Nightmare in Navy and White — Experiencing the Dark Side of ATI: Selena’s Story
HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Selena” is a pseudonym.
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Part Three: The Hard Road Ahead
For the first few months, I was a recluse, constantly in my room obsessively praying for God to cleanse me, to forgive me, to surround me with protection from this terrifying world I was thrown into. I was surrounded by a world I had had nothing to do with for these years. I suddenly had freedoms I didn’t know how to handle. I had spent all this time with my every move planned, with every trip to the bathroom a privilege, every little thing a potential reason for shame and punishment. Now the shock was too great.
Eventually, I became suicidal.
I felt I was a failure, I would never be pure. I attempted suicide and my mother sent me to a mental hospital as a last resort. As she had drifted away from ATI’s teachings somewhat, she regained trust in getting medical and psychological help when necessary. Unfortunately, still feeling like the inferior, patriarch-less mother, she leaned on these figures to solve all of our problems and refused to just be a mother to us, unable to handle the responsibility.
At times she would instruct me on what to say when she dropped me off at the mental hospital so that they would admit me as a “danger to myself”, and she didn’t have to deal with me while I recovered from the abuse I had suffered. It was the same problem that had her handing me off to counselors and then Eagle Springs instead of taking time to love and care for me as her child; now the pattern continued to repeat itself time and time again.
My days in the mental hospital were traumatizing as well (the shock of being locked in a facility with people screaming, banging their heads, cursing, being wrestled to the ground and injected with sedatives, and so on is bad enough in and of itself – but here I was with full blown, undiagnosed PTSD, coming from the most sheltered life imaginable straight into this!). But there was one good thing that came out of it. For the first time, when I mentioned very cautiously a small hint of what I had been through, I was told that I had been abused. The counselor worked with me to get me out of my shell, and seemed truly disturbed at my level of trauma.
And for the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of understanding that what had been done to me was wrong.
I went home and began to change. I was an emotional wreck – but for the first time, I was angry, and I was tired of being hurt. Then one day my mother tried to get me to go back to church – the tiny little church we went to full of ATI families. I knew by the way she had been acting that I was likely to be subjected to another series of humiliation, prayers, exorcisms, and so on. And for the first time, something inside me just broke.
Now, all these years I had never truly known the police or CPS could help me; all these years I was told to fear these people, never speak to them, because they might come and get us for being godly homeschoolers. They were our enemy; to us, they were the Romans and we were the suffering righteous church hiding carefully in our own homes. We sent letters of thanks according to Gothard’s teachings – but we were always in this state of fear about the war we thought everyone was waging on believers like us. Now, in the hospital, I had been told the truth: that they could help those who had been harmed. I was told that I had options, if there was abuse in my home.
It really shook my whole view of the world. And I wanted more of this merciful world that I had glimpsed.
Presently, the situation began to escalate. I told my mother I did not want to attend church. She started to grow angry, weeping and yelling, and I knew what it could mean for me. Suddenly, I just looked my mother in the eye, and quietly but confidently threatened to call the police if I had to.
My mother’s eyes filled with shock. She took my sister to church, fearfully avoiding me, and never invited me to church again. I saw through her now, and she could never return me to my naive state again. She knew she had lost me. I was kicked out and sent to live with a relative – who was told a lengthy tale about how rebellious and out of control I had become. I was punished further, but since they worked daily, I was left more or less to myself most days.
And so, at 16 years old, I left ATI.
I was never my mother’s daughter again. They left the cult shortly thereafter, reluctant and angry that I had ruined their happiness again. I would never outlive the title of black sheep. I was able to tell my mother some of what happened before she passed away recently, but it will never truly be resolved.
The rest is history. Raised by a family who was wealthy, my rejection of the cult meant I was instantly plunged into desperate poverty. I spent the next 8 years clawing my way from the brink of homelessness, through a relationship that turned physically abusive (even in retrospect I don’t think I, nor anyone else, could have ever guessed that this guy was abusive, by the way – lest I be lumped in with those stories you hear all the time of abused people jumping from one abusive relationship to the next), past a few brushes with death and finally onto a shred of solid ground. My mother passed away this year; the last of her years were spent spiraling into severe mental illness, paranoia, alcoholism and addiction, and she died suddenly while in rehab.
