I Shall Not Live in Vain: Jael’s Story

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Jael” is a pseudonym. Jael blogs at To Not Live in Vain. This piece originally ran on January 15, 2014.

I began home-schooling after a summer of fraught efforts, on my mother’s part, to find me a pre-kindergarten class. Later, she said she took me to forty different schools trying to determine which program would suit me best; I only remember attending two, for no more than a few weeks at each. My experiences were uncomfortable, which led my mother and father to decide that homeschooling was the best option.

My mother home-schooled me from kindergarten until seventh grade. I had some good friends that I saw at a maximum of once or twice a week, and we did some cooperative schooling with parents providing science and language classes as a group. We drifted from charter school to homeschool group, never staying one place more than a few years.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but I realize now, looking back, that these moves were probably caused by my mother’s unaddressed psychiatric issues. 

I got a first-hand look at these issues when I was about eleven. It was the year that I got my first period, in an awkward stage between adolescence and childhood. My mother started experiencing psychiatric symptoms with increasing severity – I won’t go into detail, but she made me actively fear that our family was in mortal danger for a period of several months. My father was emotionally and physically absent, working all the time, and left me entirely in her custody. My mother made sure that I had no support during this time; she separated me from all my social groups because she believed they were haunted by people who wished to harm us. She separated me from my best friend because her mother told my mother (not incorrectly, in retrospect) that my mother was acting crazy

It got to the point where one day she demanded we pack up a suitcase immediately, and we drove for hours aimlessly, going from one cultish bookstore to another, while my mother wept and my grandmother (who my grandfather had convinced to join us for this expedition, presumably to make sure my mother didn’t kill us) sat stony-faced in the front seat.

My mother threatened alternately to kill us by crashing, then to merely leave the state.

She believed our family was being persecuted, and told me so in many ways for many months, treating me as her only confidante (during the times that my father was not around, at least). When my grandparents found out what was happening, they told me that my mother was sick and not to believe her. We lived for them for a month, while they watched over their borderline daughter.

It took me a long time to finally understand that the things that my mother had predicted had not come to pass, and would not come to pass. And it made me angry, because it was difficult to understand, particularly in a family where mental illness (or sexuality, or anything really important) was never discussed. My mother was my only source of information and learning, and when paranoia struck her, and I began to identify that her fears were unrealistic, I felt betrayed. My anger bred, with periodic fights with my mother, where she ignored my legitimate needs and feelings, instead always refocusing any argument on herself. Eventually, we had a fight that had epic consequences.

I have no idea how it started, but I do remember how it ended:

“Do you want to go to public school?” she threatened me. 

I snarled back, “Yes, maybe I do.” 

She deflated, glaring at me like a wounded tiger who was giving up a fight. “Fine,” she said, and that was that. She took it as a personal slight to her ego, that I might want to be educated elsewhere. She told me I would regret it. At that point, making me go to school was the only weapon she had left that could harm me. I no longer loved her, so she could not emotionally manipulate me in the same old ways anymore.

I was really scared, to enter public school, since it had been painted in such a negative light. Entering public school was a culture shock, but at least it was better than being at home, most of the time. Classes were somewhat miserable, with math and chemistry being the worst, but at least I had music to get me through middle school and high school. I found comfort in the two public school teachers who best supported the conservative, Christian perspective I had from my home-schooling years, teachers who prayed before tests and encouraged me to keep strong despite my travails, encouraging me to look towards college when I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents. Reminding me that at least I had parents.

I confided in these teachers about what happened in my family. I did the same with other authority figures that I began to trust. But I never was referred to counseling, a school social worker, or any other services. I know that if I had, at least I would have had that extra support, someone to help me understand that what happened was not related to me, and to help me cope with the realities I experienced every day.

Every time I began to trust an authority figure, I would cry and cry, and tell them what had happened.

This happened at least four times at three separate summer camps, one of which was connected to my school. These summer camp counselors did not know what to do. My teachers did not know what to do. I think I must have been asked once or twice whether or not I wanted a referral to services, and I would insist, no, I didn’t want services.

