Where to begin?
I've thought about writing this a few times and then stopped myself. One: through sheer embarrassment and two: for fear of opening a can of worms.
I don't even really know how to say this and can feel my cheeks flushing as I write. But here goes...
I was brought up and raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Don't all roll your eyes at once, as was the standard reaction when I was a kid. I walked away from it all at around the age of 17 and haven't looked back since, however, my thoughts and feelings surrounding the way in which I grew up remain strong and if I'm quite honest enrage me at times.
It's not something I think about daily but every now and then it will rear its ugly head or I'll see something about Jehovah's Witnesses or worse, get that dreaded door knock. There's a video doing the rounds that reminded me of some of the things I was told. When I look back, it really is unfathomable to me that anyone can 'teach' such an indoctrinated way of thinking to children (and impressionable adults) and get away with it. Here's a link to the absurd video, straight from JW headquarters, this video is absolutely genuine and demonstrates the same 'lessons' I was taught as a child. Watching it really does beggar belief.
This is what it's like to grow up in a cult.
You are told that there is only one way, that 'worldly people' are evil and corrupt. That homosexuality is wrong, that blood transfusions are wrong, that the bible is wrong. Sex before marriage, women in positions of power, HARRY POTTER (!) Yep, you guessed it...
Wrong, wrong wrong!
Jehovah's Witnesses are not worshippers of God in the traditional sense, they have their own version of the bible and of course their literature in the form of The Watchtower and The Awake; you might have had them thrust at you on a street corner, or worse had someone knock on your door, armed with magazines, inviting you to bible study. They call what they believe 'The Truth' and when you meet another JW at a conference or similar you would say to them 'Do you believe in The Truth?'
As far as I know there's not a secret handshake.
I should point out that since meeting my husband I converted to Catholicism and although I suppose I'm not practising (as in I don't go to church regularly) the children are all baptised as Catholic. I think part of me feels guilty for not going to church but the other part of me is relieved that I live my life without the constraints of having to. I don't feel quite brave enough to walk away from organised religion and go it alone.
I do believe in God or at least I want to believe in something.
To not believe when I was growing up would have meant exile from all that I knew and even from my family. My Dad was disfellowshipped, looking at that expression written down summons all sorts of weird Lord of the Rings connotations and actually makes me laugh out loud at the absurdity of it. He was shunned and expelled from the congregation because he smoked and liked a drink. As far as the organisation and the Elders (I told you it's very Tolkein) were concerned they wouldn't speak to or acknowledge him if they were to see him. As his children, we were also supposed to shun him so that he lived in eternal condemnation. We did not do this, and neither did my mum but still it must have been incredibly hard for him emotionally.
Now considering my dad was very poorly for much of his short life - he died aged 46 when I was 18 - I lived with a constant sick feeling that when he did eventually die he would be bound for the depths of hell.
I grew up believing that one day pretty soon armageddon would hit. Decisions would be made; you would either be chosen for eternal life or you would burn in hell. No in between. Being a naughty headstrong and mischievous little girl, in my head I was convinced that I wouldn't be chosen and so I had my escape route planned. I remember being around 8 years old and practising throwing all my soft toys from my bedroom window in a bid to save them and myself from impending doom. I am not sure what I imagined but getting out of the front door was never an option. I used to have dreams that my sister and I would be dragged from our beds, separated forever.
Her in heaven, me in hell.
The good from the wicked.
It was actually like living a nightmare and my sister and I have both agreed that we had a heavy feeling and an anxiety that we were never quite safe from it. Often at 'meetings' - Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays -we were reminded that armageddon and judgement day could happen at any time. The sooner the better for most of the congregation, I recall the excitement on the adult's faces at the prospect of the end of the world. Of course, it meant eternal life for them but every other living person and creature would be anhilated, this would be far worse than any war we've ever had.
God's decision would be final and I probably wouldn't make the cut.
So while other young children were read soothing bedtime stories we were faced with the grim images of burning buildings and dead bodies piled up in the street. It's no surprise that I still suffer from night terrors to this day as does my sister.
If all the preaching of doomsday wasn't enough, we were set apart at school because we did not celebrate Christmas or birthdays. I will never know how it feels to believe in magic, in Santa or the tooth fairy. I will never know what it feels like to make a wish when blowing out birthday candles and believe it might come true.
Because to believe means certain damnation from God. Even if that belief robs you of your entire childhood.
Birthdays were such a non-event in our house, I remember one day I asked my mum what the date was:
'Oh it's the 6th of September'
My birthday is on the 4th I'd turned 13 two days before, my journey into womanhood had begun with no mention, no salutation, no card, no cake or songs or candles, no present.
It has damaged me and not because I wanted material things, but because I longed to be normal.
By the time I got to secondary school I was becoming wise to it all, I knew that I didn't want people finding out and so I would lie when people asked what I got for my birthday making up elaborate stories of parties and new trainers to save myself the embarrassment of people finding out my secret. I carried around a lot of guilt for living a lie but it was better than the alternative.
I thanked my lucky stars each and every time we were sent on 'the work' to go knocking on doors in an attempt to convert others. I think I would have died if I'd happened upon someone's house I knew. I was very clever at getting out of things though, knowing by the age of 10 that if I put the thermometer under a lightbulb and then shook it down to just below 4o my mum would let me stay home. Or drinking just enough salt water to induce a light vomiting and then I wouldn't have to go.
All I really wanted to do on a Sunday morning was watch The Waltons, not go and listen to a load of crazies talking about how abhorrent gay people are or how stoning people that had sex before marriage in bible times was perfectly acceptable.
Or that Satan is the invisible ruler of the world...
I went to a sleepover at my friend's house once and we were watching some sketch programme on the tv. They did this thing where there was a pretend door and a different dubious character would knock on it, of course all my friends roared with laughter when behind one knock a man in an anorak showed up with a couple of magazines 'Jehovah's Witness calling'. I went so red and wanted to cry, none of them knew about me but I felt like I wanted the floor to open and swallow me whole when it dawned on me just how much people in 'the world' loathe Jehovah's Witnesses.
Once I'd left 'The Truth' I went as far off the rails as humanly possible. Underage drinking and drug taking, I've lost count of the number of casual one night stands I've had, I rebelled in the truest sense of the word. I hurt myself and those around me.
I stopped caring, I met a boy who would treat me badly and I ended up pregnant by the age of 18, at the time there couldn't have been a worse predicament to have landed myself in but actually, somehow I managed to turn my life around and the rest, so they say is history.
Growing up in a cult has taught me a few things: there are crazy extremist people in the world, that couldn't care less if armageddon came and destroyed your life in fact, they would be gleeful. There are people that can not accept you if you're different, there are people that think they know the truth and you do not.
Armageddon never came, I turned my back on an organisation that is anything but holy, I have an open heart and a lot of love and acceptance for others.
That is how I have chosen to live.
That is my truth.
*This article first appeared on Mr & Mrs T Plus Three.