…aka How I Incorporate My Polytheism into Dealing with My PTSD from Intimate Partner Violence: A Preliminary Report.
Faith shows up in a lot of therapy already. One of the first steps of the famous 12-step substance abuse program involves believing in a power higher than yourself, and there are multiple survivor advocacy organizations coming from the perspective of one religion or another. The only two groups for polytheists I could find for domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV), however, appear to be all but dead, and one seems more focused on issues like addiction. Polytheists can be just as devout, religious, and/or spiritual as those of any other religion, and while advocacy and counseling groups are absolutely essential and effective, it’s more difficult for those of us for whom our healing is closely entwined with our religious practice.
This is why I have a group dedicated to polytheist-oriented DV support in the works in its own small corner of the Internet. But I feel weird proposing such a thing that will, by its nature, involve people sharing experiences not just of trauma but their religious beliefs without being willing to do the same myself, so I wrote this article, the process of which has made me uncomfortable, depressed, and angry by turns. It starts with some background, but you can skip it because the general outline isn’t unlike the stories of many other survivors. There should still be enough context to understand the last part, which is about how my PTSD and polytheistic practice intersect, so if you’d like to take a pass on the TMI, jump down to “Enter the Gods, Stage Right.”
My sincere hope is that this provides something constructive, even if it’s just for one person. Let’s hope I don’t fuck it up, if only because sharing this level of detail feels a little like pulling fingernails and leaving the raw beds exposed to the air.
Hush, this is my article, I’m allowed to be dramatic.
Those Skeletons in the Closet
(But not Uncle Nick Nack.)
I was a smart kid, and early in childhood I learned quickly that it was always easier not to argue. Arguing made the yelling go on longer and trying to defend myself just convinced the other person even more they were right, so it was better to just stare silently into the middle distance and agree with whatever was being said until there was an opening for me to run away.
“Your Sun is in Aries,” the astrologer told me on my sixteenth birthday. “You’re a zero-degree Aries, so just barely out of Pisces, but still, definitely an Aries. Do you feel that fire inside you?”
“No,” I said, and giggled nervously.
When a boy asked me out at the end of sophomore year of high school, I said yes. Why shouldn’t I? Maybe I didn’t think I ‘liked him’ liked him, but he really liked me, so maybe I owed it to him to say yes. That’s how it works with boys and girls, right? Except we spent two hours on the phone, me saying that I didn’t actually think it was a good idea and him crying about how much he liked me and why I couldn’t I just give him a chance? I was a smart kid, and I’d learned that it was always easier not to argue; and, well, this is how movies and TV said things worked and how girls are always supposed to give a guy a chance (and another chance, and another). So just to get it all to stop — nice girls don’t just hang up the phone on someone, it’s very rude, no matter what terrible things are being said over the line — I surrendered.
I don’t remember much of the next three years in regards to our relationship, only what it made me feel. I do remember trying to break up with him halfway through and he threw such a huge fit that it sent me into a panic attack and emotional breakdown, but beyond that, it’s primarily a haze of boredom in front of the television (“Let’s go somewhere” — “I don’t feel like it. Besides, Bones is on,” and this is the age before smartphones and their ability to provide a distraction from anything), bad and usually unwanted sex, anxiety, guilt, frustration, and moments in which I tried to force myself to love him as much as he claimed to love me because I figured that would make things easier. Gaslighting was just something made up by an old film. I mean, he even made me a mixed cassette tape! And we went to the same school, in the same grade, with the same people we’d both known since elementary, so…awkward.
Later, he used stereotypical gender and relationship roles to justify his behavior and admitted I’d become a trophy. There are things you do as The Girlfriend because that’s what it means to be The Girlfriend. Some years later, his friends also admitted that he’d put me on this weird possessive pedestal, and let me tell you, that can be as dehumanizing as the other extreme. Either way, you’re not a real person anymore, just a source of whatever services your partner wants at a given time.
