The Worst Year

TW: assault, abuse, self harm, suicide

This was the worst year of my life. It feels dramatic to say, but I know emphatically that it’s true. My second year of seminary in 2015 is a pretty close runner-up, but the struggles of this year reached a new level. I’ve never been so glad to see a new year come.

It’s also been a pretty rough decade if I’m being realistic. This decade began with an abusive relationship. I spent five years being told what I could wear, who I could hang out with, and what I was supposed to think. For half of this decade, I wasn’t my own person. I wasn’t myself. I had no way of being myself because I wasn’t given the space to learn who I was. I was the person he made me into. He gradually isolated me from family and friends. I had no one to rely on but him.

In 2015, after a year and a half of seminary, I was finally developing some of my own ideas, and those ideas began to reveal what a terrible situation I was in. I wanted out, but I didn’t know how to escape. My way out finally came, but only with more trauma. My first sexual assault ended my abusive relationship because I was blamed for cheating. My abusive partner doubted my story and became more angry than I had ever seen him. I knew then that I couldn’t do it anymore. I dealt with the fall out of my break up and the recovery from my assault at the same time. I still look back on that semester with amazement at how I made it through.

Things eventually began to turn around. I fell in love with a partner who treated me with respect and equality. I graduated from seminary. I found my first job doing something I loved. Just as things began to shift, though, they fell apart again. Last Thanksgiving, I was sexually assaulted for the second time. This compounded my trauma and left me with Complex PTSD. Instead of dealing with my symptoms, I pushed them down. I told myself that if I never thought about the assault, I could pretend that it didn’t happen.

All of this compounded trauma finally came to a head in the spring of 2019. I had started self harming again for the first time in 15 years. I was drinking more than I should’ve. I was lying to myself and everyone around me about how I was doing. I reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted out. My anxiety and depression were overwhelming, and I felt trapped. On May 21, 2019, I attempted suicide. Thankfully, I wasn’t successful. My roommate drove me to the hospital and I spent a week in the hospital followed by six weeks in an intensive trauma program.

I finally began to face the trauma of my assaults, my abuse, and the loss of my mother in early childhood. I realized how lonely I had been for most of my life. I finished the program on wobbly legs but ready with the tools I needed to live. My body was able to leave the state of emergency it had been in for years and finally breathe. It hasn’t been simple. A lot of days are still hard. There are mornings I have to choose to use the tools I learned in order to get out of bed. There are moments when I struggle not to blame myself for my assaults. There are times when all I can do is feel my emotions and cry. But I’m doing it.

I don’t know what this next decade holds, but I know it has to be better. I bought a house with my partner a month ago and we’re looking toward a future together. I’m writing more and becoming more serious about working toward publication. I’m dreaming with a friend about opening a bookstore full of adoptable cats. I know that making this new decade brighter will be work, but for the first time in years I feel equipped for the task.

Happy New Year. Happy new decade. Morning is coming.

Dear Mom,

It’s been 24 years since the day you left me. That seems like an absurd number, but I know that every year the number gets bigger. Each year, it feels like you’re getting farther away. I lose more memories. I live farther from the people who knew you. Most of the people in my life have never met you. Some of them don’t even know that you’re gone. With each deathiversary, I get more accustomed to explaining where you are.

The closer I get to your age, the more scared I am for myself. Joining a grief group has helped me to realize that this is normal. Most of us who have lost older siblings or parents assume we won’t make it past the age they were when they died, and when we do, we don’t know how to handle it. We never envision ourselves reaching 40, knowing our mom never will, but here I am. I still have some years before I reach 36, but the dread grows the closer I get.

A lot of people mark traumatic experiences, especially deaths, with “before” and “after.” This is how trauma survivors tell time. And while this is how I mark other events in my life, with you there was no “before.” The floaty recollections I have of you feel like another life, a dream, a made up story. My whole life has been “after.” For a while, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me, but recently my trauma therapist explained to me that my trauma isn’t in the fact that you died. I don’t remember it. The trauma of losing you happens over and over again, every time something happens that you should be here for and you’re not here.

I have more pictures of you in my room now to help me remember. I’m doing regressive memory work with my therapist to draw out old feelings and, hopefully, old memories. I mainly remember you taking care of me: scraped knees, bee stings, injuries of childhood. I remember you waking me up to lick the spoon from a batch of brownies. I wonder if you knew then that you didn’t have much time left, and that sweet memory would be more important than my 8pm bedtime.

