Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Violence of Thought Conversion: Wrapped in Gentleness and in Cruelty

I thought I would mention a bit more about my own experience with informal discipline tactics that church leaders and cultic groups use to exploit and manipulate members. In years past on this site, I've mentioned the many gentle sessions of double bind and informal logical fallacy I endured directly with my pastor in his study when I approached him about things that were said from the pulpit that didn't quite sound right doctrinally. When I left the church office, I would feel disoriented and exhausted in a detached and pleasant sort of way, and I'd often go home to nap until dinner.

When I started reading the literature on cults, I learned that feeling was a lasting effect of dissociation. (In the previous post, Wendy Duncan notes that after formal hot seat sessions, group members of the Trinity Foundation cult would remain disoriented and numb for several days.) In a recent post, I also mentioned my experience of dissociation at an informal home meeting, a moment that was so terrible that I experienced physical symptoms. And I described what it was like to observe someone else breaking apart emotionally after a terribly personal and unwarranted tongue-lashing in the name of church authority.

Gentle Thought Conversion

Not all of the breaking was harsh, like those discussions in the pastor's study. I was treated well, and I so enjoyed the pastor's company. We hadn't lived there in the area for very long, moving to the state only months before, making my husband and I especially vulnerable. I suppose that the pastor became one of my closest friends, when you stack everyone up and compare all the people I knew while we lived there. And the church liked having me around initally, offering me the job of substitute secretary which I did until just a month or so until we left.

I recall another notable moment of breaking during my first six months at the church. The dissonance of that hot seat came with gentleness, something amazing because this young elder's wife was generally on the aggressive side, just a little "socially rough."  At the time, I was stressed about getting ready to apply to graduate school, and I had tremendous stress when sitting for the GRE, just before the retreat. Direction in life always created a huge amount of stress for me. My Word of Faith background had largely conditioned and convinced me that the weight of the world depended on me making the right decisions, though I knew that I made many very human mistakes all of the time. Adding that idea of overt responsibility for everything including things out of my control to the deep shame I felt as a consequence of my yet unhealed childhood wounds made for terrific anxiety about the big choices.

I'd been invited to the ladies retreat, and one evening, the whole group of us went to a restaurant for a family style dinner. I ended up seated next this elder's wife who had invited us to dinner a couple of times right after we first started attending there.  I must have mentioned my anxiety about the wait for my GRE scores when this elder's wife struck up a conversation, though I don't remember the details. I do remember feeling odd when she pitched an idea to me – a remedy to make all of my anxiety about the future go away. She proposed that by remaining a housewife who concerned herself primarily with interests within the home under a husband's authority and remaining home to have children (which I'd already determined to do anyway when children arrived), I could find real freedom from the stress of deciding what to do with my life.

The comment had all sorts of baited emotional hooks as selling points. I would no longer have to worry about getting into school. I would no longer have to worry about anything ever again. Hierarchy was freedom. It sounded eerily like Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four: “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.”   I part of me snapped and broke.   Simply, quietly. I took the bait, because accepting the idea provided secondary gain: the illusion of being able to hide from my life and the stress of making decisions. I could have freedom from responsibility for all of  my own thoughts and actions. That is essentially what she said and what I would hear repeated in not so many words for another 3 ½ years, over and over. I fell prey to all sorts of logical errors and made the decision to buy into the distortion as a good idea. An aspect of the argument was very true, and certainly, being married and who I was married to did limit my options. For instance, I couldn't be someone else's wife, so I was free from that threat, wasn't I? She built an argument that sounded similar. I was born an American, so I'm free from threat of the slavery of being a Canadian, as if everything were a black and white decision with all or nothing implications. And that's supposed to make sense? I could live like a parasite off of my husband and learn to be content with that "freedom."

As Orwell says in the third section of the book, the reverse statement is also true: “SLAVERY IS FREEDOM.” And I vividly remember dissociating at that moment, and even the mental of the picture of the silverware in my hand and the food on my plate still remains in my mind. A part of me broke, and the scene became a bit unreal. I felt like I was almost looking thorough someone else's eyes, and I felt like I was watching other people acting in a movie, even thought the situation was not unpleasant, nor the words we exchanged uncomfortable. I remember attributing it to the idea that I likely didn't have enough sleep the night before, staying in a strange place with strange people. I know now that I dissociated, and it was quite powerful. I was in a situation that I could not exit (brought there by bus from the retreat center) and I had to sit there to be bombarded with ideas by an elder's wife who spoke authoritatively. There was also that subtle, unspoken suggestion of “What's wrong with you for believing such foolish ideas when freedom awaits you?” I didn't see it as a threat, and though I knew something was very wrong, I went into a "highly programmable" altered state of consciousness and just soaked up everything that she said to me as my power to scrutinize what she said melted into nothing.  I couldn't contest her, I couldn't leave the situation, and because of the tremendous discomfort I felt because of the many pressures on me at that moment, I passively accepted what she said.

