Please forgive me. This is an incredibly long post, and I’m not sure how to edit it down further. It also paints a rather unflattering portrait of my dad (in particular). This is an unfortunate necessity. I want to stress that it’s not an accurate representation of who my parents are now. Dad has mellowed a lot, we’ve talked most of this stuff out, and I’ve forgiven him for his role in it.
However, it’s the foundation of who I am now, and I want to bring these skeletons out of the closet.
I have a few friends who grew up in cults. Whenever I read their stories, I feel so much in common with them. The controlling environments. The leader who is always right. Subsuming your own thoughts and feelings, and trusting the leader blindly – even when everything in you is screaming “This is WRONG!”
But I was never part of an organised cult. This is my story.
My father did grow up in a cult. Until he was 15, my dad was raised in the “Exclusive” Brethren. Maybe you can take the boy out of the cult, that doesn’t necessarily take the cult out of the boy.
In the late 1970’s, my parents became Pentecostals, and embraced everything that entailed. As it turns out, a fundamentalist hyper-controlled upbringing in a cult combined with a conservative Pentecostal theology is a recipe for disaster. Rejected by their conservative home church, they left and commenced a nomadic journey from church to church, looking for somewhere to call home.
We never found it. Within two or three years of joining a church, we were off again, tearing out what little roots I’d managed to put down, which made life for an undiagnosed autistic kid even more difficult. On top of that, I really didn’t enjoy being in church. I sat through Sunday services just wanting them to be over. I was fascinated by theology, but didn’t enjoy the practice. Most of the time I felt utterly disconnected from what was going on around me.
But at home… oh, how I felt connected to God. See, my dad heard from God directly. Whenever a major decision needed to be made, and even lots of minor ones, we would “seek God’s counsel”. We’d pray together in tongues, and dad would receive a “word from God”. I implicitly trusted that dad was hearing from God, and I never questioned. These “words” of “prophecy” guided both our family, and my own decisions for years – up to and including several years after I’d gotten married (something my wife was none too impressed with).
Growing up, this was my normal. I couldn’t grasp that other people didn’t live this way.
It seems that many of the times we left a church, it was because “God” told us to. We even accidentally started our own church. A couple of years later we were asked to leave when dad refused to renounce a prophecy he’d given publicly and distributed in writing.
Most of the theology I encountered over those years was either fundamentalism or Pentecostalism, or a solid, often contradictory, blend of both (with a heavy diet of Chick tracts).
Let me introduce you to high-school Warwick…
This is what I knew, in my heart of hearts: Catholics worshiped Mary and were deceived by the devil. People who listened to “Secular” rock music were going to hell. I knew Satan was at work in the school system, pulling the wool over the eyes of people with the blasphemy of evolution. I prayed for the souls of my friends caught up in witchcraft through the demonic influence of Dungeons and Dragons. Atheists were the most evil of all, and deserved to burn in hell forever.
While my schoolmates were reading fantasy novels and listening to AC/DC, I was reading my bible & Christian books (at least when I wasn’t reading Star Trek novels), and listening to bad Christian pop. I hoped that someone would ask me to talk to them about God.
Surprisingly, they didn’t.
Other than theology (and computers), I was obsessed with Star Trek. I borrowed every Star Trek novel the local library had, sometimes more than once. I had few real life friends, so Kirk, Spock and Bones were my constant company. One day, my parents sat me down and told me that God had given them a prophecy: if I didn’t stop reading Star Trek, God would curse me, and I would lose my eyesight.
I didn’t stop reading the Star Trek novels. I couldn’t.
In my first year of High School, I was struggling to read the blackboards, even when I sat at the front of the classroom. The optometrist diagnosed me as short-sighted, with an astigmatism.
It was then that I knew that the prophecy had indeed come to pass, and God had cursed me for my Star Trek idolatry. I was angry at God, but I knew I deserved it. I took that anger and buried it. This sealed my belief in prophecy, and that my parents were hearing from God.
