The combination of my pretty deck, good wine, appys and great company is one of my favorite things. The opportunity to enjoy exactly this came with some good friends a few days ago, and through the course of the evening we covered a lot of ground on a lot of topics.
I love this couple. Conversation with them is always productive and satisfying. Just as the wine was starting to seep into my veins and calm me down from a very busy day, I was asked if I thought I could have left my family’s religion without an external influence or if I had enough inner strength to do it on my own.
This is something I have found is interesting to me to the point of obsession and I like that it is a fascinating topic to others besides me – the psychology of highly restrictive religions is a deep and involved subject.
Although I lived in one for over three decades and left it almost ten years ago, I am still sorting out my mind about it all, and always welcome the chance to talk about it. I am posting the gist of the conversation here so if you ever have a chance to talk to someone who is either on the cusp of escaping or has just escaped and feels insecure about it, perhaps it will help.
This topic fires me up more than just a little and my mellow chill turned into a buzz. I could feel my spine straighten and my intensity grow as I tried to think through the totally legitimate question I am sure so many people who have always had the experience of thinking for themselves ask themselves when seeing someone in or after they have left a high control group. I want to be able to honor my experience with the right words that neither demean the people who still choose to believe nor belittle the courage that it took to leave.
My answer is one that is entirely personal and I can’t necessarily speak to anyone else’s experience of leaving as there is so much involved mentally – how young you were when the indoctrination process started, how strict your parents/guardians were with friendships with “worldly” or non-witness people, how close you were to the other members of the congregation and then, of course, your “goat-like”, “stiff-necked”, “non-submissive” personality has to come into it as well (terms that would be familiar to someone who has lived the life). For someone who begins the indoctrination process after experiencing life in another way, their separation process would likely be somewhat different from mine.
In my opinion, for one who is raised from birth within the indoctrination, there must be an external factor or influence, as one who is raised so close to the organization has no other knowledge of how things could be different. (Does someone born blind know that there is light unless someone teaches them?) Information about the outside world is filtered through the leaders and fed to the congregation members, creating in a young one such as myself a huge divide: “us vs. Satan’s world”.
If you think this sounds dramatic, think of this: I don’t know Spanish, but I still remember every word of one scripture that was taught to me as a child to recite at a meeting:
“Sabemos que nosotros nos originamos de Dios, pero el mundo entero yace en el [poder del] inicuo.” 1 John 5:19
It means “We know that we originate from God, but the whole world lies in the [power of the] wicked one.“
Warnings were stern and frequent about what happens to those who create friendships outside the organization. These admonitions were littered with examples of people in the Bible who created disasters in their lives by doing just such a thing. Like Dinah. Google her name if you have never heard of the story of Dinah – I grew up on cautionary tales such as these and took them to heart.
I wonder now if the prevalence of anxiety and stress related mental illness within the organization comes from this very thing: being trapped within a religion, marriage, community or whichever is the hardest part for the person, and knowing that they can’t leave because if they do the possibility is very real that once they leave the organization and are out in the big, bad world without having direction, they may:
- Lose their family.
- Lose their community.
- For a certainty become involved with drugs, alcohol abuse, unwanted pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases.
- Die. By direct judgement from God in the battle of Armageddon, which is coming tomorrow. No wait. Tomorrow. Oops, I meant tomorrow. Ok, maybe not tomorrow but definitely very soon.
So many stay because they can’t conceive for themselves a life outside of the confines given to them by the religion…until a perfect combination of factors starts to gather in a fearsome tornado of change and upheaval in the mind of the indoctrinated.
