Advice for Recovering Jehovah’s Witnesses and other ex-Members of “Communities of Love”
The advice I offer here is hard-won. It may be part of your own process, as it was for me, to learn everything for yourself through painful experience. However, in the hope that these little nuggets may make things a little easier for you, I’ll pass them on and wish you blessings, love and laughter. It took a long time (well over a decade) to really sort out what was helpful to me. Some feelings and issues pass away within a year or two, but there are more subtle and lingering effects that are harder to transcend and are sometimes only noticeable by an awareness of their relative absence. You will have to discover for yourself what works best for you, and to trust in yourself enough to believe what you know to be best for you. Learn to trust your own instincts and to try alternative strategies to navigate through difficult patches. Questions? Suggestions? Issues? Contact me at heidi (at) virushead (dot) net.
Compare these Watchtower quotations to see how the JW views have changed.
“Beware of ‘organization.’ It is wholly unnecessary. The Bible rules will be the only rules you will need. Do not seek to bind others’ consciences, and do not permit others to bind yours. Believe and obey so far as you can understand God’s Word today.” Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1895, p. 216.
“We would not refuse to treat one as a brother because he did not believe the Society is the Lord’s channel. If others see it in a different way, that is their privilege. There should be full liberty of conscience.” Watchtower, April 1, 1920, pp. 100-101.
“The point is that Christians have implicit trust in their heavenly Father; they do not question what he tells them through his written Word and organization.” Watchtower, July 15, 1974.
“Avoid independent thinking… questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization.” Watchtower, Jan. 15, 1983 p. 22.
“When we loyally submit to the direction of the faithful slave and its governing body, we are submitting to Christ.” Watchtower, Jan. 4, 2007, p. 24.
“No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family.”
Awake! July 9, p. 29 (about other religious traditions)
“What does Jehovah expect out of us, even if the situation is so painful that we have a family member who is disfellowshipped? What does he want? Loyalty, that’s what Jehovah wants. Jehovah knows that this is a difficult time in our life, but he wants loyalty.” 2013 “God’s Word Is Truth” District Convention (See description, video)
“At that time, the lifesaving direction that we receive from Jehovah’s organization may not appear practical from a human standpoint. All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not.” Watchtower, Nov. 15, 2013
Discover or reactivate your sense of humor.
Read some jokes, watch Monty Python’s Life of Bryan, remember the kingdom song that opened with a few identical bars as the theme for “Loony Tunes” (or is it “Merry Melodies”?) cartoons (“How pleasant to see brothers all dwell in unity”), try to communicate in bible-speak when talking about everyday things (i.e., “Truly, we agree with God that dinner is served” [Mt. 23:6]), just try to imagine the sad plight of the cartoonists for the publications who have to live in New York with real artists, or imagine the most hurtful person in your congregation as a caricature. Don’t get too carried away, or the else the humor will turn to bitterness–dwell long enough only to laugh, not really to demean. This just gives you a little armor, a little distance.
Think of all the things that you gained from your association.
There are two sides to this. First, the positive things that you carry with you, the things you gained or still believe. I can’t say what these might be for you: learning to articulate yourself to others, standing up for what you think is right, helping someone in need, knowing the difference between patriotism and nationalism, deploring war and killing, having memorized parts of the bible, having an interest in alternatives to blood transfusions, being able to play with origins of holidays, and so on.
The other side has to do with the positive things you gained from your negative experience. Again, it will differ from person to person. Maybe you learned that it was important to you to be able to ask questions — and you learned this precisely because you could not ask questions.
You also have knowledge about certain brainwashing techniques; understanding how it’s done does give you an edge. You will recognize it again, and you have the ability to resist it if you so choose. You are also less vulnerable in some respects because the fact that you are an ex-Witness almost certainly means that you are courageous enough to have stepped out of something despite enormous pressure, and to stay out despite pressure to return to what is internally called “the truth”. You already know a lot about the politics of difference, and from two perspectives at the very, very least. Being a Witness, you experienced being a minority from the perspective of the so-called “mainstream”; being an ex-Witness adds another layer of difference, this time from those who used to hold your difference in a solidarity (remember the self-justifying nature of persecution for the group as a whole). These are positive things that you construct from the negative experience. You may also begin to take more seriously and positively other areas of constructive liberation and freedom. In the best case, you will experience a gradual transition from knowledge, then to understanding, and even to a kind of wisdom.