Sometimes it feels like I’ll never be rid of it. The relationship ended around eight, nine years ago now, and I’ve had other partners since then, admittedly a few of whom reinforced some of the ‘lessons’ from the original abuse. But for a while, save for the occasional triggering moment that forced me to leave a room before I flipped my shit, I thought I’d dealt with it. It was his first relationship, too, and he had his own issues, I told myself. It doesn’t justify anything, but at least it wasn’t out of malice but simple lack of understanding, and then I refused to think about it, at all, except when I absolutely had to.
“You’re telling me,” one of the shelter’s coordinators said when I told her this during a training session, “that there was never any sign that something was wrong? That he never saw you were upset?”
I thought of that two-hour phone conversation, the emotional breakdown marking the halfway point of our relationship, the protests that got weaker over time. She went on, so gently, “On some level, he knew exactly what he was doing to you.”
Oh, how it all came back with snarls of years-old fury. I’d thought the pain had been sorted through and set aside, but in reality it was just papered over with rationalization and denial with the occasional flashback I’d promptly try to pretend never happened. I’d bought into some of the very narratives that the women’s shelter was training us to recognize in other survivors. By then, however, it wasn’t even about him anymore: it was about me and the belief that I had allowed him to take away my personal power to the point that even my own body, the thing in which my heart beats and my soul lives, didn’t belong to me. That it was my fault for not being stronger.
Enter the Gods, Stage Right
Nowadays I have deities to whom I have loyalty, devotion, and experience. I know what I want to do with my life and where I want to go and it’s just a matter of being patient in getting there, which is more than I had a year ago and more than what many people ever have at all. Even so, I sit in front of my shrine and wonder, What the hell am I doing, claiming to be a devotee of the Morrígan?
I won’t go into the nuances of the Morrígan herself/themselves, which tend to be grossly misunderstood, because I will never stop, but suffice it to say, the Morrígan has always been a goddess of warriors and kings, of strength and sovereignty, and generally taking no shit from anyone. And so I sit in front of my shrine, wondering and scolding and forgiving and raging.
- How could I have allowed the abuse of that first relationship to happen?
- Am I weak-willed for having been physically unencumbered but so emotionally and mentally leashed? It’s not like he actually held me down or put a knife to my throat.
- Why didn’t I learn my lessons before I ended up with other people who, to one degree or another, echoed parts of him?
- What interest could a deity such as the Great Queen have in someone who had learned that passivity and dissociation was safer and easier than defending herself?
- And most importantly, why did I stop fighting?
I now understand — sort of — that the cards had already been stacked against me: an overbearing, unpredictable mother who discovered she had breast cancer when I was fourteen, a messy parental divorce, the emergence of then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder (and the rate of domestic abuse against those with mental illness is a whole other world of discussion), a first-time relationship for someone who was already socially awkward and naïve, and all during the developmental years of adolescence in which minds and brains are still forming both socially and literally. There’s a reason that kids are so impressionable, learning things so quickly and retaining those lessons for the rest of their lives, but it still sounds like a shit-ton of excuses and justifications designed to absolve myself of any responsibility. It’s become a mental tug-of-war, or maybe a teeter-totter, considering some days I happily totter along hardly thinking of it at all and other days I’m teetering on the edge of some unholy storm of anger, depression, anxiety, insecurity, and more anger.
I want to blame this on you, I mutter at my deity. I ignored you for years and I was perfectly happy pretending I actually was happy before I made the mistake of finally getting up the nerve to face you. But I don’t believe that the gods test us, creating disasters wholesale in order to teach us a lesson or some other patronizing bullshit. All my queen did was draw attention to the already present rot that was slowly destroying me while I tried not to see it. Blaming her is not only unfair to her but unfair to me, removing my agency as surely as my first relationship did, however more subtly.
