Religious Trauma… My Story of Healing

Religious Trauma… My Story of Healing

To say I was a “good little girl” was an enormous understatement. By 15, I had accepted Jesus Christ into my heart, asked forgiveness for my sins, been baptized in front of all who loved me, been “dedicated” as an infant in front of the entire church, taught Sunday school, worked in the nursery, sang in the choir, played the piano during offering…. I could go on, though I’m sure you now clearly understand the depth of my devotion to the church, and to God. 

When I was 15 1/2 and a Sophomore in high school, I had signed up to go with the church youth group to “Winter Camp”, as I had done all of my former teenage years. It was a special weekend that I looked forward to every year, where the youth group would go up to the snow, and have worship in a cabin, church services on the lake, and fellowship with their friends during the day. This year, I had started a part-time retail job, and wouldn’t be able to go until Saturday, since I had to work on Friday. Perhaps my mom or dad would drive me up the three hour trip to Lake Tahoe, so that I wouldn’t miss my favorite Winter tradition with my dearest friends? 

While exclaiming my circumstances to Mike, the much admired and very popular youth leader, his eyes popped wide open in excitement that he had a plan that would work- he also had to work on Friday, so he was already driving separately to Tahoe, and I could ride along. Problem solved! I would get to go to Winter Camp after all! 

Telling my parents our plan gave them much relief, since they had two other children to look after on the weekend, and a six hour roundtrip haul to Tahoe was no longer on their shoulders. They were very grateful to Mike for offering such a kind gesture. So was I- it was a lot of responsibility to take someone’s precious daughter up to the snow, and to be trusted so implicitly was an honor that was bestowed upon him forged upon years of my babysitting his children, him being in a position of power, and most importantly, a good Christian man who is a beam of a shining example to all who knew him in the church. 

I ticked off the days on my little wall calendar… red X’s slashed through the weeks, which excitedly turned into only days until it was finally time to leave. Mike showed up at my house right on time to pick me up, and we told my parents good-bye, and off to Tahoe we went! We had normal and polite small talk until we came close to the Nevada border near South Lake Tahoe. When the road turned on the highway, I was mesmerized by the snow-speckled forests and dramatic and jagged cliffs. “Have you never been to Tahoe?”, Mike asked. “No, I’ve never even been out of California before.” I said quietly, still short of breath admiring the Lord’s handiwork all around my field of vision. “In that case, we are going to have dinner in Nevada so that you can say you’ve been there!” How could I argue with that? Surely the rest of the youth group were still skiing and tubing and playing in the snow, and we weren’t expected to be there until later in the evening- right in time for worship, since we had all of the musical equipment. 

Mike pulled into the parking lot at Harrah’s in Nevada. I had never in my life seen a casino, let alone a gorgeous hotel in Nevada. As we rode the escalator to the top floor, where a forest-lined dining room with white linen tablecloths and glittering stemware and silverware glinted throughout the room, I suddenly began to feel a little self-conscious in my dingy “Silver Spur Winter Camp Youth Group 1991” sweatshirt from the prior year, acid-wash jeans and dirty Keds sneakers with no laces. Sensing my trepidation, Mike said, “Welcome to Nevada! Let’s hurry and eat so we can get to camp in time for worship!”

Indeed, I landed back into my role of the youth group music aficionado, and dutifully sat at the fabulously dressed and set table so that we can “have dinner in Nevada” and get up to camp on time for worship- my favorite part about camp, and honestly church in general. Once we were seated, Mike offered to order for me. I agreed, as I had no idea what to order at such a fancy restaurant. This was quite a different setting than the Sizzler’s that my family frequented after church on Sunday’s. After he placed our order, he did something that took me by much surprise, and ordered a beer with his dinner. My only experience around alcohol at this point was the Coors in a yellow can that my dad would occasionally drink on the weekends. I had never been to a restaurant where people ordered alcohol with their dinner. Maybe it’s a Nevada thing? I was too young and naive to even think about Mike driving me through the mountains after drinking alcohol- I had not learned enough about alcohol at that point to be aware of the risk. After our decadent meal, Mike’s two beers, and a very decadent chocolate fudge sundae for me, we hit the road for camp. 

We arrived at camp just in time to set up the musical equipment to playoff the evening worship service. I sat at my keyboard, and played “Our God is an Awesome God” with so much enthusiasm and gratitude to the Lord for letting me have such a life-changing, eye-opening, and “grown up” experience on my first trip outside of California. He truly was an awesome God, and I was his devoted servant, and it showed in my bellowing voice and talented hands as I played song after song while the camp sang in unison. 

