My Story: The Vanishing Act – A Tale of an Exvangelical’s Monster

If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” – The Joker

It’s taken me a long, long journey into healing and a brave, unexpected confession from someone dear to me to realize that it is time to tell this particular chapter in my story. Because it is not just my story – it belongs to everyone who has ever experienced trauma, who has ever had it manifested as a festering monster within them that at one point or another they’ve had to summon the courage to confront. I ask for your patience, because I have never processed it out in the open before – it is one that I have kept buried, apparent only in glimpses that I’ve masked in my fiction. 

It is a story about how I came to name my monster. It comes with a disclaimer, because I want this to be a safe place for everyone: If a conversation about self-harm and sexual molestation of a minor will trigger you, do not read this story.  I do not go into details, except to address that these things happened.

First of all: Hello, my name is Danél Griffin – and I have Religious Trauma Syndrome. 

I’m going to begin this tale toward the end, when I realized how well this diagnosis described me. I was sitting at home on this very laptop in the fall of 2018, pouring over the book LEAVING THE FOLD by Marlene Winell at the encouragement of a therapist. Dr. Winell coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” to describe trauma responses to abuse uniquely experienced in church settings; even now it is an unofficial diagnosis, because RTS isn’t yet recognized by the American Psychological Association (though there are mental health professionals currently working on fixing that). But one deep reading of all of RTS’s symptoms, and I knew that none of this was hypothetical. I’d tried on other diagnoses like PTSD, clinical depression, and Personality Disorder, but they simply didn’t describe me with such razor focus like Dr. Winell’s list of symptoms. 

Here is what you have to understand about children who grew up in the evangelical church – especially preacher’s kids: The main coping skill you learn is to simply obey. One of my favorite deconstruction pages, exvangelicallessons, put it best in a slide the other day – so well that I had to stop what I was doing and simply cry for a moment: “How many of you have parents who have never truly known you? Even before deconstruction? What I mean is this: my parents were never a safe place for me to be my open and honest self. And not just about my spiritual life. I couldn’t talk about school, boys I liked, my health questions, my dreams and aspirations, my hobbies… No topics felt safe and secure. Everything came with judgment, correction, or criticism.”

Judgment, correction, criticism – these are key words to remember for the rest of this story. I will repeat them often. 

Now, I do not doubt my parents loved me and that they did their best. But when every move you make is interpreted through the filter of the “sinful nature” into which we are all born, of our unworthiness of God’s love, of eternal torment if we do not accept Jesus and submit completely to his perfect will – you simply do not know how to process the world once you have left that oppressive bubble and stepped into reality. I was 26 years years old when I took my first step. The next 12 years had been spent trying to live life as best as I understood while consistently suffering from long bouts of depression and anxiety and addiction and abuse without ever completely understanding why. Until the day that that reading the symptoms of RTS felt like I was reading highlights from my own biography. 

Compulsive lying – just making shit up about my past all the time, so that I could cover up all the shame I felt about my real story. Perpetual confusion about people’s behaviors in the world around me, because I’d lived in such a sheltered Evangelical community that trying to learn how “real” people interacted was a blinding blitz. Figuring out my place and my people was something I’d literally been making up as I went along. The list goes on: Terrible critical thinking skills when it came to processing decisions relevant to my life; an inability to actually comprehend my self-worth no matter how hard I tried (another reason I just made shit up all the time); difficulty with long-term decision-making; a sense of disconnection with everyone unless I created an identity for myself that had no basis in reality and was instead my interpretation of the people I saw around me. Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, social awkwardness, difficulty with pleasure, difficulty with compliments, loss of meaning, loss of self, loss of how to engage in a healthy social group without making either all of it or absolutely none of it about me. Yeah, this was all me. 

Understanding the symptoms of RTS made me fully comprehend that walking away from my faith is only the beginning. Next comes the process of untangling all the knots that it had caused in my life, and that was an aspect of my journey that I had so far been ignoring.  But once I started reading LEAVING THE FOLD and trying out the writing prompts, I realized for the first time that this monster that I’d known all my life had an official name: “Religious Trauma Syndrome.” Putting it all together for the first time was like watching a vital piece of my puzzle that had always been missing finally fit into its proper place, so that I could finally step back and see the whole picture.

I started doing the work to untangle those knots – writing some prompts about my upbringing, confronting things from my past that I’d yet to really get honest about. At the time, I didn’t realize the process that was before me; I assumed that learning about my RTS simply meant understanding how its diagnosis related to me, and then I could finally move forward with my life. As a result, I thought that writing those prompts, reading through the book – this was all I needed in order to start healing. Because suddenly I had a diagnosis that could define my journey, so that these problematic behaviors I’d exhibited over the years had a reason – it was all in Dr. Winell’s spot-on designation. Knowing the name she’d given this monster was being able to utter it as part of my identity. It felt liberating at first – relieving. I realized I was not alone. 

