The Emperor’s Daughter

narcissism

He talked about himself all the time.  He told us how many people loved him, admired him, and how he changed their lives.  He dominated the dinner conversation quoting famous theologians and psychologists as if it was the Word of God.  When I was trapped in a room with him, he inundated me with stories of how important he was, how much smarter he was than anyone else, and how he wowed people with his preaching.  More people were coming to hear him and telling him that they’d never heard anyone else like him.  He was the best pastor they ever had, they told him.  He said.

He was able to convince a lot of people to do the things that he felt too important to do.  Like mow the lawn.  Paint a room.  Trim the hedges.  These activities were beneath him.

He spent hours beyond his normal church schedule, individually counseling others.  Women would call the house and he’d disappear into his “study” and listen to them on the phone.  Over dinner, he often shared the stories of people’s lives.  How Martha hated her husband and had an affair.  Joyce was very bad at managing money and she and her husband were deep in debt.  He ridiculed people behind their backs, but to their faces, he was the caring counselor, the wise teacher, the charismatic preacher.

He flew above my childhood and teen years in that black robe with the academic stripes on his wings.  He was always above me.  He didn’t preach about Jesus or God’s love.  He preached about self-help, psychology, the deep meaning and many layers of the psyche, and managed to find a piece of Scripture to go along with his theme.  Even Mom said that people’s lives were changed.  People didn’t know how they would have made it without him.  My father was a very important man.

I have three brothers, all older than me.  I’ve said this before.  They all went through stuff.  Nothing that got them into jail, but they struggled a lot.  Depression is a family trait that runs through my family for generations on both sides.  We all dealt with it in different ways, certainly not by getting help, real help.  We didn’t actually admit we were depressed.  My father dealt with his by counseling others, for which he had no credentials.  He just read a lot of psychology books.  He refused to go the route to get his Pastoral Counseling credentials because that would require him being supervised.  He knew more about counseling than those who would supervise him, he thought.  So he did it on his own.

He said he took people back to the womb.  I didn’t understand why this was admirable.  It seemed to me to be going backwards, instead of helping people deal with the present and the future.  All four of us kids struggled with how to cope with life, ordinary life.  If we wanted counseling, my father would sit down and tell us what was wrong with us.  But any other help was not given.  Each of us discovered early on–not comparing notes until much later– that church people were much more important to my father than his children.

He got very angry when my brothers stepped out of line.  Mark lost his license for wreckless driving, dropped out of high school (he went back later and got his MBA), drank too much, wore his hair too long.  I’m sure there’s more that no one told me about.  He burned incense in his room, set up black lights and played his electric piano loudly with the windows open during church services next door.  Don, the oldest, put his fists through doors, grew his hair long, drank too much, had some encounters with cops, and generally embarrassed my father.  Don tried to get out of having to go to Vietnam by getting a psychiatrist to say he wasn’t fit.  This infuriated my father.  Mark and Don did not make my father look good at all.  He was embarrassed.  But he didn’t try to help them.

I think my parents were tired after those two.  Stan didn’t get much attention, and therefore was free to get on a bus to New York City from the time he was 14 to see concerts.

As a child I suffered a lot of anxiety.  I didn’t know how to handle the bullies at school.  I was scared a lot.  My father told me to talk to them about our problems communicating.  I was 9.  My southern-raised Mom taught me to be afraid of “black people” and there were a lot in my school, some of whom wanted to “beat my white butt.”  I relied on the kindness of teachers to help me through and to avoid getting my butt kicked.

The Church always came first.  I spent a lot of time alone.  But I was around my father enough to know that women were inferior.  We were good for cleaning, cooking, and making our man look good.  We weren’t very smart, according to my father, and we were way too emotional.  He gave Mom and me pills for that.  By the time I was a teenager, I didn’t understand.  I knew Church was important.  I felt unworthy to be my father’s daughter, because “everybody” loved him and I didn’t.

He made me feel small, unimportant, amusing.  He spoke of a natural attraction between father and daughter that disgusted me, but psychology said it.  So it must be true.  His words were very powerful.  I believed every word he said.  Even when I argued with him, underneath I “knew” I was too stupid to argue with him and he knew the Truth.

As I got older it puzzled me how a father could feel nothing for his children.  He didn’t beat us, sexually abuse us.  He just didn’t spend any emotion on us, apart from anger.  If we defied him, suggested that we didn’t adore him like his fans did or that he wasn’t as important as he thought he was– he got angry.

How dare we suggest he was just a man.  As a child, I believed it was my fault that my father couldn’t look at me with any sense of love.  I adored Michael Landon and wanted a father who had an affectionate nickname for me and whose eyes would fill with tears at the sight of me.  Who could say, “I’m proud of you.”  It must be my fault, I thought.  I must be unlovable.  I am not a good daughter.  I’m nothing special… “nothing to write home about,” as my father would say.

My mother spent most of her energy tending to my father’s many needs and being the exceptional pastor’s wife.  She was able to share her gifts in the church on her own, without pay, but she did her pastor’s wife thing with class and creativity.  Sometimes, that cheery southern smile would crash and she’d let out all the resentment and sorrow that built up in her.  She’d lock herself in the bathroom, and I was charged with getting her out.  Or she lay on the couch for days at a time.

But when speaking around or to me, she’d say she was just weak or emotional.  She didn’t blame my father back then for running her ragged.  For being too important to do his share.

As I got older, after college, I started to question.  I’d suffered depression that went undiagnosed for years.  What would I have to be depressed about?  Our local doctor was a parishioner and adored my father.  He kept testing me for mono and slapped me on the back, sending me on my way.  But I always wondered, how can a father feel nothing for his children?  Could we all be that bad?  And how could he fool so many people into thinking that he was so kind, caring and compassionate when he made fun of them behind their backs?  How could a human be so self-centered that he couldn’t actually feel any empathy toward another human being?

Everything was always about him.  My father had to be the focus of attention at all times at home.  How we behaved or felt or thought had to make him look good.  We got punished if we made him look bad.  Nobody sat me down and told me not to have sex because I could get pregnant, or get a disease, or because sex was a gift you didn’t just share with anybody you met.  I was just told, “Don’t do it. And if you do do it, I’ll know.”  In other words, it would make my parents look bad if I got pregnant “out of wedlock.”  Or I’d just be a slut.

I was never told not to drink or smoke.  But I learned from my brothers that if I got in trouble out “there” there would be dire consequences.  I had my own various reasons for not wanting to do either.  I hated to throw up for one thing.  I also had an aunt with emphysema.

I didn’t have a lot of guidance in life growing up, the main rule was not to embarrass my father.  Or to actually make him look better by achieving great things.  But I felt too stupid and inept–after all, I was “just a girl,”–to do anything impressive.

Then, when I did do good things… I won a full-tuition scholarship in seminary!  I passed my ordination interviews with high marks and praise from the committees.  I published a sermon in a preaching journal.  I got married to a really impressive human being.  No matter what I did, it was never good enough.  My father could not make a big deal out of anything I did.  Instead, he had to prove to me that he was always better.  He wasn’t impressed by the scholarship that was from the same school in which he got his doctorate.  He wasn’t impressed by my grades, or my ordination “success.”  He didn’t say a word about my being published in a the journal, and in fact, lost his copy of it.

It was always about him.  The big events in my life were even about him.  He controlled my entire wedding.  He insisted on presiding.  It had to be at his church.  He told me where the reception would be, and 3/4 of the congregation were his friends.  When I gave birth to my child, my parents invited my cousin who lived a few hours away to come visit them when they were there.  The same day I gave birth, my parents visited in my hospital room with a cousin I had met only once, completely ignoring me and my need to rest.

My father is incapable of celebrating another human being, and I could never understand that.  I tried so hard to impress him.  But the more I tried, the more he had to assure me that he was always better.  When I was a child, my mother was able to throw great birthday parties for me, but as I got older, she joined in with making my father the more important person.  They couldn’t celebrate me.  Somehow that took away from my father’s ego.

