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Religion Is an Ex I’m Still Trying to Leave Behind

6 minute read
Dowd is a professor of journalism and author of FORAGER: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult

In 1990, when I was 21 and living states away from my family of origin and the fundamentalist community I had left four years earlier, I was washing dishes in the sink when I noticed that the water turned playfully pink. I didn’t know why. Sometimes I would see bright droplets of blood on the floor and follow them like breadcrumbs, looking for some creature who had bled out and died.

Then, I realized it was me.

I hurt myself often in those days, whether that was slicing my hand while cleaning a knife, or cutting my bare feet on broken glass when I walked barefoot (which was almost everywhere). After leaving the community that I would later recognize was a high-control, high-demand religious cult, I felt so dissociated that I didn’t know where my body began or what it felt like to live in it. I hadn’t developed any strategies to numb my pain, except to refuse to feel it. I had left my body years ago—and I feel safe enough to find my way back yet.

Many of us who were raised in religious extremism don’t live in our bodies. Our days are spent in our heads and our nights are disrupted by the ghosts of our early indoctrination—our subconscious rising up to haunt us. We were trained to live for an afterlife, so when there is pain here, we transport ourselves there.

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The strict religious programming of our early years is part of identity, not only through family connections, but in the language we use to communicate with our own minds, bodies, sexuality, and self-worth. Religious indoctrination materializes everywhere, and studies on Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) show that dissociation occurs when an individual struggles with leaving a religion or a set of beliefs that has led to their indoctrination—similarly to an ex who won’t leave you alone, long after you filed a restraining order.

High-control religion is my ex. Let me tell you about how I left.

I grew up on a mountain in California’s Angeles National Forest, preparing for the Apocalypse. This doesn’t explain the juxtaposition of faith and famine, or how the landscape of my childhood was more amorphous than the boundary of a mountain implies, but it’s the simplest truth for which I can find words. For a decade of my childhood, a mountain was the closest thing I had to a home, and I learned to forage for local plants, including acorns, pine seeds, nettles, and elderberries, finding what I needed to survive on it.

But my real home wasn’t a place. It was an idea. An idea my maternal grandfather turned into a fundamentalist religious community, governed by him, where I learned to subjugate my needs and desires to his.

Grandpa visited a lot of churches, peddling among disparate denominations, and sometimes I was allowed to go with him, to learn the seductions of commonplace belief systems which pave the way to hell. We sat down in church basements to break bread with Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. We ate supper with Mennonite and Amish families in the dining rooms of their homes. Grandpa criticized them all for different reasons. Some drank wine, which Jesus had clearly intended to be grape juice, or they decorated their churches with pomp and circumstance, like heathens, or they worshiped the idols of popular music, clothing, or entertainment. Grandpa believed even the Amish were too liberal because they allowed their youth to sow wild seeds of rebellion, encouraging them to drive cars and drink liquor and lose their purity in order to get it out of their system, so they would know what they were giving up and wouldn’t yearn for what they never had.

Grandpa told us he was God’s prophet and would live to be 500 years old, that the angels would descend from heaven and take him up into the clouds like Elijah. Grandpa was the only one with authority. And his pontifications were the soundtrack of my childhood. All the women in my family—my grandmother, mother, aunt, siblings and me—were born and raised with the fear of Grandpa and his jealous God, whose voice we could not escape. Our first love.

When I left my grandfather and the mountain, the scariest thing, I realized, was that the girl they indoctrinated still lived inside me. While I relished the freedom of being able to make my own choices, I continued to hear Grandpa’s voice in my ear, yelling at me that the price I would pay for leaving him would be an eternity spent in hell—like an ex I can’t get out of my head.

Like many former believers, I was afraid of hell and other punishments God might mete out. I suffered from triggers and flashbacks, with a foreboding feeling there’s something inherently wrong with me, something that makes me unworthy of love, comfort, or rest. Even though I’ve turned my back on my early teachings and created a template of new morals to live by, the God of my grandfather haunts me to this day. I live with a low-grade fear that if I let go of my vigilance, my ex will find out and punish me for trying to get away. It makes it difficult to live in a secular world. Or even one in which religion is soft and yielding, called to comfort, rather than afflict.

You can take the girl out of the cult, but it’s hard to take the cult out of the girl. As the Gospel of Matthew says, “For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.” How can I yield to pleasure, rest, comfort, or acceptance, when I learned that entering at a narrow gate cannot be replicated, that anyone or anyone I find as a replacement has the possibility to betray me?

Time, I learned, is the greatest healer. Like many former believers, I’ve left my ex behind, to build relationships and communities that serve me on the earth I know, rather than a nebulous afterlife. But that doesn’t mean it has fully let me go.

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