Find a constructive way to turn the things you have learned into something meaningful to you.
READ! CREATE! DISCUSS! We all lived in a culture of reading, although judging by the JW trolls literacy isn’t as much of a value as it used to be in “the organization.” Do some of your own research; it is extremely liberating. Go where your questions and problems lead you. If you are disgusted at their subordination of women, read up in women’s studies. If you think their biblical interpretation is off-base, read some of the amazing research being done by scholars in religion, find out about hermeneutics and deconstruction and other literary and philosophical theories, learn Hebrew or Greek, study the social context or the archaeological finds. Find out about the history of how doctrines arose, and in response to what sorts of pressure–a good starting point is the point at which texts were assembled and selectively chosen to create the “bible”–pay careful attention to the texts deemed worthy of destruction and the reasons for that.
If JWs made of you an object of shame, read about trauma and scapegoating. There are other ways to arm yourself with some truth — just don’t believe that anyone has the whole truth. All that you can hope for, finally, is to put together strong truths that hold weight for you and possibly for a community of like-minded others. The truly transcendent truths are very rare indeed, and who has the hubris to claim to have a hold on them? Can you explain quantum physics to an ant?
The world is much more complicated than you have been led to believe. That does not mean that everything is a hopeless chaos. You will have to learn how to tolerate a certain amount of complexity and ambiguity. Start small, build your truths on the best knowledge that you can access, digest, and put into your own language, and you will gradually build understandings upon which you can rely.
Many former Jehovah’s Witnesses who are now thriving are more discerning readers now – and have a good sense of humor. Many are creators of some kind – artists, musicians, writers. Get yourself a little play time to “fill out” in some of the areas you’ve been missing, and be mindful of the moment. My cup of coffee on a late Sunday morning is very satisfying. :-)
Stay away from groups that can ONLY define themselves against others.
When we are all good, and they are all bad, we’ve forgotten our common humanity – and that’s when all the worst aspects of humans come out (my personal battle with this is to remember the essential humanity of far right-wing republicans). Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t deserve to be collectively demonized just so that you can distance yourself (even if that is what they happen to be doing to you). Take the high road. Concentrate on where you go from here, and make your own path by starting to walk it.
About Your Family, Marriage, Love Relationships
The destructive tendencies of JWs in these areas can be quite extreme. The emails that I have received on this issue are completely heartbreaking, and offer one of the strongest arguments against the organization as a whole. Which is a better God – one who destroys the bonds of love and family or one who builds and cherishes them? Just be sure that you aren’t contributing to the problem. It seems to be built-in to the either-or mindset of Jehovah’s Witnesses (and new ex’s) that if you don’t follow every rule of the society, you must then break every one. My old friend said sarcastically to me that it would be so much easier to follow “Big God” since then he could cheat on his wife, make more money, stop wasting time with meetings and service, read pornography, gamble, etc. Do you see the problem? It’s a sad person that has to rely on an authority figure to enforce such things. Does he have so little sense of love, compassion, and ethics that he would feel compelled to do these things? In all sincerity, I don’t think so. But it is interesting that many ex-JWs do something like that – become, for a while, the “evil ex-Witness.”
You can choose not to do that! You can choose instead to honor your family and relationships. If they cut you off, just tell them that you love them enough to know that they will always love you too, walk away, and give it some time. You may well need professional help to navigate through all the issues in this area. I do not feel qualified even to really offer much advice, except just to do the best you can.
Once when Jesus and His disciples were traveling to Jerusalem, they were refused lodging in a Samaritan village. “And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).