I went through a lot of therapy, read a lot of self-help books and still could not understand how parents could be so detached from their children.  I thought I was unique.  It wasn’t the therapy that got me through or any of those self-help books, but the other adults that happened across my path throughout my life.  The ones who saw something good and beautiful in me, who took me seriously, who, like Sandie, even delighted in me.  Ed, who taught me that God loved me.  Not because I was my father’s daughter, but because I was me.  

My father even went to a lot of trouble to take that away from me.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that a friend of mine casually suggested I look up Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Holy Enlightenment, Batman!  Oh. My. God.  My father fit the symptoms of NPD exactly.  There was not one symptom that didn’t apply to him.  I read more and more about it.  I got books on the children of Narcissistic parents.

They had the same experiences and symptoms as me.

These people also grew up with my father.

I’ve come a long way.  It doesn’t change who my father is, but it changes how I respond and relate to him.  Dear God, it’s not me.  My father, for whatever reason, is incapable of having empathy or real love for another human being because it takes the focus off of him.  He is incapable of celebrating good things that happen to someone else, or taking seriously the pain that other people go through.  I realize that in spite of himself, he was able to help other people in his ministry.  But he didn’t and couldn’t help any of his children.  He managed to alienate all four of us.

We all have our own personal struggles.  We all share low self-esteem and depression and anxiety.  But all of us have managed to build good lives despite all that.  But at 52, I still struggle to trust myself to make important decisions or to forgive myself when I make even small mistakes.   I’m still intimidated by people in authority and suffer from general anxiety.  I struggle with depression.

I was a pastor for 19 years and I do believe I was called to it.  I think I was even good at it.  But I was never able to make a livable salary and the inherited need to be liked and to please people could kill you in the Church.  In my father’s eyes, I failed.  It’s taken me almost ten years to realize I did the best I could.  I can’t go to church without feeling pain and rejection, so I stay home.  I struggle to have a healthy relationship with God, and my brothers have given up on that.

My parents are 89 and declining.  They’ve always seemed to believe that if they were good enough, impressive enough, and did all the right things that they would never die.  When people got sick, my parents thought they must have done something wrong.  When they died, it was somehow a failure.  The other day my father told my brother, “I’ve decided it’s ok to die.”  As if the universe was awaiting his approval.

My father has no inhibitions at 89.  He blurts out his judgmental and superior thoughts quite loudly now in public places, embarrassing only himself now.  But he doesn’t know enough to be embarrassed.  He never did.  My mother’s dementia is a source of shame and failure to him, and he has no compassion for her.  We all do our best to do what we can for them.

But in the end, the emperor is naked.  And he doesn’t even realize it.

 

 

 

Shoulding Myself

sad

My friend’s concern that I would be sheltered at Messiah College continued to be ridiculous.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that I passed any classes that first year, as I was too busy getting myself tangled up in deep drama.  I got a “D” on my first psychology quiz and almost changed majors then.  However, I was getting a lot of practical training which received no grades.

Nothing “untoward” ever happened with David.  Other than quick hugs, we developed a “hands off” rule.  In my mind any misstep would have been completely unforgivable.  People told me later that I was really strong throughout the ordeal, but self-judgment and damnation was  my motive more than morality or personal strength.

Most days that I went to the bookstore to work, David got up and left, going for a long walk for the duration of my shift.  He left a note once telling me that it was just to difficult to be around me.  As sad and lost as I felt, there was a part of me that thrived on the intensity.  It meant I was alive.  It meant I was needed in a place where I felt all wrong.  There was one person with whom I could be real and honest.  It really was a recipe for disaster.

At least once a week, David didn’t leave when I arrived, but shut the door so we could talk.  I felt it was up to me to save his marriage, no matter how ridiculous that sounded out loud.  Surely God put me in this situation to test me, I thought.

One weekend I needed a break.  I was consumed with David and couldn’t concentrate on anything else.  I didn’t have a car at the time, so David took me to the train station.  He invited me to his house for dinner beforehand; with his wife and kids.

I met his wife and his two adorable little boys.  All during dinner I picked at my food as David played the polite host as if nothing was amiss.  I felt so guilty just for having feelings.  I felt like a Jezebel, certain that David’s wife thought I was after her husband. On top of that I was sure I had somehow egged his  feelings on– surely I flirted with him unknowingly.  Perhaps my comfort with him and being myself in his presence was what tipped him into lustful feelings toward me.  It was my fault. I was a slut.

That’s what my Dad said, anyway.  Not in so many words, but he did suggest that I was a very open person with others, including men. “Too open.”  He said I was too touchy and familiar, relaxing too much.  And I was a “young, beautiful woman,” he said.  My hugging David and joking with him encouraged him.  It was my fault.

That weekend was  the beginning of one of the worst years of my life.  Despite my sketchy relationship with my father, he always played the counselor, and often, like my brothers had done, if there was no one else to talk to, I sought out his counsel.  He encouraged this.  I was vulnerable.  I felt rebuffed by Ed and hurt that he didn’t support me in my not wanting to abandon David.  I hadn’t heard anything from him since the phone call.

“I can understand that,” my father said.  “You trusted Ed to be there, and he wasn’t.  He didn’t support you in what you wanted to do.”  Dad sat back in his recliner and crossed his legs.  “You know, I know you don’t want to hear this, but perhaps Ed feels threatened.  You found out David, and I just bet Ed is afraid you’ll find him out.”  If Dad had had a cigar, he would have thoughtfully sucked on it and added the stinky smoke to his Freudian aura.

“What??”

“Now Sue, I know you think a lot of Ed.  But really, he’s too familiar with you.  He hugs you too much, he writes you letters.  Think about it.  You’re a young beautiful girl that absolutely adores him.  That’s very exciting to any man…”

“Dad, c’mon, Ed…”

“No, listen.  Think about it.  You don’t hold back anything from Ed.  You tell him everything, you depend on him, you adore him.  He’s gotta eat that up.  You go to him for hugs, at camp you’re in your bathing suit…”

He went on and on and on.  I don’t know that he thought this out.  Looking back, I think he believed what he was saying.  That Ed was a sex-driven fraud.  That weekend at home from college, when I was emotionally and physically exhausted, stressed and in love with a man I couldn’t have who loved me back… I was at Dad’s psychological mercy.

On top of all that, I was already convinced I could not be trusted.  I didn’t trust my own perspective or intuition.  I wasn’t mature enough to make sound decisions.  As Dad said, I was “too touchy,” “too sensitive,” “too trusting.”  He questioned the validity of anything I gained from Pennington camp.  He questioned Ed’s motives, suggesting that Ed was only interested in my looks, getting me to adore him and shower my adulation on him to feed his own ego.

Dad was relentless.  But he did it with a cool detachment.  He didn’t speak as one who might be concerned that his daughter was being sexually harassed or manipulated.  He didn’t express compassion that my friend appeared to be someone out to use me and abuse me.  He didn’t share concern for my emotional well-being or vulnerability.  He behaved like a clinical counselor, offering a diagnosis on a client.  He didn’t seem to consider the impact my accusations would have if I shared them with anyone else.

In that exhausted state, I read my journals from Pennington through the eyes of my father’s diagnosis.  Whereas I’d written down everything Ed said to me or did as a memory of grace, now it was read through the lens of suspicion.  I read pages and pages of my journals, letters Ed had written in response to my own, and read them now as evidence.  I cried and felt ashamed that I was so “stupid.”  Suddenly everything about Pennington– a powerful spiritual experience of God’s grace and love– seemed completely false.  A lie.

Before the weekend was out, I gathered up every memento of Pennington;  all the pictures, the signed folders, the daily newsletters and every letter I’d received from each of my camp friends, including Ed’s… and burned them in the fireplace.  I knelt in front of the fireplace, sobbing and poking the fire.  I was hurt, angry, self-condemning.  And I was ticked off with God.

My anger was misplaced.

My father walked through the den, looking at the mail in his hands, and glanced up.  “That’s very healthy,” he commented, and continued into his bedroom.