As a polytheist, my devotion to the Morrígan specifically inspires me to be proactive about my shit. It would’ve been too easy to say I would volunteer at the women’s shelter and never actually do it, but feeling accountable to the Morrígan motivated me to keep my word. Would I have done it without her? Probably. Eventually. After all, the gods don’t give us any strengths we don’t already have within ourselves. But sometimes we need a bit of a nudge, or sometimes a swift kick and a challenge of, “Well, are you going to keep sitting on your ass or are you going to follow through with the bullshit you’ve been spouting?”
Even a zero-degree Aries can’t resist a direct challenge.
Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed.
It means the damage no longer controls my life.
(Attributed to Akshay Dubey, a name that doesn’t appear anywhere
but on Tumblr, so I have my doubts as to this person’s existence.)
But sometimes the tough love isn’t what we need. Sometimes we do need time to curl up under the blankets and cry and read fanfiction in which everyone is happy and nothing hurts, and that’s when Anpu gets tucked right under my chin and I think very deep thoughts about how cool dogs are and how much I love them. (He’s actually sitting my lap right now.) Keep your damn bowties, I’d rather dip into my Kemetic practice for a while and split a pot of Au Chocolat tea with the kind of dude who knows how to share a silence with patient, unhurried support and a dash of dry humor. No one can ever be “on” 24/7, and when my righteous fury gets damped by cynicism or depression and the metaphorical sword gets too heavy, I need that quiet darkness of the in-between places to lay it down. I need to pick up the fine scalpel instead to cut open those old scars, to carefully slice off those pieces I don’t need, wrapping them in shrouds of understanding and grief and finally letting them die in peace.
This is why I think there’s something to be said about having more than one spiritual support for the same reasons you can tell one friend some things and another friend different things. This isn’t to say that gods are Pokémon to be collected and I have very strong words for polytheists and pagans who treat the gods that way, but for those with the ability, inclination, and spoons to maintain significant relationships with more than one deity at a time, having another to support you can be a powerful resource. It makes sense that experiences forged in different situations under different causes would require different approaches. For me, this is having the Morrígan as inspiration and occasional ass-kicker, a protector when I’m acting in the outside world, and Anpu as guide and support when I turn my attention inwards. For other polytheists, these roles may be filled by a single deity perfectly well, or perhaps these roles will be filled by many according to what’s needed for healing. In every case, they should be relationships that bolster but not control, becoming a twisted mirror of the very relationship(s) you’re trying to resolve. It’s not unlike managing relationships that help you heal without becoming a crutch that can ruin you if it ever changed or ended. What are your goals? What do you think is best for you? Then, who will help you achieve these goals while understanding the difference between guiding and controlling you?
So what happened, happened. It can’t be changed. No, I didn’t deserve it, just as millions, billions, of other people don’t deserve the pain inflicted on them by those who are supposed to care for them. (Well, any kind of pain, really. Our world sucks more often than it should in such terribly creative, diverse ways.) There are explanations for why things happened the way they did, but that doesn’t make it okay. Taking the consequences of my experiences and turning them into something useful doesn’t justify the original abuse but instead gives me back the power that was originally taken from me. Bring in your gods, and the process of surviving and healing becomes an act of devotion, an offering of pain and hope and anger and determination and all those other things that reveal who you are in how you choose to act after the initial battle has ended.
Thriving independently from someone who wasted so much time and energy trying to control me and using the impact of that attempted control to help others who have dealt with the same oppression is the ultimate “fuck you.” When in doubt, you don’t go for the literal jugular. Bruises will heal and death is a mercy, but destroying power bases? Damaging a reputation, shoving dark secrets into the light of day for everyone to see, using the abuse for the opposite purpose it was intended for? That is how you spear the heart of your abuser and find your vengeance. Do it right, cover your tracks, toe the line but never cross it, and not even the law can say anything as he loses friends and coworkers and loved ones.
Checkmate and go fuck yourself, you bastard.
Forget stardust—you are iron. Your blood is nothing but ferrous liquid. When you bleed, you reek of rust. It is iron that fills your heart and sits in your veins. And what is iron, really, unless it’s forged?
You are iron.
And you are strong.