Interview with E.
In this interview, I talked with E. about growing up in a conservative Christian home, how God's love for her helped her to develop more positive coping mechanisms and also about her advice on how to talk with Christian youth who are currently self-injuring.
Amy: How would you describe your religious/spiritual upbringing (including the beliefs and practices of your family)?
E: Conservative evangelical. When I was small, my family was at church twice on Sundays and again midweek for kids programming and adult prayer meeting. It was pretty insulated - I didn't have many friends who were outside my church bubble. At home, grace before meals and bedtime prayers always happened. Most nights after dinner, my dad would read a passage of the bible or a brief devotional and we would all pray. We took turns praying for family, friends, and missionaries we supported. The home and the church had clear gender distinctions. I experienced it as a very loving community. There was definitely an emphasis on good/moral behaviour and believing the right things.
A: Thank you. In what ways have various people shaped your religious/spiritual identity whether positively or negatively?
E: With my childhood, I can see now some things that were not helpful in shaping my spiritual perspective but at the time I didn't see it that way. My earliest memory of a challenge to my spirituality/worldview was in grade 6 when I started experiencing bullying. I went to a private Christian school and couldn't wrap my head around the disconnect between what we (I assumed we were all on the same page) believed and how some of my classmates acted towards me and others. That really shook me.
When I was in high school, my church had a major conflict that turned ugly, and I was really shaken to see people who had taught me Sunday School and been examples of "faith" to me getting into yelling matches and accosting people on the 'other side' in the grocery store. That really unsettled me. Within my family, I was definitely influenced in a positive way by my grandparents. One of my grandparents prayed for each person in our family every morning. Another was highly involved in their denominational region. Both my parents read their Bibles every day, and I followed suit not because I -needed- to but I genuinely wanted to.
The other thing that really shaped my spiritual identity was going from a private Christian school to public high school. I had never been in such a "secular" environment before and felt very nervous about being a good witness and not losing my faith.
A: You shared about your spiritual upbringing. How would you describe your personal religion/spirituality currently?
E: Hm. I'm a Christian, and my faith is still a central part of my life. Many of the values I was taught as a child are still there, but what they look like has changed drastically, and I no longer prioritize sin-avoidance and overt evangelism as the most important identifiers of a Christian.
Some days my faith feels very fragile. I've experienced & seen too much suffering to be untroubled by questions that have no easy answers. And I have come to realize that the church isn't always a hub of safe, vulnerable relationships.
I'm really thankful for the chance I've had as an adult to learn church history, which might sound weird! But it's helped me realize how big christianity is, and to find spaces and practices that support my spiritual needs.
A: How would you have described God when you were an adolescent? How would you describe God now?
E: As a teenager I was very aware of God as father. Loving but stern. Cheering me on but easily disappointed in me. Difficult to know. Vital to respect.
Now - I see God as a co-collaborator. One who has my best interests at heart, but always allows me to make my own choices. Empathetic and freedom-giving. Exploring life together as it unfolds, rather than having a singular path I need to find.
A: How do you personally experience God? How do you experience God on a day to day basis?
E: Most often in the world around me - playing with my dogs, my partner's snuggles, laughing with a child, watching a sunset. The delight of these things reminds me that every good and perfect gift comes from God, who loves to give us good things. And in moments of vulnerability and sorrow too. Honest conversations. Tears that are shared. For me there is a sacred gift here - the ability to be present to one another is part of where God's Spirit dwells.
In terms of spiritual practices, I pray and meditate. I'm in search of a church community, and as I visit local options, I've realized I crave communion/eucharist every week. It has become something essential to me, a way I receive God's love as an act of faith, a gift I sometimes don't actually want. I also read a lot of poetry. I experience God often through the arts. The capacity to create beauty astounds me.
A: Thank you for sharing. Now that we have talked about your spirituality we are going to talk about self-injury and its impact on your life when you were young. Please describe the patterns of self-injury that you have seen in your life. When did it begin and what method(s) did you use?
E: I think I was in grade 10, and I used semi-sharp objects to create surface scratches.
A: What do you think was your primary purpose for using self-injurious behaviours?
E: I had incredibly high standards for myself and was really angry with myself for not living up to them. Self-injury helped me release that anger and sadness.
A: How do you think that your religion/spirituality affected your self-injurious behaviours and vice-versa?
E: I think it was a contributing factor because it set me up with an unrealistic idea of how to be a teenager while also being a Christian - I thought I needed to be morally perfect, friendly but unhurt by those who were unfriendly to me, always ready to tell people about Jesus, etc. And I didn't have anyone close to me who understood and was empathetic to the struggles of crushes, body image, bullying - the real difficulties of navigating adolescence.
On the other hand, I stopped self-harming (for the most part) because of my faith. I remember lying in bed one night after harming myself and feeling so sad & guilty. I prayed and asked God why I couldn't be better- I was full of self-loathing. And Psalm 139 came to my mind. I remember thinking that God says I'm wonderfully made, and God loves me. But I don't love myself... I went back and forth on this and eventually decided that if God truly loved me, it was wrong to actively harm myself - and that even if I didn't love myself that much, I wanted to believe someone did, and that I was deserving of love.
A: Were you able to talk to anyone within your faith community about your self-injury?
A: If a Christian young person were to come to you and tell you they were self-injuring right now, what would you say to them? Are there any scriptures or images that you could share?
E: I'm not sure exactly what I would say but I would want to communicate non-judgment. That I imagine things feel very heavy and dark for them, and that it can be a scary place to be in. I think specific scriptures would depend on their story and what is going on in their lives, but I would definitely focus on the fact that God loves them as they are, where they are. That there is no shame or condemnation from God. Just love and a desire for deep healing - which doesn't just mean an end to injurious behaviour, but healing to the pains underneath the skin.
If I were talking to a Christian who is self-harming, I would 100% support and encourage them to start a therapeutic relationship that will help them as well. I stopped self-harming on my own, but I didn't start unpacking the underlying problems until I was in therapy as an adult. And those wounds came out in my life in other ways that were destructive. So, it's so important not to merely focus on the injurious behaviour, or to think that prayer and Scripture is all we need to get "better".
A: Thank you. Is there anything else that you would like to share regarding any of the areas we have discussed (e.g. self-injury or religion/spirituality?)
E: I think that's it...
A: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it!
E: You're very welcome. 😊