The next few months were kind of a blur. They were awkward. We still ran into our friends/acquaintances/ex-cultmates often. I didn’t know how to think of them or how to act when we saw them. I’m sure it was equally awkward for them. Within our family, not much changed. We followed the same rules, lived the same lives as the people in the cult we had just left. We just did it separately.
The main difference was my dad sunk into a deep depression. I couldn’t rely on his sense of humor and warmth to carry me through the dark and confusing time I was now in. He was now convinced that he was a failure, and nothing could reach him in the dark place he had sunk into. I wasn’t the little girl that idolized her daddy anymore, but I was a teenager whose life had just been torn apart, and my dad was the one constant I relied on. No longer.
I really felt like my dependence on my dad was the last feeble crutch I had left to cling to, and Someone had just kicked it out from under me.
Now I was not only confused and scared, I was bitter. Bitter at a God I didn’t know, who had taken away the last piece of my security. I decided that God existed, but He didn’t love me, and He never would.
About a year into our exile, my parents started looking for a new church to go to – a mainstream church, no more home-church for us. We visited church after church after church. They felt cold and unfriendly. Even if the people smiled at us, I knew they had no idea what kind of people we were and where we came from. We were in foreign territory, and no one spoke our language. We would try one church for a couple weeks, then move on. Occasionally we attended one for as long as a few months. We weren’t allowed to do anything youth-related, so we just sat and listened to sermons with my parents. I didn’t like it. None of the teaching was challenging. The preachers weren’t engaging, and no one cared about me, no matter where we went. I didn’t like church.
I preferred the warm camaraderie of the cult family that we were now irrevocably cut off from.
Eventually, the church we were attending merged with another church, and we stopped going. Then my parents found a new place – a Plymouth Brethren congregation called Lakeside Bible Chapel. It was just a tiny bit more comfortable than the rest because they celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week, like we used to do. Most things were still unfamiliar and uncomfortable. They had a worship band. They had a youth group, and the youth group (that we weren’t allowed to go to for a long time) had an actual BAND with DRUMS. Even when my parents decided to let us go to Sunday school and join in on some youth group activities, we weren’t allowed to attend the youth worship service. We had to stay in the main auditorium until the worship part of the service was over because my dad didn’t want us corrupted by the worldly music. The people dressed in sleeveless shirts or even t-shirts sometimes, and wore things to church that my parents would never allow even at home. But, we stayed. Eventually, it became our new church home.
If anything, having a church “home” just made things worse for me. People were always smiling at me in the halls and saying “How are you this morning!” in the friendly, yet impersonal way that left no possibility of a real answer. I would plaster an empty smile on my face, and nod in return, and they’d walk on. I hated being there. At home I didn’t have to pretend things were fine. At home, I started dressing like a boy. I went for the baggy carpenter jeans and masculine t-shirts. I pushed my parents for permission to cut my nearly waist-length hair. It got shorter each time. By the time I was 17, it was short enough that I was mistaken for a boy more than once.
It was my silent protest against a world that had betrayed me in every way.
My mom took the change personally. “You’re doing this because you don’t want to be like me,” she’d insist. “You’re just trying to be the opposite of me, and that’s very hurtful.” She was wrong. I wasn’t changing because I didn’t want to be like her. I was changing because I hated being me. I hated the fake smiling mask I had to wear on the outside. I hated the growing darkness within. I was empty.
The confusion and despair I felt, the anger that I couldn’t express, all crystallized into an intense self-loathing that grew strong roots deep into the soil of my self-image, fertilized by the years of repressive and damaging training that had taught me that I was only worth something as long as I could measure up to perfection.
I hated to be around people, and I hated to be around myself. I hated everyone and everything, and most of all, I hated myself. I took a look into my own heart and saw all the ugliness crawling inside, and I finally understood, with the finality of despair, why God hated me.
I used to lock the bathroom door, and look at the big bottles of pills in the medicine cabinet, and fantasize about swallowing handfuls of them. Sometimes I’d pour them into my cupped hand and look at them for a while. But I never took them. My fear of standing in judgement before a God that despised me was too great. I wasn’t ready to be sent on to more eternal torment. So, I would put the pills back, and live through another black day.
When I was younger, I liked to draw. I hoped to be as good as my uncle someday, who was an artist and drew amazing portraits of his children and wife, pictures that hung in the place of honor in my grandparents’ living room. I hoped I could become good enough someday that my dad would be proud of me. But those days were long gone. Now I drew without creativity or inspiration, without purpose. The last thing I drew was a bleeding heart that was ripped in two, sewn jaggedly back together with black, ugly stitches. I finished this self-portrait, and then put away my pencils for a long time.
I’m not sure how the rest of my family was handling the move. I feel that of all of us, my sister R was the least affected. She started going to College and Career at our new church and made some friends. My brother B took some time, but eventually even he made a good friend at church; heart-breakingly, it was probably the first time since he was a little kid that he found someone who actually liked him instead of treating him with contempt and abuse. This friend was his lifeline, and without him, I’m not sure what B would have become.
My parents made friends quickly, and they were well-liked and respected in their new church.
People admired how well-behaved and clean-cut we children were, and people would commend my parents for turning out such great children.
It was rather ironic. My little siblings even started going to Sunday school, and to all appearances, we all settled into our new “normal” life.
I was the only one who couldn’t find a place to fit in. I tried to sit in youth group and listen to yet another watered-down talk on bible passages I had heard a thousand times. The shallow theology bothered me. The lack of depth and interest in spiritual things bothered me. The people…well, the youth leader overlooked me entirely. It was a definite failure on his part not to recognize the quiet desperation that sat before him Sunday after Sunday…I’m not sure why he didn’t attempt to reach out to me, especially as he usually did with any other new teens that came along, but suffice it to say, he never did. It was a familiar sensation. I had always been the one that nobody noticed. Unsurprisingly, the other teens in the youth group mostly ignored me. A few were actually friendly, and I was very grateful, though I didn’t know how to respond or relate to them. We were like two different species. They talked about boyfriends, Superbowl Sunday parties, going to prom, and school cliques. These were also the topics addressed by the youth group leaders. These things were as foreign to me as they would have been to a pygmy.
No one had anything to say about what to do when your world’s been torn apart, or you hate yourself, or how to escape God’s wrath and disapproval.
I got no answers from church, and the friendliness of the other teens dissipated by the time we had been there 2 months. I was left alone, and I didn’t even care. I didn’t care about anything.
HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Trista” is a pseudonym.
I grew up in patriarchy. The seeds of powerlessness and fear were sown in me from my earliest years. Having a voice or power in my family was not easy, in fact, it was a constant struggle. However, this system and hierarchy created and maintained by my parents allowed the rivalry and teasing typical of siblings to grow into unhealthy imbalances of power.
There was a distinct hierarchy in my family. Masculinity and age determined your respect within the family unit. My position as a girl and the youngest member of 7 children meant I was the lowest of the low. My position was to toe the family line, get along and agree with those who were ‘above’ me.
There was one sibling I did get along with very well. She (Anne) was two years my senior, and we were joined at the hip since I can remember. In many ways she faced the same trials I did, however, her sweet and caring demeanor made her a more naturally lovable person.
I was told that I should ‘submissively endure suffering as Christ did.’
I was regularly told I was inept, stupid, crazy and extreme. When I was mercilessly teased or abused to the point of tears, my mother would reprimand me for not loving my brothers. She told me stories of how much she desired brothers. It “shocked” her that I could not “endure a little teasing.” She would have traded most anything to have brothers. Teasing was normal and I was “weak,” “like a little girl” to be offended by the rudeness of my siblings.
On several occasions my mother told me the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, saying he loved his enemies and died for Christ. She asked me how he could be so holy and I was complaining about teasing? “Isn’t that silly?”
Minor errors or failures on my part were magnified and viewed as my identity. Once, one of my sisters, roughly 10 years my senior, told me, “You are inept, and incompetent. I know a five year old who knows how to use a key. No wonder mom and dad don’t let you do anything.” This rant was delivered after I accidentally broke her key to the house by turning it the wrong direction in the keyhole. At the time, I was 13 years old I was already insecure. The verbal attacks against my character only made me more angry, hurt and hateful towards myself and those around me.
As a girl it was my duty to ‘support the men’
Although an imbalance of power existed between me and all of my siblings, this imbalance was larger when the sibling was male. As a child I was expected to serve my older brothers without question. If they requested something I was ‘unloving’ if I did not do as I was told. Anne and I were often required to make food for them, clean up after them and in other ways serve them. When they were in college, we were required to make food for guests they had come over and prepare for parties that they were hosting.