Next to my bed, I have a tryptic of you, signing to me that you love me. I. Love. You. You smile back at me from a 90s hospital room every night as I go to sleep. And I know that you loved me. There are pictures to prove it. You stared at me with a look of deep adoration. But sometimes I get angry at you. I wish you’d left me more things to remember you by. I wish I had letters for each birthday or a recording of your voice reading me a bedtime story or a video telling me all the things you couldn’t tell a five-year-old. I know it’s not fair to ask for those things because I’m sure you did the best you could. I only ask for them because I miss you.

I’m not sure what I believe about where you are anymore, but I hope wherever it is, it’s peaceful. I hope you are proud of me, but I hope you don’t miss me. People tell me you’d be proud of me, but it doesn’t mean much. Even so, I try to live each day like you’re watching me. I look for you in crowds.

Love you always,

Brenna

PUBLISHED: In Parentheses

Two of my more recent pieces are published in Vol 5 Is 2 of In Parentheses. You can purchase an online copy or a print copy here.

One edit regarding the poem “teaching her a lesson.” The last line of the poem as written in this issue should be disregarded. It’s carried over from another piece on the previous page. The end of my poem is the second to last line. I have contacted the editor and they are working to make this change.

One Year Queeriversary

One year ago on July 3, 2018, I came out publicly for the first time. Even though I felt ready and had been waiting for that moment for over a decade, I still felt terrified. I remember writing my coming out post on the couch in my living room and being unable to hit “publish.” Eventually, I had to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and click.

Life has been a tangle of messes since last July, only some of them related to queerness. I just finished my partial hospitalization mental health program and am trying to integrate back into my everyday routine. I feel a combination of devastation and rage every day while I watch children get caged, women dismissed, trans women killed, and black voices silenced. I constantly wonder if I’m doing enough to help us overcome all this darkness. I’ve endured some difficult family conflict through cycles of anger and silence. In some ways, living my life as an out queer person has been a drop in the ocean.

In other ways, though, the luxury of being myself in the midst of all this roughness has made it more manageable. Last fall, I experienced Pride for the first time as an out person (Pride in Atlanta is in October…it’s a long story). I made my partner take pictures of me on every corner and wore every rainbow, sparkly thing I could fit on my body. I knew the queer community was bearing it’s own struggles – inclusion of trans voices, inclusion of POC, rallying around a central goal post-marriage-equality. But it was all to sparkly and new to me for any of that to tarnish the rainbows in my eyes. I was queer and you couldn’t shut me up. It was beautiful.

In the wake of my coming out, I received message upon message from other closeted people from every corner of my life. People I hadn’t spoken to in weeks or years contacted me to say, “Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone.” My own long and arduous journey to being comfortable with my bisexuality was brought to mind as I talked with people who were still struggling to hold queerness and Christianity at the same time. It made me feel like, even though I was a baby queer, I still had valuable things to say to my community.

The past year, though, has also challenged my self worth in profound ways. In February, I the General Conference live stream at work day after day, waiting for my church to decide its fate. In the end, the United Methodist Church chose exclusion over love. As I watched the final count of votes project onto the screen, I fell to the floor in my kitchen, sobbing. I had given hours and years of my time and thousands of dollars to an institution that I believed could support me in making the world a better place. But instead of acceptance, what I received in return was pain and rejection. Many of my queer Methodist friends and allies remain in the church, and I am so grateful for their continued work to change this broken system from the inside. Right now, though, I am too tired and hurt to give any more energy to an institution that refuses to ordain me and the people I love. Right now, I can’t fight anymore. I am angry. I need a place where my personhood will not be up for debate. I haven’t found that home yet, but I know it’s out there.

Being out for a year has been a roller coaster, but I am most thankful for the small things. My freedom to post memes about bisexuality on Twitter, the bi flag in my pencil cup at work, my t-shirt that says “Jesus was Bi.” I don’t have to pretend to be an ally anymore. I am free to stand up and say, “These things apply to me. This community is mine too.” While my life is not nearly as risky or revolutionary, I feel a kinship this season with Marsha P. Johnson and her contemporaries – tired of being told who to be and where to stand, in pain but able to fight injustice, imperfect but willing to throw up my hands and say “I’m here and you can’t get rid of me.”