The weekend didn’t offer me any relief from the drama at school.  I was devastated. I felt like one of the two most important people in my life had betrayed me.   In the meantime, I received letters from Sandie telling me about her new experimentation with diet, meditation and prayer as part of her cancer treatment.  I’d never heard the details of her diagnosis after I left her that weekend and contacted my parents.  Sandie didn’t offer any details, and when I asked my parents they just affirmed that the cancer was back.  Deep in the David crisis that spring semester, I managed a quick prayer each night for her, but my attention was overwhelmed.

During our conversations in the office, I tried to convince David to talk to his wife about their problems.  He was reluctant.  His wife had appeared a bit rough around the edges and even a bit harsh, but I realized I was biased.  Growing up with my father’s encounter groups at church, and his Rogerian therapeutic approach to life in general, I believed that all married people needed to do was to talk.  I thought if David just talked to her, all would be well.

One Monday morning, I came into the office, and David was slouched over his desk, staring at a paper clip that he was mangling.  “What’s wrong?”  I said in greeting.

Without looking up, he said, “She knows.”

I got cold all over and there was a sour taste in my mouth.  My heart started racing.  “She knows… what?” I whispered.

David looked at me.  “That I’m in love with you.”

I sat down in my chair at the typewriter.  My life was over.  I thought I’d be sick right there.  I may as well have had a scarlet “A” on my chest.  My feet went numb.

David explained that he’d been moping around all weekend, and on Sunday, he just lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling.  He said Beth, his wife, had finally asked him what in the world was wrong with him.  And he told her.  He just told her.  It was just like him, though, not to want to lie.

“What did you tell her?”

“That I’m in love with you but we haven’t slept together or anything, and you aren’t interested in… wait.”  He looked at me and narrowed his eyes.  “Here I’ve been laying my heart out to you almost every day, feeling like a jerk, but you haven’t said much of anything.  So let me ask you, if I weren’t married, would you be interested in me?”

He stared at me.  Like him, I couldn’t lie.  My heart was pounding and anxiety was making it hard to breathe.  I couldn’t look at him.  “Yes,” I whispered to the floor.

He sighed heavily and hung his head down between his knees.  “I’m sorry I asked.”

I was too.

I didn’t see much of Marlene that Spring semester, as she was dating a new guy.  He seemed really weird, but I hadn’t spent much time around him.  She was very enthusiastic about him and was gone till late most nights when I returned to the dorm.  We were both completely absorbed in our own lives.  I spent more time with Merly, and she managed to keep me going to class when I wanted to go back to bed.  She tried to get me to focus on my classes, even had me doing exercise routines with the rest of our dorm floor to the soundtrack of Flashdance.  

It was getting very close to finals week when I went to work and found a single rose in a bud vase, sitting on my desk in the office.  The card was signed, “Thank you for all you did, David and Beth.”  Merly came in to see me, and she, too, was carrying a bud vase with the same words on the card.   We sat and talked out loud about what could have prompted this when David walked in.

He came in grinning and sat down at his desk chair.  “That’s from Beth and I,” he said, awkwardly stating the obvious.  “We stayed up most of the night last night… talking, and I think it really helped.”  He seemed a bit awkward, but the smile was real.  “We both appreciate all your support this semester, and…” he looked sheepishly at me, “Beth wants to thank you for being so strong.”  I blushed.

It was an abrupt end to a long, stressful drama, but Merly and I both offered our congratulations.  He nodded.  “It was … a good night,” he said, looking at the floor.  I think we all blushed.  “Thank you, Peggy,” he said, looking right at me.  I just nodded.  I couldn’t speak.  I was relieved, sure.  I told Dad later, and he congratulated me like I was his psych intern.  A job well done.

My heart was like hamburger.

I rushed to study for finals, feeling like I was a whole semester behind.  I was exhausted in every way and just wanted to go home.  I caught up with Marlene to find out she had broken up with her boyfriend Sam.  She said he’d started acting really weird, even scary.  He didn’t take the break-up well, but she was relieved to be rid of him.

At the end of May, my parents and I would be visiting Sandie and her family up in New York, and I longed to see her again.  To walk into her loving arms and let her shower me with kisses and hugs and allow her to fill up all the empty space inside of me.  It would be like going home.

During Finals Week, I pulled my first all-nighter.  Most of it I spent staring at my notes, turning the pages but not really absorbing anything.  I stumbled through the exams that day, took an hour-long nap, and began a second all-nighter.  While I huddled over my desk by the light of my desk lamp, Marlene came bursting into the room.

“Sam’s gone,” she said, pacing the room.  “I saw him earlier today and we had a fight.  He said he can’t live without me.  And now he’s gone!  I don’t know where he is!”  She paced and cried, while I tried to comfort her.

The phone rang.  Marlene answered it.  It was her father.  She listened to what sounded like urgent news, and she barely spoke, but nodded silently.  Her eyes were really wide.  “Dad, I’m so sorry!” she sounded hysterical.  “I love you so much!”  She hung up.

Sam had gone to her father’s house about an hour from campus with a machete, threatening to kill her family.  He was there now.  The phone call was very brief.  Marlene’s Dad was a big guy, but her step-mom and two half-sisters were there as well, all being held hostage by her crazy ex-boyfriend and his knife.  He whispered that he had a plan, and he’d call her later.  Marlene was trembling as she hung up and told me.

It was a little difficult to study.  Marlene curled up in bed with the phone nestled against her chest while I continued to stare at my notes.  In the morning, I was still at my desk when the phone rang and Marlene, who managed to sleep some, jumped to answer it.  After an all-night stand-off, Marlene’s Dad had finally managed to subdue Sam and get the machete away from him, calling the police.  They were all escorting him now to a psych facility.

My final final exam that day was Abnormal Psychology.

I don’t think I passed.  I think my professor, being a Christian, somehow worked the numbers into a D.  That’s my only explanation for not having to take it again.

After the exam, I stumbled into the bookstore where Merly was working.  I was on my last working nerve.  I walked into her arms wordlessly and just sobbed.  She held me a long, long time before leading me to the back desk to sit down.  I opted for the floor.  She left to get me something to drink.

David and I had agreed after his “really good night” that we would have a “no touch” policy from here on out.  Avoid any further temptation.  He had refused my suggestion that I get another job on campus next semester to put a little distance between us.  I was thinking of myself more than him with that suggestion.  He said I could work the cash register, get me out of the office.  Whatever.  The Fall seemed so faraway at the time.

David approached me as I sat sobbing on the floor, looking sad, guilty and handsome.  He pulled me up and folded me into a big hug as I continued to cry.  So much for “no touching.”  At the moment, I didn’t care.  “I feel like I wrecked your semester,” he whispered.  “I’m so sorry.”

I just kept crying into his chest.

David and I remained friends for the rest of my four years at Messiah, and I doubt I could have endured if we hadn’t.  He was my most consistent and faithful friend.  We talked often in the snack shop and visited about our lives.  He didn’t talk much about Beth anymore or their relationship and there were times I suspected that the good talk had worn off, but I didn’t press.  I needed a friend.  He did too.  And so we were.

Can I Be Trusted?

gas

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.

I thought I was crazy.  For a long time.  Behind every smile or good sermon, I secretly assaulted myself daily with thoughts that I was all wrong.  That I was fooling people who thought I was good at what I did or was a put-together person.  For decades, literally, I was haunted by my father.  Anyone who was close to me during those years knew I had “issues” with my father.

I didn’t trust myself.  If I had an opinion on something, it wasn’t legitimate unless someone smarter or more important than me had the same opinion. If I disagreed strongly with someone I respected and cared about, it caused me unrelenting anxiety.  They “had” to be right, but I felt something different.  I didn’t trust my perception of reality, so if I got upset about something, I automatically assumed it was “not that big a deal.”  If someone else responded as if it WAS a big deal, I was astonished, as “oh, I’m allowed to feel bad about that?”  At other times I made a big deal out of things that were, in fact, NOT big deals in the whole scheme of things.

