12 December 2016

Church and Christmas

"Tell me are you a Christian child, and I said 'Ma’am I am tonight" --Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis   
I haven't ever written much here about religion, or spirituality. Suffice to say that I'm not religious, I'm not a church goer, and other than attending a Catholic school through junior high school I don't have a religious upbringing. Once I got to high school, I was in a public school and that was that. In basic training at Lackland AFB, I went to church every Sunday. Which service I attended varied-- there were two, one Catholic and the other Protestant. I checked out the Protestant service a few times mainly out of curiosity but also because it was something different. Since then (which was a long time ago) I've been to a Catholic mass only a few times, and that usually only as included in weddings and funerals.

It doesn't help that I'm a childhood sexual abuse survivor, and that my abuser was (and still is) a God-fearing (to hear him tell it) Christian who attends church every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, teaches Sunday School, etc. etc. etc. It also doesn't help that when I confronted him, and the rest of my family on that side, that all I got was denial and personal attacks on my integrity (they accused me of making it all up). That side of my family isn't the Catholic side, but it's still very difficult for me to put any faith in religion when someone like that can be so abusive and just get away with it.

I've read a great deal (sorry if that sounds a bit pompous, it's not meant that way)-- literature, philosophy, history, and yes, religious texts. I own a Bible, given to me by a Gideon who was handing them out to troops leaving for Desert Shield. At various times, although not recently, I've probably read every verse in both testaments. It's fascinating reading just by itself, and I have always been interested in the "bigger picture"; the intersections between religion, philosophy, literature, history, and science. None of these exist on their own, they all happen in parallel.

So I'm not opposed to religion, or to your decision to be a part of one religion or another. There's good and bad in all things, and this being America you have the right to choose. If you want to say the Lord's Prayer in school before classes start, or if you want time off and a private space to face Mecca and pray five times a day (or whatever your faith's practices are), I believe you have that right. If everyone allows everyone else just a little bit of wiggle room we all fit together better.

All of that being said, last night I went to church.

One of the things you'll see and hear and read about PTSD and recovery is that part of your "support network" is supposed to include "spiritual support", but there are seldom details attached to explain what people mean by that-- I suspect they mean "go to church generally" but that's pretty open ended as well. I've never seen a church hang a banner outside that says "PTSD sufferers welcome!", but that might be because I just haven't passed such a banner on such a church.

Point being, I've never considered church-- in general, or specifically a Christian church-- to be something that might help in working through PTSD. I don't have any specific experience with this kind of thing, and in light of my philosophical issues with religion (see above) it's never been an issue.

All of that being said, last night I went to church.

"Church", in this case, being a large (but by no means the largest) church in Atlanta that some of my family are members of (and active participants in). This weekend is special in that it's the weekend of the annual Christmas show/concert. I was invited, as was my sister who has been there lots of times before and who acted as pre-event tour guide in assuring me that it was a safe and reasonable event for me to attend.

The actual show/concert was in the main room, which was full when we got there and which I wouldn't have felt comfortable in. I used to go to concerts regularly, but since PTSD has been an issue I don't feel safe in crowds. There was another, smaller room available that held a lot less people. This smaller room had some tables and chairs, and I picked one of those that was in the opposite corner from where the main seating (and screen showing video) was. The table gave me a full view of the room, who was coming and going, doors, escape routes, etc with my back to the wall.

I'm not a music critic, or a theater critic, and anyway the choir and musicians and actors were all from the church and not professionals. There were parts I liked, and parts I wasn't as thrilled about, but overall it was pretty cool and I really did enjoy all of it. I do like live performances, and this one (which was really a collection of live performances) was a lot of fun to watch.

There were of course references to God and Jesus and the story of Christmas, which makes sense considering it was a church event in a church in December (a few days before Christmas). One message that was very clear in all of what was said was that, hey, if you like what you see here tonight and are looking for a church to belong to, we have room for you and we'd love to have you here.

My shields are up. Way up. It's bad enough what happened when I was a kid, there's also seeing up close and personal what happens when there's a war and shit starts blowing up. There's all of the friends and the girlfriends and the family and everyone else that are no longer a part of my life for whatever reason. There's all of the other things like being homeless and dealing with a disability at work and seeing the world through all of those different lenses. I've trusted a lot of people over the years and most of them have turned out to be people I should have never trusted.

It's for that reason (those reasons?) that I had to force myself to go last night. I'd really rather just ignore Christmas like I ignore Thanksgiving and every other holiday, because avoiding holidays is just so much easier than dealing with the noise and people and expectations have about how you/I should behave. Other than perhaps when the grocery store or Wal-Mart is busy, last night was the most I've been out and among people since I arrived in Georgia.

I don't want to be in the house all the time. Some of the time, in fact most of the time, I'm perfectly happy being where I am now-- sitting in my room/office in front of a computer doing whatever. I am certainly an introvert and I need my alone time, and alone time and quiet are a huge part of how I manage my PTSD.

