Drinking From the Final Straw

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Cynthia Jeub’s blog CynthiaJeub.com. It was originally published on February 25, 2015. 

Trigger warnings: alcohol abuse, child abuse, graphic descriptions

“We were addicted to the blueprint
But we threw it in the flames and now we’re never gonna trace it
You, you lied
Ha ha ha ha I was right all along
Good job, good job
You fucked it up…
Now you’re walking on your own
Rain falls down, I’m not answering my phone
I got to phase you out my zone
Hope you realize now that I am never coming home
You were meant to be alone.” –Charli XCX

I wrote a post on addictive personalities as a prerequisite to an element I haven’t talked about yet on my blog. Many people who were, like me, abused in the Christian-homeschool-patriarchy movement, still maintain at least moderately rocky relationships with their parents. I gave up, in the end, because of the events surrounding how my parents started drinking.

One day near the end of 2013, I visited my parents’ house. Mom was in bed, recovering from her last miscarriage. She’d saved the fetus, named him Ezra Mark, dressed him and taken pictures, and buried him in the backyard. What shocked me the most, though, was that she had a bottle of Jack Daniels on her nightstand.

“Mom, why do you have hard liquor? I’ve never seen alcohol in our house.”

She said something about dealing with the pain. She was referring to both the emotional pain of losing a child, and the physical pain of blood loss. She insisted, though, that she was only taking small amounts of it as a medicinal solution.

I accepted this answer. After all, I drink alcohol sometimes. I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

On the 6th of January last year, mom’s sister Debbi died suddenly. She was only 52, and she’d practically raised my mom and her brothers and sisters, because my maternal grandmother was, as previously mentioned, addicted to alcohol. I asked for time off work so that I could travel to Minnesota for my aunt’s funeral.

Mom was losing both a sister and a surrogate mother, and she turned to alcohol with the shock and grief. I’d always taken care of my mom, but she was making me worried. We ordered drinks on the plane. When we got to my paternal grandparents’ house, she asked me to sneak more liquor for her from their cupboard. It didn’t matter what it was – she had no taste preference, it was to numb herself.

Within weeks of our return to Colorado, dad was drinking, too. They had wine regularly, and there was a twelve-pack of beer in the fridge. When I asked about it, mom said that since she couldn’t have kids anymore (a statement I never got full clarification for), it was okay to have alcohol now.

Again, I accepted this. I didn’t accept alcohol for myself until I realized there was space between alcoholics and people who completely abstained. The problem was, mom and dad had never seen someone demonstrate moderate drinking. I assumed that they only drank when I was there, which was once or twice a week.

Once in the spring, we built a bonfire in the backyard and roasted marshmallows. Dad was acting strangely – less mature than the kids. He wanted to burn a whole door, and he threw it on the fire, scattering sparks and making the fire spread and smother. When I told him he was being dangerous, he laughed at me. My brothers and I nervously sat him down and contained the fire ourselves. It would take me months to look back on that night and realize dad had had at least three drinks, and was playing with fire around children.

By the time I started to get suspicious, I realized my parents were showing all the red flags of addiction: denial, minimization, and defensiveness.

Lydia was living with them again, but only kind of. She slept on the floor in the girls’ bedroom for a month, so technically she didn’t have to pay $500 rent. Mom sometimes lamented that Lydia didn’t have a bed to sleep in, but Lydia knew she didn’t mean it. She lived there to be around the kids. I couldn’t take the way I felt suffocated there.

Lydia started counting drinks when she wasn’t busy with work. Dad said to her, “I’m not an alcoholic, I just have a couple of beers in the evening.” Whenever Lydia voiced criticism about the alcohol, dad took her outside and yelled at her – for the first time in her life, he swore at her regularly. My parents weren’t being themselves, and it was getting dangerous.

Dangerous, because if you can’t admit that you’ve had a few drinks, you can’t admit that you need to wait before driving, or stay away from fire. Responsible drinkers keep count and stay accountable. The house felt less and less safe.

The last day went something like this…

I come in the house on a Thursday.
Mom offers me wine.
I turn her down, saying I try not to drink more than once every two weeks.
She looks hurt and suspicious, like I’m putting myself above her.
She adds what would have been my serving to her half-drank glass.
I start counting mentally: that’s two glasses of wine altogether for her, and it’s 5 p.m.
I offer to help with dinner, we talk about work and how my therapy is going.
I give vague, slow answers to her questions.
I watch as she drinks half the glass again, and refills it.
It’s a clever way to lose count.
Meanwhile, dad is outside at the grill.
He’s finished a beer when mom brings him his wine.
When we sit down to eat, mom’s wine glass is full again, and dad is drinking from a non-transparent covered cup.
I wait for him to get up, then I taste his drink. It’s kombucha mixed with wine.
He can’t possibly be drinking for the taste.
It’s 9 p.m. now. They’re both still unfinished with their wine glasses when we do family prayers, bless and kiss the children, and send them to bed.
Dad asks Lydia and me if we want to play a game.
We say no.
Yes, I think you do, he counters.
We really don’t.
But we don’t even know what the game is, he says.
We say it’s obvious that he wants to play a drinking game, and we’re not interested.
He looks dejected and rather disbelieves that we’ve just said no to him.
Before I leave that night, I ask mom: “Do you drink every night?”
She laughs loudly. It’s pretentious and insulted.
“Of course we don’t!”
I turn to my 12-year-old sister and murmur in a lower tone: “Do they drink every night?”
She nods slightly so mom doesn’t see.
The next time I visit, they don’t serve alcoholic beverages.
It’s like they’re trying to prove without words that they don’t drink every night.
It’s too late.

