Issue #2 New York, Narcissists, & Letting it Burn: On losing my religion & "Light Me Up"

My new song, “Light Me Up,” came out a month ago. I dropped the song as an open edition NFT with NOISE DAO on Aug 3rd, and my subsequent plan was to release it with traditional distributors three weeks later allowing ample time for delivery and sufficient marketing efforts. (Being the good former manager that I am!!) 

To my dismay, I discovered two days after the fact that the song had come out on August 4th. I missed my own release. 

At first I felt frozen, stuck like in the recurring dream I have about showing up to a high school exam unprepared or to Friday night’s football game without my cheer uniform and unable to remember the routine. A few years ago, this realization, this mistake – whether my fault or the fault of the distributor (to which I did not bother to explore) – would have undone me. 

But as I processed the information, it sank in that the truth of the matter was rather inconsequential. I have no label or client depending on me. This is my music, my project, and my choice to pursue music for music’s sake and my own fulfillment. 

It both didn’t matter at all (in the scheme of things) and mattered very much (in honoring my efforts and that of my collaborators). Either way, I had two choices: roll with it or do everything in my power to fix the mistake. 

I decided to roll with it. Not because I don’t care. Not because I’m nihilistic or jaded – though I do feel both of these things often – but because I like to think I’ve just become a bit more realistic. Less neurotic. More in sync with the flow of things, less resistant. More trusting of the process. Or at least, trying. 

Poetic in a sense to have it happen like that. For it to just come out of nowhere after months of overthinking the best way to put it out. An unforeseen road block in my best laid plans, and an apt arrival for a song about letting go of what you can’t control and lighting your old ways on fire (perfectionism among them). 

I crashed my car on the first day

In LA then I felt the earthquake

Feeling faint, did I make a mistake 

Thought I left that shake back in Brooklyn 

photo by Christina Campagnola
photo by Christina Campagnola

The song tells the story of when I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. I had moved out of my Brooklyn apartment in May, and spent six weeks at home in Nashville before making the cross country drive in my 2005 Honda CRV. I arrived safely on the fourth of July. The next day, I got in a wreck and totaled my car a few hours before a rather significant earthquake hit. 

In retrospect, the surreal and shocking welcome was emblematic of a much more disorienting, impending impact. Over the next four years the foundation on which my sense of reality was built would begin to crumble. 

I can’t run from it 

I can’t run from it 

3000 miles in the rearview 

I burned New York, I’m out 

I gave em everything 

When I left New York, I was burnt out and in desperate need of rejuvenation. I loved New York, but it didn’t always love me back. Mostly because I was looking for love in all the wrong places. 

Whether subconscious or just circumstantial – likely a combination – I hadn’t been back to the city until this summer. I had time off from work and felt an intense pull to take a solo trip, a sort of pilgrimage to visit a younger version of myself and reintroduce myself. 

I got off the train at High Street and exhaled deeply as I exited the turnstile. I was nervous about coming back here. I didn’t know how I would feel. Relieved to find that the familiarity of the route to my old studio apartment was there to meet me gently, a sweet reminder of how a room of my own offered reprieve in the midst of so much chaos. 

As I rounded the corner I saw two young girls, about age eight, selling friendship bracelets lemonade-stand-style. The plastic cash register on the table immediately filled me with nostalgia – I had one just like it as a kid. I stopped and asked for one with the letters H-I-C-K-S, to commemorate my old street. After about ten minutes and some back-up from mom, I walked away with my new memorabilia and sent a photo to my childhood best friend who I was staying with in Bed Stuy. They responded “Lil country girl in the big apple.” The double meaning had never even occurred to me. 

I walked up to my old building – 93 Hicks, Brooklyn Heights. It was covered in scaffolding and the old metal buzzer was replaced with a touchpad, while the pee stained carpet was replaced with a marble lobby. A quick google search proved my suspicions correct, that the rent had doubled since I lived there.

I sent my mom a photo, reminiscing about the time she came to visit and we’d spent the day drinking coffee and shopping in the neighborhood. She sent back a sweet message and, later, a video of my nieces playing in the creek at the family farm in Hickman County Tennessee. Jolted into a portal of my own childhood, I was met by a familiar pain in my chest, a reminder of the moments I’ve missed living so far away all these years. And the sadness of feeling that the distance is necessary. 

I called my old neighbor, who was also a friend I’d met while working in the music industry, not expecting her to answer on a Thursday afternoon at 4 pm. Serendipitously she was home and free, and popped down for an impromptu walk along the promenade. 

What followed felt nothing short of profound – even divinely appointed, perhaps. 