But in the past year or so, I have truly come to comprehend just how much healing is a lifelong process.  For a while last year, I was in therapy for a completely unrelated PTSD experience at a workplace. That counselor was able to help me comprehend how a diagnosis is simply the start of a journey – not its end. It informs, it explains – but it does not define. Defining is up to us, as we come to understand our own story. Because a diagnosis isn’t born in a vacuum. It is a manifestation of an experience – our body’s defense mechanism, a reaction, even a deflection against outside forces that create a trauma response. I was suddenly so afraid when I understood this – not for the workplace PTSD, but rather my RTS. Because suddenly I realized that I couldn’t bury this monster simply by identifying it. I still had battles left to fight. 

I’m not a psychologist, but this is how a psychologist explained it to me: It is not as easy as saying, “I am a compulsive liar because I have RTS.” Trauma is trickier than that. It goes something more like this: “Lying is a manifestation of my RTS. It is a trauma response to abuse that I experienced in the past.” RTS is not the cause, nor it does not define my journey – it simply gives a name to what has become the accumulation of my experience. So then it becomes a matter of finally digging deep into my own story in order to learn how I got to the place I currently stand –  all at my own pace as I take baby steps toward practicing how to feel safe in my own body.

It was processing PTSD that made me realize that “Religious Trauma Syndrome” is not the first name I’ve given my monster. When I was a child, I called it “the Vanishing.”

I would now like to tell you the story of the Vanishing. Because only in understanding this story do I come to see Religious Trauma Syndrome not as merely a diagnosis, but as a trauma response to some pretty terrible things that happened to me as a child. 

I’ve brushed upon about my history with self-harm in a previous post. I didn’t go into much detail, mostly because I don’t want to trigger anyone else who may have it as part of their story as well. I’ll still keep it vague, but will only reveal that it involved burning my body and hiding it so well that no one ever noticed and I never had to talk about it. It was a vanishing act that lasted well into my teenage years.

I’ll get to the day I realized what this monster’s name had been all along. I was ten or eleven at the time. But first I need to dig a little deeper and go back a little farther. 

When I was probably five, I heard adults at my grandfather’s house talking about Hell and how most people were going to end up there. They must have been witnessing to some visitor, so I’m sure the conversation eventually steered toward the hope of salvation found in the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ. But I didn’t hear that part as I sat by the fireside; a five-year old is going to struggle with concepts like atonement (hell, I still do). We understand things on far simpler terms – like judgment, correction, and criticism. The way God was described to me always made Him seem so angry at every mistake I made, so that Hell being a place I’d probably end up seemed about right. All I could do was stare into that crackling fireplace and contemplate my eternity. 

I don’t remember exactly when I first started harming my body in preparation for Hell. But it was in the same room, around the same time. It became this secret between me and God – something I knew no one would understand if I tried to explain it to them. Besides, Hell wasn’t anything I wanted to talk about with anyone, because I was so afraid of it and so exhausted by my frequent nightmares about it. But as I injured myself, I’d ask God if it was good enough – if I’d punished myself enough, so he’d let me into Heaven. Sometimes it hurt so bad that I thought He’d said yes. But when the pain finally healed, I thought that it was God telling me, “Not yet.” So I kept doing it – not all the time, not in any manner of routine. Just when I was feeling guilty, and I needed to prepare myself for God’s judgment, correction, and criticism. 

This went on for about a year, before another, far scarier monster entered into my story. Not mine – someone else’s. It lived inside a kid on my block named Kisa – who was probably twice my age. In hindsight, I think the way my scared little monster smelled made its stomach growl.

Even back then as a six-year old on the block, I understood that being a church kid set me apart from everyone else. My older sister Tirzah had adapted a little better than I had – she had a cooler bike, a sharper edge, a faster wit – I was still on training wheels, and all I wanted to talk about was Frankenstein. Even the kids my age got bored with me quickly unless I let them play under the big tree in our front yard. It was an old pine whose lowest branches hugged the lawn around it, creating a natural fort within that was safe from the outside world.  I’d bring out my Micro-Machines, and we’d set up a whole world in there. But my lawn was part of a wider rotation; I mostly roamed the streets by myself, playing my own games. 

That was until I met this older kid named Kisa. One day, she was just riding her bike beside me like we’d always been friends and I was the coolest kid she’d ever met. 

