How I Left The Cult

I was raised in the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I stopped attending meetings and ceremonies when I was 16.

TL;DR I didn’t actively leave, my mum broke some rules and the family sort of drifted out. But I spent a long time, from ages 16-27 “de-programming” myself. If you’re wondering whether to leave something, you probably should.

Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a late 19th Century Christian sect, originally from the US.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Millenarianist in that they think an end time is coming, and  Millenialist which is an interpretation of Christ being installed in a 1,000 year reign over Earth, before the final “end time” occurs.

They hold a fundamentalist view on the Bible, meaning they take the words of the bible literally, rather than as metaphor. Their interpretation differs from other sects, partly because of their founding leader Charles Russell, and partly because they use their own translation of the bible.

Famously they believe in the Old Testament doctrine prohibiting the imbibing of blood, so they refuse blood transfusions, however they do not practice kosher eating. They also do not participate in birthdays, Easter, Christmas or Hallowe’en celebrations, considering these to be pagan festivals with no basis in scripture.

They refuse military service, do not vote, and are famous for going door to door preaching their religion. They reject the notions of an eternal soul, the existence of hell and the “holy trinity” doctrine.

They have strict social and interpersonal rules, mostly inspired by the moral values in the late 19th century US.

See the wiki link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

My History With The J-Dubs

There is a family photo of me as a 5 week old baby, taken “at Twickenham”, a stadium which is famous for rugby but which Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes use for their annual “district assembly”, massive weekend-long gatherings for JWs that occur in sports stadiums. They are primarily outside, with folks sitting on the concrete in the summer sun (and rain!) for three days straight. While comfort provision is made for members at the event, it is nonetheless quite an undertaking to take a newborn along.

This canonical family photo illustrates to me that I really was raised for my entire childhood in the JW religion.

Some time before, the J-dubs had knocked on my parent’s door, as so many people around the world have an experience of, and my Dad was the kind of guy to say to them, without irony, “hmmm, sounds interesting, please come in”. He found the religion appealing, and for some reason my Mum agreed to join as well.

I assume this is because her own mother and older sister had converted some years previous, and for a short time as a teenager she went along to JW events with them. She had grown up and moved out before she married my Dad at age 20, so presumably she’d left it all behind for those years. However when her new husband became interested in what the JWs had to say, I guess she found it familiar. The JWs place great emphasis on a wife obeying a husband, so the two of them became Jehovah’s Witnesses together.

A few years later my parents’ marriage broke down (I was 3 and my sister 2). My mother divorced my father. My mother continued to raise me and my sister as Witnesses after the divorce. I think she partly used his faith, and conviction that we should be “saved” at Armageddon to ensure she got custody of us during the divorce (my father was expelled from the religion, so could not make sure we were saved himself). But to her credit she made good on her promise to make sure we were indeed raised as JWs until we were adults.

We ended up living with my gran, who had been a devout JW for decades. My gran was my caregiver because my Mum worked full time. It went without question that all four of us would be JWs and attend all the meetings without fail.

My father quickly remarried and subsequently raised his children from his second marriage as Jehovah’s Witnesses too. (He had been expelled for the first divorce but when the JWs came knocking again in his new town they let him back in.) So myself and my sister, plus my half siblings (a brother and sister) were all raised in this weird Christian fundamentalist religion.

Being raised a JW

It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to be raised a JW. I will give at best a patchy version of my experiences here.

One of the major things I remember is that, because of their “socially separate” policy and their beliefs in general, I was marked out as different to everyone else literally every single day at school.

I was not allowed to attend the 5 minutes of morning assembly that was “religious” (all they did was sing a hymn or something), but I was supposed to listen to the school announcements etc. So halfway through assembly I had to slip in through the door at the back of the school hall. Every day, their would be this weird pause between the hymn and the notices and the whole school would turn around to look as me and the Jewish kid filed in at the back. Every. Single. Day.

Then there was the No Christmas, No Birthdays, No Hallowe’en, No Easter thing. This comes up a lot at school when you’re younger. Almost every week is one of these holidays and the teacher is taking a break by just having everyone make cards or decorations, but I had to be given some non-religious ‘alternative’ task to do. Either that or sit in silence when people sang happy birthday, or leave the room altogether if Christmas carols were being sung.

Couple that with being a teacher’s pet (grades were the way to get love in my household) and you have a child who is so unutterably different that I was bullied by absence. I was tainted, and to even speak to me was to risk contamination. The social isolation was profound.