It was early September when Grandma – my dad’s mom, Judy – messaged me to ask how I was doing. I opted for honesty, and told her everything. She used to be an alcoholic, and she’d been a sober AA member for as long as I could remember. She saw what her and her husband’s alcoholism did to her kids. Surely she’d understand that something needed to be done so my parents didn’t hurt her grandkids.

She called me, and I told her what was happening. She said it sounded like alcohol abuse that had gone on for nearly a year, but she conservatively chose not to call it addiction.

She also questioned the validity of my story, because I was only going off hearsay from my siblings and extrapolation. I wasn’t living there and I couldn’t watch my parents all the time, so I couldn’t be sure.

Grandma said she was worried about my parents, since their alcohol use indicated stress.

“But Grandma,” I asked, upset now, “What about the kids? Aren’t you worried about them, too?”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I think you and your sisters have turned out okay. I’m amazed at the resilience I’ve seen in you and your siblings.”

“So you’re more concerned about my parents than about the kids.”

“I’m concerned about my son, and as a parent I want to know why he’s so stressed.”

“Well Grandma, that’s not good enough for me. I’m concerned about my brothers and sisters who are stuck there, and it’s not safe. What am I supposed to do?”

This part of the conversation was well-practiced for her. “I’ve worked with recovering addicts for decades, and we always learn the serenity prayer, do you know it?”

“Yes, I know it. I don’t think it applies here, Grandma.”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

I burst into tears, and for the first time in my life, I vented my full anger at an elder in my family. Elders are to be respected, never contradicted. I broke protocol. “No, Grandma! I do not need you to tell me to answer this with prayer and acceptance! That is not what I need right now!”

She was quick to backpedal, rephrasing her words, trying to find some other practiced line that would please me. I realized that my dad had learned his habit of using all the right words from his mother.

Nobody was going to help me or listen. So I blogged about my parents being abusive. Grandma told me she felt like her heart was going to break, and I didn’t respond. If her heart could break and she could still treat my trapped siblings with indifference, I had no reason not to hurt her feelings.

The day before my dad released the podcast responding to my blog post “Melting Memory Masks”, I met with one of my brothers for lunch. He told me the alcohol was gone. Dad had thrown all of it out, saying that if it meant so much to Lydia and me, it wasn’t worth keeping. I asked why dad didn’t say that to me directly. My brother didn’t know.

Alcohol was the breaking point. It’s what made me realize that I had so few allies in my family, and that I needed to get away for myself. That’s what made 2014 different from all the years before it.

Wisdom Homeschooling and Child Abuse: Mahlah’s Story

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Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Mahlah” is a pseudonym.

I grew up in Alberta, Canada with a single mom and three siblings. We were low-income and we moved around a lot, from rural Alberta to cities like Calgary.

In highschool, my oldest sister experienced some bullying and so my mom decided to homeschool her. Since my mom worked full time, often two jobs, my sister was expected to keep on top of her studies by herself. In elementary school, my brother and I experienced some minor bullying as well. So my mother pulled us out and homeschooled us as well.

I was only in the first grade.

We were homeschooled through the group Wisdom Homeschooling, a faith-based group whose credentials are not recognized by Canadian Universities and whose credits are not convertible to standard provincial diplomas. Essentially, it sets you up to fail because you are not a holder of any recognized high school diploma when you are 18.

The majority of our school books came from US publishers such as Apologia Educational Ministries, which taught everything from how evolution is a lie to how great manifest destiny is. Often my mother had not ordered all the books we needed, so when I should have started grade 4 math, I started grade 6 instead.

Every year we would have a program facilitator from Wisdom Homeschooling come and do a review to see how we were making progress. It should have been clear that we did not have appropriate school books, that our mother was too absent to properly administer any supervision, and that on any given year myself or my siblings were not doing sufficient work that children in public education would be completing.

By the time I was a teenager I began realizing how dire the situation was.

My two older siblings technically did not graduate, even by Wisdom Homeschooling’s standards. I was very worried. I knew I wanted to go to university, but nothing I had done up until that point would be accepted by any university, except private Christian schools.

Except, I didn’t know that.

My program facilitator told me I could compile a “portfolio” of my work, essentially self-testing that I had completed and kept a record of, some of my art work, a list of books I’d read. Clearly that was a lie. Universities would not accept that.

I wanted to go to public school and finish highschool. I begged to go to public school. But my mother said no.

By 14 I was working full time. I spent more time working than completing my totally useless fundamental Christian studies. I used my money to help pay for groceries and save for university.

Again my facilitator was willfully ignorant of the fact that I was not doing nearly enough work on my school books.

At 16 I called him to ask more questions about university. The conversation took a turn when he asked me about my mother. He asked me if she had been drinking the last time that he had come for his scheduled visit. I said yes.

During that visit, my mother had an outburst at me. She yelled in front of the facilitator and it was extremely awkward. She always yelled at me when she had been drinking.

She had a problem. I wanted to get out so badly.

On the phone with the facilitator, I broke down crying. I told him everything. I told him about the drinking, I told him about the emotional abuse I had been enduring. And my fears for my education. I didn’t want to end up like her. Poor with 4 kids.

