Sunday, September 21, 2014

Just What God Needs...One More Victim

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 15 years (my First Holy Communion) since my last confession..."


Ah, yes. My First Holy Communion at age 7. The only things I remember about that day include taking pictures with my godparents (shout out to Aunt Glo and Uncle Kevin aka "Pink Floyd") and getting my ears pierced for the first time as my Communion gift from my parents. Needless to say, I was raised Catholic long enough to make my First Holy Communion, but soon after my mother asked me if I would mind not returning to catechism. Mind? Mind?! Everyday, at school, was a relentless ride on the bully train. Catechism classes were quickly becoming an extension of that torture, so I said I didn't mind. At all. Like, not even a little bit. Thank you, Jesus!

And so began my journey of leaving religion for reasons having little to do with the religion itself. It's been quite a ride and I am nowhere near finished. Buckle up and leave your judgments behind!

I didn't think about religion again until I was 15 and dating my first boyfriend, an Italian boy whose family, himself included, were/are devoutly Catholic. Many of my friends had made their Confirmation two years prior and I was considering making mine after years of being a lapsed Catholic. I knew little about Catholicism, and even Christianity, but I wanted to be like my boyfriend. So, every Sunday morning, I walked a mile to the same church I made my First Holy Communion for the 8:00 am mass. I went through the motions; received communion, prayed, stood, kneeled, gave peace. But it didn't mean anything. I thought it did, at the time. But in reality it hadn't changed my life. I was still obsessed with having my first boyfriend and doing anything to make that work. Including going to mass weekly. In an effort to make my Confirmation, my mom even drove me to church to try to set up a meeting with one of the priests. It never went beyond that, because my boyfriend and I broke up just before the start of school in 1997 and my search for religion ended. For the moment.

I had little to no interest in religion again until my freshman year of college. Oh, yes. Everyone else does college right: parties, drinking, hooking up. Not this gal. In my first month on campus, I was invited by a student co-worker to attend church with him. He was a gorgeous, tall, dark-skinned guy from Haiti. Of course I said yes. The fact that this college senior was giving me-a chubby, insecure, college freshman-any attention was beyond comprehension. Well, let me break it down for you how the next eight months went:
  • Attended "church" (aka a middle school used for service), invited to a Bible study, I accept.
  • Bible study turns out to be less a group of people discussing their favorite scriptures and more a one-on-one study with me. I'm not going to lie, I loved the attention and the positivity. And the hugs.
  • We quickly move through the Bible studies (which I later learn are plotted out "classes" to recruit new members) and soon I am at the pivotal point where I have to answer the question: If you were to die right now, according the The Word, where would you go, Heaven or Hell?
  • Clearly being hellbound, I confessed all my sins to a group of women "church" members and set a date for my baptism. I explained I had been baptized as a baby, but full immersion in water was necessary. Apparently so was doing that in a giant Rubbermaid container... 
  • I invited my best friend, my parents, and my brother to witness my baptism. I felt no different after, but said I did.
  • For the next six months, I devoted myself to spreading The Word and judged everybody along the way. I didn't smoke, drink, swear, masturbate, or have any kind of intimate relations. I also gave the "church" all my money. All. Of. It. Oh and I fell in love with my best friend in the "church"...who is a girl. (Just typical Melissa, getting everything right.)
  • During those six months, I attended any and every service, convention, and meeting that was offered. I was "the perfect baby Christian", as I was told numerous times by the "church" elders.
  • May 2000, I began to have doubts. Then they became serious doubts. I told my "discipling partner (an older, wiser Christian to help me on my new journey)" and we prayed. But nothing changed. Then, one Sunday in June, I just didn't return to church. I was inundated with phone calls, e-mails, and visits from "church" members, scared for my life (and theirs).
  • Then, everything stopped and I was officially a "fall away". I had "fallen away from Christ".
For months afterwards, I still thought I would go to hell if I died, which terrified me. Then, I started seeing a counselor at my college. During that time, I started researching the "church" I had been involved in and it was known, internationally, as a cult.

The International Churches of Christ, as I understood, disbanded a few years later, due to speculation of fraud and embezzlement of "church" funds. However, looking up the name on Wikipedia, it seems they have regained membership the past couple years. Shortly after I left, I found a website called Reveal, a forum for ex-members of the ICOC to come together to heal. Reveal published a piece I wrote about my experiences in 2001. It helped me, and others, come to terms with our experiences.

In an effort to make up for lost time, if you will, I immediately started drinking, smoking, and all the other "fun" stuff college kids do. I went clubbing every weekend, where I shamelessly grinded into complete strangers. This made me feel "normal". For a time. Not long after publishing my piece for Reveal, did my same-sex feelings resurface. No longer having the "church" define whether that was right or wrong (Oh, did I mention I confessed DAILY to my best friend in the "church" that I was lusting after her? Because I did and, yes, it was as horrifying as you might think), I was free to explore without judgment.

