Therapist and author K.J. Ramsey talks to us about her healing journey from spiritual abuse and chronic pain.
-How K.J. realized that she was in a spiritually abusive situation
-Wrestling with questions about why God allowed her suffering
-The importance of emotional safety in a church or community
-Her process of leaving a spiritually toxic environment
-How connecting to her body helps in her healing
-K.J.’s books, “The Lord is My Courage” and “The Book of Common Courage”
Related links and Resources:
Carrie: Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD episode 89. I had the absolute privilege of interviewing KJ Ramsey. This was a situation where I didn’t realize before the interview how much we had in common. We both have a background as trauma therapists with more of a somatic lens. We both graduated from the same seminary.
It was very interesting to see her perspectives based on her own experiences and understanding of scripture. Kj, welcome to the podcast.
K.J.: Hey, thank you for having me.
Carrie: I know that with authors, you guys tend to have a lot of podcast interviews. It’s almost like you’re on a virtual book tour nowadays, right?
K.J.: Basically what it is, it’s an extensive virtual book tour. And an introvert.
Carrie: Oh, no. Well, at least you don’t have to meet as many people face-to-face then.
K.J.: I guess in a way, especially during cold and flu season, and there’s still COVID all around. It’s nice to minimize some of that, but it is good. I get to talk to a lot of really interesting people.
Living with a Chronic Illness and Wrestling with God to Understand Her Suffering
Carrie: So my understanding from scoping out your website is that you talk about your personal story on there, and I imagine that is what you write about as well. You’ve written a few books. Is it an autoimmune condition that you have or some issue that causes chronic pain?
K.J.: I have several autoimmune diseases, but I started with one, which is a way that it typically goes if you have one; it kind of blooms into more. I’ve had ankylosing spondylitis for 14 years, and AS is the shortened version of that, which is better on the tongue. Last year, I got COVID-19, which turned into several more diseases I will have for my life under intense treatment. I have a lot.
Carrie: So you ended up with the long haul COVID symptoms?
K.J.: Yes. Because of it, I had long covid and new diseases, which is hard.
Carrie: I’m curious because you also talked in your story about spiritual abuse, and I’m processing, as well, a lot about healing just in general because my husband was just diagnosed last year with a permanent neurological condition, and there’s no cure for it.
I’m curious if you could share some of your thoughts on healing. I think it helps our audience with anxiety and OCD as well because there’s a lot of struggle in wrestling. Why am I having to deal with this? Why won’t God heal me? Why can’t he take this away from me? He’s all-powerful. He has the ability to do that. Can you tell us about maybe some of your wrestlings with that?
K.J.: I was 20 years old when I suddenly got sick and went from being a fully functional young adult to barely walking and could barely hold a pen or drive myself across campus. I was a college student at the time, and that persisted.
I entered adulthood wrestling with this question of why I have this suffering that doesn’t seem to go away. What is the point? And also, what does God care? What is God going to do about this? And really, my better answers are in the book, my first book, this Too Shall Last. I will say that I’m more a writer than anything else, but I’m a trauma therapist learning how to listen to my body and respond to my own sensations with kindness, compassion, and movement.
I really do believe that there is healing in the way that I would say, the capacity to live as fully as we can, even for some things to be reversed. And that’s with me saying that with a person with a lot that’s wrong on my test results.
And a lot of ongoing pain still in my life that I’ve seen things change, and I’ve seen my capacity to show up in my life grow massively as I’ve learned to listen to my body and what she has to say about how safe I feel on any given day or moment. From both a theological and a trauma perspective, I believe there is possible healing in how we face ourselves with compassion and face one another with compassion. And I caveat that by saying how I define healing might be different than sudden spontaneous removal of all of your symptoms. I think that, actually, pain prompts us to pay attention and bear witness to the pain in our lives.
And when I say pain, I mean all of it. Emotional pain too, struggles, the very inconvenient experience of having intrusive thoughts. That’s painful. Pain prompts us to pay attention and can point us to the places where parts of us still need to be unfolded with the care that needs to be held.
And it’s in that process that we experience more fullness, more joy, that’s healing. There’s a difference between healing and curing. The difference is between good removal of all of your problems and experiencing wholeness, and I think we all can experience wholeness even in a body that continues to have a disease continues to have a mental illness.
