When I was a teenager in church, I was in charge of finding church members do to half-time devotionals for my church’s Christian basketball league. A devotional is basically a short sermon that emphasized a personal story. These were the heart of the league’s outreach strategy.
If you know anything about finding volunteers, in or out of the church setting, it’s a tricky thing to do, and I often had to book myself. One week, I decided to share about the trauma I experienced during my parents’ divorce. I became nervous when I saw friends of my parents in the crowd, but I genuinely wanted people to know that I believed God had brought me through.
After the devotional, I was approached by my mom. She told me that I didn’t really have it all that bad, others had it worse, and I was bringing discomfort to my family.
“I didn’t have it all that bad?” I was hurting. In fact, I’m 31 years old and still I feel a dull pain from how things occurred. I saw physical abuse from my dad to my mom. My brother and I were pushed and pulled from house to house and asked to report on what the other parent did. We had to testify in court about our parents. I once went a week in the middle of the winter without a coat when my previous one was stolen and my parents couldn’t agree on who was obligated to replace it. My parents lied to me and manipulated me, especially my father. But I didn’t “have it all that bad?”
This is what I call the “A Child Called It” Factor. “A Child Called It” is a book by Dave Pelzer that recalls his horribly abusive childhood, one of the worst cases ever in California. For whatever reason, this book had an eerie presence in my household and was used to shut up complaining. If I remember correctly, it was even mentioned during that conversation after my devotional. How could I complain about my parents’ divorce when Dave Pelzer was beaten? How could I say I distrusted my cheating father when Dave Pelzer was tortured? How could I dare speak honestly about my experience when Dave Pelzer was starved?
The answer was and is simple. My hurt is my hurt. It is part of my journey. I own it, and it doesn’t own me. That doesn’t mean it only hurts me when I allow it or that I have full power over it, but it can’t keep me silent if I want to talk about it. Someone else’s worse experience doesn’t negate mine. It means our world is full of pain, and pain is no contest.
I’m a survivor of Religious Trauma Syndrome. Marlene Winell, in her article “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (journeyfree.org/rts/) defines the syndrome as “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” She goes on to say that it can be compared to a combination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD. We often associate PTSD with war veterans that have returned home to find it hard to cope and seamlessly return to society. My heart goes out to all who have experienced PTSD from war, but there are many more who live with this disorder.
While I haven’t seen bullets flying through the air or explosions ending dozens of lives, I have seen emotional abuse in the name of religion. I have experienced the devastating losses of my community, family members, friends, financial security, and more at the hands of flippant religious leaders. I’ve been treated as if I wasn’t good enough, told that I appeared weak for sharing my feelings at the most devastating losses of my life, and that I had no reason to ever raise my voice when I was hurting. When I needed them the most, religious leaders shunned me and told an overwhelming majority of my support system to turn away from me. I was abused and hurt. My story doesn’t have to top yours or yours mine.
War? No. But it felt like bloodshed. Locked in a basement? No. But I felt alone. My experience matters, and so does yours. Stop comparing your hurt to others. This is no contest, and if the comparisons keep you from finding help or having a voice, you lose greatly. I urge you to find your voice and stand your ground. Therapy was incredibly helpful for my experience. You don’t have to be public with your story, but complete silence is the perfect environment for trauma to take root, grow, and claim more of your life than you’d ever be willing to freely give.