As Denise knows only too well, spirituality is not all ‘love and light’ experiences. It’s so vital that extreme situations like the one Denise explains here are talked about so that those potentially vulnerable to them can be made aware of the risks and protected. Spirituality is far from exempt of being used as a tool of manipulation; many so called ‘Gurus’ are found to abuse their followers in one form or another. Any use of power or control is abuse, and it takes huge strength and bravery to get out and speak up. Thank you Denise for bringing your story to light in order to show both the risks and potential opportunities that can present themselves through trauma and abuse…
I was raised in what I consider to be a fundamentalist Christian sect, which I joined with my mother as a minor of ten. Key factors which can make one vulnerable are our own less than ideal childhood and subsequent poor life choices. Add to this circumstances out of our control, like the loss of key family members through death or divorce, and these were the things which hit my mother hard. As she began to question the meaning of life, she entertained the sect who called regularly at her door. Under the circumstances she was an emotionally low-hanging fruit, ripe for the picking. These avid preachers are highly trained to spot this vulnerability and ask key questions that have sat up and begged to be answered since the beginning of time, such as ‘what is the meaning of life’ or ‘if there is a God, why does he allow suffering?’
Most cults have a knack of providing black and white answers to calm the existential angst, coupled with an intoxicating offer of family support. They achieve their aims by love-bombing their new recruits into a big happy group and reassuring them that all will be well as long as they fully adopt their belief system. In this case the carrot is the promise of a paradise on earth with no suffering, sickness or death.
What this particular sect will never tell you in advance, and is also the reason they become increasingly mentally and emotionally abusive, is that once you are sucked in it is very difficult to get out again. The thumb screws of fear and guilt are slowly turned so that initially you are not even aware that your freedom of thought and choices are being bled away. It is dictated what you can or cannot wear, listen to or watch.
If these preaching machines were to tell you upfront that you would be compelled to attend three long meetings a week, keep up with the national average of twelve hours door to door preaching a month, sacrifice a family member if they needed a banned blood transfusion, or abstain from sex until marriage, then there wouldn’t be much chance of you entering into the fold.
I became a voluntary full-time preacher at the age of eighteen, preaching for ninety hours a month, unpaid, for ten years. It was practically forbidden to study after leaving school and I had no career prospects other than my ministry and therefore no financial freedom. As a woman I was also not allowed to become an Elder or a Ministerial Servant in the congregation as these positions of authority are for males only.
I was beginning to feel ‘less than’ already and this only deepened when I married a man from my congregation at twenty-eight and he became ‘head of the house’, making all decisions. Wives have to be obedient to their husbands in all things.
At the age of thirty-two, I found myself ripped from my family and life-long friends who were still within this sect. This was for daring to think for myself, ask awkward questions and then taking action to leave behind this patriarchal belief system. I was branded an ‘apostate’ twenty-five years ago and if I was to meet someone from the sect on the street, they would cross the road and not speak to me.
If you found out early on how traumatic it would be to walk away and be cut off from your family and friends still within for the rest of your life, as I was, you would never sign up to this ‘paradise on earth’ deal. Shunning is one of the cruellest practices and typical of high control groups. The trauma caused by this practice alone can and did lead to depression and PTSD for me and can sometimes drive ex-followers to suicide. I had to let go of the relationship with my mother and step-father twenty-five years ago, along with all my childhood friends. I am blessed that my brother and sister also left and that we are allies – not everyone is that lucky.
The point in my life where I started to thrive, rather than just survive the strict and puritanical routines, was when I catapulted myself and my four-year-old daughter into the unknown, away from this religion, a five-year marriage and the country I had settled in, Switzerland. It had taken two years of skilled psychotherapy to rebuild my core sense of self enough to leave the sect and six months later, my husband. At the age of thirty-two, I was on a journey to begin a new life, returning to my native country, England, where I rebelled against every belief and lie I had been taught since childhood. It was a time of fun, laughter and adventure into the great unknown world.
It’s so important to reach out for support to any family or friends you may initially have outside of the Organisation when you are severing yourself from the clutches of undue influence. It’s a very delicate and vulnerable stage of re-building your life from ground zero. I got in touch with my birth father and several friends who had left the sect some years earlier and it was joyous to meet, eat together and talk about the good old days we’d had as well as the bad. The camaraderie of shared experience can make the transition to a new life so much less painful.
As I was in a new county and a town where I knew nobody, I decided to join the local gym and made a good companion there. When I started working, I made core friends that have supported me unconditionally through thick and thin, a far cry from my self-righteous religious family.
During the next twenty years, I worked my way up the career ladder as a personal assistant, eventually holding a good position at Universal Pictures in London. There I was given an opportunity to grow a large corporate social responsibility programme over and above my job role, which I loved. We would volunteer at local homeless centres, give reading practice to under-privileged inner-city children, re-paint their school or weed and paint at the Wetlands Wildfowl trust.
How do you learn to thrive when you feel broken inside and your self-esteem is at rock bottom? Creativity has been a life-saver for me. I was drawn to silk painting a couple of years before I left my husband and the relationship that I built to colour aided in expressing my emotions and became a healing experience.
I felt a sense of self-assurance beginning to bud when I had singing lessons and learnt to play keyboard and guitar. After many years of relating my cult escape story to anyone who would listen, and with their encouragement, I felt the calling to begin writing my story. It took me thirteen years of struggling with deeply suppressed emotions, writers’ block and depression before I ’emerged proud’ to become an author. My book has just been published and has finally been birthed into the world after a long drawn out labour of love. It can be purchased here:
And you can find out more about my journey on my website:
You never know… you may go down the rabbit blog…. https://www.isisallthings.com/
Loving your brave story-share Denise. Thanks so much for sharing this with us all 🙏
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