For a kid with a high-grade fever and hallucinations, anything to escape death is worth it. I remember feeling something significant inside me after saying the prayer. There was a shift. Was that the presence of God? Was it the Holy Spirit? Was it a little boy who had escaped his worst fear: living for eternity in hell?
Being saved represented that you identify as Christian. This is your calling in a culture to know that you are different, and generally have a more significant calling than others who have not accepted Christ. Although we are all sinners, anyone who is not saved has not repented, and therefore will not inherit the kingdom of God. Many messages would suggest the non-saved are less desirable to God and His mission, and more vulnerable to judgement for not knowing what’s best for their souls.
I can still hear the language we learned to speak as kids within the church. There were multiple other rules and statements that stabilized our salvation, such as:
- You must attend church in order to be in the Christian community and not backslide.
- You must abstain from having sex before marriage, as God cannot offer the highest blessing unless both parties are virgins.
- You must follow God’s will, which typically involves some sort of suffering (in His name).
- You must live your life based on the bible, including the old testament.
- You must give 10% of your earnings to your church.
If you had issues (including addiction, depression and the like) you saw the pastor. You divulged your soul’s darkest sins, or you could choose the alternate: you live quietly in shame. I can still hear the many topics that were “off-limits” and had terrible impact not meant to be questioned.
- Drinking alcohol: Don’t do it. It is sin and separates you from God.
- Masturbation: Don’t do it. It is sin and separates you from God.
- Premarital sex: Don’t do it. It is sin and separates you from God.
- Using profanity: Don’t do it. It is sin and separates you from God.
- Expressing anger: Don’t do it. It is sin and separates you from God.
In addition to the abundance of rules to be followed in order to remain saved, many debated on whether or not you could remain saved even if you committed certain sins. As long as I can remember, these are at the top of the list as the most threatening to your salvation:
- If you committed suicide.
- If you had an abortion.
- If you were gay.
- If you abused alcohol or drugs.
- If you committed adultery.
No matter any child’s makeup and circumstances, when you grow up believing that you are being saved from hell, you will do whatever it takes to please God. The conditions aren’t negotiable for kids. They do not have the capacity to discern a religion that is causing them to split into separate lives and start keeping secrets, while digesting shame instead of being known.
Fast forward to a timeline of my journey with religion:
- At six years old, I was saved.
- At seven years old, I started memorizing bible verses.
- At 10 years old, I went to my weekly Sunday school class, and my Wednesday night RA’s (Royal Ambassador’s). I had perfect attendance.
- At 12 years old I attended a Christian camp and was camper of the week.
- At 13 years old, I was on a bible quiz team where we traveled and competed in quiz bowls.
- At 16 years old, I sang a solo of “The Old Rugged Cross” in front of my church.
- At 17 years old, I left to be a missionary and traveled to Poland and Belarus while smuggling bibles.
- At 18 years old, by prayer, I lead others in Belarus to become saved.
- And the next 20 years: I was involved in every possible bible study, read every book, prayed, attended church weekly, went on retreats with God, and was a standout Christian, bold in my faith.
Throughout my adult life, many have been surprised to learn of my sensitivity to God, especially as they heard of the “other” pieces that lived outside of my faith. There was much more to my story than just the details that were allowed to be known within the life of being saved. I had a difficult time integrating what was true to me, vs. hiding my truest self behind my christian language and faith. With that, came the complex task of managing a lot of ungodly thoughts that were apparently born out of a further disturbing trail of dysfunction. I openly discussed much of my struggles with other Christians apologetically, as I knew I was inherently bad. All of the rules I had learned early on I digested as full truth, with no room for error. This was where the “splitting and shame” was born. I learned early on that my sin was God’s primary concern. The rest was left for me to unravel, and unravel I did … or it did me.
A closer view of other events that shaped me and my view of being saved:
- Also at six years old I saw several hours of pornography for the first time.
- Also at seven years old I was molested by a teenage girl in our neighborhood.
- Also at 10 years old I was being physically, verbally and emotionally abused my father.
- Also, at 12 years old and for the next two years, I was sexually abused by a 36-year-old man.
- Also at 13 years old I went to live with other families while they investigated my home life because my father’s abuse escalated.
