How is one to rationally cope with the knowledge that others (close family members and long-time friends) view you as dead? And, not just dead, but murdered by the Almighty as punishment for sins so egregious that it would require this sort of punishment. The sins that qualify for this punishment? According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, this list can include smoking, adultery, sex before wedlock, being homosexual, accepting a blood transfusion, and many more. Seriously, they consider these sins as deserving of murder by the Almighty. But, since He doesn’t strike down people every day, Jehovah’s Witnesses do their best to emulate a spiritual murder of sorts, by shunning these poor souls that have been tried in a kangaroo court of three lay elders (only men) in suits who have no formal counseling training, no formal theology training. These men pass judgments based on publications of dogma and rules set forth by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Inc.–a religious publishing company.
The fallout in these situations, as I can personally attest, normally leave the victim in a worse situation than when the sought out assistance and counseling from these supposed congregational shepherds. Can you imagine having reached out with issues ranging from emotional breakdowns, drug issues, domestic abuse, or simply raging hormones, to find yourself being cast out from your only safety net, only to be shunned by family and friends? It is no wonder that so many victims of this kind of religious abuse contemplate or actually succeed in suicide.
So, if one finds themselves on the outside looking in, how can this grief, this tragic sense of loss of family, friends, and even one’s god, be healed? Having been in an online ex-JW community for about nine years, I can say that the single biggest healing tool is research. Research the organization’s structure, its beginnings, its policy changes over the decades. Read about court cases involving the Watchtower Society–these are public records, and completely verifiable. Even examine your personal spiritual beliefs, stripping away all of the dogma you’ve been taught, and examine texts and information without the Watchtower filters. I took a world religions course that helped me in this regard, and helped me look at all religion from an analytical perspective. It completely changed my worldview.
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have the corner on high control environments. There are a lot of cults out there that use emotional blackmail to coerce their members into falling in line. One such group, The Worldwide Church of God, has its fair share of victims, too. A great site was set up for escapees, and they offer some wonderful information on recovering from the emotional trauma of being disfellowshipped from a high-control group. Here’s a link to some of their info: http://exitsupportnetwork.com/recovery/recover.htm
Another great online resource is Steven Hassan’s site, Freedom of Mind. Not only have I read his books, but I had the unique opportunity to meet him in person. He has a passionate heart when it comes to assisting people to not only escape high control groups, but provides wonderful tools for survivors.
Yet another thing that I found particularly useful in dealing with my grief and sense of loss was to get involved in local interest groups. While online forums and groups are helpful, there is the missing piece of one-on-one human interaction. This was one of the hardest steps for me. It’s easy to hide behind a computer screen, which you can walk away from or turn off. It’s another thing to have to learn to trust people you have to look in the eye. The first step is the hardest, and my first foray was to join a knitting group. It was a safe place, and we all had a common goal–to bring comfort to others who had lost a loved one, were going through an illness, or other tragedy. We made shawls for them, and added little cards, and delivered them. It was a combination of doing good for others while doing good for myself. Through the course of a couple of years, I made a few friends…and began to learn how to trust.
This is NOT, I repeat NOT, an overnight process. It takes time to grieve our losses, and to create a new reality. The key word is patience. We have to be patient with ourselves and give ourselves the emotional space to heal. Don’t be afraid to say yes to new opportunities and healthy experiences, and don’t be afraid to say no to things that may not be good for your recovery. This journey is unique to each of us, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Though I’ve been out of the Watchtower’s environment for 23 years and have now been assimilated into relatively normal society, I still ran through a rough patch this past year. I had to stop and take my own advice about having patience with myself and saying no to some things that were not emotionally healthy for me. Now, I’m feeding my soul again with very positive things: doing work I love (and now only part-time), using my creativity to craft new items for my Etsy store and to donate to chemo patients, cooking, reading copious amounts of material, and planning for this year’s garden. I’m also enjoying “play dates” with friends where we co-create crafts. This is my healing.
My wish is for all those who have been emotionally blackmailed, coerced, or dismissed from their former lives to find a path that brings peace and happiness. And, please share your lessons learned along the way to help smooth the way for other survivors, so that they may thrive, too.