My brothers were also heavily involved in sports. My sister and I were told, “You need to support and love your brothers.” When we begged to be involved in activities, sports or anything social, we were told that such things would conflict with our brothers and we “need to love your brothers. Why do you not want to support them?”
Under the patriarchy, it was clear girls did not matter. Our development, desires and needs were entirely subservient to males, because men act, while women are acted upon.
These things caused more anger in my heart. I hated being told I was useless, what I wanted didn’t matter. I would cry out in anger to God, “Why did you make me a woman?? I can’t do anything because I’m a girl and girls are useless.”
I felt a need to punish myself for being crazy
As a child I did not know how to cope with the feelings of helplessness, uselessness, hate and anger. I turned to self-harm at the age of 12 as a means of coping with how horrible I felt about my identity. Being homeschooled posed problems to self-harm. I was constantly watched, and my parents openly mocked the idea of therapy and mental health. They portrayed mental illness as a weakness, something attention seeking individuals contrived to gain pity.
I would find creative ways of hurting myself. I would chew my nails and fingers until they bled. Often my fingers would be raw from excessive chewing and peeling layers of skin off. I would scratch myself, especially my stomach, until I bled. I would ‘cut myself while shaving,’ craving the release I felt when my legs bled. Hiding in my closet I would bang my hands against a pole until they became swollen. One time I even purposefully beat my head against a wall in an effort to give myself a head injury.
I craved affection. I wanted to experience love.
I sincerely believed no one in my family cared about me. Part of the self-harm narrative was an effort on my behalf to gain the love of my family. In my mind I would rationalize, “If I am hurt very badly they won’t be mean to you. They would want to help you, right? See, they really do love you. You need to try harder to really hurt yourself.”
Often I would ponder dark thoughts, sure no one would notice if I were dead. I thought perhaps people would be happy to have the ‘crazy’ girl gone. I wanted to die, but was not sure how. It was something I constantly thought about. I would day dream of being murdered, mutilated and beaten to death. These imaginations served as a mental outlet for my pain.
I was careful not to display my pain to others. Instead, I developed a dual identity. I hated my siblings, but I desperately craved their affection. They were the only people on the planet I interacted with. If they did not love me, I believed myself beyond the love of anyone. In my world, friends were not allowed. Thus, if my own family did not love me, who on God’s green earth would ever see anything lovable in me?
On the outside, I was confident, defiant, strongly defending myself, rebelling in any way I could, actively antagonizing others in an attempt to exact revenge. This was the way my anger reacted.
Other times, my desire for affection would win and I would berate myself and say, I matter and I’m going to earn their respect. When my efforts failed I would oscillate back to hating my siblings and the pain they caused in my life.
Today, I am in my early twenties, a senior in college and headed towards a successful career. Yet when I am around my siblings, I feel like that hopeless, unloved child again. I never felt loved by my siblings. It is hard to feel love from people who hurt me so badly for so long. I still acutely feel the pain inflicted from childhood. It is impossible to negate years of being dismissed as a silly, crazy little girl.
The patriarchy damages its victims in many ways. In my case, it removed the joy of having those I call family.
I had just finished describing her how I rarely got a gift or anything from my parents, specifically my dad, that wasn’t conditional. I told her about a mountain bike I had gotten one year for Christmas. It was a really nice bike, probably cost about $1200. I was thrilled when we all came rushing down the stairs and I saw the bike with my name on it. I eagerly looked it over, and then I got the second part of the “gift.” I had to pay the stupid thing off. I. Had. To. Pay. The. Bike. Off.
I was maybe 11, had no job, I did most of the house work around the house, did a lot of the meals, cleaned the kitchen after every meal, and now I was expected to pay off a bike that was a “gift”?! Paying off the bike meant giving up my birthday money, Christmas money, doing extra yard work (on top of everything else), as well as extra, extra work around the house.
That bike became a thorn in my side the older I got.
I loved the bike, and the fact that I had to pay it off back then barely fazed me. I was so excited to have a really nice bike (it was one step below my dad’s expensive mountain bike; a fact I was very proud of). That bike was one of the nicest things I ever had. But that bike is also one of the reasons that I absolutely refuse to ride a bike today.
My dad does not simply give one of his children something without expecting something in return.
He gave me a ring for my 13th birthday, and I found out the price of that ring when I tried to get married. He believed that he owned my heart. He believed that he must give his consent before I “fell in love” with a man. My parents gave us the use of a timeshare for our honeymoon. Sorry, gave is not the right word. They let us a rent their timeshare for our honeymoon. My dad/parents seek profit from their children, including threatening to make minors pay rent, babysit without pay, making unwilling children pay for their bikes that they didn’t want but dad bought anyway.
Being told I have PTSD makes me uneasy.
It’s almost compared to how I felt when I was told 7 years ago that I was depressed. It’s a feeling of “no, that’s not me. I’m not broken.” It’s like someone saying they’re not crying as tears race down their face, sobs on every breath.
The truth of the matter is I am a classic case of C-PTSD.
I have an underlying depression that has been there for many years, breaking the silence every once in a while to put me in a viscious cycle of multiple days of bad depression. I may seem bold on here, but believe me when I say that the bold things are written after I’ve had a major breakdown, my world seems to fall apart, and/or I feel like shutting down and forgetting who I am. And yes, this post is being written after two weeks of some of the lowest spots I’ve reached in a very long time. It resulted in an emergency therapy session last week because I knew I needed help fast.
I don’t let people see me when I hit those days of emotional breakdowns, but truly, I need someone to be there. I need someone to come sit with me, hold me, and tell me that crying is a release of the poison that has built up inside of me. I just don’t know how to ask, or who to ask. I fear making people uncomfortable and making them uneasy by my open, bleeding heart. To deal with that fear, I push people away because once I know I’ve made someone uncomfortable, I am then extra sensitive to what I say around them, tell them, or ask them to do. It’s pretty screwed up, isn’t it?
I am slowly learning to take care of myself simply because I have to, or else into the deep end I go.
I had a light-bulb moment today when I realized why it is so difficult for me to take care of myself. Growing up I was never allowed to really rest. I used to love going to bed at night because it meant that I finally had time to myself, I could rest, and I wouldn’t be told to go clean or do something. That was until I couldn’t sleep, and then there was no place where I actually felt I could rest. My dad would come bursting into my room with this look of almost blind fury, yelling at me, shaming me, about how mom was doing such and such, and how dare I not do my job.
Even if I was sick, had a massive headache, or simply just needed to rest, I wasn’t allowed to.
My dad would constantly tell me and my other siblings about how mom shouldn’t have to do anything. My dad wouldn’t do shit when it came to cleaning or doing anything around the house. He only did the outside work, putting my siblings to work when something needed to be cleaned up, but otherwise wouldn’t let them help him with the lawn, trimming bushes, or washing the vehicles. (I can honestly say I have never washed a car before.) I only really remember maybe 2 or 3 times of him actually doing some cleaning.
He would sure rant about how privileged mom was and how she shouldn’t have to do any cleaning.
This is making me rage as I write this because the shame and guilt my dad was so good at pouring on me has made it difficult for me to relax in my own home, listen to my body especially when my hands aren’t working well enough to clean. Can you imagine my rage? Can you hear the frustration I feel as I try to function in a healthy way only to be thrown back when this garbage sneaks up on me?
I am finding it relieving to be able to name my mental state.
It is relieving to have something to explain why cleaning freaks me out. I see the dust at the back of the bathroom sink and I have flashbacks to my dad viciously pointing out all of the things I had done wrong with cleaning the bathroom. I tried my best to please him, really, I did, but it was never enough. The only time I can remember where my dad actually didn’t require perfection from me was one fall afternoon as I was raking leaves. I was doing my best to get every leaf I could with the rake when my dad leaned out the door and told me I didn’t have to be that particular. I have never felt so confused.
Dealing with a named condition is easier than fighting in the dark with no idea why you are reacting that way or what triggered it.
Dealing with something that is real, something that is legitimately affecting behavior, mind, memory is easier than being told I am crazy, bitter, or simply vindictive. Dealing with C-PTSD is something I can manage. There are a lot of difficult days still ahead, but I can work with this because I want to get better. I want to feel healthy, whole even though I will always carry scars. I want my healthy, happy marriage to become more consuming than my past.
I want to put my past to rest, resolve what I can, so I can focus wholly on loving my husband, being with him, and being at rest.
