What if you were born in a prison camp, and enslavement and control were all you knew in life? What if all you ever worked for was secretly in vain, and the truth of your existence had been withheld from you?
Freedom would be nothing more than an abstract concept, and individuality a mere fantasy.
But what if one day you broke free from those bonds, both mental and physical, and stepped into the outside world? This is what happened to me.
I was born in 1984 as a 4th generation Jehovah’s Witness. My father had come from a rocky and tragic past, and Watchtower offered him a fresh start. The religion also provided him with a wife, my mother, who was a 3rd generation born-in.
During my childhood my father gradually climbed the Watchtower ranks and taught me everything he learned. The Witness faith made perfect sense to him, and he preached it with fervor. I, on the other hand, questioned the premise from an early age.
The idea that I was paying for the actions of my forefathers over six thousand years ago seemed senseless. I didn’t like having to constantly beg for forgiveness for transgressions I didn’t understand nor accept responsibility for.
Yet, for the sake of peace and the approval of my peers, I buried my doubts deep within my subconscious. Little did I know that one day they would come bursting out and change my life forever.
When I was around five years old I was a victim of child molestation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not typically turn to worldly resources such as child psychology. Issues such as my abuse are usually dealt with internally. This way they can keep their public image as untainted as possible, which is more conducive to their evangelism. They put total faith in Jehovah to set matters straight, which certainly did not turn out to be the case with me.
Children who are sexually abused go through a wide range of emotions, and are in dire need of professional care. I was taught that sex before marriage is a gross sin – not only something that displeases God, but something deserving of severe discipline. As a child all I knew was that I’d done something terribly wrong, and Watchtower provided no support other than intensifying their indoctrination regimen.
I couldn’t have known back then that I had been born into a prison – cut off from the outside world and any assistance it could offer. I was pretty much left to try to heal my own wounds, which only served to stunt my development as a child.
My extended family did their best to support me, but the system on which they relied was severely flawed and self-serving. I was left to traverse one of the most difficult emotional paths the human imagination can fathom.
Throughout my youth my religious regimen was intense, demanding a sizable amount of time and energy. The doctrine was centered on legalistic prohibitions, converting others, isolation and exaltation of the organization as God’s sole channel. At times it felt like I could barely keep my head above water.
I was expected to accomplish the impossible task of existing within the world while taking no part in it. Everything on the outside of the religion seemed to be forbidden: people, places, events, all manner of things. It never made sense to me, but any intellectual divergence was soon crushed by shame, fear and even (in my case) physical violence. I soon learned that whole parts of my psyche had to be repressed, as they were simply too dangerous to reveal to anyone.
I was torn between a desperate need for the approval of my peers and my individuality, which kept trying surface. It wasn’t long before I became bored by what the Watchtower had to offer.
It got to the point where I would find creative ways to entertain myself during meetings. I would excuse myself to the restroom, or visit the drinking fountain as much as possible to give my mind a rest from listening to something I already knew inside out. The boredom was maddening. I often found myself counting down the remaining time of the meeting, second by second.
Conventions were no less tedious. I would invent any conceivable excuse to tear my mind from the program. I have so many memories of walking aimlessly around the venue for hours. Anything would suffice, so long as I was not sitting and listening to what I had heard so many times before.
I loathed the way the crowd gulped down everything that was dished out from the platform. All the speaker had to do was change the tone of his voice and he could get his audience clapping like obedient seals.
Despite my efforts at shielding myself from the monotony, ultimately there would prove to be no escape – especially from my father, who would become infuriated if he saw that I was not taking our religion seriously.
On one occasion, as a teenager, I took a stand and told my parents I was going to stop attending meetings. This enraged my father and emotionally devastated my mother. When my family left the house each meeting night my mother would be sobbing. As she walked out the door, I could see mascara dripping down her face. From her perspective, her son was doomed to a fiery death. My only chance at salvation was through doors of the Kingdom Hall.
Needless to say, my boycott was short lived. The emotional blackmail ate away at me and eventually I relented and began attending meetings again. My stunt ended up being so emotionally traumatizing that I decided to reaffirm my dedication to Jehovah and the organization. I believed at the time that my life was taking a real shift in momentum towards faith in God.
Looking back, I now realize it was more to keep a smile on my mother’s face rather than see those tears streaming down it.
Courtship and Marriage
When I was 16 I met a girl my age named Jessica* at one of the conventions. I really wanted to get to know her better. Luckily it turned out she was the best friend of one of my cousins.
