287. stardust

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tunnel*tap tap tap* Is this thing still on? Anyone out there?

I am currently stuck in the Tampa International airport, the clock just turned 3am, and I have been up for nearly 21 hours, with another two hours or so until anything opens here, so now seems a good a time as any to get back into the habit of updating this site… if only to keep myself awake.

Not that I don’t miss putting my thoughts out into the void for you.

A lot has changed in the 139 days since I last posted—on September 1. Probably the biggest development is that I am finally, finally done with graduate school… which means that I finally, finally have a master’s degree! 139 days ago, I was just beginning the final semester of my library science degree.

All things considered, it went splendidly. Even though I was taking only one class, there were quite a few stressful moments and meltdowns, part of which had to do with the statistics and technical nature of the course content. But I got to the end in one piece.

And I graduated.

I actually received one of my program’s outstanding student awards this year, along with another good friend of mine, which was a great feeling, especially when I sometimes felt that I wasn’t as accomplished or as remarkable as some of my other classmates.

I was also nominated by one of my professors and selected by a university committee to be the graduate student commencement speaker for the December graduation ceremony. It was amazing and intense, and deeply humbling to address my peers with a charge for what I feel our world needs from graduate students and graduate education. I didn’t want to give some pat talk about following dreams or living up to full potential.

My talk centered around the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or the restoration of the world.

Three of the key values of my university that are woven throughout all the programs and courses are social justice, diversity, and integrity. Essentially, I encouraged my fellow graduates to view their chosen careers through the lens of those values and look for opportunities in seemingly everyday moments to help heal the brokenness of the world.

That was nearly a month ago now.


While it was certainly a good feeling to be done with school after almost three years, the months leading up to it were tinged with a growing sense of anxiety and worry.

Sure, I was worried about finding a full-time job and how the actual fuck I was going to eventually pay off the tens of thousands of dollars worth of loans I had to take out to pursue a degree that is a basic requirement for virtually all librarian jobs. I worry that the number of MLIS graduates is increasing but that the number of new jobs is not growing at the same pace.

On a more fundamental level, I was worried about losing the close sense of community that I have been a part of for three years. For the most part, my social circle tends to be built around the activities that I am involved with or the people with whom I live. When those activities end or I move house, those social ties tend to dry up for me.

It’s not that I am necessarily edged out or excluded. It’s that I don’t really know how to connect with people. The ironic thing is that human community is something I do want and am often desperate for, but the mechanisms for doing that are unknown to me.

I did not grow up around many people. With the exception of church, Sunday school, and AWANAS, until age ten or eleven, my world consisted largely of my parents and my sisters. Since my family homeschooled, and we lived in a rural area, we never learned to interact with our peers. We weren’t forced to figure out the rules of the playground or the nuances of the school hallway, navigate friendships or weather rivalries.

While not every childhood experience is the same, some of those fundamental lessons about human nature take place during those early middle school years.

For instance, I never learned properly how to play. Play is important for the development of self-regulation, creative problem solving, along with the cerebral cortex. In our family though, play often took the form of psychological warfare. There were moments of fun, but through this, my sisters and I first learned to view human relationships through the paradigm of a threat. Our parents unwittingly taught us that we weren’t worthy of love and acceptance and that these commodities were conditional.

I find myself with a graduate degree and nearly 35, but that I have no idea who I really am apart from external measures of my self-worth—what other people tell me about myself. But I will always have those early voices and memories of my childhood in the catacombs of my subconscious.

My mom turning to me when I was about 15 or 16 during a verbal clash to actually say: “If people knew who you really are, they wouldn’t like you.”

I learned to fear other people, to keep them at a safe and comfortable distance, popping in and out of their reality when needed. While I noted that people liked me and wanted to be around me, I was suspicious and wary, like a wounded animal.

What were their true motives? When would they figure out I was hollow? When would they discover I was Frankenstein’s monster?


The intersection of all this lies in the fear that I will never have a family and a partner of my own—someone who accepts me in spite of my craziness and insecurity, and who is willing to fight the demons with me, but not treat me as the enemy.

I fear I’ll unconsciously push everyone good for me away—that my parents were too good of teachers in the art of toxic, fearful relationships.

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270. incipient

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denethorIt’s about time for this monthly check-in with the blog. It has been over a month since the last one, after all.

The combination of working full-time plus the wind-up to the end of this semester has been kicking my ass recently. Perhaps it’s the research methods class I’m taking, or enduring a contentious and divisive election for almost two years, but I’m feeling pretty run-down.


