Losing My Religion
Originally Posted: 2019
Religion ruined my life. Religion saved my life.
I’m taking a step back from religion to clear my head.
I haven’t spoken to a lot of people about hitting this personal pause button- just my therapist, really, and a friend who shares a lot of my mental health burdens (so I figured it would make sense to them). It’s something that’s shrouded in a lot of guilt, confusion and shame. I owe a lot to religion, but I also have a lot of blame to place at its feet.
My spirituality as an adult has been something I have worn proudly, like the tattoos on my skin or my big blue hair. I wore it like an armor, until it was pierced by something running at my back, and the person inside the shiny silver was unravelled.
I’ll go back to the beginning, to show you what I mean.
It ruined me:
Growing up, I was raised Roman Catholic. Sort of. I was baptized and received my first communion, but never pursued confirmation. My mother taught CCD classes for a spell when I was a kid. I dimly recall a time where we attended service every Sunday. Eventually, it became an Easter-and-Christmas-only event. Then, the more the curtain was pulled back on pedophile priests, the more my mother became disillusioned and disgusted with the church.
We pretty much stopped going, and I was glad.
You remember certain things from the ages of under-4-feet-tall. I hold many clear recollections of being in a church.
I remember being bored out of my tiny little mind; they didn’t tell stories in a way that was interesting to my ears, and so failed to hold my attention. I remember wanting to fidget, but can’t remember if I did (I probably did). I remember the sound of the hassocks hitting the hard ground, echoing too loudly in an otherwise somber setting, and how it hurt my back and knees. I remember the rhythm, the consistent rise and fall in the priest’s voice. The sad looking statues and the pretty stained glass pictures where everyone seemed to be in pain. I wonder if that’s where I began to see how pretty and pain could be so oddly woven together.
I remember the bell, innocently taking it as proof of God’s existence when it rang. I remember lavish fabric, big arches, the cash basket; angling to be the one to put the money in, so I might get a smile from a stranger in this otherwise dreary place. So I could actually DO something. The grey chorus of “worshipers” singing what was supposed to be praise, but sounded more like half-hearted habit performed out of obligation. The monotone responses of “and also with you,” “praise be to God,” and a few others that are imprinted on my memory forever.
But more than anything else, I remember my first confession.
I was still in elementary school. Part of the preparation for receiving your first communion included making your first confession. The memory of it is vivid in my mind. Yellow and warmly lit, but so big and empty and cold. We were brought to the church by a parent, who then sat waiting for us in a pew at the back. We went right to the front of the church, and waited our turn in a single-file line.
There were two priests, spaced out on either side of the stage (or whatever it’s called) in front of the altar. There was a chair across from each of them that we would filter through. We didn’t get the privacy or anonymity of a confessional. We didn’t get to hide our faces. We were on display; visible, however softly-spoken. A hall of restless kids and whispers. I didn’t want to sit across from this man with a direct line to God and tell him my secrets. I could feel my face get hot, the nausea boiling in my stomach. And what was I even supposed to confess? I was little. I was just little, and I was supposed to tell this holy stranger what I thought I had done wrong.
Utterly confused, and feeling those waves of shame and guilt for maybe the first time in my young life, I picked what I knew was “bad,” and what I didn’t understand.
I had been having sexual thoughts for the first time. I didn’t really understand what they were or why. They didn’t bring me pleasure, they scared me and made me feel sick. I wanted to get rid of them. So, fine, if I had to do this, maybe the guy in the fancy white cloak could help me feel better.
Sex wasn’t really a big topic in my house. I don’t remember ever getting much of “the talk.” It wasn’t necessarily something repressed by my parents; it was likely more of a neutral, if untouched, topic. It just didn’t come up. But I did feel somewhat alone in my discovery of it.
I basically told the priest, in an almost out-of-body experience, that I was having thoughts about genitals (though I probably just said penis and vagina); that I was having dirty images pop into my head involving family, friends, strangers- and I didn’t want them. That I was having sexual thoughts, whatever sex meant to me at that point. I was mortified.
