This week of "almost over and not yet become" has always been a time for me to reflect on both the past and the future. These reflections sometimes show up on social media as the New Year approaches, case in point. They almost always include plans for the upcoming year. Having a plan was a survival strategy.
The fact that I do not have a plan to share for 2024 is interesting. Maybe I have finally climbed out of survival mode? That would be awesome. Most of what I planned last year didn’t happen anyway—it was a rather unexpected year filled with both good and challenging times.
The most unexpected parts of 2023 were my struggles with the success of Trauma in the Pews and all the opportunities it brought me. Part of me enthusiastically worked to promote the book while another part seemed to be marching toward certain death. This emotional drag was exhausting and those closest to me watched me step back from many of the things that had previously brought me joy. In many ways, it felt much like the year I began therapy—for good reasons.
After several months of trauma-based healing, I now understand that the title of the book, Trauma in the Pews, which I voiced in a publisher’s meeting, was not a metaphor, but an actual unprocessed memory. Ahh, the wonder of the unconscious mind's ability to bury horrific memories, especially when there is neither an empathetic witness nor the necessary support for processing and healing.
Note: The following includes content about abuse that may be dysregulating (triggering).
My mother set up a date with a church member's son the day after Thanksgiving. I was home for a visit during my freshman year in college and had deep misgivings about the date. My gut instinct could not have been any more correct. I also knew that he called the following day with a threatening demand that I sit beside him in church on Sunday. My only memory of this service was sharing a hymnal with him. All of this was processed in therapy and included in BRAVE. What I was not yet able to process was the full horror of that traumatic night, though what I did remember was horrific by itself. I was not yet healed enough to process everything that occurred that night or during the church service.
I do not doubt that I could have died that terrifying night if one of the abusers had not come to his senses and decided to protect me. His care and apology for what he had done are embedded in my belief in the potential goodness in every human. I came face to face with pure evil and have lived with the impact for a lifetime. Unfortunately, the healing apology and care were buried under the trauma.
The church service occurred on Advent Sunday and my father’s message of hope focused on salvation from our sin. The worship song proclaimed, “What can take away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” My traumatized mind could not distinguish my inner turmoil from my abuser's sins nor block the blood-filled memories as my abuser leaned against me and whispered threats to ensure that I smiled and sang. I controlled my pain-wracked body with super-human strength. My only hope was to survive and head back to college.
My father would be heartbroken that his sermon of hope only drove the shame deeper into my soul and body. In this case, the harm was unintentional. After returning to college, my attempts to seek spiritual help for what I now understand as PTSD resulted in additional abuse by those who needed to do their own work of healing to prevent harming the vulnerable—a theme that comes through clearly as intentional harm in Trauma in the Pews.
My voice and message is distinct among those who address religious trauma in large part because of this story. My pleas to nuance messages about sin, repentance, and forgiveness are embedded in my writing and speaking. My desire for the church to build a culture of compassion that does not ask the traumatized to leave their stories in the past draws from my inability to find the help I needed within the church, for an entire lifetime.
My somatic processing over the past few weeks is evidence that the trauma I experienced that weekend was still in my body. My determination to serve God, the church, and others has been both heroic and unhealthy. The glorification of suffering as a spiritual strength trapped the pain in my body. This trauma and all the abuse before it led me to believe that I was born to suffer. How tragic. Suffering for over fifty years was neither necessary nor spiritual.
I am sure there is still healing to accomplish—probably for the remainder of my life. I both accept and embrace this. While I will continue to do the work that Trauma in the Pews brought to me, my work in 2024 will be informed by the truth of what surfaced the day I unexpectedly announced the book title. It is a title that has proven to be both a memory and a metaphor. I will be emphasizing that my story is as important as my message. My compassion for my brave younger self who continues to struggle to sit in church pews will likely change what I choose to do going forward in 2024. I cannot imagine this future, but it will undoubtedly be interesting.