(I wrote this piece to honor those who have been hurt by high-demand churches and cults. I also wrote it for their loved ones, clergy, and therapists that they might understand how to handle us with care. Our experiences are unique, but much of the aftermath we experience can be similar. I hope this is helpful to someone. Peace, Andie Redwine)
We are spiritual abuse survivors.
To paraphrase the late Jan Groenveld, one of the pioneers in the spiritual abuse recovery movement, we believed a dangerous lie that closely resembled the truth. And we have paid dearly for that belief with the sacrifice of our very souls.
Life can really be hard at times for human beings.
We all experience vulnerability in difficult emotional times. Most people find some sort of support to see them through.
Sometimes that support is healthy, and people learn to grieve, learn, and grow.
But sometimes when people are vulnerable and need answers, someone pretends to give support by exploiting the needs of hurting people, using their ‘answers’ as a recruitment tool to get people to do their bidding in the name of God.
This is what happened to us.
We aren’t crazy, naïve, foolish, stupid, or lazy. We are human, like you. We have needs, like you. And, unfortunately for us, someone took advantage of our human needs for their personal gain.
We thought we were specially called by God. We learned later that we were just a means to an end, with the end being the elevation of our leader.
Or we were rigidly raised to believe that everything on the outside of our group was bad. That only our group alone understood God, salvation, and the keys to living rightly.
We were taught or reconditioned to fear everything that contradicted our leaders’ edicts. We believed dissent to be wicked, evil, and Satanic.
And then we learned something about our leaders that made us question all that we built our lives upon.
We learned that there are a lot of people claiming that they are God’s exclusive one-and-only end time prophets. They all have their own franchises, and they all seem to know exactly when Jesus is coming back.
We learned that some of our leaders are sexually deviant, dishonest, emotionally abusive, gossips, false prophets, adulterers, tax evaders, murderers, thieves, and/or general conniving swindlers. We weren’t told everything up front so that we could make informed decisions to follow.
Or we simply learned that there are different rules for the leaders than for the followers. That there is this grand inequality that doesn’t seem, well, biblical.
We learned that some of our phobias have been granted to us by leaders who manipulated us into believing that the world is really a terrible, horrible place.
Of course, our leader’s group is wonderful and the only good to be found in the world.
Or is it?
And then we learned that asking these questions makes us expendable to the leader and the rest of the group.
When we raised objections about our leader, we were called dangerous, rebellious, demonic, or apostate. People distanced themselves accordingly.
And when we left, or when we were banished or shunned, we became a part of ‘the world’ that we so feared. We were disfellowshipped as pagans, heretics, and anathema. (Disfellowshipped is a fancy term for ‘kicked out with no home and no place to go.’)
We were as good as dead to everyone who once claimed to love us.
We believed that eternal punishment was inevitable.
We believed that we left the hidden truth, the narrow way, and the only light. That we could either repent, delude ourselves, or suffer in silence. Alone.
But one day, we noticed that many around us were genuinely happy. Even the ones that were supposed to be ‘really bad.’ They laughed, smiled, and were kind.
Some had faith, some didn’t. All were free to believe as they wished.
We were supposed to fear them. And yet they didn’t seem all that scary.
We didn’t know this worldly culture very well. Their music, their movies, their celebrations, their workplaces, their books, their relationships. And they scared us a little. Or a lot.
They also intrigued us a little. Or a lot.
And we confused the heck out of these people. They had no idea where we were coming from, and we were too ashamed and embarrassed to tell them that we had been in what they called ‘a cult’. That we ‘drank the Kool-Aid’. That we were ‘mind-numbed robots’ that had been ‘brainwashed.’
There was a lot of shame. So we didn’t say a word about our experience. We did the best we could to assimilate.
You may have known us for years and never known our stories. We can bury them pretty deep.
Because of the Internet and our Googling late into the night when we can’t sleep, we’re learning that we aren’t the only ones. Because of the anonymity that the Internet affords, we’re getting braver. We’re telling our stories.
We’re speaking out.
We are still fish out of water. We care deeply about other hurting people because we know what it means to hurt.
We don’t have demons. We aren’t possessed.
We’ve experienced trauma. And it has never been nor will ever be our fault.
We have to convince ourselves of this sometimes.
We’re healing. Slowly.
But as we heal, we want you to keep a few things in mind. These things will be helpful for us and for you in this outside culture as we get to know one another.
If you want to be helpful, thinking about these things will help you help us.
When you listen to us, you might be horrified by what we tell you. Remember that what seems horrific to you is our normal. Allow us to see your natural reactions, but remind us that we aren’t freaks. Any human being who experienced what we experienced would have much the same experience.
We might have difficulty expressing emotion. Tell us that tears make us human, and that it is okay to get angry. Cry and get mad with us.
Since you may be our first friend, help us learn boundaries. You’ll be doing a lot of people a favor. Our boundaries have been routinely violated, as we’ve rarely enjoyed the freedom to think for ourselves. But we can learn new things.
We might be hell-bent on perfectly emulating you. We’ve learned to be pretty great chameleons for survival in our group. If you remind us of your imperfections, we might learn to relax. Especially around you.
