Monday, April 30, 2012

Religious Recovery: How Christian Science taught this kid to lie

I know that many people are comforted by religion and the community of a church. I believe adults have this right as long as it doesn't interfere with others (or my tax dollars). My concern is for kids raised in oppressively religious lifestyles that jeopardize their health. Yes, as an ex-Christian Scientist physically and permanently hurt as a child by the methods of my church, I have a very dark view of organized, applied religion. But years before I contracted osteomyelitis (which eventually led to my above-knee amputation as an adult) and beyond all the inherent suffering in trying to use only prayer to heal, my church taught me to lie. 
Religion starts with the premise, You aren't OK the way you are! Depending on your church, religion says, You're a sinner--You're mortal--You're tempted... Christian Science dismisses any reality of the physical universe and material senses, so I learned, You're believing the lie of mortality and sickness!  Religion declared I had to follow its rules or I'd suffer the consequences.

I did what I was told. I was raised in an insulated Christian Science family where everyone had been raised in the church. We lived near both my grandmothers, an aunt and uncle, a grown cousin and her kids. We lived within twenty miles of The Mother Church in Boston, command central. One relative was a practitioner who was paid to pray for healing. My parents' friends were church members.

I memorized and recited; I believed and tried to understand; I monitored my thoughts. Christian Science is all about consciousness and perception. My consciousness had to look beyond the physical and concentrate on the spiritual so I'd reflect God's perfection and not mortal error. Self was an indulgent concept; self-denial was a virtue. Wanting was selfish because God's plan for me was more perfect than any of my own. Gratitude brought healing and spiritual good was always present.

Non-Scientists had to be humored. From the age of four or five, I understood this. What the human world called truth could be the direct opposite of capital-T Truth in Christian Science. My job was to give the answer that applied to the particular context. If someone at school asked, Who are you? I said, I'm Elisabeth and I love horses.

But in Sunday school, or on the phone to our practitioner when I was sick, I said, I'm the image and likeness of God.

It gave me a double-jointed thought process. I could believe what I needed. Truth became relative. I was afraid to give my opinion; my priority was to find the appropriate response. If I wanted something badly enough to barge ahead and claim it in a humanly selfish way, I was wracked with guilt afterwards. It was safer to be "correct" than to be honest. After a while I wasn't really sure what I felt or believed.

I was still a fervent Christian Scientist at twenty-seven when I began prenatal visits for my first pregnancy. The hospital midwives terrified me. I agonized over the medical questionnaire because I didn't know what illnesses my relatives had or died from (sickness was steeped in secrecy and rarely diagnosed) and because I was afraid real descriptions of my cycles and symptoms wouldn't be what the doctors wanted. What were the right answers??

Mission accomplished: I'd learned well. Underneath I was completely inadequate.

A few years later I got into psychotherapy. Therapy begins with the premise, You are OK-- there's a reason--trauma, neglect, biochemistry--that you act certain ways! Like horses, few of us are dangerous or disturbed from birth. Behavior is usually caused by circumstances. I'd worked with difficult horses long enough to allow myself the same benefit of the doubt. Maybe I wasn't bad or lacking. Maybe I wasn't inherently a flawed failure.

It took a very, very long time to figure out who I was, what I felt and what I believed. But I stopped playing by religion's rules. Today I can fill out a financial or medical form and state the facts without being afraid. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

The ponies in the photo are Jesse and Buttercup, back in Lexington around 1975 when I was still a two-knee fish. ;-)
                                           

14 comments:

  1. I've been following your blog since my co-worker Ann Bausman introduced it to me. I love your writing. Your story is necessary and poignant, and I'm looking forward to buying and reading your book. I'm curious - where on Wood Street did you live all those years ago? I moved to Lexington about 20 years ago, and for several of them my family and I rented a little Cape on Wood Street, #96.

    Thank you for telling your story. It matters.

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    1. Thanks, Suzanne. I lived at #215, just before the gate to Lincoln Lab. It was painted blue the last night I drove by (3 years ago) and my favorite hickory tree was still standing. You must have lived up across from Patriot's Forest. I'm glad Ann introduced us!

