You folks have been writing in about some heavy shit lately.
I’m hopefully stating the obvious, but this column is not a substitute for therapy — and some of you out there definitely need it. I’m not saying this disparagingly! Most people do. That said, if I didn’t feel like I could be of some use writing this thing, I wouldn’t waste your time or mine.
When I’m working on the column, I imagine that we’re sitting on my filthy outdoor sofa chairs sharing a smoke and a conversation. You tell me your stuff, I tell you mine. Maybe there’s some relief to be found simply through trusting each other with our shit.
I hope you find some value in what I have to offer. This go-round, I share my personal experiences with bad religion and debilitating OCD. It’s kind of an intense one. Let’s get into it.
Dear Eve 6 Guy,
I have always had a really weird relationship with my parents. My mother and I both have some pretty intense mental health struggles, and that led to a tumultuous adolescence that bled into my early 20s. We were never on the same page, we fought often, and a lot of really hurtful things were said.
My stepfather and I were never really close. He’s been my “dad” my whole life — he married my mom when I was less than a year old — but my biological father (who has not been in my life since I was a preteen) created a really big wedge between us, telling me, “That’s not your dad. He doesn’t love you.” I was defiant and angry with my stepdad, and he always took my mom’s side in any arguments, so I had no reason to believe he cared about me at all.
Both my mom and stepdad got sober when I was in high school, and through A.A. found the Southern Baptist church. When I went to college, they became very religious. My parents had always believed in God and always preached abstinence until marriage, but it got more extreme. When I talked about moving in with my boyfriend, they gave me long, Bible-quoting lectures about how I could potentially endanger my family’s relationship with God by living in sin.
How do I cope with the feeling of being accepted by my parents super-conditionally?
Their church is not for me, but I felt cornered and told my parents that my boyfriend and I were planning on getting married as soon as possible but couldn’t afford to live separately until then. I remember my mom asking me, “Have you prayed about it? Is this the one God wants you to marry?” My boyfriend is not religious at all. When my dad asked if he was a Christian, I lied because I was scared of the fallout.
My boyfriend and I lived together for about six months before we got married at the courthouse last October. We are definitely happy together, although I do regret rushing into a huge legal decision simply to make my parents stop judging me. I had always wanted a nice wedding with my close friends, but I had no one there aside from my parents.
So here’s the thing: I never thought my parents and I would be close, and yet since my wedding, my mom and I have been inseparable. She calls to check in on me often and helped my husband and me out of an awful roommate situation. We spent the other night laughing and dishing family gossip until almost two in the morning. As for my stepdad, he even hugs me unprompted now.
It’s almost as if a light switch flipped, and I went from being a disappointing problem child to finally being their daughter. I’ve never outright asked if they only love me because I’m married to someone they approve of, but I don’t think I could ever have that open and honest a conversation with them.
My question is, how do I cope with the feeling of being accepted by my parents super-conditionally? I feel like I have to just grin and bear it for the sake of being involved in our family, but it’s eating me alive most days.
—A Conditional Daughter
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Hi A Conditional Daughter,
I was raised Catholic. People look at me like I’m insane when I say this, but I enjoyed growing up in the Catholic Church. I wasn’t aware of, nor did I experience, any of the all-too-common horrors affiliated with the institution.
I liked the theatrical production of the mass and would often find myself moved by the homilies. I was contextualizing the message through the mind of a kid, but I would have these moments, hearing a sermon about forgiveness or something, where I’d have a thought approximating, “Oh shit, that’s kinda deep.”
Then when I was in the seventh grade, my mom — dissatisfied with our local Catholic church — switched to the Baptist denomination, with myself and my five brothers and sisters in tow. My introduction to this new church came one Wednesday night, when I was dropped off for a youth group gathering.
When I got out of the car, there was a skateboarding kid sliding down the stair handrail in front of the hall — and no one was telling him not to. He was a couple years older than me, had long hair, and smelled like cigarettes. He offered me a fairly generous, “What’s up, man?” I thought he was cool and that maybe this might not suck.
Friends would say, “I wish I could believe in God and the afterlife,” and I’d reply, “I wish I could stop believing in it.”
I walked inside the fluorescent-lit room, and it was full of kids talking, laughing, screwing around. A kid in a Minor Threat shirt came up and introduced himself. He was the main pastor’s son, and he seemed genuinely nice.
After a few minutes, a youth leader walked up to the podium. He seemed really old to me, but he was probably in his late 20s. He was dressed like most of the kids in the room: T-shirt, oversized jeans, and Vans. He hushed the room and led a prayer. Then he asked us all a question: “Have you ever burned your finger on a hot stove?” There were nods, yeahs, and a couple sarcastic nos. Then he went on, “It hurts right? You pull your finger away as fast as you can and you put it under cold water.” The room agreed.
