Category Archives: spiritual abuse

Christianity and mental health

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Recently Voddie Baucham, a respected homeschool leader, preached a sermon in his church on mental illness. (Here is the transcript, thanks to R L Stollar, who also wrote an analysis of the sermon.) I normally avoid evangelicals teaching about mental illness. I’ve been too screwed over, too hurt, too much more damaged when trying to seek help from them. I’d rather just avoid that conversation, because I’m still too raw. I don’t put myself into places where I have to expose a vulnerable part of myself to unsympathetic people.

What I’ve realized, though, is that to constantly stay silent in this area caters to both the power of the abuser and the pain of the abused. If I do not speak up, can I really be angry that only a brave few are calling these people out on their words?

I have a long and messy mental health history, including: hospitalization, treatment, antipsychotics, antidepressants, nouthetic counseling, secular counseling…you name it. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety (those, along with PTSD, are the only ones that actually held water). I have a lot of shame about this, and rarely talk about it. I am well aware that it could affect my chances of working where I want to work or applying to residencies and programs. I don’t know how much it will limit me, but there is a chance. For all of these reasons, I choose to keep silent for the most part when there are discussions about mental illness and the church. I’m tired of being silent, though.

My first experience with counseling was when I was 16. I was a cutter, I had suicide ideation and an eating disorder, and I had depression and anxiety. The first counselor my parents took me to was a nouthetic counselor. (For those unfamiliar with the term, it is basically just a counselor that uses the Bible above all else, scorning secular psychology.) My counselor did, to her credit, completely discredit all secular psychology–at least at first. She did, however, use several questionable practices. She refused to keep confidentiality, relaying to my parents anything I said. She was highly codependent, allowing me to overstay my sessions and including me in her family’s life. She overshared her personal life. These were merely bad counseling practices, unethical as a matter of fact.

What was more insidious, and more dangerous, was her twisted ways of mixing the Bible with her counseling. She was the first person that I disclosed my sexual abuse to. While she originally seemed non-condemnatory and affirming, she soon began to twist her words. She began to tell me I had to forgive my rapist, to confess my sin in the matter (I was five when it happened, not that age matters). The “bible study” homework that she gave me increasingly focused on my attitudes and actions. I was told that if I received negative attention in the future, it would be due to the fact that I had sexual fantasies and read erotica. My questioning of my sexuality was immediately rebuffed. I was criticized for letting my “trauma” influence my worldview. I was required to report on the contents of my counseling sessions to my parents, not that it mattered, as they already got emails after almost every session with the details.

I spent a few months in a treatment center when my self-destructive coping mechanisms got to be too much to deal with. By the grace of all that is above, I ended up in an amazing, secular center. I heard truth about recovery, trauma, and abuse. Without going into details, I will say that it was a one of a kind education in mental health and wellness, and how to deal with trauma. I left it with the tools to build a healthier, happier, safer, and saner life.

But after leaving, I still had to fight my demons. I still struggled with shame that I had to take meds. I felt guilty that I chose to stop going to church, even as I knew it was the right decision for me. I faced judgment from my family. I eventually broke ties with that counselor for good, but even that left me with a nasty scar. I can’t discuss her much to this day. I keep that boundary for my own health.

Mental health treatment in the hands of unqualified people, especially Christians, is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Voddie Baucham is not even a counselor, but his words will hurt many people, and I am sure already have hurt those in his congregation that morning. I fully support a licensing system for mental health professionals, just like we have for medical professionals. You wouldn’t want anyone who called themselves a surgeon operating on your physical bodies, and you shouldn’t accept anyone who calls themselves a counselor tampering with your mind. It’s dangerous, and deadly. I tried to commit suicide because of the condemnatory messages I received from pastors, the nouthetic counselor, and other well-intentioned but misguided Christians.

We need to speak up. Mental health is still very much a stigmatized topic in this country, but it is exponentially more so in Christian circles. This prevents people from getting the help they need. Just this week, Leelah Alcorn committed suicide because her parents refused to accept her transgender identity and acknowledge or support her. Christian teachings on mental illness are actively harming people, actively leading to suicide, injury, and compounded illness. I could cry, or I could rage. I don’t know which I feel like doing. What I will continue to do is speak. I will not let my voice be silenced, and I will speak for the now-silent who could have had a chance for help if they had someone who listened to them and accepted them. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It can be treated, and there is help. And you don’t have to be a Christian to change someone’s life.