- Also at 16 years old I started wrestling with depression due to the untold chapters of sexual abuse.
- Also at 17 years old I attempted suicide.
- Also at 18 years old I was having nightmares on the mission field. They had grown in their severity, and on occasion I had to be removed from my dorm room.
- Also at 19, I was misdiagnosed with and treated for bi-polar disorder due to unhealthy sexual longings and depression. With each move toward health or embracing myself, I was inundated with evidence that I was abnormal, unlovable and needed to be a different person. It was even diagnosed. The greatest symptom I showed was trauma. To the church, they saw sin. To them, if I was falling apart, it was simply due to some resistance to surrender within my faith. No one was curious about my health or well being, only how my life reflected my salvation. I was not a great spokesperson for those who identified as being saved.
Everything I learned about being saved was crippling my ability to experience any portion of freedom or peace. Once my year on the mission field was over, in an attempt to escape the identity of shame that I saw in every fiber of my being, I saw my first Christian therapist. I was desperate to somehow escape the pressures that lived inside me. So, the journey began to do whatever it took to keep my salvation in tack. There was a constant tension that tightened with each move towards health.
I often felt defeated due to what I felt were demons living inside me. I could not — would not — live up to the potential of representing a life of someone who had been saved. I was taught that through my abuse, I had unnatural sexual desires that were unpleasing to God … an abomination really. I was committed to undo my desires in order to please God. I was desperate for relief; anxious for healing. The self-doubt I had over not praying enough, or committed enough to my faith, or not allowing God to heal the previous abuse was daunting.
I often remarked to my therapist, “There is a piece of my story I am missing. There is something there that I know I do not remember.” He replied, “Your soul and mind know the right time, and when they feel safe and can work together, you will remember.”
That time came in December of 2009. I was 31 years old and had been in therapy for 13 years for the previously mentioned abuse. Floods of new memories came to me with the emotions of what was done to me as early as four and five years old. For the first time, so much of my adult story (and issues) made sense. The violations were so evil that I had suppressed key pieces because my small, innocent self could not process this information. It was another piece to hide and tuck away.
“Reckless in my own mind, everything fell apart. I had a nervous breakdown. For the next 10 months, I stopped living. My PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was such that I would often wake from nightmares where I am trapped in dark places and when light would appear, it would shine on a tilted hat, with my abuser’s face below. Each dream suggested that what they took from me, they were still able to take. All the while, until that year, I hadn’t even remembered what had happened. I lived a miserable life of trying to undo what a horrific person I was without the key information that fueled much of the trauma that influenced my self hate. I could no longer process information.”
“I resigned from my role as vice president of the organization for which I worked. I went home, shut the blinds and hid.”
Life as I knew it would never be the same. Here was Nate, successful man about town who can no longer grocery shop during daylight, because of anxiety from possibly being seen in public, and not knowing how I would respond. I felt nothing in my life was real. I felt like a pawn for God: part of some storyline that required me to have no voice.
That was the darkest chapter I will ever know. After almost a year of dealing with PTSD and isolation, I found myself sitting in a parking lot, 10 minutes from my home in Nashville. My hands were so anxious that I could barely get the key to slide into the ignition. That night, I found an outpatient program for trauma. I signed up on the spot. My “Christian counselor” had reservations, but I was going regardless.
My week away was a turning point for my story, and most importantly my healing. It opened me up to start questioning a lot of the belief systems about my worth and what I had committed to within the religious realm. Most importantly, it gave me the necessary tools to address my abusers. The previous 13 years of therapy were by no means a waste, but due to the lack of education within the settings of my Christian therapy, I was not getting the proper help.
Three months after I returned from the inpatient program, I had an exit strategy from the life I had built in Tennessee. I had been in the Bible Belt my entire life and I wanted out. Off I went to explore different options, and within one week of beginning my search, I landed a great, next-step job in San Diego. As the next spring rolled around, I was the newest resident of Southern California with new life on the horizon.
Although there was distance from my past, as I began to get settled in my new life there were multiple issues that continued to reappear. The PTSD was rearing its ugly head. What I know now is that the inpatient program was the beginning of a six-year journey of healing, primarily focused on trauma through EMDR therapy. EMDR is a form of therapy that has been used to address trauma and PTSD. EMDR is meant to reduce the impact of trauma by reprocessing from current day, a historical memory or event that has caused your brain and body to be “stuck” or remain traumatized.
