My Recovery Story: So I’ve Been Spiritually Abused. What Next?

My Recovery Story: So I’ve Been Spiritually Abused. What Next? April 13, 2014

by Virginia Knowles cross posted from her blog Come Weary Moms

An entry to the “So I’ve Been Spiritually Abused. What Next?” series.

Four years ago, our family left a church organization which was and is facing major issues with legalism and abuse. It wasn’t easy to be there at the end.  It wasn’t easy to leave.  It still isn’t easy to navigate what I believe and how I relate to people.  Despite my deep disappointment and disillusionment, I have continued to rebuild my own spiritual life.  I have also looked back on several things that helped me transition out of more than one less-than-ideal-for-me situations.  I’d like to share these with you.

Before we left, I started reading widely and deeply about the subject of abuse of authority in churches, organizations, the full quiver / home schooling movement, and families.  I continue with that research nearly every day. Since then, I have been grieved by how many iconic celebrity religious leaders have bit the dust in a big way, and more importantly, how much damage they have done to others in the name of God. It makes me really wonder why I trusted what they were telling me about how to “do the Christian life right” when they were leading double lives with desperately dark sides.  I am no longer shocked when I hear such news.  It just seems inevitable because the legalism they espouse does not transform lives.

As I started contemplating potential changes in my life, I took a lot of time to think through what was bothering me, evaluate it according to what I already knew, read as much as I could from a variety of trusted sources, and seek advice from wise friends and  counselors.  One Christian counselor, extremely knowledgeable about spiritual abuse from both personal and professional experience, helped me to think through leaving our church, as well as deal with some other very troubling situations.  My current Christian counselor (who found funding to pay for our sessions) has helped me deal with even more issues, such as grieving the death of my mother and re-entering the work force. One counselor was a total fail in our only appointment.  I can laugh a little now, but at the time his insensitivity was seriously triggering to me. I understand that many others have had similar experiences with those who identify themselves as “Biblical” or nouthetic counselors.

I spent a few months researching what I wanted in a new church. I asked around, surfed the web, listened to sermons on-line, made a short list of possible churches, and talked to my family about the options. When I found a potential church that looked especially good, I called a friend who had attended there for a few years and grilled her for about an hour. The pastors, elders and other members there have been extremely supportive in light of our prior church experience. It has been a safe place where I can breathe and recover.

I have attempted to stay on good terms with our friends and pastors from our former church, which was challenging because of what I have written about the church’s parent organization.  I am pleased to say that those who were truly my friends are still my friends.  I know some folks have been shunned by members of their former churches, but that really hasn’t been an issue for us.  I taken the opportunity to communicate clearly with some of the pastors what my issues were with the church. They took the time to interact with me, they have expressed authentic sorrow, and I believe they have taken my words into consideration as they plan for the future.

I have given myself permission to handle this transition at my own pace without expecting too much.  It certainly wasn’t over the minute we left our old church, and frankly, they didn’t cause all of my issues in the first place. From what I’ve read on web sites about spiritual abuse, these kinds of situations can trigger PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), with the associated depression, anxiety, anger, apathy, disillusionment, distrust, relational conflict, and spiritual doubt.  I have experienced every single one of them.  It can be a complicated tangle that takes time to sort out.  There are some phrases, songs, subconscious impressions, and even Bible passages that give me a spiritually allergic sensation and make me recoil.  I ask myself, “Why am I reacting like this?” and try not to let negative associations ruin otherwise good things.  It is especially comforting to know that God is big enough and loving enough to handle my angst. I find that I am much less “put together” than I thought I was before, but I’ve also learned to be OK with that.

I now have the freedom to live outside the box of other people’s expectations of what it looks like to be a “godly woman” particularly in the area of marriage and motherhood.  After years and years in strongly complementarian settings and mindset, I have steadily edged toward evangelical egalitarianism.  I have also rethought my views on parenting and education. I am a mother of 10, ages 8 to 26, and I taught them at home for over 20 years. I was a die-hard full quiver home school mom, publishing three books and 16 years of e-magazines and blogs about it.  I had nightmares about the thought of sending my children to public school. Yet some of my own children have thrived there in the past few years.  I have been criticized and questioned by a few who are bewildered by our choice, but the fact that most of my kids are in public school is not the most pressing issue in my life at the moment.  I no longer feel the need to justify my educational decisions.  I just do what needs to be done each year.

Journaling and blogging are also important to me.  Writing it out clarifies some of the issues, and helps me to go back later and reconsider what I had been thinking before.  Sometimes I see a little bit of progress from then until now, and other times I have to go back and reclaim some of that progress that seems to have slipped.  For me, journaling is a private matter.  No one has permission to read them.  It has to be a safe place to let it all out without the fear of having to explain it to someone who might misinterpret what I’m saying.  I write out personal thoughts, Bible notes, life management and inspirational book notes, prayers, and plans for the future.  Blogging is obviously more public than my journaling, but it is a huge help, too.  I have always said, “I write to stay sane” and that is more true than ever. 🙂  Most of my blogging is not about spiritual abuse but observations about daily life. Take a peek at 

One more restorative gift is appreciating the beauty of nature that reminds me that God is a Magnificent Creator.  Clouds, flowers, tree trunks, sunrises — all powerful for building trust in the goodness and power of God!  In 2013, I started a new “Strength in Hymn” series that couples vintage hymn texts with nature photography and encouragement for the disillusioned Christian.  I love finding beauty through my camera lens!

