Op-ed: Saved By Grace
This piece was adapted from Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012).
Sometimes a person can descend so low into his or her own misery that returning to the world is impossible without the help of another person. Sinking deeper and deeper into self-loathing as an adolescent, I thought that person would be Jesus.
As it turned out, my savior did come from above — she slept just upstairs.
I was a gregarious child, but I lost my self-confidence around the age of 11. Shortly after joining a fundamentalist, nondenominational Christian church at the encouragement of friends, I realized I was gay. The evangelical community I converted into made it clear that embracing my same-sex attractions was not an option, but they presented a way out: I could pray the gay away.
I launched a private campaign to cure myself of my sexual orientation. I prayed and fasted obsessively, spending my middle school lunch periods in an empty classroom with an empty stomach, a teen study Bible plastered with bumper stickers, a Discman to play Christian worship music, and a journal for reflecting on my efforts.
This self-imposed isolation went on for years, but my attractions remained. Growing more and more frustrated that I was perpetually hiding this struggle and not seeing any hope of change, I became despondent. I kept praying and fasting, waiting to wake up straight, but I was at the end of my rope.
The great irony is that I had become a “born-again” Christian because I was seeking a place to belong — after my parents separated and my family structure dissolved, I was looking for a supportive community that would help me make sense of an unjust world. Instead, I retreated within myself, hiding from a world that felt evermore unjust and a community I was sure would reject me for being a monster.
In a moment of deep despair, I toyed with ending my life. Late one night, I took a knife into the bathroom, turned on the fan, and bolted the door shut. I walked into the shower and sat down, sliding the glass door shut behind me. The house was silent, except for the drip of the faucet and the sound of air rapidly entering and exiting my nostrils.
Holding the weighty metal blade in my right hand, I ran the dull side along my left wrist, like I was taking it for a test drive. The metal, like the shower floor, was cold. I flipped the knife over so that the sharp side was facing down, across my wrist, and sliced it through the air above my flesh, again trying the motion on for size. I had seen this in a few movies, though it usually seemed a bit more romantic — an eloquent note left by the sink, a bathtub full of soapy water to hide one’s nakedness, two tidily slit wrists blossoming with blood, an expression of serenity on the deceased’s face.
This hardly felt so noble: me, crouched in the shower, holding a rusted knife used for chopping carrots, mopping up the tears and snot trickling down my face with my sleeve, listening carefully for any sound suggesting that someone had woken up to use the bathroom, guided only by adrenaline and anguish. I set the knife on the floor beside me and realized I had no idea what I was doing. How does this even work? I asked, almost aloud, not wanting to know the answer.
I couldn’t will myself to go through with it. I was too afraid — of the selfishness of this act; of how my family would react to it; of the physical pain involved; of failing at this, too; but most of all of the fate I was sure would greet me after death. I already had a strike against me for lusting after men, but suicide would seal the deal. And I didn’t really want to die; that night, holding a blade I’d hoped would end my suffering, all I wanted was to bury the knife in the backyard where I would never have to see it again, to smile as much as I used to, to be held and loved by someone who could fix it all for me.
I couldn’t work up the nerve to end my own life, yet I wasn’t really living. I stumbled through life like a zombie, totally disconnected from what was going on around me, fixated on changing something I could not, seeking solace in the Bible, in prayer, in worshipping a God I was sure was disgusted by me. I could find no relief. Surrounding myself with people who saw me as the perfect Christian, I felt trapped within my own lie of a life — one I could not bring myself to end, but one I could not go on living.
My mother, usually so aware, was distracted by her efforts to juggle several jobs and keep our house. But as she watched her loud, self-confident, and joyous son become an isolated, grim-faced teenager — a shell of a person — she began to wonder what was going on.
One afternoon, shortly before my 14th birthday, she went downstairs and opened the door to my bedroom. Entering the room, she went straight to my closet, a garbage bag in hand. She was something of a stickler when it came to how we kept our rooms, and she knew I was hiding my clutter in the back of my closet as I always did. While digging out my mess, she found the notebook in which I’d been detailing my agony and read some of its contents.
Soon after, she picked me up from an event. I got into the car, and she said, “We need to talk.” Those words could only mean one thing: I was in big trouble. My heart leapt into the back of my throat. I was sure that it was the moment I’d feared more than anything. I started to mentally catalogue everything I had loved about my family. This is it, I thought to myself, you’re on your own now. Time to grow up and take care of yourself. But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my childhood. How could I take care of myself when I didn’t even love myself? I began to sob. After a long pause, she finally said, “I found your journal.”
My mouth went dry and my forehead flushed with a miserable warmth. I buried my face in my thighs, hugging my legs tight in an attempt to curl up into a ball in the front seat of the car. I didn’t want to see my mother’s face twisted by shame and disgust. I wanted more than anything to make her proud. She had given up everything for me, and how had I returned the favor? The sinner son; the kind no parent wants.
After years of feeling so utterly alone, it suddenly felt like it had been a gift to carry the burden of my secret on my own. The sheer loneliness of those years didn’t compare to the immense weight of shame that came from knowing that the most important person in my life now knew my deep, dark, detestable secret. I couldn’t have torn my face from my lap even if I’d wanted to; I knew that, as soon as I did, all of this would be real. For a moment more I was safe in the dark, me and my secrets, so closely guarded, so tightly bound.
I felt the light touch of my mother’s hand on my back.
“I love you, and nothing will ever change that,” she said, and I couldn’t stop shaking.
What had started as an attempt by my mother to clean out my bedroom closet became an airing of the dirty laundry I’d stuffed into the dusty back corners of my life, the mess I’d hidden to try to show the world a different exterior. My mom, as she always did, had seen right through the thicket of my tricks; she knew I had not actually been cleaning up after myself, that I had instead kept the contents of my life tucked away, disconnected from all who loved me.
The next day, she took me to meet with a Christian minister who told me that God loves all people, queer and straight, and that I didn’t need to change. This moment changed my life forever, and set me on the course toward the work that I do now as an atheist-interfaith activist. My experiences of feeling isolated and misunderstood inform my conviction that it is imperative to work for a world where people of all sexual orientations, and all different faiths and beliefs, understand one another better — a society where all people can live openly and be who they are without fear.
But before we can reach out and try to build understanding and love across lines of religious difference, we must first love ourselves. I would never have known this unless my mother had saved me, loving me when I did not love myself. Her love was a gift, given at the moment I needed it most — and I intend to pass it on.
CHRIS STEDMAN is the assistant gumanist chaplain at Harvard University and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard (where he was previously the inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow). His book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, is available on Amazon.com. For help with depression or coming out, check out the Trevor Project at TheTrevorProject.org or call their Lifeline at 866-488-7386.