Heather Plett is a gifted writer and thinker. If you don’t subscribe to her blog, I hope this guest post by her will inspire you to do so. I wrote to her asking to republish this particular piece because, her description of emotional colonization, is a description of what the church often calls discipleship. It isn’t. It is far more insipid. It is spiritual abuse.
I hope you will read her timely, and horrifically beautiful description of emotional colonization below.
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked, “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is emotional colonization.
Wikipedia describes colonization as “an ongoing process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components (people).” Colonization involves overpowering, dominating, and taking away the autonomy and sovereignty of other people. Normally we think of colonization… (for more click here)
If you are only just now joining the story, I’ve just checked into rehab…
Keystone felt like a cloud of cotton, protecting and engulfing me. The old house became my safe place. I don’t think I’d ever felt that secure before. The hardest part about rehab was getting over myself so that I could go. Once I was there, it became the only place I wanted to be. It didn’t matter that sex addicts are at the bottom of the addiction barrel.
While we did most of our work in groups, we each had an individual therapist with whom we also worked. Susan was mine. She gave me three gifts that I hang onto fifteen years after leaving.
On Saturdays, we had a household outing. We’d vote for what activity we wanted to do that week. Staff rotated working the weekends and on Susan’s weekend, I rode in the front seat with her as we drove to a theater to watch Ice Age. I prattled on, proud of the recovery work I’d done before getting to Keystone. For some reason, I recited the 3rd and 7th step prayers. She interrupted me, asking me to slow down and pay attention to what I was praying; urging me to view prayer as something more than an item I checked off my list to stay sober.
A little while later she asked me to read pgs 416-418 in the Big Book of AA each day. I ended up reading them every day for three weeks. Old timers in AA know those pages deal with “acceptance being the key” to recovery. Susan was ahead of her time. These days, ACT or “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” is a hot commodity in the therapy world and is at the forefront of addiction work. This was 2002, and she was already working to help me accept who I was and what I did while not allowing my super ego to tread on hope and empathy.
Right next to my bed, so that I see it when I get up every morning, is a framed print of Rembrandt’s, The Return of the Prodigal Son. It hangs there because Susan asked me to buy and read a book by the same title by a man named Henri Nouwen. It became my favorite book. If you remember, from an earlier post, it was while reading this particular book that I got a letter from one of my former staff. I will never forget one of his statements he wanted me to understand, “I will not go down to the pig trough to eat with you.” The spiritual abuse that sent me reeling into rehab was boomeranging back at me; as pastors I trained, responded to me and my sin the only way they knew how — abusively.
My new friends knew the importance of this book to me. During our last session before I left, they have me back my book on which they had each written messages to me on the inside covers; everyone that is except “C.” C wrote on the cover. He circled the Father, drew a line to him and then wrote “You.” Then he circled the kneeling son, drew another line to point at him and wrote, “the church.”
There are two other vibrant memories from my time at Keystone. First, it took me three weeks to realize and stop engaging rehab like a chess game. I always scanned the horizon, trying to figure out the staff’s next move so I could be ready for it. Writing this makes me really sad. I was so messed up! And though sorrow never feels great, in a strange but very real way, it gives me hope. That same sadness grows when I realize lots of people see life as a game. Playing exhausted me. And it scared me. I didn’t know how scared I always was. I don’t want others to live that way. That is why I became a counselor as well as a pastor.
I had at least one other, “Aha” moment while there. During a group session, I realized I had no integrous core. I was a holograph. Until that moment, I was proud of that fact that I could be “all things to all people.” I’d learned from childhood how to be a chameleon in order to successfully navigate life in other peoples’ homes. Later the commitment to “being whatever I needed to be,” was theologically solidified by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9.
I didn’t realize that I became a holograph partly to dodge my shame. Patricia DeYoung, in her remarkable book, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational and Neurobiological Approach (2015), talks about splitting off parts of ourselves that we find shameful. Later, she creates three ways we label those parts: The “Ideal me,” the “bad” me, and the “not me.” The “ideal me” is who we think we need to be and know we are not. The “bad me” is the “me” we believe stops us from being the “ideal me.” The “not me” is the “me” we can’t bear to acknowledge. It is humanly impossible to be aware of “not me.” Something inside us recognizes that if we even recognized “not me’s,” existence we’d die. While growing up, nearly the only thing I knew was
While growing up, shame ruled my family and me. So it is not surprising that I “stuffed” more of myself than I held onto. This is the reason I work as a Kintsugi artist of the soul. I want to work to help join my clients’ fragmented and forgotten parts with gold so that they become beautiful to them and their world.
