I was about 10 when I started having panic attacks.
As soon as I was cognizant of reality I was being told about hell, and that I would go there if I didn’t believe such and such, or if I didn’t apologize to god for doing something wrong right before I died.
I read books about martyrs for bedtime stories, people who gave their lives for “the cause.”
I am a smart person when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I have always been very intuitive. My mother lived with chronic fear of god and I could sense her fear when she talked about hell, and god. I knew very deep in my bones that god’s “love” came at the cost of everything, and even then it was not certain. It could never be certain.
I fell asleep every night saying the sinner's prayer and asking god to forgive me for everything. I even included “anything I can’t remember and please know that I mean it” because I did not want to go to hell. I really did not want to lose my mom, and she somehow seemed sure she was going to heaven, and I did not want to be without her. I wanted to know for sure.
As I got older I grew desperate and between the ages of 10 and 12 I would have incredibly scary panic attacks.
I knew deeply that what was going on in my mind was much more imperative to pay attention to than anything happening in my physical world, because that is what I was taught.
My mind was terrifying. I could accidentally think lustfully, think a doubt or negative thought about god and he would know, and could punish me. He could take everything in my life away, like he had so many times in the bible just to get people to believe him more deeply.
I did not doubt the intentions of god. I accepted that type of abuse as love, but it was terrifying and unpredictable and I had to figure it out.
I quit everything I was doing that I loved, dance, my awana program because I would be trying to focus on what was happening but I couldn’t. I would have an invasive thought that I might have forgotten to confess a sin, or that I got the plan of salvation wrong (There are about 10 different ways to be saved according to the bible and I knew them all by heart.).
I knew all the verses to assure me “once saved always saved” but those calmed my heart for only a moment because I knew the other verses that meant the opposite was true.
I knew the bible and I could not find a way out.
One day, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my bible and notebook, writing obsessively verses that my parents, youth leaders, mentors all said would help me.
I said to my mom with utmost panic “I think I am going crazy.” and she said “If you say that, you probably will.”
The panic that filled my tiny child heart could not be measured. What I had been told is that “Crazy people” were “possessed by demons” and those people for sure went to hell.
I could not be safe. EVER.
Something inside me broke. I knew that I could not figure this out ever, because it did not make sense. I also knew that my own safety physically required me to believe this to be accepted and cared for and loved.
I had no options.
I started doing mental gymnastics to protect this part of my mind from being touched. I refused to think about this for the next 15 years.
My parents assumed that my panic attacks were a test from the devil or were proof that I was meant for great things in christianity. I must be meant to be a missionary's wife, or even a missionary to children like Amy Carmichael.
This fueled me. My parents approved of this and I leaned in hard.
The funny thing is, as a middle child they were not too concerned with me as long as I was not an active problem.
So I learned not to be a big problem (read, I learned to give up my power and play small. I learned to suppress my needs).
I spent those 15 years being deeply sad. Don’t get me wrong, I had joy, and laughed with people I loved, and felt a lot of things, and had some nice experiences.
But underneath it all, whenever I was alone, and it was quiet, I felt deep inescapable sadness, and fear.
I sought healing in god and the bible, always. Nothing touched that sadness.
When I finally deconstructed the idea of hell I felt the most relief I have ever felt in my life. My mind shook for a while, sort of like after you have come in from the cold and you’re still shivering.
When it calmed down, I started to notice that my mind felt peace. I felt safe for the first time in my entire life.
I know now that my response was perfectly normal considering my circumstances and what I was taught.
I share this because I know many of you will relate, and have had similar experiences to mine.
I also share because I want to encourage you. Your mind and body have done what they needed to survive.
You are good.
These responses, both mentally and physically that you took on were with one goal in mind: to protect you.
Your timing for life is yours alone. If you are like me and have been incredibly frustrated that you did not leave sooner, if you have had to grieve lost years, lost childhood, lost innocence, feel free to grieve.
Something was taken from you. You were harmed. YOU left as soon as you were capable, just like your mind and body protected you when they had to, you left when you could. If you need to be mad please do so. Scream and kick things. Break shit. But please do not be mad at yourself. You coped. Forgive yourself if you feel you need to. Have compassion on yourself. You are doing your best.
All my love,
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