What I have been planning to write about is the increasingly clearer picture of one of the dominant psychological constructs in my mind.

Let’s call him “Talos.”

He started out as a sort of mental protector figure—an internal proxy father in place of the one I didn’t entirely trust or feel safe around. He was a distant man (who himself had had a distant and sometimes physically abusive father) who tended to work a lot. He tried to do things with us: take us to parks, teach us to ride bikes. But it was clear he didn’t really know how to do any of the “traditional” things one expects from a father.

As we got older, the desire to connect with my sisters and me manifested in various ways (such as going to baseball games with my younger sister, or going to concerts with me), but so did his critical voice. While his intent was probably to help us by pointing out our mistakes, he had a way of turning compliments or feedback into backhanded insults.

Following one of my piano recitals as a teenager (which I thought went pretty well), we were driving home afterwards and after a moment of silence between us, he mentioned how some of my ornamentation had been slightly off.

In college, following the performance of one of my songs in a colleague’s recital, he said later that he thought a song I’d written previously had sounded more “true” to my style.

This was the state of things growing up. Some of that came from their theology, such as where Paul writes in Romans that “everyone among you [is] not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3).

Praising or encouraging us would’ve given us big heads, I guess.


A few weeks ago I was catching up on the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast, and Julia Sweeney was on. At one point they talked about growing up with an alcoholic parent:

MARC MARON: See, I’m projecting because what I was gonna say is that the children of alcoholics either become alcoholics and drug addicts, or control freaks.
JULIA SWEENEY: Oh, really.
MM: Well, yeah.
JS: I wonder if I’m a control freak.
MM: You don’t feel like one… Usually it’s because you’re in this position with a grown person that’s completely out of control all the time, and you’re constantly—you can’t do anything about this primary situation in your life, so when you get out of that you’re like, “I’m gonna keep it tight.” You know what I mean? There’s a reaction.

And that got me thinking about growing up in a rigidly-controlled religious household where one never felt entirely secure. Some flip out once they leave home and become totally debauched.

Others become control freaks.

Guess which direction I went.


For me, the gradual appearance and rise of Talos began as an internalization of those parental admonishments. After all, to a child, the sun rises and sets with their parents. It’s biologically wired into us to unconditionally accept what our parents tell us. Skepticism carried no survival benefits.

It started as anticipation of disapproval—of observing, learning to predict what behavior would result in a spanking, or a lecture, or a threat of burning eternally in hell.

As I got older though, Talos grew in size and scale. He was the internal eye, standing over my shoulder to criticize everything I did. And nothing was ever good enough. I’d practice piano for 3-4 hours a day to get one section of a piece just-right. I’d edit and rewrite papers until they felt perfect.

He also commented on the world around me, evaluating passing glances or turns of phrase.

“They know what a horrible person you are.”

“Nobody here likes you.”

“What a miserable disappointment.”

“You’ll never be good enough.”

This goes beyond stunted self-esteem.

It was crippled self-worth.

I was trying to come up with a face this week to put with Talos, and John Noble’s Denethor from The Lord of the Rings films came to mind. There’s this scene in particular:

It was a self-protective impulse turned inwards on itself, like a black hole. And once I became aware of my sexuality, that mechanism went into overdrive, controlling every thought and mannerism lest anything give me away to my parents, who were big fans of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.


I’ve also been considering how this has impacted my romantic life, and my attitude towards myself and my demisexuality.

Specifically, is this sexuality an inborn trait, or is it the result of this darkly controlling inner force that looms over everything?

Regarding my orientation, of only being sexually attracted to men I have a close connection with, that has always been there. The more I got to know someone, the more attractive he got.

But would I feel more comfortable being more sexually and romantically open if Talos’ shadow wasn’t everywhere? Would I feel less pressure to find romance?

Who knows. But no wonder I stopped smiling around age eight.

But even non-sexually/romantically, would I feel less anxious in social settings if Talos weren’t threatening me not to fail, to say the wrong thing, to not let everyone know how stupid I am?

Though I’m now an atheist, the pressure to be perfect is no less overwhelming. I’m constantly analyzing social situations, draining my mental CPU.

The curious thing is that I became my own jailer.

So how then to unlock my own cell?