But I reached out, and reached out, and reached out, over and over and over again, in so much psychic pain. My mother was psychologically and sometimes physically abusive to me when I went home, threatening me with calling the police for talking back at her, threatening me with a knife if I was angry, threatening to take away my lifeline (the internet) constantly, and threatening to kill herself basically every chance she got. So I would retreat and hide in my room, where I would IM friends on the neighbor’s WIFI connection (thank you so much it basically saved my life) and write gothic stories about self-harming girls and roleplay.

I confided in friends about what had happened. One or two offered me books, and I refused them, scared that if my mother would see that I was reading these books, that I would be punished. I appreciated the confidence of these friends, though at the same time my mother tried to dissuade me from pursuing practically any relationship, criticizing any friend that she met that I seemed to be growing fond of.

People assumed that because I was smart, that I was doing okay, and that my issues were normal teenager stuff. Also, I was not very good at advocating for myself – still am not, by the way – and I didn’t know how to articulate the severity of the issues I was facing. At this point, I’m finishing up a graduate degree at an Ivy-league institution. I don’t want to write more than that for fear that either my mother or someone else will find this and identify me and put me in a compromising position. Even today, people presume based on my appearance – white, middle-class, female – that I was raised by a happy family. It pains me because it’s definitely not my experience.

I have lasting psychological issues that impact my life even now as a young adult in my 20s. I have PTSD, paranoid ideation, suicidal ideation, and depression despite the fact that I am no longer in contact with either of my parents.

It was not so much homeschooling that traumatized me as much as my mother’s mental illness. This was hidden by homeschooling, and the pain that damaged me came from the constant exposure to her psychiatric illness.

I feel like someone roasted me over a fire, leaving me with burns to rest the remainder of my life, and I didn’t even know at the time what fire was.

My early education was a shield that kept everyone from seeing who was doing the roasting, and of what. My father and my grandparents did not advocate to separate me from my mother, instead telling me to suck it up until I went to college.

That was the constant refrain. Wait until you’re in college. Everything will be better then.

Well, the short story is that no, it wasn’t better when I got to college, because I went to college in my home state, a quick drive from my hometown. It’s not been better until I cut off all ties from my family.

I should not have had to be in this position, as a child growing up. I had many, many adult mentors in my life – and none of them helped intervene with my family. It has become my purpose in life to help prevent my story from ever happening again – or at least, if I can stop a few more hearts from breaking, I shall not live in vain.

Homeschooling, Culture Shock, and Me

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Lana Hope’s blog Wide Open Ground. It was originally published on February 26, 2014.

This is a good week. My university is on spring break, and this means I don’t have to be around people (other than the family I obviously live with).  I can play in the snow, cycle, study, write, submit conference papers, clean house, and relax.

My western social skills were set back after not socializing with westerners for three years.

In SE Asia I had friends, but there was no pressure to make friends with my peers. In fact, peer-socialization was almost unheard of. If a teacher at my language school had a birthday, everyone was invited, regardless of race or age.

This had two positive implications for me. First, I did not have to work at making friends. It just fell into place. Secondly, I felt more safe. I never had to fear that so-in-so was a teacher, and therefore, I could not invite her over for dinner, and I never had anxiety asking people for favors. There was no public-private divide. I did not have to hide. Thirdly, I was not viewed as a freak for having friends significantly older than me.

I find Canada extremely lonely and frightening at the same time.

Some days I nearly have panic attacks before one of our seminars because I find the clique frightening. As even the grad school newsletter pointed out, no one is less than 20 or over 40; mostly people are in their 20s.  Everyone comes from a vastly different background than me, except that I’m expected to put the past behind as soon as I walk in the room (just to get the idea of how I might not feel like I’m in their boat: before last year, I was parenting teenagers). And then there’s the lonely part. Despite being apart of the community, we are all fiercely independent, myself included. Sure, we ask each other for rides home sometime, but every time we do, it’s considered an inconvenience, or doing a friend a favor. In Asia, it was considered a blessing to help each other, and no big deal. Everytime I’m waiting for a bus, and someone passes me up, I piece of my heart still feels rejected, because in Asia, we pick people we know up rather than shove it off on strangers.

Lana Hobbs, from Lana Hobbs the Brave, and I talk about this on twitter sometimes because we both suffering anxiety from large groups and even simple things like traffic. I don’t know what to do about it because I never had this problem in SE Asia. But I can’t deny it. Even the traffic gives me anxiety.

