Sunday, November 22, 2015

Regrets--From the pen of an ATI Survivor

Many of my closest friends today are fellow survivors of Bill Gothard's ATI homeschooling cult. Many of us are the strong ones, the ones who keep fighting to recover what was stolen from us. When we get together, conversation flows easily because of our shared experience. So much does not need to be explained! 

We may appear to be thriving in many ways, but no matter how long we have been "out", our victories are marbled with deep pain and anger at the myriad life-altering lies we were sold.

Another survivor of ATI recently penned these poignant lines, addressed to the disgraced cult leader who manipulated first our parents, and then us. I share them here with the writer's permission:


They're not my own,
These nagging pricks of conscience
That insinuate waste, loss, and misuse
Of dreams, talents, time, resources, relationships,
And my very self.
Not my regrets,
They're yours.
Because I was innocently eager to follow the right,
And you were seasoned and shrewd.
And you saw,
As I could not,
My potential, my passion, my energy,
My limitless capacity for loyalty.
And you took them.
All of them.
For your own purpose and under false pretense.
How was I to sense the emptiness in your promises?
How was I to discern insincerity in your earnestness?
How was I to detect the ruse in your disciplines?
How could I see the end of your beginnings?
How could I know to run
When I'd barely begun to walk?
My youth I spent chasing your dreams.
My strength I spent fighting your battles.
My gifts I spent supporting your endeavors.
My loyalty I spent defending your reputation.
My time I spent separated from all the people
You failed to value.
And I regret
That your designs on my youth
Kept me from
Chasing the dreams in my own heart,
Fighting battles for the vulnerable,
Providing for the needy,
Defending the defenseless,
And investing in relationships with people
Whose experiences lend balance to my own.
All these burdens of regret
Are yours to bear.
And yet you deny them,
Heap them back upon me with added blame,
Walk away in your illusion of innocence,
And leave me to sift through them,
And bear the full weight of them.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Emotions: Leaning In

I've been learning much about my emotions this year. But now that I'm in tune with that crazy kaleidoscope of feelings, what am I to do with them??

Several months ago, I confided to Chris that I didn't even know how to take responsibility for my own emotions. In some ways, I was an emotional toddler. Unconsciously, I was still blaming my moods on other people or circumstances, or at least looking to those close to me to help me manage my emotions, as if my emotional state was their problem, too.

It's been years since my therapist introduced me to the term "differentiation", the process by which we become autonomous individuals, separating from our parents and caretakers to stand as our unique and independent selves. When she brought it up, I was struggling to differentiate from my family of origin. I was emotionally enmeshed with them far longer than I should have been.

Practicing new yoga balance poses lately has gotten me thinking again about differentiation and "supporting" myself. I feel strong when I can support the weight of my own body unaided. I want to be able to do the same with my emotions.

When we married, I thought emotional co-dependence was a healthy state. Couples were supposed to merge into "one", right? I was fully prepared to become my husband's emotional conjoined twin. And, indeed, it worked for us for a while. But as Chris and I differentiate more and more, I'm proud when I can share my emotions without making him "carry" them.

Now, when I recognize my children naturally differentiating from Chris and me, I feel both unsettled and proud. As a mom, I've tried to help "contain" their feelings for them until they could learn to do it for themselves. But learning to do it for myself is another skill entirely!

When I was younger, I put a lot of energy into repressing "negative" emotions or transforming them into more acceptable ones. As I become more self-aware, I'm trying to own my feelings, whatever they are, and lean in to them.

Last year I found myself in an extremely angry stage. I didn't want to stuff or deny it, but I still didn't know what to do with it, besides writing it out. Since holding emotion inside eventually makes me sick or gives me panic attacks, I needed some new strategies!

Most of the time, leaning into a strong feeling, like kneading a knotted muscle, allows me to work it out until I find emotional equilibrium again. Fitting an action to a feeling helps to ground me and keep me from getting "stuck in my head" or stressed to the point of panic. Below are some of the solo strategies I've since come up with to both acknowledge a strong emotion and allow my body to feel it in a constructive way.

Angry: Chop vegetables. Pull weeds or dig roots. Pound something. Break something (throwing china at concrete feels great; tie it up in a plastic grocery bag first and you won't even have a mess). Run or work out. Listen to angry music and sing along loudly. Ruthlessly clean out a drawer. Write a letter you'll never send. Drive with the windows down. Shout into the wind.

