Just over a week ago, Jim over at The Running Father Blog posted a callout for transpersonal testimonies, and I took the bait. What follows is my personal testimony…of faith and doubt, of a childhood steeped in fear and abuse, of an adult living with the fallout, of many deaths, and of surviving.
Stages of Development
According to Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Human Development, the first thing we learn is either to trust or to mistrust. The easiest example is a parent responding to an infant’s cries. Whether the baby is hungry, tired, or needing a diaper change, the baby has a need, and it is communicating that need with shrill wails. If the parent responds to the baby’s cry with feeding, holding, or changing, then the baby learns to trust that the parent will provide and care for its needs. However, if the parent lets the baby wail and does not feed, hold, or change it, then the baby learns that it cannot trust the parent.
Because the parent is literally the whole world for a baby, this lesson of mistrust then influences the baby’s worldview (and according to Erikson, the potential for successfully mastering the subsequent stages of development as they come up). The subsequent stages of development are: autonomy vs. shame (in the toilet training timeframe), initiative vs. guilt (preschool aged), industry vs. inferiority (primary school aged), identity vs. role confusion (adolescence), intimacy vs. isolation (in young adulthood), generativity vs. stagnation (in middle age), and finally ego integrity vs. despair (in elder years).
It’s fairly safe to say that I was on the losing end of these stages until at least elementary school or adolescence. I essentially survived my childhood as best as I could, and my saving grace in my early life was being in school. Once I learned to count, I counted everything…all the time. Then once I learned to read (in Head Start), and was able to bring books home (in elementary school), I read…all the time. Counting and reading transported me from an unstable, scary home situation into a world of order, patterns, and escapism. Of course my parents, siblings, and school kids thought I was freakish for being a space cadet, tuning everything (and everyone) out most of the time and that I was a lazy loner for choosing to read alone over hanging out with the neighborhood kids.
By the time I was 11, I had a bike, interests of my own, and I had learned to avoid home at all costs, and that’s how I survived. Considering the trauma in my formative years, it’s no wonder I have a hard time trusting people even now, or the gravity of things I walk around with daily. I know I’m lucky to have survived my childhood, and I’m luckier still that I’m not locked away in an institution, either mental or prison. That’s not an exaggeration. I’m literally a statistical anomaly considering my socioeconomic, dysfunctional background.
Of course I’ve been to a variety of therapists, and you know what they say? All of them? “Well, you’re quite well adjusted!” No fucking shit, Sherlock. That I haven’t succumbed to homicidal rages, been successful with suicide, or fallen into the abyss of criminality either means I’m a moderately high functioning sociopath…or I’m okay in spite of everything I’ve experienced.
Snake Oil Salvation
When you take a young girl with my history and add an element of charismatic, evangelical Christianity to the mix, what you end with is a girl who’s suffered unspeakable things thinking she was born damned into the world and deserving of her tragic lot in life. And that’s a goddamned shame.
Drawn to Christianity’s promise of eternal love, I ran to, begged, and pleaded with God to save me…or to let me die. I remember being nine years old and literally praying to God to let me die so I didn’t have to live anymore. (WHAT THE FUCK, INDEED?) But with the resilience that ONLY comes from youth, I embraced the concept of eternal salvation; and I became a proselytizing, evangelical Christian teenager. I channeled all my anger and fear into rigid religious fervor. But I still had questions, so I read the Bible, and I took Biblical courses at church.
When God never rescued me despite all my trying and learning and in the depths of my despair, I chose to let myself die and attempted suicide at sixteen. Though I survived, I think part of me did die then. I’ve felt very much in-between ever since, partly alive and partly dead. I was both corporeal and ethereal at the same time. Some might say I was fragile (they have). I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say there’s a single fragile thing about me, then or now. I’m as hard and cold as a corpse, and it takes an unbelievable level of effort to force myself to be warm with people.
I had even more questions about faith, and I was desperate for a loving community, so I chose a Christian college when I was lucky enough to have the opportunity. College. Well, it really was the best of times and worst of times. I went through an early marriage, miscarriage, and divorce all before graduating in four years…with two majors… three part time jobs…and a chip on my shoulder the size of Alaska. I was villainized by some for mustering the courage to hold my head up and for bouncing back after the divorce. I was publicly humiliated for wearing a Kerry/Edwards t-shirt while cleaning in the cafeteria on voting day. You read things like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, or anything by Flannery O’Connor, and you think despicable people like that can’t possibly exist in real life. I’m telling you, I’ve met more than one Bible salesman willing to steal a wooden leg!