The witnesses have a perfect circular reasoning trick for this. Somewhere in the bible Jesus warns his followers that they will be hated for spreading his word. So the more JWs receive grief, the more it confirms that they are on the right track, and following Jesus correctly.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a lot to say about sex. No sex before marriage, obviously, but some kinds of sex are restricted during marriage (anal), no masturbation for anyone but especially teenagers and of course, it’s not ok to be gay.

These points were raised explicitly and regularly to make sure everyone “stays strong”. These teachings contributed to me feeling guilt, anxiety and repression about sex both in childhood and in adult life.

The witnesses take a similarly draconian view on drugs, smoking, tattoos, sex or violence in the media and bad language. They also ban members from watching movies with too much magic in it (Harry Potter), or something that may be influenced by ‘demons’ (Lord of the Rings). They believe ‘demons’ to be invisible, and mostly don’t believe in possession, but nonetheless think they are very real.

We weren’t allowed posters on our walls (idolatry), or pictures of magical animals (demons), to have friends outside of the witnesses (bad associations), or to listen to certain music (bad language/demonic) or to celebrate birthdays or Christmas (pagan). The Kingdom Hall itself (the church building), had no decorations at all, but it was kept spotlessly clean. Many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about how bland and lifeless the religion is.

The organisation itself acknowledges how hard it is to hold strictly to 19th century protestant moral values late in the 20th century and there’s a lot of talk of sacrifice and trials and the hard road and keeping on the straight and narrow, in order to stay true to God. I believe this created a strong anhedonia in me, whereby I restricted all of my thoughts and feelings by default, even for things that were “allowed”, because holding back, buttoning down and waiting were so valourised.

How I got out

Passive leaving

I didn’t, really. In the heady days of internet relay chat my mum met a man on the internet, then met him in real life and one day in the summer after I turned sixteen my mum told me the news that she was pregnant.

Having sex outside of wedlock is a pretty serious offence to the J-dubs and so my mum was temporarily suspended while they considered what to do.

Mum usually drove us to the meetings, but without her taking us, myself and my sister just by default didn’t go along either. Our gran’s faith was always a powerful force in terms of keeping us in the religion and attending meetings every week, but I’m not sure if she kept going during this period or not. 

Without any external drive to keep going along to the meetings, I remember clearly that it felt like a spell being broken. All my week nights and weekends were free. It felt like bliss coming from an absence, like the silence after an annoying noise finally stops. My life was empty and silent. Calm.

Later I would reflect that going to the meetings all the time, and it occupying so much of your life, is one way they keep members in thrall to the religion.

There was also an oppressive silence between all the family members,  like a held breath. It was very tense, but I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible and be with my boyfriend instead.

After about a month, I got back from a weekend at my boyfriend’s house to learn that mum had been in hospital because she’d had a miscarriage. Even though the weekend was dramatic and scary, it was obvious that this baby not existing was a huge relief to everyone. Not long later I learned that the elders had decided my mum could return to the Witnesses if she showed repentance, but we never went back. It was an entirely unspoken thing, as was always the case with my mum in those years.

At the time I barely mention these goings on in my diary, instead I’m mooning over the latest boy, but a bit later I repeat several times “I’m never going back to the meetings”.

So for my entire life I had been in a cult, which shaped my entire mental and emotional landscape from birth, attending three meetings a week, every week plus occasionally door knocking on Saturdays, and then suddenly I just… wasn’t. I got out of the cult passively, the spell was broken, and what remained was a void.

Active leaving

In my diaries a bit later I say “I’m never going back to the meetings” and I sound as though I’ve made an active decision. In my self-narrative nowadays, I normally tell people that I had my suspicions about the religion by the time my family left, but was sort of ignoring them, and waiting to be older to find out what it all really meant.

An ex-JW friend I met much later would describe it as the “after armageddon box” – a place where you put your doubtful thoughts about the religion and god ready to be asked later, when we might have access to god or Jesus after the end times have happened. Eventually his “after armageddon box” was so full that he began to doubt the religion a lot.

I normally say that if my family hadn’t drifted out when I was 16, it wouldn’t have been much longer before I left myself. My general goal with life at that time was just to hang on until age 18 and finish school, finally be an adult, and get out from living with my parents as soon as I could. Even though they practice famously severe shunning of any ex-member, I’m sure I would have left the religion behind too.

