Note: When I first started writing here at Pagan Pages, I decided to write about how I came to paganism. But as I sat down and began writing, I realized just how messy a story it really was. It felt too deeply personal for my first column here, so instead, I published a different, somewhat lighter article on the topic. I have received some comments on my posts since then and feel blessed to know that my articles are touching readers. Writing, for me, is about being raw, about being real, and I believe that I am at my best as a writer when I am those things. This is the original article that I wrote but did not publish. I could have sanitized it and taken out all the unacceptable parts and the parts that make me look a little strange. But all the strands of the story are tied up inextricably together, and those messier parts are those that have brought me here and made me who I am today.
From Pathological Guilt to Paganism
You could call it OCD, or just obsessing, but whatever you call it, I was a twenty-two year old college student who was intensely fascinated with a type of particularly strict Christian doctrine. I liked rules; things you needed to do. I liked to read about women who wore skirts and covered their heads. About Christians who followed the Torah, because that was what Jesus had meant all along. And maybe he did, I don’t know. But I read about it all the time. I read their reasons, mostly. Why you needed to do those things, why they were the right things to do. I didn’t exactly believe the things at first, or want to do them, but I developed a way of sort of brainwashing myself. It wasn’t even subconscious, really. I knew that if I read about the things enough and thought about them enough, they could become mine eventually. And I wanted them to be mine because their rigid certainty and boundaries gave me a sort of confined satisfaction.
My painful relationship with religion started early. By the time I was about twelve years old, I’d become aware of the “unforgivable sin.” And so the things I wanted in my head least were the things I couldn’t keep out of it.
I hate God.
Over and over, just under the surface, trying to escape into a fully-formed, legible “I. hate. God.” I fought it. I fought it so hard, and I cried in my bed at night, terrified of going to hell because of my inability to keep a single phrase at bay. In the midst of all this, I discovered that my seventh grade health book contained a table of mental illnesses and symptoms. Under obsessive-compulsive disorder were the words “repeated, unwelcome thoughts.” My eyes widened in recognition. That moment stuck with me, and I believed that I wasn’t supposed to feel the way I did. One night, after crying in bed fighting the thoughts, I wished I could tell someone my dirty secret. And this one night, I finally did. But I can hardly blame myself, in my moment of distress, for poorly describing what I was going through, and it wouldn’t really be fair to blame the person I told for thinking I was experiencing normal doubt, and telling me it was okay. I knew she hadn’t understood what I meant. I wasn’t talking about questioning sometimes whether or not God was real. I was talking about not being safe in my own head. But I cried silently in her arms and went back to bed.
A couple years into college, guys began to pay attention to me. Which might have been okay, except that I had decided my sophomore year that I believed God was calling me to life-long celibacy. I believed this because it felt “right,” and being with guys didn’t. Because it felt “right,” the same reason I’d look through a long line of identical products on the supermarket shelf and take my time in picking the one perfect one out, or envision the numbers 1,2,3,4,5 in my head in that same pattern over and over again. The modern church’s obsession with finding God’s perfect will for your life reinforced my idea that these feeling of rightness mattered, and anything associated with uncertainty made me sick to my stomach with guilt and anxiety. Adults in my life told me these feelings were guilt, and hearing this took its toll. If celibacy had really felt right, maybe none of this would have mattered. But my hormones were raging, and I wanted to go out with those guys. And so I did, sometimes, and then felt sick and guilty after.
I was in the Christian bookstore one day and saw a book with the title Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will. I passed that book by many times because I assumed it must be sacriligous and wrong, and that I was just trying to find a way out of what God wanted from me. But finally, one day, because I wanted it to be right, I picked it up, began to read it, and bought it. Apart from leaving Christianity, buying that book is the most spiritually freeing thing I have ever done. It argued that, from a Christian theological perspective, we were never expected to find some specific will of God for our lives. That this was a biblical misinterpretation of the modern church, and that God would be perfectly happy with whatever we chose as long as we were the kind of people the Bible told us to be. I accepted this argument, and though I still felt intense guilt for the choices I had been making and the somewhat serious relationship I was now in, I held onto it like a life raft, and it gave me a little spark of hope that kept me from drowning entirely.
I began to see God in a different way. I acknowledged that the gut-wrenching, guilty, anxious feelings I experienced had nothing to do with God. And I started to pray and talked to God like he knew that the feelings weren’t my fault. I think that, all by itself, was something.
