By the summer of 2006, I was starting to come to church less and less. Tara had already stopped going, and over time, the pull to be accepted faded and I found that I was attending church more out of obligation than desire.
My mental health issues remained. While I was able to successfully resist the impulse to self harm, I still dealt with anxiety and my trauma could still be reawakened with the right trigger, even in the summer months.
That’s what happened one night in early June, as the young adults gathered for a Bible study on the book of Revelation in the basement of The Edge.
FAITH AND FREAKING OUT:
Studying The End Times (as the church called the end of the world, detailed in the book of Revelation) was the very last thing I wanted to do. Tara had attended a few meetings with the young adults and we had all voted for what subjects we wanted to learn about. Tara and I voted to study God and the attributes of a father. Everyone else voted to study how God would destroy the world and every person who didn’t believe in Him in the last days.
For a person with anxiety, linked to a precarious sense of safety in the world, the idea that God would come back and be super mad at everyone who didn’t do every single thing He commanded sounded absolutely terrifying.
Part of this study (and the book of Revelation) details that before the end of the world happens there will be lots of different signs of things to come. Everything from severe weather patterns to scary leaders who convince people to trust them but turn out to be evil. In fact, everything in the news was something that The Edge attributed to God’s judgment and preparing for The End Times.
I don’t remember the specific purpose, but I know we watched a video on this evening. This video depicted real little kids with guns in other countries and an actual honest-to-God execution caught on tape. It was the execution that did me in and I knew I couldn’t watch anymore. I was totally horrified. Even though I couldn’t leave to go home myself, I went outside and walked around, feeling totally freaked out. I couldn’t understand how anyone could watch something like that and remain calm.
After a while, a friend, Vanessa, came out and found me. She asked if I was okay. I told her I wasn’t.
“That video...I just can’t even deal with it. I have anxiety already and I just couldn’t stay there and keep watching.” As with anything that sparked anxiety, my feelings about almost losing my sister were raw again as that was the most unsafe I had ever felt. I opened up a bit about it and we talked for a while. I shared a lot, and could not seem to stop talking about how afraid the video made me.
Just like that, everyone started coming out of the church.
“Who are you getting a ride with? Liam?” Vanessa asked.
“Yeah.” I answered.
“Okay. Just hang out here. I’m gonna go talk to him.”
“Don’t make a big deal out of it. I’ve dealt with this forever and he’s probably sick of it,” I cautioned her.
“Don’t worry. I won’t. I just think he should know. You don’t want to drive all the way home with him not knowing, right?”
“No.” I agreed. “You’re right. I don’t.”
FAITH AND STANDING ALONE:
“So, Vanessa told me you’re upset…” Liam began as soon as he was behind the wheel.
“Just because of the movie, or what?”
“That movie was ridiculous. I can’t believe you guys even stayed for it.” Liam was quiet, listening as he drove. “It made me remember everything with Tara…” I admitted. “I got really anxious and it made me remember being anxious then.”
“Don’t you think it’s about time you let this go and got free of it once and for all?” he asked.
His comment had a familiar ring to it. I remembered him urging me in a similar manner, to just get over a close friend’s death. This was no easier to take. Still, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Clearly he had never experienced mental health issues like these, or to this degree.
“I feel like letting go and getting free is like denying that anything ever happened. It’s like saying that nothing was ever lost,” I said, thinking of our family and how we now had less of a sense of security and confidence in our health.
Liam’s response was swift and sharp: “That’s a lie from the pit of hell!”
I was stunned into silence. He had never raised his voice at me before. Eventually, I tried again, quietly holding my ground: “Well, it feels true for me. Seriously, why can’t you just be here for me? How hard is that? To just be my friend. I just need support right now, not a lecture. I just don’t feel like you’re being here for me.”
“I’ve always been here for you, Tonia. Do you know how much I pray for you?”
“And I appreciate that, but I mean as a person. As a friend. I need you to be here for me without trying to fix me.”
“I refuse to stand with you under these lies you’re believing!”
“I’m not asking you to stand with me under any lies! I’m just asking you to stand with me!” I insisted, feeling profoundly misunderstood.