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  2. Christian Science sounds like an intensely structured way of defining someone's reality (this is what you think/feel/saw) and competing truths (I don't feel well - Yes you do). It's amazing that somehow, your real, authentic self fought its way to the surface and said, "Bullshit!" to CS. I understand that fear of some horrible consequences were probably drilled into you, but there was a part of you that was so strong, it didn't care.

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    1. Yes--I think it was just tenacious willpower activated by the birth of my first child. It still took a few years for me to make big changes, & then a lot longer to really recover.

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  3. I was driving around Elmira on Friday and came to a stop next to a church. Out front was a large cheerful sign proclaiming, "Christian Science seminar this Sunday". I thought to myself, "Bet Liz would love to crash that party!"

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    1. I went to a protest at the Mother Church in Boston a few years ago & it was quite cathartic. Amazing how the church members were willing to come over and try to argue with my group. I'll write about that sometime soon.

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  4. Sometimes I would like to go back to my 12-13 year old self and say "you are right...all of the dogma you are learning during Sunday School, Sunday and Wednesday church meetings is a bunch of BS so go with your gut!!!" I always doubted the accuracy of what I was learning but because I loved my father so much and he loved Christian Science I did what he wanted me to do, go to church, read the lesson, "know the truth", suffer through monthly cramps and give testimonies about the healing I had every month after several hours of praying (my mom still likes to remind me of these healings...is she kidding?!!!)go through CS class and graduate from Principia. I even married a CS and fortunately that has worked out and he loves me even though I despise CS and we now have three agnostic children. My dad has been gone for 25 years and died too young from an untreated disease. There definitely should be laws in EVERY state that protects children from these religions that kill. Thank you Liz for telling your story and living your life to the fullest despite CS!

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    1. Good for you, Stacey. It couldn't be more complicated, could it?? Sounds like you have a great relationship & have done a bang-up job with your kids if they're agnostic--and brownie points to your husband for open-mindedness.

      Re: cramps...Oh yes. Takes me back. Took my first ibuprofen at 32.

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  5. Ibuprofen would have saved me hours and hours of pain and several days of missed work and school!! I was probably around 32 also!

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  7. I was also raised in CS and was a devout member of the community until I was 23. Besides a bum ankle, I escaped relatively unscathed - save for the regret of wasted time. I'm now pursuing a medical degree as an older student (32 now) and absolutely loving it. I feel more free being able to look at and understand disease without trying to deny its existence than I ever did in my most inspired moments in CS. Laurie gives a pretty perceptive analysis of the dualism a CS mindset tries to create. It will drive you crazy because you're trying to reconcile two opposite world views (that everything is spiritual, but that you also have to get up and have breakfast every morning). CS has an odd sort of guilt associated with it, of not being good enough to heal yourself, that can be damaging, especially for kids. It perpetuates isolation and ignorance of the world, and just like you, that's exactly what I got for most of my life. In any case, I just wanted to say thanks for sharing, Liz. My wife doesn't understand when I rant about CS, and it's nice to hear from others who do.

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    1. Yes--that doublethink can push you over the edge. Thinking six impossible things before breakfast is simple: read the CS bible lesson!! And that guilt seems unique to Christian Scientists who drift away. Unlike other religions that people seem to be able to shrug off, CS gets under your skin at such a personal level. Even when I thought I'd really broken with that mindset (about five years after I left & got into therapy) one day I realized what complete shit it always has been...and that part of me had been resisting that recognition.

      Glad to have you here Andy & any rants you care to make. I'm hoping we'll get a variety of dicussions going.

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    2. Ha Ha! Talking about reading the CS bible lesson reminds me of the times I would attempt to make it through all six sections and try to "get something out of it". I got completely through it maybe twice. Luckily, I was too damn dumb or "unspiritual" or whatever to ever make heads or tails of it!

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    3. & this reminds me of when I was little, maybe 8 or 9, & I'd inform my mother I'd decided to read the s&H citations first rather than the bible since it didn't matter to me, and how she tried to get me to understand the order...also watching the clock...Good for you for emerging unscathed!

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