Tracy dies the 22 of July, 2014. She resuscitated again the 22nd of July, 2019 as Onyx Einar Montes, aspiring to be like an alchemist, interested in the imagination. Time-travel, this is coded language. Silence.
Photos above by Oliver Orr
Tracy dies the 22 of July, 2014. She resuscitated again the 22nd of July, 2019 as Onyx Einar Montes, aspiring to be like an alchemist, interested in the imagination. Time-travel, this is coded language. Silence.
Photos above by Oliver Orr
These are images from most of the places I have lived in. I have been documenting these places for years but there are so many gaps. Some of the oldest images I have are from the time when I was 12. I don’t have many pictures before that time period because my mom and I were pretty much homeless, going from place to place at that time.
I always shared a room with my mom. I left the apartment we lived in when I was 14 and have been on my own ever since. When I was putting all these images together I noticed that ever since I was little, putting images on my walls has been an important part of making a space feel like my own.
I think this was my way to make the places we lived in feel less empty and also a way to make spaces feel/look nice, despite the madness we were going through. I remember learning about Anne Frank when I was 7 years old and seeing pictures of the attic where Anne and her family went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942. It must have been a horrible thing to go through, hiding in an attic with 7 other people, not knowing how long they would have to hide or if they would get to live through the war. Years later I had the chance to visit that same attic and when I saw that she had placed all kinds of images, posters and photos on the walls of what used to be her room, It made total sense. I am convinced she was trying to find some sort of normality from the chaos and atrocities that were happening. That is a feeling I know very well. I think this is why to this day, I continue to put images all over my walls. It makes me feel that no matter where I go, or where I end up living, I can always make a space my own.
I like the fact that I am not in any of the pictures I am showing you here but you can still see “me” in all the shit I used to have, the colors I was into and the “altars” I made. In looking at these images, you might see something else that is a little bit more psychological/personal like the fact that for a long time, I tried to recreate that “princess room” I always wanted when I was little that my parents could never give me. Even in my early twenties, I had things in my apartment (like the white children’s vanity I bought at IKEA, or the pastel pink twin bed I bought when I was in college) that were more fit for a little girl and not someone who is 21. I’ve been through a lot of intense changes since then and its cool to see how those changes manifest through every space I’ve lived in.
This was my second studio. This was in Seattle and I lived here alone for about seven months in 2012.
CHICAGO - 2015-2016
New York City - 2016
HYDE PARK - 2019
I have a love/hate relationship with the term “self-care.” I attribute this to my experience being raised by a single mom and seeing how much she worked. Seeing her indefatigable spirit and her work ethic left a strong impression and I saw this as a strength. I also think it has to do with coming from a poor background, equating “hard work” with something you had to do if you wanted to get anywhere in life. As a result, I never saw any sort of “self-care” examples growing up. To me, “taking a break” or doing things to take “care” of yourself as you navigate work and responsibilities meant the opposite of getting the work done. I used to think of “self-care” as something that was detrimental to the qualities and strengths that shaped me into who and where I am today. Why would you need any form of “Self-care?” If I can keep going, if I can handle this (multiple jobs, multiple responsibilities, things that are demanding & onerous) without taking any time to take “care” of myself then so should you. That’s how I used to think.
My mom and I were homeless for long periods of time. We would move in and out of people’s living rooms, sleeping on the floor, going from place to place, from school to school. Being in one place for a moment then having to move again.
When your life revolves around the uncertainty and preoccupation that comes from not having a stable place to stay or enough food to eat, “self-care” just doesn’t even register. Your priority is to survive, not taking care of your well-being or mental health. Remembering the times when we would go hungry and my mom would take me to an “Albertson’s” bathroom, lifting me up to the sink so I could drink water from the tap so that my stomach would stop growling with hunger gave me more strength in life than anything else. So why should I care about “self-care” stuff when adversity had given me the kind of fuel I needed to carry on?
The reason for me is because even if things like instability and chaos can give you strength, they can also leave you running on empty and drained. I lived through this by working hard at school, putting myself through university and later on navigating life at work without “stopping” or “taking a break” or paying much attention to my mental health because it was just “go, go, go” all the time.
I’ve been on my own since I was 14. When I talk about that, people will say things like “wow, you are so brave”, but really I think it was more an act of survival because I believed there could be more for me if I left. In retrospect, I would consider leaving my family at that age as my first act of “self-care,” I just had no idea at the time. No one in my family graduated from university and this was always my goal. I wanted to study and I wanted to go to school and I was going to do anything to make it happen. I believe that subconsciously I knew it was time to go because I had enough of constantly hearing about our money problems. I had enough of “no, there’s no money” or “no, it's too expensive” etc. and I didn’t want to be in a dysfunctional home anymore, so I left. Without knowing anyone, without really speaking English or knowing where I would go or how in the world I was going to make it to a university, I believed there could be a way, so I left to find out.
Being on my own from a young age made me an efficient person with a solid work ethic but it also made me very stubborn, impatient and made it hard for me to ask for help. You become so resourceful and independent that you inadvertently send a message that says “I don’t need you.” This has been challenging for me because we all need others to learn and grow. When you’re running around taking care of everything in your life to the best of your ability without asking for help, then others kind of...don’t know how to be part of your world. I would get so convinced that I can do more and I can do better, so I would just keep going. From staying up late, not drinking enough water or entertaining negative thoughts, little by little all these things have had the ability to make me feel drained.
This is one of the reasons why I decided to pay attention, take action and make changes.
Not knowing how to take better care of myself and my body has made me feel a bit distanced from others in a way that I’m not proud of. It got to a point where I came to expect everyone else to deal with things the way I deal with things: without needing help, without wasting time, without making excuses, just get up and keep going. This is not because I don’t have empathy for others but because it’s what I’ve been most familiar with.
On one occasion, I was with a friend and we were coming home from a party, it had snowed that day and it was around 1:30 am or so. We were going to take an uber home and as we were walking to the car, my friend slipped on the icy sidewalk and fell on her back. It happened so fast but I remember standing there for what felt like three seconds waiting for her to get up on her own. I won’t bother telling you the rest of the story because it’s besides the point but the fact that I stood there waiting for her to get up without instinctively rushing to help her tells me that I don’t really show myself that much compassion, so how could I show or have it for others.?