The next day, after countless hours spent playing, tubing, eating junk food and enjoying the rest of my friends and their company, and plenty of worship! The last night of camp there is always an “alter call”, where new church members in the youth group would walk up in front of their peers to accept Jesus into their hearts, to be saved. I had done so when I was 8, and there was no doubt in my mind that I had led by example to so many others by my seven full years of devotion and love to God and the church. Filled with positivity, and still basking in the glow of witnessing the “newly saved”, I was quite concerned and surprised when Mike said with a sense of urgency, “I have to tell you something…” Had I done something wrong? Did I incorrectly teach the sign language to the “King of Kings and Lord of Lord’s” song to the youth group? “You are giving me feelings for you.” Mike said to me with a slight dose of irritation in his voice. “You are so beautiful and you sing like an angel, and I want to record music with you when we get back home.” Once again with the naivety and immaturity of a very sheltered, God-fearing girl, I exclaimed, “Okay! Then we can save more people!” Mike grinned and looked at me with what I believed to be admiration for my talents and my fervor of saving as many people as we could reach- my mission so far, in my young life. 

The ride home was filled with much talk about the weekend, the music, the tape that we were to record and distribute to the church and to anyone anywhere to help them choose salvation, like we had. Until the van pulled off the road in a minuscule town near the Delta, I had thought nothing of the “feelings” chatter the night before. I figured that Mike had to get gas- there was no other reason for pulling off of the freeway so close to the church. When the van pulled past the gas station, and down a side road, and parked beneath a bridge next to the water, where there was no one around, I still thought that there must be a good reason- perhaps the music equipment had shifted. When we stopped, Mike came around to my door, opened it, stood onto the side of the van, so that he was towering over my seated and seat belted body, and began to kiss me in a way that caught me by so much surprise, my body had frozen, and words caught in my mouth that was now being pursued by someone’s tongue. Words could not form in my mouth, because my brain had completely short-circuited at the surprising and somewhat violent turn of events. While my brain was scrambling for words, Mike took my silence to mean he had permission to lift up my sweatshirt to expose my bra, and when he yanked down the cups of the bra, I snapped into a state of sheer panic and began to scream and cry. I am going to spare the rest of the details, because they are a ghastly and revolting trail to the finality of his attack, which resulted in sexual assault that I did not define as “rape” until I learned the definition more than two decades later.

Mike suddenly became very angry at my childish whimpering and admittedly, I was embarrassed at my reaction. He went behind the van, pleasured himself, from what I could hear from the passenger seat, and slid into the driver’s seat next to me, still furious. I sobbed all the way to the church, as my head spun and my stomach twisted. No words were exchanged when Mike pulled into the church parking lot. We both got out and walked in the opposite directions. I bolted like lightening to the bathroom. Once safely inside, I looked into my own eyes in the mirror- I was struck by how red they were. I looked like a feral cat had stretched out his gnarly paw and struck gashes with his pointed claws across and down the whites of my eyes. My face was glistening with fresh, salty tears, and the skin across my chest was so red and covered in splotches that it looked as though I had broken out in hives. I might have. I turned the sink faucet completely to the left so I could receive the benefit of using the hottest water imaginable to cleanse myself. Impatiently, I began with the icy cold water, and paid no mind as it turned tepid, and then scalding. The abrasiveness of the searing hot water mixed with the salt of my tears caused such a painful reaction that I snapped out of my quest to purify myself with near-boiling water. I patted my now ruddy and swollen eye sockets and cheeks with a crisp paper towel, and slunk from the bathroom. 

In the hallway was my friend Aaron, a very close and treasured friend I had made several years earlier in youth group. He stared at me horrified and asked me if I’m alright. Trying to find words to make up a story in my traumatized brain left me stammering. I fell into his chest and sobs heaved my body as he held me, bewildered. Once I was able to gather some sort of language, I made him promise me that he would tell no one what I was going to tell him. I trusted Aaron- we had confided in each other many times over the years. I told him a very short and incredibly partial version of what happened. To which he maturely replied, “I know that you are going to be mad at me, but we have to tell your parents. I will take you home, and be with you while you tell them.”

I was too exhausted and withdrawn to argue or scream that he had betrayed my trust. Somewhere inside of me, I knew that he was right. We drove to my house in silence, and when my parents opened the door, he began to tell them that we had to talk to them. I repeated the same version of the story to my parents, that had left out the pieces that fell into the definition of sexual assault. In my new and improved story, things did not progress past “second base”. My parents were furious at the betrayal, and very loving and nurturing to me. The events that transpired in the days and weeks that followed are somewhat of a blur, and from what I can clearly recall included a conversation in private with Mike’s wife, the pastor of the church that had baptized me only weeks earlier, and with a therapist that was hired by the church. 

