(Religious Trauma)

I said a prayer tonight, for the first time in a long time. For the first time in years I didn’t choke on the word Amen. Why, pray tell, is this significant enough to bother writing about? Let’s rewind a while…

I am a virginal, deeply introverted 12 year old girl, in a family of would be gypsies. Our lives an endless cycles of new houses and new schools and new faces and never staying still. Never staying in one place for long but for now living in a map-dot in the bible belt of Alabama. My mother recently married to a self proclaimed ‘Preacher’, an aspiring pastor, a man of God, and an outright asshole of a human being. In the world he was a pillar of politeness, a jovial, kindhearted fellow; but the mask came off the second we were out of ear shot of his admirers.

Church every Sunday, every Wednesday of the month; bible study and youth groups. Salvation and brimstone for breakfast lunch and dinner. Degradation for dessert.

I am devout.
I say my prayers in the morning.
I bless my food.
I read my red letter bible.
And most importantly… I believe.

I believe with everything in me that God is out there and that he loves me, that Jesus died for me and my many many sins. As a 13 year old I committed oh so many of them. I believe that the preacher man is trying to save my soul and if I was just a little bit better, a little quieter, a little less me, I would be safe from an eternity of torture and pain.

I believe, because I am told to believe.

I take shelter in the words of others. In the views outside of the ones of the map-dot people, finding solace in the more overlooked novels in the school library. The less interest others had in them, the more I needed to devour them. Mysteries and fantasies, comedies and ghost stories. I found peace in the pages and structures and smells of them.

I burned through the collections of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys a book a day, moving on to more substantial materials (while avoiding the ‘devils works’ like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) I read and I read picking a new conquest almost daily.

But one fateful day I picked the wrong book….

The thickest book on the shelf. A mystery, murder (don’t tell the preacher man) a theft, intrigue and danger! A heavy, hardback novel, the name of which I’ll never forget, the contents within I have yet to finish. A delicate black letter title embossed over the scene of a small house on the water. ‘Pearl Cove’. I was pretty and thick and the weekend was coming so I chose it to accompany me home.

I don’t remember how many pages I had completed before he saw it, but I was engrossed in the story of a murdered man and a missing black pearl necklace. The preacher man took note of my absentmindedness and asked what I was reading. I told him, and he asked to see it and as he read over the cover his slowly his face turned red. He began thumbing through the pages and stopped when he found what he must have known was there.

I knew before he spoke that I had messed up somehow. Speaking quickly turned to screaming and I cried myself to sleep that night. How could anyone be so upset by a book? The next day he took the book to the school; and had it removed from the roster. Such is the way of the map-dot people.

The night of the book was the first time I was called a ‘whore’.

My faith was shaken that night. Well, my faith in him at least. I was far more selective with my reading material after that, leaving books in my locker more often than bringing them home. I put even more fervor into my prayers, praying for salvation from hell, and from my life, and from the preacher man… But he wasn’t done.

* *

Years passed and I am now barely 15. We have moved a few more times and settled for now in a popular beach town south of Daytona. I’ve been in the same school for a full year. I have friends. I have a boyfriend… the son of another preacher man. This one a good man. A kind man who loves his children and loves his youth group and loves his church and who never says a cross word that isn’t a part of a lesson. A true Pastor.

I love his son. Though I haven’t said so yet. We hold hands in the church pews on Sunday and he traces the lines of my palms. His blue eyes warmed me in a way I was unfamiliar with and near him I felt alive in ways I never knew. I was still the vision of virtue. I had yet to even have my first kiss but I wanted to share it with him.

God had other plans.

I almost told him I loved him as I climbed out of the youth bus one day.
I turned to him and called his name and he looked at me and I almost said it but I realized we hadn’t told his father about us yet and I realized it had only been a few weeks and I realized how heavy those words were before I let them pass my lips and instead I said ‘call me later’…

I got the call the following Sunday. Alone in the room of a long term facility for the families of hospitalized children. My youngest brother had been in a devastating accident months before and was still in a coma. I was almost out the door to head across the street to the hospital when the phone rang. It was my best friend, who never called when I was here.

He’s dead’ she said as soon as I said hello.
I told her ‘Very funny. What’s up?’
‘I’m not kidding. He’s dead’ And this time I believed her.
‘What?’ I whispered as I felt the oxygen being sucked out of the room through the phone receiver.

She told me that two men had come to the church to find his father and that he had collapsed at the alter. He was dead. He died hundreds of miles from home with someone he shouldn’t have been with in a place he shouldn’t have been going in a car he shouldn’t have been in. I hung up before she was done. I ran, I ran and I ran and I didn’t stop until I was in the elevator and the doors opened and I stepped out and my mother saw me and I took the steps across the hall and then I collapsed too.

The days passed and the preacher man took me to buy a funeral dress, he mocked me for not wanting to wear all black. I wanted to be pretty for him, one last time. I bought a white lace shawl to wear over my black dress. Just for him.

I wore black a lot more after that day.

Weeks went by and I sought comfort in the Friday night youth group, the only place I found peace of any kind. His father and our friends and most of our memories were in that room waiting for me. The preacher man drove me there and on the way he said the words that would ultimately destroy my faith.

‘If you had been a better friend to him instead of being his girlfriend, he wouldn’t have died. His friend would have known he was leaving and could have told someone and stopped him. If you weren’t so busy holding hands and had paid more attention in church he might still be here.’

Shattered. I have no other word for the feeling, a feeling I am experiencing all over again writing this to share with you dear reader. Shattered.

My heart was shattered, and my spirit was shattered, and my faith in that man, and my faith in God who let this happen… all shattered. A billion little shards of my soul exploding into the ether. Heaven, Hell, damn them both. God and Satan and the preacher man could all burn together.

I left the church soon after that day. I couldn’t bring myself to sit in pews surrounded by people like the preacher man with their fake smiles and hidden lives and secrets and hate. I loved the Pastor, his father, I loved his family, and I loved the friends I had made in that building. I lost Him, and then so much more because that was the man that God had put in my mothers heart.

I loved God. I loved Jesus. I had accepted the Holy Spirit into my heart. And a man of God destroyed the house I had built for the Trinity.

It’s been 17 years and I still have panic attacks if I try to sit through a sermon. I have found a faith of my own creation that does not involve the need for buildings and pews and hypocrites and men of God. So tonight I prayed for the first time in years. With my face upturned and my eyes open, watching the gathering clouds, and runes my husband cast- I prayed. I prayed to the Holy Trinities. The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit; and to the Maiden, the Mother, the Crone. I prayed to the Moon and the Sun and the Earth. And for the first time in 17 years the words did not taste curdled on my tongue.

Find your faith. Faith in God, or in man, or in the Craft. In Buddha or Odin, Allah or Death. In Gaia or Freya or the Moon and Sun. Find YOUR faith. And to hell with theirs.

(I miss you still, even after all these years. I wish I said said ‘I love you’ instead of ‘call me later’. I keep your picture, though it’s still hard to look at. I’m doing my best here, and I hope wherever you are that you’re proud of me. Oh, I’m a Braves fan now; and they won the World Series this year. So there’s that. I love you M.)

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