Try to forgive the friends who abandon and shun you.
You will lose most, if not all, of the friends you have within the organization. I lost a friend dear to me because I am offering this information and advice on my website. Although I had not been a witness for over 20 years, we still corresponded. I had been a good friend, and provided him a safe space to talk about all kinds of issues. I kept secrets, I was always supportive. It wasn’t enough, and nothing could be enough. He saw no value and much evil in offering advice to people who have been hurt by the organization. Or at least, that’s what he has been instructed to believe. No words that I could say could change his perception that my bad influence had finally reached a breaking point. Our final conversation was such that I still have hopes that he will know I am still his friend in the future, should he be shattered by this group (for a second time!).
He urged me to “humble myself” before God and the elders, and to accept the rule of the Watchtower Society. He ridiculed what he called my idea of “BIG GOD,” which is based on the Anselm’s idea that God is that which “none greater can be thought.” Which is greater, a god that destroys friendships or a god that builds friendships? Easy answer, even before you get into a discussion of agape love.
The point of my telling you about this is to show you that you must try your very best not take these things personally. It’s not fair, it’s not justified, and it really truly hurts – and they are abandoning you when you probably need them most! But remember that your friends, even your real and true friends, believe that God wants them to cut off contact with you, and they will be punished from within the group if they remain your friend. The fact that this friendship continued for so many years was itself unusual. The few friends you may retain will not want your friendship to be known – and that can’t be good for them or you anyway. Forgive them, forgive them, and make new friends.
If you still consider yourself religious, figure out how – to be authentically religious.
Maybe you’re completely over it, like I’m over futons and hip-huggers, but most people who have lived as intense a religious life as Witnesses do, especially over a number of years, will continue to have spiritual motivations and interests. What I did was study world religions and put together my own sense of what religion was for me. But then, religion to me was always more about ethics and the religious experience than about doctrine.
What is important to you? Try spending a few months writing your own sort of bible – what would your ethics look like? What sorts of stories and metaphors would you use? What is important about life, God, origins, endings, and history? Your “bible” will change over time. Look at other religions, read stories, talk to people, try meditation techniques, listen to your spirit and to where you are “called.”
If you want the dynamics of a community, be cautious about it for a while.
It may be difficult for a while because your trust in others may have been shattered, or you may not be able to accept hierarchies, or the rhetoric may annoy you, or any number of other problems depending on your own personal history of why you are an “ex.” You may have trouble finding a common set of ideas, a common language. It might be best just to keep a low profile for a while: listen, observe. There are social strangenesses in every community, and it takes a while to be able to read them and to respond to them in a constructive and healthy way. There is also a danger of another kind; you may get burned if you unconsciously believe that you should get burned. Look at yourself honestly and with compassion, and try to thwart the built-in pattern of self-destruction.
When I first wrote this article, there weren’t many online communities of former JWs. Now there are. And just as in any community, there are a range of people. Some have learned so much from their own experiences, and are kind and wonderful in all kinds of ways. Some still replicate destructive patterns of control, manipulation, misogeny, and the like. Realize that every individual is in a different place on their own path, and connect with the people who you like and admire in some way.
There are all kinds of communities. There are communities of family, of colleagues and coworkers, of hobbies and enthusiasms, of political action, and there are project-oriented communities. It does not have to be a church. And the point does bear repeating: don’t just be-wary, but run from groups that build themselves on hate or on dehumanization of any others. Look for a place in which you can thrive and so can others.
On the temptation to torment Witnesses who come to your door
It’s small, it’s perverse, and it’s sometimes difficult to resist (or is it just me?). Don’t ask them where Cain’s wife came from, or on which day the sun was really created, or what ever happened to 1975, or what the concession to Hitler was, or whether the “new light” is blinking. Your participation will distract you, keep you emotionally tied up, and ultimately just hold you back. They mostly mean well, if you remember.
If you have to argue, be constructive–start a website, write a book, paint, start a support group, something like that. If you’re seriously angry and you have a case, sue. Otherwise, move on.