Cynthia Jeub touched on this in the first part of her post “Freeing Self-Deceived Fundamentalists“. My family has glorified death for a really long time. I remember Columbine, like she was talking about – being something almost revered – not remotely tragic. When things were shitty(-er than normal) or if I was making a life choice my mom didn’t agree with she would say “well the end times are coming and we’ll be raptured soon [so we won’t have deal with XYZ]”. Going to heaven was all my parents really cared about, they instilled a sense of life being almost useless into me, unintentionally.
Why bother living here when life will be so much better after you die?
When parents neglect or kill their children because they think god told them to or that they’re saving them.
When parents talk about how brave Abraham was for almost murdering Isaac.
When I remember that my parents coped with my two still-born siblings by talking about how lucky they were that they got to be in heaven while we had to suffer on earth…
I used to be afraid, or worried sometimes……..that something like that would happen. That “god” would tell my parents to murder us, and they would. Or that I would be murdered (martyred) because I was a (true) christian in America, and I would look down that gun barrel at Columbine and say “Jesus will save me” or “Get behind me satan” or whatever clever bible phrase I could come up with before my imminent death.
And my parents wouldn’t mourn – they’d talk about how much better off I was dead than alive, how everyone needs to be a christian so they can wait out their miserable existence and go to paradise.
It’s really depressing thinking about it. But it explains a lot about why, I guess, I’ve rarely been afraid of dying and have always just been kinda nonchalant about it.
It’s not a good thing, because it adds intensity to depression: why bother living, anyway? Now that I don’t believe in god and don’t believe that suicide would nullify my non-existent salvation.
But when I was a child…
The emphasis my parents put on dying and going to heaven always bothered me.
It was like they were so ready for our lives to be over.
They didn’t want to live.
They communicated that living was a waste of time. After all, we’re citizens of heaven, not earth, so why care about the world?
And that always fucked with me because I wanted to live, and I felt guilty for wanting to live, fully, and make the most of my time and help people while I was here, and even, (gasp) enjoy my life here. Because some part of me understood that being here mattered, even though I didn’t – and sometimes still don’t – know why.
I was so hurt when my mom would rather I die/be raptured than marry my spouse. She said, hopefully, that Jesus would probably come back before I even had that chance.
I can’t explain to you with words how much that messes with a person. When your parents whole life revolves around the end of their, yours, and everyone else’s life………when rapture is the answer to things that you don’t like…and pretend like everyone who wants to live and love now is silly because obviously they should just be working on getting into heaven.
Everything my parents do is motivated by being the best christians so they get all the heavenly kudos.
I think my parents were really really depressed.
And I think that messed with me in a lot of ways, too.
Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.
Our physical abuse was defined as love.
I used to think that there was only one thing that was not ideal during my childhood. What I remember as isolated incidents, the times that my mom was not ok with my dad’s behavior. I’m now seeing with different eyes the methods of ‘discipline’ and ‘training’ that my parents used. Realizing that what was abusive, I considered normal.
When it came to “training” or “discipline” there was no doubt my parents believed it was for our ultimate good. That it was an expression of their love for us. They “chastised” us because they wanted to keep our souls out of an “eternal lake of fire.” We were told many things about how this abuse was actually love, and demanded by God:
“I do this because I love you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “God disciplines those he loves.” “Parents who don’t discipline their children hate them.”
When I was younger, spankings and time alone were the main methods of “discipline” that I remember. It didn’t really matter how old you were. A first time for one of us, I remember my sibling being around maybe eighteen months. My mom and I came home from the grocery store and my younger sibling was very… subdued? Dad said they had had their first training session, or something like that. No idea what, if anything, had been done wrong.
I know there was some statement by dad on how he had done it while my mom was gone because she would have been too soft.
I don’t even know how to describe what they used to strike us with. It was made of something like leather, very thick and smooth, too big to be from a belt.
There was always a pronouncement of how many times we would be hit. “That’s eight!” or the like. My mom had a penchant for counting, like some parents do when they want you to do something “one, two, three…” In our case each count represented another “spanking”. Before you could be punished, or “chastised”, you had to express absolute submission. This meant not crying, removing your pants and underwear, and bending over the bed.
Afterwards you had to hug them, and usually there was a drawn out discussion about what you had done wrong.
I remember being maybe five years old. It was after my dad had spanked me, and I was crying. I didn’t want to touch him, so I was backed up towards the wall away from him, and really didn’t want to hug. He was explaining to me that just like I was backing away from him, my sin separates me from him, and hurts our relationship.
Conditional affection, love defined as chastisement, and the blame laid to me for problems in our relationship.
I distinctly remember a “training” moment when I was a small person, at whatever potty training age was. I remember being given specific instruction to go in the toilet and not my underwear, or else. It seems like mom and dad left me alone to play for awhile, because I remember the moment when they came to my door and discovered I had gone in my pants. It seems like the reasoning was that I was rebellious or lazy, but I couldn’t say. “Sins of omission” and all that. I was in big trouble, was given a lecture and spanked. I also remember that I was wearing orange.
I have a memory of playing in my room with a doll that cried if you turned it over. I was spanking the doll with the leather instrument my parents used on me and making my doll cry. My parents discovered me and I was in big trouble. To this day I have no idea what was so wrong, I was a child emulating my parents.
There is one term my dad uses to this day that concisely defines the picture of God I was painted.
“God’ll help you with that.”
Seemingly sanguine, it was used as a threat or condemnation. It meant something along the lines of: “If you don’t get your act together God will make your life living hell until you shape up.”
Similarly, if dad said “I can help you with that” it was meant as a threat. Figure out how to obey on your own, or the consequences would be severe.
Around eight I have fewer and fewer memories. The bottom dropped out of life and everything was hard, for all of us. Never got easier after that. From age eight until I moved out life was a constant stress. You never knew when something was going to happen, when someone was going to get hurt. Sundays were the worst because dad was home all day. There was plenty of ‘discipline’. I have no idea what was deserved and what wasn’t.
Something must have happened to the leather thing, because my mom adopted a sturdy wooden spoon. She broke a few of those with use. Dad, I think, used his hand for a bit because I remember his graduation to a board due to the strain on his hand.
I was around ten or eleven years old when dad made a board with a handle and put work into sanding and finishing it. I remember it being 2+ feet long and five or six inches wide. I only have the memory, nothing exact, and of course everything is bigger when you’re a child.
There was a big to-do about the whole thing. Dad talked about a board from his childhood that had holes in it and two separate layers along with a handle. One of those -you’re so lucky I had to walk to school uphill both ways- kind of things. I don’t even know if the story was true.
The existence of this new form of punishment was a big threat. I had no doubt dad would use it on us. At this point I was already afraid of hearing his truck in the driveway. I remember cleaning my section of the room immaculately. The hangers in our closet were so straight that looking at then made me dizzy.
The very first time dad pronounced punishment with the new board it was for me. We were getting groceries as a family. My younger sibling started to walk away to go be with dad. We got in trouble for being between parents alone in the store, so I grabbed my sibling’s sweatshirt and told him to stay. He went to dad and told him what I had done. Dad got in my face and said he was going to punish me with the board. I fell apart right there in the grocery store, absolutely hysterical. My parents herded us out of the store, I was screaming and crying the whole way home. My dad told me to shut up, no more noise on the way home. I couldn’t stop crying. Mom suggested to my sibling that we take the punishment together, split it or something. He would have been around five ears old. To this day I don’t understand why she said that. I don’t remember any more of what happened. It seems like mom and dad started dickering (maybe about her suggestion that I get less) and then dad left angry, for a long time. I don’t know for sure.
I figured out that if something mattered to you, they’d use it to punish you. If you did something wrong, they’d take it away. If you didn’t do something right, they’d tell you that you might have gotten what you wanted back, but now you wouldn’t.
I made it my mission in life to care about absolutely nothing.
If I didn’t want it they couldn’t use it against me. I didn’t care about eating. I didn’t care about spending time with them. I didn’t care about being alone. I had no friends after eleven, so they couldn’t keep me from seeing anyone. One sibling was particularly hard to use the method of removing “privileges” on. I remember my mom saying in exasperation that there was nothing that mattered to him, how was she going to take it away? Removing meals or no food for a day was an oft used punishment.
I remember distinctly the moment when I realized I could never be good enough. It was never going to stop.
I had made dinner for the entire family, cleared up and was just finishing washing every dish. My dad came into the kitchen and screamed at me. I remember dad saying that if I thought that was good enough I was crazy. I don’t remember anything after that.