Not So Gentle Conversion

During our last year at the church, all sorts of things went really sour on many levels. We were asked to start our own mid-week home group which we soon abandoned. It was difficult to attend the meetings for leaders because my husband and I both had scheduling conflicts. We managed to make it to one meeting where we were instructed to collect personal information on the people in our groups to pass up through to the elders. I didn't go back to another meeting, very uncomfortable that I'd been drafted into the Thought Police without informed consent. Needless to say, we explained away our inability to participate by noting our scheduling conflicts.

I was so "flipped out" about what I learned at this leader's meeting, I went on an extended fast, looking to God for answers. I was on day nine of a twenty-one day fast per Daniel's example (Daniel 10:2-3) when my "music team" was summoned to meet with the elders on a Saturday morning in April of '96. Several elders and the pastors been to a local Messianic church for a funeral/memorial service, and the elders wanted us to start playing in the musical style of this other church, albeit failing to realize that not one of us on that worship team attended the service. When I said that they were, in fact, asking us to be different people with a different music style which was entirely dependent on personality and training (things out of our control), I started to shake because my sugar was so low. I really started to shake when they lectured us about praying and fasting! I regret it now because the activity of fasting should be concealed.  When the pastor asked me what was wrong, I took great satisfaction in explaining to the group that I had not eaten anything but very limited amounts of dilute juice in more than a week – ummmm ... to fast and pray.

When I broke the fast and recovered some time later, I went to the church office to speak to the assistant pastor. I remember very little about the meeting but vividly remember feeling barely able to make it to my car which was not more than a 20 yard walk from his office door to my car. I know that the "failed" home group was mentioned as well as the music ministry issue (??) because they were used to shame and denigrate me on a deeply personal level.  I could not focus on the specific reasons that he listed because my body seemed to take over my mind in an overall feeling of illness and disorientation.  (Of course, he parsed his deeply personal words as concern and "loving admonishment" because of my great value as a person to him and the church, a confusing double-bind.   On some level I do think that they believe their parishioners are valuable, and there is a great deal of love which makes the cruelty all the more confusing.  But the leaders in such situations feel justified in the use of cruelty because it accomplishes what they feel is the greater good:  for the person's own growth of character, for the smooth workings of the church so as not to cause "discord among the brethren," and to literally save the soul of the individual from hell by abusing the "rebellion" and "independent spirit" out of them.

I only vaguely recall his  litany of all of the horrible things that were wrong with me, including my physical appearance, though I only remember two or three phrases of what he said. There was something said to me about my tendency to use minimal cosmetics, as if that was a sign of neglect which was a sign of lack of respect for my husband.  (I have to look attractive to other men as a show of love and submission to my husband?)   I remember thinking about makeup instead of listening to the specifics that he said about what I did that was right or wrong, unable to get beyond the idea that it was such a bizarre topic.  Today, out from under the conditioning and the influence of the church, I would tell him that it was none of his business.  That day, I could not speak.  What I remember was the feeling that my throat was so tight, I was not sure that I could catch my breath or utter any sounds. I felt like I no longer had a physical body, and again, my vision changed. I didn't have any momentary blindness this time, but I was sure that I was going to walk out into a thunderstorm when I left, as though black clouds blocked the sun and the light that came in through the windows behind me and to my right.   The room suddenly grew dark as he spoke, just like it sometimes does right before a violent, middle-of-the-day thunderstorm in the spring.  Later, I stood in utter dismay that it was a sunny day with only a single, small cloud floating in the blue, blue sky when I looked up into it as I stood beside my car on the bone-dry blacktop.

A Painful Breaking

I do remember him opening his office door, as he apparently wanted me to leave, but in retrospect, I don't think I knew what he'd been saying or whether I'd been talking, because my throat felt like fused, rigid, painful bone that would not yield for me to speak.  Had he asked me to leave?  I remember getting to the outside door to leave, and I felt a momentary rush of anxiety, sure that I must have left my purse on the floor in his office --  because I couldn't feel my arms. As I looked down to put my hand on the horizontal bar to open the door, bouncing my body against it because I felt like I had no strength to push it, my purse bounced into my field of vision which I thought strange because I couldn't feel it. I did feel the metal of the bar, though.  It felt searing cold, and I felt numb until I touched it.  I was not fully "in my body," or so it felt.

