“The amount of nurturing they need exceeded the amount of nurturing that I had to give,” she confesses, “especially because it triggered some stuff from my childhood and not getting any sort of nurturing, because my mom was too depressed and my dad was too angry. So I felt like the kids kept coming against a brick wall inside me, and I was really struggling with that.
“And I was sick,” she adds, “which was making things difficult, too, though that had been a challenge for years at that point.”
Amy is a small-boned, slender, birdlike young woman in her mid-thirties; as she perches on the edge of the chair, her quick, wide smile and surprisingly deep voice belie her almost fragile appearance.
In practice since 2007, Amy is a Holistic Therapist, employing nutrition, meditation, and spirituality, as well as cognitive psychology, to help her patients find healing “not as a collection of symptoms and issues, but rather a whole being.” Treating exclusively women and adolescent girls, she works with them in such areas as anger, anxiety, depression, grief, infertility, LGBTQ issues, marriage and relationship issues, parenting, self-esteem, sexuality, spirituality and sexual abuse. “Healing is a sacred process,” proclaims her website.
Amy got her start as a therapist early and informally, serving as a sort of wise-woman to her peers at her evangelical Christian university—peers who, it turned out, had had many of the same harrowing experiences she had growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household.
“What started happening,” she recalls, “was, because I was so vocal about my feelings and the things I had been through, a lot of girls in my cohort started coming to me and asking the same questions. And as I found myself on the listening end a lot, I found myself really thriving in that space. And as I was working through my own stuff, I realized that there was this huge need out there for someone who understood what it was like to be a woman and be oppressed in a spiritual space.”
Storms, wrote Carl Sandburg, begin far back--and the tempestuous forces that ultimately led to Amy’s healing experience, and her finding a safe haven, were set in motion long before she was born.
“My parents met at a fundamentalist evangelical college in New Jersey; even listening to the radio was not okay. So they both came into their marriage with a really intense fundamentalist background, and my father continued pushing that, so we ended up going to more and more extreme churches.
“I started off in a fairly typical evangelical church, then moved to an even wackier Baptist Church, and then a really wacky Evangelical Free Church. And that church is where I spent most of my time.”
“It was the kind of fundamentalism that’s insidious,” she explains. “We didn’t have to wear skirts, for instance; it wasn’t outward, where somebody could pick me out of the lineup and say ‘that’s a fundie kid.’
“But there were expectations on your every thought, breath, action--and everything was constantly focused on the evangelism of others and the submission of yourself. And I guess that those are well and good goals, but the way that they pushed them was very cult-like; it wasn't like, ‘We want to share Jesus because we love Jesus, and we think other people will find peace in Jesus,’ it was, ‘We share Jesus because that's what Jesus has commanded and everyone else is going to hell, and we have to save them.”
The institutional emphasis on fear was brought home for Amy in the person of her father.
“My father was an elder in the church, and so he really drove a lot of that agenda, along with a number of other elders. Unfortunately, it was very clear from the beginning that I was a free thinker, and that was a huge problem, because I asked questions.”
The answers dispensed in Amy’s church did not come in response to questions, but directly from the doctrinal and scriptural source that was, to the church’s way of thinking, divinely inspired, literally true, and not open to question.
“We had to take a confirmation class, where we read evangelical classics, and then the pastor would just brutally browbeat into us what our message was supposed to be, and how we were supposed to spread it. And I was constantly asking questions, like, what was the point of the Trinity, why does that make any sense?Just basic theological questions I think any person would be wise to ask. But that was never okay; the pastor got extremely defensive and start pushing back on me.”
The expectation of spreading the message wasn’t simply a matter of principle—it was homework so demanding as to both beggar belief and inspire flights of fiction.
“One of our assignments was, we had to evangelize 20 people a week, and we had to keep a journal of all of our ‘conquests.’ So I just made up every single one of them. I’d come up with these fantastical conversion stories, where my friend was kneeling in the middle of the cafeteria, with the light of heaven shining down, and the pastor must have read this and known that I was completely BS-ing, and that was a problem.
“So at that point,” she continues, “the attempts at saving my soul began. For the church, that looked like berating me and separating out from other people.”
I Would Fly Away and Be at Rest (Psalm 55:6)
As the state of Amy’s soul became increasingly suspect, so did the state of her mother’s. But the woman and the girl responded to this scrutiny in markedly different ways.
“I think she started to pull away,” Amy says, “and it was really sad. I could sense that she was struggling, and there was no room to struggle (at the church.) So my mom started kind of falling into a deep depression, and I just fell in anger. I just became angrier and angrier and angrier.”
As adolescence set in, the tension between the authoritarianism of her church and Amy’s questioning mind—and concomitant “mouthiness”--intensified. By the time she was in middle school, Amy was chronically angry—a trait she came to share with her father. The father’s and daughter’s anger, however, came from very different sources.
“My father’s anger was fueled by fear,” she says. “Fear for my soul, for my salvation. So his one goal in life was to manipulate me into being saved in any way possible. It didn't matter whether it was hellfire or whatever it was he’d be threatening me with, it was just so important. And I know he did it out of love, but it's certainly didn’t feel very loving.”
The fear-fueled scrutiny planted the seeds of an anxiety that would last well into Amy’s adulthood.
“(I developed) this sensation of constant fear in the back of my mind that the punisher God was going to smite me at any moment--and I developed anger that I had to live with that on a daily basis. And it reached into every corner of my life; I felt like I couldn't do anything about it without doing everything wrong.”
To be continued