religious trauma syndrome

Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn't mean you can't wear some kick-ass mascara.
Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn’t mean you can’t wear some kick-ass mascara.

I’m writing this post at the request of some friends and because I think talking about my experience may possibly help other people facing similar challenges.

In Leaving Mormonism, a post I wrote about eight months ago, I talk about how it was to begin distancing myself from my religion and what I felt at that time. In Stoicism for Passionate People, a guest post I wrote for Stoicism Today, I mention some other major life challenges I went through at the same time I was experiencing a crisis of faith. Within a couple years’ time, my father died young and unexpectedly, I divorced the man I had married at 19, I had a crisis of faith and became inactive in the Mormon church, and I experienced a business failure and large financial loss.

Any one of those events would have been very difficult, and facing them all together was devastating. I cried a lot, I couldn’t sleep, I frequently felt nauseous or exhausted, I had recurring nightmares, and I woke every morning at 4 am to a racing heart and paralyzing fear. I had difficulty focusing. For example, I had always been a voracious reader, and during this time I stopped reading because I couldn’t focus enough to remember anything I read. I had always been a prolific journaler/blogger and I stopped that, too. Now I recognize that what I had was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This lasted for a solid year at least, and then intermittently for a second year. As I explain in Stoicism for Passionate People, discovering ancient philosophy and Stoicism in particular helped me a great deal. It put me on the track toward healing.

After I got home in August from a wonderful vacation in Maine, I had some problems with friends and my reaction to the situation was extreme. For several weeks I felt like I had returned to the dark times of two years ago. All of the PTSD symptoms returned. Crying, insomnia, panic attacks, and even a fight or flight response. I fought with my friends for days and I decided I wanted to move away. I felt attacked.

Now that a little time has passed and I’ve calmed down and gained some perspective, I see that this particular situation triggered the same feelings that I had when I was leaving the church. I felt that my intimacy was betrayed and that my integrity was violated. I felt unfairly judged.

Of all the bad things that happened to me in those two years, the most difficult to deal with has been the trauma of leaving the Mormon church and how that has affected me mentally, physically, and emotionally . I have been reading more about it this past week. It even has a name: Religious Trauma Syndrome. It is with hesitance that I link to Journey Free: Resources for recovery from harmful religion, because I do not share all of this group’s views including their negative attitude toward religion. I do not make the claim that religion is universally damaging to all adherents. I only say that leaving religion has provoked in me an existential crisis and psychological trauma. I only speak from my own personal experience and if people can identify with it, great. If not, great. But maybe those who don’t will understand better those of us who do leave organized religion and develop the symptoms of this syndrome.

I imagine it might be difficult to understand what it’s like to have RTS unless you have it, especially if you haven’t been a faithful believer in a religion that informs totally and completely your self concept, your core beliefs, and every hour of every day of your life, what you eat, do, wear, say. This religion is the lens through which you see your past, present, and future. Actually, it IS your past, present, and future. It’s you. It’s your entire worldview. Now. Imagine what happens when that bubble bursts. Imagine how that is. You are no longer you. You have no core beliefs. You have no past, present, or future, at least not the one you had a month ago, or yesterday, or whenever it was when you were still a believer. That is gone. You find yourself in mourning because your former life is dead. Except you are poorly equipped to mourn, say nothing about moving on with a new life because you are nothing. You have no idea how to relate to yourself and other people and you don’t know who you are in the world or what your place is. You are faced with the task of completely reconstructing your reality from scratch.

As far as experiencing RTS goes, it doesn’t matter what brand of religion it is, what matters is how much that religion controls you though fear. In my religious activity I was not wholly motivated by fear of sinning and going to Hell, and maybe not even principally. I was also motivated by love. I loved my community and I loved helping other people. I loved spirituality and personal growth. I loved God. However, if when you begin to have doubts and you communicate those doubts to a believer friend, and the friend’s response is to tell you to be careful of your choices because some day you will be held accountable not only for your sins but the sins of your wayward children if they stray from the fold for having followed your bad example… Well. Obviously fear is being used to control you and there is little room for any real exploration within the bounds of that religion.

Fear and love are very powerful emotions. Though I have been able to distance myself from the Mormon church mentally, I feel secure in my conviction that it’s not where I belong right now, and I enjoy building my new reality, I am still emotionally attached to some of those ingrained beliefs. There are situations that automatically trigger those feelings of panic, fear, and insecurity that I had when I first stopped going to church. This past week has been about accepting that this is the case and that I have RTS.

I have felt immensely moved and inspired by the people who are going public about their addictions in an effort to remove the stigma of addiction and raise awareness and funds for treatment. Their example motivates me to write this post. I think there needs to be more awareness about RTS. I don’t think a lot of people know what it is, and yet it is very common. I don’t know very much about it myself and I’m curious to investigate. In upcoming posts I’ll be talking more about RTS and the different things I’ve discovered this past year that help me heal.

One thought on “religious trauma syndrome

  1. Wow. You so eloquently speak for me. A different fundamental religion, but the rest is the same. Thank you so much for sharing, it really is important to share our stories and know we are not alone.

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