I basically asked him for his help. The facilitator told me he can’t confront her, because she will feel attacked and may feel that she should pull us out of homeschooling and put us into public school.

That was his biggest concern. 

That we stayed in homeschooling. 

That we didn’t tarnish the name of Wisdom Homeschooling. 

A year later I moved out. I took American SATs to use as entry into Mount Royal University in Calgary and the process was complicated and daunting.

Homeschooling ruined my life. Even today I am struggling to overcome social anxieties and awkwardness due to lack of socialization.

I have no math skills and I struggle to understand basic science.

When I wanted to join the military, they denied me because I didn’t have a high school diploma, even though I am a university student.

Somehow, I have managed to get control of my life. Today I am working for the government and I am about to graduate from university. I have not spoken to my mother in years.

I did not receive a real education. In the face of flagrant child abuse, I was ignored.

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Six

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Five

Part Six: Spring of Senior Year and the Scandal of 2006

It wasn’t far into the spring semester before the whole situation went nuclear.

The college rescinded Dr. Root’s contract for the upcoming school year. The contracts had already been issued—it was not simply that they decided not to renew. They issued him a contract, and then rescinded it. Farris claims this was in response to something Dr. Root said in class that upset a parent. What is more likely is that the parent’s complaint was the excuse Farris had been looking for to rid himself of this troublesome professor, this man who mocked his Dean of Student Life and who had no compunction about publicly, in class and in writing, disagreeing with his idiosyncratic, sola scriptura pedagogical views.

This action by the college confused and grieved many students. The grief and confusion turned into a movement, the SaveRoot! Movement, complete with a protest website, orange lapel ribbons, and flyer distributions. Root’s de facto firing succeeded in radicalizing a few students, kids who wouldn’t even sign the letter the semester before but were now going around campus wearing orange. We weren’t optimistic, but we were earnest. We all knew, or suspected, that Root would not go alone. We loved our professors and wanted them to stay. So we wore orange, built websites, handed out flyers, and did our best to make it extremely clear to the administration that we would support a change of course while there was still time.

Wednesday, March 15. The Ides of March. A group of us, students and alumni, were watching The National play at the Black Cat in DC, despondent, trying to absorb the news that five professors had resigned in protest over Dr. Root’s treatment by the administration. We’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it easier. Our fight was over, and we had lost. The band’s melancholy tunes seemed like a perfect reflection of our grief and anger.

I think this place is full of spies

I think they’re on to me

Didn’t anybody, didn’t anybody tell you

Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?

This time, the magic wasn’t working. There was no gracefully disappearing, no absorption into the anonymous crowd this night. I love The National, but I’ve never enjoyed a show less. I felt alone and homeless. Everything we had worked so hard for had just gone up in smoke, and I still had two months of school left to endure. I didn’t belong there anymore, but I didn’t belong here either. I was stuck between worlds. I didn’t want to leave the club and go back to school, but the realization loomed that the people rubbing shoulders with me would never understand my story.

I would spend the rest of my life with Patrick Henry College on my resume, my Facebook, my Google search history.

To everyone outside the school, I would be identified with PHC and what it had become. To everyone inside, I was already identified with the enemy without, with “the world.” Was there even a place in the world for us

The alumni were drinking heavily. I was just trying not to cry.

You were right about the end.

It didn’t make a difference.

Everything I can remember,

I remember wrong.

The administration did not respond well to the mass resignation. Farris was clearly outraged and caught off guard. He quickly instructed the professors not to discuss the matter with students or the press. Farris, however, did not hesitate to discuss his opinions of the debacle with anyone who would listen. In typical fashion, he said some rather inflammatory and unflattering things about the professors, especially implying that they were less than genuinely Christian and didn’t believe in the Statement of Faith, which all members of the campus community had to sign.

Not unreasonably, the professors decided to defend themselves against these insinuations.

Friday, March 31, 2006 is one of those “I’ll always remember where I was” days. During one of his afternoon classes, Dr. Robert Stacey read a printout of the Statement of Faith to his class. Dr. Stacey was a founding faculty member, the chairman of the Government Department, the creator of the college’s flagship Freedom’s Foundations courses, my thesis advisor, and my dear friend. He read the Statement of Faith to his class and proclaimed his enthusiastic agreement with it. He reminded the students that it was his job to teach them according to this statement, and that if any of them thought he had failed in to do this, they would be better off getting up and leaving his class, and that he would not hold it against them.

After a few minutes, one daft sophomore girl did get up and leave (I say “daft” because, when asked later why she did this, she never could give a clear explanation). A couple of Farris’ toadies found her wondering the hallway, dazed and confused. When they got the story out of her, they immediately ran upstairs and told Farris.

What really happened next depends on who you ask. I didn’t have classes on Fridays; I was at my apartment during this whole event. At some point in the aftermath, I started getting desperate messages from students on campus that Dr. Stacey was being fired. I put on something dress-code compliant and drove over to campus. I found a pod of anxious, tearful underclassmen gathered outside the front doors of the main building. No one could tell me much other than that Dr. Stacey had said something during class, and now he was up in Farris’ office. I stuck my head in the building. It was mostly empty, as it usually was on Friday afternoons. No professors were in their offices. The two toadies were gliding around, looking smug and triumphant, but they would not deign to talk to me. The daft girl was sitting in the dining hall, crying.