I figured out there was nothing I could do to protect myself or my siblings. All I wanted was to find a way to prove that we didn’t deserve it. That we had done the right thing. We had obeyed even if dad didn’t think so. I became increasingly depressed and suicidal as I faced the reality that there wasn’t a standard of perfect that christians agreed to. Even if I were capable of perfection, we couldn’t even decide what it was.
The years from early grade school and all through my teens are a blur. I have very few isolated incidents that I remember. Screaming and cursing, unpredictable enough to completely catch you off guard.
My brothers definitely got the worst of the punishments. I don’t know why this is. Maybe they thought boys were sturdier or more rebellious and needed more force to make an impression. Maybe my parents had a harder time breaking their spirit. Maybe because they were younger than me and got the worst of my dad’s anger as his stability waned.
My dad beat my brothers. I have no difficulty calling it a beating. If you hit your child with a board using all your force countless times on a regular basis, that is a beating.
I know there was punishment that I never knew of, and sometimes there were things I heard about later. Dad would go into a room with one of us and I had no idea what happened. Most of the time I would intentionally go outside in the yard so I didn’t have to hear the screaming of my sibling.
Every day it shatters my heart to know that I was there, and there was nothing I could do about any of this. I wanted to do something, I wanted to protect my siblings. But I was helpless. I wished I could take it all for them, find a way to teach them how to avoid all of it, to be good enough. In hindsight I know it was fruitless.
This ‘training’ is not what love is, but I was raised to believe that it was.
Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of physical and verbal abuse.
Looking back, I can see that after we moved and no longer had immediate neighbors to hear the screaming when she beat me or my brother, she felt much less restrained and the violence increased in frequency and intensity.
If I was quiet and withdrawn (which was pretty much always) and mom decided my quietness was “rebellious” or “disrespectful”, or if I forgot to say “ma’am” after addressing or answering her she would begin screaming at me, calling me a disrespectful whore/slut/tramp/bitch, while simultaneously slapping me across the face hard enough to knock me down. She began to use bigger and better weapons than her hands and the bristle side of a hairbrush. I was beaten with length of copper pipe, pieces of two by four, a thick wooden yardstick (which broke on me eventually), thrown down stairs, had my wrists twisted until she forced me to my knees, screaming in agony, was dragged around the house by my hair and my head bounced off any and all hard objects. She tried to suffocate me several times, held me down and forced a pillow onto my face with all her weight, while screaming she was going to kill me and she wished I would die. I had my head and face forced under a pouring tub faucet and held there until I thrashed my way out of her grasp.
These things happened at least several times a week, sometimes more than once a day, interspersed with the verbal abuse, and her refusal to address me by name, but rather as “bitch” or “slut’. I was regularly told I was “ugly”, “fat”, “disgusting”, “crazy”, and “stupid”.
For those who think I may have been a “difficult” teenager from 11-16 or so when this pattern really took off – I never raised my voice to my mother, never cursed at her, never had friends over or snuck out, never wore anything other than black, baggy clothes (which is hardly slutty), never disobeyed a direct order, never did an illegal drug, smoked or drank, and only ever argued by politely stating I didn’t want to do something, or I thought she was mistaken. The latter two always resulting in a beating or several, so rarely did I dare say no to anything.
In public, my siblings and I were always perfectly behaved, rarely speaking, never making noise of stepping out of line. Mom only had to give us that angry glare that promised later retribution for us to think twice about doing anything at all. There was no one around who knew us beyond the brief homeschooling afternoons with the LEAH group who could have possibly known that anything was terribly wrong in our house. We were so isolated, there was no one I could have spoken to, even had I found the courage to do so.
We’d been trained to fear the authorities and Child Protective Services and had no friends or family to speak of.
Mom “volunteered” me to go work at St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen once a week to win points with the local Catholic church she dragged us to once in a while. At first I was furious that she had volunteered me without even asking me, but after a while I realized it was a few hours a week out from under her thumb and grew to enjoy it. Mom also signed me up for confirmation classes at the local Catholic church, after she had begun attending workshops run by a fundamentalist Catholic homesteading family who also homeschooled their twelve children.
Mom decided it was time for all of us to get more “spiritual”, and began three times a day “prayer circles” where we would all be forced to sit and read aloud from the Bible and sing hymns that the “Fahey’s” (the Catholic family she was imitating) sang. She instituted a clothing change, head-coverings for the girls (I refused), she began making ankle length dresses for herself and us (I also refused), and only long sleeved button down shirts for the boys. She threw out our shorts and t-shirts, started getting rid of her college feminist lit, and any and all of our books she found too “worldly”. Mom sold the computer my grandparents had bought for us, got rid of our tiny video and cd collection, and began instituting even stricter rules for us to follow. So during these changes I attended confirmation classes at the local church, which I despised and between the forced Bible study there and the forced Bible study at home quickly grew to despise Christianity and the confining, narrow-minded tenets the Bible espouses. I never spoke my thoughts aloud, but my mother could tell from my face when I wasn’t agreeing or complaisant enough and my face invariably led to new beatings and verbal abuse.
Mom began to use the Bible as an additional weapon, quoting the “Thy shall honor thy father and mother”, and telling me that God said I must be obedient and respectful to her. (Even though I was always obedient and never voiced any disrespect.) This just furthered my disgust for the Bible, although I now see that, like homeschooling it was simply being used by my mother to her ends, not necessarily bad unto itself.
I was falling deeper and deeper into a depression that seemed like it was swallowing me whole. I started sleeping really late every day, shuffling through my duties with my head down and my mouth shut. I began snapping at my siblings when mom wasn’t looking, I had no patience for their demands for my attention or their quarrels. My brothers began fighting viciously with each other, first when mom was out, later even when she was home, resulting in beatings for them as well as me. I knew my mother hated me, I didn’t know why.
I tried so hard, for so long, to be what she wanted me to be, obedient, respectful, responsible, but never seemed to find her approval or even a respite from her rage.
I am, at my core, fundamentally an honest person, having no talent for acting, for pretending to be happy when I am not. This was my downfall. If I had only been a better actress, perhaps I could have fooled her into thinking I was, in fact, what she wanted me to be, rather than merely doing whatever I was told with my face betraying my misery and despair.
I tried to kill myself twice.
Once, at summer camp, I stepped in front of an oncoming semi truck with a feeling of exultant freedom and calm. A boy who liked me happened to be standing nearby and turned around and yanked me out of the road as the truck went by. The second time, my brother Alexander and I were coming home from the paper route and I decided the easiest way to end my misery would be to poison myself. I picked a handful of deadly nightshade berries and was about to throw them down my throat when my brother jumped up and slapped them out of my hands and started screaming and crying hysterically.
I felt sad, resigned, and guilty for terrifying him so, and didn’t try to kill myself again.
1997, was the last year of my paper route as mom decided it was allowing me too much freedom and she wasn’t making enough money off of it/me to be worth the trouble, so she called my boss and “quit” for me. I was devastated by this, as it was among my last outlets for momentary respite from the hell that was my home.
The following year I got my first real job, washing dishes at a local pizzeria for minimum wage. I was ecstatic at being able to get out of the house a few evenings a week and being allowed to save a little money to buy a puppy for my sixteenth birthday. After about six months, my mother called and told my employer that I could no longer work there because I was sleeping with a married 30 year old man who was a coworker there. All this because I had spoken to him on the phone (about a dog) while she was listening in, and she said she could tell we were having sex by the tone of his voice. Really. There was no other evidence for her accusation, that was it. Mom convinced herself that this was true even though both he and I told her she was mistaken and crazy. She then beat me, off and on, for the next two days for this delusional belief until I could stand it no longer.
I packed my things and lived on the streets of Buffalo for next three weeks.
I camped out in the basement of an abandoned apartment building, slept in a refrigerator box when I could, and mostly just tried to process what on earth to do next. Going home was not an option, if I stayed another minute I knew I would kill myself, I felt as if I was being slowly crushed by my life and there was only a spark of life and spirit left. After a few weeks, I found a runaway shelter who helped me track down my biological father who came and got me.
My mother’s insults and degradations became ever more creative and hateful, designed to wound. They did. To this day, simply recalling these things makes me shake uncontrollably and I do not believe that my littlest sisters should have to wait until things get as bad as they were when I was driven to the streets before someone should step in. I have only waited this long because I had hoped that mom had changed her behavior as she claims, and because she is still my mother and I was, (and still am) hesitant to speak the truth and have her never speak to me again.
