I was raised in a hard-core Catholic family. I’m talking Opus Dei, Latin Mass, Catechism classes and scapulars type Catholic. For most of my life I was a believer but in my 30s when I could no longer repress the memories of my childhood, I started to question some of the teachings.
Though today I am agnostic, I do miss God. I miss having someone to talk to when I feel completely and utterly helpless. And I miss Christmas. Secular Christmas just doesn’t have the same joy and wonder. No amount of sparking glass baubles can capture the thrill of hearing a Cathedral organ blasting Hark the Herald Angels Sing at Midnight Mass.
My older sister, one of the few family members who have accepted my choice not to talk to my parents, is a devout Catholic. Her unit is full of theological books and religious icons and her most prized possession is a fragment of cloth that has been blessed and touched against the relics of Saint Scolastica.
When we were both children, we loved to read the compendium of “Saints for Children”. We discussed our favourites and both hoped to die martyrs. We decided to have a competition to get into Heaven, to see who would become a saint first.
As adults we lived together for 10 years and as I leant away from the Church, she leaned in further. Her favourite music was Byzantine chant, the esoteric sibling of Gregorian chant. She contemplated becoming a cloistered nun. If Jehovahs came knocking she would invite them in and try to convert them. She spent her weekends cooking meals for the Jesuit priests at her church. One day I found her washing and ironing some priest’s religious garments. That was the day I decided I needed to move out. Though my father never sexually abused her, she still suffered the neglect of our mother and during our childhood she would often retreat to her room of fantasy fiction books to escape whatever drama was unfolding in our house. I can see that for her Catholicism allows her a rich fantasy life, one I’m not willing to take from her. I respect her need to believe.
Sadly, religion is also a refuge for sexual abusers. It is common for incest to occur in very religious families. My parents wielded the fourth of the Ten Commandments against us. They demanded absolute obedience and reverence.
To this day, it troubles me deeply that a person can confess a crime to a priest in Confession and the priest will not and can not report it without breaking the law of God. I often wonder how many times my father confessed his crimes to a priest, then came home and repeated them.
Still, I know what it feels like to really believe so I share these therapy sessions wary of how my comments might deeply offend some readers which isn’t something I want to do.
Last Monday night I found myself in probably the worst emotional flashback I’ve had in a long time. Most of it was brought on by things I can’t blog about, but some of it was brought on by a discussion with my son’s psychologist. We were in the middle of our Zoom meeting when I suddenly ask “Are you religious?”
Psychologist S looks taken aback and goes silent for a moment which is odd for him since he is also a trained actor and is usually practically bouncing through the screen talking a mile a minute. He says something like “Um yes I have my own set of religious beliefs.” My shoulders slump. Oh no…I hope he isn’t …CHRISTIAN.
“I only ask because at (son’s) school they have religion once a week and you can opt out of it and I’ve opted out and (son) asked me what religion is and I wasn’t sure what to answer that was not going to make it even more mysterious and enticing and also wasn’t going to push my anti-religion beliefs too strongly.”
Psychologist S gives me a line I could say to him about what religion is in general but I am too dissociated to really make sense of it but I understand enough to know it isn’t something I would use. He also says something about how it’s ok to opt out of religion classes and maybe wait until he is older and can make a decision for himself.
“Yes. I wouldn’t mind so much if they taught a range of religions but I think its just Christianity.”
“Maybe,” he says.
“So what kind of religion are you?”
“I’m a Christian theists.” He mentions something about being Anglican and Jesus being an interesting person. I instantly feel disappointed. I find myself thinking But how?!? How can you be a therapist and not see how Christianity is cruel?
“Ok. I mean I don’t have anything against people who are religious. If they want to believe what they want to believe, I don’t have a problem with that. I just don’t want my son to believe because of my own experiences with religion.” This isn’t exactly true. I don’t mind what people believe so long as they aren’t trying to convert me and they aren’t my therapist. Psychologist S is nodding.
“Does this mean at some point you’re going to be giving us advice from a Christian perspective?”
“My Christianity influences my practice in so far as I believe all people are of value and of worth and deserve love and compassion and kindness.” Here I feel myself having split reactions. Psychologist S IS a very kind and compassionate person. It’s one of the things I really like about him and the other people he works with (Dr K and Psychologist J). They’re all non-judgemental and kind. But I also feel myself thinking about parents who don’t deserve compassion and kindness.
“Ok, I mean I’m just thinking ahead to the later years, you know because obviously my upbringing was not ideal. I wasn’t told anything much about sex except its for married people and masturbation is wrong and then there’s all the stuff my dad did to me…I just want (son) to have a healthy relationship with his body and around sex.” S is nodding and inside I am DYING. I can’t believe I said the word ‘masturbation’ to an adult male.
“And so I was assuming, say we’re still using you as his therapist when he’s older, I was hoping to get your help on how to handle all that stuff so now I wonder if you will be taking a Christian angle.”
He tells me that he is fine with masturbation and sex before marriage and with anything to do with sex so long as it is not harming anyone and everything is consensual.
“Ok good. Because I’m just bracing myself for the coming years, you know with all that stuff kids have to deal with now like sexting and easy access to porn and social media. I’m dreading it. I’ve only got a few years to get a handle on this.” He’s nodding.