However, that’s not what happened. We left when I was 16; when I was 17 I moved in with my Dad (mum had been threatening to throw me out for months) and he and his family were all still very much in the faith. Since I had never been baptised as an adult, I was considered a “prodigal son” and should be gently cajoled to return to the religion rather than fully shunned, so they were allowed to talk to me.

Despite being encouraged to go to the meetings for the whole time I lived with them, I stood firm that I wasn’t going to go back. That much was very active on my part. I “ran away” from living with them when I was 18 (my stepmother read my diary and point blank refused to talk to me again), just after I’d finished my school exams. I lived with my Mum again for a short time, and as soon as I saved up a few paychecks, I moved out forever.

Deprogramming

Some problems

When we first drifted out of the religion, I decided to sleep with my boyfriend. The moment my mum told my 16-year-old self that she was pregnant I had the crystal-clear thought: “you don’t get to tell me what to do any more”. I lost all respect for her, because of everything that her pregnancy implied, both secular and religious. So yes I had sex with my boyfriend (but I was sure to get on contraception first!)

That year I also had my first experience of celebrating Christmas with him and his family. In the few scholarly texts that mention Jehovah’s Witnesses, they say that ex members are often socially awkward around the giving and receiving of gifts, which I empathise with.

However apart from those two things I didn’t immediately deprogramme from the thoughts that the religion had inculcated. My life was a tire fire from ages 16-19 and I had little time or stability to do any reflective thought.

But as soon as I moved out and had a stable boyfriend at around age 19, I began deprogramming in earnest. I realised I needed to systematically check all of my beliefs, not just the ones about God. My boyfriend of that time helped by walking me through the more obvious things like creation vs evolution. He also helped me try weed and later, other drugs.

Then the problem was sex. I had huge guilt around it, and weird thoughts like I must intend to marry my sexual partner, if not actually be married, in order for it to be ok to have sex. I had a very low sex drive, partly due to repressing pleasurable feelings.

I also had very low affect, my emotions were numbed out, though I think that had as much to do with my family life as the religion. Relatedly, I still have issues with finding enjoyment in things, which makes decision making surprisingly hard.

I now think I was also developmentally stunted. I was extremely smart, but condescending, arrogant and dismissive with other people. I had no empathy, even with friends. My boyfriend had to keep reminding me “you can’t treat people like that”. In the terms of the psychological theory that I mention on my philosophy blog, I was still in Kegan stage 2 – a non-empathetic stage normally traversed in early teens – at the age of 19-20.

I believe the move away to my dad’s house is a pertinent example. My dad’s home was around 200 miles away from my mum, and so there was no possibility of seeing my old friends when I moved there. I left without telling anyone I was going, it all happened during half term.

I eventually heard through my mum that my best friend was very upset. I was confused by this, because we always talked about how we would like to move out from our mums to live with our dads (she was from a single parent household too). I thought she would realise that I had made it out and gone to a better place and be happy for me. I just could not understand why she would be sad or angry. I remember being confused and then not really thinking about it afterwards. I was 17 at the time.

It was only years later, in my early 20s, at the earliest, that I realised that of course she would be upset. She might miss me, or be upset that everything was so sudden, that I didn’t care enough to give her a quick message of some kind, or that she might be jealous that I’d moved away or indeed have any number of strong emotions about what happened.

Some solutions

Living with dad helped a few things. He and his kids were naturally more touchy-feely than my family, which I appreciated. He forced me out of my tendency to go silent when I was upset or crying. It was a revelation to me that he actually wanted to hear what was wrong, and actually try to help. I had to deal with being a snotty mess in someone else’s presence. An almost unbearable form of being ‘seen’ at the time. Being in a totally different family held a mirror up to some of my assumptions, especially around the “fair” distribution of chocolate biscuits. He also answered all my questions about why he and my mum got divorced. A classic case of there being at least two sides to every story.

Once I’d moved out away from parents, I read some self help books to figure the emotional and sex stuff out, and Oliver James’ ‘They Fuck You Up’ book was particularly useful for this. I wrote pages of self reflection on an A3 notepad. I also kept writing in my diary. I was a prolific poetry writer too.

I ferreted out cached beliefs one by one. Sometimes I did things just because JWs ban them so I went and voted (JWs are instructed to be politically neutral).  I carried a lighter in case anyone who smoked asked me for one. I placed a bet on a boxing match (gambling also forbidden). I took a certain joy in doing things that would shock JWs, or my parents in general. I still have that joy. I also tried to detect much more subtle discriminations. I occasionally caught myself being judgey about people, and asked myself: why? One example I strongly remember is disliking people who had tattoos, only because the Jdubs sneer at them. I decided to throw those thoughts in the bin.