Sad: Sit in a quiet corner and cry. Listen to melancholy music. Watch an emotional movie. Read a sad memoir. Ask someone for a hug. Drink hot tea. Wear black.

Anxious: Wrap up in a sweater, a scarf, or a quilt. Talk to someone--by phone or text or face-to-face. Practice yoga and observe your ragged breath. Take a walk and listen to your thoughts. Are you afraid of being with people? Of being alone? Name your fear and speak it aloud to someone else. Color a picture.

Glad: Listen to music. Sing. Dance! Watch comedy. Bake a cake. Give someone a hug. Fly a kite. Skip. Pick flowers. Buy yourself a treat. Post a selfie.

Disgusted: Close Facebook. Unfollow or unfriend, if necessary. Go for a walk and observe nature in all its violence, decay, and beauty. Write in a journal. Weed a flowerbed or plant something, imposing your own arbitrary sense of order and beauty on your world. Create art.

Sensual: Wear something sexy. Photograph yourself nude. Masturbate! Flirt. Listen to Madonna hits. Go dancing. Offer a kiss to someone special.

Lonely: Sit on a bench by yourself. Cuddle a stuffed animal. Snack on something you'd usually share. Watch a romantic movie alone. Pull out a memento of someone you miss. Take a solitary walk. Look at the stars.

Drained: Change into comfy clothes. Watch Netflix or play a game. Drink a beer. Take a bath, or a nap.

Content: Sit by a fire. Sip a glass of wine. Flip through a photo album. Kick off your shoes.

Of course, these are all things that help me. Your list will probably look completely different.

When I felt sad this week, I got out a jigsaw puzzle--a surprise from Chris last winter on a day when I was feeling down. Sitting down with a puzzle in the middle of the day is an acknowledgement that I need cheering. As I connected the pieces, I let my sadness move through my body and dissipate on its own.

More than ever before, I am aware of how much I need other people in my life. Some emotional waves and triggers are big enough to knock me off balance and I need support from friends to stay upright. But I hope I'm learning how to stay grounded through the everyday emotional breezes that sometimes used to overwhelm me.

Stronger and stronger every day!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

On Giving Thanks

November means turkey, Pilgrims, and giving thanks. Most years I've kept my own tradition of listing the things I'm grateful for. But this year's list is going to have a new twist.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor invited me along to her yoga class. As we stretched and then rested our muscles, the instructor suggested meditative thoughts as well. "Thank your body for what it is doing for you. Thank yourself for taking this time..." I don't remember what came next because my eyes were already beginning to puddle.

For months, my heart had been flooded with a sense of gratefulness. This has been an epic year for me, and I am thankful for each person who has participated in my life: family, friends, neighbors, enemies, strangers. I feel a debt of gratitude to so many; even individuals I don't speak to anymore, or who don't speak to me, have given me gifts that I treasure daily.

But to be grateful to myself? That was a new thought!

It's been sixteen years since Bill Gothard terminated my employment at his cult headquarters and it often seems that I must have recovered from the brainwashing by now. But then something small, like a sentence in a yoga class, triggers a cascade of thoughts and associations and helps me identify and shed yet another layer of Gothard's influence.

My mother drilled the importance of Gratefulness into us as children, and when I was a little older, Gothard emphasized it to his followers. Gratefulness had been known to cure depression, he said. His oft-repeated definition still springs to mind:
Making known to God and others in what ways they have benefited my life.
We also learned Bill's definition of Humility:
Recognizing that it is actually God and others who are responsible for the achievements in my life.
Together with other parts of the Institute's cult program, these "character qualities" helped to stamp out a sense of volition or self-determination. We were to clay to be shaped, vessels to be used, sheep to be led.

And yet, this year I took the reins of my life in a new way. While there have been many supporting roles, the lead part is mine. My growth and happiness today are the result of my own choices.

I was bold.

took risks.

I colored outside the lines and wrote my own rules.

I scared myself and held on anyway. I followed up. I put in the effort. I invested in my happiness and let go of what was choking it. I allowed myself to have fun. I said "yes"--though not as many times as I wish I had!

Looking back to my twenties, I walked away from the cult. I abandoned fundamentalism. I researched birth control, studied science, found a therapist, started college. I enrolled my kids in school. I made new friends. At some points I had a friend cheering me on, other times I felt alone. Each step forward was one I had to take for myself.

The changes I am now so proud of were watered with my own sweat and plenty of tears.

