Story of Recovery: John Williamson

Starting from ages birth to 10, my parents had a central influence on my spiritual/psychological development, which I began to realize several years ago was not entirely healthy or positive. As with everyone, these early years have had and still have a huge and I believe often (though not wholly) negative impact on my psyche, and specifically my ingrained conceptions about God and Christianity in particular. Both of my parents came out of a controlling cult-type church movement they were in around their college and post-college years (I don?t know a ton more details about it at this point though) and I believe this affected their spirituality as well as their relationship and overall lives in a lot of ways. Both of my parents were very religious and we always went to fairly conservative evangelical churches growing up. However, my dad in particular was a very rigid, angry man who yelled at my mother a great deal. For the most part from what I remember (with exceptions of course), home was not an open, loving or expressive place growing up at all and it often felt like a minefield to navigate most of the time, with no one ever knowing when dad would go off. In essence, I grew up in the classic unhealthy fundamentalist family where feelings/emotions are never discussed and issues are never taken seriously and worked out in counseling or any other healing environment. When my parents divorced when I was 16, I remember not being surprised and also feeling that the home situation was easier and better with dad out of the house. I think I grew to fear him quite a bit and remember never wanting to be like him when I grew up. Our relationship has certainly improved as I have grown up (most recently going together on a trip to Yellowstone after I graduated college two years ago), although he is still not a large part of my life and we are not very close. I don?t look up to him any way whatsoever, though I have released much of my anger/frustration towards him over the last several years. In these early years, for the most part, I think I was developing into a fearful, timid, introspective young boy with a legalistic, rule-driven faith and I began using a packaged religion as a shield to hide from deeper personal/familial psychological and emotional issues that would continue building up largely unchallenged until years later. In a sense, my personal religion probably served as a needed anchor in my turbulent family life growing up, but it ended up nearly dragging me down to the depths later on. In reading literature over this year about fundamentalist religion/families, I have found that my experience is actually not that unusual. Plenty of people are deeply wounded by legalistic, controlling religion (e.g. my parents) and/or use religion to avoid other deeper emotional or psychological issues and then have to sort through the effects later in life, though some never do and I think my parents (especially my dad) still have a ways to go with this process (as do I in some ways of course).

I think for most of my life, even without my realizing it, my Christian religion was a package of correctness ? a way to help me cope with my own fears, hurts and insecurities and the God I made at a psychological level was largely a model of my dad growing up ? an angry divine taskmaster of sorts who I felt like I could never be good enough to please and who later left my life for the most part. My younger brother, with whom I have had many more good conversations with especially during the last few years, and who was always a bit more rebellious and less rigid than me, abandoned Christianity altogether many years ago. Now, I am increasingly realizing how I instead turned into the over-achieving, perfectionist super-Christian Pharisee of an older brother for quite awhile, particularly through high school and into college.

