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Religious Trauma is Trauma

By Andrew Pledger ~

(*Trigger Warning - Topics of depression, trauma, and suicide)

Hello, my name is Andrew Pledger, and this is my story of religious trauma. My story is long and complex which is why I’ve been working on a book. This entry will leave out many details, but covers the general overview of my experiences and will help people understand how I got here.

Restoration Counseling says, “Religious trauma (RT) is similar in symptoms to Complex-PTSD."

Symptoms of RT:
  • Negative beliefs about others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Struggle with emotional regulation
  • Depression, anxiety, grief, and anger
  • Nightmares
  • Disassociation, flashbacks
  • Lack of pleasure
  • Feeling isolated
  • Feeling empty, lost or directionless
  • Reduced critical thinking
  • Feeling out of place or like you don’t belong
According to Restoration Counseling, "Religious Trauma Syndrome is often caused for several reasons for different people. Many people experience RTS as a result of an authoritarian religion or faith community. Individuals suffering from RTS may be struggling with black and white thinking, irrational beliefs, difficulty trusting oneself, low self-esteem, or feeling indebted to a group of people. Skewed views of sex, discipline, emotional regulation, relationships, and self-expression are usually present in toxic religious environments” (Source: Restoration Counseling).

Let’s start in the very beginning, long before I was born. My parents were both devout fundamentalist Christians. My mom’s parents raised her Methodist until they converted to fundamentalist Christianity. My dad’s mom was a fundamentalist Christian and his father eventually converted.

My parents met at Hyles Anderson College in the late 80s. This college was known for being a strict fundamentalist school. My dad was studying to be a pastor and my mom was going to be an English teacher. This college was unaccredited which meant she would only be qualified to teach in a Christian school. After graduation, they got married in the early 90s and were excited to have children.

To their dismay, they struggled to have kids. After six to seven years of being a childless family, they began considering adoption. They had prayed for years to have children and it just wasn’t happening, until it finally did. They interpreted this as an answer to prayer and wanted to dedicate their children to the God of Christianity. Homeschooling was popular among fundamentalist Christians because of the separation from the world and outside influences. It was honestly all about control of their children’s lives. My whole life I was homeschooled and indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity. At eight years old, I converted to Christianity after hearing a horrific sermon on the terrors and demons of hell. I had many sleepless nights and nightmares sometimes having doubts about being saved. It was faith with a foundation of fear, shame, guilt, and manipulation. Little did I know the messaging I received in my developing years would affect me for the rest of my life. I was told I had nothing good inside of me, and God saw me as dirty and wicked. I was taught to not trust myself because my heart was deceitful and that the devil could plant thoughts in my mind. Shame and fear were used to bring people to the altar of the church. There were times in my childhood when I was told by my parents that I deserved to burn in hell. I was usually told this when I tried to seek praise for honorable deeds and said I deserved something. I learned to never ask for praise, but that conforming to fundamentalist Christianity was the only way to get love.

I was raised in Gospel Light Baptist Church in Walkertown, NC. It was pastored by Bobby Roberson for many decades until he died in 2018. He was called "America's Pastor" and Gospel Light was one of the larger Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches in the US. It was known for its large bus ministry that brought in thousands of kids every week. My parents idolized him and acted like he was Jesus Christ himself. As I became older, I realized the cult-like obsession my church had with my pastor. I’ll never forget hearing a church member pray in the pulpit and said,
“Dear God, help us to be more like Bro. Bobby.”
What?! What about being like Jesus! What a slap in the face to God! Independent Fundamental Baptist churches across the US knew who Bro. Bobby was and how honored his congregation was to be in his presence. People would overreact whenever anyone said his name. He was a celebrity in fundamentalist Christianity. He knew John R. Rice and Jack Hyles who were big figures in the fundie movement.

The most psychologically damaging was the hateful sermons on the LGBTQ+ community.

Growing up gay in fundamentalist Christianity was tough because I was taught very hateful things about queer people. My church painted an ugly picture by describing and generalizing gay people as all perverts going around raping people and hurting children. When I was finally able to meet other gay people, I realized it wasn’t true. The nicest people I have ever met are gay.

Even knowing this did not stop internalized homophobia. All the years of brainwashing to despise gay people began to reflect in me. All the years of hearing my family say hateful things about queer people were deep in my mind. I was angry because of the lies the church told me and because of the damage to my self-worth.