This isn’t the end of this story. Leaving Keystone, I had no clue that the darkest days of my life were still ahead of me. And, while acknowledging that truth, it is important to add that I am not certain I’d still be alive if it weren’t for the time I spent there. I still carry Keystone with me. And I am incredibly grateful for the gifts I was given while there.
Written by Alexander W. G. Seidel
Ministry is a lonely pursuit. Or, at least that’s what some church leaders make it. The pressure to perform is far too common in church circles. The image of the noble pastor and his wife and family has placed crushing pressure on many leaders. At best, it leads to burn out. At worst, this careens into a moral tailspin. When the pristine image of a pastor goes, the pastor likewise has nowhere to go. How could it be possible to confess burnout or moral failing, when a pastor fears the fallout of his shattered image?
Johnson & VanVonderen defines spiritual abuse as, “Using God as a carrot or a stick to get people to behave the way you’d like them to.”* Spiritual Abuse came naturally to me. As a junior in college, Campus Crusade for Christ tried to ask me to come on staff with them, and I did not allow them to get very far. At the “Senior Panic” I attended, I did not even know it was a recruitment event, and after I discovered what it was, it was too late. I went to my interview time in shorts and a ripped tee shirt and informed the three people who were there to interview me that they were wasting everyone’s time and that I was not going to go on staff with them. When they asked, “Why not?” I said, “Because it
I said, “Because it isn’t God’s will…” knowing that the answer would leave them nowhere to go. I was right. My college staff worker came to me soon after that, and we agreed that my ongoing involvement with Crusade would be a distraction rather than a help to them or me. So I joined InterVarsity.
In those days, IV held “Bible & Life” weekend conferences. I attended my first event as a senior. Costs were kept down by meeting at a local church, and attendees stayed with families in the community. I was placed in the Bible Studies method course — and I discovered that this old guy named Tom (he must have been in his mid-40s) was at my table. I was blown away when, on Sunday, he was the speaker for the event and man, could he preach! I discovered that he was the Area Director for Central Michigan, and he was there to “vet” me. As we left the conference, he asked for a moment of my time, “Steve, I’d like to ask you to pray about the possibility of considering joining InterVarsity staff.” I tried to formulate the word, “No,” but couldn’t. How could I possibly say no to praying about the possibility of anything.
In my unknown woundedness, I latched onto Tom as a surrogate father to me. He was more of a mentor to me. I wanted to be him. Later in my career with IV, I realized I demanded way too much of him, and though we remained close; he was the preacher at my first wedding, and I named my son after him, he felt betrayed by my move back to Oregon and we drifted apart. Though I don’t know entirely why, since I fell, he became unreachable. Sadly, and to my detriment our relationship, which I valued above nearly every other was a casualty of my sin.
I began using the phrase, “I’d like you to pray about the possibility of considering…” I discovered when I “twinned” his expression with the story of how he used it with me; students could not say no to me. If I really wanted to twist the knife, I would add, “If as you pray, God says no to you. I will not argue with him. Arguing with God is not smart.” I was developing into a great salesman for Jesus. I do not know how many people I manipulated this way. To my shame, the number is too high for me to count.
It was the fall after the Church publicly vomited my sin for the world to see; as I read Johnson & VanVonderen’s book that I saw more of the fulness of my abusiveness and recognized more fully the abusive nature of the Church system I had been raised. What killed me was that I realized that so much of what I thought was good was really evil and had driven people away from Jesus.
I use Johnson and VanVonderen’s definition of Spiritual abuse. And, I am convinced that we spiritually abuse people whenever we use God, or his written word as instruments of shame. There is no shame in the Kingdom of God.
Since nothing the church tried was working, and since I couldn’t get clean and because my wife had filed papers for divorce and asked me to move out of our house, the pastors agreed I needed more than they could offer. Perhaps, the therapists and my sponsor were right. Maybe I needed rehab. I still remember my friend Tom saying to me, “Even David had to learn through the rods of the Philistines. Perhaps that is what needs to happen with you. I don’t know, Steve. I don’t know.” Finally, the Church was acknowledging that it was in over its head.As I flew back to Philadelphia for rehab at Keystone, I listened to Mozart’s Requiem on my walkman. I put it on repeat. I checked into the facility — a giant house in Chester. Across the street, all the people in drug and alcohol rehab looked down their noses at us. Sex addicts are the scum of the earth. That house in Chester was a cocoon for me, though. It was the safest place on the planet.
