Debriding Old Wounds

The wound is the place where the Light enters you ― Rumi

I’m a huge fan of Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve watched all the drama, the passion, and the horribly inaccurate and crazy medical insanity for which the show is known. In recent years, the current season in particular, the show has tackled some difficult topics including systemic racism, sexism and gender inequality, and most recently rape and trauma. After watching the latest episode (for which I will give no spoilers), I felt raw and broken open witnessing the powerful ways in which women can show up for their own in times of pain, tragedy, and crisis. But the rawness I felt was connected to something else, something deeper, something personal.

Six months ago, I landed in South Korea and began this crazy adventure of teaching English to Korean elementary school students. I knew before signing my contract that I wanted my time living abroad to be not only challenging but also transformative, particularly in regard to my spiritual well-being. In the spirit of this desire, I heeded some sage advice and sought out a spiritual director I could work with. Based in California, N. (as I will call her) has experience working with creative types, with members of the LGBTQ+ community, and with trauma survivors. Initially, I thought I would just be working with her to reinvigorate my faith and my spiritual journey. What I didn’t realize was just how much trauma, particularly religious trauma, I experienced growing up and how the pain of that trauma is still very much with me today.

One of these traumas, perhaps the most devastating one, is a message I started hearing very early in life, the message that my sexuality as a gay man implicitly makes me a danger to children. It was this very message that forced me to leave the church for the first time when I was 19. In a small room at my Baptist church in Terre Haute, Indiana, my mom and I sat with my youth pastor, the chairman of the deacons, his wife (my mom’s closest friend in that church), and one of the church matriarchs. These four adults (in the presence of my mother) spent the next hour verbally shaming me for having written about my sexuality struggles in an online journal, belittling me for causing such emotional distress for my mother, and insisting that if I was praying to become heterosexual and it wasn’t working, the problem was my lack of faith. Until I changed (or more accurately until they saw proof I’d changed) and repented, I was prohibited from serving in the various ministry capacities I’d served in before. Most of all, I was not welcome to help teach or care for any children younger than me, and it was probably best for me to not be alone with any of my male peers.

As my sufferings mounted
I soon realized that there were two ways
in which I could respond to my situation
― either to react with bitterness
or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force.
I decided to follow the latter course
― Martin Luther King Jr

As someone who’d felt a call to serve God very young in life, this meeting broke me. Despite years of dealing with depression, anxiety, latent suicidality, and feelings of perpetual worthlessness, it wasn’t until my first session with N. that I realized I suffer from religious PTSD. It  never crossed my mind to call what those adults did to me “abuse.” But it was. If I met another queer teen with a similar story, I would call their experience abuse and trauma without a second thought. Yet calling my own experience trauma has been difficult. Until now. 

Before I started working with N., I knew I had old wounds that needed tending to, that needed to heal. And I knew they had to do with my relationship with children. I’ve shared this with my close friends, and as I explored the possibility of coming to South Korea to teach, these friends reassured me that, despite what the conservative Evangelical adults of my adolescence may have thought, I do not pose any threat to any child, anywhere. I’ve always loved kids. I’ve always felt a strong desire to be a positive role model to the children I encounter, to be a source of love and caring.

Still, for many years, I would feel anxious and frightened around children, not because of any inappropriate desires or attractions. Rather, I was horrified at the possible perception of wrongdoing. I was constantly worried not that I would do something wrong, but that at any moment, my perfectly acceptable behavior would be deemed unacceptable by some heterosexual onlooker. Early after I arrived in South Korea, I recognized this anxiety and fear. Hence my reason for seeking out a spiritual director. If I ever wanted to experience healing and wholeness, I could not let these wounds go unchecked.

On my massive road trip last summer, I got to spend a lot of time with my closest friends and their children. One of these kids, an adopted nephew/godson of sorts, calls me Uncle Michael. His younger brother, barely walking at the time of my visit, would curl up on my lap and fall asleep against my chest. I’ve talked a lot with the mother of these two amazing boys about this religious trauma. She has repeatedly reassured me that, if she felt any doubts whatsoever about my character, I would not have been welcome to spend time with her family, much less to have been alone with her sons. As someone who’s known me for 20 years, her opinion carries a lot of stock.

In a futile attempt to erase our past,
we deprive the community of our healing gift.
If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame,
our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others
― Brennan Manning

I’ve hesitated to write this post for some time now. Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that telling people about this trauma and about the messages would lead to suspicion, that by voicing it, I would give people the idea, “Well should he be trusted?” Yes. Yes I should. I am not the first gay man whose sincere love for children has been crushed under the weight of homophobia, heteronormativity, and outright abuse disguised as “concerned, well-meaning Christians.” When straight men talk about wanting kids, they are praised. Yet when gay men share the same desire, our motives are often called to question, our characters scrutinized and doubted, especially by religious conservatives. No more.

At the end of season 11 of Grey’s Anatomy, there are two women in the burn unit of Grey Sloan. One of them has been there for a while and is making progress in her healing. The other has just suffered severe full-body burns. Jackson explains what needs to be done in order for her to heal: her wounds need to be debrided, a painful process where dead flesh is removed to make room for new, healthy flesh to grow. N. asked me how I was at the end of our session today. I said I felt like an emotional burn victim. Some old, necrotic flesh had been removed, and the healthy tissue was at the surface, raw, tingling with sensation. We laughed at the appropriateness of the analogy and ended by discussing possible “ointments” to make sure this new “flesh” stayed healthy and avoided infection. There is still dead flesh and old wounds to be healed and tended to. But now I have hope. Hope for my own healing, and hope for those whose trauma and whose wounds look like mine.

photo credit: the barrow boy (via Flickr)