From Healthy to Hopeless
Up to now, this blog has primarily told the story of my journey from hopeless to hope-filled since joining Young Living in 2013. But to fully appreciate the hope, you need to understand the part of the story that took me from healthy to hopeless. This will be a path of discovery for all of us as I try to describe the web connecting the spiritual, emotional, and physical fallout of my season in “The Institute” and the steps I’ve taken toward recovery. Some of the things I’ll write about are raw and painful, but I’m learning that these themes are far more common than I would’ve imagined. It’s not the story I expected to live, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good story. So, here we go with Part 1.
1998. Honestly, I thought I was going crazy. After being an honors student and leader in high school and college, I was a few years into my first job and felt like I was losing my mind. I’d get up from the desk and walk down the hall to go … I don’t know where because I’d forget and have to retrace my steps in hopes my brain would remember. I was too young for dementia, but the brain fog was frightening.
This hard-driving perfectionist used to long hours, high performance, and always being “on” lived in constant fear of a public implosion. Ever see a toddler full-on meltdown in the middle of the grocery store aisle? Yep. That’s what I was afraid I’d do if just one more person asked one of those confusing questions like, “Did you need something?”
At the time, I was a leader in an organization built around legalistic codes of behavior, one of which was that leaders always had it together. “Never let them see the truth if the truth isn’t pretty” was the message I internalized.
So, after a while I was just going through the motions, disconnected from reality because it seemed the only way to survive. Disassociated. A “ministry” smile firmly fixed, even during those confused afternoon wanderings. It took years for me to realize the confusion corresponded with low blood sugar, food sensitivities, environmental poisoning, lack of sleep, and spiritual abuse.
If the only image the term “spiritual abuse” conjures up for you is of smoke billowing from a burning complex in Waco, then we’re not on the same page. What I experienced happened within a well-dressed, soft-spoken religious system where power was vested in a few individuals, some of whom used it to manipulate and control others. Within this authoritarian structure, some leaders used shame and fear to bend followers to their will. The choice? Submit or be labeled, punished, or shunned.
In a spiritually abusive system, leaders are above the law and followers are expected to obey without question, criticism, or debate. Often, vestiges of truth are sprinkled, like sugar garnishing a toxic soup, in an attempt to disguise the fact that the leader is serving up soul-crippling poison instead of something spiritually nourishing. The leader of The Institute operated with a stunning level of hypocrisy, excusing his own behavior while humiliating, belittling, and condemning those who made simple mistakes, like confronting him.
The Institute’s byline was “giving the world a new approach to life.” It took years for me to remember that the only new approach to life is the Gospel. Anything more (or less) carries with it echoes of the lies first told in Eden and raises the devastating question, “Does God really love me?” A person living in a spiritually abusive culture learns that the answer to that question is “only when you follow the rules.” This leads to feeling vulnerable and insecure, like there’s no place for an honest exchange of ideas since only the supreme leader’s ideas “count.” It strips a follower’s humanity and leaves her feeling depressed, despairing, exhausted, and confused. In a word, hopeless.
Of course, spiritual abuse exists on a continuum and confusion occurs because not everything experienced is bad. It often begins with points of light that feel like belonging and invitations to flourish, albeit inside carefully constructed parameters. It’s only later that the lights begin to dim and a person starts wandering halls wondering where she is and how she got there.
But, here’s the good news: we serve a God who loves His children and will do whatever it takes to find them. Like the shepherd who goes searching for a wandering sheep and carries it home across his shoulders, mine is a story of being tenderly lifted into my Father’s arms and gently carried as He puts the pieces of my mind, heart, and body back together.
It’s taken a long time to admit to myself that what I experienced deserves the label “abuse.” The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (available here) was a helpful starting point. When I first started wrapping words around my reflections a few years ago, I called it spiritual confusion and shared about it in two parts: here and here. Though my journey took me from healthy to hopeless, it didn’t end there. God has gone to extraordinary lengths to redeem the years I wandered in a haze of spiritual abuse. And He’ll do it for you too.
If you think you may be a victim of spiritual abuse, or just want to better understand this power dynamic, I highly recommend starting with this podcast from The Allender Center. My hope? That we may all experience the passionate love of God expressed so beautifully by Cory Asbury in his song, Reckless Love.