Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness, I'm no stranger to the struggle of breaking free from a religion I had no choice in being apart of or not. It's a very traumatic experience to give up all you have ever known and risk your whole circle of family and friends to discover a connection to truth that resonates with your soul. The journey to personal freedom is filled with fear, guilt, and self-doubt, still, I would not trade my freedom, sanity, and independence that came from walking away from the only life I knew for 20 years.
This piece will reveal the stories of two other millennial women who had the courage, and strength to walk away from their own oppressive upbringings.
Reagan is a new mom of a 7-month-old baby, navigating life in the "outside world."
I was raised as a Jehovah's Witnesses. I remember no holidays, no birthdays, and I could only hang out with Jehovah's Witnesses. I couldn't stand for the flag, and we were not allowed to go to the military. No smoking. You could date and marry outside of the religion, but they frowned on it.
I remember being little, around five or six, sitting in the Kingdom Hall thinking "something's not right." I would Google Jehovah's Witnesses, and I would see words like "cult" and "sex abuse." I would ask my Granddad, "What's a cult?" and he would say, "Get off that. Turn that off." I remember being young, sitting on his lap one time to ask him, "Granddad, will you always love me?" And he replied, "Long as you love Jehovah."
I loved my family, but I dreaded being a Witness. I hated the hall. I hated service, I hated conventions, I hated family worship, I hated it ALL - but I didn't have a choice. I was a child, and my father was absent. Even if he was around, they sure as hell weren't going to let me go live with him. I remember my mom getting disfellowshipped. She would cry to me about how my family would treat her, and I remember crying to my cousin about how poorly they treated her, and talked bad on her every time the family was together... and the family was always together!
I remember getting abused at a young age, not by anyone in the congregation, but the way my situation was handled. I knew something was wrong. It was very hush mouth yet, I thought they were there to comfort me, however, I had to self-cope with that. I never stopped thinking about how I didn't want to be a Jehovah's Witness, but seeing how my mom and family members were treated, I thought if I get baptised, "I'll never get disfellowshipped because I'm too scared to lose my family."
I was reproved multiple times (which means being privately reprimanded by Jehovah's Witness Elders and being warned of disfellowshipment) and I remember being talked down on afterwards. I remember falling into depression and wanting to kill myself, and I would get told I just wanted attention. "You're not really going to kill yourself," they would say.
They were partially right. I wanted both. I remember going to a mental institution, and no one from the hall came to see me, and none of my friends came to see me. The only people who showed up were my mom and grandparents.
I went home eventually, and started drinking, having sex, popping pills, etc. I didn't give a f-ck!
As time went by, I told myself I had to get it together, because if I kept messing up, I wouldn't be able to have my family. So I got it together and I got my privileges back (which means to be an active member of the congregation), and I remember going to live back with my mom. She wasn't very active at the time, and I don't even think she was going to the kingdom hall.
I was making an effort my own, then somewhere down the line she got back in the congregation, and I honestly think it was because of me. I was putting on a good show. I was being a good hypocrite. Eventually, I think my mom kind of gave up on me because I actually did what I wanted.
I went back to sex, weed, and pills.
I partied continuously as I worked and went to high school. I already had a graduation party, and I accepted a full ride to a university. I knew I wasn't going to stay there forever, but it was a way out. I went off to school and I talked to them maybe twice. I talked to my mom off and on, but she was still trying to convince me to go to the hall and telling me how to live my life. I decided to cut her off because I knew there was a chance of me going back if I continued a relationship with her.
Going to college gave me a place to stay for a few months before I quit after the first semester. I knew I couldn't go home so I asked my friend if I could stay with her, which lasted for six months. That was two years ago, and here I am now.
The After Effects:
The consequences of leaving the organization is obviously the fact that I don't have my family, and I have been completely on my own. After leaving, I felt like I was finally free, but I was so used to living as a Jehovah's Witnesses, and had lived their way of life for so many years, that I had a lot of fear surrounding what living is like in the "outside world."
But I survived without them.
Seven months ago, I had my son, and I'm currently battling with the fact of whether or not I should let my son be a part of their lives. I fear my son being around them because I know their love is not real. The only reason I do let him go around them at all is because it feels like the right thing to do, and I'm learning to forgive those who have hurt me, and do the right thing regardless.
Since I've left the organization, I've learned what REAL love is. Love is unconditional, and its silly to shun your own family member over a religious belief. On the upside, I feel great! I have a family, and I have friends who love me genuinely for me. Not because of my religion. I'm still finding myself. I'm still in the process of healing, and I have a long way to go, but for the first time in my life I'm truly happy! I might not have much in the other people's eyes, but to me, I have everything to be grateful for, including my past.