He continued, “Now imagine feeling that pain all over your body, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stop. Imagine it’s pitch black and you can’t see anything, but you can hear. You can hear the agonizing screams of the damned. Now imagine this going on forever. This is what hell is like.” He had everyone’s rapt attention at this point. No sarcastic quips or rogue gigglers. Just a silent roomful of teens and preteens getting their neural pathways paved with fire and brimstone.
It scared the shit out of me. When you hear something like that before your brain is fully developed, from a person in a position of authority who knows how to deliver a message for maximum impact, it has an indelible quality. You feel the fear sensation in your body. It’s visceral. You can challenge it at the intellectual level, but the total nonsense that youth leader was spewing stuck with me into adulthood.
I hated that man for years. I’d have conversations in which friends would say, “I wish I could believe in God and the afterlife,” and I’d reply, “I wish I could stop believing in it.” The idea of eternal nothingness sounded like a pleasure compared to this concept of eternal suffering that persisted in my mind, impervious to reason.
Like your parents, I am sober. When I stopped drinking, other sober people made clear to me that carrying resentments around was a great way to ensure a relapse. I had to figure out a way to cultivate a gentler perspective toward people I hated for my own sake, not for theirs. One of those people was that youth leader.
I thought to myself, What if this guy actually believes this stuff? What if he truly believes, with every fiber of his being, that hell is real and that if he doesn’t get these kids to accept Jesus into their hearts, they are going to go there? And what if, as an evangelical, he believes that if he doesn’t do everything in his power to save these kids, then hell could be his future, too?
What if he isn’t the warden of this prison of belief but just another prisoner? In all likelihood, he was once a kid sitting at a youth group being scared out of his wits by some misguided adult who commanded reverence.
It is much easier to look gently upon fear than malice.
This perspective not only made me pity him, but it made me realize I was transferring righteous anger toward a system of bad ideas onto an individual who was at least to some extent a victim of said system. Similarly, I think that there is a good chance that your parents are motivated by a system of existential fear that, for whatever reason, they do not have the tools or willingness to challenge.
If your parents are only now allowing themselves to show you love because you’ve checked the right boxes on some religious scorecard, that is sad, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t love you before. Fear may just have obscured it.
It is much easier to look gently upon fear than malice. I think it’s good that you have a close relationship with them now. Don’t try to change their minds — you’re not going to — but be as authentic as you can be with them. Aspire to grace and empathy toward your parents, but not at the expense of your principles.
For instance, I don’t think you should continue to lie about your husband being a Christian. I wouldn’t make some big confession out of it, but if it comes up again, just tell the truth. Say something like, “Yeah, I told you he was a Christian because I was worried about what you’d say if I told you the truth. I am sorry for lying to you about that, and I won’t do it again But I hope that you can accept us as we are and that we can continue to have a close relationship, because it feels good to have you in my life.”
You should also keep this in mind: Although you may have rushed into marriage, it sounds like you did so with a guy who makes you happy and is not an asshole. This is fantastic. Many people who’ve been similarly pressured have not been so lucky. And, while you may not have had the wedding you wanted, it’s never too late to have a party with friends and family to celebrate your relationship.
The Eve 6 Guy
Dear Eve 6 Guy,
I had a traumatic childhood. My parents fought physically when I was a kid, so I witnessed a lot of screaming fights with them locking each other out and banging on doors. I saw them hit each other with objects. In addition, I am a survivor of abuse from my ex-husband. He didn’t hit me, but he did abuse me sexually and emotionally. Over time, it’s added up to a lot of anxiety.
I haven’t really told many people about my history of abuse or how much I’m struggling. Part of the reason I don’t share that much is that some people don’t look at sexual abuse in a marriage the same as sexual abuse outside a marriage. Even I have had the thought that it’s not as bad as if I had been attacked on the street.
As for the emotional abuse, there was a lot of him controlling me. While we were together, he cleared out the bank accounts and prevented me from having a job. I am actually still afraid of this person now, even though he can’t and will not hurt me in any way and hasn’t tried to in years.
My anxiety is now giving me trouble with doing things like working or even talking on the phone. I have since remarried, and my husband knows about my childhood and my ex. The anxiety I have is making it difficult in our relationship because I find it very tough to trust partners. Sometimes I find myself being afraid of intimacy, and because of my parents, all arguments terrify me.
I tried to go get therapy but I’m having trouble finding a doctor who I can see any time soon. I would like tips for coping with this until I can get to a therapist. How do I get back to functioning normally again?
—Abused and Confused
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Hi Abused and Confused,
As I made abundantly clear in the intro, I am not a therapist. And a good therapist, as you already recognize, is what you need.