I left; I needed to get back to my computer communicate with alumni and other off-campus students. At some point that evening, witnesses later told me, Farris came down to the dining hall and gave a red-faced rant in which he accused Dr. Stacey of “unprofessional conduct” and “forcing the students to choose sides.” Farris had given him the weekend to apologize or be fired. In reality, Dr. Stacey’s phone and email had been cut off by the time he got back to his office that afternoon. There was never actually any choice. A few of us students helped him pack up his office the next day.

Once again, this action by the administration only helped radicalize a few more students.

Dr. Stacey was beloved by the student body in a way Farris could never hope to be. It was abundantly clear to most observers that Dr. Stacey’s real crime had been embarrassing Mike Farris and little else; certainly, Farris’ behavior on that day could hardly be described as “professional” in any meaningful sense.

It is hard to overemphasize the severity of the emotional toll the professors’ resignations and, especially, Dr. Stacey’s firing inflicted on the students. The mood was funereal. We tried to keep up a sort of rueful sense of humor about the whole thing—at one point, we held a “wake” party commemorating the “death” of PHC as we knew it—but underlying the cynicism was a deep and sincere sorrow. This was not how we wanted things to turn out! We were not trying to ruin the school, we had been trying to save it! There were a lot of tears in the weeks following. I broke down anytime I had a chance to breathe and think—in the car, in the shower, at church.

The rest of the semester went by in a fury. Despite the fact that the real battle was over, there was plenty of fallout to manage, and keeping busy helped stave off the depression. The scandal hit the news and suddenly reporters everywhere wanted to talk to us, bloggers wanted to write about us, and alumni wanted to know what was happening as it happened. Managing the reporters was especially sticky. The college had always been happy to show off to reporters, but now they were having trouble controlling the message. The departing professors had been threatened not to speak out, but they refused to comply once Farris started maligning them in the press. The students didn’t have to be told not to speak without permission—the level of fear at this point was intense enough to keep most people in line. By the end of the semester, though, I felt like I didn’t have much left to lose. I chatted with my alumnus boyfriend about it a couple weeks before graduation:

boyfriend: Are you sure you want to talk to this reporter while you are in school?

me: if the professors are willing to talk, I am willing to talk

boyfriend: Don’t you fear reprisal before graduation?

me: yeah, a little

I mostly don’t care anymore

there’s really not much left they can do to me, or take from me

they can’t stop me from graduating because I talked to a reporter

In reality, they probably could have, but I called their bluff and they didn’t.

In the midst of all this, the Student Life drama continued apace. One day Dean Wilson stumped for the establishment candidate for Student Body President in chapel. The Student Senate (I was also a Senator) debated revising the election rules to prohibit this sort of interference in the future. Another day, they rescinded the rule allowing people to live off campus for the following school year, unless they already had leases. We scrambled to help friends get leases signed that day. It became a full-time job. “Every few hours or so there is more bad news,” I wrote in an email to a friend.

Meanwhile, I was also desperately trying to finish my last bit of coursework so I could walk across the stage and never look back.

I had a job to go to and post-graduation plans to line up. The pressure became unbearable at times. There was just no outlet for it. I began to entertain the thought, on my way to church or the grocery store, that I could just keep driving and never come back. Some days I would get as far as the Shenandoah River before collecting myself enough to go back home. I wasn’t the only one.

Email to a friend, May 10, 2006

[Name redacted] snapped the other day and just ran away.  Literally, just threw her stuff on the ground and ran the fuck away.  They found her, she didn’t go too far and it was in the middle of the day and people saw her, but it is frightening because we all have that impulse from time to time, but are rational enough to stop ourselves.  I wish I could run away though.

Towards the very end of the semester, I packed a cooler full of snacks and a bag full of books, drove out of town a ways, and rented a room at a cheap motel, with no internet access. I gave my boyfriend the room’s telephone number, but no one else knew where I was. I prayed no one would recognize my car from the road. I spent four days in that room, writing my thesis and trying to sleep. (I wasn’t sleeping much anymore; even when I got the chance, I was plagued with nightmares and woke up terrified and exhausted.) This was the closest I came to running away.

I returned to find the senior class up in arms. I had been elected one of two senior class representatives, so this was my problem, too. Some graduating seniors had invited Dr. Stacey to come watch them graduate, but he told them he’d been banned from campus.

The seniors wanted the administration to make an exception, for a few hours, so he could attend graduation. The other senior class representative and I were supposed to have a conference call with Farris about it. The other representative set it up, but we were both on the phone when Farris’ assistant answered it. She asked us to wait, then came back with the news that Farris would only speak to the other representative, not to me. My friend told her that this was not a personal request, but a request on behalf of the whole senior class. Therefore, both of the senior class representatives should be present on the call. The assistant asked us to wait again, then returned with the news that Farris was out of town. We would have to reschedule.

Ten minutes after this phone call, witnesses on campus saw Farris leave the main building, get in his SUV, and drive away. He wasn’t out of town; he just didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, so he lied about it.

The seniors wrote a letter to Farris with our request. It was signed by most of the graduating class. Not surprisingly, our request was denied. The administration wanted to avoid “incidents” and, apparently, a majority of seniors was insufficient. Since we seniors didn’t have unanimity on the issue, the college said approving our request wouldn’t be fair to those few who chose not to sign the letter.

