“My sexuality was probably the biggest casualty,” she recalls. “This was right in the middle of that really intense purity movement, and you can imagine, with my church’s emphasis on fear and purity, the kind of message we received is that every time you touch yourself you're nailing a nail into Jesus's hands, or piercing his side. That was what I was told! So you can imagine, as a 16-year-old girl who has sexual feelings, every time I even had a sexual thought I would literally burst into tears and sob in my bed, crying to God to save me from having sexual thoughts, because every time I was murdering the Jesus I was supposed to love. It was just awful. And that was my life every day-- just living in fear and anger and regret and shame. And it just built and built and built and built.”
Because of Your Anger, There is No Health in My Body (Psalm 38:3)
The “purity movement” to which Amy refers dates back to the 1980s and 90s, when the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s fell apart in the face of the AIDS epidemic and the resurgence of conservative Christianity during the Reagan years.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28) Jesus’ insistence that outward observance of the Law was insufficient, and that a conversion of the heart is necessary, amounted, for the purity movement, to a declaration that “any sexual feelings,
desires, or thoughts that occur before marriage are sinful.”[i]
This radical demand for sexual purity exacted a high price from the young women toward whom its message was primarily directed, and who bore the brunt of the responsibility for observing its proscriptions. Besides policing their own sexual feelings, they were made to feel responsible for whatever lustful desires their bodies might stir up in teenaged boys. Because the girls’ feelings are perfectly appropriate developmentally, they cannot succeed in excising them, though the effort often leads to feelings of shame and fear, as well as emotional problems and difficulty with sexuality and intimacy.[ii]
Amy would begin to learn how widespread this sexual malaise was among her peers when she entered the wider world of university life. As that time drew near, her need to get away became more and more urgent.
“By my last year of high school,” Amy recalls, “I was desperate to escape. My parents were still together at that point, though my mom was so depressed, she was like a ghost passing through the house. So she wasn’t much help. I was looking at colleges, and my parents told me the only way they would pay for college was if I went to a Christian school. I didn't want to take all the debt upon myself, so I set out to find the most liberal Christian school I could find!” She laughs as she recalls the subterfuge. And as often happens, it was a seemingly chance encounter that made her path clear.
“I had one other Christian friend, and she was really conservative--though her father ended up being gay, and now she's a huge gay rights advocate. But at the time she was talking to colleges, and she said, ‘I heard that at Eastern University, apparently, there's a big gay underground, so there's no way I'm going there.’ And that clinched it; that was the moment I knew I was going to Eastern. I didn’t care what that school offered or anything; I just knew I might have some measure of safety there--that I could explore and ask questions. That was the first, kind of, “awakening” period for me.”
In college, though Amy began to interrogate her received faith with ever-increasing determination, she found it impossible to break out of the mold into which she’d been cast.
“I was able to start to grapple with some of the spiritual abuse that I had been through,” she explains, “but I continued to maintain, theologically and emotionally, a connection to the punisher God, and was just incapable of breaking free of that. It didn't matter how much I tried, how many progressive books on theology I read, how many professors I talked to, how much I prayed— I just couldn't break free; it had a vice grip around me.”
Her stint as a sounding board for her college peers ultimately led her to pursue a degree in counseling at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Chestnut Hill College emphasizes spirituality and women’s studies in a way that seems made on purpose to equip young women like Amy to practice “holistic therapy” aimed at the whole person: mind, body and soul. Many women, Amy has observed, have tried to excise parts of themselves that are causing them pain and holding them back from experiencing a full, normal life and spiritual growth.
“This is something I've become really aware of in other women: the extreme shaming of my body, as a woman, really forced me to shut off from that part of myself.
“There are just so many women who are so hurt in that place,” she continues, “and they are looking for answers, and (either) abandoning spirituality altogether, or just digging in further to what they know. And it's causing a lot of problems for a lot of women, and I know what that's like because I've been grappling with this kind of thing my whole life.”
Over time, Amy began to identify her own femininity as sinful, and to reject it both emotionally and, what was in some ways even more dangerous, physically.
“Between being constantly asked questions in front of the church and in youth group about how pure I was being,” she remembers, “and seeing my mother being trampled over because she was trying to live out the submission theology, I just wanted nothing to do with being female.”
The dual demands of sexual purity and feminine submission exerted such force as to make Amy feel as though she were being “spiritually raped.”
“I know that’s an aggressive term,” she says, “but it really felt that way. And I just didn't want any part of that. So I really shut that whole part of myself off, emotionally.”
The word “psychosomatic” comes from the Greek words for “soul” and “body.” And just as Amy’s soul shut down against the onslaught of shame and scrutiny, so her body, too, armored itself against its own femaleness.
“I think physically that shut off happened literally in my uterus, my ovaries--I just clamped down, so not to have any part of being female. And it ended up literally manifesting itself into an illness that has to do with my progesterone.”
