The Time Church Drove Me Crazy, or A Rubric for Reading My Book

I've been procrastinating cleaning the house for two days now, and should really get on that. But someone commenting on my book on Facebook triggered one of those small moments of clarity that one can't resist blogging about, and which will probably make it into the introduction of one's next book in some way or another, so at some level I'm being productive. Right?

I've talked here, and in "Damnation" about a lot of the events and experiences that eventually drove me out of church after a life of faithful dedication and ministry and that kind of thing.

And I was talking to a friend over coffee today about how, when you're dealing with a person's religious issues, you generally aren't dealing on a reasonable level, because behind religious issues lie other subconscious social and psychological motivations(the topic was why it's a losing battle to argue with someone about their religious positions on homosexuality using logic or almost any other approach.)

And when a got back, I found that someone on a friend's Facebook page had made an offhand comment about how reading my stuff was like watching a descent into madness (which from the context, it sounded like he'd witnessed before in a sick relative).

Eureka! Church drove me crazy! So I quit! It wasn't just about the bad experiences, or the theology, or the disillusionment!

This actually isn't a new recognition for me, but I wanted to bring it back up because I think considering the negative impact that particularly my last year of church work had on my mental health will provide some great insight into the last few chapters of my book. I read it again recently, and even I think I sound pretty crazy. If you've read, you may have noticed how the train derails at the end, and if you're reading online (it's here), you'll see what I mean in the next few weeks. Disorganized! Emotional! Crazy!

Let me preface this by saying that, having worked on a psych unit for a year now, I have a tendency to view everything through the lens of crazy, and mental illness has been pretty totally demystified and de-stigmatized for me. I think mental illnesses tend to be extreme expressions of normal human patterns, and I think that under the right conditions we all have the potential to be driven a little bit crazy. I think people move in and out of stages of mental unhealth depending on their circumstances (just like physical health), and most of us have gone through a crazy stage at some point (even you Mr. or Ms. Crazypants!). And I don't actually think I fit the description of what you probably think of when I say "crazy", and it's probably an overstatement to use such alarmist language to describe where I was when I quit (and when I wrote the book). But understanding what was going on mentally and emotionally has helped me to understand why things shook out as they did, and it might help you to understand why I quit, if you have any questions and haven't heard enough about my issues already.

So, to start off, a basic thing to understand about mental illnesses is that a good way to give yourself one is to put yourself under a ton of unmanageable stress for a long period of time. When you feel like there's more on your plate then you can handle, and you keep it like that for more than a couple of months at a time, whatever your issues are will come out like clockwork.

Some of the major causes of stress include financial hardship, relational difficulties, overcommitment, a sense of powerlessness to address felt needs in a situation, finding a job situation too demanding, major life changes, and conflicts in your beliefs and values.

I started my last year in church by losing a job. I got another which paid half as much, and required more of my time and much more of my emotional energy as it was an entrepreneurial position which required that I head up frequent events and create a schedule of programming out of whole cloth with only (what I felt was) a nominal level of volunteer and financial support. I also spent a third of that year worrying about whether I would be approved for ordination - a step that (at the time) I felt my livelihood and future job prospects depended on, and a step which was totally in the hands of a secretive church committee that I didn't know well or particularly trust, and had heard scary things about. During the second half of the year, I was approved for ordination and went back to school (while still working full time), racking up significantly more private college debt which I felt an intense burden and a bit of guilt for, b/c my wife had essentially been paying on my previous student loans, and I wasn't entirely confident that the further investment would pay for itself in job prospects. Then, I decided to quit my aforementioned job because there was major conflict (lasting about three months) that involved almost all of my closest friends forming in opposite camps, with me in the middle, and the bishop (i.e., my boss) angry at pretty much everyone. The group I was working for subsequently folded, with all of the work we'd put in dispersing into basically nothing (except sullied reputations). And all of this was for a church and a cause that I was only nominally sure I believed in, but which had defined my identity for 30 years.

Needless to say, in retrospect, I was going crazy in the midst of all of this.

There were a couple of occasions when Angel suggested that I needed therapy: I was drinking more than I ever had before, I tossed and turned and couldn't sleep at night, and I got mad, sad and upset about seemingly inconsequential events. And she honestly didn't see the half of it. There was a time when I took my youth group on a retreat and started screaming at a couple of them when we were canoing together because they were being loud. And there were times when I'd cry in the shower because I was overwhelmed with my situation. Literally every morning I had to fight back the thought (and I quote) "I fucking hate my life" in order to start doing my job. I would literally shout profanity in my car on the way to work while fantasizing about continuing down the highway to another state to get out of my situation. When I finally quit, it was a literal 'snap' kind of event - (sorry - this is a spoiler for the book, but not that big of one) I decided I was going to quit my job, and did so before I had even talked to Angel. She, of course, responded sensibly that this was a crazy thing to do. In retrospect all of this was totally crazy, as I'm sure you've discerned. And there's a pretty direct record of how my mind was working in the last few chapters of my book - chaotic, a bit frantic, disorganized, angry at everything in general. Notably different from the way my mind was working when I wrote the rest of the book.

This kind of stress is what leads up to burn out, and that's what burn out looks like. It's what motivated me, at a primal emotional level, to cut and run rather than try to keep working things out. It's why I cut off a lot of my friendships, and all of my job and school connections, and decided to start over entirely. It's also why, when I think of religion, I still have a strong visceral negative reaction, and I don't know that I'll ever be able to be comfortable in church again. My comparison is to the time that I ate 7 Moonpies at once in a long, hot car ride: I loved them once, but they made me really sick, and I want those little marshmallow bastards out of my life. That, if you're wondering, is why I was so mad, and why I have a hard time at the end of my book explaining why I quit. Religion drove me effin crazy.

I healed by doing what I think you're supposed to do: I stopped using negative coping mechanisms (like alcohol and liturgy), got out of the situations that were causing my stress, reinvested in things I find meaningful, and addressed the issues I could address. I quit religion altogether. I stopped trying to fix situations and relationships that were irreparably damaged. I started exercising and got physically healthy (I honestly think Angel and running were the two things that kept me sane through this, and I'll be forever grateful to both). I retrained into a Nursing Assistant position, found a new job (that I genuinely like, for the first time since I worked at a movie theater in high school), and developed a plan to get financial stability. I devoted myself to working on my marriage (rather than my church relationships), and I admitted to myself that I couldn't be a Christian anymore if I wanted to be an honest and healthy human being. I immediately started feeling better to the point that friends were commenting on it within days of my deciding to quit, and just over a year later (I almost can't believe it hasn't been longer) my life feels entirely different: healthy and balanced in a way that I don't know I've felt since high school. Life feels content and hopeful and stable.

And that, I think, is something you need to understand if you want to understand my book.