By Sarah Braasch
I’m scared to expose myself like this. But, I’m tired of the shame and the guilt and the fear. I have something important to say. And, I want to comfort other victims of religious abuse who feel alone and afraid.
I grew up in an abusive Jehovah’s Witness home. When people ask me what my childhood was like, I usually describe it, in all seriousness, as something like growing up in a war zone. I don’t mean to belittle or demean the experiences of children who actually grow up in literal war zones, but I struggle to find a more apt description.
The sky was always falling. We were constantly under threat of demonic attack. We expected Armageddon to befall us at any moment. As children, these threats of annihilation all around us were all too real. Demons could murder you, rape you and torture you, psychologically or physically or sexually. The desire for the death and destruction of mankind permeated the doctrine. Of course, this theater of horrors was exacerbated and intensified by my father’s abuse and my mother’s deranged denial.
I cried through my entire high school graduation ceremony. It became a joke amongst my classmates. It was the strangest thing. I just couldn’t stop crying. I think I just couldn’t believe that I had made it, that I was free. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion.
My father’s parting words to me were to tell me that I would amount to nothing without him. He told me that I would come crawling back to him on hands and knees, begging him to take me in. I told him to wait for me. And to hold his breath.
It was a battle to finish my undergraduate education. If I hadn’t gone to family court at sixteen to get a restraining order against my father, I wouldn’t have been able to secure the financial aid necessary to continue my studies. I had to present a copy of the order to the university to establish myself as financially independent from my parents.
Also, I was in a tremendously fragile emotional and psychological condition. I had severed all ties with my family. I was socially retarded. I was completely alone. I felt totally disconnected from the university community. Interpersonal interactions were difficult and uncomfortable for me. I had trouble making eye contact. And, I thought demons were stalking me.
Being alone in the university dormitory during school breaks was the hardest. I would sit up all night in the lobby watching TV and chatting with the overnight security guards, and I would sleep all day. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what was happening to me, and my childhood had been nothing if not a study in secrecy. But, I willed myself to keep it together, to go to class, to work, to do research. I presented as normal a face as possible to the outside world. I gravitated towards other outsiders and social pariahs. The goth transvestite with pet snakes. The bisexual Jamaican dancer.
So, at 22 years old, I had spent five years at the University of Minnesota. I had two summa cum laude engineering degrees, in aerospace and mechanical engineering. I had a French minor. Somehow, some way, I made it through. The world was, seemingly, my oyster.
I decided to continue my education. It just seemed like a good idea. If education was good, then more education was even better. I was racking up prizes and awards and scholarships and fellowships and internships and whatever other honors I could get my hands on. I wanted medals and certificates and esteem. Mostly esteem.
I was fueled by rage and hatred. Hatred and rage. It was driving me forward, relentlessly. But no amount of accomplishments or successes could sate me. I was on a mission for revenge and retribution and justice. But, it was not to be found. I was playing a chess game against my parents, except that I was playing a chess game against no one, because my parents weren’t playing, because they didn’t care.
That was the cruelest lesson of my twenties. I realized that my parents were not sitting up nights worrying about my wellbeing or lack thereof. My parents were not racked with guilt over their mistreatment of me. My mother and my father were continuing their lives as if they didn’t have a care in the world, as if they’d never had a little girl named Sarah.
I couldn’t even hurt them. They didn’t care. My success was not the best revenge or any revenge at all. My success was meaningless to them. They didn’t care. I had to let it go. Their gas-lit alternate reality didn’t include me, or even a notion of me or even the idea of me. My anger and bitterness was going to destroy me and no one would care.
I headed off to grad school at UC Berkeley. The moment I landed, everything came crashing down. Something inside of me snapped. It surprised me. I wouldn’t have thought it would have occurred then. I was further removed from all of my torments, both geographically and temporally. But, all of my demons were still with me — in my head.
I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified of the dark. I spent my nights sitting in the bathtub, searching out the corners of the well-lit bathroom for demons. I would pray to Jehovah throughout the night, in an almost chant-like fashion. I did this to ward off the demons, to call upon Jehovah for protection, and to stop the bad thoughts. If I cursed Jehovah God in my head or asked for Satan, I would scream and cry out to Jehovah to save me. Then, I would begin chanting again. Sometimes, a part of my brain knew that what I was doing was crazy, but I couldn’t stop. And, sometimes, I didn’t know. Sometimes, I knew that there was a demon there, torturing me, trying to hurt me, trying to get me to kill myself.
I stopped going to class. I stopped going to the lab. I stopped bathing. I spent my days either sleeping or writing out rambling tales of demons and demonic possession. I had a complete nervous breakdown.
In a rare moment of lucidity, I realized that I was either going to drive myself totally and irrevocably insane, or that I was going to drive myself to suicide. I knew it. I had to choose.
There was something alluring about letting the insane parts of my mind just take me, just pull me out to sea and drown me in darkness. I wanted to completely disassociate from reality. Insanity would obviate the need for suicide. Suicide was scary. I had no fear of hell. (Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in hell.) But, I had grown weary of violence. I didn’t really want to inflict more violence upon my poor, tired body. But, I decided that my insanity wouldn’t be a happy or peaceful place. My insanity would be hell, full of pain and anguish. If I had thought that my insane mind would have taken me to a dreamy heaven, full of cotton candy and angels and down-filled cushions, I would have gone.