I’m not a weapon

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As a homeschooled child/adult/person, I’m really tired of being called a weapon. Last week I read an article that compared homeschooled students to “firearms in private hands.” I grew up hearing that I was an “arrow” in a “quiver” (Psalm 127:4), that I was a culture warrior being “equipped to positively influence the politics of tomorrow.” Look, people! I’m not a rifle or a pistol or an AK-47 or anything like that. The difference pertinent to this article is that I have a brain. All the programming in the world is not going to turn me into one, either.

Unfortunately, the idea of your children being culture-changers is inbred in Christian fundamentalism homeschooling circles. It’s everywhere. Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism writes about it frequently. It’s considered good practice, and often the reason that parents keep kids home. My parents kept us at home partly because they wanted to give us a firm foundation (read teach us to think exactly what they thought and be able to reason and argue and defend that mindset). They thought that this was their duty, encouraged by the likes of Michael Farris and others. Raise your children in a Christian home, teach them Biblical principles, have them memorize entire books of scripture, homeschool them, shelter them from any outside influence possible, and teach them that their role in life (secondary to their complementarian gender roles) is to propagate those beliefs in the world. If you do this, your kids will become perfect little clones of you, and they will “withstand the devil’s fiery darts.” It’s like a math equation.

There are so. many. problems. with this. It harms everyone. It hurts parents–they feel like they have not done something right. The gurus of their community promised perfect little clones, but now their kids are rejecting the values that they tried so hard to instill. They are thinking for themselves and choosing their own political standpoints. They may not go to church all the time, they may not be gender binary, they may associate with people from all areas of life and value their beliefs, and they may not homeschool their kids. Parents (like mine) end up feeling like they have failed at raising their kids. Unfortunately, this often morphs into anger directed at said children. I was extremely lucky that my parents did not cut me out of my family, even though they think I am probably not saved. Others, like Cynthia Jeub and her sisters, are not so lucky. Expecting your human children to actually be robots hurts parents.

It also hurts kids. Obviously. Now, while I totally believe that parents cannot turn their kids into robots, they can permanently scar them by treating them like cloned automatons or putting too much responsibility on them. Expecting children to be able to parrot arguments for pro-life and pro-traditional-marriage and other pet views of the parents only hurts kids. It only leads to cognitive dissonance when said children grow up and start to want to think on their own. While you can’t totally control your kids’ brains, you can screw them up pretty royally and give them what amounts to a diminished version of Stockholm syndrome by trying to control them.

I was trained to be a perfect evangelical Christian fundamental quiverfull culture warrior. I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes my parents did. I was going to change the world because I knew what was right (the Christian far right, of course) and I was prepare to defend it.

Only I’m not. And even as I have broken free from my parents domineering control, I struggle with the PTSD-like brain memories whenever I try to do something differently. I struggle with guilt because I’m not in church every Sunday, even though going to church is pure torture to me and not something that I am convinced is necessary or good for me. I have frequent crises of doubt when I realize that my more and more left-leaning views are only going farther and farther. What if I’m going to be eternally damned because I don’t believe abortion is sin? Or that all LGBTQI individuals are going to hell? I’m weighed down with guilt and shame, constantly reminding myself that I don’t believe that stuff anymore, but not yet able to freely move from under it.

I am not a weapon. While I know this, and am learning to live with more freedom from those expectations, it still haunts me. I hurt for the many still being raised this way, who don’t know that they have every right to an opinion and their own beliefs. For the sake of our children, quit treating them like robots.

when words choke me

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I have a job interview on Monday. It’s the second one–they didn’t offer me the job at the first one, but they asked me to come back to do a drug screen and background check and bring copies of my licenses…it seems like I’m being pretty strongly considered. I have the availability, the references, the experience–and it’s not even a competitive job. But no matter how sure it seems, I am still now in the nervous not-yet place, the wondering if it will work (while desperately needing to get out of my current job…with my current boss).

Since I was nervous, I called some of my friends. My friends run the entire spectrum from strong there-every-time-the-doors-are-open Christians to strong atheists. I love the variety. However, having grown up in the former camp, I know EVERY SINGLE CHRISTIAN PHRASE out there. And having been incredibly wounded and trampled by the former culture, I physically gag when I hear those phrases. I can’t tolerate them. I have to dissociate, escape, shut the conversation down, get out.

For some reason, though, even among my much less Christian oriented friends (and mostly in the recovery community, it seems), phrases like “God’s will,” “pray about it,” and “let go” are common stock. People throw them around without even thinking about it. And for most of them, I am sure, it’s not a big deal. Those are normal, ok phrases not ridden with pain and memories and trauma. But I can barely listen to them without gagging up.

