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I had my first major post-religious PTSD episode, and it wasn’t pretty

I had a complete come-apart this week which shook me to the core. I have read about PTSD from religious trauma, interviewed individuals who have experienced it, and had my own triggering experiences. I have suffered PTSD from sexual abuse too. But, what happened this week was completely unexpected. I find myself crying while still processing why it happened, why I had a melt-down and did not behave with the tact or kindness that I typically employ when discussing faith issues with individuals from varying perspectives, and how I ended up a puddle on the ground?

Here’s what happened.

I’m a single Mom. During the last months, I’ve felt the most stable, strong, healthy, and optimistic I’ve ever been in my life. I attribute this to ending a toxic marriage and to the journey of losing my faith over the last two years, all while throwing myself wholeheartedly into narrative therapy. Despite a lifetime of Christian education, a minor in Bible, and having been a sincere believer who made every effort to become more Christlike each day, my life experiences have consistently contradicted the teachings of Christianity. It would be one thing if this happened occasionally. But my life experiences over 3 decades, in numerous countries, states, churches, employers, and with individuals have cemented my non-belief…not to mention my academic research. I’ve never felt freer or in tune with my true self.

To date, I have managed to keep myself away from most triggering situations. It was in my late twenties that I started to notice how I was triggered by spiritually manipulative behavior in a way that others around me were not. Throughout my deconstruction process, I have kept that in mind and maintained healthy boundaries to avoid being triggered. But I recently started dating someone. The dictatorship in his home country caused him to leave to seek work. He now can pay for a home for his parents and sibling and sends them groceries through a delivery service each week. He, like countless others who fled their homeland, are the only reason their families are not starving and homeless. As a single Dad, Mormon missionaries started visiting him. He speaks little English, and the missionaries spoke Spanish rather well. They brought sweets to his kids and visited which was a nice reprieve as a single parent. While he was not seriously considering becoming Mormon, he allowed “las hermanas” the women missionaries to go through their standard missionary visit which involves a teaching lesson, scripture reading, prayer, and a follow-up assignment.

With one of the missionaries soon being sent abroad on assignment, he felt it was important to say goodbye and visit with the missionaries again. It also was a on a day I was to come over to visit after work. I arrived a little earlier than expected. He opened the door with a Book of Mormon in hand, and a couch full of 4 hermanas. I started to shake almost immediately, was politely introduced, and joined the circle during their lesson. Each took their turn with a portion of the lesson. My boyfriend could tell I was uncomfortable because he kept giving me that “are you ok?! look.” I tried to smile and nod and was keeping it together until las hermanas asked me to read a scripture passage. My Spanish is really rusty, so I feel anxiety speaking it. I read it fairly well but could not even finish the last sentence because I was really shaking at this point and not sure why my body was betraying me like this.

“What the hell is wrong with me?!!! It’s not a big deal. Just sit here until the lesson is over,” I told myself. And then the shit show started. One of the missionaries asked me what the verse meant to me. For starters, I was just reading words and not taking them in. I work in politics and usually have no problem coming up with an adapted response, as required by the situation. But in this state of panic, I blurted in Spanish that actually I do not have faith. The couch full of hermanas just stared at me in silence. Then one asked, but you did have faith at one point. I affirmed this. Then she asked, “Don’t you want to have faith again?” and I just said “no.”

I’ve never silenced a gathering so quickly and thoroughly in my life. They were stunned and took a bit to recover. I, on the other hand was feeling horribly guilty for being rude and not having a better response so at least my boyfriend need not be embarrassed by me. Things got REALLY awkward at this point. They wrapped up the lesson, assigned the next reading, all the while giving me little covert stares. I am sure they were disappointed that their potential convert was now dating this agnostic woman who certainly was a bad influence on him. I managed a few weak smiles and goodbyes as they left, immediately sank to the floor shaking, pulled my beanie over my head and started crying. I was more shocked than anyone at my own reaction. I could not control the shaking. I had been rude, and I could not understand why I was having a meltdown for what seemed like such a small encounter. Later, I remembered that I have an emergency medication for a panic attack, but it was far too late by then.