When I was still involved with the Jehovahs Witnesses, there were many times when I felt like being in that religion made me feel unhappy and trapped and yet I kept going. I didn’t make my well-being a priority and I didn’t know how to stop.
When I was involved with someone and our relationship ended, I filled every hour of my free time with work, with studying for the GRE, with applying to school, with moving to a new city, etc. I didn’t have a single day off in about three months because I hadn’t realized yet I was strong enough to deal with the pain in healthier ways. It was unfamiliar to me to just take it easy as I grieved. It’s as if I was hiding from the pain through overworking. This was the time when I was working as a nanny for 5 different families, working as a barista, working at two different museums in Seattle and working as a writer at non-profit AT THE SAME TIME. It was overwhelming but I used it to my advantage.
For example, if you’ve ever worked with kids you know how PRESENT you need to be. They don’t care if your heart is broken, if you are going through difficult things or if you had a bad day. They want you to be present through their playing, their mad question asking and their curiosity. The kids I worked with at that time were some of my biggest teachers and I had fun getting to know them. In fact, to this day I still work as a nanny here in Chicago in my free time because I enjoy it so much.
That time in my life also helped me get selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to work in the museum’s education department in New York City, so it wasn’t all bad. I discovered that I’m really good at giving tours because it makes me excited and I have so many beautiful memories and stories as a result of giving tours.
This whole “Self care” thing is not always easy and involves a big unlearning process for me, but I want to tell you about a few areas where I’ve been exploring what self care looks like recently.
- Every time I feel overwhelmed at work, I take some time to work on my tumblr. Who uses tumblr anymore, right? well I do and it helps so I’ll keep doing it. I love seeing how the visuals change depending on what I am inspired by or thinking about which is so nice, like a visual journal.
-I leave the office and go to a dark/quiet area where I can work alone and blast Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged.
-I don’t really work from home but if I need to I’ll take a mental health day and go try something new. Last time I did it, I tried floating in a sensory deprivation tank, because I’ve never tried it before.
-I have a folder designated to “special” things like nice e-mails or nice things that people have sent my way. I keep them as a reminder that there are things to be grateful for when things feel shitty.
-I’ve been putting my phone on airplane mode on weekends and I will not answer any work related emails after 5pm or before 9am M-F.
My biggest fear is losing my mom and I have often wondered if I’ll be strong enough to carry on if/when she is no longer here. When I was little I would stay up until my mom came home from work, she would be so tired she would fall asleep right away. I would stay up and I would put my finger under her nose to make sure she was still alive and breathing and only then I could fall asleep. That sort of preoccupation for my mom as she ages and as her health begins to weaken has lingered throughout my life and has been the biggest source of anxiety for me. This is an ongoing struggle but there are a few things that have helped:
-Taking deep breaths and surrounding my space with smells that calm me down: burning palo santo or lavender oil.
-Writing. I got my first journal in 1997, I still have it and it’s falling apart now. I’ve kept a journal since because writing has helped me work through heavy emotions during times when I could not find the words to talk about difficult things. When I need to be honest with myself, I turn to writing and ask myself difficult questions to find what’s going on, like a friend would.
-Entertaining silence: being alone when I need to, traveling alone, and not being afraid of being alone has helped me tremendously because I get to clarify what matters to me.
-Movement: anything movement-related has been a big help whenever I am feeling or going through something intense. Running, walking, dancing and swimming are the things I gravitate to the most when I need to turn pain/hurt/anger into action.
In this order:
Then I think about the best moments of our friendship.
I doubt myself as a good friend.
Then I remember that distance, time and life transitions often lead to drastic changes in friendships and I welcome this as natural.
I remember the less than great things I/they did.
I forgive them for those things.
I forgive myself for those things.
I doubt myself again. (This is called “one step forward, two steps back”)
I have to write about it.
Now I have to make a decision: what kind of attitude do I want to have as I let go of them?
I choose gratitude and forgiveness (for my own well-being).
I let go and put boundaries. This means I won’t call them, talk to them, look them up on social media, invest any time in a friendship that is no longer helping me/them grow.
Now I have to surrender (the most difficult part for me) This means trusting and believing with your entire being that you will find someone else who will be a friend and you will welcome more people in your life who you will connect with in similar/better ways as the friend you lost.
Leave them alone.
It's not like you're giving up,
and it's not like you shouldn't try.
It's just that you have to draw the line of determination from desperation.
-I’ve had to change my attitude about rejection so I could more easily get past it and use the experience as a lesson to make me grow and then try again .
-I’ve kept all the rejection emails I’ve received: from schools, from jobs, from past relationships. I save them because I’m hoping to use them one day as a compilation for a “failure resume.” In this way, I can turn all those “No’s” into something fun, a reminder that rejection is not something that will make me stop going after what I want.
-I avoid obsessing about it by not entertaining any thought, feeling or mood that makes me feel guilty about being rejected.
- If something doesn't go as planned, I will just remember the best parts of the experience even if just it's the initial intention that made me want to try.
-Remember that even rejection and the pain that comes with it can be a powerful source of inspiration.
Things like face masks and going out to cute restaurants on weekends and taking pics of crystals are not things I subscribe to because I don’t feel like I would get much from that. But I would consider anything that makes me feel like I am killing two birds with one stone as “Self-care.” Anything that contributes to learning something, or being inspired, or t takes me out of my comfort zone but is still fun and challenging. I want that and I’ll try to keep finding that. I want to wrestle with whatever feeling, whatever demon I need to fight with until I know its name. This is what I want so I can give my best as a friend, a partner, a daughter and as an individual.
Right now “self-care” involves a lot of trial and error as I learn to work with my thoughts, imagination and feelings. I will continue to celebrate my failures and mistakes so I won’t have to be so hard on myself. In regards to work, I’ll take it one day at a time by managing stress with more ease and keep those boundaries in place. When facing rejection or losing friends, I will take a pause and cry if I need to, being grateful for what I learned with them. Then it will be time to let go and let that chapter end. I’ll try again and be ready to make all kinds of new mistakes, new friends, new enemies and new revelations as to why it’s good to be alive. I know it is easier said than done, but I think it’s possible.
i went for my words
the i can’ts. i won’ts. i am not good enough’s.
i lined them up and shot them dead
then i went for my thoughts
invisible and everywhere
there was no time to gather them one by one
i had to wash them out
down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean
it took twenty-one days
my knees bruised but
i did not care
i was not given the breath
in my lungs to choke it out
i would scrub the self-hate off the bone
till it exposed love
– self-love, Rupi Kaur
Meg caught me crying alone in the office today. She asked me if I was ok. I told her I’ve been having a difficult time with Hilesh leaving, that I had come to the office on a Sunday to do some work and be alone. Seeing Hilesh’s empty desk reminded me that he’ll be gone so soon.
