“That building looks like some sort of church on the outside, but it’s actually an mad house for head cases! Go in there and you will find nothing but lunatics inside” Historian Annabeth Petergrew laughed in my North Carolina state history textbook last year. No one knew she was speaking about my Church, the demon sent to bring my demise.
How ironic was it that I could see the Church through thick glass and bars this evening? I could see its stairs looking down from my window, its tall pillars, stained glass, shadowed cross. I view the Church tonight, from a hospital, with nothing else to do but reflect.
I live in a tumultuous, invisible war waged between myself and the building under my window, across the street. I was born minutes from the building and raised inside it. I spent every Sunday morning in it for years, being groomed into servitude and beaten into submission. The silent battle I fought with the Church left me depleted. Last week, I burst in my collapse and nearly resigned to death.
This week, I sleep on a bare twin-sized bed, decorated only with the thinnest pair of sheets, one limp blanket, and a disposable pillow. There are no hooks, latches, or levers on the ceilings or walls for the bed’s dressings to hang from.
An empty desk occupies the space in front of the thick, barred window I stare out of. I have my notebook on an dusty chair, and a half-sized tithing pencil stuffed in my pocket. We aren’t allowed writing utensils in our bedrooms so it rests against my thigh, sharpened but not in use.
Since I am not allowed to write at night, the desk cannot be used for its most practical function, so instead I use it as a seat. The pants that I’ve worn for four days and four nights now provide little warmth for my skin as I rest on cold, smooth wood. My rubber-bottomed feet are crisscrossed, my lonely hands resting in my lap. I have to be monitored in confinement for a week, so I may as well survey the surroundings outside my window.
The haunted building falls below the lights of the city at night. Each day, I see guests wondering in and out of its polite doors, admiring such a lively, historic relic. The Church was once known for quartering soldiers during the Revolutionary War and now during the day is known for its large congregation, humble servitude, and evangelical outreach. But in the evening, the building cannot hide from the truth. The Church knows what it is.
I am careful to move my lips only slightly, so onlookers can’t read me. Speaking and singing aloud can ruin my chances of leaving confinement in the upcoming days. It’s unclear if the nurses are able to hear me, so I angle my head and open my mouth almost invisibly.
I begin to whisper:
Even though I know:
No one can save me
Only God’s Grace can rescue me
I haven’t truly been saved
I am trapped in a hospital
My eyes can’t help but swell with tears. It seems that the Church, the home which damned me to sit on the desk this evening, is my only chance of rescue. God spits me out as I cry, I’ve rejected His predatory advances. He held a knife to my throat and demanded my love, my devotion, my servitude. However, I make quite the vengeful submissive and stabbed his hands to run away.
An exploitative mansion. A cult. A war relic. A pervert protector. And I was raised to believe it was my only chance at redemption.
I believed these lies in my formative years. After all, the Church was my mode of survival. It raised me, I was told it protected me. When I was scolded, it was love. When I was ignored, it was teaching. When I was neglected, it was fair. When it isolated me, it was my fault. When it chained me, it was my fault. When it burned me, it was my fault. If it buries me, it will be my fault.
Of course, it was not all bad. I believed the Church held the love of my life, the key to eternal happiness, even if I must deny myself for now. I found my suffering was not normal—but good! To be desired! If envy were not a sin, my suffering would be envied by others!
I loved to explore the Church’s labyrinth in my adolescence. I proudly clicked my heels on the stage of the sanctuary following a morning service. I lifted my decadent dress skirt as I walked down the grand, double staircase. Yet in the afternoon, the sun lowered to give me cover so I could crawl the Church’s secrete catacombs. My steps departed from lavish luxury to listen to the calls of the dead. They were kept underneath wooden tiles in the hallways, and I could see their names on the wall: previous members memorialized in plaques, portraits of stern, vile men in reverence, and whimpers from those who must have felt like me, too. I didn’t believe in ghosts until I realized that history still haunts the living when the sun disappears.
In the evening, the building was naked. Streetlights nearby begged travelers to maintain a distance from the Church and its haunted, bellowing laugh. But the Church stood still. So tall, in fact, it could even reach me in my dreams.
The Church burned around me with fire. It screamed my secrets so loud I couldn’t hear my pleas for escape. The Church choked my mouth with scripture, St. Paul especially enjoyed his turn down my throat. Job was the only one to hear my screams and sang me a lullaby that told me if I submitted, the pain would stop. Mary Magdalene must have been there too, but the Church wouldn’t allow her to speak…
Perhaps the Church was not my only demon. Is it fair for me to blame the Church, the building across the street, under my window, for my current predicament? After all, I am in a hospital. My feet are rubber, my mirror is aluminum, my shampoo is in a medicine cup which I use to clog the bathtub. I am trapped in visible anguish every night.