From ages 11-18, I went through the classic conservative, evangelical church kid pseudo-spiritual and emotional/psychological roller coaster. I attended every church camp, went to every church rally, had lots of small groups with other conservative Christian kids, knew lots of Christian kids and only Christian kids and had a good time semi-faking various kinds of emotional mini-conversions or determinations to ?really be a better Christian this time around.? During these times, I very much desired to feel like and be a ?real? and ?great Christian? and to ?change? and become better and to ?make it,? but I was honestly never sure that I had ever ?felt? God enough or would stop with habitual ?sins? after I came off the social and emotional high from the experiences. Guilt, fear and shame were central to my Christian religion and many of the messages I took in from church/leaders reinforced this perception (especially relating to issues of sexuality ? which, as I?ve realized later, is also really common in these environments). I was pretty good at faking assurance, security and rightness, though I lacked those things at a deep level for the most part and was in reality a very insecure, judgmental person (although, certainly most junior high and high school-age kids are to some degree, my Christianity just allowed me to avoid that appearance easier) who simply wanted to be accepted and felt minimal real acceptance at home. My religion allowed me a way to disguise my self-rejection as just being a ?more serious? or ?better? Christian than other kids. During this period, I was in general a very ?spiritual?, goody-to-shoes, quiet kid who had been home schooled, participated in AWANA (a conservative Christian group where you memorize Bible verses to gain prizes/accolades ? the ultimate legalism encourager for me), went to youth group and church regularly, and found much of my primary social network in Christian circles. While I believed I learned much in these days and developed many valuable friendships, I was also quite sheltered and began deriving nearly all of my self-worth (a false kind of self worth, I realize now) from my packaged set of beliefs and the kind of feel-good experience of religion that I induced myself (or was induced) into having in many instances. Later in my high school years, I began to become critical about many of the aspects of faith I saw in the churches I had gone to, for various reasons. I think some of my critiques were honest (and I still have them) and others were probably out of a frustration at my lack of experiential reality with faith. I also went through a dark questioning period during high school, where I explored atheistic literature and got very interested in the study of Christian apologetics. At the time, I saw this as God leading me to a deeper level of knowledge and understanding of faith even though I didn?t really know what that meant. Now though, I realize more how I had simply felt during those times that I needed to be a Christian back then and was so scared of not having good answers and being wrong that I built up a tower of intellectual rigor in order to support this faith and defend myself from doubts and insecurities, so that if anyone ever asked me (!), I?d have all the right answers and could seem to have this faith thing all together. I was a silly kid. In reality, I never really had to defend my faith to anyone else, as I didn?t really know many people outside of conservative Christian circles. It was as if I was building a very strong tower, but not on good foundations. Even now, I greatly appreciate the church I began attending in high school and still visit when I go back home, but I think a lot of the teaching in the youth group in particular reinforced the legalistic notion of ?what I need to do better as a Christian? along with the ?five things I need to stop doing? as a changed Christian. Perhaps grace was assumed there, but I rarely experienced it fully.

During my senior year of high school, I also got involved in a small group with some guys from my youth group, which was a major step for me. Although looking back, I think the group was somewhat guilt and fear-based, especially on the issues of sexuality (even though everyone was very loving and accepting as well) at least for me, I still greatly appreciated my time growing close to those men because it was a step towards openness, self-acceptance and deep relationships with others at the time. I still look to those two youth leaders as key mentors and figures in my life, who I still occasionally seek out for advice when I am back home. Relationships with several of the fellow students in the group are still active today as well, for which I am grateful.

My time at college (I went to a small, Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college called Whitworth) was also stretching spiritually, emotionally and intellectually in some ways, though always within certain limits. Freshman year was amazing for the most part. I made great friendships, had challenging conversations with several friends that pushed me outside of my sheltered, relatively conservative way of seeing the world. I began to care more about the broader world around me. In particular, doing a student ministry where we handed out lunches to poor people downtown had a huge impact on my way of seeing the world. For awhile, I became incredibly passionate about the poor of downtown Spokane and really genuinely desired to change the world in a positive way. However, looking back on those times, I?ve realized a lot of my desire to do this student club and ?change the world? was because of an unhealthy drive that did not genuinely stem from grace/love of others inside myself (or perhaps it did for awhile, but didn?t last). Nonetheless, I?m grateful for how that ministry has changed my ways of seeing the world and sparked my interest in issues of poverty, liberation, justice and other giant motifs that most churches I had experienced up until then had largely neglected. Its impact will be lasting in my life. However, I think doing this student club and being involved in other social justice-type pursuits also became another way of dealing with personal insecurity and another way to elevate myself over others around me. I?ve since realized that social issues can sometimes become a (false) way to feel ?bigger? and better about one self and this was largely the case with me. In some ways, I again think I derived an artificial self-worth and self-importance from being socially involved in ?helping? people who had less. Again, it allowed me to avoid dealing with myself. Still, at points during my freshman year, I think I accepted myself more than ever before, and truly felt I ?experienced? God?s love and grace for a season, though I think in looking back that this was simply acceptance from others at play or some other psychological/social factors.