That being said, we can be manipulative. We’ve learned our techniques from experts. We hate this about ourselves. Tell us ‘no,’ and mean it.
Inside our old group, we were taught that our ‘wrong’ behaviors and thoughts directly caused bad things to happen. That God was punishing us because we didn’t pray or tithe well enough. Help us see that bad things happen to good people, and that we aren’t as powerful as we might have been led to believe.
Unless, of course, we are continually invading your personal space and privacy. That kind of thing is powerful enough to be a deal-breaker. If we violate your boundaries, tell us so. We need to hear it.
Having a relationship with us can get tricky. Know that we get triggered by things that remind us of our time in the group, and all of the old programmed fears can kick in again without our knowledge. We might look like we have some of these triggers licked only to revisit them at very inopportune moments. Remind us that we are better today than we were yesterday.
We probably have a lot of old literature from our leader around that triggers us as well. Offer to take the material culture from our group off of our hands. Pack it up and send it off to a cult researcher who can use these materials to best help others like us.
Even though our leader exploited us for their personal gain, not everything about our group was bad. We miss things about our group. We’d like to talk about those things without judgment.
But life isn’t all about our old experiences. Teach us to play. It’s probably been a while, if ever. See us as blossoms that were never allowed to fully open. We may need to go back and enjoy childhood for the first time.
We have trouble making choices about things that are fun. There are many choices to make, from food we eat to clothes we wear to places we might go. We are used to having everything prescribed for us and being told what to like. We can get paralyzed by what you believe to be are simple choices.
Explain to us that trying new things will help us figure out what we like and want. And that it is good to like and want things.
Teach us that not every choice is heart pounding, one hand on the edge of a cliff while we dangle serious. We might try this ice cream today, and we can try this kind tomorrow. Or we can try both kinds at once, if we are feeling adventurous.
God probably doesn’t care all that much one way or the other, and if God does consider something as trivial as ice cream selection to be a salvation issue, might God look suspiciously like our micro-managing, controlling leader?
We may have missed out on a lot of pop culture references. Make a list of your favorite movies from the decades we missed and pop the corn. Load our iPod for us. Take us to the library. Experience film and music through our eyes and ears, and everything old will become new again. Even for you.
We might not have a home to go to on major holidays. Heck, we may not know the first thing about hanging an ornament or the words to Auld Lang Syne. We may have never even celebrated our own birthdays. This embarrasses us. Pretend we are foreigners who need everything explained, but please do it quietly. We don’t want to feel like crazies. Help us blend seamlessly into the celebration.
Fun can also cost money, and we have basic needs to consider as well. Help us find vocational help. Encourage us to get a job, a GED or a higher education, a driver’s license, a social security number, a birth certificate, food stamps, medical insurance, and social security income. Make sure we have food, clothing, shelter, transportation, necessary medication, and, in some cases, a good attorney. Direct us to social service agencies that can help.
If we have children, know that our old group might be fighting us to retain custody. They have a lot of money and can afford better lawyering. Help us know our rights as parents, and help Protective Services understand that what we were involved in was more than just a church.
Long-term fun also requires good health. We may have never had adequate medical care, and we may have never been immunized. Help us get a physical and a dental checkup. And maybe even some psychological testing.
If we are engaged in self-destructive behaviors, we may be doing so because the group told us that if we ever left them, we would be self-destructive. Help us end these self-fulfilling prophecies by pointing us in the direction of a licensed psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Remind us that the therapist serves us; we do not serve the needs of the therapist.
If we seem well-adjusted, insist that we check in with a therapist anyway.
Ask us if we have eaten today. We may have spent a lifetime fasting, and we still may believe that by not eating, we are more pleasing to God. Encourage a healthy diet and modest exercise regimen. Balance is the key to our recovery; remember, we’ve lived at the extreme end of the spectrum for years.
Speaking of extremes, don’t be surprised if we argue you to death. We never won theological or philosophical arguments in our group, and we’re making up for it now. Let us know when we’ve made good points, but don’t pander; you don’t need to concede your core beliefs just because you are working to understand ours.
Sometimes we need to win arguments at all costs. We’re sure this feels terrible, but until we hone our social skills? Don’t take this personally. Our brains have been trained to think in black and white. Remind us of the joys of the gray.
We may ask you the same questions over and over. We came from a place where the answers to our questions could vary based upon the whims of our leader. Consistency may not be our strong suit. Be patient, please.
But if you do notice that we are trying something new, or saying something new, or trying on a new way of thinking, or that we’ve made any progress at all? Tell us how proud you are of us. You might be the only person we hear this from.
If we are in a romantic relationship with you, ask what our group taught about sexuality. Chances are that we have been subjected to some fairly odd notions about how men and women should behave in relationships.
We may also have been sexually traumatized in our group. We may have been subjected to unwanted sexual contact, may have had a marriage arranged by the group, been involved in a polygamous arrangement, prostituted our bodies to provide income for our group, or may have provided sexual favors to our leader.
Or we may have been told that what we wanted sexually wasn’t righteous and could send us to hell.
