Today I attended church, without a friend inviting me, and because I wanted to. I will tell you more about it in a minute, because the point of this blog is to help you recover from spiritual abuse. .
I'll be honest, if you've been spiritually abused, you may need time away from churches. Taking time away gives space for reflection. It helps you have less triggers to deal with while you go about making new relationships, spend time healing, and begin focusing on non-religious pursuits.
In my own life, I tend to migrate back and forth from church attendance. My last episode of abuse happened during my last year of seminary, which was in 1999.. Since then I have had two periods where I went to church for about a year each time. The first time was about a year after I left seminary and I found a pastor, who became my mentor to help me heal. I attended her church out of love and respect for her. The second time, was when I lived where there was a Unity church, which from my research I knew would be very open to many traditions. I went there looking for community and stayed about a year.
This time, I went because I have been praying and I need community. I just moved to a new town. But I have also grown into my own spiritual life, where I can take teachings or leave them. I have reached a place where I can participate without feeling I have to agree 100% or leave.
I take truth or healing words where I can find them, but I have no tolerance for bigotry or sermons that induce guilt or tell me who to hate. I will not sing lyrics that make me feel uncomfortable; I am uncomfortable saying things like He or Lord referring to God. I change lyrics substituting Love for Lord as often as necessary. These are coping tools that help me reduce triggering and trauma.
Another thing that helped me decide to try them out was, I vetted this church ahead of time. I looked at their website and Facebook. I saw signs of welcoming all people, I listened to a sermon online. I looked at photos to see who would be attending and read about their ministries. They talked about supporting the food bank and Pride month. I even looked at their sanctuary and its architecture, which felt inviting. After my preview, I was not triggered, so I decided to give it a try.
As the service opened, it felt welcoming. I was really surprised because when they sang, How Great Thou Art, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. It took all my effort to not sob uncontrollably. I sat with this feeling instead of leaving. I think I was moved with the familiarity of a time in my life when worshiping God came easily. As people abandoned me, I felt God abandoned me, but maybe God is only waiting.
After church, I went to the senior center to play card games. I spent the afternoon socializing and making new friends.I would say this was a near perfect day.
I didn't need a church to find community, but I did need a church to explore that God-loving person left inside of me.
In the previous two articles, I’ve explored the risk and protective factors for suicide and how spiritual abuse can contribute to developing suicidal ideation. In this blog, I want to share ideas for overcoming suicidal ideation. Professional help is always recommended because there could be an underlying health problem and because no one should go it alone during a time of crisis.[i] I write as someone who has overcome suicidal ideation and has recovered hope. I’ve built coping skills and rebuilt my community after loss.
When I was a member of a high control group, I became depressed as more and more of me was given up to the group. Once I left, I was hopeless because the group was supposed to fill all my needs and provide purpose. Once I left, I lost my community and I fell into despair. I was physically out, but mentally in. I still believe what they said about people who left. I believed God hated me, that I was on a course that would lead me into evil. That’s what they taught.
I will tell you how I got out of that hole and found my way to well being.
First and foremost, I sought therapy. I kept at it for many years. Yes, they didn’t exactly understand what it was like being in a cult, and I had to explain and educate them. But they were willing to learn, and they had tools and skills to help me grow and to change my thinking. Fortunately, we now have resources to give to therapists that can help them understand. Bonnie Zieman has written a one-page description of the issues related to being in a high control group.[ii] She has also written several books.
My therapist helped me unlearn black and white thinking. Black and white thinking pushed me into many either/or situations. For example, either I am with them (and God) or against them (and with the devil), either I am in the life or on the path to death, and either my life is worth living or it’s not. Life is good or bad; I am good or bad. Similarly, I was raised on “should.” I should go door to door. I should pray. I should read my bible and religious literature. I should. I should. I should, and if I didn’t I was not worthy. My therapists taught me to challenge the either/or thinking and get rid of “I should” statements. I learned to say, “I choose to.”
