Our spotlight series exams young people who will most likely never receive an EHCP or IEP, but who require additional support. The series will focus on these young people to encourage professionals to be aware.
I grew up in a cult
If anyone had said to me I was a member of a cult I would have laughed. I didn’t believe I was a member of a cult – I just believed I went to church, or at least what I thought was a church.
From the age of 6 until 21 years of age I went 8 times a week, 3 times on a Sunday, on 3 week nights and on a Saturday. These were all different services. Some more aimed at children, some aimed at adults. In 90% of these services it was the same man who spoke. We were encouraged to be out at all these services, by the main speaker and made to feel sinful or guilty if we didn’t attend. I lived with a constant underlying anxiety about how my life was perceived by others. I felt constant stress to attend 8 services weekly and be actively involved in the community even during the most stressful times at school. I thought this high anxiety and stress was everyone’s normal.
Our lives revolved around the church – and giving this church money. I remember my mother would happily pay for petrol to attend multiple services (at which offerings were always taken), but not have enough money to buy us dinners for the week. We would go into school with empty lunch boxes and I remember fainting one day from being so hungry, but was too embarrassed to tell anyone. Her sacrifice was seen as service to God. Of course looking back now, I can see as an adult it was a way of manipulating people to give more and more money up to 8 times a week. It was quite the business model.
The church was positioned as our family in a world against evil, and anyone outside our church was a sinner. Fear was used as a constant method of control, and when someone didn’t comply with community instruction they were excommunicated. As part of these excommunications they were painted to be ‘working for the enemy against the church’. I remember reading Animal Farm as GSCE book and thinking there were similarities between how Snowball was treated and how people were treated who left our church. We were not allowed to speak to them, we were told their choices would affect us. We effectively were brain washed into cutting even our own families off.
When terrible things happened that involved male and female children being sexually abused by leaders in the church that too was swept under the carpet. Nothing was ever reported to outside agencies, as they were deemed to be agents of the enemy who brought fear. I never realised the ones who controlled us were the ones who fed us fear, and an outside agency might have been our actual saviour. I was thankfully never abused, but I remember clearly times when older leaders would hold my hand as a 13 year old and make physical gestures with their hands. Something as an adult I now know they were effectively starting a grooming process. They would tell all the young women how beautiful they were. There were a few girls in our church who were groomed and eventually ended up marrying leaders, but somehow we were told it was love and therefore acceptable. It’s hard to believe this was my reality growing up but it was. This was not a small community, actually over 2000 people, which probably made me think it was everyone’s normal.
As I completed my A levels while still attending every service and helpng out with children’s groups, I decided to go on and study psychology. I remember being taken aside by my mother and church leaders who said my choice was not a good one. I felt attacked and felt profound pressure and anxiety at the choices I was making. I was made to feel it was sinful. I didn’t sleep well after I had put my choices onto my UCAS form and secretly hoped my grades would not match the conditional offer from my local university. As it turned out my grades were good enough and I was accepted.
This was a turning point in my life. It was not until my degree when I studied psychology and social psychology that I started to question the community I was made to believe was my family. We just happened to study a very brief module on crowd and mass psychology and looked at cults. I felt during this time my world fall apart, I was being challenged with a lot of evidence that demonstrated I was part of something which was essentially closed off to the outside world. A level of mind control perpetuated by fear. At that point I developed a severe eating disorder most likely as a response to the internal trauma I was experiencing at the time. I think it probably started when I was studying for exams at school, with an overwhelming ‘church’ schedule I was struggling to fit in study, and would stay up all night sometimes to complete basic study. Even at 16 I thought everyone lived with the same stress as me, I now realise they didn’t. I know students had tutors who supported them, parents who helped them manage and focus. For me the whole time at school our whole focus was the ‘church’ group I belonged to. My irregular sleep patterns, constant anxiety to be at church services, constant exam stress all took its toll, on top of the hormonal changes. I recovered from the eating disorder as I became more educated about the root causes, being centred around my severe anxiety and the lack of perceived control I had in my life. My therapist even used the words ‘religious abuse’ which I still struggle to come to terms with as my mother had constantly placed us in this situation. However I don’t have any bad feelings, I know she was vulnerable too and probably desperately lonely.
Looking back now I wish a teacher had even opened up a conversation about home life. Teachers so rarely did when I was at school, but I believe if I had talked to teacher about my home life and what I witnessed or was encouraged to believe I would not have eventually developed an eating disorder. The stress I lived with is hard to articulate, it was like my life was in constant exam mode for my community. When news started to spread about my friends having been sexually abused, I wished I had someone to speak to about. Someone to talk to about the internal conflict. Being told that my innocent friends were liars or evil, when in fact it was the leaders were. Even in Religious Education class I wish we had studied cults, I spoke to an RE teacher recently in England and they said that children who complete RS do look at features of modern cults. I felt happy for one minute and then my heart sank the next. Why did they not teach this when I was at school? I felt like I never had a childhood and its something I only realise as an adult. My life was never carefree, never stress free and the emotional conflict leaves scars well into adult hood. My advice to professionals is to politely ask children what they do out of school, if any child mentions having to attend religious services with such frequency and no compromise, there should be conversations with pastoral staff how to support the child further.