The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

Lies Religion Told Me About My Depression

CW: disordered eating, depression, religious trauma, self harm

I first struggled with depression and body image in high school. For the better part of my junior year, I restricted my eating or avoided eating altogether. I was in a theater production at school, so my evening rehearsal schedule meant I could pretend to eat all three meals at school while managing to only munch on some free oyster crackers from the cafeteria throughout the day. After several months of this, as well as constant urging from my friends, I summoned the courage to talk to someone at my church about what I was going through.

My youth leader and I went to dinner at Chik-fil-A (the classic Christian restaurant, obviously), and I confessed my hatred for my own body and general unhappiness with my life. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m so unhappy. I have a boyfriend. I have a lot of good friends. I’m doing well in school.” To which my youth leader responded, “Yes, but you need to be able to be happy even if you don’t have those things. That’s why we find our joy in Jesus.” Here is the first lie: If you really love Jesus, you won’t ever be unhappy.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized how disturbing this was. There I sat, a fragile, 95 pound 16-year-old, and instead of getting the mental health assistance I so badly needed, I was being told that my unhappiness was directly correlated to the depth of my religious belief. If I would only pray more, read the Bible more, and be a better Christian, then I wouldn’t be having these problems. I wasn’t referred to get any outside help and instead was referred to a devotional book for teenage girls.

For whatever its worth, I did start eating again after the conversation with my youth leader. Whether it was the confession of my issue itself or my deep belief in what I’d been told, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d started eating all three meals again. But, really, that’s not the thing that matters the most. What does was my belief in my ability to be cured from mental illness simply by praying and going to church. Sure, prayer, meditation, and community can all help improve mental health and personal awareness. I don’t discount that. But my brain chemistry cannot be cured by sitting in a dark room with my eyes closed. People far more devout than I experience unhappiness and depression all of the time. And the refusal of many church communities to acknowledge the dark emotions we all face leads to a church full of shiny, happy people. When church does not allow us to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry, it denies us the fullness of our human experience.

Earlier in my high school experience, I struggled with other self-harming behaviors. Like any addiction or illness, I would go through periods of recovery followed by periods of relapse. Every time I fell back into old patterns, I would spend the next spiritual retreat with my youth group reflecting on my own short comings. This is the second lie: My inability to overcome mental illness is based in my unwillingness to let God work in my life.

I spent countless high school retreats crying while participating in whatever metaphorical spiritual practice had been employed to help us “let go” of the things holding us back in our relationship with God. Sometimes this was writing down what we needed to let go of and nailing it to a cross. (Don’t get me started on the disturbing theological implications of this one.) Sometimes it was writing down our sins on a piece of paper and throwing it in the fire. Sometimes it was holding a small stone in our hands, meditating on it, and then laying it at the foot of the cross to represent our burdens. While I understand what was being attempted with these practices, for me, they did nothing but damage. Each time, I contemplated the same things. I wasn’t happy: I was depressed, self-harming, anorexic, and lonely. I believed that if I tried hard enough and really meant it, then God would take these problems away. Each time, this turned out not to be true, and each time I thought it was my own fault for not having enough faith for God to take away my burdens.

I do not believe that God magically rewards “good people” with joy, wealth, and easy lives. I do not believe that God spitefully punishes “bad people” with mental illness, sickness, and poverty. My brain chemistry has nothing to do with my actions in the world. I was born with a brain that is suceptible to anxiety and depression, and this does not make me a failure in the eyes of God. While I do what I can to maintain my mental health – exercise, healthy diet, meditation, therapy – I am the best version of myself when I’m on the right medications. This does not mean God made me incorrectly or that I’ve done something to cause God’s anger at me. It just means I have to work harder each day to find the things that ground me.

Earlier this week, my therapist asked me what things were grounding me currently. I struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, I was able to mention my partner, my cats, a vegan pot pie I made for dinner, and my new garlic plant. I certainly did not mention guilt from being unhappy or a lack of faith. Days are hard right now, but that makes me no less faithful. It does make me more grateful for the good things when they grow. I am also grateful for the people and spaces that allow be to feel all of my feelings, even when they don’t make sense, even when they are overwhelming. I am grateful for a God who honors all of my feelings, especially the ones that hurt.