During my first year at Whitworth, I also made the decision to change my major to theology as well as communication studies, switching out of a marketing degree. I sought out some counsel and jumped into the decision, which felt fairly pivotal for me at the time. I think I was largely influenced by my friends and a growing realization that I did not want to live a life devoted to ?making it? in the business world (a sentiment I still share, though perhaps not to the same extreme as I did at times during my radical freshman year at Whitworth). Since then, I realized that marketing would have been immensely useful and other potential degrees incredibly interesting, but I enjoyed most classes in my theology major too. While I appreciated my theology classes and particularly the professors in the department immensely in my time at Whitworth, I also think being a theology major fed into my unhealthy spirituality in some major ways. I could excel and achieve in theology classes (as I could in most disciplines, being the academically-minded kid I was) and hence theology became a way for me to please the God I had constructed in my mind, become a ?better? Christian, continue building my fear and guilt-based intellectual Christian tower, achieve, etc. etc. More unfortunately though, God became a God of right answers, correct definitions, proper orthodoxy, etc., which largely collided with my internal experiences and probably made me a bit of a theology smart ass for a period. You could get away with being a theological smartass within the walls of Whitworth and probably not so much outside in the ?real world.?

During the summer after my freshman year, I interned at a Presbyterian church, working with youth. I grew quite frustrated with many aspects of the church. I also came in with many theological concepts that I had trouble translating genuinely to teaching. I lacked confidence in what I claimed I believed and positions I held and felt this inherent fakeness creeping in as I began speaking and teaching about Christianity. It was as if I was speaking about things that I thought I was ?supposed? to speak about/believe, etc., but that I didn?t genuinely believe from the depths of my being. I?ve realized this feeling was one of the first indicators of the unhealthiness of religion in my experience growing up. It was something I ?needed? to believe, not something I wanted to believe or really did believe. I also felt that I wasn?t allowed to question or struggle openly, although I opened up with a few of the fellow interns. Still, I gradually felt more and more that I was putting on an act, albeit with many genuine positive moments. This struggle continued into my second year at Whitworth, when I worked as a Small Group Coordinator. The year started out well, but gradually I continued to feel more and more fake inside ? like I was being something and teaching about something that I didn?t really believe in or care about. I allowed this position and the accompanying frustrations/struggles trying to ?get? faith to eat me up inside and I didn?t handle it very well. I began to feel quite stuck and kept trying harder and harder to be a better Christian or to ?figure it out? in some deeper way.

In retrospect, I think I went through a lot of self-rejection during my second year at Whitworth and at the beginning of my third (senior) year as well, to an extent I had never experienced before. Many of the deeper emotional/psychological/familial issues/insecurities/problems I had put off dealing with or even thinking about in realistic terms (because of various distractions, my packaged religion, feeling like I was supposed to have it all together or whatever other reasons) hit me hard during that period and I became incredibly isolated, trying to be a super-Christian of some kind and never feeling good enough, without even realizing what I was doing most of the time. I had only a few deep relationships that I actively pursued last year even though there were many awesome people close by at Whitworth that I could and should have tried to connect with. I became even more judgmental out of insecurities this entire time too, projecting my own self-rejection onto others. Christian Spirituality at Tall Timber during January Term 2007, which could have been a wonderful experience (and was in some ways), was instead mostly one mini-climax of this spiritual fakeness and struggle to earn worth before God and others. The disconnect between what I had claimed to be and believe and what I really felt/thought/believed or didn?t believe on the inside felt as if it was growing larger and larger and I rarely opened up with fellow small group coordinators or very many students or teachers until very late in the year. I felt guilty for not ?getting it.? After the year, I went on a Christian Peacemaker Trip with a few of my close friends and had another very challenging time. Again, my views of God were challenged ? the God of my theology classes felt as if it was colliding with a God of the poor and oppressed, which seemed to be defined differently in some ways. During and after this trip, I felt even more unsure of what I believed and struggled to process or enjoy the experience as well as I could have ? since I again was with a few of my best friends and a group of awesome, intense people. My insides felt screwy though and my self-rejection and haywire perceptions ruined almost everything I did for some time. For the rest of the summer, I went home and had a hard time, feeling unable to be myself at home (living with my mom) and continuing to strive to become a better Christian in various ways (mostly of them isolated ways) ? feeling that someday God would magically come down and transform me or something to that effect. Looking back, I think I was becoming borderline religiously addicted (an actual condition as I realized later) ? isolated from people, co-dependent on the idea of God and refusing to take responsibility for myself, my life and my happiness.

