One Woman's Experience With 'Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome'

One Woman's Experience With 'Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome'

What do you do when the faith you grew up in just doesn't make sense anymore?

This is the dilemma Reba Riley, a 33-year-old from Cincinnati, faced in her late 20s. She was brought up in an evangelical Christian household, but soon realized that the questions she had about her faith weren't being answered by the theology preached by her family's church.

The spiritual crisis prompted her to embark on a wild journey through 30 different religious traditions in just one year. Half of these were various strands of Christianity -- from Mormonism to the practices of the Amish -- and the other half included Hinduism, Paganism and others.

The purpose of the quest wasn't necessarily to find a new faith, but to combat the bitterness that had grown in her heart when she thought about God.

Three years after her experiment concluded, Riley told The Huffington Post she now calls herself a Christian, but with many, many qualifiers. Her faith is now about practicing love and finding God in unexpected places.

Riley wrote about her journey in her new book, "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing." HuffPost Religion talked to Riley about what prompted her to start exploring her faith. Parts of the interview have been edited for length and clarity. An excerpt from the book is also included below.

Credit: Howard Books.

What is Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome?

It's really important that people realize I'm not trying to diagnose anything medical or mental health-related. This is a way to talk about a common set of experiences. Here’s the definition I usually give:

  1. It’s a condition of spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion, faith, and/or the leaving, losing or breaking of those things.
  2. The vile, noxious, icky and otherwise foul aftermath of said spiritual injury.
  3. A serious term intended to aid serious spiritual healing -- without taking itself too seriously in the process.

The origins and symptoms are really as varied as the people who are experiencing it. For me, my experience of PTCS was a tremendous amount of hurt, bitterness and anger. I realized that if I didn't get rid of those things I'd never be a healthy person. I came to the point where I needed to take responsibility for my spiritual health.

What was your faith like before this season of change?

I grew up in a Pentecostal-leaning evangelical megachurch, before megachurches were a thing. I was very much about Jesus. I didn’t really have an identity outside of that of being a Christian. That was our whole life, my past, present, and future. My religion was very real to me and it fostered a very real connection between me and the ‘Godiverse,’ as I liked to call it. I was actually in ministry training and when I walked away from that it was like my entire life lost its gravity. It wasn’t just a social circle that I lost. All the certainties I had were gone, I didn't have a support system because I didn't know where to look for that. It was really a deconstruction of my whole world view at once.

What frustrated you about the faith of your childhood?

The absolute certainty. You're allowed to question, but only as long as you come back to the right answer. There was also judgment. I've experienced quite a lot of that, and interestingly, I think it was people outside the church who loved me more, especially through the transition, than anyone inside the church.

It’s really death by a thousand cuts. You find cracks in your faith and you express them and you try harder to hide them and reason your way out of them. The process was probably a year and a half long before I recognized that what I grew up with was ‘believe it all or believe it none’ theology. When I realized there were tenets of this faith system I couldn’t believe in, I didn’t have a choice. It was all or nothing. It’s not that I left my faith, it’s that my faith left me.

30 religions in one year? Where did this idea come from?

It was crisis that brought me to it. I was physically very sick and I got sicker until my 29th birthday. I was having a party at my house, and I'd been hiding this illness from my friends. Everyone was waiting to sing "Happy Birthday" to me, and I was on the floor of my closet, not knowing if I could get up and go to this party and pretend that everything was okay. I was realizing I didn't have anything left physically and this tremendous despair hit me while I was down. I recognized that even if I was able to get my body healthy, I had this lasting anger and bitterness inside me. It was the kind of down and out moment when other people usually call on God. I guess God showed up anyway, in the form of an idea to go through 30 religions before I turned 30. I was so sick, it was a terrible time to undertake that kind of spiritual quest. I walked out of the closet thinking I wouldn't do it, but the idea kept coming back to me and I decided to give it a shot.

The project was never really about finding a religion. It was a way for me to wrap my hands around a really difficult, invisible problem. I didn't know where the journey was going to lead, but I had this vague notion that if I did this, it would change me. And it worked.

What did you find?

The number one thing is that God is bigger than any lines we can draw. I think a lot of times religion is how we try to draw those lines, so we can call God our own and say we've figured it out. What I saw as I went to all these different places was that wherever there was truth and light and love, that's where I wanted to be. And I found those things everywhere.

Read an excerpt from "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing" below.

<p>Reba Riley wrote a memoir after experiencing a crisis of faith.</p>

Reba Riley wrote a memoir after experiencing a crisis of faith.

Credit: Courtesy of Howard Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

When we arrived at the “Basement Church,” as I was calling it, the sign in the window had changed since I had last driven by. It now read: “Many people are leaving the church and going to God.”

“I assume Homer Simpson didn’t say that,” I observed as we made our way down the concrete steps to the basement. It was a slow process due to the crutches.

Downstairs, we faced orderly chaos: an exposed coat rack and a messy half-kitchen, fifty folding chairs, the remains of a potluck breakfast on a table by the back wall, and a haphazard set-up of microphones and sound equipment. As the whole place was only a thousand square feet, the audio components were entirely unnecessary.