Finding Emotional Support and Connection
Carrie: That’s incredible. I don’t think that I could have phrased that better because I think that aligns with some of the process of what I’ve been thinking about with my husband. It’s like we haven’t gotten the healing from, or the cure, like you said, from the diagnosis, but we’ve been healed in the sense that we’ve been healed from isolation.
We have support and other people we’re connected to who are going through this. We have a support system outside of those that are going through it. We’ve been healed from the financial stress of paying for medical bills, and God has provided. That’s something that I want to write about a little bit more.
When we started this journey, it was kind; a lot of people were praying for him, and he was having eye issues, and they were praying for him for healing. That in itself is somewhat of a miracle because even though he has a degenerative condition, his eyes haven’t changed in a year, which we are just really celebrating; that, and so thankful that he hasn’t lost any more of his vision, but it’s been a process of, I think his eye doctor’s probably not a Christian and doesn’t know quite how to make sense of that. I thought when we first started going through this, God would take healing in any form that it comes in.
However you want to do this, if you’re going to heal him physically or if you want to heal him emotionally, and there’s the level where he’ll talk about how, even though he likes to be in the background, he has this walker now that puts him in the spotlight. People speak to him, and he’s able to encourage them. Or even people with mobility issues say, “Oh, tell me about this walker.” It’s just a little bit different from your typical walker. How do I get one of those? Those types of things. It’s been very interesting to see how God’s used him differently with this struggle and suffering because it’s definitely changed him a lot. It changed me a lot and drew us closer to God and each other and those things. I’m really thankful for it.
K.J: I love that you started that off office saying God has healed you of; I don’t know if you put it exactly like this, but your individualism. I think that’s one of the core things that we’re all being invited into, whether it’s with struggling with something like OCD or Ankylos Spondylitis or complex trauma, there’s this invitation to be more fully human, which means to be in relationship to others, to be connected. There’s something about our struggles that invites us in a way that is harder to decline, to be connected, and to be supported, to be seen. The way that my body works, I can’t do life on my own.
I can’t. There are many stretches where I can’t take care of myself fully; beyond that, I need the emotional support of the people around me. I don’t love experiencing that, and I love that my body pulls me into a story where I don’t have to be self-sufficient, and nobody else has to, either. And I think that is the healing in which we’re all being bound.
We’re all being invited into. It’s the space between each other. That’s where Joy is. That’s where wonder is through love; our struggles take us to go there.
How K.J. Discovered that She was in a Spiritual Abusive Situation
Carrie: And we’re entirely too isolated and disconnected from each other in our society. I’m really curious about this. It is kind of totally switching topics, but your story regarding how you discovered that you were in a spiritually abusive conversation just gives us a picture of the warning signs of that or when it starts to click like, “Oh, this isn’t healthy.”
K.J.: In my previous book, the Lord is My Courage, I share a lot of my husband and my story of waking up to the fact that we were in a spiritually abusive faith community in this church and choosing to leave it and trying to heal from it. Dealing with the ongoing effects of religious trauma is so hard about spiritual abuse that it’s often quite subtle.
Of course, there are going to be things that are not subtle. But I think the whole, does the fish know what the water is around them? It’s just, you’re in, you’re swimming in the water, and that’s the water. For us, waking up to the fact that the water we were swimming in was toxic was a slow process of paying attention and sensing our pain.
For us, it was noticing how other people were being harmed. My husband was a pastor at this church, and his coworkers would come to him in tears after being yelled at in the pastor’s office. So hearing other people being belittled or overworked, noticing how people are subtly mocked in staff meetings, and being disturbed by that is part of what woke us up.
At first, we weren’t the people being directly attacked because we were doing the stuff that the pastor didn’t want to do himself. My husband was over pastoral care and counseling, and I ran my counseling practice at the church. This pastor wanted to preach, so we were in good graces because we did something that made the church look good and took stuff off his plate.
That favor you can get with a leader can blind you for a while to how they might be treating other people. But as soon as we started to confront, I don’t love how you yelled at that person; that’s when you become the problem, too. I don’t so much to categorize warning signs or red flags.