239. refluent

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You’re quite a bit further out from your loss of faith than I am (I lost mine only 3 months ago)… I wonder if you’d consider blogging about how you survived your initial loss of faith, and if you have any advice for those of us who are earlier in the process? You may not have the time or the desire to address such things, but if you do, I’d be interested in what you have to say.

burnt-forestAin’t No Shrinking Violet asked this question in a comment on one of my posts about four months ago, and regrettably I’m just getting around to answering it today. This is partly because of how crazy my schedule has become with grad school and not having much time to write anymore. However, it’s also because until recently I haven’t had a good answer and have been avoiding dealing with that.

A few weeks ago I was on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos, and he asked me this question, about how I survived my loss of faith. The short answer is that it took a long time to recover, and I’m still recovering. I was incredibly angry in the year and a half after I decoverted, and not without cause. I’d spent 28 years beating myself up for no reason—over struggles with doubt, my sexuality, and my increasingly secular outlook—and now it felt as if someone had been ransacking my house for most of my life, and I’d just noticed.

My set piece on this subject is that I went from being a Christian to Christopher Hitchens overnight. [Cue laugh track.]

Like many of us, my initial loss of faith was the shockwave of an implosion that happened almost a decade earlier—9 years, 4 months, and 22 days, actually. You can read about that story here if you like, but in hindsight, I wish I could have gone about it in a healthier way. My deconversion was the equivalent of going cold turkey off heroin after a lifetime of dependency on it.

As Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God, I had to “change the wallpaper of my mind.” Only I went a step further and burned the enire house to the ground. It wasn’t great, and I burned a number of bridges in the process. I have some regrets about that, about not giving some people a chance to get to know the “real” me, but I probably wasn’t ready, especially considering that the majority of my social circle at the time was evangelical Christians.

I will say that if the Secular Therapist Project had been open for clients in 2011, I would’ve been one of the first to sign up. As it is, it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally started seeing a therapist, and until last year that I finally connected with one who “gets” the deconversion and rebuilding process. It’s rough.

And it’s a different process for everyone. For some, it just made sense to stop believing in God, and for them it was largely a joyful and liberating experience. They don’t necessarily carry around the negative scripts and narratives that dominate the inner lives of former fundamentalist Christians.

I was raised in what in hindsight was an extremely toxic belief system. My parents, pastors, teachers and other authority figures taught me to not trust myself, to not trust others, to find fault in others, but most importantly, to find fault within myself. If I couldn’t find anything wrong within myself, I was to assume that I had allowed myself to become blinded myself to spiritual Truths (with a capital T).

Of course, these weren’t the lessons they were trying to impart, but it’s a natural and unavoidable consequence of the theology we accepted that this is how I’d come to see myself.

The reality I come face to face with today is not so much what they taught me as it is what they didn’t teach me, which is how to love and accept myself, and how to love and accept other people. You can’t truly do either of those things with the fear of eternal damnation continually looming over your head, and the fear that something you or someone else might do could put that in jeopardy.

So this is reality for me right now:

  • I don’t know how to be happy without the impulse kicking in to find something wrong with that happiness and ruin it;
  • I don’t know how to love myself because I can’t look at myself in the mirror without wanting to vomit or smash it, because I can only see the things that aren’t perfect or that don’t meet my impossibly high standards and expectations;
  • I don’t know how to let people in for fear of their actually seeing who I am and possibly rejecting that… or more like my inability to understand their acceptance when I can’t accept me.

That’s a long way of getting around to the question of how I survived my loss of faith four years ago. One answer is that I barely survived—I certainly didn’t grow. I lashed out at and pushed virtually everyone in my life away, especially those who were connected to Seth and his church. I retreated into an angry echo chamber of blogs, books, and online forums which only fueled my hatred of Christianity and Christians.

And a lot of people ran away. They could only see the angry, rage machine David, because that’s I wanted them to see. I didn’t want anyone to see the hurt, grieving, loss-wracked, and confused David who felt cut adrift and isolated from everything and everyone he ever knew.

Going to therapy has helped. Finding the Former Fundamentalists helped. If it had been around in 2011, Sunday Assembly might have helped.

But it was ultimately writing, and this blog, that saved me. Sharing my story and connecting with others with a similar story helped contain that fire.

I’m still recovering, still rebuilding. But it’s still a long road ahead.

233. happenstance

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sängyssä

Quick disclaimer: this post will deal with my sex life in unsexy and entirely untitillating language. Because my relationship with sex these days is… well, complicated.

