Erika Allison is the author of the book "Gay the Pray Away: Healing Your Life, Love and Relationships from the Harms of LGBT Conversion Therapy." Erika is also a Financial Advisor with Willow Investments for Loving Change
HER CONTACT INFO OR TO PURCHASE THE BOOK IS:
Erika discusses her newly released book with Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO of MissionBox.
Kathryn: Erika, what made you decide it was time to talk about the traumatic ordeal that you underwent twenty-years ago?
I experienced conversion "therapy" when I was 18 years old. It was something that I always knew was part of my past, but I didn’t think was a big deal. What made me choose to write about it now is that I’m approaching my 40th birthday and I've been holding onto expectations of what my life would be like at 40, the things I would have accomplished. I realized that I hadn't actualized to the degree I'd imagined and I didn't understand why.
I had a coach say to me, “Your fear of judgment is really the fear that something outside of you will confirm your own inner judgment."
That statement unlocked something in me. It surprised me because I didn’t think I was a person who was carrying around self-judgment. But his words caused me to truly examine myself. I realized that the conversion therapy experience had instigated the development of an internal, negative "judge" that was running my life.
In that moment, all these pieces started coming together. I could see moments in my life where I had self-sabotaged or gotten into unhealthy relationships, or I had made choices that were not in my best interest. And I could see the reason I did those things was because of residual harm from this experience as a teen.
What caused me to write this book is that I’ve been on my own healing journey, and it’s come to the forefront the pervasive impact of conversion therapy. I think there are people who are definitely trying to prevent this abuse and also religion is having it’s own awakening . But I don’t think anybody is really talking about the lingering effects of a trauma like this or providing healing guidance.
So, the the book is both a reflection of my own journey of healing and an attempt to share a pathway that might help others who have experienced similar identity harm or rejection.
Kathryn: Did you agree to having this therapy or were you forced against your will?
Good question. I feel like this is a really important piece of conversion therapy that’s worth discussing. I want to be clear: I willfully went into this experience.
That agreement was against my higher will, perhaps, but I did choose to go. I wasn’t forced into it. I want to point this out because I want describe how manipulative situations like this can be. And I feel like it’s the manipulation that causes so much of the harm.
Because of the messages I was getting from my family and religion, I felt like if I didn’t do this, I was displeasing all the people who loved me and I was displeasing God. I wanted it to work because I knew that would make everybody happy. This would be the thing that would make me right with God, would make me right with my family again. I didn’t want to be on the outside with people that I loved most and loved me most. So conversion therapy was something that I opted into.
When I reflect back on the parts of myself that I most need to forgive, it is about the short period of time after conversion therapy where I convinced myself that it "worked." I emerged from that experience saying, “I want to be straight. I want to try this. I want to live the way God wants me to live.” I spent about six months of my life trying to be straight. I was in college and had a boyfriend. The thing that was the most hurtful for me was that moment when I abandoned myself: being what everyone else wanted me to be, rather than who I was.
The truth is that my will was so manipulated that I really didn't make a conscious choice. I was a good kid and I liked being the good kid, the smart kid. And then to be told that Satan now had a hold on me. Overnight, my parents were questioning whether they can love me and the church was questioning whether it could love me. It was such an awful feeling because I'd never been the bad kid. And now all of a sudden everyone I cared about agreed that there was something wrong with me, even though I was exactly the same person.
I was willing to do what my parents wanted, what I was told God wanted, to get back in the zone of approval and love. It was a deep internal conflict and a tough choice to make. It really felt like I had to give up a part of myself if I wanted love and approval. I still remember that moment where I said to myself, “It matters more that I get this love and approval from the outside. I don’t even trust myself anymore. I was so young and so confused.
For me, a tribal mentality kicked in. I grew up in a town in Texas where the norm was that everyone went to church and everyone looked very similar. The thought of doing something different wasn’t just “I’m going to be my unique self within this tribe.” It was like “If I’m different, I have to leave the tribe.” I think there was a prehistoric part of my brain that kicked in and said, “Leaving the tribe is death. You can’t leave the tribe. That’s your safety and your protection. It’s who you know. It’s who you are.”
Kathryn: I hear a lot of conflicting information about what this kind of therapy entails—often outright physical abuse and emotional abuse: all part of a brainwashing process.