In the span of a couple hours, we seemed to tackle with ease complexities, traumas, and growth that it’s taken me four years of therapy to get to. A conversation that cut through the details and found its place in the intuitive understanding of each other’s pain and healing. 

Reflecting on my time in New York, she said, “I feel like you were really going through it and were putting on a brave face. Seems like there was a lot of gaslighting going on.”

I was surprised when she said it. The comment came unprompted and briefly took me aback. Then, a deep sense of relief washed over me. I felt seen and sane. A powerful experience when recovering from having your reality often minimized, dismissed, denied, and/or manipulated.  

She was referring to a past romantic relationship, but the more we talked, the more our conversation ventured to our experiences in the music industry and growing up in the evangelical church. 

Holding on will only break my heart

Gotta let it go, I need a new start 

Hand me the ashes, I’ll rise from the ashes 

Don’t have the answers but I’ll take my chances 

Light Me Up 

Light Me Up 

Light Me Up 

When I left New York I was at the precipice of an existential crisis. I was like Barbie asking people at the party if they, also, were having thoughts of death. 

The move came a few months after the panic attack I describe in Issue #1, after which I conceded to the fact that I was depressed, anxious, and generally not ok. During this time I started going to therapy, began learning to meditate, and I doubled down on my christian faith. I was desperate and throwing darts at the board praying one of them would save me. 

I had visited Hillsong Church a few times over the years, attracted to their “progressive” vibe, modern music, diverse congregation, and charismatic preacher Carl Lentz. In the spring of 2019 their women’s conference was coming to Brooklyn. I signed up and attended the three day event at Kings Theater. Emotionally vulnerable, I was primed and ready to buy in. It was hook line and sinker.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I immediately got involved in Hillsong LA where I began attending church, meetings, and small groups weekly and joined the kids team as a volunteer. A year and a half later, I left not only Hillsong, but also my lifelong christian faith. 

“I’ll never step foot in a church again,” she said. I nodded in agreement. 

My Brooklyn Heights neighbor was telling me about Shiny Happy People, the documentary about The Duggar Family and their connection to the fundamentalist christian cult, Institute in Basic Life Principles led by accused sexual predator Bill Gothard. 

I had just watched The Secrets of Hillsong – the most recent documentary exposing the disturbing, corrupt, and tragically unsurprising truths that lie beyond the surface of Hillsong’s global megachurch – and we were trading notes. 

I later binged The Shiny Happy People series, and the similarities were haunting. Both organizations were founded by narcissistic white male sexual predators (Bill Gothard of IBLP and Frank Houston of Sydney Christian Life Centre that became Hillsong under his son Brian Houston) wielding patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism to exploit labor, hoard wealth, and create and perpetuate systems of abuse. 

On the surface the organizations couldn’t look more different (as far as the evangelical world goes). Hillsong’s pastors have tattoos, their congregations are young and racially diverse (though most of their leadership is white), and the church notoriously once attracted celebrities such as Justin Beiber, Selena Gomez, and NBA player Tyson Chandler. IBLP conferences, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly full of white conservatives. 

At first, I was relieved to not recognize the name Bill Gothard. However, as the series unfolded other associated names began to ring a bell, sounding an internal alarm, one I’ve become quite familiar with since deconstructing. Family Research Council was among them, a conservative political organization I visited as a teenager per my dad’s hope I might apply to their fellowship program. 

When the documentary highlighted IBLP’s homeschool curriculum – a key tenant of the group’s control mechanism – my stomach dropped. My brother, sister, and I had been homeschooled for most of elementary school and though I have many happy memories from this part of my childhood, I cringe at how singular our worldview was formed at such an important developmental age. 

I texted my mom and asked her if she used the IBLP curriculum. She responded quickly that she had not, but that her parents were of the generation that subscribed to Gothard’s teachings. My heart sank – this time, for her. “Legalism can take a truth and turn it into a weapon,” her text read. 

For years, I tried to hold onto that line of thinking. That the truth was somehow buried under it all, that the failings of men weren’t indicative of the God they served.

I didn’t grow up IBLP, but I did grow up on Dobson’s Focus on The Family*.* Whether blatantly fundamentalists, masquerading as “progressive,” or any brand of evangelical between  – the gaslighting, the silencing, the stripping away of autonomy, the coercive and manipulative teachings about authority, the abuse of power, the sexual violence and cover ups – has revealed a sinister common denominator. 

I tried and tried to find a truth worth holding onto that could render all the rest forgivable, but the more I searched for answers, the more apparent it became that the ones evangelicals offer are so often arrogant, deluded, naive, and in some cases blatantly dishonest. 

