The next few months are 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.