We soon started hanging out as a group, and Jessica and I came to develop strong feelings for each other. She was not baptized, but she lived her life obedient to Witness teachings. At the time I was going through an intense phase in my life where I seriously believed in Jehovah and the Watchtower. In addition to sharing many common interests, we were both committed to our faith.
I was raised to believe that any person you date must be viewed as a potential marriage mate. When a Witness goes into a romantic relationship they are supposed to have marriage in mind, otherwise they are viewed as being spiritually weak. So when things started looking serious between Jessica and I, our parents became concerned.
At 16 we lacked the life experience to simply get married and start a new life. This is one of the crucial flaws in the Witness way of life. So many young couples get married too early, largely due to the prohibitions on premarital sex.
One day I was dropped off at a local department store parking lot where I was supposed to meet my cousin and her best friend. My cousin was not feeling well so she decided to stay home, leaving Jessica to come and pick me up unchaperoned. After Jessica collected me we drove back to my cousin’s house where we hung out and had a great time.
Unfortunately, my cousin’s mother soon became aware that Jessica and I had driven home alone together. To non-Witnesses our actions may not sound so outrageous. But to a strict Witness like my cousin’s mother, it was a serious infraction. She took action and convinced our parents to forbid us all from associating together, since things seemed to be getting “risky.” Jessica and I did not even speak on the phone for almost a year.
After the dust settled, we were allowed to see each other again. Soon after, Jessica and I started down the rough road of Witness courtship. The rigors of this can only be truly appreciated by those who have been through it.
Suddenly all eyes in the congregation are on the two of you, watching your every move. You are banned from ever being alone, so a chaperone is always needed. The Watchtower teaches that any sexual wrongdoing can jeopardize the entire congregation’s cleanliness. It is implied that in the event a congregation becomes unclean God will remove his spirit and all the protection it offers. Such paranoia can place a huge burden on a blossoming relationship.
Jessica and I were not baptized Witnesses when we began dating. However, about halfway through our courtship, Jessica became a full Witness publisher by getting baptized at one of the assemblies.
Suddenly we lost the approval of many of our friends and family because we were an “unevenly yoked” couple, with one in the faith and the other not. Even though I was raised a Witness I was called a “man of the nations” in contrast to Jessica, who was now a member of the “great crowd” of God’s people. Some Witnesses in both our congregations feared that God would not approve of such a courtship and remove his spirit.
I chose to move out of my house when I was 17 to make preparations to marry Jessica. I first moved in with my older half-brother before eventually finding my own apartment, where I taught myself how to program websites and finally set up an internet business.
Jessica was under a lot of pressure because of her choice to stay with me. The elders in my congregation tried to convince me to leave her until I was worthy, but I refused. I promised instead that I would get baptized once Jessica and I were married. And in 2003 we married at a local rented facility, as we were not allowed to have our ceremony at the Kingdom Hall.
After Jessica and I were married I made good on my promise and underwent a bible study to get baptized as a Witness publisher. Once I was baptized the critics were silenced, and we were left alone to live our life. Many embraced us, and we were able to build up a sizable support system of friends and family.
For a time life felt pretty good. My business was flourishing, and we finally had peace. But sadly all of this would soon come crashing down.
In 2004 my parents got divorced, my father was disfellowshipped and my childhood home was sold.
The way things had happened I could tell that my father would never return to the faith. Everything he had held dear for so long, as well as taught me, was thrown away almost overnight.
I didn’t take it very well and plunged into a deep depression. At the time I really had no idea what clinical depression was. All I knew was that I had suddenly lost motivation to do just about anything. The problem was that I had many clients who were in need of my services, but I neglected them.
My wife watched my free-fall in horror. She would come home from work and I’d be in the same place she’d left me in the morning. Something was terribly wrong and neither of us really understood what was going on.
Jessica suggested that I get help through my local elders, and I agreed. But none of their suggestions had any effect on my symptoms.
Eventually I was forced to seek professional help. Some of my elders saw the psychological community as competition, and became jealous. I remember a certain elder’s face turning red with anger when I told him I was getting counseling.
My therapist, a clinical psychologist, diagnosed me with PTSD and Bipolar II disorder. She knew that my problems stemmed largely from the intensity of my religious life, but she was powerless to point it out to me because I was not ready to hear it. I was in such bad shape that she referred me to the best psychiatrist in the area who confirmed my diagnosis and started me on medication.