I began EMDR with hope and vigor. I was ready to tackle this head on. And I did.
The journey through this new therapy was leaving me healthier and happier. I was flying back to Nashville on every vacation day I had and doing EMDR intensives 8-9 hours per day, 3-4 days in a row. I was seeing incredible health in new ways. I was experiencing freedom, where living inside my skin was nowhere near as difficult as it had been prior. This therapy was undeniably changing my self-hatred in profound ways.
After working through the primary issues of trauma, there was one remaining topic the Christian therapists could never help me resolve. I often brought it up. There were questions I had about my being single and what to do with my sexual longings that we’d been discussing for 15+ years. What is normal for someone who has had multiple layers of sexual abuse? How does God show up, when I’ve been taught I have a distorted view of intimacy by His therapists? What do you do, when the way you want to connect is apparently unhealthy? The riddled message was leaving me helpless with the same feedback: “Because you were abused, you desire unhealthy intimacy. You crave sin. You are sinful. Your cravings will separate you from God and you are re-enacting your trauma when you have a sexual encounter. “ There continued to be no room for exploration to someone who is saved, and when it came to sexuality, saved felt like trapped.
My path has been unusually intense. Most of my 20s and 30s were spent seeking, searching, working and healing. I have not had a lot of vacations. When I moved to SoCal, I could not wait to find out what my hobbies were. Even still, the thought always lingered: Will I always be alone? Will I always have to sacrifice love, affection and intimacy because of my abuse as a child? I had grown accustomed to not allowing myself to long for of those gifts.
In 2016, I was working with my EMDR therapist on my ninth intensive. I started to show signs of unhealthy anxiety again but had already covered tremendous ground. I had since moved to Colorado and flew him there for our intensive. We had four days set aside. I was prepped with a long list of to-dos’ and anxious for more healing. At the top of my list: My sexuality.
I had wrestled with a dark layer of sex addiction my entire adult life, much due to the suppression of there being no healthy exploration of my sexuality…just rules. The Christian therapists again chalked the addiction up to my abuse, but the craze of having no control with your sexual appetite needed more explaining to me. Releasing myself from so much of the complex trauma gave me the freedom to question how much of the sex addiction was from being abused, or oppressed from being saved. Both were limiting my freedom.
As we had done on approximately 30 other occasions, we dug in for two days. We dug hard and for the first time I felt we had gone as far as we could. On day three I appeared in his office doorway and gently said, “We need to talk.” I started to feel a very similar anxiety that appeared shortly before my nervous breakdown. I thanked him for the six years we had together and let him know that I cannot go on any longer with the EMDR work. I began to feel like the redemptive work that had been done was going to start to become undone if we did not stop digging and unnecessarily purging these sacred parts of me. This needs to be left alone. He was moved, and grateful that I finally learned to speak up for myself and know what is best, or at least know when to stop.
I was 38 years old, 20 years in therapy and exhausted. I wanted to get off the operating table and start living. I wanted to explore my passions and trust myself to move in a greater direction. I wanted to apply the freedom I had felt from the many beautiful moments God had spoken to me about how deep His love is for me. How he has never orchestrated the harm done to me, and how readily He is to hold that pain for me. I wanted to invite Him into those secret and confused places in me, and trust His love and compassion there.
The greatest conflict was grieving over religion’s reign on places in my life that were meant to be redeemed, loved and cherished but instead became a lifeless agenda for leaders and laymen to project their own fear of truly being known by God.
I wanted to believe — for once — that regardless of what I had been taught about my sexuality, that I had some time to finally pursue it in a healthy way and on my own terms.
I was ready. Upon learning and encountering the depths of how God’s love reaches me in the most sacred ways, I was finally able to establish a greater sense of myself and with the deepest vulnerability and celebration say: “I am gay.”
And again, life as I knew it has never been the same.
My hope is that through the sharing of my story, love swells in you, your pain finds healing, your discomfort finds peace and redemption floods you.
Welcome to “The Other Side of Saved.