I have been visited on a regular basis here in Atlanta – after the first few conversations, they sent in a male lifer who was almost charismatic. Then, after a few conversations with him, they got smart and sent in the best they have – a very intelligent and kind women far beyond the pale of anyone I’ve met before in the organization. I enjoyed our conversations. There is, of course, absolutely no chance that I will ever return to this organization, and it took her a while for her to understand this. For a couple of years, we talked for an hour or so about every three weeks. She had actually read the bible several times and was convinced that she was allowed to do so without the constant “guidance of the publications.” I presented her with evidence from biblical scholarship and she presented me with evidence from the Society’s publications, and we had a very civil and mutually enriching conversation that enabled me to transcend the bitterness and the nostalgia that had previously hampered me. Thank you, wise woman. She has moved on to another territory now, and I miss her.
Perhaps there are still things to be learned, if you have become strong. In one of our last encounters, she brought a woman I hadn’t met before. I wanted to hug her at first sight. She gave me an insight that I wished I had years ago – oh! it’s wonderful, and I’m going to share it with all of you! We were talking about the spirituality of all humans, and the position of women in particular. She said, “yes, there have been times when I felt there was a problem with one of the men, even one of the elders. But it would be wrong to put myself forward. I have to know my rightful place and be submissive. After all, it’s not me who is going to make it right. It’s Jehovah. So I say to him (get this!): “Don’t make me have to pray to Jehovah about this. I know you don’t want me to have to pray to Jehovah about you. Jehovah will listen to my prayer. I am one of his sheep, and he will take care of it.” My dear wise woman looked at her with some alarm, but said nothing. I so wish that any of the women I knew in the congregation where I grew up had simply thought of this one, powerful strategy: it’s a threat from the position of submission, and yet it’s totally in line with their teachings. Every time I’ve thought of it since, I have been reduced to giggles – Oh! “Don’t make me have to take this to Jehovah.” It’s perfect, it’s absolutely perfect.
Look at old Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley tapes–even if you joke, it works. You are good enough. You have to be able to look yourself in the eye when you look in the mirror. Start a life where it is easier to do that. Do not be afraid to talk to your friends and family, or to seek counseling.
One compassionate healer told me that “if the Cosmos was trying to send you a message it would be to tell you how precious you are, that no demands are made of you but everything you do is that which you choose to do.” These words struck a chord in me – perhaps they do in you as well?
Vulnerability, fear and rage
All I can say about feeling vulnerable and fragile is that you need to be extra gentle with yourself. Do not take unnecessary risks, take a few more baths and long walks, until you find your way. The other side of vulnerability, and even fear, is rage. If you feel violent, I recommend trimming the hedge, particularly if you can get a good visualization of yourself as Kali. If you have no imagination, or are confusing imagination with reality, please force yourself to sit down and do nothing until you feel calm again. Get help if you need it.
Generally destructive patterns of behavior
Psychological effects are very long-lasting if you have been sufficiently involved for a long time, especially if you were young. You will have a deeper understanding of some things than many others will, but you will also tend to fall into certain patterns when the configuration is right. I can’t be more specific than this, but if you are struggling, you will know what it is that I refer to in your case if you think about it.
Remember: there is nothing that you should feel forced to do–or not to do. Stop, think, make a choice. Make it for yourself.
Whatever emotional flashbacks you may experience (anger, fear, helplessness, self-righteousness, whatever it might have been), try to insert an awareness of the difference between then and now. Basically, you have to learn to do this if you haven’t already or you will be paralyzed.
If you start noticing a pattern that hurts you or others, start breaking that pattern any way that you can. This includes lots of addictive stuff; you may try to replace what you had, even if you don’t really want to, because it is comfortable. It is what you’re used to. However, this is also your chance to live. LIVE! You can do it. Follow your own unique path to the best of your ability.