It starts with trust. A small opening of the minds eye, letting just a sliver of light and clarity into the darkness of the brain. This trust must be found in someone outside the organization. That trust enables the person to realize that there actually is safety in the goodness of humanity on the outside. For the vast majority of people who leave the faith that I did, it is actually a romantic relationship that is forged, enabling two things to happen: 1. the trust they develop in someone they grow to care about and 2. the sexual relationship. Someone cannot maintain a good standing in the congregation if they are having sex outside of marriage, even if it is between two single, consenting and otherwise available adults. This “sin” starts a congregational procedure in disciplinary action and culminates in either disfellowshipping (excommunication) or reproof (an announcement is made to the congregation that the matter involving whomever has been dealt with and certain privileges are reduced for a time).
The person in question then has to either stay outside the social side of the congregation, while attending meetings and working his or her way back to an approved state where people will once again talk to or involve them again in their lives, or they abandon their faith and face the daunting task of trying to navigate the outside world that they must now approach with extreme caution due to the evil they have been taught to believe it is.
For me, it ended up being a perfect storm of an awful marriage that fell apart, the goodness of the non-witness people that knew so little about me or my background but were welcoming, kind and non-judgemental over the choice I made to leave and then divorce my then husband. Helping me on the internal side was a massive resentful rebelliousness that was growing over feeling forced to discuss the personal aspects of my failed marriage and being told that I would at some point have to reconcile with my ex in order to not trigger eternal divine condemnation. Turns out I don’t like to be told what to do.
Probably the most effective aspect of all was finally speaking openly about my beliefs to ones who had no clue about my background. These ones were not as I had expected them to be: oppositional or judgemental. They were actually supportive, curious and asked “why” repeatedly, listening first to my automatic, well trained answers that gradually shifted to more thoughtful and less sure responses. They listened with open minds governed by common sense until it was obvious that many of the doctrines I had adopted with ferocious ownership sounded weak and foolish, even to my own desperately loyal ears.
After awhile I stopped trying to defend the doctrines and surrendered to what mattered to me in my current situation – survival – healing my heart from a devastating divorce and navigating a world that I had always known only as a dangerous place if you didn’t have your hand in the hand of the organization to tell you what to say, how to act, or what to think.
It was stressful to let go of the preconceived notions I had always held and open up to the possibility of universal goodness. But found it in bucket loads. At work, the women turned into allies and friends, the men into protectors and helpers. I travelled to Mexico on my own twice and found that every person I came into contact with went out of their way to show me kindness. In Hawaii, people befriended me and shared how to best enjoy their piece of paradise while I was there.
And the good just kept showing up. Excellent people, perfect opportunities, unexpected support when I least expected it.
When I think back to the time that I thought that I would have to stand alone in the world in order to live my life the way I wanted (i.e. not have to go back to my ex husband and not have to tell the elders everything they asked, whenever they asked), my heart aches for that woman.
There is no possible way I could have known at that time how great life would be on the other side. And it makes me realize that I don’t remember how bad it really was to motivate me to be able to take that first determined, gloriously rebellious step which was followed by another, and another until I felt strong enough to say to the elders, whom I had previous held in a position of absolute, divinely appointed authority, “Thank you but no, I don’t want to meet with you. I will let you know if I ever need your help.”
I truly believed I would have to face the scary, evil world alone. And I was willing to do it.
I haven’t once looked back, and I think this above all else would surprise my old community. For a group to feel so strongly that they are God’s chosen people, that they are the ones He is exclusively using to accomplish his will here on earth, it must be puzzling to them as to why or how someone could leave with absolutely no regrets, or at least without missing the belonging.
It’s not to say that I haven’t mourned the loss of my family through this process – mostly because it sucks to know that you are labelled as “bad” association by the ones you love and assume must love you back.
But there is no remorse for allowing myself the freedom to become the woman I have become, for enjoying the goodness life has to offer if you are just willing to try to taste it, for loving the beauty of the world and the things and people I involve myself with.
So on this beautiful Summer Solstice, I revel in the pagan-ness of the meaning of the day, of all that it represents – fertility, light, life and potentially a great harvesting for our hearts desires, dreams and plans. Make them big, make them sweet and make them fabulous. It’s been my experience that if you just take that first rebellious step…