Part of it is the west produces pressure to perform publicly. Lana Hobbs and I were both homeschooled. In homeschooling, there is a ton of pressures, such as looking good, cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and making the parents look good, some more.  But in the work world, or the university world, the performance goes beyond the family or community. We have to produce a lot of papers, work constantly, and blend in a crowd – a crowd of people who are a sea of strangers. This is the world where we have to smile and pretend like we fit in, when we don’t.

It’s hard to describe to people what it’s like to be a foreigner in our own land. The best way to describe it is to think of traditions and customs of another culture.  In our tribal community in SE Asia, picking one’s nose is not considered rude. Now I’m in Canada. I’m a freaky, rude moron if I pick my nose.

Honestly that culture shock I felt coming to Canada is just a fraction of the culture shock I feel after having left my homeschool community. Sure as a kid I still ate with a fork and used toilet paper, unlike the tribal community in SE Asia; however, there was still so many mannerism from my past that are equally shocking, or different, to those in mainstream North American culture. This is why I am frightened in public.

What is frustrating is that when I blog about these things, inevitably people come by and say everyone feels different, and everyone is a freak in their own way. I think they miss the point for two reasons. First, I’ve never denied other people’s stories. For example, I’ve long acknowledged that LGBT people have been bullied, excluded, and treated as if there is something wrong with them. As a result, some may feel as if they are an outsider because they aren’t the “default” “straight.”  My story does not discredit someone else’s story. We just have different stories.

Secondly, people seem to forget that there is a trend among those who were homeschooled. Darcy wrote about how we homeschoolers even have our own historical events. So I don’t think we can say this is just personality that makes me an outsider.

I’m not always an outsider. I’m an outsider when I’m inside mainstream culture.

Thirdly, this is just a challenge; first, for homeschool parents to rethink some of this, and secondly, for people to rethink how they treat others. People do treat me different, and I never know what to do. Do I try to hide my pain and pretend like I am just like everyone else, or do I explain that I was homeschooled in a religious home? Most people don’t care to listen to my story since they have their own stories, sometimes worse than mine (understandable), but by not telling people, I’m also put in the position of hiding, and that’s not fun either.

I’m lonely and frightened, but I have no one to talk to about it. If public schoolers are so certain that they are lonely, weird, different, or an outsider, they need to start speaking up, not hiding and pretending like there is one sweeping narrative that we all need to conform to.

I’ve said this before. Despite how much I hate the discrimination and pride in the homeschool world, I have not found the liberal world more safe. There’s always that set narrative, and everyone is expected to fit into it. One of my professors described it this way. We used to have a small circle that everyone had to conform to. This is what a woman looked like, this is what a man looked like. Now we’ve just expanded the boundaries and made the circle bigger, but the circle is still there.

In many ways, I think my homeschool background was the small circle, and now I live in the big circle.

How I Left My Parents’ Home

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on September 2, 2013.

Several people have asked me about actually leaving my parents. It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what happened, because there was not one day when I decided to leave.

When I was 16, I was still attending a conservative church with my parents. In my family we were still expected to wear head coverings all the time, but the church we attended only expected them in churches. So in December of 2004 (when I was 16) I decided to stop wearing one at all – to me you either follow that verse 100% or not at all, and I wasn’t going to be the only one. I also secretly purchased jeans and changed into them on rare occasions when I was allowed out with church friends.

The summer of 2005 around my 17th birthday, I went for a week to visit my very secular grandparents in another province. They asked me some questions about what I wanted to do for a career.

I had not been asked that question, as my destiny was to get married and be a homeschooling mom even though I didn’t want that.

My grandparents mentioned that I couldn’t go to university without a high school diploma, and explained that I probably couldn’t even get a GED with how little schooling I’d had. This was news to me since I’d always been told our way was the best way to do anything, but it had the ring of truth.

When I got home, I looked into schools. I found I needed to have parental signatures to attend at age 17, so I privately convinced and cajoled my mom to sign, which she did, although it is my belief that she thought I would give up. My father refused to sign when he found out, and no one told him my mom signed, and the school accepted one signature and none for the bus (as I recall) because by then my mom was too scared to sign anything else. What is confusing about this is that in the summer my father drove me to take an ACT test (useless in Canada) which seemed to encourage academia, but it was with a bunch of homeschoolers so maybe it was the in thing to do for homeschoolers.