What about you?  What has helped you recover?  What didn’t?

Comments open below

Would you like to share your recovery story or what helps you deal with the hard parts of recovery from spiritual abuse? Email us at

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • Suzanne, thanks for posting this. It is actually cross-posted at, which is my blog about spiritual abuse and recovery.

  • Allison the Great

    I’m glad that VIrginia is blogging about this. It took me a long time to even be able to talk to a Christian without feeling afraid, and even still, I am weary of them and I don’t trust them. I now have many Christian friends, and I can listen to the music and find comfort in it, but I am an Atheist and I’m happy as one. I will never go back to another church as long as I live.

  • Thank you, Double Dukes. I’m sorry you’ve had this kind of experience.

  • Taylor Joy

    Oh. My. Gosh. <3 Fantastic story–and I'm so glad you stuck w/ recovery, regardless of your struggles. <3

  • Edie Moore McGee

    Thank you, Virginia. So many people are so burned by spiritual abuse that they can no longer consider themselves Christians. It’s good to get a perspective like yours as well as the others.

  • Yes, Edie, this is the case with some of my friends, whom I love dearly. Thank you for your kind words.

  • “What has helped you recover?”

    Essentially – self-directed therapy. Healing is a lot of work and it doesn’t just happen all by itself or overnight.

    I talked a bit on the last post of this series about how I worked to create new associations for my triggers. That was a big step in re-forming a functional individual out of my broken self; I had SO many triggers that just kept me from enjoying so much of life.

    One other thing I found essential was cutting off communication with my abusive ex. Until I was completely free of his influence, healing was impossible.

    Finally, after I got free, I realized that I had literally no idea what a healthy marriage was like or how to do my part in creating one. I knew that I had just left a bad marriage, but living in it for a time had completely warped my understanding of what “normal” is. So I started reading a lot of “how to save your marriage” books – not to learn what I should have done, but to glean from them what the goal should be – what a healthy marriage looks like, what types of things loving spouses do for each other and what types of things loving spouses DON’T do. (Sounds silly, I know, but I really was clueless)

    The whole thing is much longer and more complicated, but those are the main points in a nutshell.

  • Jewel

    “There are some phrases, songs, subconscious impressions, and even Bible passages that give me a spiritually allergic sensation and make me recoil.” Boy, isn’t that the truth!

    “I had nightmares about the thought of sending my children to public school. Yet some of my own children have thrived there in the past few years.” Me too! I almost chickened out and changed my mind about a million times before sending my kids to PS this past year. But I tell you what, it has made a HUGE positive impact on all of us and is one of the best decisions I’ve made in a LONG time!!

    Good for you, Virginia!

  • Athena, this is really good stuff. I think our perception of what is normal and healthy dynamics (in marriages, churches, other relationships) sometimes gets really skewed/screwed.

    I wrote something years ago about reinterpreting entire episodes of my personal history – not to deny what happened but to reframe the significance and figure out any positive aspects I might have missed.

  • Thank you, Taylor Joy. So am I. I love your blog, too! I was reading there last week.

  • Thank you, Jewel. We second guess ourselves a lot, don’t we? But when the time came, I knew, and it really wasn’t so hard. I have one young child who doesn’t like public school and has not thrived quite as well as the others, so at her request, I’m going to bring her home for at least a year and try again later.

  • Athena, I loved the comment you left on my “Truth and Grace in the Stories of Our Lives” post. Could you share it here, too?

  • Sure! Here it is –

    “I believe that we can learn to reinterpret our life stories so we can release the bitterness, confusion, guilt, or fear from our minds without necessarily forgetting what happened.”

    In essence, take control of the narrative. That makes a lot of sense and is consistent with something I saw a few years ago regarding trauma therapy –

    Here is the therapist –

    And here is the program I saw –

    Essentially (if I remember correctly), Ms. Vasquez said that talk therapy doesn’t work for trauma victims because talk therapy engages the logical centers of the brain. But that’s not the part that needs healing; what needs work is the right brain. And until the healing happens, the person is stuck in that traumatized state the same as if the trauma were still happening. Even years afterward.

    She said that one of the things she has her patients do is to draw a picture or make a movie of their story to help them take control of the narrative that they experienced.

    Overall, I think what she said made a lot of sense.

  • That reminds me of something I was reading yesterday in the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci. Apparently he wrote affirmations to himself in his notebooks about overcoming adversity. The author of this book was commenting: “Although ‘I am’ affirmations can be helpful, they tend to elicit a primarily intellectual, cognitive response. You can get your affirmations to work at a deeper level by framing them in a more emotional, heart-centered way.” (He was recommending using “I feel…” statements instead.)

  • Affirmations are great. Especially if you take a deep breath and focus on them to mentally cut through chaos. My favorites are –

    1) This, too, shall pass. (not really an affirmation per se, but it works for me)
    2) I am a badass.

  • Oh ho, that first one reminds me of something funny. I once went to a home school retreat (1993), and during the Q & A section, I asked a pastor’s wife, “What do I do with my two year old? She’s not young enough to lie there and coo, and not old enough to sit still with crayons!” She gave me this sage look and intoned, “Trust the Lord and this stage will soon pass.” Not sure about the “soon” part. I had six more kids after her, and it was another 16 years before the youngest was beyond the age of two. Yikes!