I haven’t had many relationships that could be described as healthy. Beginning with my family (our first relationship lab, as it were), through my tumultuous teenage years, up to present-day, my life has been a decades-long exercise in keeping people closest to me at a safe and comfortable distance.

Clearing my orbital neighborhood, so to speak.

There was also the culture of shame endemic in the evangelical Christian community. Religious fundamentalists in general are adept at wearing masks to hide their true faces from each other for fear of judgment, shaming, and reprisal. In my community, it was often done with a smile. under the guise of “prayerful” good intentions; and in my family, Bible verses were often used as reminders of how we weren’t living up to the Bible’s standard for Christian living.

Not only did our parents disapprove of us—God also disapproved.

Consequently, as I wrote about in a recent blog entry, virtually all of my relationships up until now have been based on fear. I learned to fear everyone, regardless of whether there was something there to actually be afraid of.

At the same time, I desperately longed for acceptance, for belonging, and safety. The cognitive dissonance was, and still is, deafening.

This has played itself out in my sexual relationships in a number of highly toxic ways.

For one, I’m ashamed to say that once I became sexually active, I began using sex to try to achieve intimacy. It’s not the sex part that shames me in hindsight as how embarrassingly stereotypical that was. And it never worked. After I broke things off with my first boyfriend (i.e., “Aaron 1.0”), I had quite a few hookups on the way to my second boyfriend (“Aaron 2.0”) as a way of “catching up” to where I figured most gay men my age were—that is, age 26.

Even in those hookups, I was still hoping against hope to find a partner, someone with whom to find mutual belonging. I must have been looking so intently that, even if I had found someone compatible at that point, my expectations for the relationship would’ve doomed it to fail from the start.

Of course, after Seth I went on a sex binge, trying to literally fuck him out of my system. That didn’t work either, and each time the disappointment and the dissatisfaction deepened.

It was a cycle of self-perpetuating and self-propagating shame.

It frustrated me how friends of mine could have so much sex with seemingly no emotional consequences. There’s that line from the chorus of a recent Daft Punk song:

We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky

“Good fun” was something I was not having.

After I broke up with my most recent boyfriend in March of 2013, every sexual encounter started to leave me more and more depressed. I was thirty years old, and the rest of my life looked to be a series of endless, unsatisfying hookups.

Plus, as I wrote recently, I had defined success for myself as finding a boyfriend and partner, because that was one thing I grew up believing I could never have. So with every disappointing hookup, my parents’ voices in my mind saying that gay men lead sad, lonely lives grew more terrifying.

So I probably put myself in situations where that prophesy was mostly likely to come true.

A foursome I had last fall (which ended with me being a third wheel after one guy went to bed and the other two guys were into each other but not me) left me feeling undesirable and even more out of phase with other gay men than ever.

Meeting the bisexual tree scientist this summer (who I was actually, finally into—until he told me that he’s still in love with his ex-boyfriend and that they were trying to get back together) left me feeling as if there’s a game of musical chairs going on, and everyone else is faster than me.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of impossible expectations and a ton of emotional trauma (yes, some of it self-inflicted) wrapped up in sex besides just getting off with another person.

So much that I can’t enjoy it properly anymore.

For example, a couple weeks ago, a friend introduced me to a guy at a gayming party, texting me before I arrived that he’d found my “future husband.” I shouldn’t have taken it seriously, but before I could stop myself, I started surreptitiously studying this guy, imagining our future together, in Technicolor. We did hook up later that evening, and while he clearly had fun, he also made it clear that he’d just got out of a five-year relationship and wasn’t interested in anything serious.

Just like all of the others, I thought.

So I’m taking a break from sex for now. It’s just too confusing and unhealthy. I’ve been saying that sex is like advanced graduate studies in relationships, and I’m still trying to just finish high school. Frankly, I need to get to the root of this need to base my self worth on external factors, like looks and performance, first.

The tough thing about that is that it’s hard not to resent everyone who is in a relationship, or who is able to enjoy sex without the resulting existential tsunami. Of course, we can’t know what’s really going on in other people’s relationships or in their minds. Maybe everyone else really is just as afraid and insecure, but can simply cope better. However, when your emotional vocabulary is based on fear, it’s difficult not to invent reasons why a relationship is already doomed, or turn an otherwise fun, pleasurable experience into an emotional minefield.

Fear fuels self-belief that I’m broken and damaged became a reason to preemptively sabotage potentially fruitful relationships.

This is why I’m in therapy, folks.

