Clinging on: PTSD and faith

The PTSD came first. Never spoken about, only diagnosed at 17, but there nonetheless. The symptoms I experienced (and continue to experience to this day) - panic attacks, flashbacks, compulsive thoughts, fatigue, concentration issues, dissociation, emotional dysregulation, avoidance, and the rest- were me. Throughout my childhood, I was instructed to be endlessly grateful for everything I had. It was drilled into me that whatever torment I was originally dragged away from should have magically evaporated upon being saved. So my suffering largely remained a secret.

And I came to faith at 19. It was a painfully slow process. Trust issues: also a staple take-away from trauma. ‘Doubting’ was a word flung through my mind like a washing machine cycle on eternal repeat. Mistrustful, doubting, insincere. Yeah, God is eternally knowing and powerful and patient and all that… But I could try harder to really believe, no? Why was it so difficult to take that leap?

My queerness and womanhood were two other obstacles to my trust in God. The world told me that who I loved romantically would separate me from ever being a true Christian, ever knowing Jesus’ love, ever being extended a good judgement. God helped me persevere through that. It’s a story for another day, but I was closer to Him than ever.

Again though, ‘doubting’ was lurking, with ‘shame’ not far behind. I would physically wince at every doubting thought of God, being flooded with embarrassment and self-loathing. Deconstruction suggested to me that doubting was okay, that it could actually bring you closer to God. It was just a reassessment and an educational opportunity. God couldn’t withdraw His love because of that; you just needed a sprinkle of trust that He was leading you to the right place. Trust that He understands your humanity.

Although, sometimes I think that PTSD makes me a little too human.

Because while ‘doubting’ and ‘shame’ were fended off, their close friend ‘intimacy’ crept up behind my back. ‘Intimacy’ is something that the broad Christian community enjoys policing. I had learnt that the hard way, from the many homophobic mantras scrawled into my brain and my twitter DMs. Purity culture, anti-queerness, misogyny… All deeply rooted into conservative, traditional teaching. These 3 factors ground into my psyche. The trauma I carry makes me oscillate between being touch-starved and touch-averse. It’s taboo to talk about, but any sort of intimacy felt unachievable. Still does, sometimes. I thought that my relationship with God would be completely different. 

In some ways, it is. In others?

I still retreat from approaching difficult topics. When I feel vulnerable, I curl up and zip my mouth closed.

God knows that in these moments, I pray with my heart. Silently. Often tearfully. I can’t speak the words out loud, because my brain is screaming at me that I am in danger. It happens a lot more than I’d imagined.

My faith, that trust that we have painstakingly built and carved together, gets gnawed away like a frayed piece of rope. And when I’m hanging on by a thread of faith, it’s enough. It’s enough for Him to work with. He looks at me and says ‘they’re still invited to sit with me’. 

Ultimately, I’ve learnt that there is something bigger than the earthly standards of faith we hold ourselves to. They can be fundamentally important foundations to set, but what happens when you’re not the average straight, white, cis, mentally well, non-disabled, advantaged Christians who set them? 

What do they know of wanting God’s love with all your heart but your mind betraying you every day? Of the cruel whispers that you’ve learnt better than to expect love? The reminders, the endless source material, that vulnerability only leads to exploitation and hurt? The weaponization of everything you long for?

These are lies, and no matter how many times I am reminded and objectively know that these are lies, my body will react accordingly. My impulses will run away and my rationality has to cling on for dear life, because my brain believes that it’s safer that way.

It makes me stronger in faith. It makes me different in faith: the way I practice and how I think and what I struggle with. And while diversity can be framed as pandering or superficial, I believe that bringing our differences to the table is an essential part of thriving in a flourishing Christian community.

One of my favourite Bible passages is 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, written by Paul. It concerns factions within the early church, something that was deeply troubling at the time. These words, like many, depend on the perspective you bring to it. In my mind, I hear a man championing diversity, united for one purpose. The wider passage discusses spiritual gifts, a topic which has been and still remains contentious between denominations. Paul illustrates, however, how individuals have gifts and callings that are as unique to ourselves as our fingerprints. In the end though, they are employed to serve one another, and God, in community. For the common good.

Similarly, 1 Timothy 1:4-6 discourages needless nitpicking over theological differences. It calls us to be united by our love. ‘Love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.’ How many of us can stake a claim to those three things spotlessly? I doubt that anyone could. It’s only in community, in healthy community, that these things are fostered and shared out in abundance. Like the fish and the bread, there is more than enough to go around.

That’s not to deny that there are challenges that stem from difference. Sometimes it’s tough to remember that our differences have been created for a reason, especially when they’re borne out of varying struggles and experiences and worldviews. Then again, if we had a world, had a movement, bred out of conformity, where would we go? There would be no new ideas or passions or tests of faith. Only sameness. 

Going back to Corinthians- 2 Corinthians 12:10-11 this time- we can see that any challenges we face will build us up stronger. 

So yes, PTSD is a major challenge. I won’t always cope with it perfectly, nor do I expect myself to. But it will always present an opportunity to bring new ideas to light. It brings me forward to contest the divisive ‘tick-list Christianity’ so often placed into our hands. Finally: it allows me to cling on to that frayed piece of rope and be proud of it. 

Written by Honey Harrop, an SCM member studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Honey's pronouns are she/they.