This started some very tumultuous times, as I entered a trial and error process with anti-psychotic and bipolar medications. During this time I sold my business for a very low amount, began receiving disability payments, and my wife and I were forced to move in with my divorced mother.
Each prescribed medication had an array of intolerable side effects, which forced me to keep changing my prescriptions.
After a span of four years I had gained over 100 pounds and was much worse off than when I started. During that time my little brother was also disfellowshipped, which did little to help my depression.
I ended up being hospitalized on four separate occasions for extreme suicidal ideations. I once spent 5 days in a crisis recovery treatment center.
Throughout this ordeal my JW family offered the only support they knew of, which felt totally empty and valueless. They didn’t know what to do even though they claimed to be instructed by the perfect creator of the universe. But Jehovah had no answers for my situation.
At least the secular community could offer some trial and error therapy, whereas my creator seemed to throw up his hands in defeat. The extreme situation I found myself in made me question just about everything, including the existence of God.
Awakening & Apostasy
By 2008 my wife and I had been through quite an ordeal.
One positive result was that I had an opportunity to compare the effectiveness of my religion to what the outside world had to offer. The world had resources and experts who tried their hardest to find solutions tailored to my unique situation. But my religion used a “one size fits all” approach – with pitiful results.
I know some people feel that the Witness approach to mental illness is effective, but in my case it was an abject failure. They had allowed me to be sexually abused and then offered no effective support – instead telling me that many of my symptoms were the work of wicked spirit creatures.
One side offered science, logic and reason; the other could summon nothing more than empty superstition.
One day all my past doubts about God and the organization came suddenly rushing into my consciousness. It was as though I was waking up from a nightmare. The floodgates within my mind opened and all my questions that I had repressed for so long came to the surface.
This time I had neither the will nor the ability to repress them, and I became extremely afraid. I knew the potential consequences of leaving my faith. All of the people I had grown to love would completely alter their view of me. They would view me as sick; on a path to eternal destruction. On top of all this there was my depression. How would I cope?
Despite these fears, I decided to move forward in the hope that staying true to myself would ultimately prove to be the best course. As I began to sense my true identity re-emerging, many of my symptoms improved.
Unfortunately, my family did not approve of my new-found path. I was open about my feelings, and as a result they were infuriated. Because I was a baptized member they saw my stand as nothing short of betrayal to them and their God.
Several family members with whom my wife and I were very close shunned us simply for being openly agnostic. Those who didn’t shun us suddenly became very standoffish and cautious. I was told that I was not allowed to speak about my views, or else what little association we had would be withdrawn.
Because my family could no longer offer any lasting support I reached out to an EXJW online support group. My family suspected I was an apostate and was keeping tabs on my internet activities. A few of them compiled a dossier of selected online quotes. One copy was given to my elders, while others were circulated throughout my friends and family. This effectively ended what few relationships my wife and I still had, leaving us to start a completely new life.
I had to speak to two elders who investigated my apostasy, but fortunately I was never officially disfellowshipped. The two men in question knew me very well and took my diagnoses into account. They decided to simply label me as stumbled rather than put me through more grief. But they implored me to consider returning to the faith, and claimed that my experience was not a true representation of what being a Witness was all about. As long as I didn’t seek out opportunities to preach my dissidence to other Witnesses, I would be left alone.
As I did research online I found out that over the decades many others had been through experiences eerily similar to mine. I discovered that my tears and anguish were just a small part of Watchtower’s painful legacy.
Contrary to what the two elders had told me, I saw that the problem was systemic. It was at this point that I decided to become an Ex-JW activist. I realized that I had inside knowledge of a destructive cult that was actively shielding its true nature from the public and its own members. Only through lies and deceit were they able to continue growing as a pseudo-religion. I felt a strong urge to warn as many as possible.
I started a YouTube Channel and began writing online about my experiences, as well as the doubts that had been suppressed for many years. I found many people as I clawed my way out of the Watchtower prison who I now consider dear friends.
The life I had before in the organization was lost, but every ending offers a new beginning. I am left with just one thing to say to the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Your time left is reduced.”
I am excited to offer my support as a JWsurvey writer to those like me whose lives have been negatively impacted by Watchtower. I sincerely believe that together we can make a valuable contribution to the world. My hope is that eventually high control groups such as Watchtower will be unable to flourish due to proper societal education.
In the end, the truth is what is most important.
*Name has been changed.