This November, I give thanks to my self. For being strong. For being resilient. For digging deep and discovering who I wanted to be. For doing what was necessary to heal old hurts and reclaim what was mine. For signing up for daring adventures and learning new things. For taking up space and spending time. For standing up for myself.

What can you thank yourself for today?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Light, Darkness, and Rainbows

Rainbows have always delighted me--from the expansive arcs appearing in a soft summer shower, to the subtle flashes trapped in the spray of a lawn sprinkler. I spent long moments as a child observing colors swirling on dishwater bubbles and in greasy puddles, as well as the brilliant shades thrown against my mother's bedroom wall when the morning sun hit her crystal prism.

Like a kitten chasing a laser pointer, I would try to "catch" the rainbows in my palm. Sometimes the colors were compact, like candy drops. But when they struck at an angle, they would elongate, the colors stretching or even breaking off from the rest altogether.

Until recently, though, I never thought of myself as a rainbow.

Growing up in Christianity, I was taught to see personal character in binary terms: darkness or light. In the words of the King James Bible, the "works of the flesh" were opposed to the "fruits of the spirit". Goodness came off as monochromatic, like a black-and-white movie, hues varied only by the degree to which we demonstrated the expected qualities of godliness. (But at least it was Light. The Prince of Darkness was evil personified. We feared inadvertently falling under his power. In God the Father, we were told, there was no darkness at all.)

In the IBLP cult, we invited people close to us to rate our character according to Gothard's coveted 49 qualities. We were encouraged to tell our friends about their weak points (euphemistically called "blind spots", because we assumed they must be unaware of their flaws) and ever sought to attain a higher "score" for ourselves, approaching closer to pure goodness. I've long since ditched Gothard's ideals as the mere preferences of an immoral predator, but that sense of seeking some kind of perfection has persisted in my subconscious.

Lately, just as I've begun to understand simultaneous conflicting emotions as expressing different faces of my personality, I'm also seeing that personality as a colorful rainbow.

For years I've cherished my own glass prism, looking forward to the times of the year when the sun reaches the right angle to stream in our front windows. The swinging crystal splits the light apart and sends it dancing around the room in drops of vivid color. Sometimes I still try to catch them on my hand.

Like the sunlight, I am made up of a spectrum of colors. I am neither goodness nor corruption. I am sparking with the energy of dozens of dancing rainbows. I am red and blue and green and gold and every shade between. Perhaps it took the complex new angles and emotional fracturing I've experienced this year to expose more of my "facets" and untangle the spectrum.

I have a "warm" side and a "cool" one. I am fire and ice, curiosity and caution, passion and compassion.The colors have always been there, but now that I see them in consistent patterns--always displayed in relation to one another--they are far easier to understand. None defines me, but all express me. I'm not trying to attain a moral ideal, only trying to learn how to let my own unique light "shine" in ways that don't harm anyone else.

Still--for my first real Halloween party, I left the rainbows to the rest of my family. I wore the color that never shows up in a rainbow. The color that represents Darkness, which we feared above all and warned ourselves about while reciting in unison the spooky words of Jesus: "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"

Reveling in a new appreciation of all the shades of my character...

...I wore black. :)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Emotional Flashbacks and C-PTSD

Call them "triggers".

Call them flashbacks.

Sometimes they surface as painful but distinct memories. More often they manifest as a sudden hazy but overwhelming feeling... of doom? Of danger? Of despair? A feeling of something being wrong. A disturbance in the Force, perhaps?

Feelings of panic. Why is my heart racing? Now I'm sweating. I must be having a heart attack. Or a stroke. But I'm driving! Will I cause an accident? I feel like I can't breathe. Is my face red? My chest is so tight. Maybe I should pull over. Is my throat swelling?!

Pain. My muscles are tightening against my will. My joints hurt. I woke with an awful headache. My temples are throbbing. My ears are pounding/ringing. My jaw is clenched. My neck is stiff. Chest pain!

Confusion. Spacing out. Mental fog. Dizziness.
Those words won't stay still. Is this grocery aisle spinning?
Those lights are so bright, I can't see.
Have the lights always been so dim in here? I can't see.

What did he just say? I'm trying to concentrate but I can't think. 
That word--I can't remember that word! But I know that word! It has three syllables; it starts with "c"! What's wrong with me? Maybe I'm losing my mind. Something is seriously wrong!!

Desperation for an escape route.
I need to get out of this room, this seat, this car. 
I can't go in there. 
This place is too crowded.
This place is too open.
I'm getting off the highway at the next exit.
I can't stay here. I need to find people. 
I need to be alone. 
I need a drink. 
I need to sleep. 

