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.