Like Stacey’s firing, this bungled response only radicalized a few more people.

The seniors were also forced to cancel the annual Professor Appreciation dinner. The faculty and the student body were so firmly split between those loyal to the departing professors and those loyal to Farris and the administration, it would have been impossible to get everyone in the same room together and have any semblance of a good time. The mutual distaste was too strong.

The week before graduation was as close to rock-bottom as I’ve ever been. I wrote to an alumnus friend three days before graduation:

Today has just been hell.  Every day there is more.  Will we be living with the pain of all this for forever

They’ve told us we are not allowed to have any senior pranks.  Which I guess is just as well, I have work to do and couldn’t really afford the time.  But I say, no senior pranks – no senior gifts.  Screw them for taking the last bit of joy out of our miserable lives here.

The profs are drafting a response to Farris’ [most recent] accusation.  I am worried they will all boycott graduation… and I don’t think I can go through with it if they are not there… I am so weary of this.

From a chat with another alumnus friend, in response to some event—probably the publication of a media piece making the college look bad:

this is good – it proves all those bastards wrong who say we’re just a bunch of selfish whiners out for revenge

they do not even realize

revenge would not feel good right now

it is not even remotely what I want

what I want is everything they have taken from me

what I want is a college experience as it should have been

what I want is better health and not a life of pain

because we are “winning” now, and if this is all we wanted, we should be happy

but I’ve never been more depressed in my life

I don’t want this to come across as if the only things we were upset about were missing out on “senior pranks” and the typical “college experience.” You have to remember that the reason we were all at this college to begin with was so much more than this. If all we wanted was to party and have fun, we would have gone to a different school!

We believed in the mission and vision of the school as it had been sold to us, not as it turned out in reality. 

We had spent four or more years fighting tooth and nail to preserve and fulfill that mission. We believed in high-quality, Christian liberal arts education. We wanted to be leaders and world-changers. We were proud of the education we had received, and we loved the professors who had given it to us. We fought against the fundamentalists not because we hated their “rules,” but because their way of life was cannibalizing what was actually good about PHC. We had invested ourselves, our names, our reputations, our youth, our money in this fledgling project because we believed in it! Now our investment was being flushed away before our eyes, and the people destroying it were blaming the destruction on us. Is it any wonder we were left grieving and angry?

Graduation was the worst day of my entire life.

The departing professors did boycott. My extended family came to town for it, mostly oblivious to what was happening. I was miserable, and trying to put on a happy face for them just took more physical and emotional strength than I had left. Graduation morning, I forced myself to go through the motions and got myself to campus on time with a graduation gown on.

The lawn where the ceremony was being held was surrounded by people in uniform. Every campus security guard not graduating was on duty and lined up in a circle around the folding chairs and stage. Several Purcellville police cars lined the entrance to the campus.

This had never happened at a graduation before.

It occurred to me that they might really be scared of us! Rumors of “protests” and “incidents” had been circulating on campus, but “we” had not started them—we assumed “they” were fomenting the rumors to discredit “us.” The show of force was completely absurd; of course, no one had anything planned. Or at least, nothing requiring police and security. A growing, and by now significant, group of graduates didn’t feel like we could bring ourselves to shake hands with Farris. We had mused on what would happen if we chose not to do so. Alphabetically, I was the first of this group and the informal understanding was that if I didn’t shake his hand, the rest wouldn’t either. I went into the ceremony resigned to do it anyway. It was a motion I could go through like all the others. Just get it over with.

Then Farris threw a bomb. He was scheduled to speak last, after the diplomas had been conferred. But just before the diplomas, he hastily got up and started to speak. It was an intentionally inflammatory speech—a final dig at the professors, a parting shot, getting the last word in.

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was shaking with rage and I couldn’t breath. What was the point of this? They weren’t even here—and I was glad they weren’t! I looked over my shoulder at some of my compatriots. They gaped back, wide-eyed in disbelief. Even some of those not “on our side” were sighing and looking grim. It was an embarrassingly petty act. He’s doing this because he has a captive audience, I thought. He went early because he knows we can’t leave if we haven’t gotten our diplomas yet! One last, final confirmation that it wasn’t about us students at all—it never was—it was only about him, his beliefs, his vision, his agenda, his petty scorekeeping.

In the back of the audience, the local Presbyterian pastor got up and walked out.

Farris finished, and the graduates stood to line up for our diplomas. I was shaking and dizzy. Do I shake his hand? Now, after this? I could barely walk in a straight line. At some point before I reached the stage, through my anger, I reasoned with myself that I had to be the bigger person. I could not react to petty with petty. I could not put that burden on the shoulders of those who walked behind me, even though I know they would have carried it.

Or maybe I’m just a coward. But I shook his hand.

Behind me, unprompted by anything but Farris’ behavior and his own conscience, a friendly, non-rebellious student with an unimpeachable reputation shook Farris’ hand too, looked him in the eye, and said —

“Thanks for ruining what should have been the best day of my life.”

In retrospect, I think this was the most fitting response.

I left as quickly as I could, dragging my gown behind me. My boyfriend pointed out that it was dragging the ground and I said I didn’t care —

I wished I could run over it with my car.

Part Seven >

The Difficulty with Admitting Trauma: Kandice’s Story

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to a pseudonym at the request of the author.

My name is Kandice, and I grew up being homeschooled.