I read a lot of books, absorbing how other people feel about life, which helped me to figure out the range of things that people can feel. I read Sylvia Plath’s diaries, Anaïs Nin stories, Henry Miller novels, a psychology of self harm book, Kathy Acker’s punk feminism, Alan Moore’s ‘Lost Girls’ graphic novel. I would read anything, especially fiction and science fiction, but I was drawn to books about sex and books about or by depressed women.

I read pages and pages of books. I also watched hundreds of films, got stoned every day and got into music. I have an enduring love for art that is bleak or nihilistic.

My life at the time was a continuous struggle with poverty. I never had any spare money, although I felt great because I lived in my own place. I worked at a library and got all my books and films from there. Being poor takes a lot of time and energy, so the progress was quite slow. Eventually, at age 21, I went to university.

At university I discovered equal rights and feminism. I also got into philosophy by the sideways route of doing an art degree with no prior experience with art. The art library had lots of philosophy books, because art and life inform each other. I wasn’t that great at making art, so I would read instead. I became a Sunday manager at the nearby public library while I studied, so I still had access to public library books too.

I had a tiny bit of NHS therapy during uni, because at age 23, after feeling I’d done so much work to deprogramme myself, I developed an acute anxiety condition. It was triggered by thoughts of death, a concept I had until then not really thought about, because the JWs believe in immortal life on earth. I also had wind: trapped air in the digestive system. It’s easily cured but it makes you feel short of breath and in pain when you eat. It is funny now, but it contributed to me having several panic attacks. I spent my entire last year of uni in a haze, feeling like I was watching myself on a screen, and worried I would have more attacks. I started to feel better after about a year. Over a decade on, my fear of death and the anxiety I get from that thought still haunt my evening times, because it’s not easy to rationalise.

My work as a librarian helped me to develop empathy. I’ve always been hard on myself to be true to my principles, and I really believed in doing a good job and in intellectual honesty. I had to work with people who were homeless, very old, very young (and unsupervised) and / or relatively mentally ill. I wanted to truly help them ‘fairly’ which meant I had to really pay attention to what they said and how they thought. Trying to teach a paranoid schizophrenic 50 year old how to use a computer is a humbling experience.

I was with the same boyfriend all through this time, he helped me a lot. He constantly scolded me for not considering how other people felt. It must have been because of him that I finally figured out my friend’s feelings about me moving away.

But my relationship with him is also a story of lack of empathy. I believed we had a great relationship and were mostly happy through our 7 years together. But I found out after we broke up that he felt a lot of pain throughout those years because of things I did to him. I’m not sure of the details because I heard it through mutual friends.

He never seemed to tell me about problems at the time, but maybe I didn’t hear it. Probably I dismissed things that weren’t expressed clearly and forcefully. I still tend to do that. But even if we allow for the fact that someone who keeps too quiet in relationships often ends up with someone who pushes forward and is decisive, it was a shock to me that he was so unhappy but I didn’t know. So even though I was developing empathy I clearly wasn’t applying it well in my home life and now when I look back I still think it was a shallow empathy, with not much mastery.

Completing Deprogramming

In my mid to later twenties I had a number of life milestones. I came out as bi (after reading a book, of course). I joined an active feminist group and did many activities with them. I founded my own bi group. I became polyamorous, at first with my partner of all those years and then I continued after we broke up. We had moved to a new city by then and I was trying to make new friends. Friends who were lesbians, feminists and weed smokers. ‘Bad associations’ indeed! After the breakup I moved out into a sharehouse of strangers; I was finally living on my own.

Around the age of 27, after living in that sharehouse a while, I realised I felt like I had reached a point of being more “normal”, by which I mean normal levels of fucked-upness, rather an extraordinary and weird levels of fucked-upness.

I had made a point of being more independent. I had had lots of life experiences, from uni to management jobs to rolling my own joints to storming police lines.

I’d examined and binned so many ideas. First from the JWs, but then I’d also completely overshot and was examining and binning conventional ideas from “normal” society too.

Binning the ideas from the J-dubs was helping me heal, but binning “normal” society was also helping profoundly. For example, a strange side effect of trying polyamory was that it unlocked my ability to do social touch with friends. I’ve no idea why.

So by around this time, I felt normal.

And slightly to my annoyance, I was starting to see that my experiences, knowledge and confidence were having an effect on others. The unusual ways I lived my life were intriguing to people. When I spoke, everyone would fall silent and listen, which never used to happen.