The most important thing is that we should know, especially in white evangelicalism, that we have been taught to dismiss our own bodies’ signals about how safe we are in our environment. And call it definitely faithfulness that you should serve no matter what, volunteer, and believe the best of your leaders because of so many things.
The inheritance of Nastheism down to the more recent effects of purity culture. We have internalized and ingested a spirituality that says the body is bad and your emotions are untrustworthy. And I’m here to say that’s not scripturally true, theologically true, or physiologically helpful.
Carrie: Yeah, it drives me bonkers.
The Importance of Emotional Safety in Churches and Communities
K.J.: Yes. It’s terrible. And that in itself is, those are the seeds of religious trauma right there. But your emotions and your sensations about being in church and being around other Christians are actually telling you really important things about how safe you are and how safe everybody is in that community, and learning to listen to your own sense of distress and being disturbed by something is actually what helps you move into more safety.
Sometimes, your body has wise things to point out about whether somebody’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our bodies helped us over time. Very slowly, our bodies begged us to listen. I know it was listening that got us free.
Carrie: This is something that really bothers me, that when people comment in church, and I’ve heard it repeatedly with pastors, you have to choose faith over your feelings.
Those are interacting with each other all the time. God gave us a body and emotions for a reason, and God has a wide range of emotions. That statement, to me, I feel is very unhealthy, but it’s something that I’ve heard repetitively.
K.J.: You can walk around in public and see people wearing shirts that say faith over fear. It’s so prevalent that we don’t even need to understand how it’s been co-opted by certain political movements. But faith over fear is self-harm because fear is your body’s wise response to show you that you don’t feel safe and help you move into safety and connection. And I know this is bold to say on a podcast, especially about OCD.
Fear is not the enemy. Fear is there to move you somewhere. All emotion is energy meant to move you. Emotion, energy, and motion. It’s intended to prompt you to pay attention to yourself as somebody who deserves safety, connection, fear, and faith. Fear drives you to treat yourself as a friend of God. Fear doesn’t have to be something that we fight.
It can be something that wakes us up. Fear makes you quite alert, and often for those of us with mental illness. It might prompt us to be way more observant than we wish we were all the time. The experience of hypervigilance is not necessarily pleasant, but it is a prompt. It is not the problem; I think it’s the space that goes back to talking about healing.
That’s the space I love seeing people get to make a shift because when you start to treat your fear, which is part of your body’s physiological response to danger and the perception of danger. You start treating your fear as a friend with something important to tell you. Your life changes. There’s room for things not to feel as terrible as they do when you’re fighting part of yourself.
Carrie: It’s so rare that I get to have conversations with somebody that’s this mindful because essentially what you’re talking about is mindfulness. This sense of being curious about our emotional state instead of trying to judge it and say, oh, I shouldn’t be afraid. The Bible says, fear not, so I have to cut that piece off and go with God’s given me love and power to sound mind. And it’s this bizarre Christian CBT, is what I call it, where we try to do some thought replacement, and we’re all going to feel better now, and it just doesn’t work.
Healing Through Embodiment
K.J.: I would say, what I’m saying more than mindfulness is that embodiment is the practice of non-judgmentally paying attention to and responding to our sensations.
I take it one step further because I think that even with mindfulness, we can stay detached from our physical experience. What’s happening? I’m making this little movement you can’t see me. You keep making this movement with my hand, like cutting ourselves off at the neck. Basically, what happens when we feel afraid, or when we feel overwhelmed, we feel ashamed?
Any of these activating big feelings that come up is that the way your body works, you’re temporarily cut off from the regulating power of your prefrontal cortex. So your brainstem is very active, your limbic system and your brain is very active, and your body is quickly mobilizing you to seek safety, and you can’t actually access the part of you that’s, well, God is love, and Christ dwells in me. Therefore, I am actually okay. You can’t access that. So we’re talking about a bottom-up approach to belief, which is that response to the sensation happening in your body; that’s what I mean by bottom. So, the lower half of you, starting with your body, responds to this sensation with curiosity and compassion.
That is what brings your body and mind back together so that you can return to that place of faith, of mentally accepting an ascent and receiving that Christ is with you. Embodiment this non-judgmental, which is easier said than done, paying attention to what’s happening inside your body.