I didn’t trust myself.

Of course, when I was growing up, it seemed that my father’s congregations adored him.  Many of them put him on a pedestal.  My mother told me how certain people thought he was “wonderful”, and how his sermons changed people’s lives.  But I didn’t like my father.  I figured I must be missing something.  Obviously I was wrong if “everybody” loved him but me.

“You have a problem with your father,” was my father’s usual diagnosis of me, speaking of himself in the third person.  Yes.  Yes, I did.  But he insinuated it was unfounded.  He never said “I’m sorry” because he was never wrong.

I was tired of being told I was “just like my mother”– which he told me when I cried or got angry at him.  I was tired of being told I had penis envy or was sexually attracted to my father.  I was tired of being told I didn’t know anything, and he knew everything, even about me.  I was tired of him dissecting every person I loved until they were pitiful, mentally ill and faulty people that weren’t worthy of love.  People I loved were always defective.

“Why do you take it so personally?” my father would ask, laughing. “I’m not talking about you,  I’m talking about them.”  

“But they are people I care about! And you’re ripping them apart!”

He laughed.  “Don’t be so sensitive.”

When I trusted the wrong people and tried to tell them about my relationship with my father, I was told, “Hey, you’re lucky he doesn’t beat you or sexually abuse you.  He doesn’t drink, he provides for you.  You don’t appreciate what you got.”

I didn’t know how to think for myself.  My father spent hours telling me what Jung or Freud or Tillich or Rollo May wrote.  “You should write a paper on that,” he’s say.  When I got to college, he lent me books on psychology, and I wrote what he would have written.  I didn’t do well.  But I didn’t trust my own thoughts or ability to critique people who were published or who had PhDs.  I thought what my favorite professors thought.  I tried to be so many different people at once so I would be worthy, that I made myself crazy.

I just learned of the term “gas lighting” a few years ago.  I am certainly not one of those types that seeks out labels, after having so many labels imposed on me all my life.  When I came into conflict with senior pastors or parishioners in my ministry, I immediately thought I must be wrong all the time, and they were right.  When there was major controversy in the church, I didn’t trust my own instincts, no matter how upset I’d get about something.  It must be wrong, especially if “important people” were on the other side of the argument.

My father sabotaged a lot of relationships.  I don’t know that he always set out to do that, but it was so habitual for him that it just seemed to happen.  When I was living with my parents after college, I was so lonely.  I had no direction to my life at the time.  I was deeply depressed.  I had no social life.  I didn’t want to live at home.

One evening, a family friend came to dinner.  Jim was like a cousin.  I’d grown up calling his parents Aunt and Uncle, as they were my parents’ best friends and our families did a lot together.  Jim had taken care of me when I was a child on such trips, like a big brother or cousin.  He grew up into quite a handsome guy, which I noticed, of course, but I always thought of him as a relative.  Not someone to be attracted to.

He came for dinner just because it had been so long since he’d seen me, and he heard I was back home from college.  It was good to see him, hear about what he was doing and to kid around.  He was a nice guy.  After dinner, he suggested we go for a drive, just to have some time to visit by ourselves.

It was the catching up of friends who shared a history.  He told me some of the things he’d been through.  He’d been jailed temporarily for a traffic fine that he neglected to pay.  He’d been 18 and foolish. He told me about how his father gave him a Bible to take with him to jail, how his father didn’t judge him for a stupid mistake, but promised to pray for him and be there.  I was honored that Jim saw me as someone he could tell such things to.  At 22, I still felt like a child, and he treated me like an adult.  It felt so good to be with another human to just talk and visit.  To be respected as someone who was worth talking to.

After he left, my father was angry and told me all the reasons I was forbidden to date him.  I hadn’t thought of dating him!  I just wanted a friend.  Despite my arguments, Dad went on, tearing Jim apart psychologically, trying to show me that he was inferior and had mental flaws.  Why else would he end up in jail?

I argued that Jim knew it was a stupid thing to do, that he’d grown from it, and… but it didn’t matter.  Dad’s word on anybody, including me, was final.  He alone knew the truth about people.  We fought about it that day and many days after.  I didn’t know yet that I didn’t have to attend every fight I’m invited to, and I fought hard to convince Dad that Jim was not a worthless human being.

Dad would not relent.  After a while, like on many previous occasions, I started to doubt myself.  Maybe I didn’t have a good sense of people.  Maybe I was attracted to Jim, though everything in me assured me that I didn’t think of him that way.  And as it always worked out in my head, maybe … I AM crazy.  Just an “emotional, hysterical female.”

One day I called Jim, just to see if we could get together.  I had enjoyed our time together visiting.  I was so very lonely for human company that didn’t pick me apart or question my sanity.

“Uh no, I don’t think so,” Jim said when I said I thought we could get together for another visit.  He seemed to think, too, that I was asking for a date.  My Mom later told me that she and Jim’s Mom were talking about the two of us, and how Jim didn’t think we should date.  I didn’t want to date him!  No one would listen.

I felt crazy.  Over the years I’d learned that my father had sent Don to a psychiatrist and Mark to primal scream therapy (which explained the daily screams that erupted from upstairs without warning).  My father sent me to a psychologist that eventually tried to rape me.  When I told him about it, finally, a year later, he said, “I can’t believe he would do that to me.”

We were all broken, in my father’s eyes, and needing to be fixed.  He assured me all my life that he knew me better than I knew myself, and by the time I was an adult, I believed it.  I felt he could see inside my head and was judging and concluding.  It was never in my favor.  I was a woman, driven only by sexual impulses and my desire to be a man.  I could not be trusted with big decisions because I was a woman.

I stumbled across the term “gaslighting” a few years ago on a Facebook page, and as I read it, it described my state of mind and my experiences.  Other people had experienced what I had!  There was a term for it!  The term comes from a movie called Gaslighting, starring Ingrid Bergman, where her husband purposely manipulates her environment to make her think she’s going crazy and cannot be trusted.  People don’t always do it on purpose.  My father didn’t do it on purpose, but it’s part of who he is.  He is unable to feel sensitivity toward another person, but is always worried about how things affect him.  

For years I could not understand how a father could feel no emotion toward his own child; to be unable to be happy for their happiness, or sad for their sadness.  He was unable to have any of our backs.  Each of us understood that we were to make him look good, and when we didn’t– when Don and Mark actually made him look bad during their teenage years– they were sent to therapy.  I thought it was my fault that my father was incapable of loving me.  That if I’d only been a more impressive daughter, or been smarter or more successful, he’d have been able to love me.  But someone told me once, “you might want to look up Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

I wasn’t trying to get revenge by analyzing him back, but when I read the description of someone with NPD, my father fit all the symptoms.  He was able to put forth a persona in the Church that showed him to be a charismatic preacher and wise counselor.  But when he was home, he needed to be catered to, served, and to have his ego stroked.  He could not be bothered with children or our needs.  We were there to make him look good.  And it was never enough.

But I finally knew that I wasn’t crazy after all, and only now, am beginning to trust my own instincts, feelings and opinions.  It’s been a long, long difficult trip to here.

The Big Chill

Pendulum

When I was dating Larry, I warned him that Billy Joel’s “I Go to Extremes” was my theme song.  “Too high or too low/darlin’ there ain’t no in-between.”  That was true of my emotions, but especially of my personal morality.  People were either good or bad.  Situations were either good or bad, no gray areas.  I knew sex was a big sin to my mother.  We couldn’t even talk about it.  I knew her worst fear for me was that I would have sex before marriage. I was sure that if I ever did, or worse– (!) got pregnant– I’d have to disappear.  It would be unforgivable.  I’d never survive the shame.  It would be years before I understood the source of her intense, angry attitude, but when I was a teenager, it just literally scared the hell right out of me.

It also made me … ashamed.   In addition to her extreme moral rules, my father always regarded feelings as evidence of brokenness that needed to be fixed.  Feelings were nothing but symptoms, and feelings could also be sins.  My father worked very hard to get rid of any indication of emotion in himself, and chastised me and Mom for any displays of negative emotions.  It was as if women were especially prone to such nonsense as feelings.  Feelings had to be controlled.  If they weren’t, you were weak.

