Faith Healing, Chickenshit and Bears

Well, this is weird.  It seems I have created a blog for my own personal use that I now handle with care.  In the beginning, this was a place to write my stories and get out my rants; my assumption was no one would ever read them, so I did not bother to filter.  I was wrong, so now I get nervous.  A profanity-laced version of this post was published on a secret site, so as not to offend, like the chickenshit that I am.

Some readers here, perhaps most, are showing up for the gossip factor.  Even Christians skip to the sex scenes.  Some understand the oppression of growing up fundie and appreciate the “me, too” feeling. Some are closeted unbelievers and are struggling with the reality that in order to be their own true fully actualized selves they have to come out to their families.  This is terrifying, because, as all of us who have been through it know, you risk losing everything: your family, your community and social life, your identity.  Your people will likely turn on you in a multitude of ways (disappointment, anger, fear for your soul, pray for, pity or condemn you) for your self-discovery.  Rarely are they accepting or curious about your evolution.  Rarely are there no emotional repercussions.  All of us who have walked away know this.  We have all experienced it in one form or another, the condescension and rejection.  There is a network of ex-Christians who have escaped fundamentalism and survived or are trying to escape and hoping to survive.  Some keep their non-beliefs secret from their families to avoid dealing with the drama. Many suffer from the aftermath of cognitive dissonance, PTSD and suicidal thoughts; leftover irrational fears that won’t quiet.   The beleaguered mental health community is not up to speed on the effects of fundamentalism.   My voice is one of many.  I thought I could walk away and pretend none of it ever happened, but that’s not how life works.  Here I am, decades later, finally speaking up.  I can’t say it isn’t still frightening, the risk of offending.

A recent Facebook post pushed me over the edge, as will happen.  A sad, sick woman with a debilitating disease wrote to an evangelical TV show asking why her prayers for healing had not been answered.  The response was a clip of Pat Robertson blaming demons or some such bullshit.  (Nut Job Here)  It really flipped my switch, not just because Pat Robertson is a douchebag, but because there was a sick, vulnerable, desperate person in need of help and comfort who was emotionally manipulated in a deeply sadistic way.   Not only was she dealing with the reality of her illness, she was also wounded, confused and fearful that the god she loved and depended on was ignoring her pleas.   It was a double whammy of pain.

Here’s the thing, I’ve got nothing against prayer.  As a matter of fact, sometimes that’s all you can do. When a worry is too big to bear, you have to let it go or be consumed. When life takes a turn, thoughtful folks say “I’m praying for you” or “thoughts and prayers” and post sweet emojis, they are saying they care and hope things get better. It’s nice. This isn’t about that. What follows is a request directed to those who are strident believers in faith healing; an appeal for consideration.  Please hear me out.

When a person with an incurable disease is told their condition can be whisked away by a prayer, it disregards their daily reality.  Every day contains struggles unknown to the rest of us, both physical and emotional.

To profess to have access to a magical cure insults the sick in a way that faith healing believers do not seem to understand.  The underlying emotion might be love for the afflicted and a desire for their wellness, but disregarding the daily reality of living with illness, the limitations of medical science and the personal beliefs of others comes across as an ego-driven, manipulative power trip.  Such disregard is rude at best, but also cruel and misinformed and can be emotionally damaging to those not good at critical thinking.

This might seem to be an overreaction to anyone who hasn’t been steamrolled by religiosity, but I have a sick kid who experiences this.  She, being a better person than me and not having experienced the steamroller, rolls her eyes and takes the good intentions. Or yells a little bit and lets it go.  Not me.

I see, at least a little bit, what she goes through; her fears and symptoms and side effects and endless appointments and medications.  The disappointment and discouragement when yet another treatment fails.  I see her absolute determination to stay as healthy and fit and positive as she possibly can despite her fatigue.  I see her siblings’ worry and fear and unwavering, astounding love.  If there is such a thing as a holy spirit, it lives in their support of each other.  I know what I go through, not just because I am heartbroken for her and would take the disease myself if it would save her from it, but working multiple jobs to pay the bills, staying in a job I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to for the medical benefits and watching my daughter ask strangers on the internet for money because I have no way of paying the deductible, despite the long hours.  I also see the resources and attention that go to this one kid, when I have others who need me, as well.  The endless fatigue and stress on us all.  If there was a god that could prevent this or take it away, and it doesn’t automatically do so, then it is evil.

I do not believe there is a being with the power to allow or disallow sickness; to cure or not cure based on variable criteria.  I understand that others do.

My problem lies with the manipulation of false hope. On the receiving end, it seems arrogant and selfish to tell a sick person that if they say the right words, they MIGHT be healed.  It feels like a head trip, a game.  Also ignorant.  If there were a kind and loving god with these capabilities, there would be no sickness.  The fact of sickness remains; therefore god is either not loving or kind, perhaps does not have those powers or simply does not exist. I assume believers have another explanation, but nothing else makes sense to me.

I prefer to rest my hopes in science; like that crazy kid from up the street who grew up to be a medical research scientist, spending his days conducting meticulous experiments in order to find another treatment or even a cure.  Do I believe my daughter’s life is worth more than those of the countless rodents under his knife? Yes.  Yes, I do.  The mice might disagree.

