t happen arbitrarily. I wasn’t in “rebellion” (I have combed my journals from the time just to make sure), though for a long time I couldn’t convince myself I hadn’t done something wrong. I knew God to be faithful. He couldn’t be unfaithful to an earnest heart seeking truth, one that only sought what it needed to keep worshipping him. I reasoned that there must have been something I had done wrong.

The insecurity set in hard once my certainty of the authority of the Bible and the biblical God started to crumble. I have described it as feeling like the earth had been ripped from beneath me and I was falling endlessly into a pitch black void – alone, lost and frightened. I had no other coping skills in life other than my faith so that when my faith crumbled, so did all my security. So that’s the first thing in recovering security. Find other ways to cope with life. Strengthen your relationships. Read self-help books. Attend a support group. An excellent resource for former Christians is ExChristian.net (people there get you, really). Whatever works for you.

The second thing I’ve done to restore my sense of security is to take a closer look at certainty and how it played out. It led to the most devastating mental breakdown in my life. How might I find security in uncertainty? One thing is that, if I were not so dependent on certainty, I would not be so let down if at any point I were to learn I was wrong about something. In essence, there’s some assurance I won’t have to suffer what I have gone through again.

A benefit of uncertainty is the continued opportunity to learn and grow. If I don’t at any point believe I’ve arrived at the “be all and end all” of understanding on any point, I’m still open to learning new things. Personal growth is a high value of mine, always has been. I had once thought the biblical God was endless and that, within the boundaries of the Christian faith, there were endless possibilities for growth. I have come to view that as a fallacy. Certainty limits openness and therefore limits growth.

Yet another benefit of uncertainty is the ability to be more tolerant of views that aren’t consistent with my own. As a Christian, I respected people, but not their perspectives if they differed from mine. I like being able to practice more understanding, look at the world through others’ eyes and demonstrate mutual respect for differing viewpoints. That’s something I couldn’t do before. It leaves me open to learning new things which goes along with that personal growth thing so important to me.

I have to be honest. Certainty is a hard act to follow as far as security goes. Is there a final judgment? Will I fail it? I can’t say for certain as certainty is one of those things I’ve left behind me. As for now, I can definitely say, biblical judgment is highly unlikely to my logical mind. That’s enough for me now to move forward.

[1] Philippians 4:6, 7