Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my family watched television shows like Rescue 911. Stories like that of “baby Jessica” falling down a drain and getting stuck there for 59 hours, or a boy who was skewered by a pair of scissors after running with them, taught us valuable lessons for how not to get hurt — as well as instilling us with a certain sense of paranoia.
Anything could kill us.
Other stories were not so helpful. Having been brought up in church, I heard stories that fundamentally shaped the way I viewed the world, myself, and other people. To be a good Christian, I had to blindly accept everything in the Bible as absolutely true, ignoring all doubts, no matter how reasonable.
Anything “wrong” I did, regardless how insignificant, from telling a lie to disobeying my parents, put nails in Jesus’ feet and hands. And because God views all sin as equal (except for homosexuality), getting angry with someone is the same as killing them.
Certain activities and pursuits were satanic gateways into our home and lives. (We had several books about this; one was called Turmoil in the Toybox. He-Man, the Smurfs, Care Bears, and G.I. Joe were all discussed.)
Non-Christians will ultimately attempt to lead good Christians off the path of righteousness. Demons were everywhere, spiritually blinding people (including Christians) to more easily drag them to Hell.
And there were always Bible references to back up these claims.
All of these narratives, and more, were crammed into my head from a very young age. Before the age of seven or so, the areas of the brain responsible for critical thinking haven’t developed yet. Dawkins writes in The God Delusion:
A child is genetically pre-programmed to accumulate knowledge from figures of authority. The child brain, for very good Darwinian reasons, has to be set up in such a way that it believes what it’s told by its elders, because there just isn’t time for the child to experiment with warnings like “Don’t go too near the cliff edge!” or “Don’t swim in the river, there are crocodiles!”
There is a condition I learned of recently called Religious Trauma Syndrome. Dr. Marlene Winell, who first identified RTS, likens it to PTSD, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. It’s brought about when one leaves fundamentalist religion—and often families and entire communities—behind. Symptoms include:
- Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black and white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making;
- Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning;
- Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks;
- Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music);
Dr. Winell writes on her website:
The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.
In essence, Religious Trauma Syndrome is the void left when the support structures of religion fall away, revealing the deep scars and toxic thought patterns that fundamentalist religion is adept at whitewashing with pat excuses or victim blaming. “You just don’t believe enough!”
Swords in Tarot are associated with action, force, power, ambition, change, and conflict. They’re also connected with thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.
The number eight (at least in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck) describes boundaries and limitations, as well as inner strength and power of will.
In the Eight of Swords, a maiden is bound and blindfolded, isolated from the distant town and surrounded by swords. The sense is one of gloom, despair, and hopelessness. One website interprets the card this way:
Your “ego” represents the non-trusting, doubting, over-analytical part of your mind which is unable to make any decisions… you have restrained yourself from activity long enough, avoiding the present by trying to convince yourself that there are no alternatives. These beliefs keep you hemmed in—they always provide reasons why nothing will work… You are not being held back by direct force, but by your training – this belief in your own helplessness and your blind acceptance of what you have been taught… Recognize that nothing prevents you from leaving—you are bound only by your own “illusions.”
For ages, my sense of self-worth and my self-image have been colored by stories from my childhood that told me my only value was in Jesus’ death. Nothing about me was inherently good. My purpose in life had been decided by God; to not seek that purpose was arrogance.
Self-denial is a cardinal virtue. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness.” I attempted to do this by shutting down my id, especially once my libido kicked in. Consequently, I struggle with actually wanting anything, or making decisions. I fear emotions, especially pride. I constantly doubt myself and my capability.
However, my perfectionist drive knows no bounds. For example, during a piano lesson in college, I burst into tears after failing one portion of the piano proficiency exam: black key minor scales. By extension, I was a failure in every other area of my life.
Actress Natasha Lyonne said of recovering from heroin addiction: “Not only do you have to smash down the house, but you have to then take out the Indian burial ground underneath the foundation of the house and then begin to rebuild.”
Actress Julia Sweeney describes her deconversion as having to “change the wallpaper of my mind.”
Mine felt more like burning the house to the ground.
Yet the message of the Eight of Swords is that the mental prison of my parents’ religion is only an illusion.
Time for some new stories.