Tag Archives: XJW

The Unforgivable sin

I did it. I did the unthinkable. I had become an apostate. I had written a letter to the church I had dedicated my life to and requested they never contact me again. I told them I was leaving their faith and going on to become a psychologist. To write this letter meant I had committed the unforgivable sin. I was filled with bitter-sweet emotion. I was sad but thrilled and I felt empowered like never before in my life. What is the unforgivable sin of apostacy and why was this letter so significant? Let me explain:

As a child I was diagnosed with dyslexia and A.D.D. but neither stopped me from spending hours looking at pictures in encyclopedias at my grandparents house and wondering about the science behind the natural world. My grandfather was an “Elder” and, other than the encyclopedia set, almost all the books my family owned were religious. Attempts to explore the non-religious interests I had were regularly stomped out. Eventually I stopped trying to pursue my personal interests, including my interest in science. My family was very loving but everything in their world existed in the context of religion. This is because I was born into a multi-generational family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This religion is not an ordinary religion and it has been described “ultra-orthodox”, as “high control”, and even as a “doomsday cult” by experts.

The religion stands in opposition to science and it discourages the personal fulfillment of its members, especially if that fulfillment would involve doing something other than church activity. It controls its members through abusive intimidation tactics and shunning. My relationship with the religion was a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where victims’ bond with their abusers. On one hand it was my family’s culture for generations, everyone I know belonged to it, and I knew no other way of living. I have fond memories of some of it. On the other hand it was causing me deep despair because it seemed like had no control over how I lived my life. I wasn’t allowed to develop my own identity, pursue hobbies, invest time in things that I might be passionate about, play sports, or even have basic life experiences like date or socialize. If I left or criticized the religion I would be shunned and called an apostate. Witnesses, including myself, would rather die than be branded an apostate. This was a fate worse than literal death.

The lack of control and autonomy over my life caused me to be extremely depressed. The religion teaches that if you are depressed the solution is to be more engaged with the church. So I dedicated all my time to the church. I became what is called a “Ministerial Servant” and a “Pioneer”, and I learned Spanish and moved to a Spanish speaking congregation. I kept reading the bible and I kept giving more to the organization . I received a lot of praise from my family and community for doing these things. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel any better. I didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it. Like a caged lab rat on wheel I was constantly running but going nowhere. I felt like there was no escape.
Then one day I was reading a magazine published by the church about depression. In it there was an unusual footnote referencing the “Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns. I thought this was very odd as typically the religion only wants its members to read things that are published by their own organization. I immediately went and bought the book and I quickly read it cover to cover. Soon I found myself immersed in all kinds of self-help and psychology books. The religion is generally opposed to books about science, or psychology, so I felt a lot of shame as I read them but I continued on secretively.

The next book that captured my attention was Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman. There Seligman discussed Learned Helplessness. It’s a phenomenon, that he discovered along with Dr. Steven Maier, where lab animals stopped trying to escape when they were exposed to inescapable electric shocks. When an animal has no control and isn’t able to escape, they give up and stop trying to avoid the shocks. It’s thought that control or the perception of control is an important factor in developing depression or stress related disorders. I was filled to the brim with questions. How does learning helplessness work? What are its underlying biological mechanisms? Was helplessness really a good model for human depression? How does one learn to be resilient to helplessness? This phenomenon seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to my own religious experience! Had a lifetime of oppression caused me to become helpless?

Although learning about this was fascinating it did not alleviate my sadness. Eventually the Elders in the congregation told me that I had to see a therapist about my depression but gave me special instructions to not listen to the therapist’s advice and to only take medications. They said the therapist only wanted me to stop serving god. So, I went and got prescribed Prozac.

The medication made me feel extremely sick and lethargic. I stopped attending religious meetings and I stopped preaching. The medication left me with no motivation to do anything. The elders then said I was “mentally unstable” and they stripped me of all the positions I had in the congregation and told me to leave the Spanish congregation. This was devastating. I was labeled “spiritually sick” and the shunning followed. I had to leave my job because of harassment from members of the church. Apart from the religion, my family, and my community I had nothing. I had no career, degree or life skills because all of my life had been dedicated to the church. I had finally reached rock bottom.