My siblings have gone on to live the high class life, carefully hiding our family’s dark secrets behind flashy cars, million dollar homes and grand parties. They have long since learned to mimic the abusive behavior of my parents toward me, never really knowing or caring where it began. I have tried to build a life on my own, far away from my family and among kinder people. Circumstances brought me back into contact with a dear friend of mine from when I was young, and today we are engaged and living together in a happy relationship.
Through these years I searched for my own spirituality, and through many twists and turns, I landed somewhere outside the box. I spent years of study simply saying that I was an agnostic; I suppose in a sense that remains true, because I feel that faith is, after all, lacking a certain amount of evidence. Today my faith rests in the wisdom that seems present in most religions and belief systems, and in staying stubbornly aloof from religious control of any kind. I will never believe simply because I’m supposed to again. I will always ask, research, study, seek, and never be too comfortable that I know all the answers. I have settled on a more natural spirituality, and found that in many corners of spirituality I once considered damned to Hell, there are in fact some of the greatest truths I could ever know.
Through the years, I began to listen to secular music, dress normally, and slowly grow accustomed to modern living. Now I can’t see for the life of me what they were so afraid of! I am happier now than I ever was under Bill Gothard’s regime. They promised me freedom, but all I got was enslavement. My life now is true freedom: Responsibility for myself, not for my authorities. To find my own answers, not be forced to believe another’s.
I still suffer from very severe PTSD; I think it’s only to be expected. I’m not sure what healing looks like for this kind of repeated trauma, or if it’s even fully possible; but I try to take it day by day. It’s not the best of endings, but a firm and resolute one.
After all, I’m an “apostate” now – and we never give up!
You are truly an amazing woman, and I’m sure your story will helpothers find the same freedom you found. I know it has helped me in my ever processing of how I look back on those people and places that we were supposed to hope in such awe.
“I was an emotional wreck – but for the first time, I was angry, and I was tired of being hurt.” This is SO empowering!!!
You are a strong and intelligent person. Please explore The Center for Inquiry on Google. I particularly recommend their publication “Free Inquiry.” The Center will introduce you to secular humanism, a philosophy based on logic and reason. Most importantly, philosophically humanism embraces the kindness of The Golden Rule as it teaches the analytical tools of science necessary for understanding physical reality. It teaches how to live a rich secular life without apology. BTW, many of Jesus’ teachings regarding the poor were humanistic, so you needn’t feel you’re denying all of Christianity, just the impossible miracle-based stories. Good luck to you in your new life.
Dear Lois: I graduated from a top national university and then graduate school. As a Christian, I felt humiliated and abused by many of the “secular humanists” who taught there. Their “free inquiry based on logic and reason” was pushed on me and other young people because “it was good for us” and “you will thank me for this in the future.” Many liberals and secularists have a fundamentalist authoritarian streak in them as bad as what this woman describes. For you to portray secular humanism as benign and reasonable fails to state the many zealots pushing young people and shaming them when they resist. True Christianity is the answer, not a legalistic false Christianity, and certainly not a secular humanism that denies God’s existence and the need for our savior, Jesus Christ.
The secular humanist were mean to me…really? In the comment section of a heart wrenching story about abusive Christianity and this is all you have to say. pfft!
Madamechintoa’s response is disgusting and utterly uncalled for. Yeah, evangelical authoritarian crap is bad no matter which religion it’s currently wearing. No matter what you are pushing with evangelical fervor—ATI, beating kids, “free inquiry,” global warming, whatever it is—it’s the evangelicalism that’s wrong.
Ditto on the PTSD. It sucks! I read recently that the brains of children who were abused have similar patterns to soldiers with PTSD. Abusive households are war, for a young person.
Selena, I too have PTSD, but did not suffer anywhere near as badly as you did. You are incredibly resilient. I am sending thoughts and prayers your way. Thank you for telling your story. I am so encouraged. I know that I can keep going and that I will be okay.
Thank you for telling your story. I wish I could go back in time and rescue you!
I had a childhood similar to yours and reading about your experience has helped me to make sense of my own journey.
Much love and healing to you- T