It took forever for me to get the car door open, and it was an effort to get myself into the driver's seat after I swung my purse haphazardly on to the passenger seat because I didn't feel like I had proper use of my arms. It was humid and hot in the car in a way that was stifling, making it hard to breathe.  I struggled and fumbled to get the key into the ignition, as if I was watching a film in slow motion. I sat there, sick, and I remember saying in my head, “What did I say? What did he say? I don't even remember what I even came here to talk about with him today." And nothing looked real. It seemed like my vision was film of a stream of long frames of still photos that had been taken with a camera lens that distorted distance. My hands and my lap seemed to be about four feet away from my face as I looked down at the distorted, unreal images.  Looking down at my hands seemed like a journey as my awareness went from somewhere above my head, having to travel down the miles in front of it to allow me to focus on my hands.  My vision seemed two dimensional and my movement choppy.  At least, I could not track those single, still pictures of my vision smoothly with my attention.

I felt sick and achy, and though I don't remember getting in my purse for Ibuprophen, I found myself suddenly looking at the four brown pills in the palm of my right hand for what seemed like an eternity as I felt like bones in my arms were stretching further away from me. The pills looked distorted, and I stared at them for a long time.  Something was very wrong, I felt, and I still feel that moment, as though my torso is hollow, right down to the floor of my pelvis. Everything felt wrong. Everything felt unsafe and unreal.

When I swallowed the pills, I felt like I'd swallowed something else, and I felt the sensation of swallowing them as though I were a computer consciousness in a plastic, android body. I stared at the pills for a long time, and I saw them resting in my hand from a different angle that couldn't have come from the vantage of my own eyes, as though my consciousness had left my head and was floating at the roof of the car in the middle, closer to the windshield. In my mind, I kept repeating the thought, “I feel so sick,” over and over. I was not sure if I should rest there or if I could manage to drive the rest of the way home.  I didn't feel comfortable being there, as if I had to get away from a place where I'd just been assaulted, finding a safe place.  And I used to turn the corner into the parking lot of that church, seeing it like a bright green oasis of love and hope, teeming with life for me and others which gave me joy.  Suddenly, that changed.

My Body Repeats the Story as Evidence of the Trauma?

A few days later, on a Saturday evening, I took some Ibuprofen out of the bottle, and as I swallowed the pills, I felt that android like feeling again and had the sense that something was dreadfully wrong.  It was horrible.  It was different from the way I felt in the car, and it wasn't exactly like what I would call impending doom, but more like some feeling you might have while watching a dysphroic horror film.   It again was like watching a movie, with a part of me not fully present, a film without sound that just showed disjointed images of strange things that seemed out of place and time.  I felt creaturely and anxious, but I was not "present enough" in my consciousness to feel afraid, though it was not comfortable. But I was the star of this strange film, and I had the sense that something dreadful happened. I dreamed about the assistant pastor that night, and I remember thinking about that day that I'd met with him for the browbeating as I drifted off to sleep.

I awakened that morning with angioedema – an acute swelling of the tongue and face. I said that I looked like the Elephant Man, and my face was sore to touch. When I looked at my tongue, my teeth left indentations in the side where it had swollen against them. I decided to stay home from church because I was not sure what was happening. Gary went without me, and I went back to bed. Within a year, I would be able to tolerate no drugs in the whole NSAID class, and I also developed wicked asthma which worsened severely when I took NSAIDs  -- asthma which I did not have before, new onset at the age of 30. I rapidly developed several other chemical sensitivities followed by dramatic symptoms which I later learned are strongly tied to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and somatic illness. I found it odd, but I still remain extremely allergic to eye makeup, too.

It has been suggested to me that my body decided to tell the story of my trauma that day through allergy – that my body is literally grieving over what the assistant pastor said to me that day.  It certainly sounds curious, though I don't profess that I believe this, one way or the other.   Something terrible happened that only the two of us saw, the assistant pastor and me -- and somehow, the Ibuprofen and the eye makeup became wrapped up in the process, and perhaps asthma in general. It may be that my body continues to tell this specific story about the trauma because I couldn't find my voice.  I suppose that only God knows, though my symptoms are much less severe since working with a therapist concerning this and other specific memories of trauma related to my experience at the church.