224. ethos

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Malkovich

A few days ago I was watching a video in Hank Green’s psychology Crash Course on attachment style theories, parenting styles, the development of self-concept, and Kolhberg’s Stages of Morality:

The course has made me remember how much I enjoyed taking psychology classes, and how much I’ve forgotten in the intervening years.

This bit from about the 6:45 mark stirred up some recollections in my thinking space:

“… if one of infancy’s major social achievements is forming positive attachments then one of the biggest achievements in childhood would have to be achieving a positive sense of self. This self-concept (or, an understanding and evaluation of who we are) is usually pretty solid by the time we turn twelve.”

I’m not really sure what my very early years with my parents were like as an infant. I don’t recall my parents being overly distant or hovering. I can recall, as Hank describes in the video, that my parents were certainly authoritarian. There were sometimes reasons given for the rules we had to follow or why we were being punished, but those rules often seemed unfair and even a tad draconian at times.

“… by the time that tot is headed to kindergarten, their self-concept is rapidly expanding.”

Around the time that I turned twelve was around the time that I was figuring out that I was gay. So while my peers were getting settled in their “positive sense of self” as they moved from childhood into adulthood, mine was like to a field constantly being plowed and turned over so that nothing could take root. With every sermon preached on the sanctity of “traditional,” heterosexual marriage (although in those days there was no other kind), and with every winking or cruel remark someone in would unwittingly make about homos, it was gradually, painfully beaten into me that there was no place for me to be me in the world.

And, given the theology that I was raised with, a sense of self had virtually no currency towards a Christian’s future life in Heaven.

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6)

It wasn’t until I got to public high school that I learned about attachment theory, or self-actualization, or anything that didn’t involve “becoming more like Christ” (1 John 3:2). What I heard growing up was that the chief desire of the Christian should be to literally one day in Heaven have your “earthly” self annihilated so that only Christ remains.

Apotheosis via annihilation. Quelle charmante

It reminds me of one of the weirder sequences in Being John Malkovich where John Malkovich climbs into his own head and everyone looks and sounds like John Malkovich.

Looking back on all of those Sunday school lessons, that’s almost exactly what the process of becoming “Christlike” is.


All that to say, virtually every day that I open Facebook to see the growing children of my friends who have been married going on ten years, and literally every day at home with my housemates, I’m reminded of the reality that I am today where most of them were about 10-15 years ago.

My friends Adam and Jesse who got married earlier this month met around the time that I was finishing college (age 19-20). They’ve been together for fourteen years. At that age, the idea of even being in a relationship with another man was something utterly foreign to me because it wasn’t even possible. One couldn’t be a Christian and be a gay man.

My friends Matt and Jason have been together almost twenty years. My longest relationship is barely 1% as long as that (i.e., nine months). Twenty years ago, I was just starting to figure out my sexual orientation.

So I’m just now starting to do the work at age 31 (well, let’s face it, at this point virtually 32) that most people start doing around age 12—that is, building a “positive sense of self.” And facing this reality is depressing and daunting, and bewildering.

Of course, most people aren’t even aware of the (metaphorical) demons that prevent them from becoming the best versions of themselves. They don’t even know that this is what’s happening to them. They go through life doing what is expected of them… or what they believe is expected of them. They punch the clock. Buy the house. Marry the high school or college sweetheart. Have the kids. Buy the lake cabin. Put the kids through college.

Retire.

Expire.

But I also know some great people who know who they are, what they are capable of and what they want, and aren’t afraid to go after that.

All this is to say that it’s incredibly weird to be in this nether region of being the same age as people who seem to have their lives together (or at least going in a direction) and being nowhere close to having any of that figured out.

“Kids with positive self-images are more happy, confident, independent, and sociable.”

What’s most daunting is that I’m trying to launch this two-pronged attack of getting myself to a place in life where I’m the best possible version of me, while at the same time trying to get over the negative programming that was crammed into my head from practically the time I was born. Because I was given, frankly, a pretty shitty self-concept growing up.

So at the same time as I’m trying to build a healthy self-concept, I’m also trying to build a career and (ideally—not hopefully) find a boyfriend who could possibly become a husband.

Let’s not even go into all of the minefield anxieties that surround that idea…

The bottom line is that, yes, this is a mess, but it’s not an impossible mess to fix. I have a good therapist who works with people from my background on rebuilding their lives.

And I have good friends.

That’s as good a start as any.