Dealing with my sexual identity AND reconciling my recent cult experience made for a perfect storm of me exploring religions outside "the norm", and by that I mean MY norm of Christianity. I began researching Paganism, specifically Wicca. I connected with it right away. No terrifying, punishing god that didn't approve of me being gay or bi or whatever I thought I might be. Score! For a long while, it was purely theoretical. I read a lot, but didn't practice. I knew I wanted to do this solo, meaning no covens or groups of Wiccans. That seemed too close to my cult experience. I liked that I could worship and believe in something all on my own, without the judgment or influence of someone else.

Then, on October 31, 2006 (the Wiccan New Year), I found a quiet spot at Sleeping Giant State Park in my hometown and dedicated myself to Wicca. It wasn't what you might expect. It wasn't like "The Craft" at all. In fact, it was very understated and peaceful. I sat under a tree, with a stone I had found months before and silently said a prayer. The end. And I began celebrating The Wheel of The Year, including the 8 sabbats (solstice/equinox celebrations) and 13 esbats (full moon celebrations). And I felt connected with nature and felt more "myself".

Then, I started dating an ex, who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and I felt compelled to keep my religious practices secret, where they dwindled and finally faded away. (Are we noticing a pattern here?) We broke up for the last time in 2009 and my experiences with her, her religious conflict, and the hypocrisy that was the norm in her family and church really disheartened and jaded me. So it was an easy segue into doubting the existence of a higher power to flat out not believing. For years. The more time passed, the less I believed. And it scared me. I was becoming judgmental against religion and God, when so many years prior I was judgmental in the name of religion and God.

I attempted, over the years, to read spiritual books, such as "Conversations with God" and while the overall message was powerful, I could not get past the author's explanation of how the message came to be. Everything seemed to revolve around business and money, to where I was feeling as if religion was just another extension of capitalism. I started watching YouTube videos of atheist/Christian debates, such as those of Christopher Hitchens  and Richard Dawkins. And I found it refreshing and bold, but I never felt comforted. Only more disconnected and afraid.

Presently, I have, basically, started a new life. I left my job, family, and friends and moved 300 miles away. It had been, and in some respects still is, a hard transition, but each day I feel more confident this was the right decision. I am now living in upstate New York-"God's country" if you will. There are five FM radio stations here that are religious, compared to the one in Connecticut. Incidentally, there are also five country music stations (notoriously Christian-themed) here, compared to the one in Connecticut. On my way home from work, every day, I see a huge sign with a cross that says: Christ is the answer. Needless to say, religion, namely Christianity, is more prevalent than I am used to. Even having worked for a Catholic organization for years.

I have started questioning religion, again. But feel very cautious about discussing it, given my history. I'm certain some family members and friends would be very nervous if they knew I still listen to one of my favorite songs from my cult days ("Awesome God", favorite version by Jars of Clay). Or if they knew I listen to Christian rock on the regular (Another favorite: Hillsong United's "Oceans"). Or if they knew I have debated going back to school for religious studies. I'm also fairly certain they would have some concerns if they knew I have felt compelled to belong to a religious community, again. And I have felt that for some time.

Unlike me 15 years ago, I am extremely aware of the corruption and deceit that exists in some religious communities, because the people running them are human and have faults and flaws. I am also aware I will never find a religious community that is perfect, nor will I ever be a "perfect" member of said community. And, for once, that is refreshing.

The journey is ahead of me and I am excited and nervous to see where it takes me. In the meantime, I will continue listening to Christian rock and reading books by believers and non-believers, finding my way, in my own way.


*Title credit: Song "Crucify" released by Tori Amos in 1992*

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Put The "Pro" in Prozac Part Two

To refresh, here is Part One...

There were many costs to the temporary relief from my anxiety and depression and, unfortunately, they became more troublesome than the mental illness itself.

For starters, there were the typical culprits; no sex drive and weight gain. And I mean nothing says "well-adjusted" like a chubby girl with no libido. However, when I discussed these issues with my doctor, in good, old-fashioned, American medical tradition, another pill was prescribed. Back to a low-dose of Wellbutrin to counter the side effects of Prozac. I didn't argue. I was so unperturbed on Prozac, I would have ingested a low-dose of arsenic rather than lower my dosage of "the miracle drug" as I was referring to my head.

The combination worked and I was eating less compulsively, having more fun in the bedroom (cover your ears...errr eyes, Mom), and not visualizing myself dying tragically in a car accident twice a day. Things. Were. Good.

Fast forward to September 2013. I am now a full-time school counselor, splitting my time between two schools; one is grades PreK-3, the other 4-8. I'm going to give you a minute to speculate which school I experienced the most clients. Wait for it...yep! Grades 4-8. Middle school. A lot of angst, crying, and crises. A LOT of crises. I mean, I cannot express this enough. I'm talking crises resulting in calls to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) AND Mobile Crisis several times a week, sometimes several times a DAY. I was quickly becoming overwhelmed and my caseloads were so different; content- and quantity-wise, that I asked if I could spend more days each week at the middle school. My request was denied and I felt forced to continuing "handling" things.