I stopped reading Star Trek novels, and mainly read Christian books. My parents ran a Christian library and I consumed increasing amounts of conservative & Pentecostal theology. I was particularly affected by two books written by Salem Kirban; his paranoid end-time conspiracy novels (‘666‘ and ‘1000‘) contained (real) “news” clippings blended with hardcore fundamentalist end-time eschatology – this was a generation before “Left Behind“.
Many nights I found myself lying in bed paralysed with anxiety and fear-induced insomnia, knowing that at any moment the rapture would come and I’d be left behind to be beheaded on the guillotine for being a Christian.
Seriously, my greatest fear in my early teens was being beheaded.
I started working in the family business when I was 12 – until I got fired by Dad for being “unreliable”. An unreliable twelve year old? Who’da thunk it? When I was 13 I begged to be allowed to work for him again, promising I’d be reliable. He relented and when I wasn’t at school, I was at work. Throughout my teens, I had almost no friends, and no social life. The one close friend I had, I was rarely able to spend time with because I had “a responsibility” to be at work. When I left school at the end of Year 10, I started working for him full time, until I was 26.
It was, after all, God’s will for me.
But… for two weeks, when I was 17, I nearly broke free. Through work I’d become friends with an Anglican Church Army officer. He saw what the environment I lived & breathed was doing to me, and eventually managed to convince me to quit the family business.
One morning, I went and sat on my parents’ bed, and told them that I was quitting.
They prayed about it, and Dad told me that “the Lord” had declared that if I did leave, I’d be under a curse for the rest of my life for moving out of His (God’s) will, and nothing I ever did would prosper.
I knew what that meant, but I left anyway.
My first full-time job outside the family business was knocking down a corrugated iron shed with a pinch bar. I was an undiagnosed autistic teen who’d lived a sheltered life, hadn’t finished my senior years of high school, and had no idea how to relate to other people… or get a job.
I made it two weeks before the fear consumed me, and I begged my parents to take me back and let me work for them.
They did, and I once again acceded my emotional and intellectual decisions to them. Their beliefs were my beliefs. Their decisions were my decisions. They were the source of my spiritual judgement. When they went to a church, I went to that church. When they left a church, I left the church. If I needed to make anything more than the most minor decision, I would go to them, “seek the Lord’s counsel”, and do as I was advised by “the Lord”.
When I was 18, I moved out of home. The tension of living with my parents and working with them was too much.
In 1993, a self-appointed “prophet” told me that God had told her that I’d meet my future wife before Easter. Upon hearing this, my parents told me that they too had received a prophecy that they’d withheld from me, and that God had told them I’d be married by that Christmas.
I was an isolated, lonely, overweight 19 year old, who’d never had a relationship. The only thing I’d ever really wanted for myself was to be loved by someone else. I’d been obsessed with being married for years. I bought it – hook, line and sinker. I left the conservative Reformed church I’d been attending, and went to the Pentecostal church that the “prophet” attended.
Easter came and went, and nothing. I went to the “prophet” and pointed out that I hadn’t even met a viable candidate in those four months.
She looked me in the eye and said “You didn’t want it enough”, turned her back on me and walked off.
A few days later I had my first major depressive episode. I cried for days. I sat in my living room and wanted to die. I know now that it wasn’t just the loss of the dream that broke me, but the cognitive dissonance of the implicit trust I had that my parents were “hearing God”, against the obvious fact that they weren’t.
There were more churches, more fundamentalists, a complete nervous breakdown, but I slowly began thinking for myself. I worked in the family business with my parents full time; my cognitive dissonance kept growing, but like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.
I started reading more widely. I attended an annual Christian creative arts conference each year for several years, connecting with people who helped to expand my thinking and my theology beyond my deeply ingrained fundamentalism (and connected with some wonderful folks who I’m still friends with!)
Of course, there was also the internet, where I found myself exposed to theology and ideas I’d never considered. I stopped going to my parents to “seek God’s counsel” and asking for “words from God” to make my decisions.
With that choice, however, I also lost the sense of “direct connection” I had with God. I still believed in God, I believed that Jesus is who the Bible says He is, but I felt completely disconnected from God. Something in me felt broken.