Without me really wanting it, people were looking to me for advice on how to be, wheras previously I had always been the student of that. It was ever clearer that my project of ridding myself of indoctrination was over. The work of choosing how to live had begun.

Lasting effects

It’s been 7 or 8 years since I reached “normal” and then completely overshot. I now live a life that is in many ways extraordinary and probably to most people, very weird.

But, I still feel the effects of things from childhood.

I still feel that relationships with others is my biggest weakness.  I have an extremely spiky personality, a defence against always being the outsider, never being accepted. Although acceptance is something I obviously deeply crave.

I still have intermittent anxiety, I still worry about dying.

Despite appearances I still have very conventional sex and not lots of it, but I’m proud I can have sex at all, considering.

I have an abiding deep suspicion of “knowledge” or “truth”, of people in “authority”. The study of how we know what we know will always fascinate me.

It’s very hard to disentangle the effects of the religion from the effects of my general family life. It’s tempting to think that actually perhaps most of my problems, if that’s what they are, would have come from family dynamics no matter what religion we followed, if any. A child with essentially absent and emotionally distant parents was always going to have trouble with empathetic relationships. In a way this post is merely about “how I left my family”, rather than how I left a cult.

However it’s kind of a chicken and an egg. The religious flavour is important. My parents were exactly the kind of people to be drawn to this particular religion thanks to their own traumas. They are the kind of people who want to be wrapped up tight by strict rules and be soothed by being told exactly what to think, from people who know exactly what is happening and know exactly what to do to make everything ok. If they were not scooped up by this cult, it would have been another one, or some other paternalistic system. The details may have been slightly different but probably the neuroses in me would have ended up exactly the same.

I was raised by people who can’t handle the world as it is, and that makes me very sad for them. Strangely enough for me, after being raised believing that humans are evil and our civilisation has reached a nadir so bad that god is going to smite it all away, I’ve come to find a great joy in the fact that humans are actually just apathetic or greedy or damaged.  And also creative, generous and joyful. I trust myself and my decision making. I feel I do understand the way the world works, and find that comforting, even though the drive to understand came from pathological roots.

Advice for others

If you’re wondering whether to do something that will really shake your life up, especially if you have to leave something, I would encourage you to do it. You can’t un-see whatever it is you’ve seen. The worry you’re feeling now is probably not actually about whether leaving is a good or bad decision, because you already have one foot out of the door. It’s more about feelings of grief, grief that you used to feel tightly embedded in something, and now you don’t.

No-one likes changing, but change happens to us, whether we like it or not. It’s a bit of a slog, but learning how to change, and not being scared of it, is a massive life skill that eventually brings a ton of its own comfort, and success.

If you feel you’ve been kicked out of a plane and are falling backwards, arms flailing, watching the plane get smaller and smaller in your vision and feeling scared, picture this: you might as well roll over and face the ground. You can direct the fall, watch the view, even go sailing around like a bird in the wind. Feel the rush, try to enjoy it. The entire world is literally in front of you, you might as well direct where you land.

Once you’ve left, you’re going to need information. Religious cults in particular restrict information, so read books (or listen to podcasts), read the internet and figure out how you think things really are. Lots of people just substitute one belief system for another, try not to do that. Instead try to figure out why you don’t trust your own intuition about what to think.

Three things:

Fiction is just as important as non-fiction, especially for emotional work. Art of all kinds is very important, and comedy.

While approaching at your own pace and using caution, you should definitely, definitely take drugs. See which ones call to you, any will do. Then don’t overdo it.

Finally, enlist other people. Cults are deliberately isolationist, to remove any chance of “wrong” information reaching you. Other people are a mirror and a support. Try to meet and get to know a broad range of people. Their example can help you figure out how you want to be.

Finally:

Everything is going to be ok. I promise.

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1 thought on “How I Left The Cult

  1. Savings Shaman

    I really appreciated this one. I’ve recently admitted to myself that many parts of myself are in Kegan Stage 2, but this has come alongside some really profound growth and finding myself – that’s involved lot’s of reading, contemplating, the sort of stuff David Chapman discusses in his series on the shadow. Through it all, a vision of more consistently living out authentic versions of myself has started to crystallize. I share enough of your background that an understanding of your life story is quite encouraging for me to take in right now. The narrative structure helped my mind settle from its lovely (but constant!) questioning and integrate some of what I’ve learned in the example of a blogger I’ve enjoyed reading over the past couple years.

    Reply

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