However, the Church is the demon who drove me the furthest across the street and up the window to the hospital room I will sleep in tonight. The Church is the demon who bound me by this desk for my sins, for Jezebel had been tempting me for years.
Jezebel whispered that I needn’t be trapped in the Church. That true love isn’t constrained by a noose. That I shouldn’t burn for turning away a man’s advances. That my mind is not sinful for its doubts, but strengthened by them. That I deserved happiness.
Oh, demonic me. Demonic I am for wishing for happiness. Demonic of me to question those holding me hostage. Demonic of me to read of science. Oh, what an ugly, ugly witch I must be!
But oh, me of little faith. I maintained my place in the congregation for years. I denied myself, as scripture says. I stopped wishing for happiness. However, the Beast of Reason had already marked me.
“Yet I spit on God so He vomited me out the front doors”
(A demon who looked like me spoke in a dream.)
No matter the regiment I put myself through, I could never live up to my pastors’ standards. My pledge to purity was stained before it was signed, my mouth had lied before it promised to speak truth. I was poor before I could give away my riches, I was in despair before I could give up happiness. A child of Eve, I was damned before I was born.
So I suppose I would blame the building below my window for my uncomfortable bed and mirror that can’t show me my reflection. If the Church had not put me here, it sure set the chess piece that made me leap towards my own check mate…
I turned myself in to the hospital before I could die. I had no hope, no one, but one dying wish. I did not want to have my funeral at the Church.
So this evening, I sit with my fury fading to solemn. I spent years resigned to Protestant misery, a Baptist life rejecting all forms of pleasure. Yet, even as I am separated from the Church by thick, barred glass, I still feel unable to allow myself a smile.
We, the congregation, had been told the Church was lucky to have survived the Revolutionary War. A small plague and a countywide quarantine made the building seem empty to British soldiers. Now, I am quarantined from the plague of the Church, lucky to have survived the demon’s attack. I am isolated from all but an irritated doctor, blank faced nurses and underpaid orderlies.
The hospital didn’t know it exorcised a demon.
Now, I am left an empty husk, learning how to be a human again.
I despise bathing myself, as I am unclean in my existence. I deny myself dinner, for my starvation is only to be filled by the Holy Spirit. I deny myself touch, for accepting it from others leaves me filthy and unlovable.
I felt so guilty, so shameful, so evil for the sole sin of existing that I almost denied myself the chance to wake up. Almost.
So tonight I sit. Not for much longer, or a nurse will come bother me with more medication. But I sit just long enough to reflect, to withdrawal. To purify without purity.
My time with the Lord has come to an end. Since I decided not to die, perhaps I could put my Sunday mornings to rest instead.
The next morning, I fold my cold, lumpy blanket and resign myself to another day alive. The Church bell rings a smiling congregation inside itself. Under my window, husbands hold their wives’ hands, small girls bounce in poofy dresses, students carry Bibles and journals. Despite the inches of glass and hundreds of bricks between us, I think I can hear a child laugh. I smile sadly, knowing the demon is looking for a new host in the naïve faces walking inside its building.
I suppose they didn’t hear the Church scream the night before.
Ever since I turned down Heaven, I’ve started receiving notes in the mail. They come in the same order at least four times a day with five different authors: Peter, Sarah, Eve, David, and Paul; and have the same letterhead, God. God sends five of his finest to remind me that, though I have left his union, I am still indebted to him.
Perhaps these are saints; to some they may seem like demons, but I can laugh them off as a nuisance. Of course their claims are frivolous; they can’t force me to pay them since I’m not in a Covenant. I exorcised their Christ and Church from my body six years ago. Yet, I still can’t bend my ankles because I’m still anchored in their debt.
I opened the letters the first week they arrived and became strikingly ill, unable to read past the second line. My waist fell, wrists bruised, and eyes sunk. I began throwing God’s letterhead straight into the trash bins, unopened. The next year, God’s letterhead changed to Highland Supermarket, Internal Autoinsurance, and Framework’s Credit Bureau. His letters accompanied coupons, unactivated credit cards, cell phone bills, and letters from my Grandmother.
I maniacally chopped my mailbox down with an axe and took the metal to a recycling center. Two years later, I moved to a new apartment in a new city and updated none of my paperwork. I declined the keys to my mailbox and never walked into the complex’s main office. I invited no visitors, never let any friends drive me home, and never took a cab. No one lived with me, no one knew where I lived, no one checked on me.
I thought I was free from the notes until I fell ill again last year. My blood congealed until it became papyrus soft. My mind, body, and soul were nothing but notes. I lived for months as a paper doll, quick to crumble, susceptible to flooding.
Alone in my reclusive apartment, I sat flammable in a circle of candles and let candlelight illuminate my body just enough to read the writing layered under my skin.