I still disliked being in church. Worship did nothing for me. I went to church because it was what you do, but I was just waiting for the service to end. Somewhere along the line, I’d picked up the idea that that I had to “fake it ’til I make it” so I kept going, waiting for things to “click”. It just didn’t happen. I didn’t feel connected to God, or other people.
Over the years I talked with pastors and leaders and other Christians and they all gave me advice on what I had to do. I had to get “secular” influences out of my life. I had to read my Bible and pray regularly. I had to listen to God.
I tried. I followed the advice. I followed the rules. Nothing worked.
Worse still, I was a band member and worship leader in the church. I was playing music and leading worship for songs that I believed, but felt almost no sense of connection to. I knew how to organise songs in an order that would “lead” people to a state where they connected with God, but it didn’t work for me.
Eventually, my parents had a falling out with the leadership of that church, and they left.
I refused to leave with them. I finally started to stand up for myself.
I did however, continue to work with them. The family business was “God’s will” for all of us kids. Even though I’d taken over as Operations Manager in August 1996, I was never really in charge. Dad was a very difficult person to work with. He is an incredibly strong-willed person, and in any given disagreement, he was invariably right – if I had the temerity to disagree, I was verbally beaten into submission. In 1998, after months of dealing with the consequences of financial & contractual agreements that had been signed without my input, I had my first major nervous breakdown.
After they left the church, I found myself in a position where I was working with them on a daily basis, while they were continually telling me that I was being “deceived”… that I would be out of “God’s perfect will”. I wouldn’t know who to trust (ironically, they were right on that last point).
In 2000, I quit the family business. It had become an untenable situation; Dad and I were arguing constantly, and I almost always came off second best, and regularly an emotional wreck. I had no self-confidence, no education, and debts up to my ears.
I went into a business partnership with my best friend. That (and the friendship) collapsed. I kept going, solo. A year later, I closed my shopfront, near bankruptcy. I struggled to make ends meet. I ended up often having to rely on my parents just to eat. Occasionally, I even went back to them to “seek the Lord’s counsel”.
I struggled constantly with anxiety & depression. It felt like everything I touched was… cursed.
The one person I really couldn’t trust: myself. After all, I’d trusted in myself by trusting my parents. So I replaced them with other authority figures. They too turned out to have their own agendas. More often than not, they didn’t like the questions I was asking. As long as my theology lined up with theirs, everything was cool. Start drawing outside the lines, though? I’d get my hand smacked. I’d be told that I was wrong, often with so much proof-texting it would make my head spin. I couldn’t trust that my judgment was correct, so I tried to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I kept going through the motions.
In 2003, while attending a Christian creative arts college part-time, I had another major depressive episode and attempted suicide. I was referred to a “ministry” who dealt with spiritual abuse. Unfortunately, they dealt with spiritual abuse by spiritually abusing me.
After a couple of counselling sessions, they told me that because of my grandfather’s high-level involvement with Freemasonry, I’d become possessed by a shard of his soul, and had to be exorcised. I was explicitly instructed not to tell anyone about it, because “the church wasn’t ready for the kind of ministry they were doing.”
I trusted them, even though it felt really, REALLY, wrong. I did exactly what I was told.
It didn’t help with my depression, for some strange reason.
In 2005 my wife and I made one of our first major decisions together, nine years after we married, with no input from my parents, and without “seeking the Lord’s counsel.” I took a job in Melbourne, and we moved our family 600kms from where we were living.
It’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
Unfortunately, I brought all my skeletons with me. I kept trying to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I continued trying to replace my parents with other authority figures, and looked to them for guidance.
I did, however, start opening up and trying to explain to people that there was something wrong with me, but I couldn’t find a way to explain what it was. I could only catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye. I got more advice (usually along the lines of more bible reading, more prayer times, more church, more spiritual ministry, more counselling), but it never seemed to work, and usually made me feel even worse.
Unfortunately, many of those people embraced the same theology as my parents. By this stage, I’d been manipulated and abused at the hands of so many people who genuinely believed they heard from God, I was showing symptoms of PTSD (not an exaggeration – I was eventually diagnosed).
But to many of these people, all they saw was someone “resistant to the Holy Spirit”, someone who “overthought everything”, someone who wasn’t willing to trust, and who was just looking to find error – and they happily told me so.
