April 03, 2019
I spent five years of my life ingrained in church culture. I was a committed Christian who never missed youth group, a social outing or mission trip. Christianity was at the core of everything I did: my actions, the people I hung out with, the activities I took part in, the books I read, the music I listened to. I was trapped in a Christian bubble.
I had a great support system, a more-than-healthy social life and a safe place to go when life got rough, but I gave it all up because it was a life that made me uncomfortable. Throughout my Christian life, I was indoctrinated to believe that heaven was the goal. This life did not matter, getting to heaven did – and my attitude for life reflected that. I coasted through life not caring about much because “heaven is so much better than we could ever imagine” – a sentence I heard frequently.
I remember one of the most traumatizing, hurtful things a youth group leader did to me in the name of this kind of thinking. One of my friends in youth group was a brilliant student. We were in the same chemistry class and he kindly made sure to help me as I struggled to keep up. One evening at our youth group meeting, I brought some homework I was having difficulty understanding. After the meeting ended, we sat together at a table, him patiently helping.
A youth group leader walked up to us, grabbed my homework, crumpled it up and said, “This doesn’t matter because we will have eternal life in heaven.” I was mortified that I had to turn in my homework in this condition. I was already nearing a failing grade in my chemistry class and was near tears when he ruined my homework. As much as I love some good-ol’-fashioned nihilism, destroying a teen’s homework was a disgusting power move by someone who I looked at as a leader.
Even as an impressionable teen, I thought it was weird there was so much disregard for the life we are living because heaven is “better.” As an adult, I think it’s a dangerous way to look at life. Even while I was inside the Christian bubble, there was this pesky skepticism gnawing at me, telling me “this isn’t it.” As much as I had a home and a community in my church, thoughts questioning my faith would often creep in.
“Losing one’s faith, or leaving one’s religion ... essentially means the death of one’s previous life – the end of reality as it was understood. It is a huge shock to the system, and one that needs to be recognized as trauma.”
Around 18, I started to question, but was afraid to voice it out loud. I knew there was no possible way to prove heaven existed. What if I am living my entire life hoping to get somewhere, but it’s not there? Still, I led an apathetic life because I was under the influence of this way of thought. I didn’t try in school because all I cared about was hanging out with my church friends and becoming a “better” Christian. Plus, if heaven was so much better, why bother?
At 21, I was questioning God’s existence daily and slowly making my way out of the church. At 22, I experienced my first tragedy: the death of a friend. Previously, my only experiences with death were elderly relatives or pets. This death – a suicide – crushed me and the mutual friends we shared. I was angry at God for letting this person go through pain, for taking away their future, for completely disregarding this person’s struggles that allowed them to get to that point. Though our relationship was brief, they made such a positive impact on my life that I went into a deep depression that lasted a year. I didn’t have the mental energy to go to youth group or church. I quit the lacrosse team and slept a lot.
The week of my friend’s passing, I had friends there for me. When I returned to school, I felt forgotten. I stopped getting invited to social events and can’t remember anyone asking if I was doing OK in the wake of tragedy. I needed God and support from friends more than ever, and they just weren’t there. Instead, I was the recipient of snide comments about my absence – to my face and behind my back. No questions why I skipped out, no attempt to understand it might be something bigger. It was the proverbial nail in the coffin. It told me I was just a number in youth group attendance and no longer a person. I became bitter and decided to say goodbye to the life I led for nearly seven years.
At 23, I was completely emancipated from my high school and college youth groups, as well as most of the friends I made through them. I spent many years being bitter because I didn’t know how to mourn this loss. What I’ve learned is there is a name for this feeling: Religious Trauma Syndrome. Its effects can be compared to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and result in anger, grief and severe depression.
“With PTSD, a traumatic event is one in which a person experiences or witnesses actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others,” according to the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies. “Losing one’s faith, or leaving one’s religion, is an analogous event because it essentially means the death of one’s previous life – the end of reality as it was understood. It is a huge shock to the system, and one that needs to be recognized as trauma.”
I felt it all – anger, loss, depression and loneliness. I still feel it, too. I spent an entire decade stewing in my trauma before I realized I needed to get professional help – so I sought out therapy. Leading up to my search for outside help, I had this new outlook on life: this life is all I have. There will be no heaven for me and because of that, I can’t just sit and wait for something better. I had to take my own wheel, instead of having Jesus take it for me.
I used to joke about the You Only Live Once trend. I thought it was some gimmicky slogan to throw on shirts and utilize in Instagram captions. Turns out, I was wrong. My current outlook on life is aligned with the YOLO mentality – as much as I hate to admit it and reference an annoying meme. But, sigh, it’s true. I am on this earth once. I have one shot to do what I want to do and now that I know this, I’m making up for lost time. My once-apathetic self is now ambitious in my career and life. If an opportunity arises, I take it. What I didn’t know in my high school and college years is that putting hard work into something you are proud of is incredibly rewarding. So, I took all the effort I didn’t put into school and directed it toward my career.
The person I am now is nothing like the person I was 17 years ago. I now care about accomplishing things, and most importantly, being there for people without an ulterior motive to convert them to Christianity. In the past 11 years, I have donated more money and spent more time volunteering than my days as a Christian. Without a passion for religion, I have homed in on my passions laying dormant for so long. I am now an advocate for animals, migraine awareness and human rights. Instead of doing a one-time trip to practice white-savior tourism, I implement these passions into my daily life and push myself to do better each day by participating in change and continually educating myself.
I could have never said that for myself when I had religion in my life.
Lindsay Patton-Carson, who also writes The Monthly Migraine column for PhillyVoice, can be reached on Twitter @LindsayPatton.