The problem is that just staying in the house by myself is not an escape-- the PTSD follows me, it's here all the time. As much as I try to fight it off, and as much as I manage to succeed, PTSD adapts and changes and finds a way to get back in. This is why I think the idea of being "cured" of PTSD is bullshit. There's no magic pill that cures you, you have to change and adapt and learn new ways to cope with it. Your environment changes, people around you change, and so you must change.

I have reservations about nearly everything I've done in the past to try to get "out there" and meet new people and make new friends. I've been a part of a lot of different groups of people that aligned with my interests-- amateur radio clubs, emergency communications teams, softball leagues, dart leagues, bowling leagues, VFW, American Legion, singles groups, Meetup groups. Many of those groups I just listed were willing to take my time, my effort, my equipment, my money and not give a lot back. Some of them were excuses to go out and drink. Some were like an endless series of not meaningful first dates. Which ones were which overlap, shift around. That I'm (still) having to force myself to get out and do things because PTSD says it's not safe out there and because I don't-- can't-- trust anyone says that these things I've tried ultimately didn't work.

Last night, after the show was over and I was sitting down to help demolish a pizza with the same family members I was at church with, I mentioned the random act of kindness I'd been the recipient of last week-- random person stepped up and paid my entire bill for groceries. Family (who have lived here for years) responded by saying "Welcome to Georgia".

When I left Wisconsin to go to Florida to help my sister move, I didn't have a detailed plan for what I'd do after that was done. Georgia wasn't on my list of places I wanted to be, it just worked out that there was room for me in my brother-in-law's house. Although the plan was to head for California, it really didn't matter as long as the name of where I was going rhymed with "the fuck out of Wisconsin".

I might be willing to start believing that Georgia was a pretty cool place to land.

Church, as an experience for a special event for Christmas last night, wasn't the worst experience I've ever had. I was able to find a quiet corner where I felt pretty safe, no one bothered me, and in fact several people smiled and/or said hello as we passed each other in the hallway during the evening. I expect that on a normal weekend, when there's not a special event going on (and when everyone's not busy making that event happen), I'd have had someone from the church notice that I was a new face and stop to say hello. This isn't a bad thing, just an observation-- it was really a friendly environment.

Since I mentioned support networks, or at least interest groups a bit ago-- one of the things about "use your support network" is that that advice really only works if you have one to start with. It's hard to build one, harder to keep one. You can't lean on something that's not there. In transitions clinic the VA would say things like "list your support network" and my response would be "if I had such a great support network why the fuck would I be here?" It's just that it's not that simple a thing in practice.

I'm willing to concede, somewhat, as I pace around the room talking to myself about all of this (yeah, I do that, constantly), that going to my niece's church occasionally might not be the worst thing in the world. People there seem pretty decent, as do people here in general. I might even like going, because it seems like a comfortable and maybe even safe place to spend part of a Sunday that I would otherwise spend reading Hacker News (which I can read when I get home anyway). It's likely that there are at least a few veterans around and it's a natural law that if there are vets in a room they'll end up in one corner talking. Taking a broader view, maybe just maybe the people at this church really are decent people worthy of some level of trust eventually and being around them for a few hours might be a good thing maybe.

I still have questions, concerns, doubts, hangups, PTSD symptoms, (social) anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms to get in the way, which they all will. I'm hoping that if I can get away from them, for even just a little while, I can start to remember (or find out) what it's like to just be a shade of normal.



A postscript about me and religion: on the form that says "indicate which religion you are" I'd probably check "other" or even "spiritual but not religious". While I'm not a Christian, I respect many Christian values. That being said, I respect values that belong to several different major religions-- some I agree with and try to model myself after, some I don't agree with and therefore stay away from, but I respect people's right to them either way.  I'm always deeply honored when someone invites me to services or events at their church (or more generally, "place of worship"). I've been to services at quite a few different churches of various Protestant denominations. I've been to a synagogue. I've observed prayers at a mosque (okay, I only peeked through the doors, but I was genuinely curious). I've been to a Wiccan handfasting. 

That I'm writing about religion isn't something you should read too much into. Occasionally attending services at a church (any church) is just one way I'm trying to do something different to get out of the bubble. I'm not seeking salvation, rather I'm looking for a place where I can just lower shields a little bit. The particular church I visited this weekend seems pretty chill, and if it turns out not to be I just won't go back. I got the impression that someone new just showing up for services now and then would be welcome, and if that person wanted to become more involved then they'd be welcome too. It's a start. PTSD sucks, and if this is something that helps it'll be a good thing.

I was a little reluctant to write this post to start with; again, the shields are up and I'm not in a mood to just trust people to do the right thing. Religion is one of those topics that sometimes attracts more attention than is desired. If you are somehow motivated to steer me towards your path, know that I truly respect your path--given the need I'll defend your right to walk it-- but I'm happy following my own for now (strange and/or winding though it may seem).

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