It seems to me that christian kids are set up to either become narcissists themselves, or become victims of narcissistic abuse.  

Christians teach to love yourself as your neighbor while also teaching children they are inherently flawed and destined for hell unless they choose to believe, love, and follow God by way of Jesus Christ. A God who is jealous. Who’s wrath is to be feared. Who’s singular judgment determines their eternal fate. This inherently makes self acceptance a monumental challenge. The framework is detrimental for self worth, self trust, and the ability to develop critical thought. (I found this TikTok insightful to how this relates to the correlation between self love and deconstruction). 

Under many christian parenting guides – Focus on The Family among them – children’s autonomy and self advocacy is highly restricted or not allowed at all. In order to adapt to this kind of family system, kids become incredibly codependent. Children learn to dissociate themselves from their wants and needs to prioritize other people over themselves. (This Tiktok explains this brilliantly.) 

It’s no coincidence that as I healed from the narcissistic abuse and gaslighting I experienced both from a codependent romantic relationship and from a toxic work environment in the music industry (notoriously rife with narcissists holding power), that I was led to deconstruct my inherited political beliefs followed swiftly by my christian faith. 

It’s no coincidence that over the course of the four years that Trump was president – a raging narcissist and a man accused of sexual misconduct by more than 25 women – that so many others also left the christian church. Watching the evangelical world embrace MAGA and QAnon was a red flag waving so violently, it demanded an explanation. 

Now, we have documentaries like The Secrets of Hillsong and Shiny Happy People to corroborate the inner knowing many of us had for years. That shaky feeling that something just wasn't right. 

I thought maybe I could leave the church but still be a christian. But now when I read the Bible, God just sounds like a narcissist. Love me, or else. 

I’m the same person different place, dammit  

Need to change my mental state 

Gotta give em up cause my old ways ain’t working

I’m gonna lose people, lost my faith 

Watching constructs disintegrate 

Fan the flame cause I can’t keep performing

There’s a lot of grief involved in this journey. Rage, too. The cognitive dissonance is enough to cause a full on meltdown. 

Not to mention the resistance from those who, instead, chose to double down on their faith or their politics as the heat turned up.

The fuse is lit

I won’t run from it 

Hand me the matches, I’ll rise from the ashes

Don’t have the answers, but I’ll take my chances

Light Me Up 

Light Me Up 

Light Me Up 

It wasn’t until I saw a TikTok of Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour where she performs “I Did Something Bad” — a song that starts with the line “I never trust a narcissist, but they love me” — that I realized she uses the lyric “light me up” in the song’s bridge. “They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one, so light me up (light me up), light me up, go ahead and light me up,” she sings. 

Fighting my fear of being derivative and unoriginal (and clearly showing I’m not dedicated enough to be a Swiftie), I eventually found a sense of synchronicity in this discovery. Reputation came out in 2017, a time when I was first becoming aware of the #MeToo movement and starting to have language and context for some of what I had been experiencing and witnessing as a young professional in New York. It was also a time I was still riddled with shame surrounding anything to do with my own sexuality on account of purity culture residue I had yet to heal from. I wouldn’t have been able to name it then, but I was afraid I’d be metaphorically burned at the stake, denounced as a witch if I spoke up. 

photo by Christina Campagnola
photo by Christina Campagnola

In 2023, I am in no way afraid of being falsely accused as a witch. In fact, I quite prefer it when witches have historically been self-possessed women in touch with their own power. It feels right that the lyric in its new context represents an autonomous and conscious choice I am making, as opposed to something happening to me. 

Sitting in the nosebleeds at SoFi stadium on the last night of the ERAs Tour there was a palpable and contagious joy in the air —  the same feeling I walked away with after seeing my Brooklyn Heights neighbor. Connected and full of love and acceptance for ourselves and each other. Holding space for our grief, rage, and our joy to coexist. Brave enough to feel it all, to let it burn. 

“Light Me Up,” is the first single from my upcoming EP American Game. The song, and this essay, only scratches the surface of what I want to say about some of the very dense subject matter I’ve alluded to here. But I start with “Light Me Up” because of the way it seems to reverberate with the joy that finds its way out of the ashes when the quakes and crashes ignite the kind of flames that edify and light our way forward.


Reading: Cultish by Amanda Montell

Listening to: “I Remember Everything” Zach Bryan ft. Kacey Musgraves

Watching: Barbie, A Good Person, Heartstopper, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Doing: Stud Country line dancing, Angela Trimbur’s Balletcore, buying ERAs tickets in the parking lot 9 songs into the set

Essays are published on Substack and available to collect on Mirror.

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