I am in the middle of packing up to move. It is my third move in three and a half years. This time I am returning to help my elderly parents. Having an ill parent has caused me to think about my priorities and motivations. I am beginning to realize how the spiritual abuse I endured decades ago still impacts me. I have come to realize that the spiritual abuse has influenced me beyond what I thought. This blog explores the hidden impact and the choices I can make to break the pattern.
Packing up my life and uprooting myself is a pattern I have had throughout my life. I have lived in six states (on the east coast, west coast, southwest and northwest). Throughout these moves I have held on to photos, letters, post cards and other items that are memories of “friends” who are no longer in my life due to me no longer sharing their religious path. I might add, that these people were in my childhood faith, and in the churches and Christian college group I participated in. As I left the church and group, these people left me, and yet I packed and carried the mementos of them for more than 20 years.
They were “friends” who I prayed with, laughed with, proselytized with, cried with, and still love. But on the flip side they also tortured me. They prayed for me, admonished me, wrote letters warning me that I was walking in the darkness, and when my view of scripture did not align with theirs, they stopped associating with me. Yet I held onto their photos, letters, and other reminders.
I think what I was holding on to was hope. I was hoping they might escape, or apologize, or somehow return to me. But, as I contemplated packing this time, I decided to let go of them. I threw out the pictures, letters, and gifts. Holding onto the items was a way of honoring them, but it clicked, they were not worthy of my honor. Holding on was like holding onto my abusers. It was rewarding to cut those cords and draw my own line in the sand. I will not hold on and hold out hope for people who will discard me over a philosophy they hold as true.
The second thing I realized during this move is, I uproot my life and leave people behind without much thought. I think the roots of that are deep in the religion I was raised, which practices complete shunning of former members. With an announcement of only eight words, we were taught to shut off all emotion and cut people out of our lives. After I left, I experienced that complete abandonment. All trust in other people was broken.
In the fifth chapter of Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse, by Lisa Oakley and Kathyrn Kinmond, it outlines therapeutic issues that people who have experienced spiritual abuse bring to the therapy session. One of the major issues is establishing the therapeutic bond. It is a challenge because the spiritually abused person brings fear and distrust. The person needs to trust the therapist because establishing trust indicates their ability to work through the issues, and to later find new community.
On the eve of my move, I wrote down the following questions: How do I create a community I never want to leave? How do I stop dumping one life to jump into another?
Ultimately, I am asking the question of how to trust and commit. How do I trust people and commit to community, which involves the risk of more pain and more loss? A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I am about to take the opportunity to create a community I never want to leave. One step at a time.
I have made a difference for this fresh start. I have physically let go of the painful reminders of the past. I let go of false hopes for reunions. I am choosing to hold onto people who are currently in my life, and I am going to invest in those relationships. I am going to risk building a community I will commit to.
Like many who read my posts, I grew up in a household that did not celebrate holidays as these days were part of “Satan’s World” that would “be destroyed any day now”. Even Thanksgiving Day was off limits.
I never understood why we could not celebrate Thanksgiving Day. We said platitudes like, “We’re thankful every day.” “We don’t have to set aside one day.” Or even, “They are hypocrites.”
We were pseudo-participating without fully participating. We would cook a turkey, watch football, and sometimes even have close friends or traveling ministers over. When I was about 15, we hosted one of the traveling ministers, and I was learning to play tuba at the time. Imagine our surprised when the minister’s wife picked up the tuba and marched down the hall way trying to play “um pah, pah.”
I was also able to sometimes land at my grandparent’s house on a holiday, and they were not of our religion. We had our own traditions and I loved them. My grandpa and I would bet a penny on each football game. Some weekends I might win three cents. We would eat special meals and lots of candy. It was great to have these unfiltered moments with loved ones.
We never called these meals and gatherings a “holiday celebration”. Instead we judged those who did openly celebrate. We justified our fancy meals by saying things like, “We have the day off and turkey is on sale.” Of course, the house was never decorated, so we clearly were not celebrating Thanksgiving.
The closest we ever came to participating, was the year my father had to move out of state due to a domestic violence restraining order a judge had put in place. The order stated that he could not be within fifty miles of us and was put in place right before Thanksgiving. That year my mother wryly said, “This year we have something to celebrate.”
My father still does not “celebrate” holidays, and was promoted to being an elder in the group that the rest of us left. The irony of this situation is not lost on me.
Other than my father, I was the last to leave the group. I left at age 28. I am over 50 now, and today I am cooking the turkey. It is about the 5th time I have cooked a turkey and I am full of anxiety about how it will turn out. We are having friends join us and I issued a notification that I was preparing a simple meal and if they wanted something complex, they would have to bring it. I did this because I don’t really know what I am doing! I am insecure about my ability to get this "right".
Most people my age would have 20 or more years of experience with holiday meals. I am writing for all the newbies out there. I think this is the secret: the holiday is not about the meal or the decorations. It is about the gathering of loved ones and the memories you make.
Don’t let the newness get you down. Be joyful that you are free to celebrate. Be joyful that you have loved ones. If you are freshly out, it’s not too late to invite an elderly neighbor, or that single person from work. Part of Thanksgiving is about sharing the bounty. The other part is about traditions, like that specials side dish you only prepare for holidays, or like my grandpa and me betting a penny a football game.
If you do not have people to join with you, go get a free meal. See that “worldly” people are loving and serving those who literally would go hungry today. Whatever you please do not stay home trapped in the b.s. thinking of the group you left or are leaving. Don’t let them stop you from identifying what you are thankful for or allow them to make you feel sad today. If nothing else, enjoy this day just to spite them.
I think the prohibition on holidays serves multiple purposes. It further isolates group members from people who love them. It causes them to isolate and judge outsiders, which entrenches them more. It also helps strengthen group thought and group identity; it is a confirmation bias (we are right because we do not do this). It also builds shame in people who pseudo-participate, and gives an upper hand for those who know that a “weaker” family did pseudo-participate. It gives that family something to report and allows them to feel superior and gain status.
We have a tradition of going around the table and stating what we are thankful for. This year I will say, “I am thankful that my step father is alive and getting good care at the hospital today. I am thankful I have friends who know they can join us any day for a meal and for playing board games. I am thankful none of us is trapped in domestic violence. And I am grateful that I know many ex-group members.” (Meaning, I now know that many people have left that abusive spiritual group and are finding freedom.)
If you are a newbie to celebrating Thanksgiving, please know, there is no right way to do this. Enjoy your day. Even if the turkey is dry, that will create a memory you can laugh about later. Welcome to the world of freedom. We love you and wish you could be at our table today.
(Thank you for reading my blogs and supporting my work to help people heal.)
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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