What I am about to write officially makes me an apostate in the eyes of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that would have terrified me not so long ago, but today I face the fear head on.
I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the time I was two years old. I was what they call “in the truth” until I was nearly 20, then experienced a disfellowshipping, or shunning, as it seems many former witnesses call it. I found my way back after a few years and was reinstated when I was 28, only to slowly fade away after about a year of being actively involved again. My fading away didn’t involve any negative thoughts about the religion at the time, in fact, I was still certain that it was the only true religion and that my not being a strong, active follower meant that I was going to likely die some horrible death at Armageddon where my body would be picked clean by birds in the aftermath. Beautiful imagery, isn’t it? But this is exactly the type of imagery and descriptions that were instilled in me from the time I was very young.
It wasn’t until I was about 36 that I had what I like to call an epiphany, and the experience is still very clear to me. I was driving in my car alone early on a Sunday morning and the Phil Collins song ‘Take Me Home’ came on. I certainly knew the song, but had never really given it a solid listen prior to that morning, and in the middle of the song I was overcome with an intense realization that I have been a ‘prisoner all my life’ and living in a state of what might be considered as brainwashing. Of course the lyrics weren’t intended for my particular situation, but I can’t even begin to say how powerful they came across in that moment, not to mention how entirely out of the blue this experience was. I was filled with thoughts that if God is truly loving, how could he intend to destroy so many good people on this earth, just because they weren’t one of Jehovah’s Witnesses? When it is drilled into your head that all other religions or lifestyles are false and that anyone other than a JW is considered worldly and a bad association, and that your life depends on avoiding all of this, you will find that it isn’t a concept easily let go.
After experiencing this epiphany, I started dabbling in a bit of the forbidden research of the witnesses online. I cautiously read through what I knew to be apostate material – even skimming through the severely off-limits book Crisis of Conscience, by Raymond Franz, a former Governing Body member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While everything that I was reading led to more questions and started to open my eyes, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sense that what I was doing was wrong and that I could die for this research. Then I took a leap and started searching for another religion, thinking that another spiritual outlet might be just what I needed, but nothing felt right. My entire belief system had been turned upside down, so I didn’t know where to turn. Even trying non-denominational churches still reminded me of my upbringing in the Kingdom Hall. I was initially excited when I found the Unitarian Universalist church, because it involved people and practices from all backgrounds, so this had to be the one for me. The moment everyone rose to sing a song to open the service, however, I cringed. It felt too familiar and I just couldn’t see what might lie beyond it. There was such a deep fear that had been embedded in me, that I stopped everything after that day. I stopped looking into the organization, and I stopped all efforts towards any spiritual work for myself. But, I was still afraid.
Fast forward to now, roughly 6 years later, and I’ve had another epiphany – but this time it’s something so much more. If I had to label it, I would call it a true awakening. There was no song that inspired me, there wasn’t even a single moment that I can pinpoint, but it’s more about the therapy that I’ve been doing this past year. I’ve been working a lot on the fear that grips me so tightly, and I’ve always linked it to the trauma from my family, but I started to recognize that a great deal of this fear is from the religion I was brought up in. Even after being away from the JWs for so many years, I would still lie awake many nights completely overwhelmed with anxiety about Armageddon. I would find myself consumed with thoughts that I should be practicing, even though it didn’t feel right, because what if? What if it is the only true religion? What if the great tribulation really was right around the corner and I was going to die because I turned my back on it? What if I really did have the hope of eternal life on earth if I went back to being a JW? What if God would never hear me again? I was suffocating with this fear and had been for my entire life. It was destroying me.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve grown to see this fear clearly. In fact, I think it’s the moment when I turned towards it and took a long look at it, that the fear moved from me. While it still creeps up on me at times, it’s very rare, and overall, it feels like I’ve been released. I can even sleep at night. I’m back to researching the JWs because the more that I look into the organization with the open eyes that I now have, the more I see how unsound it was, and still is. Viewing it clearly helps me to continue to let go of the fears, and it helps me to explore other areas of spirituality. I’m not quite sure yet what I believe, or what direction I might go as I am rebuilding myself, but I do know that I am finally on the right path. At least it’s the one that is right for me, and that is the truth that matters most.