This is the mindset that I took with me into my four long years at Messiah College.  I also believed deep down, that when I was in conflict with anyone, I was the wrong one and needed to adjust.  I was adjusting all the time to fit other people’s expectations.  You can imagine the crazy dance that was my life.

So when I came into conflict with just about everyone at Messiah (so it seemed), I was always on the edge.  Something deep down in me still believed that God wasn’t as mean as my classmates made him out to be, but I couldn’t stand up for myself or my beliefs.  I was weighed down by guilt.  Guilt that I didn’t get up at 5 a.m. to have my devotions with God, guilt that I couldn’t quote chapters and verses of the Bible from memory and guilt that I  had not read every single book of the Bible.  (1 and 2 Chronicles? Leviticus?  Seriously?)

People ask why I stayed at Messiah.  There’s no simple answer, but I think I stayed partly because I thought maybe God was trying to teach me something.  Maybe God was testing me.  “Everything happens for a reason,” I believed, so I formed reasons to make sense out of things that didn’t make sense.  And whatever I did, I felt that I was meant to do it the hardest way possible.  For some reason, I believed I was meant to suffer more than others. I believed that God wanted me to help Neil and keep him from killing himself.  God must have put Neil in my path.  And I failed.

During January Term we only had one concentrated class.  I took Speech, and despite my nerves, I did very well at it.  I also met Merly, a Cuban-American daughter of a Reformed Christian pastor in New Jersey.  We became quick friends.  My friendship with Marlene had suffered because of Neil.  He hung out with her and so I couldn’t when he was there. Also, Marlene was so gorgeous and perky that she got asked out a lot more than I did. I was jealous. Her speaking in tongues during her personal devotional time freaked me out a lot, too.  One particular stressful day, I came back to the room and put on an album that I played on such occasions:  a Molly Hatchet album, Flirtin’ With Disaster.  It was loud, it was angry, and I turned it way up.  Marlene came back to the dorm and screamed, “What are you playing??”

I turned it off.  I showed her the album, and she gasped loudly.

“That’s devil music!” She looked at me as if my face had morphed into a werewolf or something.  “That’s druggie music!!”

Dear God, it never ended.  Every time I turned around, I was just all wrong.  I discovered that her attitude was very prominent on campus.  Any secular music was considered “anti-God.”  Lordy.  I saved my favorite music for when I was alone in our room, and listened to her Contemporary Christian music when she was there.

Merly and I were together a lot.  She was uptight about some things (normal things like Free Will vs. Predestination!) but not about my music.  Bruce still hung around us, as did Jen.  Marlene was sometimes with Neil, and sometimes with other friends she’d met who were Pentecostal.  She continued to go on a lot of dates, and then exclusively began seeing Mark.  She was gone till late most nights.

There was a cloud hanging over me already as I started the new semester.  Sandie’s cancer had come back.  She’d been cancer-free for four years.  I’d been staying at their house over a long weekend in New York when she was admitted to the hospital.  The Melanoma was back.

I was grateful for my friendship with Merly and with David.  We had a lot of fun in the bookstore and Merly and I took turns choosing the music for the turntable.  David enjoyed having my friends hang out when I was working.  At other times, he and I would talk about various things.  Sometimes, when I was done with my shift, he invited me for a drink in the snack shop next door.  I felt good being seen with him in the snack shop.  Professors and other staff would greet him and I felt important having such a popular friend.  David’s father was a professor at Messiah, and so he’d literally grown up on campus, attended there and took the bookstore job after graduation.

I always looked forward to going to work, and on days I wasn’t working I usually found a reason to stop in and say hi to David or have a chat.  He always stopped what he was doing and visited for a while.  It was so easy, and it the one place where I could relax on campus and be myself.

I had some tough classes that semester.  So far, I wasn’t feeling affirmed in my choice of psychology as a major.  The stress didn’t seem to let up.  Sometimes when I was at the typewriter in the office,  David would rub my shoulders.  He’d often give me an encouraging hug before I left.   He hugged Merly, too, and it didn’t feel inappropriate.

Then one Monday he came into the office and didn’t even greet me.  He sat at his desk with his back toward me.  I said, “Good morning”, and he mumbled something without turning around.  I asked him if he was ok.  He abruptly got up and went to the door, then turned around.  He was agitated and restless. I’d never seen him like that.

“Kathy and I went to the movies on Friday.”  He sighed heavily, holding onto the door frame and mindlessly working his fingernail into a crack.  “We saw The Big Chill.”  I hadn’t heard of it.  “It just got me thinking,” he shook his head as if to throw off some cobwebs.  He chuckled sadly. “There was a song that reminded me of you.” He smiled and put up his hand in a wave, descending the steps from the office.  I watched him go out the front of the bookstore, toward the snack shop.

Something felt wrong.  A song that reminded him of me?  There was no Google or even internet for me to do a search on the soundtrack of The Big Chill.  I filed the moment away in my head, took a deep breath and started typing.  That weekend Bruce took Merly and me to the mall.  In the record store, I found the soundtrack to The Big Chill.  The only song on the record that might have fit David’s comment was My Girl.  Surely not.  I put it out of my mind.

The following week I dressed up in a skirt and blouse, just to make myself feel better.  I borrowed Marlene’s faux fur coat and wore a bit more make up.  Each of us did this every once in a while, just to feel good.  To feel pretty.  I enjoyed the attention I got in classes, since it was a very noticeable difference.  One guy I’d flirted with in the dining hall asked me out to dinner that night.  “Since you’re already dressed up and all…”  he winked.

When I went to work that day I was still a bit giddy that I’d gotten a date.  I’d had a few since starting at Messiah, but none of them really led to anything more.  David was in the office when I walked into the office, he turned around and blurted, “Oh my God!”  Suddenly he cleared his throat.  “I mean,… well, you look nice.”  He actually blushed.  I laughed.  I liked all the responses I was getting.

Later, after taking a break in the snack shop, David came back and stood in the doorway of the office.  I was typing some invoices and didn’t notice that he wasn’t moving.  After a while, I glanced up and saw that he was still there, just looking at me.  He smiled.  “That song,” he said, referring to the song playing over the store’s sound system, “That’s my song for you.”  He winked and disappeared into the back storage room.

I listened carefully, but still couldn’t make out the words of the song.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.  Merly was working the cash register, so coming out of the office, I made sure David wasn’t back yet.  No one else was in the store, so she was reading a textbook behind the desk.  “Hey Merle,” I said, “what is that song that’s playing?”  I fiddled with some Post-it notes by the register, trying to act casual.

She got up and pulled the album sleeve from the stack.  “Leon Patillo,” she said, flipping the sleeve over to the back.  “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.”  

Oh crap.  I nodded and made an excuse about getting back to work before the boss got back.  David didn’t come back before I was done with work.  All during my supper date I was nervous and distracted.  I’d known that I had a bit of a girlish crush on David.  Shoot, he was good-looking.  He was kind in a place that didn’t feel so kind to me.  He was easy to talk to, we liked a lot of the same oldies music.  We shared a lot of similar opinions on things.  But it was innocent.  I certainly didn’t expect anything from him.  He was married with two adorable little boys.  It was just an innocent thing on my part.

After supper, I went back to my dorm and called Ed.  I had worked myself into a panic.  I’d written Ed often during the year.  He knew about my struggles at Messiah.  He never said I told you so. I wrote him about Neil last semester, and he was very supportive.  I celebrated the small triumphs that I occasionally had.  I wrote about my fears for Sandie that lurked behind everything that second semester.

He knew about David and my job at the bookstore.  He knew of our friendship and what an oasis of grace it was for me.  I told Ed I was afraid now, that David was attracted to me.  I told him about the moments that made me suspicious of that.  As I talked about it, it all sounded kind of dramatic.  Maybe I was being foolish.  But he was kind.  “I’d say if you’re really worried, the best thing to do is talk to him.  Tell him there’s been some moments that you’ve been uncomfortable.  You don’t need to accuse him of anything, just tell him what you told me. It may be that he didn’t even realize that what he was doing made you nervous.  But you won’t know unless you ask.”