Leaving a Spiritually Toxic Environment
Carrie: When you were leaving the spiritually toxic environment because essentially you both had to leave your jobs, it sounds like that’s a significant shift. How did you recover from that trauma to become more embodied? Was that through your therapy process?
K.J.: The recovery began, I would say, I think something that feels in this moment important to point out is part of why we don’t leave is because we are so afraid of losing our livelihood and our sense of belonging; that’s why we took us so long to leave. Truthfully, the fear of how we will pay our bills and how we will afford insurance. That kept us extended our stay in the land of toxicity for years. And a lot of people don’t talk about the practicality of that. Having money to pay for your groceries and pay for your rent is pretty important. And whether you’re working for a church or maybe realizing maybe my community is unhealthy and you don’t work there.
The fear of losing your belongings is massive. Most of these kinds of churches prompt like they are ordered around the church should be your whole life. This is where you go multiple times a week. Your small group is your community. So what happens when you have to leave? You lose everything. And I no longer think your life should be ordered around an institution, but that’s a separate conversation.
Healing was started by leaving, and that was terrifying. And it was a rescue in many ways that God would lead us out into a broader place. And it was once we were out my body got even more vocal. And I was experiencing a lot of anxiety and tremors in my arms. I was falling. I thought I had had so many mysterious health symptoms over the years with my disease, and I’ve been tested for MS before.
I had a lot of tests done. I had at one point this whole brain and spine MRI done and saw this neurologist, and this was such a moment of grace, of God’s kindness. He showed me the pictures of my brain and spine and said, your brain is beautiful. There is no evidence of disease here. “My wife is a complex trauma survivor, and I think what’s happening is he had asked us questions about what’s been going on in your life.
My wife is a complex trauma survivor.” I think what’s happening here is trauma. The further you escape this situation, the better your body will feel; some of these symptoms will disappear. At that point, I was just a therapist. I hadn’t started to specialize in trauma, but to hear somebody named that for me was incredibly helpful because you feel it’s not; what I’m going through is not that bad.
It’s hard to even get to the point of letting yourself call something spiritual abuse. Because we’re so conditioned to be deferential to pastors, to leaders, and we want to be kind. We think that it’s not gracious to say something or use a word like that, but grace and truth go together. The truth is my body reacted with such violent, intense shows and displays of a lack of safety because I had been so gaslit, demeaned, and pushed out because I had been treated less than human.
My body was responding in kind, saying this is not okay. That was my body’s protest. I started there because I think it was my physical experience of such extreme distress of feeling terrible. That prompted me to seek more help to get into therapy again. I believe that, more than anything, put me on a path of studying somatics and beginning as a therapist myself into great somatics into my practice, and that’s now the foundation of everything I do. But I start there; I just gave you the version of if we would have this conversation for three hours. I always trust that you know what; sometimes, in these conversations, there’s always a reason that what comes to my mind first is what there’s an invitation to say. And so that’s where we went.
Carrie: How wise of that neurologist to be admitting. “Hey, there’s some psychological things going on.” But not make it, “Well, it’s all in your head because you’re kind of crazy.: There’s this balance where some have had either of those extremes.
K.J: Yes, I’ve been told it’s psychosomatic. It’s all in your head dismissively, and blames me like I am too broken. And I’m sure so many people listening have experienced this too, and maybe your husband did far before getting his diagnosis. There’s a vast difference between an acknowledgment of how our brains and bodies are connected that says your symptoms are real and they make sense based on what you’ve experienced.
And this is psychosomatic; if you can fix your mental problems, your body will feel better. That’s the sin right there of individualism. That kind of medical model that blames people’s symptomology on their struggle is why they feel these symptoms when our bodies are begging us to hear the truth about the broader systems that we’re a part of, our family systems, our church systems, our society.
I think the point is that these things we feel are such problems or separate us from those who don’t have struggles as much as we do. I say this as a disabled woman. I think there’s some fierce wisdom in the ways that we struggle that our bodies are trying to tell us. You and those around you deserve more love and support than you have received. All of the symptoms of stress that we experience in how they manifest are shouting to tell us we deserve to be seen, held and helped.