The self-hatred became so unbearable that my mind started to develop a different identity. This was my mind’s way of coping with the trauma.

As I got older the identity faded away as I learned to love myself. Which was a really challenging thing to do. Loving yourself is so difficult when you feel like the ones closest to you find you unacceptable.

As a result of all the years of emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the church, I fell into a deep depression when I was 16. I stopped eating, my body ached, and I mainly stayed in bed. When I tried to eat, I just couldn’t do it. My dad would yell at me angrily to eat as if I was just a piece of shit. The last thing a mentally ill person needs is someone yelling at them to get over it. My parents would not take me to a doctor or a psychiatrist. In two weeks, I lost 20 pounds. I felt like I was dying. I don’t remember how I got out of the depression, but I somehow managed to recover.

I was extremely hurt that the people who were supposed to take care of me denied me healthcare. All my trust of my parents was forever destroyed, and I became ultra-independent because I felt I could trust no one.

I slowly moved away from Gospel Light and attended another church regarding youth activities. Before long, I was shunned from that church because of my perceived sexual orientation. I was all alone, and no one knew what I was going through. I had been suffering in silence for years. Eventually, I decided to get away from fundamentalist Christianity by getting a job. I desperately needed social skills and life skills in general because I was so helpless and dependent on my parents. I worked at Chick-Fil-A and thankfully I was able to find love and acceptance there. I worked there to save money for college.

Flash forward, I was manipulated into attending a Christian university, so I chose Bob Jones University, and I was not happy about it. I tried to convince myself that it was fine and that it was only four more years until freedom. I feared the prejudice and bigotry I would experience at BJU. I was bullied and harassed at the school a lot during my first year. I had already experienced two depressive episodes and I was falling into my third. What I did not know at the time was that I was struggling with repressed emotions, sexuality, and trauma.

After pouring my heart out to this counselor about how I was mistreated growing up, he said I was paying for my sin. He basically said I deserved what happened to me because I existed. Towards the end of the first year, I nearly committed suicide, but I managed to call the Trevor Project hotline. I saw no way to escape my personal hell of fundamentalist Christianity. I found the courage to explore outside the fold and find a community. I found an affirming church and met a wonderful family who lived within walking distance of BJU. They gave me a key to their house so I could escape BJU when needed. They were my haven.

The pandemic started in 2020 and we were all separated. I did not want to go back to an unaccepting home, but there was no option when everything shut down in the US. The summer of 2020 was when I fell into my fourth and worst episode of major depression. There were deep psychological issues I was not dealing with, but I had no education in psychology or mental health. I had to fight to go to the doctor so I could get on antidepressants. That summer I discovered the term religious trauma, and I was relieved to know the issue, but I was overwhelmed and wondered if it was possible to heal. This episode lasted 7 months and I did not dig deeper into my religious trauma because I was afraid of it. I did not know where to start and I was busy with college.

The religious trauma was going nowhere, and I underestimated the power of trauma. I ended up struggling with suicidal ideation my Junior year and I had no options except for Biblical Counseling.

After pouring my heart out to this counselor about how I was mistreated growing up, he said I was paying for my sin. He basically said I deserved what happened to me because I existed. Just for existing, I deserved terrible things to happen to me. This was too much to handle with my depression. This was the moment I decided to leave Christianity. To be honest, it was never personal to me because it was forced on me my whole life. It was not going to be easy to de-convert after all the years of brainwashing.

In my senior year, I began working on my religious trauma by digging into psychology. I decided for my photography internship to create an art photo series about religious trauma. This pushed me to explore my trauma on a deep level to tell my story through photography.

I reached out to Josh Harris to talk about my photo series on his IGTV show. He was excited to have me on and I was nervous because I decided for the first time in my life to be authentic. I had processed so much of my trauma in the last few months that I was ready to tell my story. I knew I risked being expelled from BJU for this opportunity, but it was worth it to me.

Ten days after the release of the video I was expelled from BJU in January of 2022. I now live with the family that took me in my first year. For the last few months, I’ve been working on my personal growth. I’ve been in therapy for two months working through my religious trauma. I’ve been grinding to finish writing the rough draft of my book. I read two books a week to expand my mind and get rid of black and white thought patterns. I’ve become an influencer to bring awareness to religious trauma and I have shared my story with many podcasts. I’m now on a mission of pursuing psychology to become a therapist and eventually a psychologist. I want to research religious trauma and help survivors of religious abuse. This story is far from being over.

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