Without even fully realizing it, I had become very down, anxious, overwhelmed and did not like myself very much, although I put on a good face before others. At the start of my third year at Whitworth, I was mostly miserable, very guilt-ridden and fearful and borderline flipping out with anxiety all the time. Eventually, I started realizing I had a problem and began to search for some practical, actual help, even in small steps. I remember reading one book I saw at Borders where the author asked his readers the question Jesus asked to the paralytic: ?Do you want to be healed?? Gradually during this difficult period, I realized I did want to be healed and that God ? whoever I had made God into ? wasn?t going to magically heal me. I realized that ? contrary to a lot of the bogus ?Christian? talk about ?depending solely on Christ? that I had taken in over the years and taken very seriously ? I had to take concrete steps towards fixing myself ? even if I didn?t know what those steps were. I had to take responsibility. Soon after having this light gradually come on, I was flipping out with anxiety and fiercely negative thoughts about myself one night and suddenly I left a group of good friends who were hanging out at my house and walked to campus. I went into the chapel where I talked to a professor who was working there late for a while, opening up and calming down a little bit. That night, I also took the (at the time, very big) step of opening up with a few of my housemates and later all my housemates about some of the struggles I was having with depression and anxiety. I also started going regularly to a counselor soon thereafter (six free sessions at my college!), which helped a ton, although it was humbling at first to admit I needed to take that step. I soon found a ton of support from others and began to better realize that people really did care about me, accept me and love me ? that I just had to let them in and start being honest with myself and not expect some idea of God to magically fix everything. I suppose that was my crisis time, really the first I?d ever had ? though it had been building up for awhile.