K.J’s Book: “The Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poem to Find Strength in Small Moments
Carrie: Very interesting and definitely brought up some things I haven’t considered. I’m curious for you to tell us about the Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poem to Find Strength in Small Moments. How this book came about and the importance of it. Why does it need to be out in the world?
K.J: Well, we’ve been talking about trauma and part of what happens when we’re experiencing trauma. Also, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we talked about how your body is strongly mobilizing. Energy to keep you safe, but that is sinking you further away from your being able to access the language centers of your brain, for example.
The point is when life is hard, it’s hard to have words, and the Book of Common Courage is really my offering of words for the moments in our lives and the seasons in our lives when we feel wordless and when we don’t have words to pray, and we wish we did. When we are struggling to make sense of our lives, when we don’t feel strength, and we don’t feel seen. We want to that it’s an offering of presence, as I think that books are portable presence in so many ways that there’s something about a book that can enter into the private place of your home, your bedside, your living room.
And be with you and make you feel less alone in your life and story. I think we all need the reminder that we are not the only ones with questions and confusion about God. And when it comes to whether our stories are excellent. So this is just my offering to bridge that gap between belief and the body, between your hard day and the hope that’s yours.
I wrote it, not meaning to write a book. When I was writing the Lord as my courage when I was processing my own story of religious trauma. I started to write poetry and prayers for myself. Just to process the intensity of the story and really to help myself. There’s poetry is a really distilled form of language, so to help myself distill down, what am I trying to say in this chapter?
What’s the most important thing and what’s just for me and my spouse, and what needs to be out there for thousands and thousands of people to read? Poetry helped me find my way, and then, over time, I just shared it and shared some pieces on social media, mostly because I was tired while writing a manuscript and needed something easy to share.
People felt seen by the poems and the prayers. It was before I called it poetry because I didn’t even feel I could give myself that label. It was through other people’s responses to the words that I was like; I guess maybe this would be encouraging for people, not just for me. And it became a book.
Carrie: I love it. It’s based on Psalm 23.
K.J: Both The Lord is My Courage and the Book of Common Courage walk through the exact breakdown of phrase by phrase through Psalm 23. The book of Common Courage is an exploration. It’s praying through the Psalm, but it’s also praying through getting to receive, being in dialogue with Christ as the good shepherd.
Who is the person who that Psalm was pointing towards? Most of the prayers in the book are a colic, short form of prayer, which is intentional. It’s my trauma-informed way of doing less is more. We don’t need long prayers and lots and lots of words when we’re struggling. We need small, and we need a little bit of containment.
So they’re structured, and they’re a little bit of containment to help you feel held. But they’re mostly appointed at Christ to dialogue with Christ as the good shepherd who still is seeking you.
Carrie: I love less is more. We did an episode not too long back on breath prayers. That’s something that I’ve just been able to incorporate in my life at different times or seasons, and those are very short but very helpful.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self who is dealing with chronic pain or spiritual abuse?
K.J: I think that I would tell her your body is not bad. Your body is not betraying you by feeling all this pain and struggling so much. Your body has wise things to say, and I dare you to listen. Please listen to her. I think that’s what I would tell her.
Carrie: That’s definitely good. Your body is not bad. The people hear nothing else from this episode. I hope they receive that piece because, as you said, it’s somewhat so ingrained in our Christian culture to almost be scared. To be embodied, something like you’re getting too new age or something like that is not what we’re doing. And it’s not scriptural to be disconnected from ourselves.
K.J: It’s an expression of faith in God who put on flesh to dwell among us. When I treat my body with reverence, I worship Christ, who decided to become human in a body and still reigns in a body. This is worship.
Carrie: Thank you so much for being on the show today. Share your words of wisdom. I think this is going to be relevant and helpful to a lot of people.
K.J: Thanks for having me.
Carrie: I am currently reading KJ’s first book. I went ahead and picked up a copy after I did the interview, and I’m enjoying it. As always, thank you so much for listening.
Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By the Well Counseling. Our show is hosted by me, Carrie Bock, a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee. Opinions given by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the use of myself or By the Well Counseling. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum.
Until next time, may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.
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