If you ask me about the worst moment during my four year tenure in Shepherding/Discipleship, I'm not apt to identify that afternoon in Paul's office. I don't think about it much because it seemed so unreal, though as I write this, my body aches and my heart is pounding, and the center of my chest feels empty, just from revisiting what I do recall. It seems to much like a dream than it does a memory, and I might dismiss it if I had not felt so wrong and so eerie when I think of that image of the pills in my hand as I sat there in the car. I then had the experience in the kitchen which I recall more acutely as I took the next dose of the medicine.  I have no trouble remembering the disturbing, pervasive threatening sense and idea that life had been forever changed in a dreadful way, and it would never again be the same.

One Good Thing

I believe that I was so rattled by that last meeting with the assistant pastor that a part of me decided to never be that vulnerable and na├»ve again.  I certainly took the first step in that direction.  My husband had already wanted to leave the church, and I think that in my heart, I'd made the same decision, though my body wouldn't follow for another couple of months. After all, I was not yet willing to believe that the senior pastor was a manipulator, something I had to experience directly to accept.

On a few occasions thereafter, similar manipulation and shame tactics were used against me by others in the church. A few weeks later, at the end of a special meeting that was set aside on a Friday night for the sole purpose of worship, while I was singing at the end of the service one night.  While I was still on podium behind the mic, singing with my eyes closed, I was abruptly summoned by the tap of bony fingers on my right shoulder. The pastor's wife and another woman who had identified herself as my mentor sat me down in the pews, trapping me there, while people milled around.  Anyone who wanted to listen could hear everything that they said to me, and there were a number of people still around with gentle music playing in the background. The elders sent these women to send me a message to say that I was not behaving properly in terms of submission and authority.

What I found odd was that in this experience, I had trouble paying attention to what they were saying, but not like I had in the assistant pastor's office.   Mind kept spontaneously repeating a phrase that competed for my attention: “If your heart condemns you not, you have confidence towards God.” It was plain and clear, and I heard it repeated in my head after nearly everything that they said to me.   I wondered if my conscience had been seared, because I did not feel a bit convicted and spent a couple of days praying and asking God why I didn't feel bad. I believe that I'd already decided that I wasn't going to revisit that terrible place I'd experienced in the assistant pastor's office. I was later summoned to meet with the pastor and two elders (without the assistant pastor for some reason), I assume to discuss what they'd sent those ladies to me to discuss and to address some specific questions that I'd asked them a few weeks earlier. By then, it didn't matter. I felt victorious again, and their words seemed empty.  We parted amicably, in my understanding, and they even called me in to fill in for the secretary just two days later.  I believe that they wanted to crush me in that meeting, but they had no real cause to take issue with me because I'd done nothing wrong.  Or perhaps they realized that their intimidation stopped working on me like it had in the past?   I never found out, and by then, it didn't matter to me.

When we finally left the church a month later, I called the single elder who had been especially kind and supportive with me. I wanted him to know that we'd left but that I was grateful for his kindness to me. Though I can say that it was no picnic hearing him say that we would lose our jobs, would get some fatal illness, and that if we had children, they could die because we'd left the church without their blessing, I didn't go back to that "place in my head" that I did that day in the assistant pastor's office. As this elder spoke, a different phrase spontaneously popped into my mind and repeated, over and over, in my mind: “Ye have not so learned Christ.” I still had much recovery to work through, and I still felt sick with grief. I still felt rather lost, but I had my mind back. I was no longer willing to listen to them, or perhaps, I'd found my own voice in my own mind and had realized that I could begin to trust myself again.  I could hear them, but I turned down the volume of my attention on what they said and turned up the volume of the voice of my own better judgement inside my mind.

I don't consider myself invulnerable to manipulation like this by any means.  I still hear the words of others.  I still hear the voice of temptation and ideas of condemnation in my own mind, but I make a willful choice to turn down their volume.  There is no condemnation to those in Christ, and whether encouraging thoughts pop into my mind because my own brain find them and pushes them into my consciousness or whether that is the Holy Spirit bidding me to follow, I do know that I don't have to give ear to the condemnation.   Real feedback, constructive criticism, doesn't denigrate but creates safety and a path of productive action that leads to confidence and honor.  That path may be uncomfortable, but it is not demeaning, denigrating, or judgmental.  It makes no use of shame.  It fosters and respects choice and liberty.  Condemnation crushes, and I can choose to turn down its volume.

You know the Party slogan: "Freedom is Slavery". Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible?

Slavery is freedom.

Alone -- free -- the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. 

But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity,
 if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, 
 then he is all-powerful and immortal.

'O'Brien' in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four
(I hope that all learn to resist this temptation.  It is a lie.  CK)