(A guest post by Tracy Corey)
Raised in a cult I heard, sensed, and observed things that just didn’t add up to me.
My childhood was spent swimming in a sea of weirdness and abuse, smothered in Jesus language.
Church leaders seemed to find a demon under every rock, or in every person if you didn’t conform perfectly.
The leaders of the church personally came to families on Sundays to collect their tithes and mark them off the list, and they’d even show up at the homes of poor families to “redo their budgets” in order to make room for tithing, at times leaving very little for food.
And, of course, women who had their tubes tied were called “Jezebels.”
In my youth I raised questions. I asked “Why?” and sought explanations in an environment where questioning wasn’t welcome—something that quickly got me labeled by the powers that be.
I was told I was rebellious and dishonoring to God. In fact, at one point they assumed I was possessed by the demons of “rebellion and rejection” and tried to perform an exorcism on me. When the “demons didn’t leave” I was viewed as even more dangerous and more in need of saving, because I clearly was “choosing to not let them leave.”
The leaders eventually told my parents that I was “a bad apple in bag of good ones” and that I needed to be plucked out of our family of 5 kids to prevent the rest from rotting.
My young self didn’t understand why her inquiring mind got her in such trouble.
I wanted to be good and wanted to please my mother more than anyone, but making the mark with her was tough. My mother was programmed to believe that her second born child was rebellious, needed correction, needed her spirit broken, and needed to conform.
(Rebellious was code for “questioning,” and needed “correction” actually meant, “spank (beat) her to keep her mouth shut.”)
Surely, beating me and filling me with fear would eventually overpower me and cause me to conform, or so they believed.
Yet, I wanted to please God. I desperately wanted to be baptized, wanted to make the public display to the world that my heart was for God, and that I was not afraid to share my faith. I pleaded to be baptized.
However, I was told I was not ready, and that the child I was “didn’t reflect a heart change.” I was determined though, and asked direct questions about what being ready looked liked, and how I could prove I was ready to be baptized. Ultimately, I made a deal to prove my heart was ready for baptism: I wouldn’t ask any questions, would work extra hard, and would accept whatever came my way in the biggest, bravest way I could. Eventually, I proved I was ready and was finally baptized.
It didn’t take long for me to fail, and I was accused of tricking my parents and the leaders of the church into believing I had been ready to be baptized before I actually was. My questions, curiosity, and desire to be understood, now landed me in the newly opened school on the church compound.
According to the church leaders, my life was now at stake, and my family was at risk of rotting away (because of me!)—and drastic times called for drastic measures. The elders plotted to have the church cover my tuition so that the transition could happen. They even hatched a dramatic transportation plan: I’d leave 2 hours before school and would get there by a daily combination of bus, walking, ride share, and commuting with other families. After school I’d get a ride part way with another family, and then wait for my mother to pick me up and drive me the rest of the way home—something they reminded me was a “great sacrifice for the family” to give me a “chance to be fixed.”
This plan however, did not achieve the intended result. Instead, it proved to highlight the hypocrisy, confusion, and abuse that had kept me from conforming. I knew I had to choose one or the other: conformity or rebellion, but I didn’t choose to conform because to conform would mean to die, to kill my mind, my passion, and to lose my sense of truth and justice. To the adults, my lack of conformity highlighted the need to continue to beat me– in addition to emotionally and spiritually reminding me that I was rebellious, unlovable, and in need of fixing.
It all came to a head the summer before my freshman year after I ran out of the house instead of accepting another beat-down. In the minds of the adults I upped the ante with my courage to run—and now I needed to be corralled. It just so happened it was a Sunday, and after hanging outside in the rain for awhile, one of my little sisters came to the back door crying and told me, “Come in, please listen to mom. You have to go away.” My little sister was scared after hearing at least part of our mother’s conversation, and knew her big sister was being sent away.
I went back in the house and was promptly told, “Put on your jean skirt, and pack your bags!”
My mother drove me to one of those churches where everyone else was wearing jean skirts too, and I waited in the car until the service was over. Soon we were driving silently as my mother followed a car full of strangers down a long, dark dirt road. Finally, we arrived at a big home where I would spend some time.
I was up before dawn (dressed in my jean skirt!) to go work at the coffee shop at 5:00 am, six mornings a week to “earn me keep.” The home was owned by a Christian couple who felt called to take in troubled teens, and was old, smelly, and lonely. I began to realize I didn’t fit this mold of “troubled teen” as the other teens were boys who had committed crimes—I had just refused to accept another beating, but found myself trapped at this home for troubled teens nonetheless.
I went to church with the couple and listened as the pastor mocked things I was taught at my home church, and while it was relieving to hear a dissenting view, I could sense that this was not a place I wanted to be, either.
Days blurred into one another. I continued to labor my mornings at the coffee shop—an early morning start without so much as a lunch break, except on Sunday. I had plenty of time to think about things, but no understanding of what I needed to be doing.
One day my mother showed up at the door to bring me home—but first, I had to apologize for failing to accept the beating. Not to my surprise, the apology for my wretchedness somehow wasn’t good enough for her– and even quicker than me mother arrived, she turned around and left me again.
Through it all, resiliency was my greatest strength. I made the best out of the underage working and living in strange home, until one day I got my unexpected ticket out.
Back home I withdrew so as to try to avoid crossing my mother’s path, as much as was within my control. I spent my next two years trying to navigate living life in a cult, going to school, and striving to be a typical teenage girl at the same time. Things got better for me in my junior year, because I figured out that my parents were accepting of me missing church if it were to make money. So it began—intentionally working every weekend I could, not just to make money, but to avoid having to go back there.
Working became my way out, but through a variety of other circumstances and experiences, my parents eventually left too.
Leaving the cult was the beginning of my healing journey. No, healing didn’t come by way of a miracle, but was a long and bumpy road of deconstructing and unpacking the things I was taught to believe about God, and the messages I was told about myself. Healing happened through learning, grieving, unfinished relationships, heartaches, marriage, adoption, and ultimately, losing my religion.
Through it all, I found my voice.
Today I am more present than I have ever been. I am breathing and learning to breathe deeper.
I am actually grateful to my younger self. I see her as a brave young girl who was resilient, and who has a story I can learn from as I parent, mentor, coach, and learn how to thrive more and more.
Today, I am writing a new story. I am living and learning new ways of being, doing, and believing.
I am aware.
I am choosing.
I am still resilient.
As a Board Certified Coach, and owner of Helm Coaching and Consulting, Tracy Corey is committed to helping others move beyond religious baggage & triggers, and into life in the present.
Her passion and understanding of adult learning, experience growing up in fundamentalism, and her own journey of losing her religion, provides sacred space for others to find their voice after a religious paradigm shift. She is perhaps most passionate about coaching and helping women to find their voice after leaving fundamentalism. She offers one-on-one coaching for clients in the U.S and internationally, as well as tele-groups.