Healing from clergy sexual misconduct is two steps forward, one step back. And then it’s three steps forward, one step back. And then four, and then five, and eventually you have so much forward momentum that you stop going back at all. You’re healed! You’re whole again. You can never pick up where you left off, but your new life is good. You are stronger than you ever were before.
Except when you’re not. And those moments can come out of nowhere.
At a church meeting a few days ago, one of the ministers proposed an idea to help the congregation understand “stewardship” more comprehensively. But before the words were even out of her mouth, my lizard brain took over. I had once been victimized by a priest who twisted meanings. For a time, he had me convinced that “a sexualized pastoral relationship” and “God’s healing grace” were the same thing. Now, when I see clergy doing anything that remotely resembles rewriting meanings, I panic. My fear took over that meeting and filled the room. We got nothing done. Everyone went home dispirited.
The next morning, I realized I’d been reacting not to the reality in the room, but to my traumatic memories. That really shook me up. I didn’t know I could still be triggered so easily. Worse, it had happened in front of some of the church’s most respected leaders. I sent a note of apology, and I explained the triggered memory. But the uneasy feeling remained. I felt shaky and out-of-control, and I didn’t feel safe staying on that committee. A day later I resigned.
Was I overreacting? Yes, of course, and I knew it. But I couldn’t even control that. And that triggered another flashback: associate pastor “Eileen” cringing as I walked into her office. When I had first talked to Eileen about “Pastor Kevin’s” behavior, she gave me a lot of support. But when he returned from sabbatical two months later, things began to change. During my last year at the church, Eileen seemed more and more wary of me. The last few months, I saw her cringe every time I walked toward her office. That hurt, a lot. But I knew how damaged I was at that point. Eileen knew it too, and it must have made her feel afraid and helpless. And who knows what Kevin had said to her? I could hardly blame her for wanting to avoid me.
Eileen’s reaction is partly why I left. I couldn’t stay at a church where even the clergy were afraid of me. I needed a clean slate. At my new church, the pastor gave me a full year to heal before he asked me to take on anything. Three years later, I’ve done a lot and established myself as a leader. I was confident I was ready to serve on this committee. But now I’ve revealed this huge unhealed wound, and I’m reacting so fast that no one has time to respond. I’m acting not from my strong self, but from an ancient wound. In my mind, I play an endless loop of Eileen cringing.
I shared this story with another survivor. She advised me to stay on the committee if that’s what I really wanted to do. “It can be a learning experience for you on how to keep your emotions in check and figure out how to respond to triggers,” she said. “It can also be a growing experience for those on the committee to think about a larger context and learn more about the ways in which they interact with their congregation. It sounds like you may be able to challenge them to think differently.” She is right, and I now regret acting with such haste. But panic is a powerful thing.
So how do I make lemonade from these lemons? First, remind myself that I’m safe. My new church is a loving and resilient community. They know my dark story and still they have embraced me. Second, get past the shame of having blown up at that meeting. Walk into church on Sunday knowing that those people still care for me. Third, learn from this experience. Learn to recognize panic in its earliest stages. When it comes, sit quietly and ask myself if I’m really in any danger. Take slow, deep breaths until I feel safe again.
I didn’t expect to still be learning this lesson nearly four years after I left my church. But there it is, fellow survivors: this journey is a long one. I’ve taken an unexpected step back. Now, I’m ready for the next twenty steps forward.