If your bedroom is dark and you see an unfamiliar shadow, you might think, maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me. Maybe you don’t remember what that was. Maybe it’s a burglar. If you’re a Pentacostal fundie, you probably think, maybe it’s a demon. And this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion when you’ve been taught that demons are real, had an entire influence of people confirm that they are real or even share their own accounts of their encounters, and have had your parents point to things and name them demons.
Outside of conservative Christianity, other people may not understand the logic that comes from believing that a shadow might be a demon, but within the set of beliefs that have been walls built up around you, for a fundie like I was, it couldn’t be anything but.
And abuse is kind of the same thing. I’ve written before about the misconception that abuse is just made of the specific abusive acts, and that outside of specific physical and sexual moments, there is no abuse. And I’m not denying that there aren’t abusive acts in and of themselves. But for many of us, our experience of abuse wasn’t just things. It was an abusive system, structured with layers of rules and belief, that, while they may be contradictory and confusing, have a kind of internal logic that makes sense.
The messages that we survivors repeat to ourselves are often seen as confusing and strange to non-survivors. Things like I deserved it, it was my fault, I’m a terrible person, it wasn’t that bad, it was for my own good etc. But these thoughts do have basis to them. Maybe not basis in anything true, or anything we can articulate, but these are messages that within the abusive environment, made sense. Sometimes these conclusions were based on things we were actually told. We were told we were worthless, useless, stupid, deserving of abuse. Our faults and failures were held up as proof, and since this was our family, of course they must be telling the truth. Sometimes it was simply how our brain processed the abuse in order to survive: the logical conclusion we came to so we could make sense of what was happening to us.
I think this is why growing up in a conservative religious environment adds an extra layer of difficulty when dealing with the abuse: I wasn’t just told lies about myself, but also lies about the rest of the world. The “Biblical worldview” was the lens that I was supposed to look at everything through; the world fitting into our two-sided absolutes. We had the Truth, other people didn’t, and you could question lots of things (supposedly) but you weren’t allowed to question Truth. And Truth determined the way you looked at the world, the way that you saw people and interpreted their behavior. Truth determined that your kind of Christian was saved and everyone else was hurting non-believers whose lives were filled with sin, and pain, and heartache without Christ. You didn’t need to listen or understand anyone or anything else and you definitely shouldn’t listen and understand yourself.
Leaving Christianity was about unlearning the entirety of everything I’d been taught and trained to be. I was a soldier of God needing to unlearn the belief that there was even an enemy. The lies of conservative Christianity were so carefully crafted; lies about myself, and lies about the rest of the world and the residual effects still linger. For instance, as I’m writing this, I’m watching JCTV (I’m not sure why); watching teenagers talk about how “this generation just has no values anymore.” I know that rhetoric, the belief that only conservative Christians have values and the rest of the world is broken and shallow, that it’s hard even now, not to feel like I should believe them. Even though I know these things aren’t true, I’ve been trained to believe that these opinions are more valid than anything else I could learn or anything I might think about myself.
And I find myself dealing with the same unlearning process now that I’m no longer a part of my abusive family. I’m startled every time the world doesn’t line up with what they told me it was, or how they told me I am. It feels wrong when people aren’t treating me like I’m the terrible, worthless, evil person that my family made me believe I am. It feels almost physically painful at times, trying to understand an entirely new conception of myself and the world; one where I am treated with respect and loved.
And I find it interesting the ways that the two work in tandem: how the “Biblical Worldview” reinforced the “abuser worldview,” teaching me similar things about the nature of the world and myself: I am a sinner, I deserve nothing, and should accept the love of others gracious enough to love someone as terrible as I am. The world is a terrible place and I should stay inside the Christian bubble where they have Truth and Reality and Morals and Values and I better make sure not to question the Truth. Honor your father and mother, obey your parents, suck it up for Jesus, forgive, don’t listen to your emotions.
Having to unlearn all that is having to remake an entire understanding of myself and the world. It’s having to go against everything I’ve been taught, all the lies that have constructed my life, things that I have been trained to believe are such moral imperatives that going against them is defying God and all the laws of the universe itself.
And it’s hard. Some days it feels physically hard – when someone tells me it wasn’t my fault, or that I didn’t deserve the abuse, or that people who love me aren’t going to hurt me, it’s physically pain shooting through my head. Because that’s what the abuse did and what Christianity did — they convinced me so much of their rightness that it feels almost impossible to break out of it. It doesn’t even matter if reality contradicts them, they’ve already got an answer for that: I just can’t trust my perceptions of that reality and they’re still right.
This is why my health as a survivor is directly tied up with rejecting Christianity: the two couldn’t exist together. They both are part of the same process of unlearning, of recognizing that the things that I’ve been told about, well, everything are fundamentally untrue.
But there are no demons. The world isn’t made up of immoral lost souls who need Jesus. I am not a worthless sinner who should be grateful for whatever love some God decides to give me. I don’t deserve the abuse. I’m allowed to care about myself enough to not surround myself with abusive people, even if they are family. The Truth is a lie, no matter how much they broke me down to believe it.