“Well, how long do I have to do that before you’ll take the next step and get healed?”
His words stung like a slap. Friends didn’t issue ultimatums for friends who were too slow to heal from life-changing trauma. His words shook me, as I realized that even though he had really backed off on talking to me about physical healing, he didn’t see how it was equally harmful to push me into the idea of getting healed of other things.
“You know the idea of healing scares me. You were there for that whole thing at the conference.”
“Well, I’m not suggesting you do that again. Just that you, you know, move on.”
“I am dealing with this,” I said quietly, “at my own pace. I think I am getting better, but slowly, and in private. I know I’m not as affected today as I was when it happened. But it’s as if it doesn’t count for you unless it’s the way you want it. In public. In front of people. With loud praying. When you know I’m not comfortable with that.”
“This isn’t just going to go away…” he cautioned.
“No, it isn’t.” I agreed. “Honestly, it feels like you only want to be my friend when I do what you want me to do. When I was coming to church regularly and going to all the events and really involved, you loved hanging out. Now, we barely see each other. It’s like you’re only happy to be around me when I’m doing the exact same thing you are. I feel like a project to you. First, the goal was to get me saved, and then that happened and the next goal was physical healing. That didn’t happen, but it just keeps going on like that. The less I play along the less you like being around me.”
“Is that really what you think of me?” Liam asked, hurt.
“It’s how you’re acting. You don’t want to be around us anymore. And you just asked me how long you had to stand with me before I got healed. What am I supposed to think, Liam?”
I felt embarrassed, ashamed and selfish. I felt like I should have kept my fear and anxiety to myself and just dealt with it on my own.
After that, I came back to church even less frequently. It was this conversation that allowed me to see finally that The Edge was not a good place for me.
FAITH AND A WAKE-UP CALL:
Less than a year later, in the spring of 2007, some friends I had worked with at Still Waters Bible Camp were in town, and asked if they could come to church with me. I had not attended The Edge in a long time, but I was still open to going as long as someone offered to drive me.
It was a weird collision of separate worlds. Camp was a place I felt almost wholly accepted and church was a place where I felt the complete opposite. Still, I was excited to introduce my camp friends (including Charlie) to my church friends. They met Liam and Vanessa.
In the sanctuary, Charlie began making quiet comments about the nature of his chronic illness. Dry one-liners. (“You know, church would be such a great place to die.”) I knew he meant what he said. I also knew he often coped with humor. So, we laughed.
Worship was great, as always. There was not a sermon, but testimony-sharing. But the thing I remember most vividly was the puppet show put on for the kids. I had never seen anything like it at The Edge, as the children were usually excused immediately after worship to go to children’s church, which was held downstairs.
On that day, things were different. There was a children’s program, featuring two puppets - Heart and Brain. After church, my friends mocked the puppet show good-naturedly (but relentlessly), and collected dated tracts from outside the sanctuary on everything from the evils of rock music to why it was wrong to be Catholic. They saw the funny side of these things. Later, we went to lunch.
It was a nice day. I had no idea that this particular day was the last time I would be at The Edge.
|[Image is: Me and Tara, out to eat, after attending The Edge for the last time.]|
FAITH AND PROTECTION:
In truth, it has taken years to articulate precisely why it was that attending with these friends was essentially the final straw for me. There had certainly been other times. Worse things had happened to me within those church walls and outside them while encouraged by friends from The Edge.
I think, though, it was seeing the church through other eyes that made the difference. My friends from Still Waters were sarcastic and dry-humored, but honest to boot. They were not afraid to call out the absolutely ridiculous things they were seeing.
More than that, though, it was occupying the space with Charlie. It was hearing a dear friend speak about wanting to die in a church and knowing that no one at The Edge would ever be there for someone like him, in the serious moments of his life. In the dark moments. In the moments where his faith was not in question, but they would make him believe it was.
They would want him to believe harder when all of us who loved Charlie knew he believed deeply and fully. His faith was not the problem. The problem was if people around him ever treated Charlie as they had treated me, I would hate it. I felt protective of my friend, and for the first time, strong enough to protect myself.
I was able to free myself once and for all from The Edge.
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