Since early that senior fall at Whitworth when things felt like they were falling apart inside me, I have changed and grown a great deal in many ways. My entire personality has actually shifted in major ways as my confidence and self-love has steadily but gradually grown (mostly, I?m far more outgoing ? I was actually an extrovert on the last Meyers-Briggs test I took, contrary to every other one I?d ever taken before ? I really do love hanging out with people as opposed to being isolated all the time) and I?m a ton more confident in myself and with others and also much more self-aware. I saw a counselor for most of the year and continued to share more with friends and family, all of which helped. I?m far less judgmental now too and have been able to reflect a great deal more on the often negative role religion had played throughout most of my life. I think I would officially ?classify? myself now as a ?recovering fundamentalist? and borderline former ?religious addict? (especially in the sense that I was co-dependent on my construction of ?God? and used religion to avoid issues/feelings, just as some people use drugs or alcohol) and I?ve been able to find professors and friends who have understood my issues (if only partially) and supported me. I?ve been able to let go of a lot of the anger, guilt, shame, hurt and legalism I was carrying as well, which has been awesome. I started doing ?inner child? meditations too on a regular basis, which helped a great deal (I got this idea from Marlene Winell?s great book ?Leaving the Fold? ? which has also been crucial in my recovery process). My inner ?adult? has become a much stronger advocate for my oft-fearful ?inner child? and I?ve begun the process of ?re-parenting? myself through various issues. Of course, I still struggle occasionally with getting down on myself, getting somewhat anxious or feeling like I have to measure up and be perfect, but those times are less and less frequent these days. Sometimes my ?inner child? still starts freaking out and I have to take a break and calm down and sometimes I still catch myself carrying around a divine, omnipresent measuring stick/standard that I can never reach to satisfaction. Still, I?m getting much better at recognizing when these things happen. I accept myself more and more and I?ve given up much of the religiously-fueled guilt and fear I was locked into for so long. A South Africa January term trip I went on in 2008 (senior year) was another huge step for me where I began to learn how to have fun, and got to know new, wonderful people. I?ve also taken hard steps to talk more with my mom, dad and brother about my struggles and the things that were wrong (and right) in the past along with trying to take more responsibility for leading my life and making my own decisions for my own happiness. I have begun to realize that dependency on anything gets one nowhere and is the basis of all addictions and this can be true with religious belief/ideas of God as well ? and I believe certainly was the case with me. Now, I?ve moved down to Austin and been here working with high school students the last two years (through a secular non-profit organization) and am (mostly) having a blast. I?m even more confident, open and enjoying life more than ever before. I?m meeting new people, having new experiences and I?m glad because my job is something that I chose and that is bringing me clarity for the future. It is all quite exciting. I continually find myself far more self-aware than before and I?m also left with far more questions than before. I?m taking steps to live out of love, grace, trust, openness and assertiveness with people instead of guilt, fear, timidity or trying to please some God or higher authority figure all the time. For a long time, I think I felt that I needed to ?make it? and when I finally had it all together, than I could be a great Christian man and leader and people would look up to me. I missed the point ? I?ll never have it all together and no one does. I?m increasingly realizing how OK it is to be imperfect ? how that is human and normal and doesn?t mean I?m ?messed up? or a bad ?sinner? (original sin ? the idea that people ?are? bad is definitely one idea I?ve thrown out the window) and how I can learn from my mistakes instead of just avoiding making them at all costs. In actuality, I?m increasingly sorting out how I have largely been a Christian for most of my life because I have felt that I have always had to be one or that I need to be one or any other kind of fear, guilt or shame-driven drive. I?ve been reading and thinking more about versions of unhealthy faith and attempting to sort out a more-grace filled, self-accepting and life-giving view of life, which is definitely a long process and one I don?t feel any particularly huge pressure to sort out ?right now!? like I did before. I think now that my journey will be one towards a healthy, individually-chosen spiritual or secular approach to life, even if that looks quite different than the religion I?ve carried for a long time.

Although I had built up an intellectual tower of Christianity and had many stretching experiences, relationships and conversations in my time at Whitworth and before ? enough so that in some ways I had indeed ?made my faith my own? far and above my parents, I now realize that I do not want to be the driving, legalistic Christian as I had been or have a broken view of God be a consuming part of my identity in my life. I think for a long time too, my faith was my parents, or it was my friends, or then it was my school?s or my theology major?s faith even and I?ve been dependent on that and missing the point of life in the process. It?s exciting to experience such a great deal of freedom from my own legalism and perfectionism and realize I don?t have to take life so seriously. Life is just life and I?ve been able give up using religion to hide from issues and actually turn and face things and give up that artificial security blanket of ?faith? and ?God? and find a new sense of trust in myself and who I am and my own individual choices. I now think it is best to have no spirituality (or at least a very limited one) rather than an unhealthy one based on fear, a vague feeling that I somehow have to believe or I won?t be valued, desire for achievement or any other numerous bad reasons. I find myself moving further away from traditional versions of Christianity in my time in Austin so far and finding a great deal of freedom in that, though I still dabble in Christian churches here and there. In some ways, moving away from what was such a central part of my identity and self-worth for so long is a scary place to be, but it?s exciting as well and it?s a blessing to have fellow travelers along the journey. I?m still growing in leaps and bounds down here in Austin, as I feel more independent than ever before and I appreciate the diversity of people I?ve met down here. My job is tons of fun, working with high school students is great and I?m continuing to have a good time in my second year down here. I?m doing 110% better than I was a couple of years ago ? better than ever before in my life in fact and that?s exciting. The fear and guilt continues to fade, I am learning to think more broadly, trust and love myself and live with more confidence than ever before. Life is beautiful again; if a bit more ?normal? and not weighted down with a sense of epic, divine ? though easily crushing ? ?eternal purpose.? We?ll see where the road goes from here?