My sister sent me this old picture. I remember sitting in her apartment kitchen as she took this photo on 35mm black and white. I had traveled over two hours north to stay with her for the weekend, leaving my husband at home, as I often did. Seeking respite and fun with my sister was one thing that saved me.
I got married at 19. Nineteen. A baby bride.
6 out of 6 of my best friends from the church got married as young or younger than I did. Four out of the six of us are divorced now. Some remarried.
Before we got married, I imagined bliss: Naked mornings, cuddling. Planning a family, vacations. Working through issues together, a team.
Instead my husband became my enemy. I was his caretaker, bill-payer, food preparer and occasional plaything.
I felt tricked.
I grew to hate him. We argued at times so fiercely I thought he would hit me. I even wished he would, so I could leave. But divorce was off the table. I was trapped. In the church I grew up in, you couldn’t “willfully sin,” i.e., decide to get a divorce. So, I got numb.
I was a shadow-version of myself. Surviving. Work, exercise, pay bills, see friends, sleep on the couch, watch whatever would numb my anxiety. Repeat.
At that point, surviving felt like great success. I thought surviving life was the goal. Heaven was the real reward. I could muscle through this! I saw a therapist who diagnosed me as severely depressed. I started taking anti-depressants which increased the numbing, and my chance of “survival.”
Now I see, I’d shut down many parts of myself for years. The part that longed for freedom, autonomy, travel, new experiences and meeting new people. I never learned how to live my life. I lived it for others.
I lived life to follow the rules: Find your partner in faith. Live a simple life. You are chosen. What happens when that partner isn’t what you thought? What happens if the simple life feels suffocating? What if you don’t agree with the idea that people outside your faith are wrong? What if you see all people as equals and question the entire premise of what you were taught?
So began the unraveling.
Seeing this photo of myself back then brought back a bunch of old feelings and memories. It’s like seeing a different version of myself.
But it also brings a flood of gratitude for my current life: Driven by truth, freedom, autonomy, adventure, and meeting new people. I am fully alive now. It took another marriage and divorce, surviving cancer, and having a baby to wake me up.
But I’m awake. I’m certainly not in a time-out anymore.
I’ve removed myself from the toxic belief system that I was groomed in, and I am rebuilding my life.
One of my good friends commented on how it seems like I am growing up in reverse. Re-raveling.
My life isn’t perfect now, but it’s my own.
I share this out of love.
I want freedom for others. True freedom is a life where you don’t have to live in fear. A life where you can be you.
A life where you can make mistakes and not have them judged as sin.
I respect other’s beliefs, as I want the same respect. But I encourage you to look at your beliefs. (Yes, that’s exactly what my fundamentalist church said not to do. “Don’t think, just believe.”)
But if you’re like me, you will look. And if you’re being told you are inherently sinful, or if your “beliefs” actually provoke fear and anxiety, or your religion classifies some people as having less value (i.e. ‘not chosen,’ ‘not a believer’) or other man-made judgments — that’s not a belief. That’s toxic religion.
I don’t claim to have the answers. I’m comfortable with not knowing the mysteries of the universe. I don’t believe in religion, I believe in connection. I believe we’re all longing for love and understanding. That’s why I’m here, writing.
I love you.