I’ve seen enough movies and spoken to enough participants about conversion therapy to know that there’s a range of approaches. I would categorize mine as consisting of spiritual and emotional abuse. One of the long-term impacts for me was that these people exploited the vulnerability of my youth, inexperience and longing to stay a part of my family and church in a very abusive manner.
It was not an in-patient experience, but regular group and individual meetings. They used group pressure and dynamics to get us to want to be straight. They brought a few "role models" who had broken free of what we were so ashamed to be. In the individual therapy sessions with a counselor, the strategy they used most was finding moments and places in my life where I had a weakness or vulnerability. For instance, asking me if I’m sad or angry or depressed about something that had nothing to do with being gay, and then using those vulnerabilities as a wedge: “Obviously you’re out of alignment with God’s path for your life or you wouldn’t be experiencing these problems. This is evidence that you’re out of God’s fence. Do you really want to be subject to such negativity in your life by being outside of His protection?" That terrified me.
It was all very manipulative and confusing and it caused me to be very cautious about letting my guard down being vulnerable, even now as an adult. You can imagine how this would make relationships challenging! As much as these people believed they were helping me and "saving" me, they were also doing a lot of interpreting of God and God's will. As an interfaith minister, now, it makes me sad how people can use spirituality and religion so divisively and harmfully.
And these practices are going on to this day. Conversion therapy has only been banned in twenty U.S. states, despite the fact that mental health and medical experts have rejected conversion therapy as ineffective, harmful and dangerous.
Kathryn: Who is your hoped for audience for the book?
There’s a few different people I am speaking to in this book.
The first and most obvious one is to people like me—people who have experienced conversion therapy. I hope people who are maybe only 2-5 years out from it to read this and take away the message that “I need to take this seriously and really take care of myself. Investigate and explore what’s still here for me, what deep messages got implanted, what did I internalize.” Because if they can start now unpacking that, and the book does lay out a path, I hope that they might be able to have less suffering as their life progresses.
I also think there’s a slightly broader audience that’s similar to that—anyone who’s experienced any kind of identity harm, maybe not conversion therapy, but rejection, disapproval, people telling them that who they are at their core isn’t right. I would love them to also get the message of ‘That’s not okay. I don’t have to internalize that." I would hope that those individuals might check in with the most sensitive parts of themselves and say, “Is there a hurt here that needs tending to?” Maybe this book could be a guide for that, too.
And then the final audience are parents and possibly even religious leaders who have young person who is saying, “I am lesbian or gay or transgender.” These mentors have a crucial choice to make: do they choose what religion is telling them or do they choose their child’s truth and honor that truth?
My parents are the most loving beings I’ve ever known. However, they thought they were being loving by doing this to me, by helping me, saving me from a life of sin. They did it out of love, which is what made it so confusing. I feel like if parents could read a story like mine and find out that even 20 years later, a beautiful, powerful, strong and confident woman is still struggling with conversion therapy-based internal messages of self-hatred, self-judgment, perhaps that parent better understand the destructive impact of conversion therapy. They would not want that for their child. If they read this story and see that even in the best case scenario (I feel like so much of my life is fantastic and wonderful), their child would always carry scars, they might make a different choice.
Fast forward, after some years of tension and separation, I believe my parents do love and embrace who I am. They know my partner. They interact with my partner, her children and me-as a family-on a weekly basis.
But I’ve never asked them, “Have you made peace with this? Have you gotten to a place that you’re okay? Are you okay with this?” I’m don’t want to ask. I just appreciate the fact that we’re in touch. There’s certain topics we don’t discuss and me being queer is one of them. Maybe that will come in time.
They know about the book and are attending my remote book launch party. I'm a little nervous about that, because it will be a very loud and proud gay-focused/themed event where I’m celebrating who I am and I’m celebrating all of me. This is different from my usual interaction with my family, where I normally celebrate parts of me that they will accept but don’t celebrate all of myself. They also received an early copy of the book and they still accepted the launch invitation. So, it's a big and important step on our journey of healing.
Kathryn: Thank you, Erika, for sharing your story. You are a strong, inspirational and brave woman. I intend to purchase the book, ASAP.
Hard copies and Kindle versions of the book are available on Amazon.