I poked Erin in the ribs. “Did you know I once witnessed the exorcism of a church camp sound system that looked like that one? The system was behaving badly, and it was clearly no ordinary power surge. Demons had infested the equipment to keep fourth graders from hearing the message of salvation for the twenty-seventh time in six days!”

Erin didn’t flinch. This is the type of statement she had come to expect from the friend who could recite all sixty-six books of the Bible without taking a breath (even after multiple shots of tequila) (and blind-folded) (and balancing on one foot). “Demonic speakers, huh? Where do you want to sit?”

The pastor strode over to welcome us. A compact man in his late forties sporting prematurely graying, if well-spiked, hair, he wore blue jeans and a button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, as if to announce, “I’m here to do some heavy Bible-lifting today.”

“Jesus bless you for coming this morning! We’re going to have a sweet time of fellowship,” he boomed, inches from our faces. If I hadn’t been on crutches, I might have cowered in the face of his close-talking Christianese. (Also? He needed a breath mint.)

“Thanks,” Erin rescued me from having to speak. “Glad to be here.” She smiled encouragingly when he walked away. “If it’s too bad, we’ll just leave, okay?” I nodded uncomfortably and crutched my way to a seat. “Oh no,” I whispered to Erin as the two-man praise band floated the first strains of a far too familiar worship song. “This is not good.”

I felt claustrophobic when the singing started. Everyone was so earnest and worshippy: closing eyes to see things I couldn’t see, raising hands to a God I did not feel.

When the title of the sermon flashed on the projection screen, I couldn’t breathe.“Place your identity in Christ,” the pastor yelled into the microphone.

“Placing your identity in Christ” is lingo for church-approved codependence: you allow your church’s brand of Jesus to dictate what you do or don’t wear, eat, read, discuss, watch, and listen to. You let your church’s Jesus pick out your lipstick and your friends, run your bank accounts, and prescribe your wardrobe. Having my identity in Christ was the problem, the entire reason I fell apart when I could no longer believe. When I left my faith, I didn’t have anything of my own. I was exactly like a woman who allowed her husband to make her every decision; I’d let the principles of the Bible (as taught by my brand of Christianity) govern everything from my finances to my schooling to what I would and would not do with my body parts.

As the pastor continued on, I remembered the very last person who had told me to put my identity in Christ: Amy. I was twenty years old, in Starbucks, with my young women’s small group. All of us were part of The Fire, an intensive megachurch ministry-training program. (For the record, it was a high-profile evangelical minister’s church, pre-scandal.) We were tight. These were my only friends for hundreds of miles; they knew nearly everything about me. They knew about my recent traumas and that I was recovering from deep depression. They knew I was alone, so very alone; they were my only support system, the last string tethering me to the church, to God, to myself.

And yet they tossed me out.

“Your identity just isn’t in Christ, Reba,” said Amy, the leader of the posse and the last to speak. She shook her head sadly, as if the next part was breaking her heart instead of mine. “We’ve voted and think it’s best for you to no longer be in our group.” Amy was everything I hoped to be one day: beautiful, sure of her faith, a happily married mother of five. I’d been at the hospital for the birth of her youngest son; that’s how close this group was. I couldn’t believe she was saying this, doing this.

Amy and the others had spent the last twenty minutes going around the circle. One by one they shared how my doubts and failures were bringing down their walk with Christ, and they were so sorry but they were going to have to ask me to leave the group because I wasn’t serious enough about God. They were just concerned about me, they soothed, just speaking the truth in love; their chastisement was intended to give me the wake-up call I needed so that I could come back to the fold, when I was ready to fully place my identity in Christ.

Without hugs or good-byes, they left me there all alone, sobbing in a Starbucks, hands clutching my arms so tightly that I had eerie fingershaped bruises for days, like someone had grabbed hold and shaken me hard.

Here in this odd basement church service, I felt the spasms of PTCS along with the memory. My heart contracted as if it hadn’t been almost ten years, as though I hadn’t been doing Project Thirty by Thirty for months, like I hadn’t made any progress at all. If we don’t leave I’m going to puke, I thought.

“We have to leave. Now. Right now,” I told Erin with urgency, even though the pastor wasn’t even halfway through the sermon.

We made quite a ruckus in the small room, my crutches banging against the metal chairs. The pastor and congregation looked puzzled, and I could feel the eyes of the small congregation on our backs as Erin helped me ascend the stairs. We burst out into the cool sunshine and I inhaled freedom with deep breaths.

“That was a little weird,” she said reasonably—right before I began to cry.

“I hate this project,” I spat. “I hate it!” Actually, I hated that I could not look at this evangelical service with the same open-mindedness I afforded Diwali. I hated that I turned into an angry, mushy, crying mess with the mere mention of the harmless-sounding phrase “identity in Christ.” Mostly I hated that I was still sick in body and in spirit, even though I’d been trying so hard to get better.

But that’s not what I told myself. I channeled everything into hating the project; if there was no project, there wouldn’t be any extra triggers to tear apart my emotions. If there was no project, I would have more energy for dealing with the Sickness. Things would get better.

“I quit,” I announced to Erin. “As soon as I get home, I am tearing my list off the fridge. I am done.”

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