That’s when it happened. I did the unthinkable. I revolted. I became an apostate. I thought critically of the religion of my birth. Abandoning my faith wasn’t something that I took lightly. The word apostate comes from an ancient Greek word meaning one who revolts or defects. Apostacy is considered an unforgivable sin in the church; a special sin deserving of death. A sin deserving of death and yet by it I gained my life. I gained control. It meant I was no longer helpless. After I sent my letter ending my relationship with the church my nearly life-long depression soon lifted. Apostate is a badge I now wear with honor.

TO feel Like I belong

It’s funny how when you look back in time it seems as though all that has happened has happened in the blink of an eye. It was just 5 or 6 years ago when I officially escaped the high control religion that I was born into. My life was totally different then. I thought I would take a moment to night to reflect on where I have come from and where I am going.

A few short years ago I was still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was a pioneer and ministerial servant in a spanish language congregation. I was terribly sad and I felt extremely empty and unfulfilled. I was only ever encouraged to do more for the religion and read more bible and more of their religious literature. When I did not find that to be fulfilling or happy I was attacked, gaslit, and shunned by people who I considered to be my friends in the religion. It felt like my life was over. I didn’t know who I was or what I believed. This was in 2014. For a good year or so I believe that the religions teachings were true but it was just that the congregation was filled with corrupt and evil people.

However after a solid year of living in confusion I had a thought that helped me wake up. I thought if God had given me a brain and intellectual ability that is greater than other species then why would he forbid me from using it? It would not make sense that a God who loves truth and justice would not want an individual to stand up for truth and justice. Then in late 2015 I realized the cold hard truth. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult.

When I realized this it was like all the confusion I felt throughout my life made sense. It was like I had been collecting puzzle pieces throughout my life and trying to piece them together but I was missing the big picture. Then as if in an instant all the pieces came together. It all made sense when I considered that the beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses were manipulative and toxic.

After I came to that realization I began to heal. Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses is extremely difficult. Members are discouraged from pursuing education, a career, having friends outside the congregation, and even from having passions and hobbies outside of the church. In the religion you as an individual don’t exist. You only exist as part of a religious collective.

As I was saying, a result of these things it is extremely difficult to leave. I had so many questions and unknowns. Who was I? What did I like? What did I want from life? It might sound strange but I simply didn’t know. Reconnecting with myself was arduous work.

Eventually during I started to remember or realize my love of psychology and biology. My love for these things combined with my desire to help others like myself motivated me to return to school. Initially I was going to school to become a licensed therapist and then my focus changed to becoming a school psychologist.

I still had doubts about whether or not that was what I wanted. So I took some classes on teaching in elementary school. The class was fine but it didn’t excite me. At the same time I was also in a neuroscience class and I noticed that the topics not only interested me but I felt energized thinking about them. So I reached out to that professor to discuss career opportunities and my education goals.

After explaining my interests I was told that my interests were in the field of “cognitive behavioral neuroscience” and that was at that time that I had heard that phrase. Long story short, I wound up becoming an Honors Psychology Student, conducting undergraduate research in behavioral neuroscience, writing a thesis paper, and setting the goal of getting into a PhD program. I then found myself searching for graduate schools, writing emails, taking the GREs, and applying. In the end I only ended up applying for one program and I was accepted.

Seemingly at breakneck speed I am now here at my new University as a Phd Student and Graduate Assistant. Looking back it’s been a real journey getting here. I’ve only been in my new town at my new university for about 1 week and half but honestly it feels like I am where I need to be. Classes have not officially started yet but things feel good. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses I never felt fulfillment. I never felt like I belong.

I’m starting to feel those things now.

Instant friends; just add water

I received an email from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) that talked about how it can be difficult for former members of controlling religions to make friends.  It explained that when your in such a group the other members are automatically your friends and you don’t have to work on relationships.  This made me think.

Continue reading Instant friends; just add water