What I needed someone to say was that I was a child; I was discovering things about bodies, I was just curious. That this was natural and not evil. That I wasn’t bad or broken. That I shouldn’t be afraid. I needed a biology lesson, reassurance, and maybe a hug.
What did I get? A passively concerned middle aged man telling me to say X amount of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Which meant that I needed forgiveness. Which meant that I had sinned. Which meant I must be perverse or wrong or bad.
But I was just little.
I remember we were told confession was supposed to be an unburdening, and all I felt was more weight than I knew how to carry.
I cried quietly to myself on the car ride home.
I realize now how much this, combined with my pre-disposition to certain mental illnesses, has helped to create oh-so-many of the deep-seated issues in my brain.
I became internally obsessed with the idea of purity; of being a good person as defined by some seriously impossible standards. I confessed having sexual and violent thoughts to my parents, because the guilt was suffocating. The more I told myself, “don’t think about things that are bad,” of course, the more the thoughts would come. What’s that line from Six Degrees of Separation? “Don’t think about elephants…”
It became my first experience with the OCD looping thoughts I still experience today. It lasted for months. I went to a shitty child psychologist that didn’t help me at all, but did ask me if I thought I was gay (?). Eventually, at least, the loops withered away for a while.
I prayed to myself incessantly, and developed a personal prayer that I would recite in my head whenever I experienced a bad thought or a negative feeling. I made sure it covered all the bases. Begging for forgiveness and swearing that I didn’t mean it. Then I started mumbling it. I’m not exaggerating when I say I probably said it, internally or externally, upwards of 50 times a day. Maybe more. I’m also not exaggerating when I say that this habitual prayer and self-flagellation followed me in one way or another all the way through college, and even after that- though to a lesser degree as I became more sure of myself, and I re-wrote it a few times to suit my needs as I got older.
I became worried that people would hear me. Or that they would see. Because at some point I thought: well, if my thoughts are impure or unsafe, I have to at least mouth the prayer for it to have any meaning– I have to put it outside of me for it to do me any good. I would sometimes say it multiple times in a row, panicked as the “bad” thoughts forced their way through. Pretty fucked up, huh? It was exhausting.
Luckily, in my later teen years I was able to develop a healthy sexuality outside of this obsession. I became a generally free, open, raw kind of person that I adore. I was able to grow and change and dream. In some ways I think I split myself in two. There’s the real me, whom I hold onto and am more present in every year of my life, and there’s the me that was born that day in confession. In the logical part of my brain, I know she’s fundamentally wrong about everything. But there is a visceral, almost instinctual reaction involved. Because of this, I still struggle to let go of what I then called “bad,” and now call “intrusive,” thoughts when they come; why I still fear them, and what they mean.
By the way, they don’t mean anything.
Intrusive thoughts, without the obsession, are common. Everyone experiences them. I want to be like most people, who can shake them off and move on with their day. I’m certainly much better at managing it now, much closer to that goal than I ever thought I could be.
And above all, it’s good to know what I didn’t know then: that I’m not alone.
I live by some mantras. Simplify. You are not your thoughts. Thoughts aren’t real.
I don’t like being in churches now. I feel unsettled. Restless. Like I’m in the middle of a big, fractured fraud; looking it in the face while being slapped and told to smile. I don’t feel peace there. Only anxiety and stress. I feel annoyed and angry. I feel itchy. I hate it.
It’s a place that gave certain people in my life a reason to condemn me for my queerness. It’s a place where I am often still unwelcome.
It’s not a safe space for me. It’s a place that helped undo me before I even began, and without my being able to realize it. And one that has wanted to undermine me ever since.
It saved me:
Fast forward to a few years ago, when I was introduced to paganism.
This was life-changing in a completely different way. I loved the fluidity of it all- the way it connected me to life, death, earth and self all at once. It wasn’t about purity or perfection or paying for my sins. It was just about being.
The power of the feminine. The acceptance. Embracing the messiness of life, including the violent and the sexual in a way that is healthy and honest. The gods and goddesses, and how they work within the universe; representing all parts of life, running through the world and its creatures like a thread. I fell into all of it dreamlike and desperate for a feeling. And I was not let down.
