Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome
What’s a girl like you doing stuck in a place like this?” the bartender asked, muscles straining against his hotel uniform as he threw down a cocktail napkin in front of me.
I looked around: three barstools, four fake dusty palm trees, fluorescent lighting. This was the kind of joint that offered vending machines in lieu of room service.
“It was a bad day, Josh,” I replied, reading his name tag. “You have any pinot grigio back there?”
“Of course, honey!” Josh moved his toffee-colored hands to pour me a glass. “Why was it a bad day?”
Rocking a Vin Diesel–style bald head over a broad grin and big brown eyes, Josh the bartender seemed like the perfect person to spill my story to. (It helped that he was a captive audience and I his only customer.)
I twisted into a bar stool, unloaded my laptop bag, and sighed. “Okay . . . so this morning I left my house in Columbus to drive to a rural Kentucky lumberyard for a sales presentation—I sell nails and power tools—” Josh arched one brow in surprise. “I know, I know. I don’t seem like the kind of woman who would hang around in lumberyards. But remember the job market in 2009?”
“Why do you think I’m behind this bar?” Josh laughed, gesturing dramatically to our surroundings.
I dropped my head and groaned. “ ‘Our nails penetrate thirty-three percent faster due to superior lubrication.’ I regularly have to say those exact words to the kind of men who drink beer for breakfast and have girlie calendars in their work trucks.”
Josh pursed his lips in a sour look that read: I may like men, but not that kind. “Lubricated nails?”
I hid my face in mock shame.
“Oh, honey,” he said, patting my shoulder. “It’s okay. We do what we have to do.”
“So true.” I raised my glass in a faux toast. “Anyway—today, after four hours in the car, I arrived in the parking lot of a strip club. I checked the address and called the lumberyard. The owner said, ‘Ma’am, you’re at the right address in the wrong state.’ ”
Josh put a hand on his hip. “You should have just gone right on in. Strippers need lubricated nails, too.”
Mid-sip, I nearly snorted wine up my nose. “Josh, you’re exactly who I needed to talk to today.”
He gave a little bow. “I’m here all night, princess.”
“Just wait. It gets worse.” I took a long swig. “An hour later I hit a huge pothole, blew out two tires, and broke both axles. The tow truck guy who showed up was this little redheaded dude in green overalls who spoke in a thick Irish accent. He took one look at my car and said, ‘Lady, did you forget to have a beer on St. Patrick’s Day?’ ”
“Your knight in shining armor was a leprechaun?” Josh lowered his chin in disbelief.
“A leprechaun who chain-smoked the entire way back to Cincinnati.” I sniffed my hair. “Marlboros, ick! He dropped me off here while my car gets twelve hundred dollars worth of repairs.”
Josh clucked with concern.
I rubbed my face. “Today is only the latest in a string of bad car luck. In the past two months I’ve had four other tire blow-outs, one dead battery, one stopped starter, and two car break-ins. I’m on a first-name basis with the AAA dispatcher, and my mechanic gave me his cell phone number with great seriousness, like he was a surgeon on call.”
“Probably because you’re putting his kids through college. That’s like the reverse of finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Josh sympathized. “I think you need another drink. This one’s on me.”
“Thanks,” I said, sitting back on my stool and considering my absurd day. “You know what the leprechaun tow truck driver reminded me of? The Smurfs. I wasn’t allowed to watch the Smurfs growing up because my parents thought they were demonic.”
I was surprised to hear these words leave my mouth; this was not a Fun Life Fact to be casually shared like cocktail peanuts with a bartender.
Josh’s posture changed from easy-listening bartender to Marine at attention. “No effing way! Me too! A teacher at my school said Papa Smurf was a symbol for the anti-Christ, just because he wore a red hat and all the other Smurfs wore white hats.”
I tilted my head sideways and said slowly, “Where did you go to school? It couldn’t have been . . .” Josh beat me to the punch line by breaking out into our small Christian elementary school’s fight song. I joined in melodically as we burst out laughing.
“Shut the hell up,” exclaimed Josh, his jaw slack. “You seem so normal and not Christian-y.”
“Thank you? The ‘normal’ part is up for debate.” I thought of the portion of my bad day that I hadn’t told Josh about, the part where I slumped over my steering wheel, sleeping at a rest stop because chronic
illness made me too tired to drive three hours at a stretch. “But I definitely haven’t been Christian-y in almost a decade.”
Josh peered at me in belated recognition. “Wait. Are you the music teacher’s daughter? Rebecca?”
I nodded. My mom had taught at Bridgeville Christian all the years my younger sisters and I attended.
