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.

Purity Rings & Other Lies

I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring.  It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters.  I loved that ring.  It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth.  I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules.  As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!”  I loved the rules.  The rules shaped who I was.

I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group.  All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another.  The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation.  The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night.  I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.”  I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules.  And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.

What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship.  We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain.  I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect.  There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart.  Everything would be perfect.

It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD.  Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD.  I love my partner.  He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other.  We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about.  I never learned how to do any of this in the church.  I had no idea that I needed to learn it.

Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture.  If anything, it perpetuated it.  First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough.  The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture.  By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing.  Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have.  It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual.  (Hot tip: it’s not.)  There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.  

Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed.  There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing.  While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before.  All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility.  Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend.  No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.

Purity culture has damaged so many relationships.  I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later.  I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain.  I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned.  I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture.  Purity culture hurts all of us.

I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire.  If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies.  Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers.  Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me.  Rings are easy.  Love is hard.

Why leave the closet?

It’s been a long few weeks, y’all.  Since coming out, I’ve gone to Wild Goose Festival (still haven’t written about that adventure), hosted my childhood best friend’s bachelorette party, moved to a new house, and sprained my ankle.  It’s been a time.  But through all that, lurking in the back of my mind was how to make sense of why I felt like it was important for me to come out.

I’ve been asked this questions several times, sometimes from people who are not affirming of the LGBTQ community and other times from people who are supportive and trying to get to know me better.  At first, I wasn’t sure how to answer.  I could only explain my coming out by saying that I knew I had to.  I couldn’t resist it anymore.  A part of me that had been beaten, oppressed, locked away, and shamed for so long finally had a chance to creep out into the light, and I was tired of telling it no.  After years of therapy and self-reflection, I finally developed the courage to say “hey, this is who I am.”  And once I fully embraced that thought, there was nothing I could do to stop it anymore.  For me, coming out as bi has nothing to do with polyamory (although plenty of people of all different sexualities are and find it fulfilling) or leaving my current relationship.  I am happy with a straight man.  But I am still a queer person, and I’m tired of being erased.

Bi erasure is a problem even within the queer community.  I constantly hear people say that bi people are just gays who haven’t come all the way out yet.  While that can sometimes be the case, bisexuality is also it’s own legitimate identity.  When I’m dating a man, I’m not “straight.”  If I were dating a woman, I wouldn’t be a lesbian.  If I were dating a trans person, my sexual identity would not depend on how they identified their gender.  No matter who I am with, I am still bi.  My identity is my own identity, regardless of who my partner is.  I do not want half of who I am to be erased simply because of who I’m with.

But it’s more than that.  It’s not just about me.

In case you’re not aware, the United Methodist Church is currently in the middle of a years-long debate about human sexuality.  For the past several General Conferences (held every four years – lining up with presidential election years in the US), voting on issues of human sexuality has resulted in arguments, protests, tears, and an inability to understand The Other.  Because of this current debate, I knew that I was putting myself at risk by coming out and simultaneously being a Methodist clergyperson.  I haven’t yet received any feedback from the church, but, technically, I could have my clergy credentials removed.  LGBTQ people are not allowed to be clergy in the Methodist church, which is a primary issue up for debate at all of these conferences.

The people in the congregations I’ve served need to know that someone among them is queer.  So many people who believe damaging things about homosexuality think that they don’t know anyone who’s queer.  It’s easy to have hurtful opinions about a group of people that you don’t actually know.  It’s much harder to look a member of that group in the face and share those opinions, especially if that person is a member of your faith community.  So, by coming out, I hope to also start conversations with people who don’t know where they stand and also with people who do know where they stand and want to have conversation about LGBTQ issues.  So if you have questions, let’s chat.

I want everyone to know who I am, even if it means losing a few relationships with those who refuse to accept me.  In this politically horrendous time, I cannot be silent any longer.  In a time when Christianity is seen as an exclusionary religion, I want to invite people on the margins in by showing them that I am on the margins too.  Being queer means so many different diverse things, just like the rainbow we wave, and I’m grateful to finally be a public member of this community.  So, let’s allow all the colors to be visible and make the world a little brighter with how fabulous we are.

 

 

GUEST POST: Who the heck am I, anyway?

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter.  A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo.  She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work.  Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope.  We immediately decided to guest blog for each other.  You can find my post on her blog here.  Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.

Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.

I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?

In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.

I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.

God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.

In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.

About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:

Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.

Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.

Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.

 

 

Shadow of Death

I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line.  I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me.  Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun.  I felt tired.  I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep.  I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory.  Nearly drowning.

For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me.  I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief.  My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school.  At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward.  Funerals did not make me sad.  I was fine.

Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild.  I developed nighttime anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks.  I was convinced that I was going to be murdered.  Any sound in the house startled me.  I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself.  I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up.  I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed.  I also developed a fear of flying.  I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me.  Sometime in my teenage  years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death.  I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them.  I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.

My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive.  For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions.  I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid?  I lived in a safe area.  We had never had a break-in.  I had never so much as been in a bad car accident.  Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?

Two weeks ago, my grandfather died.  He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while.  I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family.  However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion.  Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that.  Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death.  I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality.  And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?

I am still learning to hold these things together.  I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can.  If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret.  I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control.  I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love.  So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.

Doxology

On Sunday morning,
the dusty organ tune
gradually modulates
from the offering hymn,
accompaniment of sacrifice,
as dry hands place freshly sealed envelopes
into cold gold plates lined with velvet,
to the doxology,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
We all stand and the pews creak with our shifting weight
to acknowledge the holiness of our gifts.
As I harmonize the Amen, Plagal cadence,
the organist’s skillful transformation
of D flat to G major
whispers
that I, too, can
modulate from
anything
to praise.