217. indelible

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Bell_Rock_Lighthouse_during_a_storm_cph_3b18344While driving to work this morning, I had a rare moment of lucidity. I was thinking about the day and everything ahead. On that list of things to worry about is whether or not I’m going to have to take my former landlord to court to get my security deposit back.

Then one thought came to the forefront: You don’t have to give him any more bandwidth in your headspace. I asked myself: Will worrying about this influence the situation one way or other?

Probably not.

I’ve also been thinking in general lately about expectations — what I expect from my family, friends, potential boyfriends, myself, my career, my future.

In fact, most of the disappointment I’ve experienced, and currently experiencing, seems to stem from the failure of reality to live up to what I consciously or unconsciously imagine it should be. Sometimes I don’t even have a clear idea of how it is that I thought things should turn out — I’m just dissatisfied with the result.

In a piece for The Guardian, Julia Sweeney writes that in the first few months of being a parent, she rewrote her entire childhood. “Turns out it was probably not nearly as bad as I once thought it was. In fact, my newly revised attitude about my mother is that she did the best she could.”

I don’t know why it’s so easy to resent our parents for committing this unforgivable sin. That’s not to say there aren’t some horrific parents out there who truly fuck up their kid , nor that there aren’t childhood wounds to deal with and heal from. But how much should we expect from flawed human beings who find themselves tasked with taking care of and raising a tiny, helpless, blank slate of a human being?

For the last couple years, and probably before, I’ve resented my parents for failing their young gay son. Of course, they didn’t know that this was the situation. Frankly, I’m not sure what the outcome might’ve been if I’d come out as a teenager; said that I didn’t want to be heterosexual, nor that I needed “therapy.”

So what should I really expect from them now, as an adult? A few months ago, my mom told me (again) that, should I ever get married, that the family would not attend my wedding. I’m not sure about my sisters. My youngest sister probably wouldn’t. The younger one might. She’s the only one who has seemed at least outwardly accepting.

It is hurtful, to say the least, to have the memory of how big a deal they made over my younger sister’s wedding in 2008. I even played piano and wrote a piece for the ceremony. I suppose my expectation is that family might trump their narrow religious views; that they would be happy just to celebrate with their only son over his finally having found love and commitment.

What I suppose that means is that I expect them to be different from who they are, which seems as unfair as their wishing that I were heterosexual — which is to say, cease to be me. Of course, their religious identity is not written into their DNA. They do have a choice in their belief system.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I feel judged by virtually everyone I come in contact with, especially people who I perceive to be better off than me. I recently had a realization about that: namely, that really the only person who’s judging me is me. I’m projecting my negative thoughts about myself and my perceived lack of worth on to everyone else.

Like Julia, I’ve been rewriting my childhood as of late. I wonder now if it wasn’t my parents who were super critical of me, but rather that it was me all along. That’s not to say that the religious views of my home and church didn’t influence me. In Christian fundamentalism, we’re taught to view ourselves as broken, flawed, perverted, dirty. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)

We’re taught to search ourselves for wicked thoughts, and to assume that anything we think or do is sinful and evil: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) If you’ve seen documentaries like Jesus Camp, children are pressured into making confessions, even to point of manufacturing sins just to be forgiven and avoid hell.

My parents didn’t always do the best job of making my sisters and I feel loved and accepted, just as they likely didn’t always feel loved and accepted as children. They’ve asked forgiveness from us for past mistakes, so we’re all trying.

I’m not entirely sure how my sisters internalized our early upbringing. For me, it made me hyper self-critical. I’d get angry with myself before anyone else could, sometimes for things that even my parents weren’t angry or disappointed over. I wanted to prove to everyone that I expected nothing but perfection from myself. Consequently, I grew up hating and despising myself for failing to be all that I expected myself to be.

When I get angry over mistakes or losing a game, I’m really angry at myself for failing to be perfect — to catch on to the rules, to notice patterns, to develop strategies. In essence, in those moments I wish that I could be someone else. To cease to be me.

So why is it so hard to stop? I suspect it’s partly that I’m so used to this that I’m afraid of any positive change, unsure how to live without the negative voices and energy, even though it’s psychologically and emotionally draining. It’s the same reason why I’m struggling to let go of my feelings for Seth. I haven’t felt anything like since then. Feeling something is better than nothing.

One step at a time.

197. Huit d’Épées

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huit-d'ÉpéesThe stories we are told as children are templates we unwittingly carry with us through childhood and into adulthood, on which we pattern most of our thinking and the way we ultimately live.

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.

gatewaysCertain 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.