As a teen, I once was grounded when my mother found a story I had written about sexual exploration. That incident catalyzed a series of events that resulted in me living a double life for years: I kept fake diaries; I lied to my friend; I shamed myself daily because I had desires that I couldn’t seem to control. My body was developing. I had been open to the rawness of being. But I closed myself down piece by piece in an effort to stay safe in an emotionally hostile environment. Finally, my fake life took over and I shut down completely.

I cloaked myself in the beliefs that were shouted at me. I learned to pray the “right” way. I learned to eat and talk and walk the “right” way. I denied my intuition. I lost the ability to keep myself safe because I rejected every instinct as bad. During that period, I had multiple stalkers. My freshman year in college, I woke up to find one of my dorm-mates leaning over me. He had let himself into my room despite that my roommate had locked the bolt. She found him more than once waiting in our room in my beanbag chair. He refused to leave. Another boy began to stalk me my sophomore year. He would appear outside my classes and at my bus stop, talking to me as though we were though we were barely acquaintances. Men used to follow me home and shout at me the whole way, while I was walking with friends or my husband.

This happened despite that I was dressed the “right” way. I can tell you that clothing has little to do with modesty or godliness. For me, it served to turn me into the target women are warned of in college orientation seminars: the women who get assaulted are the ones who look like they won’t fight back, not the ones strutting their stuff on the quad. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, but because I was a beaten woman, I could not disguise my lack of grit. I was taught to stay down. I was primed from childhood to be a victim. No amount of clothing could hide that I would not fight back. I walked as if I wished I would disappear. It only illustrated my weakness.

For the last three years, I have been journeying outside of religion. I believe there are positive aspects to religion. For example, I had a friend who was an alcoholic until he found Islam. Islam was something he could believe in, and it told him to stop drinking, so he did. Another friend was in a toxic relationship with his girlfriend from high school. Islam became a path to achieve. He found new goals and a new community that supported him in stepping away from that relationship in the way his old community couldn’t. However, religion also serves to divide. Joining a religion means accepting one right way, which means accepting that other ways are wrong, and other people should change to do things the way you do. For me, it became a laundry list of how I was wrong–a continuation of what my parents taught me–that I wasn’t and wouldn’t be good enough because my desires were base. Religion heightened my shame.

Today, I am capable of separating the emotional and physical abuse of my childhood from actual religions. It was not until I freed myself from religion that I was able to begin healing from that abuse. Islam was in constant judgment of me. I could never improve my prayer or my Arabic or my thought processes enough because there was always more personal work to be done. I could never relax and sit with myself because I could only see the ways in which I was failing. So I gave myself permission to not wear that mantle for awhile. I was always told, “When you love someone, let them go. If it is meant to be, they will come back to you.” That statement  may fly in the face of how many define being faithful, but I applied it to religion. I have honestly never felt more healthy, happy or whole.

As an adult, I have reached a point where I feel free to bring my curiosity back to the page. The Spire is my opportunity to express that curiosity, and to revel in my existence as a free and sexual being. You will see more fiction here like We Were Beautiful Children, but you will also find poetry, details of my abuse, random, underdeveloped thoughts, and many other experimental posts. For a long time, I have kept myself alone, only sharing my thoughts with my two most-trusted friends. It was necessary for me to recover. Please recognize that what you are reading is me taking a risk.

With that said, I value your feedback. Every post has an anonymous star rating at the top. Cast your vote. Leave a comment. Share a post you like. Let me know you were here. Let me know where to find your work.

And, please, come back.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

0 Discussion to this post

  1. Ginger says:

    I can really relate to what you are saying about losing your authentic self by hiding and trying to conform. Religion (as it exists in today’s world) tends to do that to people. Sometimes that’s helpful for people who have a behavior that is harming them. But for those of us who are creative and crave mental freedom, if can be stifling. There is a balance… It’s just very elusive 😉 I certainly haven’t found it yet!

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    • Yes! Thank you so much for reading and responding. I feel very spiritually enriched, but I haven’t found safe passage into a religion. I’m more and more convinced I don’t need it, as my belief in the nature of God has changed as I have grown healthier.

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  2. Heidi says:

    I didn’t realize our lives were so parallel…your house was always a last minute refuge from our own abuse so I didn’t see yours…although, of course, I too was a child. I am fascinated to read more and hope you find the necessary catharsis every writer strives for!

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  3. heatherakou says:

    Sending you a hug, Shawna! Although I grew up in a different tradition, I spent more than ten years drifting outside of any religion. I don’t regret one minute of it. By the time I found people I could relate to (some, but definitely not all, Muslims), I had so much more self-confidence and self-knowledge. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from the beautiful path you’re on.

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