Growing up within the JW world, particularly as a woman, you got used to boundaries, to barriers, and to being told all the things you CANNOT do. From pre-marital sex, to seeking higher education, to flipping a pancake on Shrove Tuesday, JW membership frequently boiled down to an ever expanding list of things that are prohibited.
And as a woman, that list extended to thinking for yourself, building your own career and making decisions about your own body and healthcare, with women being extremely restricted by the organisation in their options for their own reproductive health.
In an ideal world, the decision to leave any high-control religion, cult or sect would be the beginning of the rest of your life. A life of free choice and fulfillment of dreams. Yet all too often, after the decision is made to leave that environment, although our physical self may well be free, our minds can remain imprisoned.
Trapped in an open cage
After I left I forged a successful career, built new friendships and filled my life with new experiences. And yet for years, I defended the organization against criticism and refused to use the word “cult”, out of some sense of misplaced historic loyalty. For many years, I was crippled by guilt and low self-esteem, a lack of purpose and direction, and a simmering anger that would increasingly turn to full blown rage after one too many glasses of vino.
I found it hard to trust anyone because deep down I didn’t believe myself worthy of love, and surely everyone I cared about would just up and leave me at the first sign of trouble anyway. I found it hard to try anything new, to take a chance, and to risk anything, because for so many years I couldn’t allow myself to take a wrong step or be less than perfect, for risk of losing everything.
And maybe the most galling of all, was that there was no one in my life who truly understood. The professional therapists I consulted were highly qualified, but I lacked the words to make them understand just how empty or alone I felt, and just how much the shunning by friends and family alike had impacted me.
And my dear new friends tried so hard to support me, but what were they supposed to say when I told them that my parents would rather let me die if it came to it, than allow a blood transfusion and breach the interpretation of an ancient Biblical law. How could my friends possibly respond to such backwards thinking, and to such a flagrant breach of parental love and responsibility?
Eventually, in a swirl of alcohol, self doubt and guilt, the denial finally caught up with me.
I burned out.
At the crossroads
The shock brought on by an enforced stay in the hospital finally jolted me into re-evaluating my entire life. I realized that far from being free of the organization, I was still trapped. But it was a prison of my own making, forged inside my mind.
I’m by no means alone in this.
Individuals walking away from high control religions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, have suffered from many of the following issues: –
- Low self esteem & worthlessness
- Crippling guilt
- Lack of direction and inability to plan for the future
- Depression & suicidal thoughts
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Controlling and abusive relationships
- Financial mismanagement
When you stop to examine the life of the typical JW, and consider the emotional impact of breaking free, it’s actually easy to see how these can develop.
When you truly believe that the only solution to man’s problems is for God to step in, it’s easy to understand how leavers are left with a lack of purpose, a difficulty in seeing any other future, and a lack of belief in their own ability to affect change.
When you truly believe that those who sin against God are destined for a fiery end at Armageddon, it’s easy to understand how leavers are terrified of trying something new, of taking a risk, for fear of making a mistake and being less than perfect.
And when you KNOW that those closest to you would stand by and allow your death, would walk away from you at the first sign of sin, and would put the thoughts and wishes of 7 strangers in New York above the feelings of their own child, it’s easy to understand how low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness can take hold.
If you are feeling any of these things, this does not make you weak. You are simply reacting to years of mind control, indoctrination and never being allowed to put your own feelings and thoughts first, or to express doubt or fear.
Remember that you are grieving. You’re grieving for the loss of a previous way of life, the loss of a belief structure, the loss of a promised future paradise, and frequently, you’re grieving for the loss of friends and family alike.
But you CAN move past this. No matter at what time of life you have escaped from the Organisation, you can shake off these negative thoughts, and the grip of self-doubt, and you are able to forge a new, fulfilling, joyful life.
Which brings us back to me. Sat in a hospital bed, with a dawning realization that I had never truly left the organisation behind. At this point, I had a choice. I could stay trapped in my prison, and allow them to steal yet more precious years from me.
Or I could finally do what I thought I had accomplished all that time ago, and break free once and for all.
After some searching, I found a therapist who had a background of helping people who have escaped from high-control religions and cults. When I told her the extent of the brainwashing, the instilled fear, and the eventual shunning, rather than looking at me incredulously, she nodded and asked me to continue.
And in time, I came to see the real truth.
I had something that not a lot of people get. I had a second chance.
Rather than dwell on everything that had been “stolen” from me (a normal childhood, years of independence and the unconditional love of my family), instead I began to see the opportunity.
The opportunity to take all of those experiences and use them to create something new.
Learning to fly
The first action is to seek professional help in the form of therapy or coaching, with someone who truly understands the emotional turmoil involved in leaving a high-control religion. Even better (though not essential) if that person has also been through a similar experience. And if costs are an issue, there are plenty of free alternatives, from talking therapies provided through your doctor to online forums of people in a similar situation to yourself. The relief of speaking to someone who just gets it cannot be understated.
Next comes A LOT of forgiveness, and the hardest part of this is that the majority of people you need to forgive will continue to blame you for what has happened. You can’t change what they do, and you can’t change how they think, but you CAN change your response to it.
So forgive your friends and family, forgive the organisation and, above all, forgive yourself. Accept that you made the best decisions you could, with the information you had available to you at the time.
(If forgiving the organisation seems utterly impossible to you, then your therapist or coach will be able to provide you with tried and tested methods to slowly let go of the anger and achieve peace with the past, one step at a time.)
You may in time decide that you want to actively help others who are still trapped in that situation, perhaps by holding the organisation accountable in the media, or working with individuals in a professional capacity as I have chosen to do. The important thing is to make your choices based on YOUR OWN reasons, and to learn to trust yourself again.
The MOST exciting part of this process, is the future. Remember, your future is now your own, and you have the opportunity to shape it however you choose. You’re in control – don’t waste it!
Dream big. Imagine your most amazing life. Think about all those things you always wanted to do whilst you were in the Organization, but you were tethered by meetings, ministry and Mosaic law. Travel, business, education. Philanthropy and new hobbies. Friends from all creeds, and all walks of life. New experiences every day – the world is now your playground!
What do you want to be, do and have? What impact do you want to make? What do you want to create for yourself?
You CAN turn years of indoctrination into the motivation that propels you forwards. But you don’t have to do this all by yourself if you don’t want to. There are many means of support out there, through coaching, therapy or simply connecting online with people who understand, and who believe in you.
After so many years in the organisation, being told what to do and how to live, I honestly thought I would never truly be free.
But the realization, when it came, was like a shovel to the face. The organization had already taken so many years of my life. I wasn’t going to allow them to take any more.
How about you?
– Alice Cheshire
Follow Alice Cheshire on twitter at @thealicechesh
Editor’s note: This article was written by a former Jehovah’s Witnesses who has “faded” from the organisation without being shunned. She has adopted the pseudonym Alice Cheshire for this article to avoid repercussions with her JW relatives, and works as a professional coach under a different name.