At the Edge of a Familiar Cliff
This is part four of the series on my journey into and out of a spiritually abusive environment. Click here to start at the beginning with part 1.
2006-2008. After the setbacks of 2004, I continue the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back pace until I’m finally strong enough, resolved enough to get out. I’ve been studying at a reformed seminary for three semesters and having all kinds of “ah ha” moments. Church history is one of my favorite subjects, and I discover that narcissism and spiritual abuse has plagued the church since its inception. The lies I was told at The Institute are just variations on a dissonant theme that’s been playing out for centuries in contrast to the pure melody of God’s redemptive plan as it advances through the humble, simple, and faithful. So much for offering the world a “new” approach to life.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about heresy: if it was obvious, no one would fall for it. But when it comes in a pretty package, all smiles and “welcome to the club,” it snakes its way in under the radar and we hardly even notice as it begins planting the weeds that will try to choke the life out of us.
One of my dearest friends is a counselor and I asked her recently, “Did you think I was in a cult back then?” She replied, “Oh yes; I just thought it wasn’t a really bad one.” I think what she meant was that, in contrast to the Waco complex of the Branch Davidians going up in flames, from the outside things looked pretty good at the Institute. I lived in an historic hotel in downtown Dallas and dressed up to do my office work. If you came to visit, you were greeted with a smile and warm hospitality. You had to listen closely to hear the heresy hissing behind the classical music piping through the lobby.
Oh, my heart! Abuse doesn’t have to be physical to have catastrophic consequences, and what happens spiritually, emotionally and physically cannot be compartmentalized. I am not the healthy girl I was when I first stepped into this lifestyle in 1993 … and I don’t even know how it happened, but I begin to understand that I had walked into the prison cell and locked *myself* in.
But God! He opens a door for me to work for my church and in February 2006 two very significant things happen: I step into the role of Director of Children’s Ministries and Prince Charming makes his first appearance, cleverly disguised as the Event Manager across the hall. It’s the beginning of the long road out.
My health is still tenuous, but working 40-50 hours a week seems like a vacation after what I am used to! After six months, I’ve saved enough to move into my own apartment. Living alone feels like the greatest gift after being with people 24/7 for 12 years! The scales begin to fall off my eyes more quickly now, and I’m beginning to strain against some of the spiritual and emotional weeds wrapped around my soul. Fresh shoots of life spring up from well-rooted seeds.
At the church, I quickly become emotionally enmeshed in the relationships and responsibilities, because that’s how I’ve learned to roll. Now in my mid-30s, with a growing ache over not having a husband and children of my own, I pour myself into the lives of those around me … hundreds of children and volunteers that I recruit, train, support, and cherish. Two years slip quickly by as I sink deeper into my new identity.
Meanwhile, the well-meaning doctor who was incinerating the veins in my cheeks suggests that, if my thyroid meds seem a little off, I experiment with the levels to find what works best for me. Only, I don’t know that some of the symptoms of high thyroid levels are the SAME as low levels. So, I over-medicate myself and the symptoms begin to spiral out of control. I’m anxious, skittish, can’t sleep, obsessive. My hormones are increasingly off: heavy bleeding, irregular cycles, and ovarian cysts that begin to burst.
The first time a cyst ruptures, I think I must have eaten something funny at lunch. The second time I go from fine to fetal position and still think it’s some kind of monstrous indigestion. Sometimes I pass so much blood that I’m afraid. My gynecologist (the same one who provides the face treatments pro bono because I have the worst case of rosacea she’s ever seen AND suggests playing with the prescription) tells me not to worry, that sometimes these things happen to women in their mid-30s.
Then there’s the Sunday I’m sitting in the early service, and suddenly the walls start closing in. I can’t breathe. My heart hurts. I have tunnel vision. I’ll learn later I had classic symptoms of a panic attack, but in the moment, I think I may be dying.
My sister rushes me to the emergency room and, after all the diagnostics come back normal, the doctor takes my hand and says, “Tell me about your stress level.” My mother squeezes my other hand and says, “Tell him about your book.” I’ve written about this. I *know* this place. I’m standing on the edge of a familiar cliff, and the panic attack is my body’s not-so-subtle way of saying, “We’re not doing this again, baby girl!”
One of the resources that helped me begin to make sense of hormone issues is “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You about Menopause” by Dr. John Lee. Despite the title, women of all ages will benefit from his insights. My book is no longer in print, but you can still find used copies on Amazon if “The Blessing of Boundaries” sounds intriguing to you. To better understand the connections between our physical, emotional, and spiritual health, I’ve found this podcast from The Allender Center helpful. And, if I had to choose just ONE resource I wish I’d had in my hip pocket from the beginning of my recovery, it would have to be this.