“It’s Reba now,” I said and smiled. “That’s Rebecca without the -ecc.”
“Reba. Girl. This is crazy.” Josh threw his towel over one shoulder and leaned back. “Remember the dress code? Bible classes? Scripture memorization? Never-ending altar calls? Oh, and the offense system—five offenses equaled a paddling? The principal once paddled me after I got caught making fun of the art teacher. I used to roll under the pews to escape chapel services, and then go smoke pot in the woods.” Josh laughed, but the sound was laced with something I knew too well: grief.
To understand our evangelical school, simply take everything normal and stir in a measure of God. Learning to read? Start with My First Bible and a recording of “Bible Stories for Little Ears.” Note the Proverbs-themed wallpaper in the reading group corner. Starting the school day? Pledge allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Doing math? Enjoy lessons from Beyond Math: Arithmetic from a Biblical Worldview. (Even numbers weren’t neutral.) Truly, there was not any aspect of life that could not be improved by invoking Christ. Even bathroom breaks could be accomplished to the glory of God, if one flushed the toilet with a joyful spirit.
“Wow. I was way too spiritual and serious back then to even think about rebelling, let alone doing drugs. All I ever worried about was whether Jesus was proud of me. God was my everything.” I paused and looked into my glass. “Would you believe I was in ministry training? I
wanted to be a Christian counselor. I even went through years of Christian college and studied at the Focus on the Family Institute.”
Josh winced at the mention of Focus on the Family, an organization known for encouraging people like him to “pray the gay away.” I exhaled a weary breath that far exceeded my rough day on the road. We both fell silent for a minute.
“God was my everything too.” Josh took a deep breath. “Until I came out. I mean, that’s the simple version. Losing faith happens by degrees.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I lived it. Not the coming out part—unless you count coming out as a nonbeliever. The losing faith by degrees part.”
Josh and I stared at each other in silent understanding. We hadn’t left our religion; our religion had left us.
We didn’t need to explain to each other what it means to lose your entire identity, or how it feels to lie to yourself—Faith doesn’t matter, I don’t need God, I can get along just fine on my own—even when you know the lies will never be true.
I lifted my glass in an attempt to brighten the mood. “To God,” I toasted, “the heaviest word in the English language, the word most likely to make me feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach!”
The joke fell flat. Even in jest, God was far too intertwined with a gray-haired father in the sky who doled out eternal punishment to anyone who didn’t pray to his shiny son, Jesus Christ.
I tried again. “To the Godiverse?”
“The what-iverse?” Josh looked puzzled.
“Godiverse,” I explained. “That’s God plus the Universe—the word I came up with for Something that’s bigger than the Trinity we grew up with, but smaller and more personal than the great beyond.”
“To the Godiverse,” Josh agreed.
We clinked glasses, but our heaviness didn’t lift.
“Man. This Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome stuff sucks,” I exclaimed, slamming my glass down in emphasis. Josh cracked a smile at my phrase, so I continued. “C’mon . . . I know you know the PTCS symptoms: Prayer is out of the question; the Bible is something you use to mop up spilled coffee; you can’t darken the door of a place of worship without sweaty palms, vertigo, chest pains, nausea, and vomiting.” In an effort to keep things fun, I didn’t mention the more destructive side effects of spiritual injury: anger, grief, despair, depression, failure to believe in anything, moral confusion, loss of gravity, and emptiness. “You may also experience hives, dry mouth, and a general tendency to avoid church like an escaped convict avoids cops.”
Josh laughed. “Wow. I definitely had one major case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.”
“Had? I must have missed something. It seems like you’re still suffering.”
He looked away, thinking. “I get upset when I think about all the years I lost because I let other people decide how I could find God. But a few years ago, I started going back to the Nazarene church I grew up in . . . and I’ve made my peace with it.”
I choked on my wine. Nazarenes weren’t exactly gay-friendly, and Josh wasn’t entirely subtle. “How does that work?”
“I realized my past didn’t have to shackle me.” The pain fell away from his features, replaced by peace. “I decided to believe what I believe, practice what I practice, and not let anyone or anything get in the way of how I choose to find God. I don’t let other people think for me.”
I tried very hard to be happy for Josh, but the best I could manage was a fake smile.
“Good for you,” I managed to stutter, my thoughts turned upside down. Peace . . . what a beautiful, unattainable state. Or was it? If Josh could find peace, could I? And what would it mean if I did?
I yawned and threw down some cash. “It’s been a really long day. I’m going to turn in. It’s been great talking to you.” Promising to keep in touch, we exchanged information and hugs.
“Reba,” Josh called as I walked away, “Rejecting someone else’s version of reality isn’t the same as creating your own.”