I’d heard the name “Kisa” before – other friends talking about her like she was some kind of neighborhood block loyalty who knew how to have the most fun. Once, a police officer rode up in his car and asked us if any of us knew anyone by that name. I mean, yeah – we’d all heard of her, but we’d never met her. 

Yet here she was: The legendary Kisa, excited to talk to me about Frankenstein – seemingly because I was so enthusiastic about it. It was a conversation that led to more and more interactions, because she was so happy to be hanging out with me. I never saw her house or met her parents, but she always knew where to find me around the block. She brought me soda – a rare luxury in our home. Candy and toys – I kept an E.T. doll that she gave me her for years, which she’d brought to me just because she knew that I’d love it. (We weren’t allowed to watch “E.T.” – too much cussing, according to my parents – so the doll was very sacred to me.) Kisa helped teach me how to ride a bike without my training wheels – and was the first one to come over to congratulate me when I’d finally mastered it. She was my first best friend.

Kids around the block noticed too, and for as long as I rode alongside Kisa, I was one of the cools ones. Kisa would have me as her tag along to other friends’ houses, where I was introduced to video games and curse words while sneaking the forbidden “He-Man” show. They were suddenly all remembering my name, and when a bully that wasn’t in the know decided to target me sometimes, they’d back down when they knew that I was with Kisa. They seemed genuinely afraid of her. To a six-year-old social outcast, that made her my superhero. 

I didn’t hurt myself quite as much while I was friends with Kisa, that summer between kindergarten and first grade. 

But Kisa had a darker side that she didn’t show many people – a side that I began to witness more and more. There was a day she convinced me that Halloween could happen any time of the year, and she told me that she’d stop being my friend if I didn’t knock on a particular door to trick or treat. I didn’t want to – it was a man who my parents said they could see doing drugs from his open curtains. But I did it because Kisa wanted me to. When he shooed me away with, “Don’t every come around here,” Kisa came out of the bushes and disappointingly said, “You didn’t do it right.” But she forgave me, because that’s what best friends do.  

Once she brought me a dead mouse and told me that the only way to make sure that it could get to Heaven was if we buried it deep and prayed over it. I thought it was a stupid game, because it made me remember how afraid I was of Hell. It seemed that she detected that fear in me, because of the way she told me that God would not let us into Heaven unless we prayed for that mouse for as hard and as long as we could. She wouldn’t let me get up off my knees – told me it was imperative for all of our souls that we kept praying. We did it until I was trembling, and she finally looked bored. 

One day, after some time running around in the woods and fighting invisible monsters, she sat me down, got very serious, and finally told me why she’d decided to be friends with me. It was because my last name was Griffin, and it meant that I had magical powers. And they were powers that she could teach me. I’d never known this about about my last name – that it belonged to a mythical beast who could grant me abilities that Kisa had learned. She’d need a week or so to teach me all of these powers – and then we would have a special ceremony in which she would bestow upon me all of the new Griffin abilities that would make me the most powerful and popular kid on the block. Powers that would finally give me a voice and an authority beyond the judgment, correction, and criticism that I mostly knew. Powers that would  make God notice. 

How could I refuse such an offer from my best friend?

I remember nearly nothing about that week, except the feeling that all of Kisa’s lessons were rather bizarre.  I didn’t understand how any of this was going to unlock the power of the Griffin.  I’ve an image of Kisa and I being on the street in front of my home, and my Dad pulled up and rolled down the car window to say hello. He seemed pleased that I’d been making friends. Kisa’s face twisted in a flash; she hissed and darted toward the car window, making weird screams at Dad until he chuckled nervously and continued up the driveway. Kisa just turned to me, smiled mischievously, and said, “That’s the power of the Griffin I just unleashed there.”

The rest is a blur, except the ceremony to finally unleash my powers. It took place one afternoon underneath the big tree in my front yard – the place, remember, where many of us often made our fort. On that day, it had just been me and Kisa – and she was so excited to finish this ceremony with me… so overjoyed that we’d finally reached the day. She was so somber and reverent about the whole thing – as if this was the most sacred ritual she could ever imagine, and it was such an honor to pass these powers onto me. 

I was so, so intoxicated with her promises when she led me into our fort by the hand, placed me against the trunk, and commanded me to stand at attention. I obeyed, because all of our friendship had come down to this moment, and I intended to follow her to Hell if I had to. “Now,” she whispered – positively beaming at me, “do exactly what I tell you to.”

I obeyed, because I trusted her.