Just remember, everyone is strange and weird in their own ways. Everyone. That’s why we’re not robots…. at least not yet (smile). See if you can cultivate an appreciation for some of our differences. Watch people as people – there is something loveable about most people if you pay attention.
One technique that that I have found very helpful is to sit quietly and listen to yourself breathe for a while until you feel alert and centered. Then ask yourself a question and listen for that most hidden and quiet voice inside you that is the truest of all the internal “you”s. The answer, for you, will almost always arise. It is astonishing what we already know if we just stop to pay attention and listen.
Fact: Jehovah’s Witnesses are more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals than the general population. They are three times more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and four times more likely to be paranoid schizophrenics. As a writer from “Free Inquiry” puts it: “Either the Jehovah’s Witness sect tends to attract an excess of pre-psychotic individuals who may then break down, or else being a Jehovah’s Witness is itself a stress that may precipitate psychosis. Possibly both of these factors operate together.”
Feeling sorry for yourself
Dwell there a while until you get sick of it. Many years ago I put together a proposal for a K-tel record–the “Self-Pity Collection.” It had some Neil Young, “All by Myself,” “One is the Loneliest Number,” “Daniel” by Elton John, etc. You can make yourself a tape of all of the most sentimental stupid songs that nonetheless make you sad or even make you cry, and see how many times you can listen to it before you get sick of it, really sick of it. If you’re the overly-morbid kind who never would get sick of it, and would commit suicide or something, work yourself out of it with your own strategies. Paint. Sculpt. Write a short story. Create a comic book. Or get moving. Run, Skate, Hike. Do something outgoing and creative. If you want to sing out, sing out. I recommend almost anything by Tori Amos (I’m a big fan), but anything you can sing loud and well will make you feel better. Of course, you may have to do it in the car… Don’t forget, everyone in the world has or can easily find someone from whom they can request a simple hug. We were trained to look at everyone with suspicion, contempt and superiority – try seeing others as people who have something to teach you. Go through your day as though it were a movie, and see if you can adjust your perspective a little.
Centering your life on your bad experience
People differ on this, but it’s my view that it’s generally better to resist the counter-evangelist impulse. Don’t waste a lot of time defining yourself as an ex-Witness. That’s just the other side of the same thing and it keeps you trapped in the same frame. Define your own space for dialogue, and use civil language.
People may be fascinated by your strange story, but it won’t really help you very much to make it the center of your existence. Don’t run away from what happened or from how you feel, but construct new centers of meaning and identity. If all you do is mull over your trauma or anger, you will live there always, having created your own hell. If you feel that you need, or would find rewarding, some psychological understanding, by all means see a counselor, go to a psychoanalyst, whatever you think will benefit you.
Understanding is power, but insight is not enough. You are now free to find out what it is that you are about and want to do. Go back to school (many of you were not allowed to go to college), learn something new, do the things you wanted to do, or discover some new things you had never considered. Eventually, you will find ways to locate your sense of self and meaning in different places. You will, you really will. Don’t give up.
As a child (don’t laugh!) I was often comforted by a walk through the woods, healed by holding tight to a tree. Yes, I really am a tree-hugger – and I was one long before I became a liberal.
Most people have somewhat secret healing ways, even while they are in the Witnesses. You may find that you have things you do, almost without thinking about it, when you are sad or stressed, that make you feel better. Ironing, humming, playing a musical instrument, shaping clay or creating gardens – some world of play in which you enter and are healed. Build on these things – and find more.
I am not suggesting that you try to escape your reality every way you can, but that you instead enrich it.
Confusing religion (as it is commonly understood) with ethics, accountability, or religiosity
Despite knowledge and experience to the contrary (and thus perhaps as a kind of holdover) there may be a tendency to assume that people who are involved in religious communities are somehow more ethical and kind, or that they have a deeper sense of self-awareness.
Members of religious communities have the potential for great polarities between their public and private lives, because they have more of their identity at stake in appearing to be what they cannot actually become. Evil, in my view, exists, and it begins when people lie to others and even (and this is the more dangerous side) lie to themselves. You may get tangled up in that kind of dynamic.