The Body Keeps the Score
Autoimmune Progesterone Dermatitis, in which a woman’s body reacts adversely to her own progesterone, is very rare. In its more serious forms, it is called Autoimmune Progesterone Dermatitis and Anaphylaxis, which is extremely rare. Since 1921, there have been as few as fifty published cases of APD, of which as few as 9 attained the status of full-blown APDA.[iii]
APD often presents as some combination of eczema, skin lesions and hives, inflammation of the hair follicles, oral inflammation with ulcers or blisters, and skin edema.
Additional symptoms that may indicate anaphylaxis include fever, shortness of breath, vomiting, internal bleeding, and the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity or the chest cavity.
Both conditions are tested for by injecting progesterone under the skin. APD can often be treated topically, or with injected steroids or progesterone-suppressing hormones.[iv](It has not been shown to respond to conventional treatments such as antihistamines.)[v] APDA can only be resolved with a hysterectomy and ovary removal.[vi]
In Amy’s case, the disease did not manifest in its full severity all at once.
“It took a while to get there,” she recalls. “I had been getting sicker and sicker, and I was losing weight, and every time I would ovulate, seven days after I ovulated I’d be covered in hives the size of a fist all over my body. And then, as that progressed, I would start vomiting, and I’d be so nauseous that I couldn't sleep; I would lay in bed and waves of nausea would literally wake me out of a dead sleep, because it would it would be so severe I would just have to get out of bed and throw up.
“APDA is incredibly rare,” she explains, “and so it took a long time to figure it out. But eventually we connected the dots that it was cyclical and we did a simple test. They inject progesterone under your skin. And within five minutes, I had hives racing down my arms and my hands, and I was wheezing. And that’s a clear diagnosis."
Once they knew what they were dealing with, and that it carried the risk of a sudden, fatal flare-up, the doctors prescribed a syringe of emergency allergy-counteracting adrenaline called an Epi-pen.
“I had to carry around an Epi-pen all the time, because it can eventually stop your breathing because of the hives. It had fortunately never happened to me, but I had to carry it around just in case. Progesterone rises and falls, and it is pretty clear when it does, so I usually knew when I was in the danger zone. But yes, sometimes it would just randomly surge and I would get hives all over the place.”
It seemed Amy’s unconscious mind had come to the defense of her femininity, protecting it from the onslaught it endured at her church even at the expense of causing a dangerous illness—a sort of scorched earth gambit in which the territory under attack was damaged so as to keep it out of the enemy’s hands. And the unconscious knew exactly where to work its sabotage: on the hormone that controls much of her body’s expression of its femaleness.
“Progesterone is what makes breasts grow,” Amy says, her smile breaking through at the irony of it all. “It’s what gives you cycles, and it's what helps babies grow, and I literally became allergic to it. It’s so literal—I mean, Freud would laugh, you know? I shut myself off from my own pain and shame and suffering, and it came back as this physical manifestation, in my body."
During her time as a dormroom doyenne, Amy heard from many of her friends about the problems with sex and intimacy they had acquired as a result of purity-oriented teaching.
“What's really interesting is I had this discussion with, I think, almost every one of my Christian friends, or at least who grew up Christian, and not one of has had an easy transition into being able to just be sexual. To this day they all still struggle with that with their partners.
“It had effects on my marriage big-time, because I went into a marriage having all of these problems with my body and my sexuality, and then I was supposed to suddenly be sexual! Oh my God, how you even function like that? It was so damaging. And it’s stuff I am genuinely still sorting through my husband.”
The Sins of the Fathers
Amy’s husband may not be alone. The parents have eaten sour grapes, says the old Hebrew proverb, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. And apparently, Amy’s parents have passed along their sour harvest of shame, fear, and sexual dysfunction to their other daughter as well.
“My sister went through everything I went through,” Amy recalls, adding that they helped each other process their experiences of home and church. “And interestingly enough, my sister, who just turned 25, just started getting the hives. Same exact age I got them, and also cyclically.”
I Know There is Freedom
Amy has not allowed her experiences to shut her off from her thirst for knowledge, or her search for an authentic spirituality.
“I never give up,” she proclaims. “There’s always a pull. There's just no rest for me; that's just the way that I am, and I will always seek hard after it. I am a little bit of the spirit junkie; I will read any book, anything anybody gives me, on spirituality. One of my favorite genres is spiritual autobiographies; anytime I find them I will devour them.
“Spirituality is always at my heart, and I know that there's this place internally that's free of all of the shit that's been heaped on it. I know--I know--that there is freedom and I never, ever, for one second, stop searching for it.”
Eventually, her search took her, with two of her four adopted children, to—of all places—a church.
“Because I am a seeker and I will always seek, I attended a ‘healing weekend’ the Episcopal church that my husband had been attending was doing.
