For me, the terror of my religious upbringing hurts the most. Growing up, learning certain values was important enough for me to get beaten, threatened, deprived, and isolated in contemplation of my mortal soul. There was no question that I had to learn these things. My eternal life depended on it.
Nowadays, I’ve become privy to how these values get ignored. It tells me that they’re not so important. That if I wanted to remain religious, I’d have to discard them along with all the pain and suffering it took to internalize them. My entire education in the faith is rendered completely worthless by the same people who demand I uphold it.
I want to tell myself that I didn’t suffer for nothing. This process had to have meaning. Even if that meaning isn’t remaining in the faith, it had to do something good to me. Otherwise, all the violence, threats of violence, screaming, panic-inducing threats, and so much more was entirely unnecessary.
Eighteen years of my life isn’t easy to throw away. But I have to. Looking back on it, I have to accept that what I went through was unnecessary. It wasn’t right. There was no ultimate reason or cause to justify everything that happened. Instead, I have to accept things as they happened, not as anyone wanted it to have happened.
On the positive side of things, I am also free to accept whatever benefits I may have acquired without strings attached. I did learn about kindness, compassion, empathy, love, and friendship. I didn’t learn about them in the way it was intended. Rather, it’s like learning about light by watching where the shadows lie.
Another thing I have to remember is that I can’t minimize what happened. Moving on doesn’t give me a license to say that what I suffered wasn’t all that bad. For example, I was physically disciplined quite a lot as a small child. I didn’t know until later on that my parents were instructed that they could and should do so; the only limitation was that they don’t leave a permanent mark. There’s a lot of pain a person can endure without leaving a mark.* You can also heighten it by reminding someone what’s going to happen repeatedly for minutes and hours before it happens.
And yeah, some people grow up religious, and they turn out to be Mister Rogers. That’s not a guarantee. It’s a roll of the dice. My experience isn’t invalid because someone else had it better or worse.
As an atheist and a deconverted Christian, I don’t have to hold onto the narrative of my early life. That narrative wasn’t entirely real. I was told how I needed to feel about things. I was not shown how I needed to feel about things. The difference between the two is immense.
This is how I cope with the trauma of religious upbringing. It forced a perspective on me. I held onto that perspective along with my faith, and for a time after. Inherent in the jumbled thoughts above is the realization that I’m still dealing with it. But I’m unpacking it. One piece at a time.
*As it turns out, the physical beatings I suffered weren’t the worst part of my upbringing. Instead, it was all the surroundings. I’d be told that a beating was going to happen. There was no escaping it. It was necessary to correct whatever I’d done wrong.
I still remember the last time I was physically disciplined. For whatever reason, I was pissed off at the usual threats of violence and being forced to get the implement (a wooden spoon) which would be used to harm me. I remember not showing any outward sign of pain. I was determined to make a family member break something or leave some permanent mark. Fortunately, my parent had the good sense to quit before that happened. I’m not sure if that was a good thing, because disciplining me took on more psychological abuse. This might have worsened the damage to my mental health that I’d already suffered.