All my life, I believed I was one of the “chosen ones.” Lucky me, I was born and raised into the right faith, and I dedicated and rededicated my heart to following God with all I had. My plan was to go to the Word of Life Bible Institute, then Liberty University, and I felt that God was calling me to be a missionary (even though the thought terrified me.) I hated the me that I presented to everyone else — timid and boring — but I clung to the hope-giving teaching that God would transform me.
Most of all, I never, ever wanted to be one of those people who knew the Truth and inconceivably left it behind.
When the first tiny doubts crept in, I didn’t really notice them. After all, there will always be things we can’t understand. But over time, the questions began to snowball. And so began war in my mind. I was 15 and drowning in contradictions. With God I was never alone, and I was so lonely. My parents loved me and hurt me. I wanted to make friends and share in life with other people, and I couldn’t speak. I loved my faith, and I was starting to wonder if it was all wrong.
My true self was showing up here, but I didn’t know her yet. Curious, open-hearted, social, in touch with the emotions I couldn’t face, she was burning through the facade of my faith. My indoctrination tried to keep her at bay. In the space of a day, I’d swing from deciding to explore my questions to praying on the floor, begging God to forgive me for straying. But there came a day when the hell of living in denial of my true thoughts was worse than my fear of hell itself.
Once I opened the gates in my mind, it was over. The inconsistencies and inexcusable injustices of the Bible brought me to say, this is no longer a faith I can stand behind. Around the same time, I realised that I wasn’t straight. (My mom always said I make things harder than they need to be.)
The problem was that I could tell no one.
My parents define love in terms of obedience, and the power of their love was terrifying. See, when you grow up in a culture with parents who hurt you to show you they love you and become enmeshed in a religion that reproduces that in the form of God himself, you’ll do anything to save your child’s soul. I was in high school and I knew that if my mom found out I was a queer nonbeliever, there’s no telling what she would do.
So I hid. We were still going to church every Sunday and Friday, and I felt like I was in a straitjacket. I needed to grieve the death of my faith and god, but to put up pretenses, I still had to worship him every Sunday. When you can’t be real with the people you love, you can’t really talk at all. And so my relationships with my uncles and aunts and childhood friends disintegrated. I lost my sense of safety, my sense of home, my family, my high-demand faith, and my god, which had always claimed they were the only true source of purpose and happiness in life. So what did I do?
Fuck it, I went to a liberal Jewish college and got the hell out of Dodge.
My heart had whittled itself down to fight-or-flight, die-or-live instinct, and I decided to survive, damnit. So I did. On the very first day of college, I introduced myself under a new name, a name I could breathe under, a name I chose for myself. And I was radiant. All those years, struggling under situational mutism and repressive religion and depression, I never gave up the belief that at heart I was completely different than the person everyone else saw. On that day, that person came bursting out of me. In a note, an Orientation Leader said, “you seem like someone who’s bursting at the seams with light. You’re filled with something radiant.”
So I ran with it. I majored in Psychology and Sociology, with a minor in the art of a double life. I made friends, got so involved in social justice leadership on campus that people I hadn’t met knew my name, and bloomed as best I could. But I also broke down. There was so much grief, indoctrination, abuse, mental health issues, and trauma I had been surviving, and now that I was free of it, the emotions were hitting me like a train. I started going to therapy and realising that my life wasn’t as typical as I thought.
But even distance couldn’t free me. On holiday breaks and in the summer, I still had to go back home and, of course, to church. The dissonance between who I was and who I needed to be to keep myself safe made me feel like I was going crazy.
On top of that, Google had outed me to my then-pastor in senior year of high school by total (and hilarious) coincidence. He kept my secret, but I was terrified that my parents could find out at any time too. So I needed to protect myself. I memorised the numbers of nearby shelters, planned a route to leave home if I ever needed it, researched how to apply for financial aid at college myself, got several jobs and saved all my money, and kept a go bag packed in my closet. Years of repressing who I truly was, and now daily fear of losing everything, took their toll on me.
I didn’t have a plan. I thought I’d just keep pretending I believed until I graduated, and then who knew? I knew my parents would be devastated to know I was an atheist, because it meant they would be separated from me for eternity. I couldn’t imagine ever telling them, or surviving the consequences. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My mental health took a nose dive. I lost hope.