Right.  Direct communication was not my strong suit.  We talked a bit more, he made me laugh, and he assured me of his daily prayers for me.  “Let me know what happens,” he said.  I felt better.

Merly could tell something was wrong when she stopped by, and Marlene was there, too, on the odd night of having nothing else planned.  I hemmed and hawed, thinking that this was so awful and shameful that I couldn’t speak it out loud.  I mean, a married man?? Merly grew impatient.  “Alright, let me guess.  David’s in love with you?”

I stared at her.  “How did you know?  I mean, I don’t know, I’m just wondering, but where did that come from?”

She’d seen my reaction at the name of the song, apparently I wasn’t as coy as I thought.  “Besides, it seems obvious to me that out of all of us, he seems to favor you a bit more.”

Well, we all agreed that I had to talk to him.  It all seemed so ridiculous to me.  What had I don’t to encourage him?  Had I encouraged him?  And if I did, what did that make me?  I was a nervous wreck.  I took Donnatol that night and again the next morning, to try to calm my nerves.

Shame, shame, shame.  It hung over me like a cloud, pressing me down.  I couldn’t eat all day.  My hands were shaking and sweating.  I kept hyperventilating.  Finally, it was time to go to work.  David was in the office as usual, and I asked to talk.  I got up to close the door.  “Whoa, this must be serious,” he chuckled.

As I spoke, I didn’t notice that I kept pushing my chair further away from him, so that by the time I was finished, I was sitting right in front of the door.

“Peggy, I’m sorry if I did anything to make you feel uncomfortable.  I’ll definitely be more aware of what I say and do.  I certainly don’t want to make you uncomfortable at all.”  He looked at me and then down at my chair.  “Are you afraid of me?”  I realized where I was.

“Ha, no, no. I don’t know why I did that. It’s ok, I just wanted to talk to you.  Thank you,” I said.  He nodded, looking at me as if he weren’t quite sure I was telling the truth, and got up and went out to check on things in the store.

I let out a deep breath as if I’d been holding it.  Thank God.

I wrote Ed a long letter and told him he was right, it was nothing, and everything was fine.  Whew.

Monday afternoon I went to work and David wasn’t in the office.  I was looking forward to just kidding around and keeping it light, feeling bad that I’d been so dramatic about everything.  He didn’t come into the office but checked merchandise in the store, chatted with the cashiers, or went to the snack shop.  He didn’t come into the office once during my shift.  It was really odd.

My shift went until the store closed that day.  As the cashier turned out the lights down front and locked the front doors, I gathered up my things in the office.  David skipped up the steps into the office and waved at the cashier as she left the store.

“You got a minute?” David stood over six feet tall in the doorway, looming over me.  But he looked odd.  He was agitated again.  He kept running his hand through his thick brown hair and looking around nervously, as if to make sure no one was sneaking up to hear our conversation.  I sat back down, clutching my backpack.

He sat down and leaned forward, so that our knees were almost touching.  “Peggy, I didn’t get much sleep this weekend.  When you talked to me Friday about how uncomfortable you were, and even asked me if I was attracted to you, I honestly thought it was just a misunderstanding.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about it all weekend.  I couldn’t sleep.”  He leaned his elbows on his knees, and dropped his head.  The back of my throat tasted sour all of a sudden.

“The thing is, Peggy, I am in love with you.”  He looked up at me and his eyes filled with tears.  He talked about how things with Kathy had been distant for a long time.  They just weren’t close anymore.  As he talked, I think my head went numb and I tuned out for a while.  Oh my God, what was I going to do?  What did I do to lead him on?  Did I flirt with him?  Was I too huggy and touchy with him?  I felt sick.

I said I had to go.  He looked scared.  “I don’t want to mess up your life,” he said.  “I don’t expect anything from you, I just… please don’t run away.  I need you, Peggy.  We can get through this.”  It felt like I was caught in a rip pool, my legs twisted in the strong current, while a huge wave was washing over my head, threatening to fill my lungs with water.  Oh God.  All I kept thinking was I’m so horrible. I’m a horrible person.  I’m a slut.  I led him on. This is my fault. 

I assured him we were still friends.  That I wasn’t going to run away.  A part of me cherished the emotional intimacy, even the love, in a place where I felt so banished and alone most of the time.  But.  I wanted to throw up.  I knew I was in love with him, or what I knew of love at that time.  I adored him.  I wanted to marry someone like him– but not him.  It was fine if it was just me.  But it wasn’t.  And I felt like scum.

I called Ed that night and breathlessly blurted out everything about the conversation with David.  When I took a breath, I was crying.  He was quiet for a moment.  “Wow,” he said, “I really didn’t think he’d respond that way.”  He was quiet again.  “Let me ask you this, P.S., do you have feelings for him?”  Oh crap.  At first I nodded, then realized I hadn’t spoken.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Then you really need to get out of there.  You’re playing with fire. This is just too much for you to deal with, seriously.”

“I can’t!” I argued.  “He’s my friend, I can’t just abandon him!”

“Peggy, this is way bigger than you.  You have to get another job somewhere else on campus, you need to get out of there,” he cautioned.

“Ed, I can’t do that.  I promised…”

He was quiet, and I could tell he was exasperated.  “Well, then, seriously, I don’t know what to tell you.  You’re in way over your head here.”  He was quiet a long time.  I wanted him to tell me to counsel David.  To hang in there.  To be his friend.

We ended the conversation, and it felt abrupt.  I felt abandoned.  Part of me thought he was right, but I couldn’t imagine telling my best friend on campus that I couldn’t be his friend any more.  Just because he was in love with me and I was in love with him. Of course, David didn’t know that part.  And he wouldn’t.

I was also scared I’d just lost Ed’s friendship.  I’d disappointed him.  Or so I thought.

Then I did something stupid.  Something that would affect my friendship with Ed for the next several years.  Something that would make things so much worse before they got better.

I called my father.

 

 

 

We’re All Going to Hell

illustration_ever-felt-like-you-were-in-the-wrong-place

What I learned on the first day of college:  1. All United Methodists are going to hell. 2. God doesn’t call women into the ministry and if you think he does, then you’re going to hell.

It was not a good beginning.  After suffering through high school and never feeling like I fit in, I decided to go to a Christian college.  I thought surely I would fit in there!  My father wanted me to go to Glassboro, which was just 30 minutes away from home, thinking I could commute and save money.  I knew for sure I really needed to get away from home, and besides, he wasn’t giving me any money for college, so it wasn’t up to him.

My parents didn’t help me in the college-seeking process, aside from driving me to a visit.  I was on my own.  This was bad because I was ridiculously naive and sheltered.  I didn’t have a clue about much of anything in the rest of the world.  I thought Christians were relatively all the same and that if I went to a Christian college it would be like Pennington camp for four years.  I’d be with my own tribe.  We’d all be close, we’d all hug a lot, get along and float in the love of Jesus while studying biology.

Silly me.  I checked a box on some form somewhere when seeking information on colleges, and the first Christian college to send me information was Messiah College in Central Pennsylvania.  It was about 2 1/2 hours from home.  Not too close, not too far.  My parents took me to visit and it was a beautiful campus, set in the hills of PA, nestled among lots of trees and beautiful scenery.  The tour guide told me that during mid-terms and finals, you could hear people calling out to each other, “I’ll be praying for you!”  It sounded lovely.