When I arrived, I was shown around the three-story house, given a room, and introduced to my housemates. There was a giant white board in the kitchen with all of the resident’s names. They wrote my name at the bottom. I moved up the board as people left and others arrived. Once at the top, a decision was made about when it was best to graduate. I stayed 35 days.
Sex addiction is not limited to pastors though there were two of us there during my stay. There was also a mobster (I kid you not), a nineteen-year-old kid who also struggled with heroin, a banker, and an artist. Most of us were educated and at some level had a level of success. There was a jew, a Wiccan, and assorted Christians, as well as an atheist and agnostic. There were gays and straights and even a couple of “tri-sexuals” (“We’ll try anything”). There were people in trouble with the law, with their partners, and with their workplaces. And though, while I was there everyone was male; that is not always true.
We had group and individual therapy sessions in Art therapy, psycho-dramas, family therapy (for those whose partners participated — mine did not), and talk therapy. We faced our predatory selves. It didn’t matter what we had done. Even my friend who never “acted out” with another human being, acknowledged that he was a predator — though most the world would not understand how. In the evenings, we attended 12-step 12-tradition meetings, and eventually we were all allowed to use and talk on the payphone when it was available.
Next week we’ll go further into the details…
*D. Johnson & J. VanVonderen (1991) The subtle power of spiritual abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
Whenever I showed anger growing up, my parents reminded me that they had beat the tantrums out of me when I was still a toddler; effectively bringing to an end to my “emotional terrorism.” Toddlers can be emotional terrorists; holding their parents hostage through angry outbursts, crying, screaming, and demanding their way. Apparently, I was no different, and according to my parents — worse. And so, after returning to our house on Peppercomb Rd in Eastbourne, Sussex, England; after weeks of staying in other peoples’ homes where Mom and Dad felt humiliated because of the ruckus my brother, and I made; they used a belt and “beat the tantrums out of me.”
My brother and I quickly learned that it wasn’t OK to feel or demonstrate anger in our family unless you were a woman. They taught us by beating us until we didn’t feel anymore. And so I learned to stuff my anger. Later, through hard work with a counselor, I relearned how to feel it, To this day, it doesn’t come easily; my anger is constipated.
Many of my friends in recovery told stories of losing their tempers, throwing things, breaking things, yelling and screaming. I was so jealous and simultaneously felt so superior. I stuffed my anger down, denying its existence, not realizing that it always came out sideways in horrific and costly ways that didn’t resemble violence but did so much more damage.
My wife found Steven Delugach, Portland’s leading sex addiction therapist, and told me that I was going to see him. So I went. I saw him every week and joined one of his men’s small groups. He is damn good at what he does, and he knows what he is doing. His practical, no-nonsense approach rubs some people the wrong way, but his care for his clients is evident, and he gets results. His track record speaks for itself.
I was also going to at least one (and often two) sex addiction meetings each day. In these early days of recovery, I had fantasies of beating my addiction, writing a book, and hitting the national speaking circuit. I poured my heart into recovery for all the wrong reasons — but I poured it, nevertheless.
It didn’t take very long for the things that my sponsor and my therapist suggested or asked me to directly contradict things that the leadership in the church demanded of me. At one point, my Bishop’s wife and my wife demanded to see my therapist, because they thought I was lying to them about things he was teaching me. Since I wasn’t lying, they said I needed to find a new “Christian therapist” who would agree with them. (OK, the last bit was never stated. It was, however, made more than clear.)
A counselor who attended the pastors’ prayer group with me suggested that I find a therapist who trained other therapists. If I didn’t, he feared that I would walk on whoever tried to work with me. So I started seeing Dr. Richard Shaw, the head of the Marriage & Family Program at George Fox University. Ultimately, I credit him with saving my life.
It was bound to happen; I didn’t do my recovery work perfectly. Sometimes I screwed it up pretty badly, and in one instance — knowing that my actions could be considered flirtatious (and enjoying the accompanying fantasy) — I chose to be honest with one of my former students, letting her know that she had been one of the very few triggers for me at work. On one level, the conversation was wholly appropriate, and on another sinisterly manipulative. The conversation freaked out the young lady. She ended up expressing her discomfort to either my Bishop or his wife, and they, in turn, came to me and told me that I needed to talk to my wife and confess my actions.
