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The Mother of all Bruises

If you’ve read my story The Sentimental Non-Believer, you’ll remember I wrote at times, about my mother. With Mother’s Day falling this last weekend, I’ve been reflecting on our relationship, especially as she has just turned 89 and her dementia has become quite pronounced, which is an adjustment for us all.

Nothing is ever black and white, there are shades of grey, nuance and the art of holding conflicting emotions in each hand. And certainly, a blog post is an unwieldy tool for conveying the breadth of a situation. But here is a glimpse of my story.

My mother and I had a fraught relationship. And, I understand cognitively that she did the best she could with what she was given. She was drowning in grief during my childhood and then hit menopause during my adolescence, while navigating her own complex PTSD and a number of other possible diagnoses. It was hard on me and I’m sure it was hard on her. She could be violent, manipulative, cruel and just plain garden variety teenage embarrassing.

I started attending church 3-5 times a week from age 13. She was not pleased. She made this known in ways that were mortifying for me then, and while understandable now, were not ok. I thought this must be persecution, the price for believing in Jesus. I claimed my status as martyr.

But I felt isolated without siblings or extended family and was deeply ashamed. I tried to tell my youth leaders about my home life over the years. One of them once told me we were called to prefer others in love. “God’s been good to you Jane, you need to be a more faithful daughter.” Others expressed concerns about her ‘new age’ practices and beliefs and wanted me to anoint my house with oil as protection from the demonic forces she was bringing into the home. This terrified me.

She called the senior pastor late one night when I still wasn’t home from youth, demanding to know where I was and what sort of an operation he was running there. He was hosting the weekend’s visiting preacher and called me over the next morning in church – they both had a laugh as my pastor told me the visitor had suggested he tell her I was in bed next to him if she’d like to speak to me. I was 16.

We were taught we should honour our mother and father, and this is the only commandment with a promise (that you’ll be blessed with long life, Exodus 20:12). I thought I’d be cursed and die young for wanting to get as far away as I could.

I had nowhere to safely express what was a painful and frightening experience, didn’t feel entitled to be in pain or afraid and had no language for it anyway.

Layers upon layers upon layers.

I was torn between my family and my faith community.  Hurting at one end, ashamed and embarrassed at the other. Desperate for connection, let down by false intimacy and transactional belonging.

Confused, with no understanding of the ways trauma impacts us. Feeling guilty I couldn’t be good enough and was letting God down. Never voicing it, living on autopilot, periodically melting down over little things as the tip of the iceberg would melt.

I operated for years from a sense of guilt, obligation and deep wounding in our relationship. Constantly hyper vigilant, coming in and out of fight and flight mode, but mostly in freeze. I would regularly shut down, disassociate, go somewhere else in my head to cope. I did this in other relationships too.

I’ve learnt in recent years to come back to my body safely and be present to what I’m feeling, so I can heal.

Turns out this is possible and tolerable, there are so many nurturing *tools at our disposal.

And, church should have been safer. I understand the 80’s and 90’s were not times when mental health was well understood, even in the mainstream, but the way I was meant to just do better, then experienced spiritual bypassing when I became distressed, was retraumatising.

I didn’t know how to give it over to God, trust him in all things. What does “God is faithful” even mean? That everything will work out? What if it doesn’t? These seemed like easy answers for people who didn’t have the tools to support me and felt uncomfortable talking about things that weren’t triumphant. People who didn’t believe in professional help (this is still often an issue, only ‘Christian counselling’ is ok), yet felt confident and qualified to speak with authority into my life.

A girlfriend thought of me when she saw a Mother’s Day post from the Holistic Psychologist on Instagram yesterday. I felt this slide.

Religious trauma is never clear cut or neatly explained. We are impacted by people in their humanness, by harmful doctrines and practises that press on bruises already there from our families of origin or other life experiences. It can take a long time to unpick it all, to understand the layers and why we react in ways that can feel confusing.

A trigger is part of an explosive device, we often live wired to detonate. But we can come back to safety in our bodies. We can get to know our incredible nervous systems and find grounding when we’re activated. We can process our anger, our grief and pain and find healing.

I’m going to write more about finding safety this week and what Dr Dan Siegal named the Window of Tolerance, you can sign up to my email here to learn more.

If you’d like to read my story you can download it here. Or message me here and I’ll flick it to you if money is tight. No questions asked.

Go gently.

*This is one of those nurturing tools from a modality called Havening.

Sit comfortably. Cross your arms, take a few deep breaths and long exhales. Place your hands on your shoulders, stroke downwards to your elbows, and repeat. You can choose a repetitive affirmation such as I am safe, I am healing, or, my heart is good. Or if that’s too much, a brain training like thinking of countries that start with the letter I. Do this for a few minutes, it will tell your nervous system you’re ok. It will help settle you.

BOOKMARK: In the coming months, there will be an online course available for those who have experienced religious trauma. It’s called ‘Freedom from Religious Trauma: Coming Home to Yourself’. It’s packed full of learning activities, videos, storytelling, research findings, and ways to find your centre. I’m really enjoying putting it together, I know it will help so many of you. It’s the course I would have dearly loved when the ground started to give way beneath me.

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