It’s a nice idea, I thought later, crawling into my hotel bed, but I’m way too tired to think about dealing with my spiritual issues.
When I fell asleep, I dreamed of a large, unmarked van parked on the street in front of my house. God, shaggy-haired and lanky, hung out in the van’s back cab smoking a cigarette. (Come to think of it, God looked a lot like Ashton Kutcher.) A black-and-white closed circuit television blinked on with a live feed of my life. God watched the screen for a minute before he blew out a slow smoke circle and turned to his divine camera crew: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the entire cast of Full House.
“You guys ready?” God asked.
The crew nodded, serious as church.
“Okay,” God said as he put on his headphones and cracked his knuckles. “Ready. Set. Action . . .”
“BABY, YOU HAVE TO get up. Everyone is going to be here soon,” Trent whispered from the edge of the bed.
“Cancel,” I croaked from beneath the pillow.
“But it’s your party,” my husband insisted, nuzzling my neck.
I attempted to move my limbs. As usual for a lost day—a day I lost to chronic illness—my body felt full of lead. I lifted the pillow and looked into my husband’s clear blue eyes. “Is it really too late to cancel?”
“It’s 5 p.m. People are already on their way.” He flashed an encouraging Superman grin. “And I brought you espresso.”
Untangling my body from the sheets, I gritted my teeth and searched inside myself for birthday cheer. Nothing.
“I’ll be ready in an hour,” I promised, dragging my drink to the shower in hopes that the combination of steam and caffeine would loosen the Sickness’s painful grip on my body.
Wrapped in a towel, I stepped from the shower twenty minutes later and wiped steam from the mirror. My dripping reflection looked exhausted, so I forced a plastic smile and pantomimed a silent laugh until the mirror reflected the image I made sure everyone saw: a happy woman with green eyes and long, dark hair who had it all—great husband, successful career, new puppy, high credit score. A carefree woman who didn’t suffer from a painful, chronic mystery Sickness that forced her to sleep her days away.
A woman who feels a hollow void where her faith used to live, came an unbidden thought.
“Whoa. Where did that come from?” I looked around my tiny bathroom, suspecting my shower curtain of spiritual harassment. It looked guilty of nothing more than being a little too red.
Shrugging off the intrusion, I returned to my smiling exercise until I felt the Sickness ripple through my joints. I braced against the pain with one hand on the sink and one on the mirror, taking deep breaths. When the pain lessened, I looked at my ashen reflection and saw the woman I really was: the one who had been crying in doctor’s offices for years, asking why she couldn’t be well.
A woman whose spirit is even sicker than her body.
I looked around accusingly again, this time at my throw rug, whose only failure was being not quite red enough.
The Sickness gripped my joints again. But somehow, beyond the muscle spasms and cramping, I felt the prick of a much deeper pain, one that had been steadily building ever since I’d run into Josh several weeks before.
I need to believe again.
I scanned myself for other signs of craziness: foaming at the mouth, perhaps?
I wondered if maybe I was still asleep. Yes, that had to be it. But I felt the steam on my shoulders, the bristling of the towel on my skin, the cool linoleum beneath my feet.
I need Josh’s peace.
No, no, no . . . I tried to resist but it was no use because chronic illness doesn’t fight fair: It weakens us and exposes our deepest pains and betrayals just when our body is in pain and betraying us. The dam of denial I’d carefully constructed around my Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome—the one I’d had to create in order to rebuild my life without God—had been slowly but steadily dismantled by the Sickness, and I hadn’t noticed until it was too late.
Angry tears filled my eyes. Wasn’t it bad enough that I couldn’t fix my body? That I’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on doctors, specialists, chiropractors, naturalists, counselors, herbalists, massage therapists, medications, exercises, special diets, and magic vitamins? That I’d donated so much blood to testing that I was surprised I had any left? That I’d had everything from MRIs to chakras read and reread? All that money and no diagnosis that fit. All those treatments and nothing that helped. My body was getting steadily, heartbreakingly worse. And I was powerless to do anything about it.
And now this spiritual crap, too?
It was too much. Knees turned to jelly, I made it only three paces to the walk-in closet before collapsing to the worn, tan carpet beneath a rack of old coats. Tears spilled from my eyes, mixing with the water droplets from my hair to form small rivers on my skin.