Contrary to what I’ve been told by DCS when I made a statement regarding my two sisters still trapped there, physical abuse is not the only threat to a child at home. Emotional and verbal abuse leave damage far deeper, with myriad consequences to a child. Emotionally fragile, sensitive teenage girls do not need to have what little self confidence and self respect they have destroyed by the one person in the world who is supposed to support them, believe in them, and give them strength to take on the struggles of life. My mother does not, and never has provided any of those things.
On the contrary, her words tore me down to the ground and I have spent half my adult life rebuilding my self image and confidence solely because of the things she said every day of my childhood.
HA note: The following story is written by Susan Young, the Communicators for Christ Executive Assistant from Summer 2005 until Spring 2007. While HA took care to verify the claims contained herein, it must be noted for potential legal reasons that the claims are the author’s and not HA’s.
We’d hit the bottom.
I thought it was my fault
And in a way I guess it was.
I’m just now finding out
What it was all about.
Those words from Ben Folds have rung true in multiple relationships in my life and none of them were healthy. The situation described, though, should never develop in your place of work. I realize now that there are things like labor laws and I know phrases like “hostile work environment.” At the time, I was naïve and far too old at the age of 23 to be so unaware of my own rights.
My rights weren’t exactly a big part of what I had been taught.
I was a good homeschooled girl. I had graduated with great test scores and had decided that college was completely unnecessary for my future. My plan for my life saw me at home with my parents until I would meet and marry a good, preferably homeschooled man. While all of this could bring up many other topics, suffice it to say that in many ways, I fit the profile of the community.
My younger brother had become something of an early rising star in the home school speech and debate community – an activity I had never participated in. Being eight years older, I had long since graduated and was working as a piano teacher. My family, however, was growing personally closer and closer to the Moon family and they were meeting up outside of Communicators for Christ conferences. Eventually, I was invited to attend a get together as well. It wasn’t long afterward that I was offered a part time job updating the CFC database and I accepted.
For the next few months, I was a strange, creepy person who called up random strangers from a spreadsheet asking them to verify and update all of their information for us including all of their children’s names and birthdays. It struck me as at least as weird and frightening as it did the people I was calling, but I was sold on CFC as a whole and would have done pretty much anything Teresa Moon told me to do. My parents believed in it, and therefore so did I.
I became more and more involved in the workings of CFC. Eventually, I gave up teaching piano, devoting more and more time. It was good timing for Teresa as her current administrative assistant was leaving for a new job opportunity. The role would soon fall to me.
The earliest clue I could look back on and recognize that should have told me something was badly wrong with my job was when the former administrative assistant was leaving. She took me aside, looked me right in the eye to make sure she had my full attention and said, “Guard your time.” I promised her I would, not really taking the warning very seriously.
Teresa told me that they wanted me to be an independent contractor, not an employee. She explained to me that we would both save money this way since my taxes wouldn’t be withheld. Even though I read the requirements from the IRS that made it clear my type of position wasn’t eligible for independent contractor status I believed her and was sure she wouldn’t do anything illegal, so I went along with it.
After all, why would she lie to me?
My second clue that this was all wrong bounced off my optimistic skull almost as easily as the first one. While going through customer emails, one came in that I didn’t know how to respond to. It was a warning directed to anyone involved with Communicators for Christ to stay away. The author of the email told whoever might possibly read her note before it was deleted that anyone who gets too involved or gets too close to the Moons ends up deeply hurt. I sent it on to Teresa not knowing what else to do. She told me to delete it and treated it like it was just something to be ignored from someone who was very bitter. Even then, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to trigger such a dire warning.
Soon, my work load exploded. My days were a mushroom cloud of maintaining spreadsheets of all conference registrations for the entire tour, answering all phone calls and emails except a few directed specifically to Teresa, packing and shipping all of the orders for the online book store, running every credit card by typing the number manually into a terminal since we had no online shopping cart system, retrieving the mail from the company box, going over each bill with David Moon, taking care of payments for all bills, both business and personal, maintaining the records of all things financial in QuickBooks, and occasional random errands like picking up printing orders and dry cleaning.
At first I could manage it, but as tour season came closer and then launched, leaving me to manage alone in the office for months on end, it became more than one person could handle. After arriving at the office at 9 in the morning, I would get just barely caught up enough on my work to rush the day’s book order out of the door to the UPS store barely in time for pick up mid afternoon and grab lunch at a drive through on the way back to be consumed while sitting at the computer futilely attempting to catch up again. At 9 pm, I would trudge out of the office after the credit card terminal automatically closed the day’s batch to drive home, stopping at another drive through on the way. This would happen Monday through Saturday and I would sometimes slip in a few hours on Sunday.
David once laughingly told me it was a good thing I was on a salary because they couldn’t afford me otherwise.
Meanwhile, my mother and Teresa became closer and closer friends. They met up often and soon it became apparent that nothing was off limits in their discussions. Not my job performance, and not my personal struggles with my family. I don’t believe my mother was intentionally trying to cause problems at work, but in hindsight I’ve been given every reason to believe that Teresa stores up this type of information to use and get what she wants.
Those home issues could be a whole other series of articles, but for now, all that’s relevant is that living at home at the age of 23 was not going well. My battle with depression, which had already been off and on for nearly a decade, was a constant in my life at this point. Still, I was trying desperately hard to be the good girl and earn approval. That approval at home now seemed inseparably tied to my performance at work.
Several weeks into my 70+ hour per week work schedule is when it all spiraled into addiction. Due to a strange food allergy, I can get ridiculously high on a fairly common ingredient: artificial food coloring. Later after meeting people who were quite familiar with drugs, I described the symptoms and they told me it was exactly like crack. Obtaining it was as easy as my usual runs to the drive through on the way home. Taco Bell provided my dinner and my fix in the form of a burrito and a large pink lemonade that I would sneak up to my room frequently so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone while under its influence.
Eventually, it became clear to Teresa that I wasn’t keeping up, so in response she turned up the pressure on me and began calling frequently from the road to check on what I was doing, obviously convinced I wasn’t doing anything. I would also receive phone calls from David who would berate me and scream at me because in my struggle to keep everything on track for the business, I would drop balls like one of their personal bills. I knew it was all going to hit the fan after tour. Before they came back, I took a vacation they approved during which I still checked in on phone messages, returned calls, answered emails, and shipped book orders. I had literally brought books with me so I could fill orders.
After they returned, it was like I had feared. I had not lived up to their expectations. I was a failure. They wanted to know what went wrong. Why had I taken that vacation when there was so much work? I hadn’t done the work they were paying me for. I wasn’t worth my $18,000 per year salary.
I couldn’t do it any more.
I got up, dressed, and got in the car as though to go to work at my usual time, pulled out of the driveway, and went in what appeared to be the right direction. At a crucial intersection, I took the opposite turn driving away from the CFC office. Without really remembering much about the trip there, I was sitting in the back of the Walmart parking lot fighting to get control of my frantic breathing. I had a plan.
It would be easy enough to walk in, buy a knife from either sporting goods or kitchen supplies, take it back to my car, and end my life at the back of the parking lot.
As a last ditch effort, I called a number my therapist had given me where they’re supposed to talk you out of killing yourself. They tried to get me to a hospital, but I couldn’t get there from their directions. I wasn’t incredibly motivated to find it considering my worst fear was and still is a hospital psychiatric ward. They talked me into calling a family member and said they were going to call back and check on me. They didn’t. I called my dad who convinced me to come home. Turns out that Teresa had already called them wondering where I was. I got home. No one said much. My parents sent me to bed.
Later that day, Teresa showed up at my house. My parents left me alone with her to talk. I remember she asked a lot of questions. She wanted to know why I had done what I did. I don’t remember what all I told her, but I do know she learned about my depression and ADHD. She acted like that explained a lot about me. What I didn’t realize was that she was collecting ammunition.
She liked to push me
And talk me back down
Until I believed I was the crazy one.
And in a way, I guess I was.
The following weeks, I was back at work, only now they knew. Under the guise of concern, Teresa monitored me, checking on what I was doing, and scrutinizing everything I ate. While she didn’t know about my allergy, I never brought colored food to work, so there was nothing to see there. She was convinced that something I ate had to be triggering my depression and my work failures. Somehow, the culprit was erroneously identified as carbohydrates and I began ordering grilled chicken salads every day to avoid her judgment on my lunch.
Eventually, I even switched to a therapist she recommended.
Teresa told me she was glad I wasn’t seeing my old therapist any more because “Every time you saw her you came back talking about your rights.”
Her opinions extended to the medications I tried and she didn’t hide her disappointment after I stopped a particular one due to its horrible side effects.
