Content warnings: reference to sexual abuse and gaslighting.
Copying part or all of this text is prohibited without the survivor’s explicit permission.
When I was trapped in my abusive relationship, I wasn’t a polytheist at the time, so my faith wasn’t used against me. Instead my partner used emotional guilt a lot to coerce me into things like sex or even random, everyday activities I didn’t want to do: “Don’t you love me? Don’t you trust me?”
I don’t like going into details much, but his tactics were never what most people consider “actual violence.” He’d whine, plead, ask over and over until I just gave in because it seemed easier to just get it over with, guilt-trip, give me the silent treatment. I had an undiagnosed cognitive disability at the time and people already treated me like I was crazy, so it was easy for him to gaslight me around my emotions and reactions. In some ways, I feel like the lack of bruises made it harder because there was nothing I could really point to and say, “See? See? Will you hear me now?” and have people take me seriously.
I’ve forgotten some of the finer details, but the one thing that stands out is a confrontation we had on the day we finally broke up. I said that I felt like he treated me like I was just a trophy, and he actually admitted that, yes, that’s what I had been to him. I’d been something for him to use, covet, and be possessive over rather than a unique person in my own right.
Even now, more than ten years afterwards, I’ll still get caught unawares by random triggers, even a couple of specific memes or TV shows. When they pop up, I’ll feel the burst of adrenaline and the freezing of my breath. It’s not nearly as bad now as it used to be (practicing safe coping like mindfulness and breathing techniques, and finding a therapist I actually liked and trusted after several bad starts, has all helped with that) but it still happens, all these years later. I don’t judge myself for it anymore, though, and focus on what I need in the moment to de-escalate myself and feel safe again.
When my religious path turned towards the Morrigan, I struggled a lot with insecurity. I remembered what it was like to feel powerless in regards to my own body, and I had a lot of internalized self-blame that made me feel entirely unworthy of Her attention. It took a while for me to unravel what I later realized were victim-blaming and old trauma-born stories that once helped me survive but which were now stifling my own growth and healing. When a fiance later cheated on me, lied, and actively misled me about it, putting my physical health at risk let alone my emotional health, it was the Morrigan who pointed out that I had the power to make the best decision for myself, which was to value myself enough to walk away. She did it by simply asking me, “Which decision will allow you to look your own reflection in the eye and honestly say that you made the best choice you could in a terrible situation?”
My gods and spirits have been active participants in my healing (at least once we figured out a common language and I used the things I learned in therapy to set and enforce my boundaries!) and I don’t think I’d be nearly as settled as I am without their presence in my life.
What would you like our faith communities to know?
When I began deepening into my faith after escaping abuse, I wish there had been one of these priests or clergy or healers who thought to ask me what I needed and who also respected my response. I believe that at least most of the people I encountered were well-meaning, but whether it’s because they were uncomfortable talking about such serious things or just simply didn’t know how to, I felt like I was being dismissed. If my search didn’t fit with their own religious practice or ‘how our community does it,’ then I was just left….awkwardly hanging, like they were hoping someone else would come along and handle the ill-fitting person. “Oh, just try this!” they’d tell me, and then shrug and give up if that suggestion didn’t end up working out. It made me feel even more like an outsider.
I wish there was some way of screening people who put themselves in a position of power for whether or not they have any skills that actually justify other people trusting them with such power. I wish they knew more about dynamics of power and why our clergy have to seriously check their personal agendas when trying to support traumatized, vulnerable people. I don’t feel safe reaching out to any spiritual care providers whom I don’t already know well and who haven’t been vetted by like six other people whose judgment and integrity I trust, which means it’s precious few people. I don’t even go to public pagan events anymore because I don’t trust that the ritualists will know what to do if I or a friend got assaulted (yet again) while there.
But I’ve found a few people I like and trust whose faith practices, while not the same as mine, are still compatible, and who have their own rough lived experiences, so when I start panicking or being “weird” according to most people’s criteria, they just roll with it and I roll with theirs. And when conflict happens, we have ways of navigating that prioritize consent and healthy communication.