I don’t want others to be worried about me. I wanted to be alone and just continue to try and make sense of this strange feeling of loss and sadness that makes me cry every time I remember that Hilesh will be gone.
I met Hilesh the Summer of 2017, when I applied for a job at Hyde Park Art Center. If I were to get the job, I would have to report directly to Hilesh. There were three rounds of interviews, the first one was a phone interview with Hilesh. The second one was an in-person interview with Hilesh and another staff member and the third and final round was a group interview where I was asked questions by Hilesh and 4 other staff members.
I remember the last interview vividly. I felt positive about my chances of getting the job until I was asked a final and rather curious question in that last interview. One of the staff members asked:
-Staff Member: “so…is English your first language?”
-Tracy: No, it is not. Spanish is my first language.
-Staff Member: “And how do you think you’ll do if you get this job, given the fact that English is not your first language?”
-Tracy: “Well I believe that bla bla bla because of my experience as a bla bla where I’ve used my bilingual skills and bla bla….”
When the interview was over, I went to the Chester Bennington Memorial gathering in Lincoln Park. Then I went home and cried. I kept thinking about that question, about English not being my first language, about my accent and about how unqualified I must be in comparison to other candidates who are native English speakers. Who am I trying to fool? why did I answer the question the way I did?!
My answer didn’t matter because the truth is, I don’t speak English as well as others. I am not going to get this job, I just wasted my time and Hilesh’s time in interviewing me. I just cried and cried about it until I realized that what was bothering me was not how I answered the question, but the question itself.
What was this person really interested in knowing? what inspired this person to ask if English was my first language?
I found out shortly after that questions like that in an interview/work environment are illegal. That’s when my sadness turned to anger. If questions like that are illegal, why did this person get to ask me such a thing? why did no one say anything to this person when they asked?
More than 9 days had passed since the final interview and I didn’t hear a word from Hyde Park Art Center. On the 10th day after the interview, I got a call from Hilesh. I was convinced he was calling to say “Thank you for coming but you didn’t get the job” It didn’t matter to me if he was calling me to say I was being rejected, I was more interested in telling him that I had found out the question about “English not being my first language” was illegal and he had to know! he had to know because I felt like shit after being asked such a thing and I didn’t want any other future candidates at Hyde Park Art Center to feel the way I did because of questions like that.
He asked how I felt during the interview and I told him that at first I was sad but then felt upset after finding out how innappropriate the question had been. How conflicted I felt because I was sincerely excited for the position. He said that he had noticed immediately what had happened in the interview, that he had talked to the person and that he was going to be there for me as a guide, to work through things like that because he was calling to offer me the job.
Oh man!! If I could tell you how I felt after that phone call… it was like how Tonya Harding must have felt when she landed the triple axel in the 1991 Nationals. (I’ve hyperlinked the video here)
As part of me joining the team at Hyde Park Art Center, I was required to go to a three-day “Undoing Racism” training. After the training I could join the ALANA staff (African, Latino, Asian, Native American) in a monthly caucus meeting at work. When the training ended, Hilesh asked me how I felt about it. I told him one of the things I realized in the training was that if he had been a white person, offering me the job, after what had happened at my final interview, I would have had to decline. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable being in a work environment were things like what happened at my interview would be allowed and not addressed or understood from my perspective as a person of color.
Because Hilesh was going to be my boss and because he is also a person of color, I decided to accept. I believed that he would be more likely to understand if something like what happened during my last interview were to ever happen again. I knew that Hlesh being a person of color was not a guarantee that he would understand or “have my back” but I did believe that he would be more likely to understand, if I were to ever encounter any sort of racist behavior while at work. So I took a risk, and accepted.
I know I was probably the candidate with the least amount of experience and I wanted to make the team proud. I wanted them to realize that Hilesh had made a good decision in hiring me. I wanted to make Hilesh proud, so I just worked as hard as I could during my first year at Hyde Park Art Center.
As I grieve the loss of Hilesh as a boss, I’ts tempting to be sad and have that lingering shadow of sadness overpower my feelings of gratitude for Hilesh.
Here’s a quote that reflects this sentiment. It’s from one of my favorite books, “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“So don't be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don't know what work they areaccomplishing within you?”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I have worked with Hilesh for a year and two months. During that time I learned as much as I could from him. I learned for example to be less afraid to ask for what I need, to be more conscious about how hard I am on myself, to stop saying “I’m sorry” and to ask for time off when I need it. To take a mental health day even if I feel guilty about it and to realize that I don’t have to do everything myself, that it’s ok to ask for help.
I came back from Seattle a few weeks ago after attending a conference. Hilesh told me he wanted to talk to me. My first thought was “oh my god…am I in trouble?”
But he said he was leaving and part of me was waiting for him to say “I’m joking” but he didn’t say anything. I was heartbroken and everything has been gray since then. I immediately went into grieving mode, only this time, the kind of grief I am experiencing is nothing like I’ve been through before. Hilesh is not dying, he is not leaving the city, he is not going to cut me off and never talk to me again (at least I hope not!). He is just not going to be my boss anymore. It should make sense then, to accept that he’s moving on, wish him well in his new job and to keep on with my work like normal.
Through every adversity I’ve been through, I’ve done my best to be graceful and kind. But grief can be so intense that it can feel too overwhelming to be graceful and kind. Right now all I want to do is honor how I feel. Cry if I want to cry, be alone if I want to be alone and do anything I can to heal as soon as possible. This is why I’m here sharing this with you. You have no idea how writing has helped me heal. I was talking to my friend Hayat earlier today- she said something about shifting the focus entirely on feeling grateful, and to think that not very many people get to know or work with a boss like Hilesh.