Saint Peter’s letters hide in my veins to disrupt the beating of my chest. He reminds me of how I’ve failed his mission, how I’m trespassing without purpose. I was to spread myself paper thin to the ends of the Earth, to tell of all his God’s wonders and miracles. Yet, I spend five days a week at work with no mention of Him or His Word. How many times had I sat with friends at brunch on Sunday instead of taking them to Church with me? What happens when they die and face eternal punishment? Is their eternal punishment not to be blamed on me, the person who cared for them too little to save them?
Saint Sarah squeezes my insides until I cannot bear to eat. I’m selfish and wasteful. She stabs my empty, neglected organs with vacancy signs to attract buyers. What type of person would abandon motherhood? Who would waste their golden years on coffee, alcohol, refined sugar, hormones, and microplastics at the expense of their fertility?
Saint Eve hunches my shoulders and flinches near men. Her notes remind me that any harm a man brings me is my fault. My exposed collarbones beg for a man’s stare, my shorts drip with desire. How could I say no when I dangle myself like meat before a hungry dog?
Saint David is softer and writes in cursive. He notes are nestled in my eyelids, weighing them down peacefully. He recites sweet poetry of redemption, and reminds me that I’m so close to being reunited with God. All of God’s blessings and protection could envelop me and shield me from the pain from the other notes. The suffering I experience will be worth the eternal reward if I would just give up and succumb and—–
I cannot finish David’s letter, so I end with Saint Paul. His notes are embedded into my heart and expand as I breathe. He holds the date of the Final End in hands, written in a language I can’t decipher. His writing screams that these notes have an expiration date, that God’s protection offer isn’t timeless. Any day my heart could stop, my car could crash, my boyfriend could get too angry, my food could be rotten, my lungs could catch sickness—and I would have no protection. I would have to pay for my crimes, my sins, and my debt, with eternal punishment. I would finally be treated as the bad, bad, bad person I am in hellish solitude eternally with no one except my hellish, ugly, evil self.
I cannot live. Yet, I cannot die.
My doctor says my anxiety has caused heart palpitations, IBS, muscle tension, fatigue, and hypertension. He handed me four notes to take with me when I left his office: a copay bill and three prescriptions.
If only he dug deeper into my skin than a fingerprick. If he slit my wrist open, would he see the paper? Would he make out the notes? Would he understand why I live in sickness?
An anxiety diagnosis speaks Freudian nonsense and Beck oversimplification to my detrimental experience. How could I simply breathe the notes out of myself? If I inhale for ten seconds, hold for eight seconds, and exhale for twelve, will the paper evaporate? Can I make the notes quieter by sleeping for eight hours? Will taking 10 milligrams of Fluoxetine for one week, 20 milligrams for two weeks, and 40 milligrams every week after that erase my debt?
For the truth that I feel shaking my core is that everyday I am exposed. Every day I am vulnerable to my own demise, caused by my own selfishness and self-righteousness. Yes, my Covenant was poison, but it was also the cure. Suffering during life was nothing compared to paradise after death, knowing that I won’t have to be punished for my sins. If I punish myself today, and tomorrow, and everyday until I die, then I won’t have to be punished anymore! I can escape punishment—by punishing myself! Punishment today protects me tomorrow! Punishment is protection!
But am I protected?
With or without a Covenant, I am no less protected, and in no less danger.
I inhale for ten seconds, hold for eight, and exhale for twelve to blow out each of my candles. The Demon must have slipped inside me again somehow, it put the notes in me!
Perhaps it is time to send the notes back.
I take a deep breath and force my fingers into my chest. My vocal cords shriek in the highest octave of E and my body crumples prostrate onto the floor. I search my arteries and find the first clog—it’s paper! It’s a note!
My fingers dig around a crimson chest cavity to find that all my organs are made of paper. Paper heart, paper lungs, paper stomach, paper liver, paper appendix. My entire body, my entire being, is made of my debt. This debt that I didn’t ask for, this debt that isn’t mine—Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint Sarah, Saint Eve, Saint David—whoever you are—-you can have this debt back!
I am not made of paper, I was not made by your God, this is not my debt!
I cough, I sputter, I croak, I breathe.
The Demon of the Church does not leave when asked. Unlike the Devil, it needs no permission to entire your home and your body. It invites itself under the promise that it will never leave you, nor forsake you.
The Demon is inescapable. It is power hungry and will always return for more.
So I repair the damage that I can. I put the rest of the bloodied notes into an envelope and begin to stitch myself up. I find that I have parts of my body that I own, my own heart, my own lungs. I discovered that Adam lied, I’m not missing a rib!
I take a thick stack of envelopes to the post office the following morning and direct them to mail it without a return address. I don’t want anymore letters; I don’t want anymore notes. This is not my debt, these are not my thoughts.
I abandon my demon once more on the post office doorstep. I’ll take my medication and breathe deeply to prepare when it strikes again.