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Bruce, Why Did You Start to See a Secular Counselor?

i have a question

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.

Brian asked:

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.

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Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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17 Comments

  1. Avatar
    dale m

    I think that’s the ticket. Look outside of oneself and help others. One does not dwell as much on the psychological and perhaps the physical pain of Life. Although I do not have your trauma, I still find it’s WHAT one can do for others that is the supreme key, to tell others that, they’re not alone in this.

  2. Avatar
    Anne

    Oh, Bruce your openness & honesty has always meant so much to me. It has kept me going as I navigated so many similar trials & trails for over a decade now. This piece is a poignant reminder of how far we’ve come! Thank you!!

  3. Avatar
    Bourbon&Ginger

    Thank you for sharing, Bruce. Years of crippling depression and fervent prayers gone unanswered are two of the many catalysts that led me to disbelief. While surfing the internet for hours upon end, while commenting how atheists should stfu already, I began to see how irrational and angry Christians are. Also, the atheists were making sense, go figure! The more I read, the more I began to root for the atheists! History…

    Anyway, I’ve been an atheist going on 15 years (with some anti-theism as a result of hyper-religious and poor parenting. Couldn’t be happier!

    Hope you can get some relief soon. I’m a big fan.

    Amber in NC

  4. Avatar
    BJW

    I appreciate your candor and help. The things you’ve experienced are so traumatic. I can barely comprehend a world where your mother was abused and did not receive good help. Thank you for all your good advice, although I’m sorry it came from so much pain.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Thanks. I now recognize that I would not be the man I am today without my past experiences — good and bad. All of us are the sum of our lived experiences. While I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone, I do think the things I have gone through make me a kinder, more loving, more compassionate person. Not perfect, to be sure (not that I needed to tell you that). 🙂 When people share with me their own trauma, I understand. All of us have things we have experienced that give us opportunities to help others. I am, from this perspective, still a pastor, a man who genuinely wants to help others. I pastored churches that were primarily poor or lower middle class. I understood their struggles and pain because of my past.

  5. Avatar
    Neil

    Look after yourself, Bruce. It’s worth doing even – especially – in those times when it seems it isn’t (I speak from experience). You’re a great help and inspiration to many.

  6. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Thank-you for your open heart, Bruce. When the onion peels, we do indeed weep. Some of us have forgotten that the heart was built for all of it, for weeping too, for knowing the truth in our lives. I’m afraid that fundagelical faith often supports shutdown and denial and is a hard place from which to return home.
    You are an inspiration to me first because you are a good writer and you are able to translate heart to words in a way that speaks volumes. I’m happy to know that your writing is an integral part of your life. That means that I too will benefit, will continue to be able to read your work. The depth in any genuine creation is there primarily because the creator needed to do it, not for fortune, fame or anything else but simply the need to do it. After all, what is left when you finish a poem or an essay? You set it aside as finished, turn back to your place to find only a blank page facing you again, the great unspoken…
    I understand that you don’t wish to dwell on your foundational framework in history but the fact that you have faced and felt the lasting impacts of its orbit in you, informs your heart and mind in allowing a fuller human experience, very real and very very difficult at times.
    Thank-you for responding to my question. (Oh and while I’m speaking to you in Ohio…. Fuck-off, Ohio. Your motto, ‘With God, all things are possible’, sure has borne truth with Trump. In his case, all things refers to the all things horror, the unbelievable horror of what is possible with God. The last four years have been “four dead in O-hi-o”. Well done, thou good and faithful delusion.)

  7. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    For pity’s sake, Bruce, sessions with your counselor would be easily possible remotely. Heck I am still coaching archery … remotely. Contact him and see if you can set things up. Don’t go without vital support, just because you cannot meet face-to-face.

  8. Avatar
    mary

    thanks for sharing with all of us bruce. it helps so many you will never know. wishing you strength and peace in dealing w/the health problems. hoping things get better for you and polly soon.

  9. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Joe Biden has been declared. My congratulations to Ohio residents who helped to put him in the White House. The horrible nightmare called The Trump Family is coming to an end! Thank-you to all citizens who voted to end this sick presidency! Canada and the world are sighing in relief…

    • Avatar
      BJW

      My husband and I voted for Biden and I was completely delighted to do so. He wasn’t my primary choice, but now I think he was the only one who could’ve won. 70,000,000 Americans actually voted for Trump. It is sickening.

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      But then, 70 million Americans voted for him… The US somehow developed and fed the conditions that grow a Trump and clearly, those conditions still thrive. It will be kind of scary to see what happens in two years when, I think, Americans have interim elections. Could Trump boomerang back into power? So scary.
      Anyway, meanwhile, Bruce offers Ohio folks some free insight. Maybe there are a few people ready to exit the bubble of delusion…

      • Avatar
        BJW

        I’m related to several Trump voters, through blood and friendship. And they find him vastly entertaining and don’t see that he’s a bloviating narcissist, or, IOW, a bullshit artist. Trump apparently had some charisma talking face to face to people, and he was incredibly entertaining to them. I also read that people are attracted to authoritarians because they have a heightened response to fear. Fear of the other, fear of differences. It’s just too damn bad that the Dems seem to be the only sane adults compared to the GOP. (Please, I know the Democrats are not perfect. Compared to the GOP they are the only real politicians working to help people, as opposed to taking away rights.)

        Also, 30 years of conservative talking points, with the reign of Rush Limbaugh et al and the creation of Fox News, has made people less willing to believe the government or sane journalists. Instead, it’s all lies lies lies and then cons continue to hype people up with the evil of the government and press…even while it is THEIR government and THEIR press. I wish I could say this is unbelievable but…here we are.

  10. Avatar
    Van

    Bruce, how did you find and vet your secular counselor? (Asking for a friend) Is he religious but leaves that at the door professionally, or atheist/agnostic/humanist/et al personally also?

  11. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Hello, Bruce and greetings to Polly and the family. I’m glad to say that I voted for Biden, as a protest vote against Trump and his dynasty. That said, I’m thinking about your counselor, Dr. Deal, and I wonder if he’s able to have telemedicine calls, Skype, or. Zoom conferences set up with you ? If it hasn’t come up as a subject, please let him know how this will benefit you, and in doing so, us as well. I know it’s harder without him. So we do hope you can see about it. Take care, and thanks again for this great site you have.

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