Miraculously my parents did not physically prevent me from going to school on the first day, I think because they knew it would probably be noticed if I didn’t go after all the trouble to sign up and get placed into many different classes across all four high school grades. I was expected to wear dresses. That lasted for a few weeks, and then I pulled out the secret pants. My parents tried to force me to change but I refused, and I ran out to catch the bus in a whirlwind of shame.

I quickly made friends with Christian kids at school that were mostly my age, some a bit younger. Two friends I made were sisters, and I would go to their house sometimes for ‘homework projects’. We were on the same bus route so it was easy to do, and their parents drove me home if they asked.

I was invited by other friends to a youth group at a mainstream Pentecostal church. I asked my parents for permission and they said yes sometimes and no sometimes and sometimes would drive me and other times refused when it was too late to find another ride. This was about November.

During this time I opened up a bit to the family I mentioned above with the two sisters. Once at their house I mentioned how hopeless life was with my family and that I was very upset (I didn’t really know what depression was). They told their parents, and somehow I ended up staying at their house for the weekend and just never went home (about November or early December 2005). I know that their dad went to several meetings with my dad and his church friends, and the consensus from my dad’s angle was that at 17, CAS would not force me to return home and it was better not to get the police involved to try and get me back since I was too far gone in rebelliousness anyways, and CAS might take a hard look at seven younger children who were not attending school.

I was able to get a few things from my parents’ home, but my father didn’t waste any time to completely pack up my room, junking most of it and putting lots of my stuff into the damp garage. I basically started life over with the family, I continued going to school, getting decent grades, going to church and youth group, and spending time with friends.

I’ve never really talked publicly about this before, but I need to talk about mental health here. I believe that I spent my first 17 years in some kind of survival state of mind. When I got out and was living with another family, I experienced a whole different lifestyle. The parents worked and provided for the family. I had a few chores like some laundry and dishes, but my job as a student was to do school.

There was also this whole unconditional love bit, and for the most part the emotional state of others in the home was predictable.

Children got pats on the back for doing something well. There was a certain expectation for behaviour and no one really crossed it- it just wasn’t optional. There were no out of control behaviours, because they were taught how to behave when they were younger.

One big problem I had was that I was so used to being told no that I assumed that parents just said no to be nasty. I had to learn at 17, at home and at school, that some stuff was ok and other stuff wasn’t,  and how to tell the difference. I had to learn in a flash how to use judgement because I was never taught that. My philosophy had just been ‘do whatever you need to do to stay out of trouble and try to enjoy life’. But in school and normal family life there are rules to follow so that you don’t violate the rights of others and everything runs smoothly.

I didn’t know that.

It was very hard on me to experience this “culture shock” and to realize how bad I was at relationships.

I had to go to grade 9 math, which I found very shameful. I didn’t know what the bells meant at school. I didn’t know how to share tasks at home. I realized I was very selfish after years of looking out for myself for all those years, and it was impossible to just switch that off when I was in an environment where there wasn’t too many people competing for too few resources. I also realized by comparison how chaotic, unreasonable and toxic my home environment had been. I didn’t know. And then it hit me that I still had siblings there.

It was a very difficult few years. I fell into depression for a while, but I somehow continued school because in this family school wasn’t optional so thankfully if you weren’t sick you went. The family also supported me in making regular calls to CAS over the next two years, so by the fall of 2006 my next brother and sister were enrolled in school at CAS’s recommendation, and the following fall my father was forced to leave the home by CAS for non-compliance and all the siblings were enrolled in school.

I also had many excellent teachers over my three years in high school who seemed to look for the good in students and were compassionate as long as I was trying. Between being granted some credits and earning the rest in three years, I graduated at 20 with a real diploma and I was given a plaque from the principal at commencement – a student leadership award. After graduating high school I was able to go to university and get both a BA and a post graduate degree in four years, and graduate from university on the Deans list.

I no longer have any kind of relationship with my father at all, and my relationship with my mother is complex, as do many of my siblings still live with her.

There is no one reason why I left. Obviously I had quite a bit of help, and there must have been a certain obstinate streak for me to seek out that help.

I have been free for 8 years now. It’s great.