It was associated with the Brethren In Christ denomination, one that I’d never heard of, but was associated with the Mennonites.  Again, Christians were Christians.  Growing up, several of my friends were Catholic and they didn’t seem too different from us Methodists.  I knew some Presbyterians and Baptists in Woodbury.  We did things together around Easter.  So I was really excited to go to college and be popular, have lots of friends and someday marry a nice Christian guy.  (I hadn’t dated too many of those so far)

On the first day of college, we unpacked my things in the dorm and I donned my silly blue and white freshmen beanie.  My roommate, Marlene, and I had exchanged letters already.  She sounded very sweet and perky.  She described herself as a “non-denominational Pentecostal.”  I had no idea what she meant by that, but it didn’t matter.  We all gathered in our room, unpacked our things and made introductions.  We went through all the initial first-day events, and it was all very exciting.  I thought it was perfect.  I loved the rural campus, the trees, the beautiful creek that flowed through campus, the covered bridge and the hills.  I felt like everything was going to be just wonderful at last.

As we met other freshmen during that first day, we all had those preliminary questions:  Where are you from? What’s your major?  What church are you from? (specific to Christian colleges)  What do you want to do with your life?

One of the many people I met that day was Jennifer.  I asked her the recommended questions and then she turned them on me.  During my last week of Pennington camp, I’d had a profound spiritual experience during the commitment service and I truly felt that God was calling me to pastoral ministry.  Since I didn’t know what to major in, Dad pushed me toward psychology.  I figured I’d grown up with all his lectures, I should ace the subject!  So I answered all of Jennifer’s questions truthfully, as I did to everyone else.

She looked at me like I’d just said I was from the Church of Satan.  Then she chuckled.  It wasn’t a friendly chuckle.  It was more like “I’m-trying-to-be-nice-but-really-I-think-you’re-damned.”

“God doesn’t call women into ministry,” Jen said very condescendingly.  I looked at her questioningly.  That was rude, I thought.  How could she speak for God?

I laughed nervously.  “What do you mean?”

Jen rolled her eyes as if dealing with a moron.  “It says so on the Bible.  God doesn’t allow women to teach or preach.  Only men.  And the United Methodist church is going to hell,” she added matter-of-factly.  “Precisely because they ordain women!  And…” she lowered her voice and leaned in, “and because they’re even thinking of ordaining homosexuals.”  She leaned back and nodded seriously.

Oh my God.  I smiled and walked away.  Inside I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake.  No one ever told me there were things like that in the Bible! I guess I’d just read the good parts.  Why wouldn’t God call women? I wondered.  It didn’t make sense!  And why does she think my church is going to hell??  No one had ever told me I was going to hell.

As Marlene and I spent time in our room over orientation weekend, we had a lot of time to talk.  “When were you saved?” she asked.  Truly I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love God.  I went to church from the time I was in the womb.

“You have to be saved,” she said, “you can’t just inherit salvation from your parents, you have to make your own decision,” she informed me.  I tried to explain that there was never that one moment.  There were times I did make commitments to God, but not because I hadn’t been talking to God before that.  She got impatient.

“My mother was a Methodist before she got saved.”  She was serious.  Again, I couldn’t believe someone could be so rude!  I hadn’t met anyone in all of my 18 years that didn’t like Methodists!  What’s not to like?  As we spent more time together, I learned about her worship experience.  She thought hymns were boring and that “regular” churches were dull.  They just sat there, sat down, stood up.  She, apparently, danced at her church.  Jumped up and down, spoke in tongues (what was that?) and clapped.  It fit her personality.  She was very perky and energetic, hugging everyone she met and always smiling and saying “praise the Lord!”  It was like landing in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language.

“Everyone here is more religious than me!” I whined into the phone to Sandie one night.  I was not about to call my parents and tell them I’d made a mistake.

Sandie laughed.  “Oh, Peggy Sue, no one is more religious than you!”  She made me feel better, but she, too, had no idea what I was talking about.  “What do you mean your roommate is charismatic?  Doesn’t that just mean she’s got personality?”

That’s what I’d thought.

In those first few weeks, Marlene and I formed a little group of friends with Jon, Bruce, Neil (not his real name) and Jennifer (yeah, Jennifer apparently decided I was her assignment from God).  We settled into our little clique to help navigate the first weeks of college.  We sat together at meals and at chapel, sent notes through the mail to each other, and went to concerts on campus.  Bruce and Neil were cousins, both Brethren in Christ (BIC).  Bruce was a missionary’s son and grew up in Africa.  Neil was a pastor’s son.  Neil was … charismatic.  In the regular sense of the word.  He was fun, energetic, goofy and always made us laugh.  He was also very effeminate.  I really liked him, he was a breath of fresh air and made me feel a lot better about everything.  Jon was a huge comfort, too.  He was also very silly and goofy, making us laugh.  He was a Baptist from another town in Pennsylvania.  He didn’t seem so uptight about his faith as the others did.   Sometimes he was almost sacrilegious, making the others cringe at times, but to me he was a relief to be around.

I got a campus job working in the bookstore for ten hours a week as the manager’s secretary.  David (not his name) was the bookstore manager, a very tall, gangly good-looking guy with a beard.  He was quiet and kind.  I instantly felt like we’d get along well.  The bookstore office was behind a wall of glass, just slightly elevated from the rest of the store, so I could see out on the store while I worked.

After a while, Jon left our group, saying that he didn’t want to get tied down in a small clique.  He actually joined a much larger group of people that took up three tables in the dining hall.  I missed him.  He was… unorthodox. Different.

One night, we all went to the concert that was on campus.  The group was called Farrell and Farrell,  a man and a woman.  They dressed in clothes that looked like space suits and their music was very loud.  The only Christian contemporary music I’d known before that was Amy Grant, who was very low-key compared to what Marlene had in her record collection.  I wasn’t crazy about the music, and as the the concert went on I grew more and more anxious.  Something was off.  Everybody was jumping up and down, screaming “yes, Jesus!” over and over, crying and reaching for the band as if to be rescued.  Farrell and Farrell (a married couple, I’m assuming) started preaching intensely, but nothing like I heard at home.  They were preaching about hell and damnation, the need to be saved by asking Jesus into your heart.  I thought it was weird, considering they were at a Christian college– were there any non-Christians there?

The longer they preached, the louder they got, repeating phrases over and over like a chant, and soon all those around me started responding to them.  I looked around and it seemed like everyone there was in a trance of some sort, nodding with their eyes closed, raising their open palms to the sky, repeating “yes, Jesus, praise Jesus, thank you Jesus, come quickly Lord Jesus…” over and over again.  I couldn’t breathe.  I started shaking. This was creepy.  Who are these people?  I didn’t belong here!  What had I done?  I started to cry, hard.  I pushed my way out over the legs of the other people in the row as they chanted, swaying, crying, and the music got more intense, drumming, leading… I got to the end of the row and ran.

I ran out of the gymnasium, out the front door of the student center, down the path toward the covered bridge and stopped on the bridge, laying my head down on my arm and crying.  I hiccuped and cried and hyperventilated.  I was terrified.  I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t go home and admit failure.  Certainly my father would enroll me at Glassboro and I’d be stuck at home under his thumb again.  It would be a failure on my part, an “F” on my life report card.  He’d be amused.  Clearly I couldn’t make good decisions.  Oh my God.

After a while, I heard footsteps.  I quickly wiped my face and pretended to just be looking down at the water.

“Peggy Sue.”  It was Neil.  I was so relieved.  He seemed like someone who wouldn’t judge me, someone I could talk to.  I relaxed and began to cry again.  He wrapped his arms around me and I told him what I was feeling.  How I’d never seen anything like that and I was scared and how come I couldn’t fit in anywhere?  I sobbed until I could hardly stand up and my nose was all plugged up and I was smeared with snot and tears.

Neil hugged me for a long time, until I could catch my breath and cried all my tears out.  We both leaned on the side of the bridge.  “I understand, Peggy Sue.  I understand what it’s like not to fit in,” he said.  And I knew.  I’d wondered.  It seemed obvious to me, but apparently not to anyone else.  I knew what he was going to tell me, and I wasn’t worried.  He was a great guy.

“I’m gay,” he said, and I pretended to be surprised.  “My parents don’t know, and actually they’d freak out if they did.  My brother is also gay.”

