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  • Writer's pictureJulz

The Swamp Life

If I told you that I think you should live in “the swamp,” you’d probably look at me cross-eyed. After all, swamps smell. There be gators. And mosquitoes? No thank you! There’s a niche group of people who find swamp life appealing, and I’m guessing you’re not in it. (I’m from the desert, so you know I’m not).

The swamp I’m talking about is metaphorical. It’s an image that God gave me as I sat on my couch, typing furiously on my computer, trying to understand why following Him out of IBLP feels like trudging through a soul-sucking bog.

Why is every step heavier than the last?

And why are there gators?!

I mean, shouldn’t finding freedom feel like a horse turned loose on the prairie?

But finding freedom the healthy way is more swampy than I expected. The metaphor of the swamp was partially inspired by Dr. Dan Siegel in the field interpersonal neurobiology. It’s the idea of rigidity versus chaos, or integration theory. It’s explained in simple terms on the website Mindful Wisdom:

Dr. Daniel Siegel has a great model for a healthy mind. In his model, a healthy mind is an integrated mind, where all the components are able to function optimally and are interconnected with each other. We move to an unhealthy state…when our mind isn’t integrated. Siegel sees integration as the place of well-being between two extremes: chaos and rigidity. He suggests we imagine we are floating down a river in a canoe. One bank represents chaos – where we feel we are out of control and caught up in the rapids and turmoil of life. This side of the river is filled with instability, anxiety and even fear. The other bank represents rigidity – where we are imposing control on everything and everyone around us. We are unwilling to be flexible or adaptive to anything. This side of the river is filled with stagnation.

I first learned of this theory while going through a difficult relationship. The guy was everything I wanted, except in love with me (figures). My best friend (who has a masters in mental health) pointed out that I was swinging between ‘I’m going to marry this guy’ and ‘I just want to break up’ every few days.

She explained integration theory and how a healthy, integrated mind is not being one bank or the other, but being in the river. My “bank hopping” between him being "the one” and “not the one” was a sign of being disintegrated.

Her point was that integration in this situation looked like “you don’t know yet” and learning to be okay with the wait. (There was a whole attachment thing going on here too, but attachment’s topic for another day).

The theory applied big time to this relationship, and I got a lot of good practice riding the river (albeit badly). Since then, I’ve found that integration theory applies to everything, and especially deculting.

I was sitting in my living room after listening to Jinger Duggar Vuolo’s book, Becoming Free Indeed, trying to understand the wild surge of energy coursing through me. Instead of the responsible, logical me I usually am, I felt crazy. Like I needed to become a left-wing liberal (not a dis on y’all’s belief system, just not typical Julz), dye my hair pink (I never dye my hair), and run away from anything and everything I’d ever known (I hate the unknown).

That’s when it hit me. I was disintegrated, and experiencing one of two typical responses to finding out my worldview was a lie. Not just a misunderstanding, but a straight up lie. I’ve seen it time and again, and I’m sure you have too. While there may technically be more responses than this, these are the two reactions I have witnessed the most in myself and my fellow IBLPers when faced with the truth of the organization’s cultic status and Gothard’s (and other’s) evil actions:

Denial (rigidity, disintegration)

I know you’ve seen this one (possibly experienced it). Maybe it was your own parents when you showed them the Recovering Grace website for the first time. Or your best friend refusing to read verses disproving Gothard’s teaching. Or a family you knew who refused to review the sexual abuse allegations because “…Satan just wants to take out a good man.”

How could someone not be even a little bit concerned (or at least curious)?

Just look up IBLP’s response to Shiny Happy People, and you’ll see it. The claim that the documentary was “salacious and false” is an astonishing statement, given we were all there, eyewitnesses to the truth of most of what was shared in the mini series. (I can’t help but wonder if the person who wrote that response even watched the documentary).

While pondering this alarming reaction in fellow IBLPers, I had to wonder, “Why are they so blind?” And that’s when it hit me. It’s a disintegrated reaction. It’s the rigidity bank of the river, and frankly, the one Gothard trained us to live on.

Shut down curiosity. Obey blindly. Avoid chaos at all costs!