“What about homosexuality and transgender and all that genderfluid stuff. I don’t know if my (son) is gay or whatever but if he was I’d want to know how to navigate that too.”
“I don’t have a problem with any of that.” I feel relief that nothing has changed in-so-far as the advice I might need from S but I can’t shake the feeling he looks different to me. Suddenly his posh accent that has a twinge of British feels kind of silver spoonish. I can’t really put it into words, but suddenly he looks like all the well-educated pale-skinned British-descendent people I grew up with. He just looks so…CHRISTIAN.
The conversation moves on but I suddenly feel the inner critic needing to hear things in black and white terms.
“So you’re not High Anglican.”
“No, I’m not bells and smells.” This comment cracks me up. It’s been so long since I’ve heard that expression.
“Ok thank you. I just needed to know where you fit into the whole Christian hierarchy, that you’re not going to doom me to hell like my family does.” Several members of my family have taken a strong stance against my refusal to forgive my parents for what they did. They’ve also expressed their disapproval of my secular marriage.
“Well as far as I’m concerned only God has the right to judge,” he says, a line I used to say despite seeing myself and other Christians judging people every day.
The hierarchy I grew up with was that Catholics were right, High Anglicans were kind of just off the money, low Anglicans were really kind of beginning to mix with the rabble…the Baptists and Lutherans and Mormons and door-knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then there are the Evangelicals who are almost viewed as the Christian equivalent of rednecks. All of it is so silly. It took me losing my religion to see how elitist Catholics can be especially my family.
That night as the emotional flashback took over, images of my life flashed before my eyes. Hundreds of them, many of them from my time at a very religious school. I felt like I was going insane, it’s so hard to put into words, to feel that you’re losing your grip on reality and that you’re falling through space.
That night I took an olanzapine and woke feeling more normal.
Well except for my sudden inexplicable hearing loss. For a few weeks I’ve had sciatica type pain all down my left arm that has been slowly going away. An MRI revealed nothing that might explain its cause. And then on Sunday I felt like my ears were blocked especially my left ear. By Monday I could hear only low sounds very loudly but everything else was muffled. I answered the phone at work and was terrified when I could hear sounds but what the speaker said was totally jumbled.
When I arrived for my appointment on Tuesday, I was desperate for some sense of safety and comfort. Most of the session can’t be blogged about because it relates to a situation I’m not free to blog about.
Psychologist J and I spend about 45 minutes of the session on this topic with me gradually crying more and more. He mentions that things like sudden hearing loss and body pains are common when people are under a lot of stress. He’s mid-sentence when I feel myself tipping over into a very dangerous place. There is a sudden sense of disconnect. The lighting in the room suddenly seems darker, seductive. I look over at him and his shoulders and arms look massive and overly masculine. His face looks almost too attractive but also stern and unfamiliar. My body starts to feel like I’m being pinned down and molested and I feel the urge to thrash my arms around. Psychologist J is mid-sentence when I say firmly “I want to stop talking about this.”
Psychologist J goes dead silent. He shifts in his seat, leans back and crosses his legs.
I decided I need to ask him what I’m afraid to know.
“I need to ask you something about you.”
“Ok…” he said glancing at the clock. I notice there is only 10 minutes left.
“I want to ask you what religion you are but I’m afraid of your answer.”
“Because I asked S and he told me he is a Christian and his answers make me feel kind of invalidated.” I tell him the context and what Psychologist S said. As I tell him I start to cry.
“I mean I don’t care what religion people are but when it comes to a therapist I want to feel like they understand trauma. I want to feel validated. When he said that everyone is worthy and loveable and valuable then what do I do about hating my parents and people like that? How are my parents valuable? Don’t some people lose their worth?”
J nods as if to say yes they do lose their worth but I feel my emotions building.
“And how can God be good and powerful and all that and then…I mean when my dad was abusing me, my mum knew and did nothing about it. How is that ok?”
“Yes and then things like childhood cancer-“
“No that’s not what I mean. I mean I created (my son) in a way, if I knew someone was raping him and I didn’t do something to stop that, I’d be a horrible person. I’d be a terrible mother. Why is it ok for God to sit back and do nothing? What’s His excuse? I mean if it’s ok for God to do nothing then it must be ok that my mum did nothing and that means I’m not allowed to feel angry at her for letting my father abuse me.”
J is leaning in nodding but still I’m too worked up to notice.
“Why did God give S ok parents and not me? I mean it just makes me feel like I’m some kind of alien or non-human or reject like God loves S more than me!”
“Ok let me stop you!” J is leaning in further and his hand is up in the stop position. His urgency snaps me out of my meltdown before I reach the point where I am practically yelling. “Let me stop you right now. I’m not a Christian. I don’t believe in Jesus. Can you hear that? I want you to take that in.” I nod meekly.
“I don’t believe in the bible. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a God but I don’t believe in Christianity for the same reasons as you. How do you justify things like childhood cancer or bad parents.”
“Ok that’s a huge relief.”
“Not having parents is a human rights violation.” J is staring at me intently. I let his words sink in. They melt down into me like warm syrup. I nod. He gets it. He gets how cruel a Christian God can seem. Something inside me settles. The room looks normal again but J looks safer than ever.
I wipe away my tears and grab my bag. The session has gone overtime again.
He nods and smiles then replies, “See you on Thursday. Take care.”