The largest breakthrough came for me when I decided to start speaking the truth about my life. To do this, I had to overcome a lot of destructive patterns of thought I had been taught. When I was hopeless and suicidal, I spoke in sweeping terms about my life (similar to the black and white thinking described above). I would tell myself, my life is terrible. I am hopeless. I’ll never get better. No one cares. I learned to catch myself in these lies and to change them into a truthful statement instead.
When I started speaking the truth, I said things like, “Most of today was good. Five minutes was difficult, but the rest went well.” This prevented me from saying the lie that “everything was terrible.” Instead of saying “no one cares,” I started reaching out and I identified my supportive friends. In the beginning, I had one friend I relied on but developed more friendships as time passed.[iii] Instead of saying, “Everyone is out to get me,” I started to say, “One person was rude, but everyone else today was nice to me.” By speaking truth, I began to stop categorizing and sorting people into the good/bad categories that the high control group taught me to focus on. I also began to speak truth about myself. “I was angry toward that person, but I will do better next time.”
I had a real problem with men because in spiritual abuse, men held all the power and abused it. I started keeping a record that I called my nice guy hall of fame. For five years, I wrote down the names of men who never hurt me. In five years I only removed one name. But the activity also helped me move beyond black and white categorizing. It allowed me to widen my circle of support and see my world in new ways.
I also allowed myself to use medication to help reset my brain and get over depression. Physically I also increased my physical activity because studies show exercise can help with depression. I got out in nature and walked because it made me feel better.
I learned coping skills like using visualizations and relaxation videos to help me address the trauma.[iv] To increase myself love, I made note of the things I liked about myself, but that was only the beginning. I found the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping to be helpful.[v] With EFT, I found it powerful to say, “Even though I am feeling (whatever feeling it was in that moment) I love and unconditionally accept myself” Spiritual abuse and toxic theology taught me the opposite view of myself. Tapping helped me verbalize love and self-acceptance, regardless of whatever I was feeling. It also helped me realize that feelings are temporary, they pass, and they change.
I had to overcome bad theology in order to choose to keep living. I grew up being taught that when a person dies they fall asleep. They cease to be. That was very alluring, given the pain I was feeling. To choose to live, I had to reject this teaching. I replaced it with this statement, “No one knows what happens at death. I have one life to live. This life.”
I had to overcome the teaching that I was born into sin and therefore unworthy. I replaced it with, “I am human, no better or worse than anyone else.” I also rejected the notion of God creating a defective product. I came to see that idea (that we are born into sin) as man’s way of setting the stage for beginning to control others.
I regained a sense of routine and purpose by enrolling in University. In other words, I set new goals. Instead of religious related goals, I set the goal of getting a degree. University was a great bridge from the cult to the real world. My interests broadened, and I made up for deficits in learning.
I’ve set other goals too. I decided to do the Susan G Komen breast cancer three-day walk (60 miles in 3 days). I decided to go to China. I decided to move back to the place I love. I decided to donate money once a month for a year to Operation Smile and help people I never met. Each goal helped me look to the future and construct a new vision for my life.Several goals helped me invest in the world around me. [vi]
In conclusion, I could never imagine the twists and turns my life has taken. I am thankful I sought and received help. I now understand that spiritual abuse contributed to my feelings of unworthiness and hopelessness. It took effort to overcome, but it was well worth it. Now I am grateful for my past because it made me who I am. I have found liberation from toxic teaching and abusive people.
Never give up. Work to change the way you think and talk. Keep finding helpers. Keep building skills and relationships.
In time, you will be grateful that you persisted. I know I am.
[i] This Lifeline resource provides links to help a person find local help. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-yourself/
[iii] It can be helpful to use social media to connect with other ex-members of your group. They can mentor you and help you see fallacies in the group teachings and validate that your mistreatment was indeed spiritual abuse. However, if your use of the group brings you down, you will need to reduce your use. Social media can never replace the benefits of having real life relationships.
[iv] I found the work of Belleruth Naparstek to be very helpful. Her guided visualizations for trauma and stress helped me immensely.
[v] This video got me started. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77yA8e1mZcE
[vi] This blog is not meant to be a replacement for professional help. If you are thinking of suicide, please use the suicide life line, linked above, or get yourself to an emergency room. Find ways to reduce your risk and increase your protective factors.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255