Finding Freedom in My Own Truths
David Michael Brand grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness’s family. He wrote a poignant book about
his journey. It’s one very clear illustration of the way toxic spirituality, church abuse and dysfunctional family systems often walk hand in hand and reinforce each other. It shows how difficult, yet rewarding, it is to become aware of it and find your path to freedom and healing. Thank you David for this article. May your courage be an inspiration for many. Please, readers, take some time to comment, share your own stories, questions, insights: let’s open conversations together!
I’ve had the great pleasure of reading Marc-Henri Sandoz Paradella’s excellent book “Toxic Jesus: My Journey from Holy Shit to Spiritual Healing,” and Marc has graciously read and reviewed my book “The Everything Kid.” While our religious experiences were not exactly alike, I’m sure we’d both agree on this, that individuals are capable of both healthy and entirely unhealthy relationships with religions and a higher power.
My book begins by detailing my early life, as a child caught between two worlds, one of unrelenting cult indoctrination, and another of neglectful, self-indulgent narcissism. My father has lived a life of fanatical devotion to the Jehovah's Witnesses since I was a toddler, while my mother, having left the Witnesses when I was eight years old, for a time became a prisoner of her own choices and the chaos of mental illness and substance abuse, leaving me to engage in futile attempts to identify what either parent wanted or expected me to be. The Witnesses were proud of saying “the truth will set you free,” but in all the time I spent associated with this group I felt more confined mentally than at any other time in my life. For the remainder of my pre-adult life, I alternated between equally lethal households that may as well have been different planets, enduring toxic stress brought on by trying to adapt to the hostile and unpredictable environments created by my adult caregivers. I lived for a long time in a perpetual state of “fight or flight,” anxiously attempting to figure out which parents' version of the truth I needed to follow just to survive. To obtain the conditional love and attention I craved, I learned to cope by putting others' needs ahead of my own, leading to several co-dependent and traumatic relationships. After many years of working with caring and dedicated professionals, I learned to let go of my attachment to a desire and need to be everything to everyone.
I don’t share my story to gain pity or sympathy from others. I’ve long since learned not to let my past define me. Given my experiences, I’m genuinely uncomfortable around anyone who strives to talk to me about their version of God or the Christian Bible. Living in the Southeastern United States, I’m nearly always just a few steps away from a stranger who is more than willing to share their personal story of faith (even in my local Wal-Mart). This is not to say that I’ve abandoned all belief in a higher power, for I have not. I can neither prove nor disprove the presence of a higher power, and I don’t disparage anyone for their beliefs unless they leverage those same beliefs to bring harm to others.
My step-mother was often fond to say she believed it was her “job” to “beat Jehovah into her children.” We were abused mentally and physically in the name of a God and a religion that many know little about. My father and step-mother took cover for their own internal demons in a religion that protects pedophiles and abusers, and portrays God as murderous and vengeful, who is expected to soon destroy 99.9% of the earth’s population, leaving the eight million loyal Jehovah’s Witnesses to claim the earth for their own. It’s a wonder today that I’m not an atheist, and many who’ve left the Jehovah’s Witness do become non-believers. My mother was the exception to this, having moved from the Witnesses to the Episcopal Church, then to Born Again Christianity, then finally becoming a slave to the many televangelists that populate our cable networks.
I trust it comes as little surprise that I no longer attend any public places of worship. My relationship with a higher power is quite personal, and I don’t seek to influence anyone’s spiritual beliefs. Nature is my church now, my source of power and refreshment, the place where I find spiritual connection. I meditate sporadically and do not punish myself for not doing anything in ritualistic, rote fashion. I’ve successfully removed the poison words should, always and never from my vocabulary. I know full well there is no certainty except the choices I make each day. I cannot control my external environment or the thoughts, actions or behaviors of others. I only have power over my actions, my personal responses, and my perspective. As I’ve worked to adjust the way I see and understand events and other people, I’ve been able to reframe the conversations in my head. In short, I’ve been able to change the world around me by changing the world within me.
If you’ve been a victim of toxic families, or spiritual, mental or physical abuse, know that your past does not define who you are. It may take years of therapy and a willingness to do the hard work on yourself, while facing the difficult corners of your past, but the journey is worth it. By embracing my own truths, I’ve found a peace and level of appreciation for a life I couldn’t have imagined as a scared and frightened young child. May you know the peace of living the life you’ve imagined, confident in your own choices. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story with you.