I feel like being raised a JW, had a negative impact on my life but I don't hate them. However, I do keep them at a distance. I was honestly even scared to write a testimony for this article because of the fear of what my family would think of me, but I've learned that the truth isn't always pretty."
Hana is of mixed ethnicity, and grew up living a double life religiously and culturally in a tumultuous upbringing. Read more about her dynamic experience in her written blog for "Embracing Ugly."
I was born in Miami but raised in Kuwait. My father is a Muslim from Kuwait, with a large religious family still arranging marriages and insisting on the Hijab at puberty. My family members do not cover their faces but to the rest of the world they may seem semi-National Geographic-ish.
My mother is a Catholic from Colombia. She went to Catholic school and came from a family where the men were breadwinners and women were traditional homemakers with very strong opinions. My siblings and I were raised with Islam and Catholicism. I had to learn how to live a double life very early on. I wasn't allowed to play with boys once I hit adolescence.
I wasn't allowed to wear certain clothes, laugh without reason, or question religion.
I will never forget the day my dad told me I couldn't play soccer with him anymore. I was getting older and there were no other girls on the field. As an 8-year-old, I didn't understand why my brothers could join in and I couldn't, even though I knew being a girl had a different set of rules.
My family and I survived the Gulf War in 1990. We were able to escape through the desert and make it to Miami where my mom's family was, only to be hit by Hurricane Andrew.
After so much destruction, we went back to Kuwait where I grew up until I was 15. There was so much trauma and dysfunction that was spread throughout the generations. At the time, I didn't understand that, and as I grew older, I was able to understand everyone was just as lost as the children were. I started really questioning the idea of God around middle school. I couldn't understand how both my parents' perception of God, though strong and convicting, wasn't enough to protect my family throughout the catastrophes we had experienced.
In Kuwait, I was in religion class because it's mandatory, and I remember asking reasonable questions and being kicked out of class. In my mind, as a rebellious mixed angry child, I couldn't understand why no one had straight answers for me, if God had been so perfect. The inability to answer my questions was a familiar response on both sides.
I had experienced some troubling times and I remember being so young, lost, and desperate to find divinity, that I figured going back to what I knew would help. I went to a Catholic retreat and was honest about not being fully onboard with Jesus being God, and I asked for a prayer and the priest said he couldn't bless me.
At that point, I knew that path wasn't for me.
The After Effects:
I think one of the hardest parts about this whole process has been having to ask my parents to respect my beliefs, even if they don't agree with them. There has actually been a lot of freedom and growth in my relationships with my parents since I've gotten passed the fears of being transparent with them.
I've battled mental health issues since childhood. I know that my life is contingent upon my spiritual condition.
My life depended on me exploring spirituality beyond the limits set in my childhood. The more I heal, the more I've also been able to appreciate the religion both of my parents gave me. I've spent many years volunteering in different avenues, and the one thing I try to show people is how to find God for themselves. It irks my nerves that divinity has been hijacked by fundamentalists of ALL backgrounds.
It's such a shame to see so many young people lost and without guidance, or even the willingness to explore, because of the fear behind the idea of God that we've been conditioned to believe exists.
Since having told my parents I needed my own space to explore God, I have tried mediums, pilgrimages, past life regressions, card readers, acupuncture, retreats, praying, crystals, nature, animals…so many things! When I've traveled, I've gone to hindu temples, mosques, and churches, I would give anything to share that energy with the world around me, to show people it's all the same!
It was beautiful to have tangible proof that God is universal, all loving, and all powerful.
I've been faced with a lot of ignorance throughout my journey to God and I've learned to respect people where they are at. It's not my job or anyone else's to convert or convince anyone. My very existence, and the miracle that is my very existence, is proof in itself. I live a life that is righteous to my moral compass according to the God that I have come to know along the way- and I have to be about it, not talk about it.
Today, I am a woman who is well-rounded and respecting of so many walks of life because I understand that our relationship with God (as we understand him/her/it) is so deeply personal and beautiful.
What I have with God today is because I had so many women along the way guide me and challenge me to explore beyond my childhood ideas and my parents' ideologies, and I am forever humbled by the gracious gift these women gave me.
I would tell someone going through the same experience to question everything. Read, pray, talk to people, go to workshops of new faiths, there are online groups too if you're unable to explore in person.
Figure out where your heart feels at home.
Do these words you're reciting resonate with your soul? Does this ceremony feel like your soul is being hugged super tight? There is no right or wrong in this process, except honoring your truth along the way. It's ok if there are changes, like all relationships and growth, changes happen. You can deal, so long as you put your truth first.
I hope you find yourself and all the glory that is you exactly as you are along the way. Life is so much more manageable when you are able to embrace your ancestors, your guardian angels, and God along the way.
Featured image by Shutterstock