I wasn’t sure if I could still extract joy from life. I wasn’t sure if I could find meaning in life. I wasn’t sure if I could determine a purpose for my life. But, I decided to try. I decided I needed drugs.
I headed to the student health center on campus. I told the staff psychiatrist how I was feeling about my tenuous grasp on reality, my views on demons and my thoughts of suicide, and he gave me drugs. Lots of drugs.
The drugs worked. I was walking through life in a hazy fog, but I liked it. I could sleep at night. I didn’t think about demons all of the time, but they never left me completely. I went to class. I went to the lab. My productivity left something to be desired. I had been drained of any semblance of a personality. I even spoke really slowly. I gained a lot of weight. I was kind of like the walking dead. But, I was alive. Sort of. And, I could function. Kind of.
I got it in my head that I needed to leave Berkeley. I grew tired of living like a zombie. As often happens, I decided that I didn’t need the drugs anymore. I decided that I just needed a new environment, a change of pace. So, I left. I took the first job offer I could find, and I moved to Los Angeles. Things were going ok for a while. Then, I decided to save my siblings. With tragic consequences.
I basically strong-armed my older sister and my younger brother into moving out to Los Angeles and into moving in with me. I had grandiose visions of bestowing new lives upon them, of blessing them with new horizons, of freeing them from the shackles of our hellish family and childhoods. I would be their savior. (And, I hoped it would irk my parents to no end.)
This ill-formed plan, of course, quickly turned catastrophic. Three emotionally damaged and traumatized adult siblings living in close quarters and grappling with reconstructing their lives and identities is a recipe for disaster. Trust me on this one. Things quickly spiraled out of control.
My sister was the first to abandon ship. She saw the light before I did. When my sister left so did any hope we had of building a functional family out of the shards of our broken lives and psyches. She was the sane one. My brother and I descended into a co-dependent psychodrama hell of childhood trauma revisited.
I became cruel to him. He embodied all of my worst fears. He couldn’t get out of bed. He imploded in on himself. I couldn’t allow that to happen. I forced him to get a job. I forced him to pay rent. I forced him to clean. I was all about the tough love.
He became more and more detached from reality. He would stay out all night, wandering the streets of LA. He would tell me that he had broken into people’s homes. He brought home swords, which I quickly re-gifted. He would tell me that he saw a girl, whom he knew from back home, at the restaurant where he worked. He thought he might have raped her during a drug binge. He told me that she sat at the bar and stared at him without saying a word. He told me that she had come to LA to tell him that she was pregnant. He told me that he could hear the thoughts of the customers at work. He could hear them thinking about him, laughing at him. He told me that the patrons in the restaurant were always talking about him, making fun of him. He told me that he often met and saw demons as he wandered LA in the middle of the night. He told me that he challenged Satan to a fight.
I knew he was schizophrenic, but I thought I could talk him out of it. I know it sounds ridiculous. He would have moments of lucidity. I would try to reason with him, to get him to see the distinction between reality and psychosis, to teach him how to recognize the difference.
Then, one night, my brother snapped. He was asking me pointed questions about whether or not my sister and I had been sexually abused by our father. And, I was giving him pointed answers. He responded violently. I had to call the police. I was never afraid of him until that point. I probably should have been, but I wasn’t. Even when he told me he was hearing voices and seeing demons, even when he brought home swords.
The next day, I kicked him out. I gathered up all of his belongings after he left for work, and I dropped them off at the restaurant. And, I’ve never forgiven myself. But, I was scared. I panicked. I was afraid that he would kill or rape or hurt me if I let him stay. Eventually, he made his way back to the Midwest.
My brother is currently being heavily medicated, so that he does not pose a danger either to himself or to anyone else. I tried to save him, but I drowned him instead.
When I think about my brother, I think about how he held me as I cried out my testimony against my father in family court, about how my words became sobs, about how he put his arm around me. And, I hate myself for abandoning him.
Religious abuse exists. Religious abuse is real. Who knows how many unacknowledged walking wounded limp through early adult life, struggling to put themselves back together again. Of course, there are varying degrees and types of religious abuse, just as there are varying degrees and types of sexual and physical abuse. Religious abuse is a form of psychological abuse. As a society, we are loath to acknowledge this fact. We are loath to acknowledge that raising children in religion is abusive.
We are sending millions of young persons out into the world handicapped by religious childhood traumas and indoctrination and social retardation, including religious idiocy, delusion and hatred. For the greater part, these psychological and emotional pains remain unaddressed by our mental health profession. Religion is not addressed as the prime mover.
I am not an aberration. I am your high school friend. I am your co-worker. I am your law school classmate.
I am not unintelligent. I am not crazy. I have two engineering degrees and a law degree. I have traveled the world. I am well educated and well read. I am a human rights activist. I am a writer.
I am an adult survivor of childhood religious abuse. And, so are you.