As I thought through these reactions, I felt more compassion on those choosing the denial (rigidity) response to challenge. I went through a short phase of denial myself in the early stages of my disentanglement. After all, to admit that Gothard was a false teacher doesn’t just bring the organizations he founded into question. It brings your entire worldview (views on the divine, marriage, family, sex, dress, food, social conduct, church, music, movies, culture…to name just a handful) into question. If that’s not alarming, I don’t know what is.

Honestly, sometimes it’s emotionally easier in the short-term to just pretend everything’s fine. Even though it isn’t. You’re still disintegrated.

Rejection (chaos, also disintegration)

I think we’ve all seen this reaction too. People running so far from IBLP that they become unrecognizable, stop being believers, and change everything about themselves. (I know of more than one gender change). Originally, I had a hard time understanding the leap from the bank of rigidity to the bank of chaos because I was so firmly rooted on the shores of my own convictions (or fears, if we’re being really honest).

But after more than a decade of deconstructing, disentangling, and rebuilding my faith, Shiny Happy People brought a huge wave of energy to the surface. I wanted nothing to do with God, church, and anything that looked or even smelled like IBLP. It was a wild surge that made me want to get into the car and drive away back east (that would be a chaotic decision in my context) and start over, pretending none of it ever happened.

This might look different for everyone. I’ve noticed lots of pink hair among ex-fundamentalist women. (Why pink specifically, I dunno). Exploration of drugs, alcohol, and sexuality is chosen by others. Gender changes, like I’ve mentioned. Political party-hopping.

Here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying people shouldn’t dye their hair pink, try weed, alter their political views, or be curious in general. I've tried things I never thought I would (and before you go all judgy on me, remember...integration).

I do have strong opinions on some of these things (because I believe them harmful) but the point here isn’t about what decisions are made in this state of mind. My point is about why they were made. Because when that surge of energy went through me and I wanted to join a liberal activist movement (none in particular, just a movement), I sat down and thought about why.

Because logical me leans conservative (while attempting to avoid political rigidity). Logical me knows that I hate the color pink (the marketing for Barbie gives me feelings, and it ain’t nostalgia). Logical me knows that I have never liked living further east than New Mexico. Logical me knows that there is reasonable evidence to believe in the existence of a creator.

And that’s when I understood that these desires which were so opposite my nature were a natural response to betrayal. It was my nervous system screaming “danger!” and my body trying to listen to it. My brain saw the betrayer (IBLP) as rigidity and wanted something different (chaos).

And I knew I couldn’t choose either bank because Jesus wasn’t on either shore. I had to choose something else. That’s when God was like, “Let’s talk about the swamp."

The Island, the Coast, and the Swamp

God usually speaks to me in statements. Sometimes all He gives me is one word, like when I asked about a step I wanted to take with a guy and He simply said, “Hold.” Or another time, when I was talking to Him about my loneliness and He just said, “You have people in your life who love you. You aren’t reaching out. Your loneliness is your doing.” He’s direct and in my business. It’s what my heart responds to.

But this time, while sitting there trembling between chaos and rigidity, He gave me a picture and a story. And I want to share that with you.

Picture that IBLP is an island. The island is well-lit and covered with smiling people. Obviously, I’m picturing them in white shirts, navy skirts, and khaki dress pants, but I digress.

This island is locked in on all sides by a stinking, festering swamp. You can picture the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings if you want, but for some reason, I picture a cartoon swamp, like in Princess and the Frog, but not full of cute singing animals. It’s got lots of gators, oozing, sucking mud, and its very, very hard to see the sun.

Beyond this swamp there is a coast. It’s distant, but on it you can see the sparkling towers of a beautiful city. It’s green, safe, and the air is fresh and clean! I picture mountains because that’s me.

Between the island and the coast is a bridge. It’s wide, sturdy, and easy to cross. You can get across as slowly or as quickly as you like, and it arches over the swamp. Seems the gators can’t reach you there.

Then you’re faced with the truth. The island is rotten. Jesus never asked you to live there. In fact, if you stay, you’ll likely die a slow death, poisoned by the rot buried there.

You have a choice now between rigidity and chaos. Rigidity screams that you’ll die in the city. After all, that’s why you were taught to never leave the island. Crossing the bridge would lead to your ultimate demise. I mean, what if you went on an actual date or something?! No, no, it’s safer on the island.