Recovery taught me that it wasn’t safe for me to make any significant decisions. After all, my best thinking made me an addict. So, I talked to both my sponsor and my therapist. Both stated that I should not follow the church’s demands. Knowledge of my foolish conversation would unnecessarily rip scabs off my wife’s already significant wounds. When I repeatedly refused their demands to submit, my Bishop asked me to leave. I never went back.
About this time, I started cruising again. Dr. Shaw asked me to read Jeff Vanvonderen’s book, Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I devoured it, and I saw on the fly leaf that Van Vonderen, also wrote, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I was stuffing rapidly rising anger toward the church that was unaware of how unaware they were, and my wife, who was almost grateful for my sexual infidelity because it gave her the long wanted excuse she needed to divorce me.
As I read The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, I was looking for weapons and ordinance to aim at church leadership for its blatant spiritual abuse of me. God had other plans because the more I read, the more I realized, “I was the abuser.” Every time I raised my gaze, the fingers I wanted to point at the church pointed at me instead. The realization that I drove people away from Jesus, and his Kingdom, just about killed me. It came close because it sent me scuttling back to my addiction — to cruising and prostitutes. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I wouldn’t find any lasting freedom for nearly another year. The day America woke up to planes flying into the Twin Towers, I was too hung over and haunted from having acted out with two prostitutes the day before to care. For the next six months, I would act out once a month, every month. Those actions led me to decide that I had to get further help.
The story picks up during Easter, 2001.
The next weeks were a blur. Certain things stand out. Knowing what I know now about the physiology of the brain and the nature of God, it is easy to say that none of the events that I remember “should” have occurred. The reason is that in times of shock or severe trauma the prefrontal cortex of the brain shuts down, and the amygdala –sometimes called the “reptilian brain” takes over. Mine works very well. I am grateful for it even though it is incapable of understanding or making complex choices, only understanding three options: “fight, flight or freeze.” My amygdala took over the minute my wife asked me about infidelity and didn’t cede total control back until August.
All I wanted to do was survive. I had no capacity or ability to think. Had church leaders the slightest idea about the information above, I’d like to believe that they would have made better choices. What the leaders assigned to oversee my recovery passed off as expertise was, in fact a few ministerial experiences that had destroyed relationships and apparently taught them very little. There is nearly nothing as dangerous as an elder who thinks they know more than they do and believe that they act in the name of God. Narrow theological understanding, derived from a few Scriptural “proof texts,” controlled the events of the next few months. Pastors employed God vindictively as an abusive weapon to exact punitive rather than restorative measures. Church leaders who had virtually no training or understanding of sexual addiction or recovery from addiction made choices from ignorance. As a result, any hope that my marriage might survive was stolen. It took me hours of pray and years of work to be able to forgive them. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been able to forgive them more quickly. For I didn’t need to forgive them for what they did or didn’t do. I needed to forgive them for what I remembered that they did and didn’t do.
Because my prefrontal cortex virtually shut down from April to August 2001, my memory can in no way be trusted. I have Polaroid snap shots and fragments of memory that I remember. I swear that those memories are accurate. I remember them, and, if I’m honest, they may have happened differently than I remember.
Last year, I met with my former Bishop to let him know that I forgave him. It was easier than I imagined because I’m not sure if they did what I remember them doing, I forgave them for what I remember them doing, and my memories may have very little to do with what they did. They alone are responsible for sorting through their actions and choices with their Creator.
Having said all that, here is a partial list of what I remember happened:
These are the clear memories that stand out. The church leadership in Portland had theologically correct reasons to do everything they did, and everything they did was not wrong or hurtful. These were good men. I was part of an influential pastors’ prayer meeting. That group appointed a small group of pastors to shepherd me through upcoming events. My bishop, who was also a part of that group and his wife were assigned to pastor us. He took me under his wing. She took my wife under her’s. They thought they knew what they were doing, and so they acted confidently, doing a lot of damage.
Together with my wife they chose the leading sex addiction therapist in Portland for me to see. I was “required” to give my wife and the bishop’s wife access to the therapist for consultations. Also, I began attending a 12-step group for sex addicts, found a sponsor, and developed new friends in recovery.
