I was a child that did not like change. I didn’t play well with others. I lashed out like a cat with more than one cousin who wouldn’t leave me alone while “I” was playing. I had severe separation anxiety and cried relentlessly for months every time Mom dropped me off at Kindergarten. I can remember lots of weird little quirks like this about my childhood – panic attacks sparked by the school librarian; painfully shy; struggled to learn to read, to do multiplication tables, and completely failed to grasp the concept of time; every single day from Kindergarten all the way through 6th grade, I took the same thing for lunch in my lunchbox – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a little bag of chips, one of those Little Debbie Snack Cakes, and a thermos of tea (did I mention, I hate change.) By second grade, I learned to love school, even looked forward to going.
Other than school and my family (large extended family), my mother’s religion influenced my life greatly (and in some ways, detrimentally). Going to church was definitely a big part of my life growing up – mostly Pentecostal churches. The earliest church I remember from my childhood burned to the ground sometime around the age of 4 to 6. I don’t really remember too much about it; but it was a small church comprised of mostly members of one family and their relations.
The next church was a Church of God. Again, this church was comprised of mostly the same family and relations from the previous church, related to my mom’s step-mother. In case you’re not familiar with Churches of God, this was one of those churches where all the women wore their hair in huge “beehive” hairdos and were not allowed to wear pants or makeup or jewelry, not even wedding rings; but my mom did put her foot down about that one. I remember dressing in these long “maxi-dresses” to go to church. These dresses literally came down to my ankles. The services could get a bit lively. This church, like so many others I attended later, believed in speaking in tongues, laying on hands in prayer, and sometimes took to running up and down the aisles, “dancing in the spirit.” Things like this were quite common. For a young child of 6, however, they could be quite terrifying.
We attended that church for several years. Every Saturday night, my dad dropped off my mom, my sister, and me at church while he went grocery shopping. I never got to ask my dad why he never went to church with us; but I’m fairly certain that his beliefs differed from my mother’s. He is buried in a Methodist cemetery. Occasionally, he would go with us to tent revivals or gospel singings; but it was a rare occasion that he would actually attend church services with us. But every Sunday morning, my parents regularly watched The Mull Singing Convention and televangelists during breakfast. I remember once going as a family to see the evangelist, Oral Roberts; but all I remember about this Christian gathering was that it was very crowded and held in a huge stadium, we got to go to Knoxville that day, and it was really boring.
At some point my mom began looking for another church. I’m not really sure why, though. There was a long break between that Church of God and the next church. During this break between churches, Mom sat my sister and me down in the living room for Bible study. Around age 11, we began attending an Assembly of God. It had a much smaller congregation that met in a storefront building next to a gas station, not far from where we lived. The services were much quieter and calmer, except on rare occasions. Assemblies of God are not as strict about hair and clothing as Churches of God; but they still have the same basic beliefs of speaking in tongues, laying on hands in prayer, and dancing in the spirit. My mom taught my Sunday school class for a while; but there were only a handful of kids my age. It was during this time that I went through the motions of accepting Christ as my personal savior; however, I still don’t think I really had a clue as to what that actually meant at the time. I just knew I didn’t want to go to this place they called Hell. I was baptized a while later in a river somewhere in East Tennessee. Was I supposed to feel any different??
The most memorable (and funny) experience I can remember from the years at this church was around the time that JR Ewing got shot on the television program, Dallas. A lady in the church actually asked the church to pray for JR Ewing because he had been shot the Friday before. Oh… and she was dead serious too! The pastor, a very kind and gentle man, blushed bright red and smiled as he repeated her request. He quickly moved on to the next person’s request as he glared at all of us kids who were struggling to subdue our giggles.
After only a couple of years attending this Assembly of God, the pastor decided to close its doors. I’m not really sure why. I wasn’t told. Everyone was very understanding, though. The pastor did, however, recommend another church which is where my religious upbringing gets a little more interesting. Also, the pastor showed me a great kindness as his church doors closed. He gave me the church’s old upright piano which I put to good use, teaching myself to play by ear and read music. We always had an organ in the house, which I taught myself to play; but I was excited to continue learning on a piano. This random act of kindness is one that I will never forget and forever be grateful for. Playing piano has been a great source of comfort for me throughout the years.
I think I was 13 years old when we began attending the next Assembly of God, the one the previous pastor recommended. This church also held its services in an old storefront building; but at that time the church had bought land to build a new church, which was finished a year or two later. When we started going there, I think the usual attendance was somewhere between 50 to 75 people. Everyone was so nice and friendly, but so Pentecostal. They were proud to be “holy rollers.” Now, they had some wild services. They did have the best music of all the churches I’ve ever attended! As I got older, I kind of pushed aside the craziness and scariness of the whole being filled with the Holy Spirit belief and began to get curious. For the first time, I began to listen more to the preacher and Sunday school teachers as I read along in my Bible.
