I have mentioned a few times on this blog that I was raised in a cult, but I haven’t really said much about how terrifying it actually was. Listening to someone yammer on about their horrible childhoods is boring to most people, and besides, who among us didn’t have a horrific childhood? From what I’ve heard from a lot of you, most of yours were far more fucked up than my own.
Nevertheless, my therapist suggested that writing about my experience might better help me process it, so here goes, for the two of you who still read this thing 😉
If you looked at my childhood from the outside in, it would have appeared idyllic. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in the same house for over 20 years. My dad worked in the oil refineries, and my mom stayed home, sewing all of our clothes and baking cookies. They were devoted and attentive. I had an older brother and a younger sister, a cat and a dog. We played in a fort in the backyard and rode our bikes all over the neighborhood.
I’ll never forget the day the fear set in.
I was eight years old. It was twilight. I had been playing with some friends down the street and arrived back at home in time for dinner. Instead, I found an inexplicably empty house. Both of my parents’ cars were in the driveway. A pot of potatoes boiled on the stove. There was chicken in the oven. The telephone dangled off the base by the cord, as though it had been dropped mid-call. My mother, father, sister and brother were nowhere in sight.
And then it hit me. My family had been taken. Raptured.
If you were raised an evangelical Christian, the doctrine of the rapture won’t be unfamiliar to you. It’s the Christian belief that one day Jesus will return to Earth, like “a thief in the night” and, in an instant, remove all the saved Christians off the planet and whisk them away to live with him in heaven forever. Furthermore, we were taught that the Rapture would signal the beginning of “The Great Tribulation,” aka Armageddon, in which Satan, whose evil forces were no longer held in check by the prayers of the saints on earth, would release all his hatred of humanity by raining down war, plague, famine and all sorts of other horrors. Finally, as if that weren’t enough, we were taught that once you failed to make the Rapture, you were doomed. Following these seven years of tribulation, the earth would be destroyed, you would die and then you’d spend a never-ending eternity in hell, being burnt alive over and over and over again.
I’m not even kidding in the slightest. We were taught these things in Sunday School, during the same class where we sang, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight! Jesus loves the little children of the world!” (It was eventually this sort of cognitive dissonance that caused me to begin questioning this doctrine.) My family and our lives revolved around the church. We were there at least four times a week, if not more. This belief was drilled into our heads every day. I believed it with all my heart.
My parents eventually returned home that night, but the fear never left. I developed what my therapist refers to as “hypervigilance disorder,” which is a common symptom of PTSD. I was constantly checking on my parents and other adults in the church whom I deemed “rapture-worthy” to make sure they were still there. I only allowed them out of my sight long enough to go to school. Otherwise, I had to check in every few hours or so.
For example, if my dad stayed up reading on the couch past my bedtime, I couldn’t go to sleep until he did. I would lie awake in my bed for hours, straining my ears to hear him turn the page of his book. If several minutes went by and I heard nothing, I’d tiptoe to the living room to make sure he was still there. It wasn’t until I saw the light go out that I could finally relax and sleep.
For over a decade, this fear haunted every step that I took. When I was 12, I remember believing I’d never see the other side of 17. I didn’t plan to go to college. I never planned a dream wedding in my head because I was convinced I’d never marry. I never thought about the kids I might have one day.
Instead, I tried to be as perfect as I could. I read three chapters of my Bible every day. Following that, I knelt beside my bed and prayed for at least fifteen minutes. Anytime there was a particularly moving church service, I wrote about it in my diary. I followed all the rules they threw at me. I never wore make-up to cover my horrible cystic acne. I never cut my hair, instead wearing it in a bun every single day of high school. If I curled my hair at all, it was eight curls only and they had to be pinned because loose curls were too sexy. I wore my sleeves six inches below the bottom of my elbows and my skirts six inches below the bottom of my knees. I memorized all the verses they required us to learn in Sunday School. I came up with interesting and inspiring testimonies to share during the Young People’s Service. I wore pantyhose to every church service, even on Sunday afternoons in the hottest part of the summer. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t go bowling. I didn’t participate in theater or show choir. The list of rules was long, the list was exhausting and, since the pastor, who was likely a misogynist and had ultimate authority over our lives, could tack on a new rule anytime he liked, the list was endless.
No matter how hard I tried, however, I never felt worthy to go in the Rapture myself. If I happened to wear some article of clothing that clung too tightly to what my family dubbed, “the Bolgiano buns,” since we were sort of notorious for having sizeable booties, the pastor’s wife would call me into her office and tell me that I disgusted her. She especially hated me for asking questions in Sunday School that made her uncomfortable. I was often admonished not to question the pastor. We were told that if the pastor was angry with us, we could be assured that God was also angry with us. And trust me, the pastor was often angry with me about something.
The fear of inevitable abandonment was relentless.
Over time the neurological pathways in my brain solidified into the belief that the ones I cared about most would one day leave me, leaving me with complex PTSD of Abandonment. I had no idea. I thought that since I had escaped, I was fine. Nevertheless, my PTSD coupled with my utter cluelessness about its existence, has destroyed nearly every romantic relationship I’ve ever had.
I’m not gonna sugarcoat my experience: What I was taught as a child was ABUSIVE. The doctrine of the Rapture is ABUSIVE. Nonetheless, I have forgiven my parents. They were extremely flawed and broken people dealing with their crap the best way they knew how. I truly believe they did their best with the limited resources they had. I hold the church responsible. I will never forgive them unless they retract their abusive teachings because they are still there, abusing more kids, every day.
It’s a story too long to tell here, but I eventually left the cult in my early 20s. I left my hometown entirely when I was 25. It isn’t until now, however, at nearly 39, that I’m finally beginning to understand the extent of the damage that was done to me, the damage that my friends and family who remain in the cult are still enduring, to this day.
In therapy, I’m learning a lot about how to rewire the neurological pathways in my brain via exercises like mindful meditation and reparenting my inner child. It sounds a little wonky, but it’s working. I have hope that, nearly 20 years later, I can finally begin to heal.