That summer I found a recovery job, working for a small contracting company that waterproofed decks. Toward the end of the summer, I walked off the job, never to return, tired of an abusive boss. Finding a new job was terrible. I wasn’t directly qualified to do anything. Eventually, after month’s of unemployment, and much to my wife’s dismay, I chose to employ Notus Career Management to help me get back on my feet. While the initial financial investment was high, they helped me discover transferable skills and strengths, along with jobs that wanted them. They taught me how to interview, and negotiate. Hiring them to help me was one of the first and best decisions I made for myself once things blew up and I eventually found the strength to make decisions for myself. My 12-step group helped me locate the courage to make such decisions.
I started 12-step recovery in April 2001. Doing so saved my life. I arrived in the fellowship with about ten months of “sexual sobriety” and maintained sobriety easily through the summer months. And then the shock began to wear off. I began to realize the harm perpetrated against me, and the role my wife played in the events. My anger grew. I was furious. Things were about to go from bad to worse.
During my years in recovery, I’ve visited AA, NA, SA, SAnon, SAA, SLAA, and AlAnon meetings. My first fellowship changed after a dozen years, and so now I am working a new program in a new fellowship. Every society — every meeting — is different. And, at the same time, every society and every meeting are the same.
For instance, every 12-step / 12-tradition meeting will have a liturgy that is somewhat familiar, and in every meeting, everyone introduces themselves. Though you may be anonymous, you cannot be unknown.
After the liturgy and introductions typically the secretary of the meeting (a rotating position) will introduce a topic, that she or he has been thinking about, wrestling with, or found success through incorporating it into their life. Usually people “lead with their weakness,” or share their current struggles. After leading with their weakness, often they share part of their experience and give their reason for continuing to hope. When they finish, they open the meeting for sharing. Sometimes, they might call on people to either “share on the topic,” or “get current,” which means, sharing the things with which they are now wrestling — maybe they picked up, or used, or came close to doing so…
In most meetings, you will hear people that are ahead of you on the recovery journey. You will also hear stories of people that are strangely similar to you. And, finally, you will hear stories of people who are struggling to stay sober or get sober. Most “Old timers” will tell you that a good meeting needs all three. We need the hope of the people ahead of us. We need the fellowship of the people walking with us, and we need the reminder of the pain which radiates from the people behind us. For most of us, our addiction is, at the very least, a disease of forgetfulness.
In 12-step/12-tradition meetings, power is turned on its head. Anonymity means that there is neither Jew or Gentile, Slave nor free, nor male or female. Everyone meets at the point of their shared brokenness and need. Leadership, as understood by Western corporate power and authority systems is shunned. Old timers know that it is only through their service that they stay sober. Because of this, they are often found setting up and putting away chairs; making or cleaning up coffee, or sweeping the floor after a meeting.
Old timers do not search out and take newcomers under their wing to “disciple them.” Instead, newcomers are encouraged to find someone who has, “what they want,” and ask them to be their sponsor. I want to say that sponsors aren’t, “authority figures.” However, some are. This is particularly the case in NA. It is easy to see why NA sponsors of newcomers are such hardasses. They need to be. As time goes on, and the newcomer gets clean time, the nature of the relationship to their sponsor changes and softens. All any sponsor has to pass on is, “What they have been given by those that went before them.” Additionally, they will tell you, that they only way they get to keep what they’ve been given, is to pass it on. These are some of the wonders of the upside-down recovery world:
Much of this sounds eerily biblical. That is because recovery’s roots are found in a Christian movement called the Oxford Group. While the recovery world refuses to name a Higher Power, to allow everyone unfettered access to the 12 steps, it is rooted in the written word of God and structures created by missional Christ-followers. This inescapable fact makes many people in and out of the church and recovery very uncomfortable.
This is not to say that all recovery is “Christ-focused” Clearly it is not. But Kingdom truth is Kingdom truth whether it is uttered by Balaam’s ass or St Peter or Paul. The Spirit refuses to limit himself to particular vehicles to convey life and truth to his creation.
I fear that too often we limit God, and so we miss hearing what he has to say because he could not possibly use such an unclean vessel to speak to me. If you are struggling with addiction, and you hold the position that God speaks primarily through His Written Word as understood through the lens of a particular hermeneutic; it might be, that the root of your struggle is that the god of your understanding is too limited and too small. You probably need to think some more about this. I had to discover that my God’s name was spelled with a capital “G” and that he was not nearly as limited as I feared him to be.