When my daughter was diagnosed, an acquaintance remarked that perhaps god allowed it to happen in order to get my attention.  I felt it was a remarkably unkind thing to say.  Were it true, then a nasty manipulation from a petty creature with too much power.   Since I don’t believe it to be true, I’ll go with the former, which brings me to my point. Fervid beliefs allow outrageously offensive things to be said under the guise of caring.  If I had indisputable proof that a god had made my daughter sick in order to turn me into a follower, then I would kill that creature, if possible. It most certainly would not be the recipient of my devotion but of the wrath of Mama Bear, complete with skin-ripping claws, saliva dripped fangs and a bladder evacuating roar.

My quest here is to ask those of you who read this blog and are believers in faith healing to consider another perspective. Consider that your beliefs are not factual.  You are absolutely entitled to them. No one can stop you from sharing them, either, but please consider how it feels to be on the receiving end. The idea that a person or their family member is somehow responsible for, or can effect their illness, either by disbelief or lack of proper prayer or by any other measure, is indefensible.  In response to a much more vitriolic version of this post, I heard stories from others:  someone who, when their own healing didn’t come, was told they were not right with God (they’re still sick because they’re SICK, goddammit); an elderly parent on their death bed was told to pray for healing (they died clinging to misplaced hope instead of spending their final moments in peace); another was told chronic illness plagued them because they had changed their address and cut loose toxic friends.  Another, when offered prayer for sickness, requested family members donate to stem cell research, instead and got blank looks all around.   For a person struggling with incurable illness and pain or facing death to be told they need to fix it themselves is cruel. Those words coming from a loved one twist the knife.

I realize there is likely nothing I can say, no matter how careful or loving or angry or direct or clear, to throw a faith-healing believer off the scent or knock them off their high horse.  Zealotry does that to people, however, if you are interested in not alienating loved ones who do not share your beliefs, please consider the following suggestions:

Recognize the difference between FACT and BELIEF.  Words have meanings and these things are not the same.    Fact is truth.  Facts are true whether you believe them or not. Beliefs are yours, they belong to you.  Facts belong to us all. We all have “personal truths,” based on our desires, perspectives, and experiences.  These are something less than factual and should be wielded with great care and understanding that what is true for you may not be true for others.

 

 

Meanwhile back at the ranch…

While I was busy making bad choices, so was Preacher Dad.  While Mom and sister were out of town, PD’s friend showed up.  They retired together to my parent’s bedroom.  PD saw the look of shock on my face and said, “Oh, it’s just like when you have friend over.”

#1.  What friend?

#2.  I’m not an idiot.

Eventually, PD was caught in a gay bathhouse and secretly fired from the church.  A story was concocted for the congregation and he moved to L.A.  The concocted story was told to us all, including my mother.  NO ONE told my mother why her husband no longer had a job even though she was church secretary.  PD found work in L.A. and his partner joined him there. (No one was calling him “partner,” but that was the truth.) He would come home for an occasional weekend and pretend to be husband/father.  Mom was left alone, trying to make ends meet.   No one took her aside and told her the truth.  Except me.  I can’t remember how the conversation came about, but we were sitting on her bed.  She was unable to believe all the evidence that PD was gay, so I told her that PD’s partner had slept in her bed while she was out of town.  I asked how long it had been since he slept with her and she said not that long, so I recommended an AIDs test and saw the understanding settle into her face.  To her credit, she wasted no time in doing that.  She also packed her bags, moved back to Vancouver and divorced PD.  It is impossible to overestimate the amount of courage these actions took.  He never once had a real conversation with her, never apologized; never gave her any sense of closure or reassurance that he had ever loved her.  PD was done.

I had no understanding of regular relationships, no sense of how to be in the world.  It was clear that I did not fit in anywhere.  I worked in restaurant offices and could see that the wait staff, mostly college students my own age, lived lives I could not comprehend; attending school, living in apartments paid for by parents, socializing.  Shopping in malls and having relationships.  It was all so far beyond me.  I was weird, but I supported myself and was free of religion.  I was also desperately lonely until I struck up a friendship with a man at work.  He was creative, brilliant and funny and came from an atheist family, so I married him.  He married me because that is what I wanted.  We set about starting a family right away because that is what I wanted.  He was a companion and a friend and he loved me.  And we had beautiful babies.  I built a cocoon, wrapped up in a family of my own, ignoring the parts of myself I was neglecting.  Because you just can’t fix everything at once.

About a month after baby #2 was born, I came home to find a handwritten envelope from PD on the table and my heart lurched.  It could only be bad news, and it truly was.  He wrote one letter to everyone in the family and sent copies to us all.  He had AIDs; had been HIV positive for quite a while and the disease had progressed.  He was starting treatment, but the prognosis was not good.  It was 1995; just before medication that worked became available.  I went to see him with my sisters on Father’s Day and again in November.  By then he was hospitalized; it was near the end.  I had some time alone with him in his hospital room; knowing it was the last time I would ever see him alive.  We chatted about this and that.  When I tried to turn the conversation to a personal place, I choked on the words. He turned on the television.  A news story was running about a mother who had killed her daughter.  She was being dragged off in handcuffs yelling I didn’t did it, I didn’t did it.

Conversation over.  I left, heartbroken and stunned.

A few weeks later, the phone rang at 2:00 am.  I lay in bed feigning sleep, knowing what the call was.  PD’s partner called again at 6:00 am and this time I answered.  It was over.

I read this poem at his funeral:

Only a Person who Risks is Free

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams,
before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the
greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but they cannot learn, feel, change,
grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

– Anonymous

After I read the poem, I took my still-nursing daughter back to the car, out of the wind of the Oregon plains.  Unfortunately, I sat in the driver’s seat to feed her, where she promptly kicked the car horn, which emitted a very loud blast and everyone attending the service turned to look. I thought it a fitting end.