The annual Masters conference was where it all finally went to pieces. One of my jobs had been to drive some of the volunteer staff assistants from their host home to the conference and back every day. My driving style was a lot more cautious than it was aggressive, so I became the butt of their constant jokes and taunting about my driving skills every day morning and night. Eventually, it took its toll and an intern found me in a bathroom crying and asked what was wrong, so I told her. Maybe that was a mistake, but later that day I was called in front of a very angry Teresa after the story had made its way through the rumor mill up to her. All of these volunteers were hoping to become interns in the future and she had her eye on several of them for the position. If what I had said were true, it would disqualify all of them from interning, including my own brother, since people now knew about their disrespect. That is, unless I changed my story and made a point of telling anyone who asked about it that I had overreacted and they weren’t really teasing me so much.
Caving to the pressure, I made myself out to be the crazy one. I think the only people who didn’t really believe my modified story was the intern who had found me in tears and a select few of the kids I had been driving who knew what they did and realized how close they had come to losing their internships.
As if that weren’t enough, a flu epidemic swept through nearly all of the attendees and I was not spared. Despite the fact that I couldn’t stand without shaking, Teresa made no effort to hide her irritation at finding that I had involuntarily fallen asleep on a sofa in the staff room. The next day, I had to excuse myself from driving students for their own safety after collapsing on the floor.
And I twisted it wrong just to make it right.
Had to leave myself behind.
The week after the conference, Teresa sat me down across from her and grilled me about what went wrong. She said I had done a better job the year before when I hadn’t known what I was doing yet. I was also berated about the work that had fallen behind in recent months. In my effort not to miss bills and keep everything up to date for conferences, bookkeeping had suffered. There were implications that it traced back to my mental health and that I wasn’t fit for the job. I believed her. I was damaged and worthless. That’s when she told me, “You haven’t done the job we’ve been paying you to do. How are you going to make that up to me?” The same shaking, desperate girl that had sat in her car in the back of the Walmart parking lot fought for some form of redemption.
Teresa was finally satisfied when I told her that I would give back my paychecks for January, which I had not yet deposited, and I would work through February for free.
After that, I would resign. Teresa added the caveat that working through February would be enough if the work was caught up by that time. Once again, my lack of knowledge regarding labor laws and her experience with how to manipulate me allowed her to take advantage.
Over the next month and a half through the end of February, the slow season allowed me to catch up on the bookkeeping and prepare to leave the world that my family revolved around more each day. My mother came to the office frequently as she prepared to spearhead the new chapter program. My brother readied himself for his internship the following tour season.
I left the office for what I thought would be the last time at the end of February. I was called back again in March to train my replacement – for no pay of course. Tax season came around and Teresa’s deception about my “savings” as an independent contractor came to light and I was left with almost nothing not long before I would have to strike out on my own and support myself.
My home situation was crumbling as everyone but me, the now unemployed oldest child, practically orbited around the Moon family. To be clear, I don’t think that Teresa or CFC was the cause of our problems.But I don’t hesitate to say that our involvement accelerated the self destruct course we had already been travelling for years.
It wasn’t until much later that I fully “opened my eyes and walked out the door” of that world. Yes, I could have sued CFC and had I realized it before the statute of limitations was up, I probably would have. Looking back is a painful, nauseating experience.
The worst part is reading the stories of others who have been abused by Teresa and realizing that my work facilitated her behavior.
I ask myself how much longer it’s going to go on before someone still in a position to bring them to justice and hopefully put a stop to it will speak out. I’m not the only one who has been pushed to the point of harming themselves. How long do we have before someone is driven to another suicide attempt? What if it’s successful?
I’ve just passed the 7 year anniversary of when I resigned my position with CFC. Despite everything I’m sure Teresa still believes about me, I’m proven myself responsible and capable many times, which has lead to success in my career. Since then, I’ve learned some crucial things that would have drastically changed my experiences:
Employers do not have the right to force, encourage, or even allow staff to work for free.
Employers do not have the right to be privy to the details of their staff’s medical conditions. There are a few exceptions where it might affect their job or cause them to miss work, in which case they may require a doctor’s note. Situations in which an employer can require a doctor’s note vary by state.
Employers have no say over the medical care of their staff. That is entirely up to the patient.
If there is ever any question about whether an employer’s behavior is acceptable and you live in the US, each state has a department of labor that can clarify the law for the state you live in. There is also the National Labor Relations board, which covers different rights and has several offices throughout the US. There is a section on nrlb.gov that explains the particular rights they protect.
I have the right to report any illegal activity by my employer to the appropriate government office without fear of retribution.
Any therapist worth their fee will tell a patient to quit a job that is making them suicidal, even if it means living on unemployment for a while.
If I had known half of this, maybe I wouldn’t have taken the job. Perhaps I would have left sooner.
Maybe someone will learn from my mistakes and not allow their boss to take advantage of them.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Talitha” is a pseudonym.
I came to Patrick Henry College as a girl with big dreams and a go-getter attitude. Maybe my dreams were too big, but I was prepared to work hard to get where I wanted to be. After surviving a life of poverty, I realized that nothing comes free in life. During my high school years, I never knew if I was going to have food on the table the next day. My experiences with being low-income motivated me to do well in life — both for me as well as for the people I loved and left behind to attend school.
It was ironic, then, when I stepped on campus and people automatically labeled me: “Oh… that rich girl.”
At first I was flattered that people thought my thrift-store business casual wardrobe was akin to designer fashion. But I soon realized it wasn’t about my clothes at all. Sure, they judged me by the color of my hair and the fact that I wore high heels. But eventually it became clear it was more about my attitude than anything. I was too assertive. I raised my hand in class when I had something to say. I ran for student senate. I actually talked during senate meetings. I attended all sorts of club meetings. I helped run several clubs, in fact.
I did these things because, for me, this was a second chance at life. I had an opportunity to be a part of something regardless of my financial status. Through good grades and test scores, a crap ton of volunteer hours, and demonstrated dedication to several part-time jobs, I was able to attend PHC alongside the sons and daughters of millionaires. I was thrilled to get the educational opportunity of those in the top bracket. I dove in head first, because I was so grateful to be a part of the campus community. I wanted to make the most of my time there.
But apparently, people (especially boys) didn’t like that.
Be involved in the community, but not too involved, otherwise by default you’ll be smeared by people envious of your success.
Something PHC people don’t realize is that the moment you say something bad about someone behind their back, it’s as if you’ve said it to that person’s face. The gossip travels so quickly that it’s bound to get back to the person you smeared. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “hey, guess what so-and-so said about you?” and “oh, you wouldn’t believe how she talked about you.” “Guess what he said about you during coffee??” I lived with the rumors every day, and I was called atrocious things by people who said they were my friends. They thought I didn’t know, but the echo of the rumor mill ensured that I heard the same things they did.
I was called vain, a flirt, a suck up, a fake, a slut, bulimic, insecure, too ambitious, and disingenuous.
There finally came a point where I couldn’t believe they were “just rumors.” Something about them had to be true, right? Even though sometimes — when I walked into a room — I could see people look at me and start to whisper, I just tried to push on. Success never comes easy.
I couldn’t keep my head up, though. Despite all my efforts. I began living constantly terrified of what people thought of me. Without realizing it, I allowed the rumors to isolate me. People didn’t understand me, because I didn’t let a lot of people in. Although I looked okay, I had a wall up — and instead of getting to know me, people were quick to make accusations and judgments.
The next year wasn’t much better.
Because my professors recognized that I yearned for more responsibility, and gave it to me. I was put in charge of numerous projects and clubs, but with that, a level of authority my peers were unwilling to accept. I had “Christian” classmates calling me a “bitch” because they didn’t want me in a position over them. I had close friends call me “unapproachable”, one going so far as to personally smear me to professors so they could get the position they wanted. It was unbelievable, and I was deeply wounded.
I struggled severely with depression the entire year. But my classmates were too busy resenting my work-ethic that they didn’t notice.
Everything I did, someone questioned my motives, or called me a name. It got to the point that I could barely ask a question in class, without someone rolling their eyes at me or looking at me strangely. Every day, I wanted to crawl in a hole, and disappear. No one came to me to ask if the rumors were true. I felt completely isolated and alone.
RAs, tasked with enforcing dress-code, seemed to take a special liking to me. I would get dress coded at least once a day, and I lived in fear of “sending the wrong message” that I was a rebel. I wanted acceptance, but I began realizing that it would never happen at this place.
