I write dramatic narrative. I have recently deconverted from Christianity and I put my main character in a situation where he is forced to grapple with the notion that he has lost his faith. This is a chapter taken from a larger manuscript.
I am sharing this as a way to perhaps open up a dialogue about the stress and anxiety that go in to struggling with deconversion. Narrative is the way I communicate my ideas the best. I may submit this chapter as an article later if you guys think it would be worth doing.
Exposition: Corey is a 29 year old general physician. He is in residential mental health treatment after losing his shit, attempting suicide, and very nearly succeeding. His whole family has been murdered by this point in the story. Corey doesn't realize he's been set down a path to deconversion. This is Corey's documentation of the day's events in his journal.
"I'm giving you all three sticky notes. Write down your three favorite things." Sam was leading group today.
"Things like items or people or what?" Clay asked.
"Whatever you want. Could be a person, a hobby, an object, or a concept. Take your time. Write one thing on each sticky."
My foot began to bounce with nerves after a few moments. I quickly wrote faith on the first one without a second thought. I thought of my dad next, the night I got the news he died. Then I remembered weeping over the stethoscope he got me so I wrote that down on the second one. For my third favorite thing, I chose my ability to connect with people.
"Now imagine that you can't have one of these anymore. Choose one sticky note and rip it up." Sam said.
I looked at the three green squares before me. The bouncing of my leg intensified.
"You okay, dude?" Jack asked, snapping me out of my trance.
"Yeah, I'm okay. Thanks kid." I said. He smiled at me.
I twisted my pen between my fingers. I knew I wouldn't want to lose my ability to connect with people, that's the absolute best thing in life. I was stuck between getting rid of my faith or my stethoscope. I thought about how it seems to connect me to my father but I also considered how eventually, a better model will come out and I'll want to upgrade. But I know it's not about the item itself, it's about what it represents.
That just left my faith. Do I really believe in God anymore? When's the last time I prayed like I knew someone was listening? Do I agree with the Bible anymore? I mean it does condone slavery and it's not really all that moral. And when I flatlined, I should have experienced something, right? Or are all near-death experiences just the brain dumping massive amounts of DMT? How is it that we can damage the brain and lose capacities that are supposedly regained upon cortical death? Does any of this actually make sense?
"Corey?" Sam's voice cut through my haze. "You're sweating. Are you okay?"
"Y-yeah. Sorry." I stammered.
I picked up the note labeled 'faith' and hesitated for a few seconds before ripping it up. I put my elbows on the table and ran my hands through my greasy hair until Sam spoke again.
"We are all going to lose everything we love in life. Some of you have already lost things you never thought possible. We almost never know when we will do something we love for the last time. Think about the people who raised you. Your parents and guardians. One day, they picked you up as a kid for the last time and had no idea it would be the last time."
I felt a knot form in my stomach thinking about my dad picking up my limp body not realizing how close I was to death.
"Every time you interact with your three things, try to do it as though you knew it was your last time."
“That’s kinda depressing…” Jack said.
“It can be depressing to think about at first but if you adopt it into your schema, it will help you live a more examined and fulfilled life.” Sam replied.
“I mean I guess.” Jack said.
“Well, what do you say we do some Vipassana before dinner?” Sam asked.
The group exchanged words of approval as we went into the meditation room. I took a cushion and pulled it into the corner by myself. Sitting down, I felt the familiar twinge of shame begin to course through my body. I began to feel incredibly self conscious trying to hide how out of breath I was becoming.
“Take your seat. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.”
Sam’s voice usually subdues my anxiety but not today. I tried to focus on taking deep breaths but my body seemed to have its own ideas. I opened my eyes to see Sam looking straight at me.
“Begin to focus on the sensation of breathing, wherever you feel it the most - the rising and falling of your chest or the rising and falling of your abdomen.”
Sam stood up.
“Keeping your eyes closed, see if you can follow each inhalation and each exhalation, covering them completely in awareness.”
My heart rate shot way the fuck up as Sam walked toward me. I’m really glad all the guys kept their eyes closed. Sam knelt in front of me and continued with the instruction.
“If it helps, note each breath by softly thinking ‘in’ on the inhalation and ‘out’ on the exhalation. Or you might try counting each breath. Whatever helps you lock in your focus.”
Sam was making soft eye contact but I looked away. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. I was beginning to hyperventilate as the room seemed to close in around me. Without breaking his focus on leading the group, he began to engage me in a way that initially freaked me out even more.
“There’s no need to control the breath, just let it come and go as it wants. If it’s slow or fast, that’s fine. If it’s deep or shallow, that’s fine. Just cover it in your awareness.”
Sam picked my hand up from my knee and pushed it against my chest.
“Each time you notice that your mind is wandering, each time you notice that you’re lost in thought, gently shift your focus back to the breath.”
Sam lifted his hand palm up as he inhaled and lowered it palm down when he exhaled. My heart was slamming against my hand and I was very aware that Sam could feel it, too. This only served to amplify my anxiety.
“Take a moment to note the quality of your attention. See if there is any color of emotion to it. Are you feeling anxious or sad? Just notice that about yourself and use it as an object of awareness.”
He kept motioning with his hand in front of me as a meter for me to follow. I focused on the almost hypnotic nature of this gesture and I became less aware of the discomfort in my body.
“See if you can open your awareness to other sensations in the body. See if you can focus on your body in such a way as to surrender its shape.”
I could feel my pulse slowing and I met Sam’s soft gaze. He put his hands on his knees and held my eye contact for a moment before offering me a nod. I nodded back and He went back to his spot in the middle of the room. When he sat back down, he waved his hand downward in front of his face as though to tell me to close my eyes. I closed them and was washed over with calm.
“Now become aware of where you are watching the breath from. Do you feel like you’re inside your head, behind your eyes? Recognize that this is an illusion.”
After the meditation was done, Sam offered me his hand and helped me up.
“You good?” He asked.
“Yeah. Thank you, Sam.” I replied.
“Any time.” He patted me on the shoulder and went to talk with the other residents. He’s such a great dude. Today was tough and I now have to face the fact that I seem to not have any faith anymore. Without my belief in God, I don't think I know who I am. What if my identity is so bound in my 'relationship' with Jesus that I lose myself by forfeiting my faith? What if the lonliness is too much to handle? But I guess what I'm most worried about is what if I'm wrong? What if I walk away from my faith and spend eternity in conscious torment? I'm still shaking even as I write this. I don't know who I am in here. And I feel so alone.