After telling and retelling my “nutshell” version, and answering more questions than I cared to repeat, I was asked by the church-appointed therapist if I intended to press charges on the church. I asked my parents, who said that they would support any decision that I made. When I told the therapist that I was considering taking legal action, she made sure that she dutifully described how it would be if I were to “take the stand” against Mike. She warned me that the judge and jury had the right to ask me any questions that they wanted, including my past sexual history with boys. She painted a picture of me sitting pitifully on the witness stand,, being forced to explain each and every kiss, encounter or any kind of activity that could be perceived as sexual in nature, in front of an audience that would include my family, Mike’s family, and people from the church. In that moment, I chose to remain silent. She had fulfilled her duty to protect the church. 

The head pastor met with my family and I, and made it very clear that he is not able to force people to leave the church. The church was full of people who came already with sin, and that it is our job as Christians to forgive one another. He did say that he would remove Mike from his position as a youth pastor, in order to make it clear that he was not to work around children. Even though my family had practically lived at the church, we took a long and extended absence. We did not attend church, nor did I attend any youth group functions until Easter Sunday, nearly three months after the event took place. My childhood best friend was staying with us that weekend, and we both wore pretty floral dresses and little heels, and with her by my side, I felt ready to resume my relationship with Christ, cloaked in the protection of my family, and the peace of mind that I would be safe at church. 

When we walked into the church foyer, amongst many stares and whispers that seemed to twitch the little hairs on my ears like little stabbing needles, I look up to the cross at the front of the church, in some wistful attempt to feel closer to God, and my eyes land squarely on Mike, playing the guitar, on the stage, under the cross, in front of all of the church. Once again, my blood boiled and I seethed at this display of ultimate betrayal, and that was the very last day that my family attended church. In the months that followed, Mike stalked me at my retail job, and I began to regret my decision to not press charges. After a phone call from my father threatening to end his life, even if he would live out his own days in prison for murder, he promised to “hunt him down like a dog” if he came near his daughter. 

I was grateful for my father’s protection, though the damage had been so great that even Mike’s death wouldn’t fix what had been done inside my heart let alone my body. In the years that followed, I became increasingly promiscuous, reckless and fell as far from my precious Lord as a broken girl, high on Ecstasy in a bathroom in Downtown Los Angeles could be. There weren’t enough drugs, alcohol, raves, parties and debauchery that could possibly numb my pain and distract me from what I had endured. I lost my church family, my friends, my life’s purpose to save others, and my own self worth. I had assumed that I would be broken for eternity. 

After two decades, and an additional traumatic event that shook my world, my sexuality, ravaged my body, and demolished my marriage, I swiftly became an end-stage alcoholic. I was clinging to some version of existence that was only granted by fate’s razor-thin hold over possibility of death. My children and their father staged a small family intervention on the day after Christmas, 2020, when I’d consumed 30 mg of Ambien and at least 3 bottles of wine. How I was able to lift my head that morning and open my eyes is still a medical mystery to me. 

When I began my healing journey on that morning, I decided that I was not going to let my past define me. I was going to face my demons head-on, and stop drowning them in alcohol and quieting their insidious hissing voices and stories with Ambien. After I was 6 months sober, I began intensive trauma therapy. I was completely skeptical of my ability to heal from this massive and gaping wound. I nearly rolled my eyes as I recited my old and tattered story. My therapist nudged me ever so gently to dig deeper, and then even deeper, until we arrived at the version that was the truth. Now that I could tell my story to another human, I could learn to set it down. Between a close friend who is also a therapist and mindfulness practitioner, my trauma therapist, my trauma-informed life coach, an addiction therapist, friends in recovery and rehab, a DBT therapist and a Reiki practitioner, and with the love and support of a small village of loved ones around me, I can say today that I am 15 months sober, and finally free of the weighted chains of addiction and PTSD that bound me to my story for so many tortuous years. 

I don’t know that I will ever consider myself fully healed- though for the first time in my adult life, I love and respect myself and my body. I have hope again, and “hope” is a close cousin to “healed”, I firmly believe. In recovery, I’ve been faced with choosing a God of my understanding, or a Higher Power. I am no longer angry at God, though still furious at the church, the pastor and Mike. Although he’s gone on to marry someone more than thirty years younger than he is, I have decided that that is not my proverbial cross to bear. I consider myself “spiritual, though not religious.” On the first year anniversary of my sobriety, I celebrated my special day at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. I swooned when the choir sang the familiar hymns, and I clapped my hands with the congregation as cleansing tears streamed down my cheeks. I don’t know if I need to define a relationship between God and I, anymore than my daily display of gratitude. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be in a church or to prove to anyone how “Christian” I am. For now, I define my relationship with God as “it’s complicated” like we’re an old married couple on Facebook, who’ve hit a slope and don’t know how to define their troubled relationship in any other way. I think the God of my understanding has a fabulous sense of humor, and would understand the joke. In my year of healing, I have adopted a favorite phrase from Maya Angelou, “I wouldn’t trade nothin’ for my journey now.” And with every person that tells me my story helped them- I believe that quote today, to be true. We DO recover. 

~Kristin Fuller