Here’s the thing: I want to take their advice, but the words hurt me so much. Sometimes I want to run and scream as far away from any words like this as I can. Instead, I shut off my phone, turn on a tv show, and crunch numbers. It’s calming. Not always helpful in the long term, though.

Christian words hurt me. The principle behind (at least some) of them, though, are pretty universally beneficial. Jesus is a good man regardless of whether or not he is God. I need to be able to separate the two, to practice not worrying and letting things go, without getting hung up on the religious history and tradition surrounding them. How can I do this? Will it just take time to detach the words from the memories?

For today, I will remind myself that people don’t know the emotions behind their words, and I will trust that what is supposed to happen, will happen.

when good men do nothing

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[Recently Homeschoolers Anonymous published an article about a sexual/physical abuse cover up that involved “big” names in the homeschooling community: HSLDA, Heidi St. John, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Great Homeschool Conventions, and more.  (To read the entire article, which I’ll just summarize, click here).

Basically, a son of the family that owns The Old Schoolhouse Magazine molested his younger cousin seven years ago. This family also physically abused a niece that they took in to live with them. The family of the child who was abused has been trying for seven years to reconcile with the family of the abuser while at the same time protecting their children and others that the abuser has access to through church, traveling, and other means. This process involved one-on-one confrontation, asking others to come and support them in their confrontation (Matthew 18), reaching out to mutual friends, and contacting the Home School Legal Defense Association and individually reaching out to people high in the HSLDA system such as Mike Smith and people high in the GHC such as Heidi St. John. Recently, Eric Nouvak contacted Ryan Stollar of Homeschooler’s Anonymous and Hannah Ettinger with some of the details in this story. They did a very thorough and well-researched report on the situation, which as of yet has not been addressed.]

The whole situation makes me sick to my stomach. It is hard to write about, just like it’s hard to hear about.

Homeschooling can be an amazing educational choice. Unfortunately for those who want to continue to teach their children at home, the actions of HSLDA, Heidi St. John and others who are supposed to be “protecting” homeschoolers are jeopardizing that. If these well-respected organizations and individuals whose primary mission is to protect homeschoolers are “too busy” to deal with the “distraction” of insidious and widespread child abuse and child sexual abuse, children will continue to be victimized and eventually more and more regulation and supervision will be forced on homeschoolers. It is not ok to hear about something like this and ignore it! It is not ok to discriminate against victims. It is not ok to cover up abuse.
And I cannot emphasize this enough: when child abuse is strongly suspected or certainly known about, it is NOT enough to use Matthew 18 or self-policing. In these cases, the situation MUST BE REPORTED to the pertinent authorities. Children and families who have been victimized this way need professional help, not just a Biblical/nouthetic counselor or a pastor. They may need this support, yes, but that is for people who are trained in how to deal with things like this to decide. Ironically, HSLDA wrote about this on their website in response to an earlier outrage over abuse that they ignored. They added a page that talked about how to report abuse and neglect which stated, “Although HSLDA has expressed reservations about methods of abuse reporting and investigation in the current child welfare system, we strongly believe that when there is reliable evidence that a child is being abused or neglected, the government has a duty to intervene.”
Excuse me, folks! What did HSLDA, through its leaders WHO PUT OUT THIS STATEMENT ON ABUSE AND NEGLECT, do? They ignored child abuse, blatantly. Abuse that had multiple victims who spoke up. They refused to involve the government–or even try a more “Biblical” method of intervention. HSLDA abandoned the defenseless, the helpless, the children.
But does this really surprise me? No. Sadly, no. It infuriates me, but it is what I would expect from an organization from HSLDA that pushes for the rights of parents to the exclusion of the rights of children. Children’s rights are a bad word for them. They promote the parental rights amendment, which would effectively give parents unquestionable authority over their children with no regard to what might be best for their children. If a parent does not believe in something (vaccinations, socialization, evolution, women getting higher education), they are not obligated to give it to their children (or to give them the opportunity). HSLDA has long fear-mongered among homeschoolers regarding social services, public schools, and anything to do with the government in regards to accountability for homeschoolers. Whether or not they intended to do so, they are creating a haven for patriarchy, abuse, and neglect in every area. This cover up is basically the only logical outworking of the system that they have created.
I want to live in a country where I have the freedom to homeschool my hypothetical children if I ever wanted to. I want to live in a country that protects and respects children and guarantees them basic rights of personhood. I don’t think these two desires are exclusive. However, if leaders in the homeschooling community continue to refuse to protect children, someone else will step in. Like it or not, they are the reason that “outsiders” need to keep better tabs on homeschoolers. Apparently, self-policing isn’t going to be enough (surprise). For our children and for ourselves, we must speak up, or evil will triumph.