This is easier said than done, of course. Before dropping a lot of money I didn’t have for specialized therapy to address OCD and anxiety, I tried three different therapists who were in my insurance network. Two of them took an approach that I would later learn was counterproductive, and the third one just wanted to massage me. When I told them I wasn’t really comfortable with that — that if I wanted a massage, I would go to a massage therapist — they got angry.
You have experienced very real trauma. I have not. I’m unfamiliar enough with what you’re going through that I’m not going to offer you specific advice. But I wanted to share a personal experience with you. I am not relating this under the assumption or expectation that it necessarily will map onto your experience, as we are different people with different histories and life experiences. I’m sharing this in the spirit of “Okay, you opened up to me, now I’m going to open up to you.”
One night around 2007, I was driving my car on Hollywood Boulevard, and as I drove through a crosswalk with no traffic light, a man stepped into the street to cross. I barely missed hitting him with my car. It was one of those moments where your body feels like a pint glass being filled with liquid adrenaline. I was like, “Fuck! Holy shit!” I felt a wave of relief that I had not just pancaked this individual with my Ford Explorer.
I tortured myself with this doubt for a few months. The “what if” thought seemed to play on a nonstop loop.
But a second later, another thought moved in: Could I have clipped him with my car and not known it? I had the radio on. What if I didn’t hear the sound or feel the impact of my car hitting this guy because of the loud music? This thought brought with it an altogether new feeling of panic, and even though a part of me knew it was preposterous, I decided to turn my car around and check to make sure I didn’t see a body in the street.
I made a U-turn and drove back. I slowed my car and thoroughly scoped the area and saw nothing. I was relieved again. Nevertheless, I made another U-turn, checked again just to be absolutely sure, and then proceeded to my destination, which happened to be a gathering of recovering alcoholics.
When I took a seat at the meeting, that’s when a new doubt formed: What if I hadn’t checked the right part of the street? I had been in a state of high anxiety and maybe that had kept me from properly scanning the area. Again, part of me knew that this was insane, that if I’d hit someone with my car I would know it. But I felt viscerally anxious.
I forced myself to stay in the meeting. I thought I’ll check again on my way home, which I did. Of course, I saw nothing, but this still did not satisfy my overwhelming feeling of uncertainty.
I tortured myself with this doubt for a few months. The “what if” thought seemed to play on a nonstop loop. I would obsessively try to convince myself that what I was afraid of was impossible, and sometimes I could — but then the fear would come back with redoubled force.
Then it happened again. I was driving home one rainy night, and this time I didn’t see anything, but I heard a light thump. I fought the urge to check. I told myself I was being crazy and forced myself to drive home, but when I got there, the anxiety only mounted. I had to go back and check to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently killed someone with my car.
By now, the hard rain combined with poor drainage had created a small pond at the intersection in question. To my mind, this water was deep enough to obscure a human body, which meant I had to wade through it to see if I could feel one with my feet. I experienced fear, shame, embarrassment, and worst of all, self doubt — the feeling that I could not trust my own thinking.
I found no dead bodies, but by now you can probably predict the pattern. These instances got more and more common, and the lengths to which I would go to check more and more harrowing. I was stopping my car in the middle of busy streets, blocking traffic, to look for bodies. It got to the point where it no longer became worth it to drive, and I became something of a shut-in. I was mentally unraveling.
I had always been terrified of getting therapy. It wasn’t just that I didn’t think it would help, but I had this fear that a therapist would confirm my worst fears about myself. But my life had gotten bad enough that I was willing to take that risk.
As I mentioned earlier, my first experiences trying to find a good therapist were less than fruitful, but at least I was finally taking action. It wasn’t until my then partner, having seen an Oprah segment on OCD, bought me a book on the subject that I discovered that I had what’s colloquially referred to as “hit and run OCD.”
You deserve to experience peace and to learn how to take the power away from the ghosts of your past.
Using Google, I found the OCD Center of Los Angeles. I made an appointment with Tom Corboy, the therapist who founded the clinic; I am dropping his name here because that man saved my life. He introduced me to counterintuitive ways of challenging, reframing, and acting in spite of my fear and in accordance with my values. It was revelatory and profoundly healing. My insurance didn’t cover it. It wasn’t cheap. But it was the best money I ever spent because it — in combination with meds — gave me my life back.
So here is some more general advice for you: Please do everything in your power to get yourself into therapy ASAP. If this means asking for financial help from friends or family or setting up a crowd-funding page (which, by the way, I would be happy to donate to and share on the Eve 6 socials) then do that.
Perhaps you can find a good therapist who charges on a sliding scale. You should also look for a support group for victims of abuse in your area. This may seem daunting, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of beginning this process. You deserve to experience peace and to learn how to take the power away from the ghosts of your past.
The Eve 6 Guy