I don’t know how long it will be until I have a similar working relationship with another manager or boss. Someone who didn’t even behave like a stereotypical boss (tyrant, micro managing, evil, etc.) but more like a mentor. A mentor who can speak Spanish and who has read every book on the planet (or so it seems) and happens to know the music of one of my favorite Mexican bands. Someone who is also a person of color and an immigrant, like me. Hilesh has the ability to make anybody feel special and heard. I believe that when he told me that he was going to be there as a guide to work through things like undoing racism in the workplace, he meant it because he, like the rest of the staff, care about Hyde Park Art Center.
I was just not really prepared to lose a big support and role model I found in him so soon. So yeah, its tough becauseI feel like I will have to start from zero again. It’s a big loss for Hyde Park Art Center and for our ALANA staff. At work we divide into two groups (Caucasian + ALANA) to have our undoing racism caucus meetings. We talk about different issues pertaining to racial equity + undoing racism topics and oh man…these meetings are going to feel so different without Hilesh!
Right now, I have so many questions and concerns:
-what if my next boss is a tyrant?
-what if I don’t like them? what if they don’t like me?
-will they trust me the way Hilesh trusted me?
-Will they understand that my mom is the only family I have and that she will never be allowed to enter the U.S.? That this is why I need to travel to Mexico often to see her? will they hold that against me?
-Will they be willing to be patient as I grow in my role? or will they be more into pressuring me because I am not growing fast enough?
A year from now, I hope to look back at this time in my life and feel that it helped me grow more comfortable when dealing with grief. I hope it will have helped me turn this sadness into into a positive resolution.
Thank you Hilesh, for believing in me. I will always be grateful that you were my first boss, and that you were always someone I admired, looked up to and someone I respect highly.
Thank you for everything!
I’ve been feeling a little paranoid because of this story. At times, I feel like something bad will happen to me because of this, like some sort of punishment. It’s been so nice to hear from people that have reached out to me to tell me where they are in their journey’s as they adapt to the difficulties that come from being in the Jehovahs Witnesses religion. Thank you for reaching out and for being honest about how difficult it has been for you as well.
I couldn’t stay quiet anymore, I just had to write about the reasons that made me realize I had to stop leave the religion. Having that distance from the Jehovah’s Witnesses was so helpful in putting s things into clearer perspective. It’s like when a relationship ends and you go through different stages of grief and then after a while you come to realize how some things were really messed up and you wonder why didn’t you left earlier?
If you have ever talked to a Jehovahs witness, you might share my opinion that witnesses are some of the most polite people you will meet and generally avoid confrontations and things like that. When I needed help to move to a new apartment, the witnesses came and helped me with the move. When I graduated high school, they came to celebrate and if I needed a place to stay there was always someone in the congregation who would let me stay. The way they help each other is inspiring. So if they are so nice and so supportive of one another, what was it that was so bad from being in the religion?
What didn’t work out for me is the sexism, gender stereotypes and the lack of privacy in the congregation (people seem to know everything about everyone). While I tried and wanted to be part of the congregation, I always felt like being a Jehovahs Witness was tedious for me. It may have to do with the way I grew up by being raised by a single mom who is the strongest person I have ever known, who taught me about feminism and my belief in equality or my love for diversity of ideas, backgrounds, people, etc. For example, while I respect those who do, I personally don’t agree with women changing their last names to that of their husband’s when they marry. Last names didn’t even exist in bible-times and are not even mentioned in the bible. Yet, because being submissive is required of women in the religion, I would’ve been expected to do so and would’ve been called Mrs. “(husband’s last name)” even if I didn’t legally change my last name.
It was hard to keep quiet while being uncomfortable with those kinds of ideas. More than once I approached the elders to question their choice of words and examples during their sermons. My hope was for them to realize there are alternatives to talking about a topic without being sexist. But after a while I realized it was futile, me talking to an elder and expressing my discomfort in the way they framed their sermons was only going to make me look like I was not a “submissive” member of the congregation.
Note* I have decided not to focus on bible teachings and things like that because if you’re interested in that, I suggest you talk to someone who is a witness and have a free bible study session yourself. You can find more information on bible teachings etc. on the official Jehovahs Witnesses website: jw.org.
My circle of friends and social life became the religion, it was always me hanging out with the witnesses. I cared about the individuals I met, and this is why I felt at such a crossroads. I felt worried that if I left I was going to let everyone down, I just didn’t know how to stop. How do you stop when your only close friends know where you live, where you work and you know that they will call you or go to your house to “check-in” on you. How do you request to be left alone when you are constantly being told that if you stop attending meetings, you are doomed, there’s no hope for you since you have basically turned your back to god.
I felt uncomfortable and exhausted because I was like a shell of myself trying to please everyone in the congregation. It was always about others, it was never about me or god or my chance to have “everlasting life”. I didn’t know how to set boundaries and I didn’t realize just how much I was hurting myself by feeling the weight of having to hide who I really am. I felt like I lost a lot of my identity in those few years where I was made to feel guilty for dressing the way I wanted to dress, seeing movies I wanted to see (for the most part, only PG movies are allowed in the religion) or listening to music I am inspired by (only clean music with no profanity is accepted in the religion).
It was my second year of studying with the witnesses and I was going on service every week. I was also attending the meetings twice a week while going to university full time and working 3 jobs. I was always running around, barely catching my breath. I wanted to slow down and cut back on going to meetings or at least stop going out on service every week, but I couldn’t. Kerrie* and Carland* were persistent and constantly reminded me how important it is to always put kingdom interests first. It got pretty bad during finals, when I really needed the extra time to study and was pressured to go to the meetings. I felt guilty for wanting to skip meetings but also guilty if I went to the meetings knowing that I would have to pay the price by pulling an all-nighter studying for a test.
The elders told me that younger “sisters” in the congregation considered me a “role model” because I was going to school and still managed to attend the meetings and go out on service. In retrospect, I think it should have been the other way around. The other girls in the congregation were my role models, imagine having zero worries about where to go when the dorms closed for winter break, or not having to juggle a million gigs to get by or having your family with you. Why couldn’t I be them!?