You will want to trust others, and it is the worst kind of disappointment when someone that appears to be good and ethical treats you unjustly or in some way like a subhuman. Again, despite “knowing better,” the assumption, offense, and disappointment may continue to be a configuration that arises.
Categories are not people. To make ethical and sane judgments about others, it is necessary to “bracket out” as many of your prejudices and idealizations as possible. Remember that everyone is flawed, especially when compared to an idea of human perfection – there is a vast difference between human imperfection (mistakes) and malicious intent (destructiveness).
Appearances are less convincing to me than actions. A person who appears at first to be kind and ethical can in fact deal with others like a spineless reptile or just use them as a means to an end, just as someone who might appear to be negative may actually have a very heightened ethical sense.
Be as observant and realistic as you can be, balancing judgment with compassion. Try not to get drawn into a paranoid (and ultimately self-destructive) cycle where you become obsessed with second-guessing motives and agendas. The golden mean between naive trust and total cynicism is a tenuous one, but finding the just, fair and compassionate middle is its own reward. Think kindness.
Solipsism and Thinking in Extremes
Reality does not revolve around you. You need to find touchstones in it to keep grounded, and to transcend your view of your own position as much as you can.
It is difficult to find the golden mean, or best synthesis, between extreme opposing positions. In fact, you are neither the best person or the worst person, the most attractive or the ugliest, the smartest or the most ignorant. Find new ways to organize how you think about things. What you offer to others is unique to you. In many ways, you are grouped with others, but even within a group of the people most like you, you are different. Find and celebrate those special things. Ask people who care about you to describe things they really miss about you when you’re not there. Think about what you really appreciate in others.
To limit your thinking to the standard JW on/off, yes/no, black/white, evil/good creates very destructive cycles. The best way to use this kind of thinking is in small bits, not overall decisions or thoughts. For example, it’s probably fair to say “this behavior of mine is not going over well with my friend,” but it is too far then to say “yes, therefore I am subhuman and evil and God hates me and I am Cain.”
In making decisions and forming new opinions, the best combination of factors takes into account the points of view of others involved, as well as different levels and contexts of ethics toward others. In other words, listen with empathy to the stories and narratives of others before you assume that you understand a position they might hold. This does not make you weak or wishy-washy, but teaches you that strength is built on compassion and understanding, not only towards others but also toward yourself. Think directionality, not position. Is there any common ground? Are things moving in a better direction?
Many people have had bad experiences with religion. You are not alone, and the JWs are not the worst of the worst. Sometimes I think Nietzsche was right in his claim that the last Christian died on the cross. But there are always counterexamples to that feeling.
In Anne LaMott’s Operating Instructions, a journal of her son’s first year, she relates how a man from her church community showed up, saying that he and his wife wanted to do something for her and the baby. He asked her what she would ask as a favor if a fairy appeared on her doorstep and offered to do anything around the house, something she was too exhausted to do and too ashamed to ask anyone else. The man cleaned her bathroom for an hour. Now that’s a Christian.
Goodness and caring may be found in places you didn’t expect–cherish them. And if you run into folks who seem to lead you into trouble or overly drain your resources, avoid them. Don’t get tangled in their web, and don’t make a big deal about it, just walk away from people who seem just to bring you down. It’s better to spend your time with people who bring something into your life.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards get you down.
There are a million little things to discover, and you will find them each on your own. Regard them as rewards when you find them, like perfect seashells or gemstones or whatever wonderful thing you like to see. If you believe anyone is listening, pray some. If you do not, then stop and actively open out the possibilities for yourself, for thinking, for feeling. You can now expand, it’s not all or nothing, nothing is that simple. Find out where the roads of your possibility are and decide which ones you will try to travel. Then fill up and go. You yourself, you here and now — what is possible for you?
“What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. ~ Hillel the Elder
Without a massive blood transfusion on February 3, 2002, I would be dead. JW’s prohibit blood transfusions, even to save a life.