As anyone who struggles with emotional problems can tell you, anxiety, depression, and the like don’t just go away overnight. And so my anxiety, attempting to be a normal emotional problem, stuck around. I’d overcome the guilt enough to be able to stay in a relationship with the man I loved for two years straight, and the longer I stayed, the easier staying got. But my anxiety got worse, interspersed with periods of depression. We’d finally gotten engaged, and we were getting married soon. My depression had built up so much that everything felt lifeless, even the things I wanted to feel happy about. He did his best to deal with my ups and downs, but sometimes, he just didn’t know how. And so, when I told him I’d been imagining killing myself, he looked as lifeless as I felt, and said he didn’t know what to do anymore. “I could go to the hospital,” I said quietly. I’d read a memoir by a lady who’d been diagnosed with just about every diagnosable mental illness, and she’d gone to the hospital and gotten help there. I wanted there to be someone who could rescue me, and maybe, I thought, that was the answer. After realizing I was serious, he helped me pack up my things, we talked, and he drove me to the hospital. I held his hand tightly as we walked through the ER doors, and I replayed the words “They’re going to help me, they’re going to help me” over and over in my head to keep me from trying to turn around.
I’ve since come to realize that the hospital is no miracle, and that there may be no one but myself who can truly get me to where I need to be. I don’t want to give the impression that my problems went away, because they didn’t. But that week that I spent talking to therapists and psychiatrists was one of my best. I met a young man who I had nothing in common with, really, but we became friends after he came and talked to me as I sat crying, holding the teddy bear my fiance had just brought to that day’s short visitation. And the nurses were amazing, and I got up every day and ate breakfast with all these people, and this crazy, completely-out-of-the-ordinary experience, along with the absence of all my ordinary anxiety triggers, snapped me out of where I had been. It happened slowly over the week, but I got out of the hospital one sunny day feeling giddy and free. I wore pants instead of skirts for the first time in months. I stopped worrying about Biblical dietary guidelines and ate bacon. And then I to the bookstore.
The bookstore was the place where my boyfriend and I spent a large portion of our time because we loved books and, living in a small town, it was the only place where it was acceptable to just sit for a long time. I started by looking at liberal Christian books by authors like Brian McClaren; the kind of people I had thought were seriously sacriligous before. After a while, I began to look further afield. One day, looking around to make sure no one was looking, I walked awkwardly toward the forbidden metaphysical bookshelf, just a couple aisles away from the Christian aisle I had frequented so often. I’m not sure what I thought I’d find, but my discouraged, searching spirit took out the books I would have thought represented the worst kinds of sins just weeks before and began to look through them. Over time, I bought a couple of books about Wicca. It filled the newly exposed hole in my heart, in a way, because it showed me that I didn’t have to be left alone, abandoned, just because the Abrahamic God had let me down. Maybe there was a God and a Goddess, or any other number of gods and goddesses. Just maybe I could be spiritual in a way I’d never considered before, that I could have never considered until I began to take those inching steps away from my faith of origin.
Then came more outrageous thoughts. Maybe Jesus wasn’t the son of God. Maybe he was just an apocalyptic rabbi, and maybe I wouldn’t go to hell if I thought about this. I started looking at other religions because part of me missed the certainty of the doctrines I had left behind. But as I explored religions that believe they have the only answers, I finally realized that I didn’t believe any group of people had one perfect, divinely revealed truth. And the more perspectives I tried looking at the world through, the more impossible it became for me to ever go back to seeing things in the simple, unquestioning way I had been taught to see them. I couldn’t accept that, of all the people proclaiming a truth, we had just happened to be the ones who were right. And after various wanderings, I’d come back to paganism again. I’d always felt closest to God, even the Christian god, in nature, and so it fit.
Finally, and slowly, I began to feel pagan. For a while, I described myself as pagan”ish”. But one day, I had finally said paganish in my head so many times that pagan felt true, and I called myself a pagan from then on.
I think most new pagans think that you have to believe this or do that to be a pagan and it was the same with me. But eventually I realized that none of those guidelines were universally true. And this is why, really, paganism is great for me. Because I can grow, and I can change. I can think anything, believe anything, question anything. My paganness isn’t dependent on strict adherence to any doctrine. It has allowed me to be spiritual, without boxing me in. It has given me wings, and left them unclipped. Here, I have room to move.
I still like to talk about spiritual and religious things, just like I did as a Christian. I love to sit at the park and discuss the greater things in life, drive down the road and discuss them, discuss them wherever. But I no longer have to obsess about minutiae and rules. And if I forget to think about or discuss them for a while, that’s okay, too. Life is never perfect and I am not 100% anxiety free. But as I learn more about myself, things get better. Things that I didn’t used to know or believe were under my control. Life is crazy, but as I face this crazy life, I’m happy to say I’m a pagan.