I was so sleep deprived and tired all the time, I remember I began to arrive a bit late at the kingdom hall during midterms week. I sat at the very back so that as soon as the meeting was over, I could run out the door, not have to say hi to anybody and just go home and study for my tests. That week, the elders made comments in their speech about how being on time was so important, how it showed appreciation for the “brothers” and “sisters” and showed that we cared about Jehovah. This whole being a “role model” thing and pressure to be on time while juggling the many things I had going on back then got pretty bad. One Sunday morning, after waiting tables until late the night before, I woke up 15 minutes late. I got dresses as fast as I could and ran to my car and drove to the kingdom hall as fast as I could in an attempt not to be late again or else the elders would notice…yet again. It was raining that Sunday morning and while I never used to take the freeway, that day I decided to take I-5 South, hoping to arrive fast. I accidentally missed the exit and I had to turn around and go through a long overpass with a sharp curve. The pavement was wet and slippery, and as my car gained speed going up the ramp, I felt the car going faster and faster into the overpass curve, the brakes got stuck and the car slid straight ahead crashing into the guardrail. I had to turn the steering wheel as fast as I could for at that speed, the car was going to go over the pass and fall over into the fast moving traffic below. The railing saved my life, for a second I thought I was going to die, I thought I the car was going fall. Even though my car was lost, what is most important is that I was alive and miraculously I didn’t get seriously hurt. I was crying and in shock from the accident. An accident that was the result of me speeding to the kingdom hall so the elders wouldn’t tell me anything about being on time and yet I ended up almost dying that morning. To this day, whenever I am driving and I am about to go into a curve I get extremely nervous and anxious from the trauma of the accident.
So why didn’t I just stop everything right there? I couldn’t. I didn’t because I had recently fallen for someone in the religion. Lets call him Eli, Eli was baptized and I wasn’t and once again, this got me in trouble.
We couldn’t travel alone or see each other without other people being present. We went on a trip to California once and we had to pay for someone to come with us as a chaperone, otherwise we would get in trouble with the elders. One day, an elder told me he wanted to talk to me. He told me how he thought I was not ready to get married and that I should set spiritual goals for myself first. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had not even been with this person for a year, and they were already telling me about marriage and how unprepared I was. All of this made me feel so powerless and dumb. I was always worried someone might see us when we were hanging out alone or when we were holding hands or driving without a chaperone. So I went and got baptized because I had already been in the religion for 3 years and it was a way for the whole “ you shouldn’t date someone without being baptized” situation to stop. Being in a relationship while in the religion was the most intense time for me, not even the car accident got me so paranoid and desperate.
The last straw came because Eli and I got too involved without being married. This was something serious and we knew we could get expelled as a result. Eli was also worried and he tried to convince me to keep quiet about what had happened but my conscience would not leave me alone. I felt bad about the idea of pretending nothing had happened and just going to the congregation and out on service made me feel like a hypocrite when I knew we had “broken the rules” and I personally felt so bad and ashamed and worried and I couldn’t fathom why Eli tried to persuade me to keep quiet when he knew we should have said something. He didn’t so I came forward and “turned myself in” and told the elders the truth. Deep down I think I wanted to get expelled because I didn’t want to continue in the religion anymore. I was in a lot of pain. Pain, because I believed I had disappointed god, the elders and everyone in the congregation. Pain because the relationship had ended and I was heartbroken, ashamed, felt dirty etc.
The elders met with me in private and told me I was not going to be expelled. They gave me advice and read some scriptures from the bible. After this, I slowly stopped attending meetings. Then I moved from Seattle to Chicago to attend graduate school and moving away made it easier to get distance myself from the religion. I only went back to the memorial service (an annual celebration for Jesus) and then left as soon as it was over. There was one person who was a big inspiration for me to keep attending the memorials during that time, someone I consider like a sister, lets call her Chloe. Chloe had moved and was not present when all of this was happening to me. But she is the only witness I remained in contact with. I never felt any pressure or judgment from her and I was so embarrassed and ashamed to tell her how I felt for fear of disappointing her. She is and will always have a special place in my heart.
If I could go back in time, I would have been more careful about the pace in which I got involved in the religion. I would have avoided becoming close friends with my bible teachers at the time. I would have left earlier before I got more involved and most importantly, I would have put boundaries to protect my mental and emotional well-being above anything else. I couldn’t or didn’t know how to genuinely commit to this religion and while I gave everything I had I only felt empty, not accepted for who I am, trapped and pressured and I don’t believe that’s the kind of feeling god would want for someone.
I cared deeply about Kerrie* and Carland* and I love my friend Chloe* so much but it was fear and worry of letting them down and the consequences of what could happen if I left that kept me in the religion longer than I should have. I don’t speak to Kerrie* and Carland* anymore, and my heart aches because my friend Chloe* will most likely stop talking to me because of this story. I cared about what I learned about god and this is why I came clean to the elders. When I found out I was not going to be disfellowshipped, I kind of decided to “auto-expel” myself. If people were to know the truth about how I truly felt about the culture of the religion, they would probably not talk to me or label me an “apostate” or a “bad influence.” So I made everyone a favor and decided to step away so I could heal and learn to take care of my mental and emotional health.
Distancing myself from the religion was one of the hardest things I’ve done but it has been so liberating. Leaving has given me the clarity to realize it was not ok for me to be pressured into doing something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t know how to set boundaries and put my well-being first. It’s been almost 3 years now since I left and I feel like I am picking up where I left before I got involved in the religion. I am smiling and laughing more than before and I no longer feel small and “powerless”.
I became more private about my life as a result of my experience in the religion. I’ve had to “un-learn” many things related to spirituality and every day I set my intention to face my fears and traumas by learning to surrender and trust that even though I am no longer in the religion, there is still hope for me. I don't believe I have turned away from god, I just turned away from a religion that didn't work out for me. I don't care what others may think of me leaving the religion, I know I am still worthy & strong. I am grateful for everything I went through because losing my religion brought me back to who I really am.