At any rate, while talking openly about sex might be a huge source of shame for us, it’s pretty imperative that we get this out into the open before we get between the sheets.
Remind us that we can say ‘no’. And that you can say ‘no.’ And that we don’t have to say ‘yes’ when we think you want us to say ‘yes’. That you can stop. That we can stop.
If you’re willing to be patient, we can work on this together. We’re capable of making progress, even in this department. Remind us that even seemingly healthy people have sexual hang-ups, and share some of your own. It will make us feel more normal.
If we’re interested in talking about spiritual matters with you, consider the following:
First off, you would never tell a sexual abuse survivor that the answer to all their troubles was to just get into a healthy intimate relationship. Please don’t prescribe a healthy church as ‘all we really need.’ We might want that someday, but we need a lot of space from anything that resembles our old experience.
We should never be made to feel guilty about taking a break from church. What we experience as a Sunday morning service and what you experience are two very different experiences. Where you can feel empowerment and restoration, we often feel sheer panic.
If you are compelled to tell us about Jesus, tell us first about how he hated spiritual abuse. Stick to the parts of the gospel accounts where he is all about peace and rest, and where he talks a lot about not being troubled or afraid.
Be friends with us because you like us, not because you have a hidden agenda for us to join your church or small group. Don’t parade us around as proof that you are doing something right in your ministry.
If you want to model a different kind of ministry for us than the one we experienced in our high-demand church, invite us to come alongside you and observe as you give to people who can never repay you for your kindnesses.
Love us regardless of our ability to believe what you believe. We are the bruised reed and the smoldering wick.
Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks is fancy poetic Old Testament language for people who’ve experienced trauma. Don’t demand that we forgive our group. Forgive for us. Allow us to feel whatever we need to feel.
Serve us, but don’t patronize. Love us because we are lovable human beings, not because God said to do your duty. We’ll know the difference.
Some of us stood in front of congregations and, under the watchful eye of our leader, believed that what we were teaching was ‘what the Lord doth saith.’ We hurt people. We didn’t know we were doing wrong. When we knew better, we did better. Help us to forgive ourselves and to make amends where possible. Especially in this Internet age where there could very well be YouTube video of us saying something abusive.
If we decide to make moral decisions that do not jibe with your worldview, give our pendulums some time and space to swing. We need a healthy, adolescent-style rebellion. We need to differentiate our core beliefs from the beliefs of our abusive leader. Let us gently know of any pitfalls or consequences to our actions that we may not foresee, and remind us that we do not need to self-destruct in order to feel good.
Don’t ask us for money. It is likely that we are recovering from debts we might owe from years of financial exploitation. Ask your church to make their books open and readily available to us.
Don’t expect us to volunteer. We need to rest up first. This might take years. Let us know that there is no contribution that we can make to the community that will make you love us more or less.
Present Scriptures to us within their historical and cultural contexts, and present alternative explanations to your personal biblical interpretation that we might make our own minds up. Yours isn’t the only orthodoxy; we need to know this.
Our concerns about your pastor’s preaching are legitimate. If something was taught that bothered us, it matters. Don’t write us off as having baggage. Questions deserve explanation, and we are entitled to have our questions answered. Our perspective is unique and deserves to be considered. We can learn from each other. If you admit to a mistake or a new way of looking at something, we’ll respect you forever.
If we don’t come on Sunday, don’t call us and wonder where we’ve been. The next time you see us? Act like we’ve been there all along.
Let us sit in the back of the church and bolt when necessary. Don’t say a word if you notice.
We’ve been dangled over hell by a silk thread with our leader holding a razor blade. Our leader decided our eternal reward or eternal punishment on the basis of how well we performed what was commanded. So stop talking about hell. We’re well aware that there is one; we’ve lived through it.
If you do believe in hell and eternal punishment, reassure us that our struggle to believe doesn’t mean that we have earned such a place. We’ve suffered enough. If you can have compassion for our struggle, how much more compassion do you suspect your God has?
Be compassionate, but don’t let us suck you dry. Some of us have had to report to ‘disciplers’ about such great theological minutiae as what toothpaste brand was the most spiritual to purchase. Remind us that we have a great number of choices, all of which we are free to try without your approval, consent, or knowledge.
Love us like this with no expectation for a ‘return on your investment.’ We may never believe in God again. Your ministry to us shouldn’t depend upon our acceptance or rejection of what you are preaching and teaching. This healing of ours is a process, not a destination or a box to check on the information card found in the back of the pew. (Which, by the way, we may never fill out.)
Some of us have found God since the abusive experience, and some of us have not and may not. Some of us will get there eventually. We need to be free to experience whatever path we choose. We are valuable regardless of the road we take.
Sacrificial love that we cannot repay is the best kind of God you will ever demonstrate to us. Which is more important – that we learn to believe as you believe, or that we learn to love as you love?
We’re complicated, but we’re worth it. We’re passionate, brave, creative, thoughtful, loyal, benevolent, enjoyable, beautiful creatures that have been through something hard and lived to tell the tale.
Thank you for taking the time to be our patient friends, lovers, and lifelines.
You mean more to us than we could ever say.