As rough as it was, college was also a period of awakening and of finding the deep love of a Christian community, when I wasn’t angry at it, of course. My friends and I would walk barefoot by Buffalo Creek quoting Adam Bede, writing songs, and living out our social justice in the form of hospitality for one another. I never locked my doors. I always left my keys in my car for any of my friends to use as they needed. I never knew if people would be in my apartment…or not. I never claimed ownership over much, but I also never went without anything I needed. I ate well. All my bills were paid…in spite of the money I had or didn’t. It was faith inspired socialism, and it was so beautiful. We lived out the miracle of the loaves and fishes in my last couple of years at college, and it sustained me on more than just material levels.
With my college experiences, my questions about faith only grew, and I became more vocal about my universalist leanings. And then I went to seminary. I realize now that probably wasn’t the best route for me; but I was fresh out of college and not ready to leave my community…so I went to the seminary on the holy hill across the street. I only stayed a year.
In seminary, I gained a love of textual criticism, early Christian tradition, liturgy and ritual, Biblical languages, and early American Christian History, but my doubts than any of it was real, meaningful, or nourishing had also become overwhelming. So I took some time away from church when I left seminary.
In the four years after leaving seminary, I tried going back to church several times, but I just couldn’t. I tried the Methodists because I love John Wesley. I tried the Episcopalians because they drink and have great senses of humor…about faith…and life. The most pleasantly sarcastic people I know are Episcopalian. I strongly considered joining an Episcopal church here in Knoxville, but my husband and I were the youngest people in the congregation by at least a few decades, so the search was still on for a spiritual community.
Dark Night of the Soul
In those same four years after seminary, I struggled in the typical post-collegiate ways. I was overworked, grossly abused by my employer, underpaid, and had no benefits at all. And then I quit that job and struggled with unemployment. But wait…there’s more! To deal with…gosh everything in my life, I started taking an anti-depressant while working for said abusive employer. I was on it a whole month before I quit that job. With all my medical experience, I figured it was okay to just stop taking it. It had only been a month, right? Biggest mistake of my whole life. Ever.
I don’t remember much about the month of November, 2007. I am deeply ashamed of everything I put my husband (then boyfriend) through at that time, but I also know I wasn’t really in control of what was happening. I’m going to blame it all on very bad judgment and quitting my new medication so suddenly (because taking someone with so many demons and fucking with their brain chemistry that way is a disaster just waiting to happen). And it was a disaster.
Some people have a period of depression after confronting (and being consumed with) religious doubt and life struggles. It’s normal, really. But ever the over-achiever, I actually had a certifiable mental breakdown. My beloved took me to the doctor, told him I was broken and lost and not the woman he fell in love with, and he asked for the help that I couldn’t ask for. It took me over a year of taking the right dosage of the right medication to level my brain back out, and the process of figuring out that perfect cocktail was a nightmare all on its own (for me and especially for Daniel).
When I felt better and stronger, I told my doctor I wanted to go off the meds; and I’ve been successfully off of them since early 2009. But I’m not the same. I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same. Maybe part of me died then, too. In all the things I’d been through, I had never experienced debilitating anxiety like I have since living on the flip side of that coin. The constant tentativeness and fear that seems to follow me around since then are like stormy clouds always on the horizon, or a flock of dark pixies overjoyed at my torment.
In the summer of 2010, I started going back to church. I was so skittish. And they let me be. They let me stay on the edges as long as I needed. Even now, they don’t judge me for the times I’m the Roadrunner out the door after service. Or, if they do, they love me the same anyway, and that’s all that really matters. They preach love, and they practice social justice. They care for the people in the margins. They give space and time and validation to people who are experiencing moments of brokenness, and they offer healing to all who would take it. They are made up of people who’ve been rejected and hurt by their loved ones as well as by the Church. They’re religious scholars with rich theology. They embrace and use liturgy regularly, and I’m sure services are planned; but no one gets bent out of shape when something goes awry. I dare say no music leader is as quick with the witty, musical improvisation as ours! And the children’s/youth’s presence in the congregation and service sets the most beautiful example for us as adults.
Along with my return to a spiritual community, I began practicing yoga in October 2010. It really did start as a practical alternative to physical therapy. But it became the first way I ever learned to be comfortable in my own body and mind. I learned to breathe. I learned to be still without relying on obsessive counting, or escaping through literature. I became physically stronger, and then I became inspired…to see what I could do…to learn what challenges I could overcome.