All I wanted was to find a class that would kill two birds with one stone: fulfill a humanities credit requirement and give me a three-day weekend. I was exhausted from working the graveyard shift as a waitress during the week and scrubbing pots at a soup shop on weekends. I was paying for school on my own while supporting myself so having no class on Fridays was just what I needed. Luckily, I found a class called Art History 200. I had no idea what “art history” was but this class would give me what I was looking for, so I signed up. This class bombarded me with dozens of slides, complex information and lofty words I had never heard before. There were innumerable names and dates to memorize and little by little the class material helped me make sense of the world around me. It inspired me to be curious about the stories, the movements and the artists we were learning about. For the first time, I felt like I had tools to question and analyze art, culture and ideas in a critical way. No other class had ever had that kind of impact on me. It was my first year of college and it was at this time that I began to study with the Jehovahs Witnesses as a “grown-up”. I had recently graduated high school, an experience that had been a turbulent time for me. I moved to the United Stated by myself when I was 17. I didn’t know anyone in the U.S. except for an aunt who lived near Seattle. I asked my aunt if I could live with her for a year. My goal was to graduate from high school and learn English so I could apply to university. She said yes and I moved from Mexico to Seattle on my own, so happy to have the chance to go to high school. When I arrived, I found out my aunt didn’t really have a place. She never told me she was living in her boyfriend’s house. I also didn’t realize that my aunt’s motivation for having me there was so that she could get welfare money from me and keep it for herself. She drove me to the Department of Human Services office and forced me to apply for welfare benefits. Once she learned my welfare application had been denied, she kicked me out of her boyfriend’s house. I had nowhere to go, I had made a huge mistake. It was August, 2008 and the school year was about to start. Desperate, I knocked on a neighbor’s door and a woman came out, “could I please use your phone, I really need help”. I called my mom and as I cried I told her I wanted to go back to Mexico.
Long story short, I soon moved in with an American lady who worked at Seattle’s airport. My mom had met her years ago when she was on vacation in Mexico and my mom had kept her business card. She called her and explained what had happened. This lady took me in, and I moved to her house in Maple Valley which is about 40 min away from Seattle. I lived with her for about a year before moving in with another family for a few weeks and then onto another. I would sleep and live anywhere anyone who would take me in because all I wanted was to graduate from high school and learn English so I could get into a university.
I remember one particular family who took me in. The mom, Marie Jay* worked at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, the dad was a fire fighter and their daughter was into gymnastics. When I met them, I was frail and scared. I had been through some things living with previous families in Maple Valley that I was just so nervous to meet them. I offered them to do cook, clean, do all their chores, whatever they needed as long as I could stay while I finished my last year of high school. The mom, Marie Jay* is a devout Christian and one of the kindest individuals I have ever met. She took me in and refused my offers of me serving her family. She bought me my first winter coat and winter boots, she gave me a cake on my birthday and would accompany me to practice my parallel parking technique so I could pass my driving test. I will always be endlessly grateful for everything Marie Jay* did for me and for treating me with dignity and respect. I will always love and consider her like my second mom.
Marie Jay* had only one requirement, she expected me to go to youth group and to church on Sundays with her family. Attending the church was always complicated for me. I had been so out of touch with religion that it felt strange suddenly being in an environment that felt so foreign to me.
I remember people being so enthusiastic as they sang with their arms raised, eyes closed: “Oh, happy day! happy day, you washed my sin away!”. I did not feel the same fervor to sing like that or shout “Amen!” I thought something must be wrong with me or I just didn’t really know Jesus the same way the churchgoers did. The only religion I had known was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and attending the Presbyterian church made me feel uncomfortable. There was no way around it for me, I had to comply with attending church every week. I didn’t want to disappoint Marie Jay* and didn’t want to risk being kicked out again without a place to go. Marie Jay* never tried to impose any of her beliefs on me, I think she mainly wanted me to experience something she cares so much about. The way she talked about god was inspiring and she once walked me through a prayer so I could accept Jesus as my savior. Her faith is so strong and mine was so non-existent that I think she was just worried about me. I graduated high school and moved into the dorms at the University of Washington.
When I started college, I was on my own. No more staying with families no more hopping from place to place. However, I still felt that I wanted to have a more spiritual lifestyle. I felt something was wrong with me for not feeling the same way Marie Jay* felt about god. I wanted to know if I could also feel the way she did. I wanted to find out if the almighty Jesus, god, the Universe or whatever had my back. So instead of going to another Presbyterian church, I went to what was familiar to me, which is the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion. I filled out a form on their website requesting a free bible study session. This is how I began to study with Kerrie* and Carland*, a married couple in their late 20’s. I began studying the bible once a week and attending the Jehovahs Witnesses meetings (the equivalent of a church service) with them.
In the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion, the ideal way things should progress looks generally like this: first you study the bible with the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a period of time (the length of time varies from person to person), then you become an un-baptized publisher which means you can start going out in “field service” a.k.a going out preaching door to door without being baptized. By this point you should have a strong relationship with god, your congregation and should be putting spiritual interests first which means you live, breathe, think “the truth” (the religion). By now, you should be avoiding hanging out with people who don’t love god a.k.a. all non-Jehovah’s Witnesses, unless it is for the purposes of preaching to them. You should also be in good standing in the organization which means, you don’t do, have, or practice anything in your life that goes against god’s standards. In short you have made “the truth” your own. Then, you would dedicate your life to god by getting baptized. This is a very important step for once you are baptized things can go well for you in the organization if you keep up with your spiritual growth or they can go horribly wrong and you stand to face dire consequences. For instance, it is only if you are baptized and if you happen to be involved in a serious sin (adultery, drugs, pornography, etc.) and refuse to get back on track that you can be disfellowshipped from the organization. This is a serious thing since being shunned from your family and friends can have a huge mental and emotional impact. It is something that is exercised as a way to make a person realize that they have hit “rock-bottom” and there’s a lot to lose. This can be seen as something horrendous on one hand but could also be seen as a last resort to help the person in question change their ways. This is in part, why people abide so strongly to the organization and to bible teachings. They want people who will be an asset to the congregation and not spoil or negatively influence others. They aspire to “eternal life” and therefore they try really hard to “save their lives” and their “spirituality” with a strong discipline.
Going out in service (preaching) is imperative to be in good standing within the organization. You may have encountered Jehovahs Witnesses knocking at your door or seen them standing with carts in certain areas of your city. All of that is part of the preaching or “service” work. Every minute of service, even if they don’t talk to anyone counts towards certain hour goals many people pursue. These individuals are called “pioneers” because they invest up to 150 hours (sometimes more) of service every month. These hours are documented via a sheet that is turned in to the congregation leaders every month.