Sudden anger. Inflexibility. Inability to cope on the spot.
Why would you do that?! I can't believe you would treat me like that!

Hyperarousal. Exaggerated startle response. Jumpiness. Oversensitivity to unexpected sounds or touch. Difficulty calming down. 

Many of us lived with these symptoms for years before discovering what they were. And even a diagnosis of anxiety or post-traumatic stress is only the beginning of learning to manage daily life. Like many other abuse survivors, I've spent years learning to cope with triggers and deal with panic attacks.

One therapist explains it this way:
"A trigger is an external or internal stimulus that activates us into an emotional flashback. This often occurs on a subliminal level outside the boundaries of normal consciousness, and is why recognizing flashbacks is both difficult but crucially important. External triggers are people, places, things, events, facial expressions, styles of communication, etc., that remind us of our original abuse or abandonment in a way that launches us into reliving the painful feelings of those times... When trauma has been severe or we are in an especially depleted state, resemblances can even be scant – perhaps all unknown men or authority figures trigger fear, or anyone noticing or looking at us triggers toxic shame."
--Pete Walker  (FAQ about Complex PTSD)

I still get triggered. Much less frequently now, but flashbacks are not really avoidable. My house is replete with triggers, after all. My fellow survivors know how external triggers can lurk in the most innocuous of places: a playlist, a fragrance, a bookstore, a menu, a wallpaper print, the fit of a sweater. And internal flashbacks, like shades of grief, can seemingly arise out of nowhere, interrupting even the happiest of times.

What has changed about my triggers is how I quickly I can recognize them. After decades of blowing off my emotions, I am learning to pay closer attention to my feelings and emotional shifts. Instead of my body having to go into full panic mode to get my attention, I can often sense subtle changes and respond before my nervous system maxes out.

This week, I was having a great time ice skating on my birthday. Feeling the cold air rushing against my cheeks, the blades beneath me gliding evenly against the ice. Moving my body to the rhythm of the music. Enjoying being myself while sharing an experience with my family. And then, out of nowhere, a snapshot from long ago showed up in my mind. I suddenly felt... sad. Overwhelmingly sad. So sad that tears began to spill out. And I let them come.

Once I accepted that I was sad, it was easy to understand why. I sat down for a minute to sniffle, get a hug, regain my equilibrium, and wipe my face. But after a few minutes of teary release, I was fine again.

Sometimes a flashback happens as I stand at my kitchen sink. Today one visited as I stepped out of my daughter's school conference. I felt a sudden sense of gloom, as if I'd stepped under a cloud. Deep inside, my heart ached. But somehow recognizing and labeling the feeling was enough to keep it from getting worse.

When I got home a few minutes later, I knew I was merely experiencing a flashback. Even though there was nothing upsetting about the conference itself, it's no secret that for many of us homeschool survivors, the education system is fraught with triggers! My inner child needed to be heard and reminded that she is safe.

Fortunately for me, Chris came upstairs at that moment and wrapped me in a soothing hug. I cried for a few moments and the cloud moved on. (If he hadn't been there, I could have gone to my next door neighbor for a hug, or done yoga poses, or colored, or written in my journal until the flashback passed.)

Afterward, I took time to celebrate my small victory. Gazing at the autumn leaves, chrysanthemums, and the last roses of the season from my back patio, I sipped a glass of wine and meditated once more on where I am and who I want to be.

Over the last few years I have practiced being honest, and loud, and brave. I've gained experience in standing up for myself and standing up for others against bullies who want to mistreat them, shame them, or take away their rights. I've practiced being my own parent. Self-protection and self-compassion were both new to me!

I'd like to spend the next year learning to self-soothe, strengthening my ability to be patient, and gentle.
Patient with myself as I take charge of my own well-being. Patient in relationships.
Gentle with my body, and more sensitive to my heart.
Gentle with others who are quietly but doggedly fighting their own hidden battles.

When I was a teen, and sheepishly even after I swore off all other Christian rock music, I loved the song "The Warrior is a Child" (Twila Paris), about looking stronger than one feels. Well, I finally found a secular replacement for that song in Madonna's "Joan of Arc". It has been a favorite this year:
"I don't want to talk about it right now
Just hold me while I cry my eyes out
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet
But I'm in the dark, yeah
I can't be a superhero right now
Even hearts made out of steel can break down
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet..."
Sometimes flashbacks turn us inward because we don't know who else is "safe". But this year more than ever, I've found that the more vulnerable I am with other people, the safer I feel. More often than not, the person I risk trusting also reveals a glimpse of their own secret wounds and insecurities.

