“I don’t really care who you are, what your relationship is to me…I just need you to get out.”
This words left Martha’s mouth with so much hate and venom I wanted to push my chair back a bit. They were directed at her son, Timothy, who had just told his conservative Christian mom that he is gay.
I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as those words left her mouth, how much brokenness and sadness wrapped themselves around him as he caved in to the mouth of depression.
Mind you, he didn’t leave the room, and the work we did in the following months impacted him greatly, allowing him to have more self-acceptance and openness around his sexuality, but the trauma that situation caused him was also deeply impactful and deeply hurtful.
When we use the word trauma, most people think to the battlefield or violence in some form, but trauma is so much more elusive than that. Peter Levine, one of the world’s leading experts in trauma, discusses how we do a disservice to people when we seek to look at the causes of trauma, rather than the symptoms. On it’s most basic level, trauma is something that hold’s our nervous system in a frozen state, a stuck energy that we are unable to get out of our bodies.
And while trauma is complex and difficult at times to treat, Religious trauma is not just different but pervasive in a sometimes harder to reach way. Why?
1. It’s often more than one person or event: Often when we think of trauma, it comes down to an attachment figure (parent, authority, etc) and an event. From a car crash to a sexual assault there tends to be specific memories tied to what has happened. Often with Religious trauma, it’s complex, and it’s more than one person. It’s not just the mom that told them about how gay people were “bad” it’s the sermons they heard, it’s that they tended to be surrounded by a community that all, at least on the surface, indicated they believed the same idea. It’s like growing up believing that the color red is blue, and everyone else saying the same thing to you. Even if you come to a place, and break away from the religion, it’s still hard to undo the “natural” and pervasive messages you have been sent in how you organize the world.
2. You have been told you are responsible: When someone dies in a traumatic way, while we can know on an intellectual level we aren’t responsible, there is still some part of us that feels that way. But in having those conflicting parts, there is something to give us traction, that can help us buffer ourselves. But in the case of Religious trauma, we have often been told, either explicitly or implicitly that we are responsible. When Mark came in for therapy, after just getting divorced, we worked with these feelings often. Mainly because while his wife had filed, he had intense beliefs about his responsibility as a husband, and believed that if he could have just “done better” in some ways, she wouldn’t have acted the way she did. But instead, his community and friend turned their back on him, leaving him with the intensely held message of responsibility.
3. There is a system that is paired with the trauma: This one is harder to break down, but in most cases, trauma is something that “just happens”. We don’t plan on our dog running into the street, or getting hit by or emotionally neglected by our parents, or getting sexually assaulted. But in the case of religious trauma, there is a whole worldview that is at stake. Take Donald for example, he was emotionally abused by his parents for most of his life, leading him into a place of deep depression and suicidal thoughts. But when he went to confront his parents on things, they couldn’t hold space for him, because admitting what happened meant that they would lose their status in the church. It not only caused their whole relationship to break down, but Donald had to contend and wrestle with what to do when the abusers won’t take responsibility due to how a system will label them.
4. It involves Symbolism: Spiritual or Religion is deeply impactful and powerful symbols in culture. Talk to any anthropologist and they will tell you that religion and the norms of culture tend to work hand in hand with each other. While this is something that has guided early cultures for the longest time, in modern culture, it often includes a lot of chaos in treating trauma. Because the use of God or Spirit is included, and deeply woven into the trauma. And in the case of religious trauma, it’s far easier to convince the person that they are not just crazy, but “bad” for feeling the way they do, because of their taught beliefs around God. Often in religious trauma, I do so much psychoeducation around disqualification because religion so often teaches service, which ends up getting paired with the belief that while they have it bad, others in some way must have it worse.
Religion and trauma are both powerful forces individual, religion when used “correctly” can be a buffer against mental health concerns and a host of research shows this. However in the wrong hands, or when others have secret agendas or are unable to face their own shadow, religion can pair itself with trauma in a pervasive and debilitating way that can be extremely challenging to treat.
But that is why education, understanding of the symptoms of trauma (rather than just the events) is so important. And in the case of Timothy, being able to address his trauma as he needed to, putting up the boundaries that are important to him, and make a narrative that was holistic he was able to move through and heal as he needed.