As I became a regular at the kingdom hall, I began to notice how there was constant discouragement for young people to pursue higher education or any ambition that was not spiritually related. I also noticed how much emphasis there is on marriage and on getting ready for married life. There were the constant references describing women as the “weaker vessel” and so much emphasis on how women must be submissive to their husbands. Things like that always made me cringe. Men in the organization, have leadership positions and responsibilities that are absent for women. Men can slowly move up the ladder and go from being “ministerial servants” to eventually becoming an “elder” (an important and influential position within the congregation). This depends on how invested men are in their spirituality and in the congregation. Since no significant leadership positions exist for women in the congregation, the closest would be to be married to someone who does.
Everything should progress more or less like that. There is an order that is emphasized a lot, every meeting, every time-sheet every time you study, the dynamic is always orderly. This is because of the idea that god is a god of order and if there was no order then people would just do what they wanted which would cause them to get into trouble. That is what happened to me. I was an un-baptized publisher, slowly discovering how things worked in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. At the same time, I was learning through my art history class, how to analyze things in a critical way. I wanted to share what I was learning in class so I began posting art-related pictures on Facebook. I posted an image of Caroleen Schneeman’s Interior Scroll piece, an important piece in performance art history. The image shows the moment the artist pulls a paper scroll from her vagina. A day after I posted the image, an elder from my congregation, commented angrily on my post, saying that such a thing was not art and that it was disgraceful and I should take it down. This was the first red flag, the first boundary that was crossed. An elder who had never talked to me in person, who didn’t even know anything about the amazing art history class I was taking or bothered to ask about the context of the image. He had recently added me on Facebook (big mistake on my part for accepting his Facebook friend request!) and I was upset for what he had done so I did not respond and chose not to delete the image. I simply posted a Banksy quote that said “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” and left it at that. The next day I find out that a guy in the same congregation started ganging up on me on Facebook. He was throwing shade at me for not showing respect to the congregation “elder” who commented on my post!
Here were two grown-ass men, supposedly spiritually strong people ganging up on a 19 year old who didn’t even know enough about spiritual matters, but knew enough to realize that what they were doing was shitty. I was a relatively new attendee to their congregation and their action marked the beginning of me feeling unwelcome in the religion. Kerrie* and Carland* told me such incident happened because satan was trying to dissuade me from continuing in the religion. In short I needed to be aware that satan was angry that I was in the “truth” and needed to rely on god even more and not let that be a stumbling block.
The second time I got in trouble was for attending the congregation wearing above the knee skirts. In the congregation, women are expected to wear modest skirts or dresses. No business casual pants, slacks, dress pants etc. Only skirts or dresses. Men are expected to dress in a suit and tie and carry a brief case. Also beards are not deemed appropriate. The idea behind this dress code is that we should look our best for god and be modest….umm?? pants for women apparently cannot be modest?
I don’t know what it is with the organization and pants but take tights pants as an example. Here are some things you would hear from an elder giving a sermon during a meeting: “tight pants are immodest, yoga pants are disgraceful even if you are jogging it is inappropriate to wear such a thing”. Also, “tight pants are made by homosexuals and they are the ones who want you wearing them, not Christian people”. I wish I was making this up, but those statements happened in a JW assembly in 2014.
I understand if someone chooses not to go to church wearing leggings, yoga pants or tight dress pants. But that’s the thing, when you hear the opinions of elders over and over, stressing how much they dislike a certain style of clothing by labeling it inappropriate and immodest then is as if you really don’t have much of a choice. You have to obey or else you can get in trouble. I always felt that to impose a personal view on a garment and go to such an extent as to say that “the homosexuals” are the ones who want you wearing tight dress pants is simply, ridiculous.
The elders had told Kerrie* and Carland* that they needed to go over the bible’s view on modesty, so that I would no longer wear above the knee skirts. For the record, I always wore leggings or thick tights under my skirts, but apparently I was too immodest. The skirt situation is one of the many unspoken rules that are part of the Jehovahs Witnesses culture. Nowhere in the bible does it say that women must only and exclusively wear skirts/dresses and that pants are forbidden. I confronted Kerrie* and Carland* about this, and they told me it that it boils down to showing respect to the congregation and wanting to be modest. Their answers were too weak for me. I realized it was not a biblical thing, it was more a cultural unspoken rule within the religion. I’d like to share one of the passages I remember reading form the jw.org website back when I was researching this topic, trying to wrap my head around the “women must wear skirts/dresses only”. I found information on the JW.org website from an Awake magazine in 1977 that stated:
“As to the prohibition about a person’s wearing clothing specifically designed for the opposite sex, this preserved the natural distinction between the sexes. The customary thing is for men to want to look like men, and for women to want to look like women. A violation of this internal sense as respects attire could have led to homosexuality.”
To me, such an antiquated view on fashion was just beyond insane. In short, you should not question things. You should just accept and wear a skirt or dress even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing something like business casual pants or dress-pants, cause well… you must not wear male clothing in any JW environment. Not even if there are women’s pants because pants belong in the realm of men’s fashion and you should not wear men things or else you could become gay or something.
I felt like everything I did was being scrutinized by Kerrie* and Carland*. I was concerned that other people in the congregation might tell if I did something they deemed “inappropriate”. Kerrie* once called me out for “liking” Planned Parenthood’s Facebook page and said that god does not approve of abortion and therefore people who love Jehovah should not “like” pro-choice organizations of any kind. One day, I invited Kerrie* and Carland* to go to the Tacoma Art Museum because a mentor of mine was having an event and I wanted to go and support. “If you have time to go to the museum today, then you have time to go preaching”. I started feeling suffocated from all of this. From the things I wore, the books I read to the people I associated, my Facebook posts and social media “likes”...anything could be used be used against me.
The truth is that I've always have identified as pro-choice and I don’t want to feel obliged to wear skirts and dresses to a place of worship and I actually dreaded feeling pressured to go out preaching. I loved studying and learning things about the history and ideas of the bible and all the interesting things Jesus went through but I never felt like myself in that environment.
For 3.5 years I tolerated this, trying to ignore how annoyed it made to comply with such unspoken rules because I genuinely wanted to find out more about god but was challenged by the fact that I could not be who I really am. Little by little I sunk deeper into trying to fit in, trying to make Kerrie* and Carland* proud of me, and my progress but I just could not keep up. I could not pretend to be someone I am not and I was only hurting myself to the point of almost dying in an accident that left scars that will take a long time to heal.