When I confessed to one pastor that I’d Googled the claims of a “vision” of Melbourne’s history given by a visiting “prophet” and found that they didn’t line up with the recorded facts, I was dressed down for not “trusting God”, having my own agenda, and not being interested in “what God is doing”. I still have the email.
The reality was that I’m autistic, was showing symptoms of PTSD and was hyper-vigilant for people saying and doing the kind of things that I’d been abused with in the past. When people used the phrases and methods that I’d been abused with, it was triggering me.
I did find one group where I felt safe to ask some difficult questions that would get me smacked down elsewhere; things that troubled me about the Bible and theology. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it fit together with the rest of my life, and eventually stopped going. I’m still grateful for their input into my life.
For the most part though, I still didn’t want to be in church. I’d spend most of the service with a voice in the back of my head screaming “GET OUT! THIS ISN’T SAFE” and wanting it to be over. Eventually, we left that church. It was an incredibly difficult decision, because I knew I was deeply unhappy, even though I couldn’t explain why – and I desperately didn’t want to become my parents, jumping from church to church.
It was through our current church that I’ve made the most progress. Six weeks after we started attending, I realised that for the first time in a decade, I wasn’t sitting through the service constantly defensive and hyper-vigilant. I was referred to a trained counsellor who diagnosed my PTSD symptoms, and helped me start working through my past.
Still, I’m not OK.
Some parts of my theology fit together properly now. There’s theology that I read or hear, that I’m able to tell isn’t right; it’s usually a cognitive effort to dispose of particular concepts because they’ve become a part of who I am. A particularly convincing speaker or argument that contradicts what I believe can leave me flailing, sometimes to the point of a depressive episode. A few years ago, struggling with the logical conclusions of one particular aspect of Reformed theology left me in a near-suicidal depressive state for almost two months.
I believe that being part of a local body of believers is a fundamental part of living out the Christian faith. It’s not that you can’t be a follower of Jesus on your own, but I believe the fullest expression of our faith comes through being part of the body of Christ.
Yet I find being in church a deeply frustrating and sometimes painful experience. I struggle to sit through a sermon without fidgeting. I’m constantly distracted, even when I don’t have my iPhone or iPad with me. A speaker who drifts near the kinds of theology I suffered through usually leaves me wanting to slam my hands over my ears or leave the room; worse if they hit that peculiarly “Pentecostal” preaching cadence. A speaker in a DVD series that we worked through a few months ago triggered such strong reactions it resulted in a depressive episode that lasted several weeks.
I started the process of joining the worship band in the church, but I couldn’t do it – I knew I wasn’t ready to be part of it. It doesn’t help that my mental health makes me somewhat… unreliable.
I’m struggling to stay in church. Most of the time, I don’t want to go. I love the people, but I find it so hard to be in church. My ASD makes it difficult to have conversations with people I don’t know, or to be in a large group of people. Social situations exhaust me; sometimes, I can’t remember someone’s name or face – which is particularly embarrassing when I’ve had a lengthy conversation with them in the past, and I can’t connect that with them.
Making new connections with people who’ve got long established friendships is hard enough at the best of times, but when you don’t understand how to make friends or maintain those relationships, with the added bonus of social awkwardness… sometimes it just seems like it’s all too hard.
At my core, I don’t now how to trust whether most of what I believe to be true… is true. I used to have that certainty, but it was so utterly destroyed that now I often struggle to maintain a stability of belief in anything but the most basic theology. You can convince me your theology is biblically correct, but I can invariably find someone to contradict you, and still remain completely biblical. So I don’t know how to decide who to trust.
I’d probably become an atheist, if it weren’t for my inability to stop believing in God.
I would love for this post to have a happy ending, where I tell you I’ve found the answer. But it doesn’t. It’s messy & complicated and unfinished.
I still feel disconnected, and I desperately want to feel connected… to others, to God. But I’m wondering whether I’ll ever find that. I know now that I’m autistic, which raises the question: Is my sense of disconnection a product of my upbringing, or a fundamental part of my wiring? Will I ever find a way to belong?
I honestly don’t know where to go from here.