There comes a time when success in school isn’t enough to get you through the day. It’s not worth losing friendships over. It’s not worth the pain of people’s jealousy. At the point where I spent three days in bed, not getting up to eat or do anything, I realized I was done trying.
Congratulations, PHC, you broke my spirit.
The girl who was once confident, secure in herself, and goal-oriented is now confused, shaken up, and alone. She feels like the world is against her, simply because she wanted to make something of herself and make the world a better place for those who come from similar backgrounds of poverty and abuse.
On a campus that encourages excellence, I am, to this day, shocked at the hate people get when they succeed. The name calling is like they’re still in high school.
To the students of PHC: You, and your small comments and judgments, could be pushing someone deeper into depression every day. The person you see as an object of gossip also has feelings. The person who looks successful is actually torn apart inside because of your mean words.
I guess I was an easy one to pick on, but I hope no one else has to go through this. As I return to PHC this fall, I’m still wrestling with isolation and depression. I have panic attacks thinking about returning and I worry about what dramas await when I walk through the doors into my first class of the year. I will not be participating in the clubs, events, and senate that I have in years past. I’m withdrawing, but not altogether. I am crushed, but I’m not a quitter.
On paper, my post-PHC life has been quite successful.
As it turns out, I do have a future in academia. I was accepted to an excellent graduate program in the DC area. I teach at the collegiate level, and I’m good at it. I am still a Christian, mostly due to the fact that I had some experience with the type of Christianity that loves and accepts and forgives before coming to college. I recognized the “Christianity” used to hurt me there as a bastardization of the real thing. Today, I am happily married and still run with the same group of friends I had in college. The future looks bright.
Spiritually, my post-PHC life has been a mixed bag. On one hand, the spiritual abuse my friends and I encountered at school poisoned entire swaths of the normal Christian life for us. Things as simple as prayer and reading the Bible trigger either bad memories or massive amounts of legalism-induced guilt. For me, just hearing one of the praise songs we used to sing in chapel at college would be enough to induce a panic attack. Many of my friends left the faith altogether, and I don’t blame them. Those of us who stayed Christians found homes in various liturgical traditions. On the other hand, the process of sorting through my faith and wrestling with what to keep and what to discard has been enormously rewarding. It is difficult to admit to myself that I just don’t know what I believe anymore, and to try to re-explain the tenets of the faith to myself in words that are meaningful to me now. But I have discovered that Jesus is big enough to handle my doubts, and he seems to be the one constant at the bottom of all my confusion and grief. Today, I am a better Christian than I ever have been, but it has taken years of struggle to come to this place.
Ironically, had it not been for Mike Farris and his college, I would probably still be a conservative evangelical, attending a Bible Church and homeschooling my kids. I would never have had a reason to leave the world I grew up in, because it was a world I didn’t want to leave in the first place.
Their abuse is the only thing that drove me away.
But in other ways directly attributable to my time at PHC, life has been a massive struggle. I graduated a broken, burnt-out shell of a person and spent the first several years after graduation in a haze of grief, anger, and depression. I lost weight. I slept all the time. I had panic attacks daily. Some days, I felt so physically sick—dizzy, nauseous, exhausted—I couldn’t even get out of bed. I skipped class a lot. Even though I was out from under the oppression, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was being watched wherever I went. It didn’t help that I would randomly run into people I didn’t want to see, since I still lived in the DC area. I lived in paranoid and baseless fear that my new university would find something wrong with me, that I would unwittingly break some rule and be found out, or that they would realize they had made a mistake by accepting my unaccredited undergraduate degree and kick me out. I was afraid to speak up in class, so I didn’t. Academically, I was extremely well-prepared for graduate school, but my exhaustion, depression, and anxiety prevented me from getting the most out of my program.
It also didn’t help that PHC continued to abuse its remaining students, many of whom had taken up the fight and kept me abreast of the issues. I fought with them for a while, via the alumni association, interviews with reporters, or maintaining protest websites. Over time, as more of my friends graduated or left, I just dissociated from the entire place as much as I could.
But the dissociation didn’t cure the emotional and spiritual wounds. At the time, I didn’t have much of an understanding of mental health, and attributed my problems to a set of inexplicable, incorrigible physical symptoms. In retrospect, it is obvious that I was deeply depressed and also struggling with severe anxiety. My therapist has compared my symptoms to PTSD, a common description for those who have experienced environments of intense spiritual and emotional abuse. These things don’t heal overnight.
I believe the abuse I experienced at PHC robbed me of my health and happiness in the prime of my life.
I spent 10 years crushed by the weight of broken health, a broken spirit, a broken heart. I didn’t want to live like this. It wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t wallowing in bitterness or being hard-hearted or refusing to trust God enough. After a while, the school wasn’t even on my radar anymore, but the feelings stayed. I think when you spend enough time feeling a certain way, those feelings just start to feel so normal you stop imagining life without them, and then one day you can’t imagine life any other way at all.
Now on the verge of my 4th decade, I’ve finally gotten myself the professional help I needed for so long. Reading people’s stories on HA has helped in the sense that I can see now that I am not alone. But it has also brought up a lot of strong feelings I thought had gone away. Writing this story was very hard, but I thought it was important to do for a few reasons:
First, I want there to be a record of the truth. I want people to know that some of us stood up for what was right and against what was wrong. I want people to know that serious wrong was done to us, and we tried to respond in the right way. I am proud of myself and my friends for the way we handled ourselves. Although no one should have to endure what we endured at college, I am glad that I had an opportunity to stand up for something I believed in, at significant personal risk. I am glad that when I had a chance to be courageous, I took it. Not everyone gets those opportunities in life, and not all of those who get them, take them. We did.
Secondly, I want people to know what PHC is really about. I can’t tell you how many times, even while I was still a student, I would have settled for the school just admitting the truth about itself, even if that meant I had to live with that truth forever. Patrick Henry College is not a normal, mainstream, classical-liberal-arts college. It is not regionally accredited and apparently never will be, despite what we early students were promised when we enrolled.
Patrick Henry College is a sheltered, religiously fundamentalist, agenda-driven institution; a side project of HSLDA like Oak Brook is a side project of ATI/IBLP.
Its purpose is not to give students a quality collegiate education on which to base their own dreams and plans for the future, but to indoctrinate students into the mindset of its founders and leaders, so they can be deployed into positions of power and thereby further the political and social agenda of those leaders.
I am not exaggerating. This is the truth.
In order to fulfill this agenda and succeed in getting people into power, the college wants to maintain its veneer of respectability and normality. But it is just a veneer. Once upon a time, some professors and students fought with all our strength to make the veneer into a solid reality, but we were kicked to the curb by those in power. That ship has sailed. The only thing left to do now is peel back the veneer and expose the underlying reality.
As long as my story has been, I have not included every significant thing that happened while I was at PHC.
I have not even included the worst things.There are some stories that, even now, a decade or more later, are too painful to write about.
Some events included other people, whose stories I don’t want to tell for them. And I have left out many of the weekly and daily occurrences that, individually, were just straws, but over time accumulated into an unbearable, back-breaking mountain. The little comments made in chapel or in the lunch line; the judgmental, preachy emails sent to all-students by self-appointed morality police; the new rule adjustments, interpretations, or applications that dribbled out from the Office of Student Life. All reminders of the invisible standard we non-conformists were not conforming to. All reminders of who was in charge, and who was watching, and how we could never live up. A thousand little discouragements. They add up after a while, but there are too many to remember.
I hold no grudges against my fellow students. Thanks to the work of people at Homeschoolers Anonymous and Recovering Grace, I now have the perspective to see that those of my fellow students who made my life so unhappy were unhappy themselves. They were not actually evil sadists, but victims of a sadistic system. They didn’t know any better. Many of them have changed. Their stories, like mine, are not over yet. My hope, for all of them, friends and foes alike, is that they will find some peace on their journeys after all.
Honestly, I have had a harder time forgiving the adults in charge at PHC, mostly because they have refused even to entertain the idea that they might have been at fault for some of what happened, and that they, personally, might have hurt students and alumni along the way. Recently, it seems that Mike Farris is in more of an apologetic mood. As I can personally attest, the skeletons that have come out of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement’s closet in the last year have prompted a lot of reconsideration and reflection. I hope he will come to see the recent stories in the press and the blogosphere not as an attack to be countered, but as an opportunity to acknowledge the truth. Truth is important. Without truth, real reconciliation is impossible. I believe that God’s work in the world is toward the redemption and reconciliation of all things. I stand on the side of truth and redemption—not bitterness, not cheap grace, but the kind of real love and reconciliation that can encompass the ugliest truth.
