Religious PTSD

Research suggests that “spiritual struggle” – including “Punishing God Reappraisal,” “Reappraisal of God’s Powers,” and “Spiritual Discontent” – may be a mediating factor between trauma and PTSD symptoms.

Social-cognitive theorists postulate that PTSD symptoms result from trauma that shatters one’s basic assumptions about the invulnerability of the self and the safety of the world (Janoff-Bulman, 1989) or reinforces preexisting negative beliefs (Resick, Monson, & Chard, 2008). Faulty beliefs and misattributions, including self-blame and guilt, and over generalized problems with safety, trust, control, esteem, and intimacy, prevent the trauma from being integrated into memory (McCann & Pearlman, 1990Resick & Calhoun, 2001). Until trauma-related information is reconciled with prior beliefs, symptoms of PTSD persist while the trauma remains in active memory (Horowitz, Wilner, & Alvarez, 1979).

Trauma and PTSD Symptoms: Does Spiritual Struggle Mediate the Link?

I can personally attest to this. When a (related) man started acting inappropriately towards me as I got older, my fear and shame were compounded by the teaching with which I had grown up, which emphasized that a woman’s spiritual purity is determined by what happens to her body, and even by whether or not men find her attractive and tempting.

When this man would stalk me, stare at me, or try to be close to me, I would feel not only discomfort, but an overwhelming sense of dirtiness and tainting, as my boundaries and human dignity were being violated.

For years now, I have struggled with an automatic response of fear and dirtiness whenever this man has violated my boundaries.

Sometimes, I think he is trying to improve his behavior; other times, the behavior seems to continue even though he says that he’s not attracted to me or that he isn’t doing anything weird. It’s hard for me to believe when his behavior suggests differently, but then I feel shame for not believing him.

I worry that if I don’t believe him, that must mean I also haven’t forgiven him. I’ve had to do gymnastics in my head to believe that I can forgive someone while still hurting from their actions for a long time.

Compounding the pain and confusion of all this is the stress of much of my immediate family not really being on my side, but taking the other relative’s side instead.

It’s reached the point at which, even if he is really improving, I am so easily triggered by being in his presence – and by the memories of all the times in the past when I tried to “mend the relationship” with him to soothe my conscience (and because I felt bad for him), only to see the behavior get worse as soon as I would try to smooth things over. Even my kindness seemed to be used against me.

When I told him he could just do what he needed to do without trying to avoid me, he started making a point of “doing what he needed to do” when I was around. If I were to challenge this, he would only get angry (and so would others in my family if they found out) at me for taking an objection. He would hold “But you said…” against me.

Despite all of this, I still want to believe the best about this relative, and I still hurt so deeply and feel so much shame for all he’s been through. The “funny” thing is, virtually everyone else in my family has yelled at him or been unkind when he is struggling with something and they get impatient. I have tried to be as kind as possible, while maintaining my boundaries. The only impatience I’ve shown is for his inappropriate behavior. And I don’t even want to judge him; I just want to feel safe. And yet I feel that I carry most of the blame in my family’s eyes for his pain.

I’m not perfect, and sometimes my anger gets the better at me. But I tend to take it out on the chores I’m getting done rather than verbally with him. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever done that except in a few very deliberate or specific conversations with him last year. Even in those conversations, I attempted to remain collected.

In short, I feel shame for:

  • Having my boundaries violated.
  • Hating that my boundaries are being violated.
  • Being afraid of my relative and uncomfortable around him (because that must be “unforgiveness” or “unreasonable fear”).
  • The pain this relative has experienced not only because of my discomfort around him, but my family’s treatment of him.

I am afraid because:

  • If God were pleased with me, why would he let me endure all this?
  • If God were kind and compassionate, wouldn’t he care for my plight and seem to understand my fears and struggles a little better?
  • If God were kind and compassionate and powerful, wouldn’t he have prevented this whole situation in the first place, so neither my relative nor I would have to hurt, and feel outcast and misunderstood?
  • I’m unsure if I have completely forgiven this relative (although I try so many times every day), because if I’d really forgiven, everything would be all happy and comfortable and harmonious again, right? I wouldn’t be stressed around this person who has hurt me for years. (Unfortunately, many Christians assume and assert that those who have truly forgiven are set free from their suffering. But what about Jesus, who suffered even after He forgave?) And if I haven’t forgiven, then what if I’m going to Hell?

I constantly worry that I am damned. And I don’t know how to change or heal anything, despite all my efforts. I can’t pretend that I feel comfortable around this relative, after all that he’s done. I’m not in a place financially to move out and be on my own and regain my sanity and strength. I’m stuck in a home in which I feel unsafe. And yet, despite all of that, I try to forgive every day (out of fear of Hell), and I have compassion for this relative every day (because I see his pain).

This is the mess in which organized religion has left me. Even though I want no part in organized religion anymore, its residue still lingers, and is so sticky – so hard to wash away.

It’s so hard for me to accept or believe that Jesus understands my struggles, does not condemn me, and died for all my sins – including any unforgiveness that might remain. It’s hard to accept that while accepting his teaching about those who do not forgive, if that was in fact his teaching, and not the product of a faulty memory on the part of those recording the gospels.

It’s hard for me to see one thing with my eyes, and believe that the reality is something very different – especially from the mouth of the person who’s hurt me for years, despite our conversations and my attempts at healing things. Don’t they have an incentive to lie, so that I’ll again be available again to them for their own sexual gratification?

I am losing my mind – swept away in a sea of shame, and so wanting harmony again, and for my mom to stop judging me or hurting so much because of the disharmony in our home. But I can’t pretend things are different than what I see and experience, and even if they are, it’s very hard to overcome the trauma of the past several years. It’s in my wiring now. I can’t even be around him without feeling physically ill (and I already have chronic illness, so it doesn’t take much to tip me over the edge.) Even if this man has truly changed – or is beginning to – I still relive the pain any time I’m even near him or smell his scent. And yet I feel such an obligation to try to “mend things” and “be chummy” with him, because no one else will.

Thanks to those of you who read this far. ❤ I know that this piece kinda went all over the place. I just had to get it out before I burst.

❤ Melodie

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