This is where, I believe, my medicated state played a large role in my impending breakdown. I worked, I ate, I slept. I was overwhelmed and knew I was, but couldn't feel it emotionally. I was out of touch, numb, blank. I was distanced from myself, unattached and unaware. I can say this, now, with certainty of course. In the moment, my false sense of "feeling ok" made it easy for me to ignore the need for self-care.

In October, I asked for another clinician to help me with my caseload. I was told "it's not in the budget." So I pushed on. I was staying late (sometimes 2-3 hours after school let out) to finish paperwork. I was making and taking calls from DCF workers and crisis counselors after hours, most of the time in my car on the way home. Within a few short months, the only break I had from work was sleep. And even then, I often sleep horribly and/or had nightmares about something going terribly wrong. Long weekends and school vacations were burdened with follow-up calls and the fear of a parent retaliating after leaving a message (two days before Christmas) stating: "I am so mad, I could kill you." This being in regards to a mandatory DCF call I had made.


Writing this now, I am surprised my breakdown didn't happen sooner. I have shared the details in a previous post. What I did not share is as a condition of my release, my meds were upped. Doubled, in fact. This not only meant more Prozac, but more Wellbutrin. With increased tolerance for my surroundings came increased detachment of self. I also felt a raging conflict inside me; the desire to write and the complete apathy about being creative. I knew enough, from personal and professional experience, that psych meds often stunt creativity, being why many individuals with Bipolar Disorder go off their meds. They enjoy the creative mania they experience.

So, I began thinking critically about my medications. What they were. What they had (and hadn't) done for me. I started to weigh the costs and benefits. And after a lot of soul-searching, I theorize the reason my depression and anxiety reached "hospital-stay status" may very well be due to the lack of self-awareness I had while on my medication. It's not a cause-effect theory, to be sure. I am in no way blaming the medication for my breakdown. That was a dam ready to break for MANY reasons. Some of which I haven't shared (not-so-awesome living situation, five-year relationship ending).


In thinking about my situations, I asked myself: "If this is The Best Medicine for OCD (as proclaimed by my doctor) and I have been on it for a year and a half, how did I STILL end up in the hospital??" The answer is complex, but to put it simply, I found:
  • I was numb to major life events that should have provoked more emotion (i.e. the break-up, job stress, living in a negative environment)
  • I couldn't cry. Like, at all.
  • I had no desire to do the one thing that always helped me process my stress and distress: write.
  • I was disconnected from who I was. Completely.
So, I talked to my psychiatrist (I was now getting my psych meds from her instead of my general doctor, for obvious reasons). She wasn't thrilled with the idea of me stopping my meds only a few months after my hospital stay, but agreed that if I implemented therapy skills, such as CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), self-care, and general wellness (exercise, eating well, stress management) it was worth trying.

I slowly began weaning off my meds in June of this year. I didn't notice much of a difference until mid-July, which ironically is when I made a major life change and moved 300 miles away to start a new job. The first two weeks in Corning, I stayed with the family I would be working for, as their nanny, and I felt all the emotions I had been numb to for over a year. I started grieving the break-up that happened 8 months earlier, I was crying A LOT, and I realized that I had not been "taking care of myself" while on my meds, I had been hiding out. For me, Prozac was a scapegoat and I was happy (for a while) to let it take the hit for all the life junk that came my way. I didn't have to deal with any of it. In theory, that sounds great, right? But in reality that means you miss out on fully experiencing everything, the bad but also the good. To put in another way, that some may understand better, the first verse of one of my favorite songs describes how I felt...

In the words of of Evanescence's "Farther Away":

"I took their smiles and I made them mine.
I sold my soul, just to hide the light.
And now I see what I really am:
A thief, a whore, and a liar."


That may seem a tad over-dramatic, and it probably is, but it's also accurate. The first two lines describe how I feel on psych meds. Like I'm not really "me." Like I am floating around, mimicking  those around me, trying to "act" normal. It also feels like I have given away a huge part of myself, because I am afraid to show who I really am.

The last two lines describe how I felt coming off the meds. I felt all the bad stuff the Prozac hid and left me (especially in those first few weeks completely Prozac-free) feeling horrible about myself. I also felt like a fraud. I felt like choices, decisions, and plans I made on my meds weren't really me, but a "me" that wanted to want those things. I felt like a phony. I am just now starting to feel like myself, feeling that it is okay to want things that are unconventional or nontraditional.

This, I am certain, is not everyone's journey on psych meds, or even Prozac. In fact, I know several people on Prozac who are doing fabulously. For me, I prefer to treat my OCD non-pharmaceutically , in an effort to maintain the "me" inside me I have come to love; flaws and all.