I cried because I was too tired to fight, and I cried because the Sickness had worn me down, making me fragile where I used to be strong. Then, following the Universal Law of Meltdowns, I cried about embarrassingly trivial things: the stacks of undone to-do lists and the overflowing, stinky laundry basket next to me in the closet. I cried because I was going to have to wear ugly panties to my birthday party, damn it, because I’d been too sick to do laundry for ages. (For the record, these panties were very unfortunate-looking—the kind of full-rise, back-of-the-drawer paisley number that stretch from belly button to thigh.) It didn’t matter that no one was going to see them; it was the principle. I cried because this seemed a sad metaphor for my life—how everything awful was just barely hidden under a sparkly dress.
But most of all, I cried because I wanted to fix my spirit but I didn’t know how. It’s not like I could return to the faith of my childhood: the speaking-in-tongues, falling-on-the-floor, believe-it-all-or-believe-it-none gospel with a fiery hell for everyone who didn’t buy in to Christ. Though, at the moment, running backward felt almost tempting. I knew I could simply curl up in a pew, clutch a Bible, and rest. But to do that, I’d have to repent with words I couldn’t spit out, admit to sins I hadn’t committed.
No. I could not go back there. I would not believe in a God who did not believe in me.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is a bitch.
But I need to believe again, my heart disagreed, beating louder than my objections. I don’t want to be broken anymore. Too weak and vulnerable to resist the thoughts, I put my head on my knees and allowed myself to wonder if there might be something bigger than the narrow religion
I’d crashed into every time I considered faith. Something big enough to consider believing in.
I issued a strangled sob in the direction of the Godiverse: “Help me believe,” I said from the floor of my closet, naked and shivering and crying. “Heal me.”
I’d like to take credit for what happened next; I’d like to think I had some hand in creating the project that would overtake my life for the next year. But I didn’t. The idea came fully formed, slipped under the door of my consciousness, a birthday card from the Godiverse:
Experience thirty religions before your thirtieth birthday.
Surprised, I blinked and sniffed. My tears abruptly stopped. The crazy idea fit me approximately as well as a prison jumpsuit. Considering the state I was currently in thanks to the mysterious Sickness, my twenty-ninth year was not a good time for taking on a spiritual quest. My twenty-ninth year was not a good time for taking anything but a nap. I didn’t even want to go to my own birthday party, for Pete’s sake, let alone work through my spiritual issues.
And what would it mean to “experience thirty religions” anyway? How would I choose them? The idea was full of problems: 1) I was sick. 2) I was too sick to travel. 3) I was barely hanging on to my life and my job as it was. I assumed it was only a matter of time before the people in my life found out I was faking everything from my daily schedule to Grandma’s Special Recipe homemade macaroni. (Transfer Sara Lee to baking dish. Sprinkle crumpled potato chips on top. Heat and serve.)
If I added one more thing, I feared my life would end up a sad country song: I would lose my job, house, car, husband, and dog, then end up sleeping under a bench because I would be too tired to sit on it.
But the rebellious part of me, the part that needed Josh’s peace, the part that had asked to believe again, answered right back: You could do
it. You wouldn’t have to travel very far. And it started making a mental list: Hindu. Buddhist. Scientology. Amish. Native American. Mormon. Orthodox. Muslim . . . and then it added the most seductive idea of all:
You are powerless over your body, but you can fix your spirit.
My head snapped up. This was nuts: Fixing my PTCS seemed as impossible as healing my body. No, I said as firmly as I could. Absolutely NOT. And I promptly ran the other way.
Okay, I didn’t actually run—I was still a very sick girl and my closet was much too small to run anywhere. (Plus, I was naked and I think we can all agree that running naked, even away from the Godiverse in your very own house, is a bad idea.) But the idea of thirty religions forced me to my personal equivalent of running: I stood up, got dressed, put on my best fake beauty queen smile, and walked out the front door to my party.
My friends gathered just beyond the porch. Still distracted by what had just happened in the closet, I waved hello as I approached the steps. My high-heeled shoe caught on a nail and I heard the small crowd heave a collective, horrified gasp as my feet flew out from under me.
If this had been a cartoon, I would have levitated horizontally for a moment before I bumped down the steps with a thud-thud-thud-thud.
I landed with a hard thwack on the concrete, my skirt upside down like an umbrella in a hurricane, flashing my husband, friends, two bums on the sidewalk, and the entire Baptist church across the street.
“Hey baby,” I heard one of the bums call, “I’d have paid for that show.”
Well. If I’d known I was going to flash God and everybody, I’d have worn cuter panties.
Trent ran to my aid. “Are you hurt? Did you break anything?”
I tested my lower half. Though everything still worked, moving was painful. “I think broken is a relative term,” I muttered.
Trent offered his hand. I considered not getting up, but recognized the pain of staying down was worse than the pain of attempting to stand.
“This year can only go up from here,” I said as my husband steadied me on my feet.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.