My parents were and are members of HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association) but in our part of Massachusetts, there weren’t too many other homeschoolers.

My seven siblings and I were all home-schooled together; initially started using a mix of curriculum including Christian Liberty, but my parents quickly switched over to Pensacola Christian College’s (PCC) ABeka Book program. I was homeschooled from 2nd grade through 12th.

My siblings and I were raised with very clearly defined social, political, and religious ideology. Strict Calvinism, coupled with the dogma of Independent Fundamental Reformed Baptist theology was the religious perspective; politically, my father is rabidly conservative – huge fan of the NRA, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh etc. Socially, we were taught children to follow Biblical principles as my parents saw them.

We were taught the world is full of sin, and you can’t trust anyone other than fellow Christians as all others are under Satan’s sway.

Curiously enough, unlike many in Fundamental circles, my parents are not racist at all. In fact, they harbor great frustration and confusion over racism – we were taught all people are created in the image of god and therefore physical differences don’t matter; my parents explained differences in appearance and language are stemming from the tower of Babel (Genesis Ch. 11).

I have a B.A., which I got from Bob Jones University, which is private and religious.

I was raised by educated parents who valued learning highly – my mother has a B.A. in English and my father has both a B.A., and his M.Div. My father was a minister at an Independent Fundamental Reformed Baptist church – although his religious views didn’t start out there, they progressed to that point. In my early childhood we were traditional ABC Baptists, but after my father got his own church, things began to change.

My political beliefs changed before high school, largely because I knew I was gay, and then continued transforming.

My dad is an extremely conservative Republican and we were raised with that ideology. My biggest passion in life has been reading, I can’t remember not loving words, and this drove change for me. I started reading literature that changed how I saw things – several authors were powerful in this for me: John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, Thomas Hardy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

By the time I entered high school I already disagreed with my family/father on social justice and equality matters – reading literature made me explore history and social science which really helped to broaden my view.

I knew I was gay from a young age, and in college, in my Ethics class, we were taught “facts” about homosexuality that didn’t connect at all with my experience. Such things as, people become gay through being recruited, usually at a bar (I’d never been to a bar and as far as I knew, I’d never met a gay person); or that Jesus and the Bible condemned homosexuality – well, I read everything Jesus said and he did not ever speak out against the LGBT community; the OT references to Sodom and Gomorrah are referencing the sin of lack of hospitality, not being gay. So in college, my political beliefs opened up still further to be able to fully accept myself as gay, and to be able to say that all people, regardless of religion/gender/orientation etc. should have the same rights and freedoms.

My religious beliefs went through transition as I grew older.

I stopped believing in any way that Jesus was more than a man – he existed, but he is not god or any deity. My view of god changed – I don’t have a definition for the power that some of us use the word god to describe. That power exists, and that power is more than me, but beyond that, I don’t have definitions or rules about religion. I learned to see people in light of who they were and what they do, rather than what the claim to believe – beliefs are only as significant as we let them be, and they’re so tied in to our perceptions of reality that they are often wildly flawed. And contrary to what I was raised with, I don’t think it’s my job or duty to try to “convert” anyone. I think my responsibility today is to live the most spiritual life I can, following the path I’m on, and do my utmost to not cause harm but to be of service to others.

These changes occurred because I was reading, and learning. I took what I read and compared it to what I experienced and saw in the world around me and it didn’t align. Teaching I had been taught in the Bible didn’t match up to my experience, or what I experienced from people who were deemed “sinners” or “apostate” or “lost”. And in fact, what some Christians did to me, and others, was distinctly un-Christlike; there was no logic in saying that their behavior was acceptable because they called themselves Christians, while the person who doesn’t believe in god but does amazing good is going to hell.

I would have to say homeschooling was a traumatic experience for me.

I don’t like admitting that. Because admitting trauma means addressing it beyond the bleak recitation of the facts of what occurred. Diving into how it makes me feel, or affects me, is challenging.  I think that unless homeschooling is done in conjunction with an outside schooling process, it leads to isolation, control issues, lack of contact with reality, social discomfort, low self-esteem and self-confidence, poor communication skills, and significant challenges building healthy relationships.

Homeschooling did have some lasting psychological effects on me. While this is not as powerful as it has been in the past, the scars still remain. My journey involved alcohol use that became alcoholism… that was one of the ways I coped with what I was experiencing/had experienced. I also suffered from severe depression and anxiety, leading to suicidal ideation, and this started around age 11. In college I actually attempted suicide because I just had no coping mechanism, and I didn’t know enough to know there were supports available.

Additionally as an adult, I learned that a lot of the behaviors I had as a kid that my parents labelled as “sin” and tried to punish/discipline out of me, were actually tied in to having Asperger’s and having an IQ/mind that naturally asks questions, and that needs to be challenged. It was actually hard to learn that because it hit me really hard to realize that I had spent so many years and so much time trying to change something that was neurobiologically programmed and that couldn’t be changed. Also, it didn’t need to change – it wasn’t wrong.

But the concept of Autistic persons as being sinful is very prevalent in the community I come from.

My father has repeatedly told me he would do the same thing over again, and that it’s [the way I process things] sin, not the way my brain functions.