“I like anything healing; I'm always game for that sort of stuff. It never works,” she adds, laughing, “so I tend to come away more sarcastic than I came in. I'm always on the alert for charlatans. So I went to that weekend, and in usual fashion was just like, ‘Yeah, it’s all right."
“Actually, it’s like an anthropological study for me; I like to go because I like studying what happens. I'm fascinated to see all of the different ways that people find healing—interact with the concept of healing. I mean, I’m a therapist; that’s my job. So really, that’s a lot of it for me, was going to just watch other people, and see how they received healing, and see what that process looked like for them.”
In very short order, however, Amy’s trip to church became far more than a participant-observer academic exercise.
“That Sunday, the whole church had this healing service, and the priest had asked everyone to join hands and pray together for healing. And so this lady I had never met--I don't really attend the church at all--came across the aisle. She grabbed my hand and I just stood there watching everyone like I always do. And after the prayer she grabbed both of my hands, turned me to her and said, "I just have to tell you that Mary is here with you; she's holding you in her lap--she knows that you have been given a mother's heart recently, and she wants you to know that she is continuing to open your mother's heart."
“It was obviously very timely, because I had just adopted four children, and was struggling mightily. And I very uncharacteristically, especially in a church--because that is not a safe please for me at all--burst into tears. I was just very taken aback by it.”
Part of the shock was due to the fact that the woman was nothing at all like the women of Amy’s childhood church.
“She was so motherly,” she says wonderingly. “The women in the church I grew up with so cold. I think they were very shut down, now that I look back at it, and I had never received nurturing at the church. Never! I had no idea what that looked like—for a church to be nurturing.That’s not their job! Their job is to kick you in the ass and get you away from hell! And so this very motherly, nurturing woman, she embraces me, and she was rubbing my back and squeezing my hand as a mother would. It was very rattling for me.
“So after communion they asked each family to go find a prayer team; they had these prayer teams stationed, and you’d wait, and the next one that opened up, you’d go to.
“I don't normally do communion, because that’s reserved for Christians, and I don’t consider myself one. But my girls do. I only had two of my girls, my younger two at that time, because the other two had stayed home with my husband. So I went up, and the girls took communion, and we waited, and sure enough, in the prayer station that opens up is this lady who had held my hand. So she motions us over, and we go over.”
Amy has asked me not to tell too much of her girls’ story, because that story is theirs to tell, not ours. So we agreed to say only that the girls’ mother, having lived with them on the streets for two years under frightening conditions, finally gave them up into the foster system, and disappeared without a trace. The girls haven’t seen or heard from her since.
“Now, the girls, especially the older one that I brought over, had never, ever, ever talked about the loss of her mom, or what she had been through; she's really shut down about it. And when the woman asked what we could pray for, she looked up and said, ‘I just want to pray for my mommy--that she's okay.’ And of course I’m already starting to bawl my eyes out, because my baby is talking about, or even just mentioning, her mom, which is a big deal.” Amy is visibly and audibly emotional as she tells the story.
“So this woman immediately motions for a couple other older women to come over, and they scoop both of my children up, and are just rocking them; they’re not even praying, they’re just like, ‘It's okay; Jesus has your mommy, it'll be all right.’ I get choked up just thinking about it. And my girls are sobbing their eyes out, and I could see a moment of healing, especially for my oldest, in that moment, because she hadn’t even acknowledged her mom, and the loss of her mom. And I know she has to struggle with it; I mean, what a horrible thing, she's been through hell and back, these kids. And these women are just, like, saviors; they’re coming in and nurturing and loving on these girls. They're not telling them what they need to do—they didn’t even pray! They were just wiping her tears away like, ‘we understand, it's okay, you can be sad, you're being held.’ It was just so healing for them, and it was very healing for me in that moment, too.”
When Amy said a second time that the women didn’t pray, I asked her what she meant by “prayer.” She answered, “I guess I mean ‘pray’ in a traditional sense, like saying ‘Jesus please heal these girls’ or anything. Instead, they just kept telling the girls that they were safe, that God is holding their mother, and they are loved.”
“I felt like in that moment this fissure happened in that brick wall inside me. It was very eye-opening, and I didn't know what to do with it. I was very disturbed by it, because I had kind of banked my whole life on knowing exactly what church people are, because I hadn’t met any different ones. So that was really amazing."
To be continued...
Full disclosure: Amy was one of my students at Eastern University.
This is the title of a book by Bessel van der Kolk.
[i]Barbee, Amanda. “Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture.” The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture. March 3, 2014. Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.
[iii]Snyder, Joy L., MD and Krishnaswamy, Guha, MD. “Autoimmune progesterone dermatitis and its manifestation as anaphylaxis: a case study and literature review.” Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Vol. 90, May 2003.
[v]“Autoimmune Progesterone Anaphylaxis.” Bemanian, Mohammad Hassan, et al. Iranian Journal of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. June 2007; 6(2): 97-99