Jeri’s post was originally published on her blog Heresy in the Heartland on November 3, 2013. It is reprinted with her permission. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”, “His Quiver Full of Them”, “David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock”, “The Political Reach of Bill Gothard”, and “Bill Gothard on Education”, and “Ken Ham: The Evolution of a Bully.”
At some point in my growing up, I realized that my family was dysfunctional.
While outsiders saw us as picture-perfect and held us in regard as a model of the ideal Christian family, we knew our Sunday-best was an illusion or at best, just one facet of who and what we were. There were a lot of good times, certainly, but there was also tension. And no matter how much fun we were having, we never let our guard down.
I have spent the last year seriously unpacking what I’ve carried from my family of origin. In the process, I’ve gradually learned a new vocabulary describing the ways that dysfunction affected me:
- Post-Traumatic Stress
- Complex PTSD
- Emotional Incest
- Religious Trauma Syndrome
- and now… Developmental Trauma
According to a report on Developmental Trauma Disorder by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk,
When children are unable to achieve a sense of control and stability they become helpless. If they are unable to grasp what is going on and unable do anything about it to change it, they go immediately from (fearful) stimulus to (fight/flight/freeze) response without being able to learn from the experience. Subsequently, when exposed to reminders of a trauma (sensations, physiological states, images, sounds, situations) they tend to behave as if they were traumatized all over again – as a catastrophe. Many problems of traumatized children can be understood as efforts to minimize objective threat and to regulate their emotional distress. Unless caregivers understand the nature of such re-enactments they are liable to label the child as “oppositional”, ‘rebellious”, “unmotivated”, and “antisocial”.
When trauma emanates from within the family children experience a crisis of loyalty and organize their behavior to survive within their families. Being prevented from articulating what they observe and experience, traumatized children will organize their behavior around keeping the secret, deal with their helplessness with compliance or defiance, and accommodate in any way they can to entrapment in abusive or neglectful situations.
These children… tend to communicate the nature of their traumatic past by repeating it in the form of interpersonal enactments, in their play and in their fantasy lives.
So many of Dr. van der Kolk’s observations resonate with me. And in an odd way, I find it reassuring to discover that professionals can accurately describe the ways in which my siblings and I coped with our traumatic upbringing. We were not anomalies; we were not “broken”; we were not “messed up”. As children, we responded understandably–even predictably–to unsettling circumstances beyond our control.
Our parents were told by Bill Gothard and Michael Farris and Mary Pride and Doug Phillips, by Raymond Moore and Gregg Harris and even James Dobson, that God had given them (parents) responsibility for their children’s education and that by taking our education into their own hands, they could have the loving, God-fearing family they always wanted. Our parents accepted the challenge, choosing to raise us in an environment totally different from any they had known before. In a system totally different from their own experience. In a culture totally different from that of our peers. But in some cases, that system failed dismally.
My ten siblings and I are only a tiny representation of the thousands (millions?) of children who grew up in conservative religious homeschooling homes.
Many of those homes were unhealthy, and socially isolated; many were abusive. And many of us are survivors. The symptoms we have dealt with along the way are not signs that we were rebellious or lazy or crazy or influenced by demons–they are simply signs that our young brains reacted normally to the challenges our parents created for us when we were vulnerable and doing the best we could to make sense of the strange and sometimes painful world in which we found ourselves.
Now that I have children trusting me to show them the world, I am finally able to feel empathy for my younger self. I see myself at my children’s ages, and grieve the losses that little girl was not able to properly mourn at the time because she had to be strong and she had to be good. That little girl discovered early that it was safer to ally herself with her caregivers–who were bent on pleasing God–than with the rest of her culture–who were displeasing him every day. That little girl learned to cooperate with and even defend the very people who were traumatizing her, even when this only created more cognitive dissonance.
Now I find nurturing my children and tuning in to their specific needs to be healing to me. Observing them, I am better able to recognize my own likes and dislikes and fears, the things that make me feel supported, the things that make feel threatened, the things that make me feel brave.
I have carried a lot with me since leaving the home of my childhood. I felt I had to hang onto it to find out what exactly it was.
Now that I am able to label the way I felt as a girl, it is easier to let those feelings go and move on with a better, healthier life.