I have come to comprehend, after years of working with children and learning how to identify abuse, that what happened to me underneath that tree was sexual molestation. I did not fully comprehend it as such at the time – but I knew while it was happening that this was something I wasn’t ever going to tell my parents about. Of course, I didn’t comprehend sex at that age either – but I knew how strongly my parents reacted whenever a man and a woman on TV were seen in a bed together that weren’t married. There were some things that were only done in a marriage bed – I didn’t comprehend them, but I knew that as far as sins goes, it was one of the big ones – one that made God really angry. And it was something I was currently doing with Kisa. 

When it was over and we were just sitting there, she asked me how I felt.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. 

“I mean – do you feel the powers?”

I thought about it for a moment. Brought my fingertips – which hadn’t felt hell’s pain on them for a long time – to my face. Tried to feel something – anything. “No,” I confessed. 

She’d looked so disappointed. “You didn’t do it right,” she muttered. 

After that day under the tree, Kisa just stopped coming around. I only saw her one other time, when she was hanging out with a girl down the block. She pretended not to know me while gushing over her new best friend. 

As I entered into first grade and really began to miss her, I felt guilty about it. I remembered what I had learned to help me deal with that kind of guilt: I started hurting myself again. On and off for a long time, usually when something reminded me of the day under the tree. I didn’t watch “E.T.” until I was an adult.

The Church did not abuse me the way that Kisa did, though it certainly has to others. But that being said, the Church groomed me for far longer and with far more power to penetrate my depths than Kisa could ever summon. Because the Church’s strict adherence to Purity Culture mixed with Hell Theology, transmitted into my home, is WHY I was so afraid to ever utter a word about what Kisa did to me. It is WHY the only place I talked about that day under the tree was in the secret little ceremonies I kept with God in which I summoned my still nameless monster. Ceremonies that always ended with the question, “Is that enough?”  

I forgive that girl, by the way. Those patterns are learned, just like all of mine were. Because for my monster, it was NEVER enough. I suspect it wasn’t for Kisa’s either. 

A few years later while visiting our grandparents in Louisiana, I finally found my monster’s name. We were watching this old murder thriller called THE VANISHING ACT, which I remember really enjoying. It takes so many twists and turns, in which characters betray each other while revealing that they were never who they seemed to be. My only question about it all was the title – I didn’t know what it meant. My mother, who was an English major in college, explained to me about the way a magician’s show works – how it’s all just a trick. The vanishing act is such a trick – you fool your audience into thinking something or someone has disappeared. This is what the movie was truly about – everyone vanishes into their characters so that we don’t know who they really are. 

That way she’d explained it struck me. Because I suddenly realized that my monster had a name. My life had been nothing but a vanishing act – in which the bigger and bigger God’s presence in my life felt, the smaller and smaller my own sense of self-worth became. Except for me, it wasn’t an act – not really. I was really disappearing. My act was the one in which I just pretended that I was just a normal kid without any secrets. So I dropped the act and named my monster “the Vanishing.” 

It was to the Vanishing that I mostly spoke from then on, those times in which I hurt myself. Honestly, once it finally had a name, we kind of became friends. I’d talk to it while I was hurting myself, ask it if it was satisfied. If I learned anything about monsters during that time, it’s that the more they eat, the hungrier they get – but when they are starving, the ringing of their screams in your ears grows absolutely maddening. I suspect there are many reading who know exactly how that feels. 

Understanding that I had Religious Trauma Syndrome helped me understand that lying compulsively, feeling a profound sense of disconnect, having anxiety responses to church imagery, feeling a profound sense of worthlessness no matter how hard I tried, struggling with depression – these are some of RTS’s many symptoms, and they all reside in me. That was an important first step, but over the last year I’ve come to realize that it is not the only step. Remembering the name I’d given my monster enabled me to understand WHY these are all symptoms of RTS. 

I uttered the Vanishing’s name the other day, just to see if it still holds any power. I realized that it will always carry a sting – because trauma memories can be potent. But now, a memory is all that remains. It was a pretty damned significant moment for me; it felt like I was getting to know a part of myself that for a long time had always felt cowering and hiding within me. When I uttered the Vanishing’s name again, waited, and finally realized that I was safe, I felt that scared part of me rise carefully, cautiously looked around, and finally step out into the light – free of judgment, correction, and criticism. It was an important lesson in finding out for myself, beyond all syndromes or disorders or labels, the person I was, the person I am, and the person who I think I want to become. 