Guilt over leaving my younger siblings behind to go to college and then leaving them again when I came out as LGBT is something I’m working through. It’s not as bad as it was, by far, because my siblings hold no animosity towards me. I just felt very responsible for them because as their older sister, I always had been responsible for them. And in big families in these environments, you sometimes feel more like a protector or caretaker than a sibling and that changes things.

Had I been in a public school setting, these experiences would have been very different.

I know this for sure since I was in public school for kindergarten and 1st grade – and in 1st grade, when teachers and administrators began to have concerns over what they saw in me, as well as my siblings, my parents shut the door on the world and began homeschooling. Getting diagnosed at a younger age, having supports in place, learning healthy coping mechanisms – yes I definitely believe this would have made a difference. I can truly say I like myself today, though, so I don’t know that I would want to not experience what I experienced because I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t gone through that.

In conclusion, homeschooling was a mixed bag for me, very much so.

I enjoyed not being held back or slowed down by anyone else, I enjoyed having no homework, and I felt comfortable (translate – safe/understood) being around my siblings. I’ve been told, as an adult by a psychologist who had done a series of IQ tests on me, that homeschooling was actually a very good thing for me in terms of my intellectual development. So I’m grateful for being homeschooled in the sense that it allowed me to really develop my mind.

Emotionally, socially, psychologically, spiritually – homeschooling was extraordinarily damaging. Not knowing how to interact with anyone comfortably that wasn’t from my family, being raised to not trust other people, not having healthy psychological supports in place or anyone in place who could say, “Wait. This is not ok” – that wasn’t good at all. Being able to learn to reach out to people for help has taken years.  And it’s also taken a lot of work. It’s still not easy. Knowing that’s it is ok to feel something other than gratitude for being one of god’s elect was another learning process; the reality that feelings of sorrow, anger, depression, grief, loneliness – these are ok, also they’re normal and they are not sin was definitely not something I was raised with. Most emotions and thoughts were deemed sinful; learning how to first say “sin is man-made, in fact it’s not real” and then say “feelings are feelings, not good or bad unless I want to assign them so”, that also took many years.

If I were a parent, I would not home school my child.

I think we exist as part of a community, a whole, and that community is so much more than a family or small homogenous group.

I think removing the opportunity for children to learn, from a young age, about differences is unacceptable. It stunts growth emotionally, mentally, and socially. I think raising children in rigid, rule-oriented, controlling and judgmental environments is harmful. Not knowing who you are, not being able to develop your own views through experiences and feelings, is not healthy and it leads to damaging behavior and unhealthy practices in adulthood.

I’m not angry or resentful that I was homeschooled; as I mentioned above I like myself and this is a part of who I am. But I can’t in good conscience recommend or advocate for homeschooling.

Picking Up the Pieces, But Not in Twelve Steps: By The Prodigal Son’s Brother

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Picking Up the Pieces, But Not in Twelve Steps: By The Prodigal Son’s Brother

HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “The Prodigal Son’s Brother” is a pseudonym.

Today, I was denied treatment by a mental health facility.

I set the appointment up through a crisis hotline a month ago, and thinking I was finally going to get help was the glimmer of light on the horizon … and I was denied treatment.

They recognized that I had severe depression. They recognized that I was suicidal. They recognized how much my background in the Homeschool movement has contributed to my issues. They recognized that I am in a new city where I don’t have much of a support network.

But still they denied me therapy, because they said a prerequisite was for me to complete their 12-step-based alcoholism program.

Now, the assessor knew, because I told her, that I have used drinking as a crutch in the past. She also knew that I have been sober for two weeks, through sheer willpower. But before they would even let me talk to a therapist, I had to complete a program, and the one they offered was 12-steps-based. I voiced my opposition to the 12 Steps on religious grounds – the AA 12 steps are incredibly religious – and she denied they were religious. “Atheists use it all the time,” she claimed.

How, I wonder?

Here are the twelve steps, according to Wikipedia:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

How do you “make a decision to turn your will and your life over to God” if you don’t believe in god?

How do you “humbly ask” something you don’t believe in to remove your shortcomings?

How do you seek through “prayer and meditation” to something you don’t recognize?

But deeper than the simple religious differences is something much darker. Step one: “We admitted we were powerless…”. Steps five, six, and seven involve “the nature of our wrongs”, the removal of “defects of character”, and “remov[ing] our shortcomings”. For an alcoholic who has been damaging other people with his or her lifestyle, these might make sense. But a prerequisite for therapy for someone who is already dealing with shame?

How exactly can I work with a counselor or therapist to feel my own worth when I’ve just come from a program in which I’m constantly expected to assert my own shortcomings?

Because, as I mentioned, I set this appointment up a month ago. I have been hanging by a thread, but I am alive.

As Penn Jilette said in the Bullshit episode about AA,

What about people who say, ‘But AA works. I’ve got a brother … who was saved through AA.’ Well great, but give your friend some credit: he made the choice to quit when he picked up the phone, and it worked because he wanted it to work, and he made it work. He wasn’t powerless, he was powerful.

And that’s the point that the “mental health” facility didn’t seem to grasp. I cannot enroll in a program that starts off with an honest admission of powerlessness, because my willpower is the thing that has kept me alive for the past month. Even the willpower to ask for help in the first place.

Right now I feel very empty due to the loss of a hope I was holding on to. I am picking up the pieces and determining where to go from here, but the notion of taking my life has not suddenly increased. If anything, I am more determined than ever to live, and I hope I will find the help I need.