To be continued.
I will lose friends over what you are about to read. I know I will cause disappointment in some of the people involved in this story. Before I get into it, I want to tell you that Im doing very well. I have a cool job (plus 3 side gigs) and I live in Chicago. I'm 27 and I was born in California in 1991. I was raised in Mexico by a single mom. I have been to 16 countries so far. I'm into art history, fashion, design, green tea, dark chocolate and creativity in general.
I know many tried to help me and meant well during my time in the religion. I also know that for many people, being in the religion has brought happiness and helped them change their lives for good. I respect Jehovahs Witnesses and I am grateful for the things I learned and the discipline it promotes. Usually, people who have been disfellowshipped (expelled) are the ones who write about their experiences leaving the religion. People who are angry or hurt by what they went through will sometimes do videos and throw shade at the Jehovahs Witnesses but that's not what I subscribe to. Aside from that, people don't usually say or publish anything about what their struggles might be as part of being in the religion. This is because the Jehovahs Witnesses culture is meant to be insular and you just don't talk about anything you don't agree with because it is expected that you will agree with everything the bible teaches AND agree with how the JW organization promotes those bible teachings. You have to agree with both aspects. If you are struggling with that and you voice your opinion elsewhere besides the congregation (i.e. a blog like this) you can get in trouble. This is why It is encouraged to share anything that troubles you via prayer with God, and seek support from the elders in the organization. For me, it didn't work.
I've never shared something as personal as this before, so I'm kind of nervous but even though it is difficult, I'm not afraid to share why I decided to stop being involved in the religion.
It is 1996 and I live with my mom in a studio in Los Angeles, California. I begin to have anxiety attacks at the age of 4. At night, when my mom falls asleep, I put my finger under her nose to make sure she is still breathing. Once I make sure she is still alive, I fall asleep. Every day, when my mom walks me to kindergarden, I vomit on the street. It is not because I'm sick, it is because I am terrified of "La Migra" (immigration officials). Every day when she drops me off at school, I fear it could be the last time I see her. She is undocumented and because of this I panic that something will happen to her, that immigration officials are going to take her away from me. So I vomit every-single-day. I also hate being the very last one to be picked up from school. I cannot yet fully comprehend that as a single mom, her working so much to support us prevents my mom from picking me up on time, like the other kids.
Around this time my mom meets a lady who is one of the Jehovahs Witnesses. She begins to study the bible with her. We call her "Hermana Sosa", because in the religion the custom is to call each other "hermana" or "hermano" (brother or sister) and then you say the person's last name. I got my first bible stories book from la Hermana Sosa. We begin attending Jehovahs Witnesses meetings 3 times a week, we go to 3 day assemblies that last from 9 am-5pm and then start going out on "service" (preaching door to door). I actually liked the bible stories book because it had pictures but as far as the 2.5 hour meetings, never-ending assemblies and the door to door situation...I was pretty much ready to die of boredom right then and there. As a 5 year old, I dreaded attending meetings designed for adults.
Often times after "service" (door to door preaching), we would go to a restaurant or to a Dunkin Doughnuts. This was heaven for me because we did not have much money and suddenly we start going to these "fancy" places. I didn't realize how generous "La Hermana Sosa" was with us during that time and I'm grateful she did that for us, when she did not have to.
When I turned 6, we moved to Mazatlan, Mexico and that's when I first met my brother and my dad. My parents are divorced and were not in good terms back then, but they made plans so that I could meet my dad for the first time at a beach. I was 6 years old and about to meet my dad, whom I had no memory of whatsoever, someone I had never talked to before, someone who was literally a stranger and I was in a new country and I just wanted to go back to Los Angeles and why did my mom leave me here and oh my god... here he comes... what the heck do I say?? do I call him "dad"? why should I cal him "dad"?? is it too late to run away? this is uncomfortable! why did my mom leave me here!? I HATE THIS! AAAAAAAAH!! .....Wait!...thats it! I'll call him "A".
-"A!", I shouted.
-"Ay vieja chula! dame un abrazo!"
To this day, I refuse to call him "dad". I think it is too much for someone who I barely know. To me he'll always be "A".
In Mazatlan my mom continues her bible study with the Jehovahs Witnesses. I'm now 7 years old and I start getting a bible study as well. I never asked for a bible study, but there I was. If I had it my way I would have preferred to stay at home and skip those Jehovahs Witnesses meetings but that's how I learned something crucial about the religion. I could sense that it was not so much the idea of "spirituality" that made my mom snap at me every time I told her I did not want to go to those meetings, but rather, the concern for what people in the congregation might think if I didn't go. The culture in the religion reinforces a subtle yet extreme importance in attending the meetings. This is all based in bible teachings that focus being reminded that this world is evil, ruled by Satan and that following Jehovah and being spiritually strong is the way to go. The only way do to that is through attending JW meetings and being active in the congregation since the end of this wicked world is near and therefore we must not let our guard down. That was the spiritual reasoning behind why so much insistence in being at the meetings. Its like going to the gym every day if you want to see results. But it is one thing to go to the gym every day in order to reach your fitness goals and another to go to the gym so that people in the gym can see that you're going to the gym.
Since my mom was making progress and learning so much about the bible, if I did not go to the meetings with her it would make her look bad. It would seem as if she was not doing that good of a job in teaching me about Jehovah and instilling love for the organization and all of that. So I went and oh boy. I must have gotten the dozing-off award of the year. As a 7 yeard old, I came to realize that the whole culture and vibe was so different from what I thought God might be. I thought God would be this amazing energy-like being who is this massive force of positivity and warm hugs. Instead I was in a room several days a week, filled with men in business suits, women wearing long dresses, and hearing speech after speech. Reluctantly studying the bible when I wished I could have been doing something more engaging.
Everything stopped when someone in the religion betrayed my mom. My brother had bought a used car, but he became worried when he found out after the fact that the car may have been previously stolen. My mom was worried as well and she confided in a "sister" from the congregation about the car. This "sister" called the police on my brother who had nothing to do with the previous robbery. This hurt my mom very much.
We stopped going to meetings. We stopped studying. We stopped going door to door. It seemed like everything was over. For a while, it was.
To be continued.