This church provided lots of activities for the teens. We often attended Christian rock concerts to see entertainers like Carman or Phil Driscoll and the later discredited, Christian comedian, Mike Warnke. There were sleepovers and camping trips, roller skating, and “Hallelujah” parties that took the place of Halloween parties. I remember watching Fire By Night videos in Sunday school and a few debates that resulted in more questions than answers. They also had puppets that the teens practiced on Wednesday nights, putting together songs and silly skits to travel to area churches to proselytize to young children. I guess it was mostly for entertainment, but the overall goal was to “win kids to the Lord.”
The Summer of 1986
The first truly traumatic event that I remember from my life began the summer before my 14th birthday. I had to have a complete physical before I started my freshman year of high school. My right knee had been badly swollen for a couple of months; and of course, the doctor noticed it. He took x-rays, fluid off my knee, urine, and blood. He diagnosed me with Lupus (from the rash on my face that I thought was just acne, and protein in my urine) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (from the x-ray of my knee). He sent me to UT Medical Center for further testing. Throughout my freshman year of high school, I underwent several tests, including more blood-work, 24 hour urine tests, and even a skin biopsy.
After all of these tests were completed, I’m not really sure what the conclusion was because I don’t really remember anyone ever explaining anything to me or if they did, I just blocked it out. Afterwards, I just remember feeling incredibly terrified about it all and wanted all the tests to be over. Even though I remember the doctors telling my parents to schedule a follow-up for later, I was glad when they did not. I never knew why until a few years ago. To be honest, I thought they must have misdiagnosed me or something. I figured it was a stronger possibility that my family just didn’t have the money for the continued medical expenses.
Over the years (and at the present time), I continued experiencing problems that are indicative of Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis, i.e. severe joint pain, a recurring butterfly rash on my face that worsened with sun exposure, and serious problems with getting enough sleep. The exhaustion has been by far the worst symptom; but I’ve learned that when I need the extra sleep, if I take it (even if it’s 10-12 hours at a time), I feel better and my mood improves. Even the psychiatric issues that I’ve struggled with my whole life, depression and anxiety, can be neurological symptoms of either Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis; but I’ve only learned of this recently.
During the summer of 2006, I was sure I was having a flare-up because the butterfly rash returned over at least 80% of my face. The worst it has ever been. In addition I was constantly exhausted, and the joint pain spread from just my knees to every other joint in my body. I was also experiencing a new symptom, problems with my menstrual cycle, that may or may not have been related. It was at this time that I finally asked my mom why they never took me back to the doctor. She simply said, “God healed you of that horrible disease,” in a very matter of fact manner and changed the subject.
Since the physical symptoms were never horribly severe in the beginning, I just didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think about it; but sometimes, I had to wonder if what was going on with me physically and mentally had something to do with Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis. I mentioned it to my doctors every time I went in for physicals and during both of my pregnancies; but no doctor has ever taken these diagnoses seriously since I have no record of them (or like House says, “It’s never Lupus.”). After high school, I tried to get a copy of my medical records; but UT told me that they had been archived and would not provide them to me. The last time I saw a doctor was 4 or 5 years ago, when I found out that I was having problems with my thyroid. I now have a healthy fear, no – phobia, of doctors that prevents me from rationally seeking medical care or taking any prescription medication whatsoever, partly for this reason and partly due to my experiences with psychiatry.
Looking back at this period of my life in my teens and the reason for me telling this story is that it provides a context of my religious upbringing. I have come to realize that my fear of being diagnosed with an illness and having to contemplate my own mortality at such a young age caused me to become a real “holy roller” during my high school years. I remember the church laying hands on me to pray and how often people kept telling me that I was healed; but in reality, it felt like they were trying to plant a delusion in my head to fit their beliefs of God versus my own which were much more metaphorically based than literal, even back then. My symptoms in high school, while not as bad as now, still were there; but I was as determined then as I am now to not let these symptoms take over my life. It has taken me as many years to come to terms with this illness – whatever it is – as it did for me to understand why religion affects people in the ways that it does.
I think this is probably a good stopping point for today since this post is already so long. So many things influence us in our lives, but none so much as our childhood experiences. Even though I have a few blank spots in my childhood memories, my childhood was relatively normal. I grew up somewhat naive and sheltered (okay, very naive and sheltered), but for the most part, happy. I think a lot of the anxieties I felt as a child were due to my shyness which is probably where I’ll begin part 2. It’s going to take me several posts to get my story written out like this; but I think in the end, it will be worth it to me for a little clarity in my life.