He went on to tell me that he struggled a lot with his feelings.  There was a young man on campus that he was infatuated with, and yet there was no way he could tell him.  As Neil stared out on the water, not looking at me, he told me that he “knew” he was an abomination to God, but he couldn’t change.  In fact, since he couldn’t change, he had a plan to kill himself in a way that he would suffer the most.  He had a plan, a day, a time and a method.  He told me all this as if he were planning how to build a shed.

“But you can’t tell anyone, you have to promise me, Peggy Sue,” he said, turning to look at me.  His face was different all of a sudden.  He was angry, hard and threatening.

“I won’t.”

“Seriously.  If you tell anyone, I will never speak to you again.  No one can know.”

As sheltered as I was, and as the daughter of a Freudian counselor who believed that homosexuality was a mental illness, I was not bothered at all by his confession.  I saw his struggle, his ache, his longing.  I already knew him to be a loving, kind, fun and extremely talented person.  To me it was clear that this was not something he chose to be.  Why would you choose such a difficult life?  To risk alienation from your family and friends– and church?  I started to argue with him, to beg him not to kill himself.  He wasn’t an abomination to God, God loved him.  God created him.  God didn’t want him to destroy himself.

Again, that look.  That hard, set jaw.  That barely restrained anger.  “Get behind me Satan!” he whispered and walked away.  I was stunned and shaken.  I wasn’t sure I had any friends on campus that I could talk to honestly without running up against another reason why I was damned forever.

David.  There was something about David.  He was easy to be around, fun to talk to and was very kind to people.  After work one day, I asked if we could talk.  We sat in the office after store hours and I told him about Neil without mentioning any names.  I told him I didn’t know what to do.  I was scared.  And while we were on the subject, I talked about how I didn’t feel like I belonged there.  Everywhere I went it just seemed I was all wrong.  I didn’t have a solid self-esteem anyway, and the people there just seemed to affirm it.  I was just no good.

David was patient and listened intently.  He didn’t seem to flinch or look shocked.  He nodded a lot, and his eyes conveyed caring and concern.  Finally, there was someone I could talk to.  I relaxed and breathed better as I talked.

“I say just be a friend to him the best you can,” David said.  “You can’t control what he does, but you can let him know that you care, and really, that’s all any of us can do.”  I felt so much better.  I was still frightened for Neil, but at last I felt like I had a real friend in David.

Neil acted like nothing intense had happened or been said.  He pointed out the guy he had a crush on, but he was silly about it.  Sometimes he was the most fun person to be around and I relaxed with him.  Other times he’d grow solemn and say, “don’t love me, Peggy Sue.  I’m only going to crush you.”  Other times he turned whatever anger he felt on me.  He teased me in a cruel way, accusing me of being in love with him.  “How pathetic are you? Falling for a homo,” he sneered.  I didn’t know what I felt.  I was so lonely, so anxious and afraid most of the time.  I wanted Neil to just relax and let me be his friend.  He was good-looking and easy to be around, so maybe there was some romantic feelings, but of course I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

“I bet you think you can change me, huh?  Maybe if you and I have sex, I’ll cross over, huh?  Am I your little project, Peggy Sue?”  His words were cutting and sharp, cruel.  I was in way over my head.  I truly didn’t want to change him.  Everybody around me had a chapter and verse from the Bible to explain everything they believed, but I just knew that if Neil didn’t choose to be that way, then he wasn’t an abomination in God’s eyes.  He was struggling with love.

Meanwhile, I had no clue how to be a college student.  I didn’t know how to study.  I’d always made B’s and C’s in high school with little effort, and I truly believed that I was stupid anyway.  I didn’t believe I could make good grades.  Our General Education class that semester was about the Roman Empire and the beginnings of civilization.  It was deathly boring to me at the time, and I had no idea how to take good notes.

Meanwhile, as I sat in Gen Ed lectures, Neil would lean over and whisper in my ear, “You give me orgasms.”  My face immediately got red and hot and I stared straight ahead.  Neil knew I was very naive about a lot of things, but mostly sex.  “Peggy Sue,” he’d say, pretending to have a question, and when I looked at him, he said, “Penis.”  And then laugh.  Somehow he’d realized that that was a word I had difficulty saying out loud.

I always looked forward to going to work.  For those couple of hours I was ok.  I could relax.  David and I could talk about everything.  He didn’t judge me for anything I said, and seemed to consider my thoughts on different subjects.  We kidded around easily, and it was very pleasant.  My friends sometimes hung around the office after class, chatting with David and me, and he didn’t seem to mind.  I nervously assumed he knew that Neil was the person I’d told him about, but he didn’t show any indication of that.

One of my classes that semester was Spiritual Leadership, led by an older woman professor.  I didn’t notice at first that the class was predominantly male until one day the professor announced that we were going to role play a church meeting.  She picked who would play what role, and for some reason she picked me to be the pastor.  We never got to do the role play because the rest of the class erupted in a passionate argument that women could not be pastors, “according to the Bible.”  They read from their bibles, which they carried everywhere with them.

1 Timothy 2:12 – But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
Corinthians 14:34Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

Those righteous teenage boys shook their bibles in the air in anger.  Clearly they knew their bibles much better than I knew mine.  I checked off another failure on my ongoing list.  I didn’t know about those passages.  Hearing them, they didn’t make any sense to me in relation to the understanding I had of God.  I couldn’t understand why God would say only men could preach.  Why did I have such a passionate love of God if I was to be silent?  Or if I could only talk to other women?  They were confirming what my father believed about women:  we were naturally inferior.  We weren’t smart enough to be in leadership, and especially to tell men anything.

I left class that day depressed and disillusioned.  I guessed I’d been wrong about God wanting me to be in ministry.  Did that mean Pennington was not real?  That my profound experiences of God’s love and grace there were somehow wrong?  I didn’t have the guts or the ovaries to stand up to guys like those Bible-waving, women-hating boys.  Forget it, I thought.  Obviously I was stupid to think God wanted me to be a pastor.  Maybe I’d be a psychologist.

I tried out for choirs and Christian vocal groups that traveled to churches and wasn’t able to get in any of them.  That was another failure.  I loved to sing, I loved to sing for God, and yet somehow here in this place I wasn’t even good enough for that.  Neil got angrier and angrier at me as the semester wore on, for no reason I could fathom.  He took it out on me in cruel words.  He made me question my own sanity, my own faith, my purpose.  Finally I broke down and told Marlene what was going on.  She was supportive and caring toward me, but somehow Neil found out I told.

“I told you I’d never speak to you again if you told.  Yet you did. Goodbye, Peggy Sue,” he said very dramatically, spinning on his heels and walking out of my life.  He remained friends with Marlene which made things tense with Marlene.  Finally I heard that he’d found a group of Pentecostals who took him to their pastor to be “exorcised of the demon of homosexuality.”  All I could think of was the priest in The Amityville Horror and this made no sense to me.  But after that, Neil was different.  He was more upbeat, made more friends, and over the course of our college career, he became one of the most popular people in our class.  He was Class President.  He was involved in all the music ministries that I couldn’t get into.  He kept his promise and never spoke to me again.

I went home for Christmas break and anticipated going back for January term for just one intensive class.  People ask me why I went back.  What choice did I have?  If I admitted to my parents that I didn’t belong at Messiah, I’d be stuck at home.  For some reason, I had it in my mind that if I went to Glassboro, a state school, I’d have to commute from home.  Because that’s what Dad said.  It never occurred to me that I could still live in a dorm there.

However, I was terrified of going to a university, thinking I’d get eaten alive in my naivete.  No one advised me any differently.  I was too ashamed to even admit to Ed or Sandie that I hated Messiah, that I’d made a mistake.  Ed had strongly advised me to not to go in the first place, thinking I’d be too sheltered there.  I’d argued with him and begged him to support my decision.  I couldn’t tell him he was right.  That I’d been wrong.  That I had no idea what to do next.  Obviously, I thought, I wasn’t very good at making decisions.  My father was right.

I didn’t know what I was doing.