Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Oceans and churches

A Catholic abuse survivor told me that, when he’s driving out in the country and sees a small white steepled church, he’ll often stop and try the door. If it’s unlocked, he goes in and just sits for a while. It’s the only kind of church where he feels safe, and only if it’s empty.

I laughed because I do the same thing, except for me, it’s great cathedrals. I just go in and sit with the quiet stillness.

I can’t bear to go in Baptist churches. But great cathedrals are different enough from the church I was abused in that they don’t have the same effect. I can still breathe when I’m in them. They don’t trigger the fear, the pain, or the trauma. Surrounded by stained glass and ornate columns, my chest doesn’t tighten up. The adrenaline doesn’t kick in. I don’t feel the need to bolt.

Perhaps that sounds a bit crazy, but of course, it’s really pretty normal. It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s very common among clergy abuse survivors. I just wish churches were the only trigger. But they aren’t.

I try to map my triggers, but sometimes my brain runs up on one anyway. They aren’t always predictable.

Imagine that someone is telling you about their trip to the “beach” and about how much they love the “ocean.” Since you know what those words mean, you can imagine what their trip was like.

But when you hear the word “ocean,” do you actually hear the crashing waves? Do your eyes sting from the salt spray? Do you feel the breeze in your hair and the sun on your skin? Do you waft the sea smell into your nostrils?

And when you hear the word “beach,” do your toes curl reflexively into the soft sand? Do you grind an errant grain in your teeth?

Probably not. If you’re like most people, you don’t experience the physical sensation of the “ocean” and “beach” just because you hear the words.

But for people with a post-traumatic disorder, that’s sort of what it’s like. We re-experience pieces of the trauma when we encounter a trigger. Of course, it’s nothing like a trip to the beach.

I smell his breath. I am suffocating. I am so afraid.


Anonymous said...

Not a lot of people make comments on your blog, but I sure hope a lot of people read what you have to say. I hope some very good Baptists sitting in the pews thinking everything is wonderful read what you have to say and realize it just is not always that way.

Maybe in some churches things are as good as they seem. Not in many churches. If a minister is not abusing a kid, then many times Mommy and Daddy are. What better place for a sexual pervert to hide than in a super-fundamentalist church where appearances are everything.

I don't know how it was for you growing up Baptist but for me, it was always look good and act good. And always be happy, because you have nothing about which to be sad. And anger, oh my gosh, anger was the sin of sins. You really were not supposed to be angry.

Sorry I got carried away with all that.


Christa Brown said...

No apology necessary, Phyllis. When a paid SBC spokesman publicly places the protection of autonomy above the protection of kids, it speaks volumes about what Southern Baptist leaders consider most important. They have created an elaborate facade that is actually tissue-thin. It’s no wonder they focus so much on staging and managing appearances...because if anyone pulls back the curtain, they’ll see how little of it is real. It's not about men taking on biblical responsibility for protecting the young and vulnerable. It's about men protecting their own power.

Here’s a big part of what I learned from the Southern Baptist church I grew up in, and even more sadly, from most of the Southern Baptist leaders I have encountered as an adult: Churches harbor monsters. They’re real, but everyone pretends they aren’t. Kids are disposable. If they talk about the monsters, then or now, they must be silenced. Why? Because the official Baptist story-line is that the monsters don’t exist, and even if they do exist, the quiet monsters aren’t the ones upsetting things. The monsters have a good stage presence.

Alexis said...

That was an excellent description of post-traumatic disorders.

Thanks also for touching on the challenge of mapping your triggers.