And now I have a confession: There’s a reason I’m summoning the Vanishing’s name again tonight, as I reflect on my journey into my religious trauma. Not long ago, someone who has become a very important part of my own journey shared something with me that made clear that if ever there was a time to finally speak the Vanishing and Kisa’s names to my deconstructing readers, it is now. I won’t reveal details about this person or the diagnoses in which they revealed that their doctors are circling to land for them – but they are the types of diagnoses most certainly in the APA handbook that come with much unfortunate stigma. They are the kind that, upon them becoming associated with your identity, are likely to summon at lot of judgment, correction, and criticism. Some really hurtful phrases like “self-absorbed,” “dishonest,” and “manipulative” are common associations.

These descriptors do not frighten me, for two reasons: They are also phrases that fit many who have Religious Trauma Syndrome – including me. But also – since I started working with teenagers in treatment centers and mental health facilities, I have met monsters far, far scarier than the one I encountered in Kisa. They have dwelt in kids I have treated, helped, and loved. Honestly, realizing this has been a really healing part of my journey. 

But I imagine that for any person who is leaning toward accepting that they have these diagnoses, this must all feel pretty fucking scary. It makes me think back on the day that I finally realized that my monster had an official name: Suddenly, here’s Religious Trauma Syndrome, and here’s all the ways it fits me to a T. But as I said at the beginning of this story, realizing its official name was only the beginning of my journey.  I had to dig deep into my own story and remember the name of my own monster before any of this truly stopped being scary for me. I had to figure out for myself whether the Vanishing and RTS were actually two names for the same monster. 

Turns out, they are. That won’t be the case for every diagnosis that gets thrown at you. It is up to you to learn whether or not you believe it is true.

If you are someone who believes they may have an RTS diagnosis, or any diagnosis that seems to make sense as a way of describing your behavior, the first thing I’d recommend you do is not panic. There is always help for you – no matter what name your “condition” is given. And though I am no psychologist, I can tell you that sometimes it will be required to dig deep down into your own story to know whether the monster inside of you is the same thing as that official wording with which you may be diagnosed. This process requires courage, working at your own pace and at your own comfort, and processing with reliable mental health processionals along the way. It has really helped me. 

Because here is what exploring my own story has taught me: A diagnosis is not the end of the journey. It is only the beginning. It is therefore not a curse, a death sentence, or a reason to feel ashamed or lost or afraid. It is simply the front door of the next journey – the step into figuring out how you want to define yourself beyond any illness, syndrome, or disorder. That will require learning how you have defined yourself in the past – which is the first step in understanding why. It is in that WHY where we truly find monsters – and also ourselves. It is in that why – if we’re processing with lots of support and healthy ways to cope in place – that we learn to forgive ourselves, to let go of the guilt, to realize that we have the power to define ourselves in any way we choose, no matter what label we ultimately realize describes our behaviors. 

We have to learn to look beyond the signs to which our diagnoses point. What’s more important is that you find out for yourself who you are and who you want to be.  A diagnosis may describe aspects of your story, but it does not have to define YOU. What’s most important is what you do AFTER the diagnosis. Diagnoses provide clues for the journey – they are not the conclusion. There’s always more to your story, because you are a complicated, beautiful human being who has endured so much and yet is still here. You may have to get down and dirty with your own story to find out why these diagnoses describe you – to figure out the names for your own monsters. If one diagnosis doesn’t fit you completely, it doesn’t have to: We are a complicated species, and there’s no script that we follow for recovery except for the one we write along the way for ourselves.

Choosing what I wanted in that script – this chapter in particular – is how I’ve finally learned to actually look around, to really listen to what other people are saying, to try to understand their point of view. Learning those tools have made me realize that my story isn’t just my own – it is the story of so many of us. I realized that I was not alone, so I don’t have to suffer like I am. I learn from those about whom I deeply care how to fight my own monsters. 

I tell that monster’s story now, to cast my light down the darkness of someone else’s path, so that they will know that there is hope – a hope residing within themselves. When found, that hope casts a light so much brighter than any diagnosis. I found it inside me – and I believe that you have the warrior’s spirit to find it inside yourself. And maybe one day, when you have truly gotten to know your story and feel safe sharing it (and only YOU get to decide when that is, because your story doesn’t belong to anyone else), you can cast your light down someone else’s dark tunnel – a light that points away from judgment, correction, and criticism. A light that reminds them that they are in control of their own identity – that they are not defined by a diagnosis that merely provides clues. We name our own monsters, because we are the main characters in our own stories.

This story was the scariest one for me – the one I really wasn’t sure I was ever going to tell. It doesn’t seem as big anymore. Fuck’s sake – that took nearly 34 years. But I’m still here, and I think this is what healing feels like. 

Thank you for reading. I love you.    

One thought on “My Story: The Vanishing Act – A Tale of an Exvangelical’s Monster

  1. Pingback: My Deconstruction Heroes: Martin Scorsese – Surviving the Spirit

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