I recently asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question you would like me to answer, please leave your question on the page, Your Questions, Please.
I admire the personal work that you have done to be able to garner perspective about your directions in life. It sometimes seems that the vast majority of folks are not able to seek professional help in dealing with trauma in their lives.
Very often, when listening to someone tell some personal history, I will use the word ‘trauma’ in expressing sympathy, in acknowledging the tale but so often I am rebuffed with something like: “No, it wasn’t traumatic. So many people have terrible things they have to deal with and mine wasn’t like that at all…” The vast majority, once again, seem pre-therapy and not really ready to make that step to include real feeling, real self-care in their lives. They distance themselves from the heart.
Christianity, particularly evangelical sorts encourages people to look to God for cures, for help, for everything! And unless a therapist is in the bubble, they are of-the-world and thereby suspect in the work they do.
I wonder if you would speak some more to how and why you started to see a counsellor. You have spoken to this issue before in passing but could you share with us some of the feelings that allowed/suggested counselling was a direction to go. You have mentioned being ostracized and alone in your search. You were a hardliner IFB preacher who studied how to become a hardliner’s hardliner. Yet, eventually, your direction brought you to an exit sign. Perhaps you have said all you wish to regarding this matter but I think in these times of trouble, it might be helpful to share some more about your way of healing, the coping with God’s army at your door, the struggle with lonely choices. It’s a lot to ask, I know and feel free to set it aside if that is necessary.
Thanks for the question, Brian.
I grew up in a home dominated by mental illness. My mom tried to kill herself numerous times, finally succeeding in the 1990s. (Please see Barbara.) She was fifty-four. Mom was placed in a mental hospital for two lengthy stints when I was a teenager. To say that Mom’s illness was traumatic for me would be a gross understatement. I still bear the psychological scars from her manic episodes, attempted suicides, and being cruelly asked to perform her funeral after she killed herself with a Ruger revolver. I am weeping as I write this. Oh, how I miss my mother. I grieve the fact that she never got to know most of my children and none of my grandchildren. I told my youngest daughter the other day that Mom would have loved her oldest son, two-and half-year-old Ezra. He is, in every way, a spitting image of his grandfather. He is impulsive, ornery, and rambunctious. I imagined my mom telling Laura, “Ezra’s a little shit just like your dad was.” So many memories left unmade because of mental illness and suicide.
As a teen and a young man, I quickly learned to keep my feelings safely in the arms of Jesus. As a devout Evangelical Christian, and later a pastor, I believed that God was in control of everything and that would never give me more in my life than I could handle. Every bit of trauma and adversity in my life was God testing me, increasing my faith, or chastising me for a known/unknown sin. Whatever came my way, I sucked it up, believing that it was all part of God’s wonderful plan for my life.
Of course, psychologically (and later physically) things were not okay with me. I struggled with deep, long-lasting bouts of depression and on many occasions had thoughts of killing myself. To the outside world and to the churches I pastored, I was the model Christian and pastor, but my wife and our children saw the “real” Bruce Gerencser. No matter how much a depressive tries, he can’t hide his trauma and struggles from those who are close to him. Mom’s mental struggles, my parents’ divorce after 15 years of marriage, moving from school to school and house to house, witnessing Mom being raped by her brother-in-law, finding Mom lying a pool of blood after she had slit her wrists, knowing Mom had been sexually molested by my grandfather, my own molestation by a relative as a young boy, having a father who likely knew I wasn’t his biological son — a father who never said “I love you” or attended one of my ballgames or school events — and spending much of my young life living in poverty, often having to steal money for lunch and shoplift to get school clothes, is it any wonder that I might have a problem with depression; that I might have thoughts of killing myself?
This was a heavy load for a young man to carry, and carry it I did until I was in my forties. I finally reached a place where I recognized I was in trouble; that if I didn’t seek professional (non-religious) help that I was going to become a statistic, a sorry story on the obituary page of the local newspaper. Yet, it took me two more years before I saw a counselor. I made several appointments with one counselor, only to cancel the appointments. I was worried that someone I knew would see my car at the clinic or see me going into the counselor’s office. I couldn’t bear being “exposed” to people who knew me. Bryan is the town of my birth. I have family scattered all over rural northwest Ohio. What if people found out I was a “nutjob”? “Just like his mother!”
It wasn’t until we bought our home in Ney (2007) and we deconverted from Christianity (2008) that I finally sought professional care from a secular psychologist by the name of Dr. David Deal. Past trauma, along with the loss of faith and career had put me in a desperate place. It was David who came along side me for the next decade and helped me to unravel my past and understand my struggles, along with helping me build coping mechanisms in my life. I will be forever grateful for all that he did for me.
The first thing we did in counseling was peel back my life. David likened it to peeling an onion one layer at a time. Painful and teary-eyed to be sure. When I left Christianity, I left all I had ever known. I had been a pastor for twenty-five years. My whole identity was wrapped up in being Pastor Bruce or Preacher. Now that my faith and career were gone, I was left with answering the question, “who am I?” “What do I want in this life?” By this time, health problems had added a whole new layer of complexity. Being in pain all the time is enough to drive anyone to thoughts of suicide, let alone a depressive such as I am.
Over time, I began to understand my past and began building a healthier understanding of self. I like to think I have become a better man, husband, father, and grandfather. Do I still battle depression? Do I still have thoughts of suicide? Yep. As Dexter the serial killer was fond of saying, depression and suicidal thoughts are my “dark passenger.” Recent new health problems and hospitalization drove me to the edge of despair. I told Polly, “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t . . .” Fortunately, my dark passenger withdrew into the recesses of my mind. I am not better health-wise, but psychologically I am in a better place — at least enough so that I am not dwelling on suicide.
COVID-19 has made it impossible for me to see Dr. Deal. I hope that this pandemic will soon come to an end. He and I have a hell of a lot of stuff to talk about. Until then, I continue to write. David urged me to keep writing; that doing so would help others and also provide an outlet for my passion. I write because I must do so. Without writing for this site, I am not sure I would make it through a typical week. This blog allows me to tell my story. It is, I suppose, a digital journal of sorts, with entries of millions of words since December 2014.
Thank you for “hearing” my story and continuing to support what I do.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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