Chaos, however, beckons you to the bridge. Lots of people live in that coastal city. They have happy marriages, good jobs, nice cars, and social standing. It won’t hurt you. Just run across the bridge, leave everything behind, and forget the island. It’s done nothing but limit you anyway.

You have a third choice, actually. You look toward the shoreline that separates the island from the swamp. Standing there is Jesus. Not the false Jesus memorialized in the center of the island who is rigid and narcissistic with his followers, but the real Jesus who is Himself integrated, differentiated (I’ll talk about that another time), and unimpressed by your island-based displays of loyalty.

He’s beckoning to you. So you go toward him. Each step leads you closer to the swamp until your toes are on the edge between solid ground and dark, gurgling mud. And He keeps walking deeper into the swamp.

You follow. And that’s where the true deculting, the untangling begins. I wrote this about the swamp life in May 2023, even before the Shiny Happy People documentary came out:

[Disintegration] looks like two things: staying at IBLP, or taking the bridge across the swamp. Deculting [integration] means jumping into the mud with the gators. It means reaching out a hand and grabbing the arm of the warrior who knows the way across. And it means that you don’t stop walking or you’ll sink. You don’t take the many opportunities to abandon the swamp for the bridge, because you can.

Swamp life is when you choose to wrestle with what happened to you on the island. You were told the swamp would drown your soul, but the swamp is where you find your soul again (or maybe for the first time). It’s where you do the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical work of healing.

It’s the place where you learn to express your emotions and see them as God-given ways to experience your internal world. It’s the place where you pick through the lies of doctrine for the truth of scripture. It might be where you wrestle with the logicality of God and tackle your doubts about the Bible that you swallowed for fear of being belittled, scolded, or locked in a prayer room.

And it’s where you wrestle with Jesus Himself. Albert Tate, a Senior Pastor at Fellowship Church, encourages people to go straight to Jesus with your doubts and wrestle with Him like Isaac wrestled with the angel.

You know how we were taught never to murmur against God? Well, what if I told you that the swamp is where you cry to Jesus, rage at Jesus, wail to Jesus, and sometimes sit in silence like an angry toddler with Jesus? I don’t know the theological difference between the Israelites’ murmurs against God, and Moses’ raw, incredibly emotional complaints to God about the same Israelites, but God didn’t strike Moses for venting. (I’ve said some pretty alarming things to Jesus lately, and He has listened like a patient friend who knows you’re just going through something).

The swamp is where you find out Jesus isn’t just a theoretical someone out there. It’s where you find out that, while He is not human in the way we are, He is a real “person” so to speak. He gets angry. He’s sassy. He cries. He rolls His eyes at you sometimes (just ask Job, alright?) He’s the ultimate therapist (though He might still want you to get some human therapy). And trust me, I’m pretty sure He laughs.

The swamp is where you learn wisdom and practice curiosity so that when you reach the coast, you can be curious without selling your soul to the devil. It’s where you learn to wrestle with demons and find out that Jesus is a badass when knocking those suckers out. It’s where you find out that Jesus is holy, but not the way you were taught to think about Him being holy.

The swamp is where you make a real choice about what to do with God. Because choosing the island is choosing a false god, and choosing the bridge is choosing yourself as god. The swamp takes courage because it’s where you get in the mud with God and find out if He’s worthy of your trust or not.

I’m pretty confident that if you get in the mud with Him, you’ll find new life. After all, God brought the first human life out of grains of sand. (Which is just dry mud. You’re welcome for that random visual.) And if you come out of the swamp and choose to leave Jesus behind, that’s your right. But you’ll be rejecting the real Jesus, not the pseudo-Jesus Gothard taught you.

That’s what I care about. I want people to make an integrated choice between the real Jesus and the alternatives, not a disintegrated choice just to gain some relief. That doesn’t lead to health, not for those who choose chaos, and certainly not for those who choose rigidity.

So join us in the swamp. And I say us because the swamp isn’t empty. I used to think it was. I thought everyone but me had chosen the island or the bridge, but after Shiny Happy People, I found out lots of people chose the swamp.

Not only is Jesus in the swamp, but I am too. Come on in. The water’s gross, but it gets better. It definitely gets better.

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