This post is written by Jessi
I am a cis-female so I can only sympathize, not empathize, with the trials our trans brothers and sisters go through. But upon reading the suicide note of Leelah Alcorn this past week, there was one thing she wrote that gave me a special pang of pain. Leelah wrote that the Christian therapists her parents took her to only told her that she was “selfish and wrong and that [she] should look to God for help.” 
I’ve had my own experiences with Christian therapy/therapists and its only now about six years later that I can start to try to parse it out. The long background story made short is that while I was raped in highschool, I really didn’t start to show signs of depression and PTSD until a few years later. In a strange occurrence, I had opted to commute to college but my parents had to move for my dad’s job so I suddenly found myself living with a roommate in the town I grew up in.
I feel like the sudden departure of my family and perhaps the strange living conditions I found myself in (that’s another story entirely, seriously I could write a book on it, people tell me I should) were kind of the final straw that broke through the denial I had been living in and all of the sudden I was extremely mentally ill and alone.
I finally found the courage to go to my university’s health center and spent a year with a therapist there. This took courage in and of itself because the environment I had grown up with did not really seen mental illness as an issue apart from not “living right with God”. You weren’t so much depressed as not having a joyful relationship with Christ. So from that context I had taken that therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists to be bad. And at first I thought maybe they were right because I did not feel better, I felt worse. As the therapist and I started to talk about the past trauma, it all came back, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t function, I was completely obsessed with getting through the week to the next session like it was an addiction. (That was more because I had an unhealthy attachment to that therapist than anything else).
But for reasons too long to get into for this post, I found myself about a year later in the hospital psych ward without a therapist. Since my parents now lived 2500 miles away, my two female cousins had stayed with me in the hospital and their mother, the church secretary of the church I grew up in, was now alerted to my situation. She provided the name of a therapist who other members of the church used and that the church recommended. I later ran into other church members in the waiting room, we all hung our heads in shame and pretended we didn’t see each other.
Right off one unhealthy obsessive attachment, I went to another one. I just wanted someone to love me and cuddle me and tell me everything was going to be ok. This woman’s office was full of big comfy floral couches, pillows and blankets. More than once I faked falling asleep on her couch because I found joy in having her shake me gently awake. I trusted her completely. She let me borrow her vacuum to clean my apartment and draped blankets over my shoulders when I was cold.
And that’s the hardest part about this, because I think she genuinely cared. I know she genuinely believed she was helping the people who came to her. I don’t think her kindness was an act to get me to swallow untruths, I think she wanted me to get better. It’s hard to criticize an institution/group when we care about the individuals but although she was a nice person, she ended up doing more harm than good.
It was almost a good cop/bad cop routine wrapped up in one person. Each session would start with a prayer, which did not seem out of place to me who had spent 9 years in Christian schools and almost every day of my then 19 years at some church related function. But then the accusations would start, they weren’t angry though they were aggressive and generally ran along the lines of,
- Have you read your Bible lately?
- Have you asked God for help?
- Have you forgiven [your attacker]?
- Have you told your parents everything?
I can’t really remember what I talked about. I can only recall what I did. I know I spent most of the time curled up on the couch, feet tucked under me, nervously playing with my fingers. I wanted so much to please her but I knew I wasn’t going to read my Bible regularly. I had never been good with my devotions although I knew more Bible knowledge than most of the other kids put together. And when I read my Bible I came across verses like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 which talks about the penalty for raping a virgin is having to marry her and never being able to divorce her. I emailed my Pastor about that one and got some answer about how Old Testament laws don’t apply to us because we “live in the Age of Grace” but nothing about what I really wanted to know, “How could God have ever thought that was ok?”
She urged me to go out and socialize but most of the friends I grew up with had gone away for college and my school was all commuters so there wasn’t much of a community. I went out with a friend who had also stayed home for college and ended up bringing a guy home to my apartment. It was horrible. I wasn’t ready, I ended up lying on my bed sobbing and re-traumatized. I called her, I was told (in nice, calm terms) that I really shouldn’t have expected anything less, I had sinned.
But I kept doing it. Looking back, I think I was trying to prove to myself that sex didn’t have to be the awful thing I thought having never had sex before being raped, but of course the situations I found myself in didn’t help prove that point….
Every time I did though I was “walking further away from God”. Perhaps God had allowed the first rape to happen because I hadn’t been right with him. So I tried and tried to scrutinize the type of person I had been during that period of my life and I could only come back with a typical conservative, naive and closeted teenage girl living in a bubble of fundamentalist upbringing. If anything, it seemed that those teachings to be kind, caring and submissive was what had gotten me into the horrible situation in the first place.
One guy i had over had started to finger me, only to find blood on his finger tips. My period has always been irregular and I had no idea it had started. He was disgusted and physically and verbally attacked me before leaving. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my therapist because I was mortified. I knew I shouldn’t have been having sex with him to begin with, I thought I had gotten what I deserved. If God thought I deserved that, then I didn’t think he would argue if though I deserved to die as well.
And yet, for some reason that I can’t explain, I know I called the guy a week or so after, left him a voicemail, told him I was “clean”, told him I was sorry, asked him to come over…but I got no reply.
A few weeks later still he texted me during a class. He said he wanted to come over. I was so thrilled, so happy that he wasn’t still mad at me that I left the class early to be there when he got to my place. He had the same interests in books that I did and I thought great, a second chance. I should have closed the door as soon as I opened it and saw him, sweaty, still in his gym clothes.
I don’t need to go into the details but he told me he was going to “teach me a lesson.” And when he was done and left I sat there in a daze. I had no anger towards him, my only thought, fueled by the teachings of my church and therapist was, “What kind of person am I that I let this happen twice?”
I called my therapist. I don’t know what I told her. I don’t know if I told her if it was consensual or not (It was definitely not) and though I remember someone I talked to that night told me to call the police, I think it was a friend not my therapist. The police were never called. Instead, we started on another round of how can I make this right. How can I make myself right with God so he will stop punishing me?
I was getting worse and worse. I lost my job. I have no idea how I managed to graduate.
I have a scar on my chest from the first rape, and in some disassociate moment, I caused the spot to bleed again. When I went into therapy the next day and explained about it, she asked to see. I still cling to the hope that she was sincerely only trying to gauge how bad it was to see if I needed medical attention but when I couldn’t pull my shirt down far enough to show her, she told me to take of my shirt AND bra.
I didn’t think about. I just did it. But once I did, sitting there with my top naked I thought to myself, “Why?”. When I told a later therapist about this episode she went berserk and wanted to call the former one out on it. That’s where I ended up eventually, talking to a therapist about my former therapist.
Because in the end, although the rapes and mental illness were terrifying what haunts me most now are the people who were supposed to be there to guide me through it all and weren’t. The people I paid money out of my own very shallow pockets to help, somehow screwed me up more.
Just like every institution there are good individuals and bad individuals but the structure of Christian therapy far too often plays out as victim-blaming and only leaves the attendee with feelings of self-pity or worse, self-hatred. How can you heal from trauma when you don’t feel like you are worth saving?
1.Though her tumblr has since been deleted, you can read Leelah Alcorn’s message here.