Allyson was born into a family of seminarians; her grandfather, father, and mother are all seminary trained pastors in the Holiness denomination. Church, however, was never a place of worship for her — it was “go to work with your parents” every week. Filled with rebellion and theological questions, Allyson finally found her way to seminary — but entered with anger and resentment towards God for sending her. It was her time in seminary where she used her pain and passion about sexuality to develop a loving relationship with God.
[*warning: this blog post discusses topics that may serve as triggers for some people. Please read with caution*]
I sat on the floor in front of my box of childhood letters, paralyzed. I gripped the letter in my hand. I could not cry. I could not scream. I could not do anything but stare at the words that would change my life. The letter was dated 1997. I had written a letter to my best friend that I was too afraid to give to her. I hid the letter at the bottom of my box of childhood letters, never to be opened. But for some reason on September 15, 2008, I sat on opened it for the first time in 11 years. There in my 13-year-old handwriting, were details of my rape at the age of 5-years-old.
At the time, I was 25-years-old and in my last year of seminary studying sexuality. For 11 years, I had managed to suppress the memory of being raped by a 9-year-old friend of the family. I remembered being molested by him, but I had repressed everything after the touching. I would experience brief flashbacks while staring out of any window, but I was never sure what it was. These flashbacks would be memories of me staring out a window of the room I was in during my rape. I was a child who was coerced into playing a game. When that game became painful, I imagined myself outside instead of lying on the floor between a bed and a wall asking Jesus to forgive me for having sex.
September 15, 2008 was the day I was no longer able to repress my rape. I could not sleep in my bed that night. Every time I thought about sleeping in a bed, panic would set in. I would sleep on the floor or on the couch for two weeks before I was able to sleep in my bed again. I shared the news with my closest friends. I was working two jobs at the time. I was unable to attend work for a week at one job and was forced to explain to my supervisor why. I never returned to my seminary work-study job. I forced myself to go to class and refused to share what happened with my professors.
I had started going to counseling in the spring of 2008. It was suggested by a professor I go after my cousin, who molested me when I was 14-years-old, was released from jail. One Sunday, he followed me around the church parking lot with liquor on his breath. At 24-years-old, I hid between cars so he couldn’t find me. The combination of this trauma and a health scare had already impacted my grades. After I disclosed the new memories of the rape, my counselor suggested I take time off to deal with all of the traumas. I told her I could continue with school. Like so many, I felt like I could push through the trauma and live life normally. I did not understand the importance of self-care. As a result, I stopped seeing my counselor.
I found myself crying in the middle of class or mentally checking it out. Every morning it became harder and harder to force myself to study about a God who allowed me to be raped and molested. I stopped going to class in October. I would lie in bed and watch movies all day. Movies and TV were my escape as child and helped me to repress the pain. I numbed myself with “substances”. I made myself have sex to feel good, instead of dirty. I did not want my roommates to notice that I was not going to school. While I told them I was in class, I was actually sitting in the library from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon just staring out the window or on the Internet.
In November, after quitting my work-study job without notice and missing six weeks of class, I knew then that I needed help. I forced myself back in counseling. My counselor’s words would change my life. “Allyson, you are battling depression and are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. You have been clinically depressed all of your life. You have turned down the option before, but now you have no choice. You need to be on antidepressants so you can get your life back. You will not be able to just snap out of depression or simply pray it away. The medicine must fix the chemical imbalance in your brain that depression has caused.”
I did not want to be on antidepressants; I thought pills were only for crazy people. My historical context of being African-American made me afraid to trust mental health medicine. I had been to counseling twice before and both times turned down the medicine that my doctors said I needed. But at that moment, I was tired of being depressed and would have tried anything. I was losing my life and needed it to fix it. I agreed to be on the antidepressants. My counselor then encouraged me to go back to class and explain to my professors my situation.
In December, one week before finals, I went to my professors and told them I had a traumatic experience. They worked with me the best they could, but after missing so many classes, I was very behind. I was unable to complete my final papers and exams. I would sit down to write and just stare at my assignments. Once, I sat up all night long and stared at my computer, not doing anything. I was unable to form theological arguments, when I was so angry at God. That Fall semester of 2008, in what was supposed to be my final year of seminary, I finished the semester with one C, one D and two Fs. I would not be graduating in the spring with my classmates.
The following Spring semester I returned not only battling depression over my rape, but also feeling like an academic failure for not being able to graduate with my peers. My first two weeks of school went well, then I stopped going to class again. I was unable to focus on studying theology when I was still so angry with God for letting me be raped and molested. After sharing with my counselor my anger, hurt, and shame with the Lord, she told me that I would have to medical leave of absence that year. This was third semester that my counselor suggested I take time off. This time she did not give me a choice.
I disappeared from all my seminary friends that entire semester. I could not bring myself to celebrate their accomplishments when I was still mourning the loss of my own. On graduation day, I got dressed and ended up staying home in tears all day. It was supposed to my graduation day too. I felt like I disappointed them when I did not make their graduation. But my seminary family loved me throughout everything. They showed me true unconditional love and supported me through what turned into a 5-year journey to get my Master of Divinity degree.
September 15, 2008 changed my seminary path for better and for worse. I learned the importance of self-care. The biggest lesson I learned is there is no shame in taking care of your mental health, going to counseling, or being on medicine for mental health. It was not until after I was done with taking the medicine did I even realize that I spent my entire life depressed. Even though at the time it felt like it was destroying my life, seminary saved my life. I may have massive student loans from a 5-year seminary experience, but the health insurance that allowed me to go to counseling and give me antidepressants was priceless.
Life happens. It seems to happen harder while we are in seminary. September 15, 2008 taught me that we should not force ourselves to push through trauma just to finish a degree “on time.” Take care of self first in trauma or our academics will suffer. My greatest advice to people still on the journey through seminary is to take advantage of the counseling resources. Prayer heals, and God can heal through medicine and counseling. Talking about what the hell happened to me in seminary is still painful. However, the comfort in breaking the silence reminds us that we are not alone in what we survive to receive a theology degree.
If you are in need of counseling of any kind, please visit www.cccgeorgia.org.