Some people embrace the religion handed down to them. Others like myself never felt fully settled, never felt like they could be their authentic selves.
I got baptized at 15 because I knew it was expected of me. We all knew that teenagers, especially the children of elders, who didn’t get baptized before graduating high school were subjected to intense scrutiny and stigma. The very notion of a private “dedication prayer” felt like the most contrived demonstration of religious expression that, in my case, amounted to a pubescent rollercoaster—I wanted to please Jehovah, I wanted to do the right thing for humanity, I wanted to please my parents, and I also wanted to gorge on snack cakes, go to Julliard, and date the cute guy at school. I was sentimental, hormonal, confused, and afraid to rock the boat. I never did have, before, during, or after my baptism, a “religious experience” as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I knew I never truly wanted to be a Jehovah’s Witness, but the thought of taking a stand against everything I’d been raised to believe was terrifying. Also, I was highly conflicted. My parents, unlike so many other parents in the organization, actually made an effort to be balanced. I went to public school. I was allowed to watch TV (even MTV!). I received gifts throughout the year to make up for the fact that we didn’t celebrate holidays, and my pioneer mother actually pushed me to pursue college because she deeply regretted never getting an education herself. In conjunction with their admonition to go to college and travel for pleasure, it felt strangely like my parents were constructing a double life for their daughter, one they were aware was not Watchtower-approved. While I certainly appreciated their more liberal parenting, it only contributed to the extreme cognitive dissonance I was experiencing in the religion. Was I really being encouraged to develop my critical thinking skills and pave my own path? Or would their seemingly progressive behavior turn out to be emotional manipulation?
The Pressure Cooker…
— as I like to refer to life as a teenager in the organization — only dialed up after baptism. After all, your baptism is just the beginning, they say with saccharine smiles. Yes, as an official member of the company, the threat of moral micromanagement and expulsion became greater with each passing year.
As with a literal pressure cooker, the build-up and suppression of steam can only have one outcome…well, in JW world there’s two possible outcomes, fornication or drugs, but I’m going to throw a curveball here. It is possible to remain in good standing, not ironically, but actually live clean and be well-respected, and still silently lose your shit.
I remember we were preparing to leave for the weekly bookstudy (Remember bookstudy? Those meetings that felt more informal but were just as torturous?), when I became awash with panic. Not the kind of panic that comes from seeing a spider, or forgetting to turn in your homework. I’m talking about the crushing, suffocating fear that you’re trapped and can’t see a way out. In the hour leading up to leaving, our house had erupted in arguments. We were “Jehovah’s happy people”, yet my exhausted mother was bitching about having to go to another meeting, and when I agreed with her, I somehow got blamed for having a bad attitude. My elder father, red-faced and pickled, had landed himself in the doghouse for drinking before the meeting. I was miserable. I was miserable with my parents’ dysfunction, and I was miserable in the rote life of a JW. No matter how crazy I knew things were, I had two deluded parents shouting at the top of their lungs that we were happy. In what I can only describe as an outer-body experience, I suddenly scrambled to the garage, wide-eyed and short of breath, and grabbed a razor blade.
This wasn’t premeditated. Up until that moment, I had been anorexic for two years. Shortly after my baptism, my subconscious rage and resentment as a closeted non-believer manifested itself in a very calculated eating disorder that left me hovering barely over 100 pounds and no less free of the religion. During this time, a tall, slender sister my age gave a personal experience at the summer district convention. I didn’t know her, but I was surprised when she revealed that she had been struggling with anorexia. It was no surprise that anorexia played a role in her gaunt frame, rather, I was shocked and disgusted by the spin the organization put on her story. Instead of demonstrating discretion given the sensitive nature of the topic, the organization inappropriately inserted itself in the context of a psychologically complex disorder as the hero of this sister’s life. In a tidy tying of the bow, this poor sister gave the organization’s relentless pioneering propaganda credit for her supposed “recovery”. By ignoring all the obviously deeprooted implications of the disorder, Watchtower praised her—and patted themselves on the back —for throwing herself into service instead of throwing herself into rehab.
By the time I turned 18, I became suicidal. I continued to cut in secret. For those who are tempted to accuse me of making sweeping generalizations that being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses causes these behaviors/disorders, I ask you: why would an otherwise bright, happy, talented and vivacious child grow up to want to knick their arms and die unless they feel trapped?
While there may be a current lack of scientific evidence proving that being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses causes eating disorders and self-harm, I firmly believe there is a correlation between authoritarian religion and the exploitation of our vulnerabilities. Just ask the thousands of individuals who have successfully committed suicide due to the organization’s threat of shunning former members. Oh wait, you can’t.
The claim will be made that my parents’ dysfunction and my relationship with self-injury were caused by other factors. I don’t deny that several factors can contribute to disorders: genetics, poor diet, personality, family dynamics. But this begs the question, how would the severity of your depression be affected if you stopped pioneering and got more sleep? What effect would it have on my father if he didn’t take on a million congregational responsibilities while also juggling a full-time secular job and a family? Would he be more or less inclined to drink if he didn’t have this added weight on his shoulders?
Just like the anorexic sister’s perfectionism served Watchtower’s bottom-line, my propensity to please my parents and be a model JW was worth the cost of my private pain. It wasn’t possible, in my parents’ mind, that I resented the hell out of it, or that the organization’s impossibly high expectations took advantage of an impressionable young mind. No, my parents were far too good to me for me to ever conceive of a legitimate reason to leave the organization. It wasn’t enough that I thanked them profusely for being good parents; my exit from the cult of eight men in Warwick, New York was a personal blow. Even when I shared my secret with my parents twelve years later, it was ultimately more important to my parents to have a sick child in good standing, than to accept a happy, healthy child outside the religion at the expense of their pride. My parents are victims of mind control. No loving parent would otherwise dismiss a cry for help as some personality flaw I just couldn’t shake.
I wanted to tell my story to illustrate the depth of craziness this cult produces and warn the unsuspecting public: your own parents can be brainwashed into believing self-injury and suicidal ideation are justified if it means you’re being “unreservedly faithful” to the cult. I also want others who are going through something similar to know, you are not alone.
This, more than any other crazy experience I had in the cult, flipped a switch in my brain. This is messed up. Just like the cult’s callous, criminal handling of child molestation is messed up. Just like their backward praise of spouses that put up with domestic violence is messed up. Just like the audacity to pressure members, often children, on their deathbed not to accept blood transfusions, is messed up. Still don’t believe Jehovah’s Witnesses’ systemic mind control is at the root of a global public health crisis? I guess we’ll all have to stay tuned as the organization’s increasing legal battles and dwindling membership threaten to turn on her, making her devastated and naked. (See what I did there?)
Living free and intact,
*not my real name