I was raised by Catholic parents in Bristol, but in my childhood there was a lot of negativity towards religion. My parents struggled to have children, so they adopted a baby, but he died before he was baptised. The Catholic church they were part of wouldn’t do his funeral on that basis, so there was much grief and pain directed towards the church. God became an angry person who was judging everything I did.
I went into care when I became a teenager and for the next ten years I went off the rails. I would say I was an angry atheist. I thought religion was ridiculous. The people that I did meet who were Christians always seemed to be looking down on me, as if I wasn’t good enough for their God. Then during my early 20s I was in an abusive relationship; my boyfriend raped me. Someone at a crisis centre reached out to me and tried to talk to me about God, but I was so angry because: why would God allow that to happen to me? At that point in my life I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, and with that came obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and intrusive thoughts about cleanliness and self-harm. I’ve had years of therapy and medication, which helped control things, but never dealt with the underlying problems.
In 1995 I met the man who would become my husband and I started to clean my life up – he was a very positive influence, but I was still left with all of the effects of the PTSD and OCD. I had really bad social anxiety, which I came to terms with, in part, in order to raise my two boys who have autism. But as they grew older and needed me less, I found my anxiety worsening, until about eight years ago I developed agoraphobia. For three years I didn’t leave the house.
I gradually started to have therapy again and, soon after that, met my friend Karen, who goes to Redeemer King Church in Chesterfield. Karen grew up as a Christian and has this absolute certainty about faith, but not in a smug or judgemental way that I’d seen before. I would say to her: “I don’t know how I’ve come through some of the things I’ve come through” and she would say: “Because Jesus was with you, and he’s gonna pull you through.” We talked about things like that for years and she invited me to church many times, but I always said no. It got to the point where I had run out of every reasonable – and unreasonable – excuse, and so in January this year I agreed, reluctantly.
I was so anxious walking into church, but as soon as the worship music started I just couldn’t stop crying. It was really scary because it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. People quietly offered me a tissue and said: “Tears are good, you know, this is a connection.” It really unnerved me but something made me want to go back. The same thing happened for four services in a row. I hadn’t cried since I’d been assaulted. Everything had been about control since then, so this was really weird for me. But because of the OCD, and the intrusive thoughts, I was really struggling to process what was happening. At the end of January, I said: “No, I can’t do it any more”, and stopped going to church. But this change had started in me and it was really powerful.
Peace in a pandemic
Over the weeks that followed, I found I had more headspace and peace than I’d had in a very long time. When coronavirus started being talked about I had a strong feeling that I wasn’t going to be alone to face it. People at church were reaching out to me. One lady, Andrea, was sending me worship music and it was very soothing.
A pandemic should be my worst nightmare because we’re being advised to stay at home, which I’ve been working for ten years not to do. We have to wash our hands constantly, which is a problem for someone with health anxiety. But in the middle of this situation I’m finding I’m not having panic attacks anymore. Everyone else is struggling with anxiety, but I’m finding I have this peace and this space in my head that wasn’t there before – I put it down to this new relationship with God.
I’ve been reading the Bible and going to online church during lockdown and I’ve started to realise that I don’t need to be in control all the time. That’s how I kept myself feeling safe in the past, but I realise it was an illusion. I’m in my third week of online Alpha and, until very recently, I was reluctant to say I believed in God; it just felt too sudden. Then I was out for a walk when I saw a friend that I haven’t seen for ages. He shouted across the road: “You look like you’re doing really well for lockdown!” (He was expecting me to be in a really bad state.) I found that I had no anxiety saying: “I’ve actually been reading the Bible and there is so much hope in this book.” And he said: “Oh, you’ve become a philosopher.” I took a deep breath and said: “No, I think I’ve become a Christian.” I felt this wave of emotion.
Becoming a Christian has just been about accepting God into my life. There are no hoops to jump through and it’s no more complicated than that. Online church has helped a lot because, rather than having to enter an intimidating building, I’m in a safe place in my own home. If the tears or the emotion get too much I can log off and return to it later. My small group has supported me every step of the way. It’s not intimidating, it’s not overwhelming; there’s a relaxed discussion and a very real human connection. Sundays feel almost like I’m having a coffee with the pastor in his living room. We’re hearing that everywhere anxiety is growing. I should be checking the number of deaths and panicking every day in lockdown, but instead I can say: “It doesn’t have to be this way, and actually you can thrive right now. Now is the time to heal and you can be healed.”
Red Pender was talking to Megan Cornwell