Fortunately, new boyfriend just held me while I attempted to sort through my thoughts, feelings, and seemingly bizarre reaction. In such a new relationship, he had no idea how deep-seated the trauma was, but then again, neither did I. I slowly started to remember an article I recently posted about people having PTSD from religious trauma, and some discussions I had with MSKN president, Dianne Couts, about trauma manifesting in our bodies, not just our brains as many previously thought. This physical response is far more common and pronounced than I'd realized. When I was younger, I just got lightheaded and thought I might faint. But now, I get a full array of symptoms.

And then it all started to click. I realized why I had that reaction and why I could not control myself. It seems impossible to explain to others how such a trivial incident can be so traumatic. For those familiar with this issue, I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice because I keep crying while trying to process the experience and what I should do next. If you are still reading but not sure what the big deal is, let me share a few takeaways I gained from the experience.

  1. I grew up as a missionary kid in Central America, and this should be my wheelhouse. Yet, I disagree with the theology and methods of Protestant missions. Every time I interact with missionaries, I feel a cognitive dissonance because I disagree with them, but do not want to be rude because I believe in respecting each person’s beliefs.

  2. I live in UT and have studied a lot about the Mormon faith, how it was founded, and its current teachings. While the LDS Church does a good job of not informing their parishioners of hugely problematic history and teachings (and labels anything revealing it as “Anti-Mormon”) it takes only cursory research to discover that Joseph Smith was a complete fraud, Brigham Young had over 50 wives, was the Mormon leader during the Mountain Meadow Massacre committed by Mormons, and many more sinister historical facts and teachings, including those which denigrate women and decree their salvation as coming only from their husband if he calls their secret name (from their marriage in the temple) to join him on his own planet. I kid you not!

  3. A common tactic within religions is to force each person to participate and gain “buy-in.” When I was asked to read a scripture, everything in me recoiled because I not only think the Book of Mormon is false, but because they are intentionally putting me on the spot to participate.

  4. I have “witnessed” to Mormons as an Evangelical. I have attended their seminary meetings. I have had many discussions with Mormons, their missionaries, and live in a culture dominated by their beliefs. Seeing these young women performing their missionary duty and following all the standard procedures for teaching is something with which I am all too familiar. Mormon missionaries are typically between the age of 18 to early twenties. They always follow the script of the Mormon Training Center in Provo, so are super predictable. They cannot answer any questions or dialogue outside that box. One of the most appalling problems is that due to their extremely young age, lack of life experience, and often a completely sheltered Mormon upbringing, they know nothing of the real world. It’s incredibly condescending when their only response to your disagreement with their message is that you must not be sincere when you pray about whether or not the Book of Mormon is true, and Jesus will reveal himself to you. As if someone twice their age, with far more Biblical education and Christian experience, must be “insincere.”

  5. Seeing the Book of Mormon in my boyfriend’s hand caused me to fear he actually might believe it. It was reminiscent of countless Evangelical men in my life, holding their Bibles, giving their teachings, and being completely absent to abused women and children within their faith. Fortunately, we cleared this up quickly! But it demonstrated to me just how triggering something so seemingly small was for me.

And while I was just reviewing what I wrote here, the doorbell rang. My dog started barking and I went downstairs to discover two male Mormon missionaries on my doorstep. I politely told them I am definitely not interested and closed the door. I took it as an ironic confirmation to admit to my triggers, to continuing working towards a healthier state, and to share this story for others who may be processing similarly confusing experiences.

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The first one is shocking and, in my experience, not to be diminished by the second, third or how ever many more to come. My first one was the memorial service for my godfather. Like you, I was totally unprepared and didn't know what to do. The pastor's words were so triggering and I had not been to an evangelical service in about 15 years. Shaking, full blown panic attack had me quickly exit the building which happened to have a lovely meadow out back where I was able to come to some composure. I thought I had discovered the trick - to stay away from the evangelical forums. I went to several Catholic memorial masses without incident un…

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