Last year for Lent, I started practicing yoga every day, and so many unexpected obstacles arose. Uncontrollable crying. Anger. Shaking. A return of nightmares, sometimes night terrors. I think my body was finally experiencing a delayed reaction of sorts to all the pain that had been inflicted upon it. And then last summer a friend committed suicide. In my emotional rawness and because of my own near-miss as well as our communication just a couple days before it happened, it hit me and left me down for the count. I gave myself time to grieve, and then I started moving on before I drowned in it. I went back to church, kept up with my yoga practice, added running, and started practicing Buddhist metta meditation.
I’d say I’m still in the process of reclaiming my life. I still cry sometimes when I do certain yoga poses. When I run, listening to loud, screaming types of music, I feel like my whole body is exercising/exorcising out all of my demons. I’m mostly sleepless, unless it’s out of sheer physical exhaustion. And sometimes it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts from my mind. But I’m still active in my spiritual community. I continue in my yoga & meditation practices, and I’m getting better at running every single day. I journal my reactions to life and culture here on this blog. In reading it, I sincerely hope this stage of my life is as inspiring as it is for me to be living it. Because as hard as all of this is, it’s all worth it.
So what am I? What do I believe? What is good or evil? What is my salvation?
Because our culture likes labels, I guess I’m a Post-Traumatic, Post-Evangelical, Post-Fundamentalist, Post-Academic, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Yogi. I wouldn’t say I’m a mystic because of my cynicism; but I’m probably more authentically mystic than all the people rushing to India to kiss the feet of their gurus and get new names. The very definition of mysticism, as Wikipedia goes, is “the pursuit of, communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct, or insight.” Yup, I’d say I’m probably a mystic; but I don’t dig the talk of chakras or of chanting, or of faith healing. So I’m a cynical mystic as well as a statistical anomaly. Somehow that all seems fitting.
Similarly, the term “charismatic” takes me back to the scary days of life in a Pentecostal church with speaking in tongues, demon possession, and spiritual warfare. I would absolutely say I am not charismatic at all. But the literal and original meaning of charisma is “grace,” and were it not for receiving the grace of all the people who’ll have me, I’d be completely alone in this world.
What is good and evil? Well, I’m an expert at evil, so I’ll start there. Evil is anything that tells us “I am me, and you are you.” If “I am me,” then that means I exist outside of “you.” It means that we are different. It means I can pass righteous judgment on you and you on me. It means I create a sense of self and a sense of other. As long as I have a sense of self and a sense of other, I can debase whatever is “other.” This is the foundation of poverty and war, which are also evil. It is the foundation of thinking one person can own another person and therefore treat “their” people however they please, which is usually to say abuse. And its result…well its result is utter separation, which is hell. Good, on the other hand, is the coming together of You and Me. It is the abandonment of the sense of self and the sense of other. It is the connection of all living things. It is love and charity, grace and peace. It is salvation.
And what of salvation? Well my salvation is Jane Eyre, and all of Dickens’ orphan tales. It’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Jane Austen. My salvation is The Smashing Pumpkins, Sarah McLachlan, and Mumford & Sons. It’s absolutely yoga, running, and meditating. It’s Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. It’s the Mandelbrot set and MC Escher’s Relativity. It’s the Buddha and Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today and specifically in my life, my salvation is Son’Cia Humphries, Meghan Sizemore, John Henderson, Mr. Owens, Ms. Rhoton & Mr. Wilson, Dr. Ruth Lavender, Dr. Jill LeRoy Frazier, Marvin Glover, Brittany Love, Evelyn Tachau Brown, Judson Nichols, John Gill, Leslie Etheridge, Victoria Medaglia, Ceil Sheahan, Sam Rosolina, Marcia Free & Fred Martinson, and Jim & Sandy Foster. It’s my beloved Daniel and his truly long-suffering love. It’s all the things and people that help me know I’m not alone…that I’m connected. My salvation keeps an eye on me in the moments I’m not able to look out for myself. It challenges me and makes me stronger. It holds me accountable to my vow to love myself.
This post covers my transpersonal journey to this point, which is almost 30 years old. It may seem too short a time to have lived through so much. But I’ve died a few times in the process, and I see it more as if I’ve just lived a few different times even if it’s only in this one lifetime. I’ve certainly had a plentiful serving of tragedy, but I’m living in the midst of the happiest time of my life, which is more than making up for all the doom and gloom.