I will end by saying that I recognize there are many former students whose experience was not like mine. Some students seemed to get along just great with the administration. Of those, not all were abusive and spiteful—many were kind, compassionate, genuine human beings with whom I simply disagreed on some issues. Other students kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves, and escaped relatively unscathed. Even others seemed to let the BS wash off them like ducks—it was just a place they went to college, and their real life was somehow elsewhere. I recognize the fact that other people experienced PHC very differently than I did.
I hope that those who disagreed with me (then or now) can extend the same courtesy, and acknowledge that just because my experience may have been different than theirs, does not mean that I am wrong and need to be silenced.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Asher” is a pseudonym.
I’m a rising junior at Patrick Henry College.
You invited us to share our own stories rather than speculating in universal commentary, and I appreciate that invitation. The best place for me to start, though, might be with a bit of commentary on a universal aspect of life at PHC. I think it illustrates and introduces well what I hope to say.
First, a little background: at PHC, we have corporate chapel three times a week. In the spring semester, usually one of those weekly slots will be set aside for senior testimonies. In the space of one chapel service at about 20 minutes each, two graduating seniors have the opportunity to reflect, thank, and share the story of what God has done in their life and time at PHC with the whole student body.
As a freshmen, I didn’t know well most of the seniors who shared at the podium, though I knew of practically all of them (the perks and sometimes frustration of a tiny campus like ours). Some were more eloquent or funnier or more spiritually insightful than others. Some of them merited spontaneous, almost immediate standing ovations from the whole student body. Some of them simply produced appreciative applause. Sometimes the audience was awkwardly dragged by politeness into standing, or even more awkwardly divided between standing and not standing. Whatever the effect might have been on the student body as a whole, though, I know how it affected me. I don’t remember every life detail they shared or spiritual insight they told us. But I walked away changed.
Some of their life stories were unspectacular and ordinary from a worldly standpoint. Others reached down deep and opened up their darkest parts: struggles with crippling depression, debilitating eating disorders, pornography addictions, and more. Yet through nearly every last one of them, I saw the same story repeat itself again and again: a driven, determined young person who would somehow change the world – or perhaps just their own world, and escape the long-worn chains and burdens of the past – and prove that they were worth something. That they were worth loving. Then, failure after failure would set in… frustration and anger, despair and sometimes deep darkness would descend. And slowly, slowly, gentle hands would guide them out of their darkness and bondage… and they would re-learn what it means to need and accept grace. Redemption would do its slow, painful, but sure work. And senior after senior, while often admitting that their journey was incomplete and would extend far beyond the halls of PHC, would stand as a witness to the redeeming grace of God on a life too broken for anything else.
I walked away from those testimonies a different person.
I was awestruck to think that so much pain, struggle, hope, desperation, loneliness, longing, fear, striving, failure, victory, joy, sorrow, love, brokenness, and redemption could be possible underneath the daily exterior. These stories were drawn up, streaming and bleeding with the truth of lives lived, from depths too deep for our minds to fathom, much less search out in full. And it blew my mind to think that these kinds of stories were happening all around me without me having any idea. So I prayed a dangerous prayer – to know the hidden pain and suffering around me, and somehow, to ease it by bearing a part of it.
The fall of my sophomore year, my prayer was answered beyond anything I could have dreamed, asked, or imagined. I saw more of broken, hurting, messed up humanity than I’d ever seen before… and through that anguish, I saw hope, redemption, and beauty as I could not have conceived of in my wildest imaginings. It’s a long story; far longer and deeper and richer than my feeble words could share even if you were interested in hearing its entirety.
A crucial part of that story, though, are the brothers and sisters who were with me through every part of it. Through the darkest nights of my life – through seeing friends dearest to my heart battling weariness, grief, depression, cutting, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts – people were there for me when I needed them most. Whatever I needed – words of wisdom, the wordless comfort of a hug, a willing recipient for me to vomit my troubles on (if you think about it, it’s a pretty accurate picture of the kind of friend we all need at times), and endless prayers – they gave generously, lovingly, and unfailingly. Even before we entered that season of more darkness than I’ve ever known before, the friendships I’ve cultivated at PHC have been some of the deepest and most meaningful of my life. That may well be the case with most college experiences – but there’s a unique camaraderie and love that comes with being in a war-zone together. Under fire, bonds are welded that will not be easily broken.
I say all this for a few reasons, I suppose, but this might be the main takeaway: if you step foot on our tiny, NOVA campus, you will see many things. You’ll see students strolling in their business causal best as they laugh together between classes or attentively (usually) take notes in the classroom. You’ll hear debates on predestination, deep philosophical discussions on the Lord of the Rings, and no shortage of some of the most awful puns I’ve heard in my life in the dining hall. You’ll see us holed up in our rooms alone with Plato or in small platoons with Call of Duty (at least in the guy’s dorms, since we’re not co-ed; ask the girls what they do in theirs). You’ll see our jocks practically living in the weight room, and couples infesting our lobbies and lounges. During finals season, you’ll see us slouched over our desks on many a late night hammering away at a paper or procrastinating while we pretend to do so. During chapel, you’ll see us raising our voices to praise the One to whom we owe everything in one of the most beautiful voice ensembles I’ve heard or sung in (though you may well see a few people texting or struggling to stay awake during the speaker). On Sunday nights, you’ll see some of us gathered around a darkened room or out in the open night air, the resonance of a guitar mingling with voices of worship and the whispers of people praying fervently for each other.
Depending on who you are, there are other things you’d see too. You might see a strong Christian community that you’d love your son or daughter to be a part of, or a mob of young people emanating naivety and arrogance in the form of homeschoolers who think they can change the world. What you see in that case, either way, might be determined more by what you expect to see than what’s before you.
You’d see all these things and many more – but there’s a lot you wouldn’t see too.
If you had eyes that could penetrate walls and souls, you might see a bit more.
You’d see good Christian kids with burdens, pains, and hidden tears like everyone else. You’d see some strive harder in hopes that they can earn the love of God, in desperation and loneliness, thinking somehow that they have to do this on their own and not let anyone see behind their façade. You’d see conversations stretching into the deep of night between the hurting and those who feel the hurt just as deeply out of love. You’d see patient listening and long walks around the Farris wheel or tennis court in the dead of night, and tears of relief flooding out on sympathetic shoulders in the dorm rooms. You’d see the prayers, you’d see the hope that comes through giving and receiving love; you’d see the redemption. You’d see that there’s a lot more going on at PHC than just Mock Trial and a crowd of homeschoolers doing homework on the weekends.
If you could see past our exteriors, you’d also see a good deal of soul-weariness, from both the intensity of academics and the burdens of life. You’d see our insecurities and fears, our lonely nights spent wrestling with our various doubts and demons. You’d see hearts perhaps prone to gossip more than they should be, too often stepping carelessly in and around one of the easiest pitfalls of a small, tightly-knit community. You’d see the stubborn pride and judgmental cynicism that God is still weeding out of our hearts, and all of the areas in which we are still being sanctified, made more like the God we fall desperately short of.
At our very core, however, I pray that you would see not homeschoolers, not conservatives, not even college students or young people with drive and talent, but a broken, inadequate sinners who are being made into the image of Christ.
That is my heartbeat at PHC, and I know I’m not alone in that.
Some of that is more a hope than a description of the way PHC is now, and perhaps most of that entails far more universal commentary than you were asking for. What I can say is that I could only ever say any of this because I have experienced it personally, deeply, and repeatedly. More importantly, a core of that very experience is sharing it with many others around me. And I build my hope only off of what I have already seen; though I have seen much brokenness, I have seen the pieces redeemed into beauty – and only because it has been done so many times and so faithfully before, do I have any hope that the work will continue in and among us.
I love PHC. Like all things worth loving on this earth, I know that PHC is far from perfect, and I do my best to let my love give me a more accurate view (not a white-washed one) of PHC’s flaws and shortcomings. And as the student charge at our most recent graduation reminded us, as America will one day go the way of all nations, so PHC will one day go the way of all human institutions. It too was pass away. Yet, when I speak of the PHC I love, I don’t mean a little physical campus out in Loundon County, or even a vision of a liberal arts curriculum centered on Christ. I mean the people. The community of PHC will continue to grow and change over time; but I know that they will far outlast whatever endures of PHC institutionally.
What will remain is this: a broken people redeemed by a grace greater than we will ever know.
That, as best as I can describe it in a too-long-but-too-brief account like this, is what PHC is to me.