Because I am not powerless.

I am powerful.

And so are you.

Making My Own Way: Matthew’s Story, Part Two

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Matthew” is a pseudonym.

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In this series: Part One | Part Two

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High School Years

My first year in high school was wonderful for me. Finally, I was out of the house! I made friends and felt like I could finally breathe. I won’t go into great detail about my high school experience, since that isn’t the point of this story. However, I will point out a few things that I noticed over those four years:

• I discovered that I had a real problem with social anxiety. I’m not sure if this is hereditary or caused by my childhood. After reading some of the stories on this site, I’m thinking that it was a little of both.

• I was plagued by feelings of inadequacy. I thought I was not good enough, smart enough, athletic enough, witty enough… none of it. I did come to the realization that there are things that I’m good at, but it took years. In high school, I wound up trying everything since I had no idea where I fit in – I’d never had other kids around for me to gauge my own ability.

• I was plagued by guilt. Even if I hadn’t done anything wrong, I was often overcome by guilt over my (imagined and real) transgressions. This tied a lot into the messages we were receiving at church, which at this point were downright toxic.

• I had little-to-no self-confidence. As a homeschooler, you become so used to your parents’ authority, that you don’t really know how to make your own decisions, or when you do, you constantly second guess yourself.

So while getting out of the house was a welcome relief, I still felt like I was trying to overcome my upbringing.

At Home – Part 2

While I was off enjoying my high school experience, the “shit was hitting the fan” at home… oh, and how! My oldest younger sister had started hanging out with this girl she met at the homeschooling coop, and they decided they weren’t going to let being at home slow them down. I noticed one night that my sister and this girl, who was sleeping over, were acting really strange and goofy. Turns out, they were drunk! But how did they get the alcohol? After all, my parents didn’t drink. I later learned that my 12-year-old, shy-as-can-be sister stole it from a convenience store!

For my little sister, this would kick off what would become a six year blur of cigarettes, alcohol, promiscuous sex, drugs, and whatever else. To this day, I am convinced that the combination of home schooling and extreme Christian Fundamentalism destroyed her confidence. I remember her telling me, at 11, that she had given up and could never live up to the standard — I really think that she cracked under the pressure of that atmosphere.

She got pregnant at 17, got married, moved out, and hasn’t had issues with drugs or alcohol since. She and her husband now have 5 kids, all of whom are in public school, and her oldest daughter (13) is an exemplary student. All of her kids appear to be doing well.

Because of my sister’s meltdowns, I ended up getting away with a lot that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. So in a roundabout way, I owe her a “thanks” for taking the pressure off me and humbling our parents. I did take advantage of her recklessness and flew under the radar as I started drinking at 15.

College

The drinking continued on into college. I could never shake the idea that I wasn’t good enough and that I was in a perpetual state of sin, so the alcohol helped me to ease the anxiety and mentally “check out” for long periods of time.

Then I’d get sober, feel horrible, and go cry to my Christian friends about how I was going to hell. My secular friends would shake their heads and wonder why I was so conflicted. This pattern continued until I got sober at about 26 years old.

Other things happened in college as well. My drinking habits combined with my lack of any sort of sex education made me a sitting duck when it came to STDs and unexpected pregnancy.

But despite all that, I managed to graduate.

Adulthood

Today, I don’t harbor any resentment over my upbringing, as I realize it could have been a whole lot worse! There were actually several good things that came out of it:

• Since much of my learning was from reading books and not in the classrooms, I’m very good at figuring things out on my own. This has been a very beneficial skill to have as an IT specialist.

• I don’t mind being alone. This is something I’m starting to see as a blessing. During my four year marriage (yes… I’m divorced) I was miserable most of the time. I always had to come home to a spouse who was either angry with me or trying to drag me to some function that I didn’t really feel like attending. Once I realized that marriage is not for me, I’ve been able to enjoy being a single dad, making my own way. Since as a kid, I often went out and about to do things on my own, it isn’t really much of an adjustment to do things and go places on my own today. I don’t need a large social circle.

• I’ve seen the damage that religious extremism causes and I can spot the warning signs a mile away. While I still attend church, it’s a seeker-sensitive, theology-lite congregation that just loves everyone. I take my kids on the weekends when I have them, but I don’t preach at them. Their faith is between them and God. I expect them to make mistakes and refuse to hold them to a higher standard than the one I hold for myself. I have no idea if God is real or if the Bible is completely true. If he is and his word is true, then I’m sure he’ll get my attention one way or another. But after years of unanswered prayers, a failed marriage, kids from multiple relationships, and alcoholism, I find it hard to believe that he is actively involved in our lives.

• I witnessed first-hand the despair and hopelessness of many disillusioned homeschooling parents. These are people who, by and large, poured their hearts and souls into raising Godly men and women. Seeing this convinced me that it’s best to adopt a “live and let live” parenting model and to love your children unconditionally! Even if my son winds up marching in the local gay pride parade with his boyfriend and my daughter ends up working overtime at the Diamond Club, I will still love them and welcome them in my home with open arms. Life is too short for fallouts over lifestyle choices.

Summary

Homeschooling was really just one piece of the whole dysfunctional puzzle. I’m sure that if other factors had been different, but I was still homeschooled, I might feel differently about it than I do now. That said, it is very encouraging to read accounts from other homeschoolers to confirm that many of my experiences are shared by others.

End of series.