This life thing is painful and none of us make it through without at least a few scars. Whatever our inner struggles, we are not really that different, even though our anxieties may make us feel that way!

We may not feel like superheroes most of the time, friends, but we are strong and getting stronger! And we're not alone. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd, "When we set out on a [survivor's] journey, we are often swimming a high and unruly sea, and we seem to know that the important thing is to swim together--to send out our vibrations, our stories, so that no one gets lost."

Courage is like a sourdough starter; the more you feed and share it, the more there is for everyone. When you, my friends and readers, let me know how you are learning to thrive despite your pain and even using it as a fuel to generate good and beautiful things, you inspire me to keep moving, too. Let's keep cheering each other on and signaling to each other from whatever point we've reached!



Saturday, October 10, 2015

Parentified Children and Phryne Fisher

Chris and I have been enjoying Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix lately. We adore Phryne Fisher, the smart, sassy, fierce, curious, capable, and self-assured lady detective. She's everything I want to be. And damn sexy to boot!

Miss Fisher with her ward, Jane

We were unwinding with glasses of wine in front of the television the other night, my head resting on Chris's lap. When the tears began to spill silently down my face, he didn't need me to explain; he'd seen it, too.

Jane, an at-risk girl being fostered by our heroine, had gone to visit her recently-surfaced birth mother.

Jane's mother wants to be loving and nurturing. They cuddle and read a story, she bakes Jane a cake. After years of neglect, this attention . But we soon see that Jane's mother is too needy to look after herself, let alone her daughter. Fearful to the point of paranoia, she ends up trying to jump from the building, endangering Jane who valiantly keeps her head and protects her mother until help arrives.

Miss Fisher takes her exhausted protégé's face between her hands. "You're safe now," she assures.

Supported once more by sane and capable adults, Jane allows herself to break down.

"She wouldn't listen to me! I tried," she tells Phryne, tearfully. But quickly, in her mom's defense, "She's not mean. She just needs me."

Of course our heroine takes both Jane and her mother home, where she is able to show Jane that other adults can assist with her mother's care. Jane, knowing her mother's inability to care for herself, is afraid of her mother being hurt.

But Phryne knows that a child ought not be saddled with responsibility for a parent's health or safety.
"We'll find someplace where she's happy."

And Jane trusts her to make good on that promise.

* * *

I sniffled through the entire scene because deep inside, my younger self identified with Jane. I understand what it is to feel needed by a fearful mother. To feel endangered by her paranoia. To feel both helpless yet responsible for the well-being of one's primary caregiver.

In what therapist and author Pete Walker calls "a tragic role reversal", the abused or neglected child may become "as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can". This can become such a habit that "hints of danger soon immediately trigger...abdication of rights and needs."

Since recognizing this pattern in my own behavior last year, I've been working to relearn healthier relationship skills. It's not as easy as flipping a switch, and often feels like trial-and-error, but I'm making progress! That night, we both knew the tears were one more piece of the restorative grieving process.
"Grieving ... tends to unlock healthy anger about a life lived with such a diminished sense of self. This anger can then be worked into recovering a healthy fight-response that is the basis of the instinct of self-protection, of balanced assertiveness, and of the courage that will be needed in the journey of creating relationships based on equality and fairness."  --Pete Walker

As we get to know Phryne Fisher throughout the season, we realize that she also identifies with Jane. Beneath her confident exterior, she also carries a traumatized little girl with an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Her ability to nurture Jane grows out of her need to assure and comfort her younger self.

We turned on the TV expecting to be entertained, but we got so much more. Thank you, Miss Fisher, for modeling the way adults should care for the children in their lives, for one another, and for themselves.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Comment Policy

It's time for a friendly reminder that this is a blog about my personal journey out of Christian fundamentalism.

My audience is primarily others making the same journey, as well as those curious about the effects of fundamentalist homeschooling in general, and Bill Gothard's teaching in particular.

My path has taken me away from theism altogether. I do not attempt to de-convert my readers, and I wish my readers would not try to re-convert me. If you think I have rejected all gods merely because I have not yet tried yours, please refrain from saying so.

Attempts to proselytize or to apologize for the sincerely-held beliefs of my parents will be deleted as readily as we dismiss Jehovah's Witnesses who come to our door.

Thank you. :)