I felt the presence of my patron goddess while I sat in the woods, meditating with my hands pressed to the dirt. I had never felt God like that in church. And I went to a retreat one warm summer weekend that brought me closer to the spiritual home I was aching for, after running so long from the toxicity of my first one.
The Morrigan Retreat was truly a transformative experience. It helped me build a bridge from my own inner magic to the magic that existed, untapped, in the air around me. I danced barefoot around a fire in the moonlight, to the pulsing of a drum; felt the clasp of hands I couldn’t see around my wrists, demanding, urging me to life; allowed myself to be surrounded by true quiet and melt into nature; listened, learned and experienced everything with a necessity that felt almost primal. It awakened something deeply rooted in my core. I felt both high and grounded in the same time and space. And in an intensely moving ritual, I let go of my self-harm habits- promising never to engage in them again.
And even in my darkest moments, even when I came close to committing suicide… I kept that promise. I have never cut since.
Being pagan, being a witch, literally saved my life.
I have carried this connection with me ever since, thanking it and asking it to keep my spirit full. To keep it afloat. I wrapped it around me and it helped to keep me upright.
It unravelled me:
Old habits die hard, and as the years have passed, I have allowed those habits spawned in my first religious experiences to infect the way I practice my spirituality today. I developed little spiritual rituals that became more compulsive than purposeful. I prayed out of fear instead of desire. A repetitive prayer similar to the one I had been held prisoner by for years began seeping its way into my life. My spirituality was being slowly devoured by the not-so-buried training that I had forced upon myself way back when. The words were almost the same, only a few nouns had changed. My Old and my New became knotted together in an inseparable tangle, pulled roughly around my throat.
Had I gotten so busy that I let my practice slip away? Yes. Had my struggles with mental health fucked with what had become so important to me? Also yes. There are a lot of reasons that this happened, and while I tried at various points along the way to bring all the pieces back together, it spiraled to a point of being unrecognizable to me.
It wasn’t until I was listening to a podcast about mental health that I took back the reigns and brought the whole thing to a halt.
There was the realization about the OCD, which was one thing. But the bigger picture came when the woman on this episode spoke about her own religious experience. She spoke about when she became agnostic; how she decided one day not to believe in things like fate or signs or destiny anymore. How it took the pressure off of her, to know that she was in control of her life completely. That she didn’t owe anything to a higher power, who didn’t owe anything to her.
In my own way, that’s what I’m doing. I’ve stopped praying, and have been carefully working on dismantling my compulsions. Every choice I make, I know I am wholly responsible for; my decisions aren’t being made on any level by someone or something else, and it’s in my power to change my path if I want to. I try to focus on being a good person, not a perfect person. No one is calculating points on my behavior, like Ted Danson in The Good Place. I’m human- nothing more, nothing less, and I am in control of what that means. I can learn from life without assuming that it’s always actively trying to teach me something.
I was scared at first, and guilt ridden. But in the end, I can’t accurately express how liberating this has been.
Now, there’s no reason I can’t practice my paganism and my witchcraft and still be this person who is in control of her own life; there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t support that. On the contrary, it would be celebrated. But my fraught past with religion has poisoned my experience; I have unconsciously applied the past to the present.
In order to suck out the poison, I have to go back to square one. Break it down to build it up. I need to get comfortable in my immediate physical reality on this planet for a hot minute; to shed the skin of that little girl in the church pew who felt confused and ashamed and alone. If I can leave her behind, I can give my practice my attention because it’s meaningful to me; not because I feel guilty or afraid of what will happen if I do not. I can find my spirituality again without dressing it in her assumptions.
I still wear my pentagram every day. I still find a sense of peace and a little burst of energy when a raven or a crow calls out to me, flies across my path. I know that I will be able to connect with my goddess and my home again, when I am ready.
And deep in my heart, under all the bullshit, I know I won’t be punished for standing on my own for a while.
If only that little girl could see me now.