Our Story Does Not Define Us

Regardless of how we were raised, who our parents were, what partners we chose, what drugs we took, or what career paths we followed, none of it matters in the here and now. You can be whomever and whatever you choose. When I was progressing through years of cognitive therapy to unpeel the multi-layered onion that made up my past, my therapist commented that she was just a little amazed that I had ended up on permanent disability given what I had lived through. I suppose I’m just more than a little proud to have received this recognition. As a young teenage man living in a run-down, decrepit shack just 35 years ago, I could never have imagined the career success I know today.

Like anything in life there was no straight line from there to here. There was hard work, REALLY hard work. I moved myself, at my own cost, from community college, to state college, then to private college, finally achieving my MBA at the age of 40. I struggled through two failed marriages until I realized happiness with a partner cannot come through sacrificing who I am. After attempts to find my spirituality as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses I learned that spirituality is found within, in my connection to the universe and the energy contained in it.

I know who I am today. Sometimes things are extremely difficult, but I am equipped to face adversity. I know who I am and will not let anyone cause me to doubt myself. I am not part of the herd. I am my own unique personality, one which no pen can hold. No matter how I got to where I am right now, my history does not define who I am. Instead of being a victim of my past I have achieved victory over it. Do not let your own story define who you are. Make a conscious decisions to be the person you want to be, the person you were meant to be. Your future self will thank you!

 

Woundology

rabbit-1882699_640I was recently introduced to the term “woundology.” It came up in conversation with a friend who was trying to explain the concept of my seeking and forming connections with those who had also endured traumatic childhood experiences. Completely intrigued, once I returned home I immediately researched the term to delve deeper into its meaning. I quickly found Caroline Myss’s amazing book “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can,” which is available for  purchase through Amazon, a work which did much to alter my perspective about my past.

Like many who have survived troubled childhoods, I have seen myself as injured, bruised, even damaged, eventually relishing in the diagnosis of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” that I received about ten years ago. Finally there was a name for the “illness” which had defined my existence for so long. Thinking of myself as  an abuse survivor gave my life meaning and went so far as to govern my choices in mates. I bonded with those who could somehow “get me” because they too had gone through similar trials and tribulations and appeared to me to be “on my level.” I so clearly saw my own suffering in others that when I tried to exit some extremely damaging relationships it was as painful as cutting out a part of myself. After many years, I can still recall seeing my first spouse as a fragile and vulnerable “wounded rabbit” when I finally made the decision to leave her, which in turn filled me with tremendous guilt, when in reality I was really just projecting onto her what I saw in myself. Choosing a partner based on a concept of shared wounds is nothing more than a false connection that is likely to break apart once one of the partners wakes up.

Sometimes we hold fast to our wounded definition of ourselves so tightly, afraid of the change that might come about if we dare try to find new meaning for our lives. Our fear of letting go of our wounds may manifest as a serious illness. The illness phase serves many purposes and may give us the attention we crave. Doctors fawn over us trying to find a root cause for our affliction, baffled when they can find nothing clinically wrong. I once endured nearly a year of tests, hospitalizations and unnecessary medications, culminating in a short stint in a psychiatric ward, all because I was not yet willing and able to look inside myself and allow the person I was deep within to live freely on the outside in the real world. I suppressed my heart’s desires, living in a world of “should” and “must,” believing that I was truly meant to suffer.

If you’ve ever told someone else that they have no business giving you advice because they didn’t suffer the same experiences you did, you may be identifying with woundology. Allowing our current self to be defined by our past experiences with a controlling religion, parent or spouse does not make us superior to anyone. No one has to have lived what we have lived through in order to fully connect with us, and we certainly don’t have to be defined by our early environments. While some events in our lives may have been beyond our control, especially when we were children, as adults, we now have the power to direct our lives as we see fit. We can forgive others, but most importantly we can forgive ourselves, and allow the healing energy within us to do the work it was meant to do.

SCHISM

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This is a story about divisions. There are many which we are already very familiar with. Satan versus God, Democrat versus Republican, Black versus White, Fascist versus Pacifist. I’m not writing about those divisions, but rather about those that can occur in one’s mind. The insidious cracks that wedge themselves into our subconscious, separating one area of our mind from the other, creating a chasm over which no sane thought may cross. If you’ve been torn, confused, felt stuck, or been unable to decide, you may have experienced this on some level. I’ve personally known painful, crushing and demoralizing vacillation, gripped and frozen by the depths of my own indecisiveness. I’ve spent a long time reflecting on the root cause of this affliction and its complex origins.

When I was just eight years old, my parents decided to separate and ultimately divorce. Unlike other children I knew whose parents were splitting up, my situation was made more difficult by the fact that my mother decided to leave her religious beliefs behind, the ones that my father still clung to. Prior to their divorce, they were both still loyal and active Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unlike most religions, one does not simply fade away from this organization. If you publicly proclaim your allegiance to it through a water baptism, and then later walk away, there is no simple shrugging from the other members. No, Jehovah’s Witnesses liken such a person to a “dog” that “returns to its own vomit,”  to quote the Bible at 2 Peter 2:22 (English Standard Version). They “shun” and cut off this sort of individual, meaning no one is to even acknowledge their presence at any time. In effect, my mother, once a friend to many in our congregation, was now dead to everyone she had known. My father even went so far as to forbid me to speak about her in the presence of other Witnesses, and if I did so accidentally, I was met with stern rebuke.

To say I was put into a tough situation would be an understatement. My father made it clear to me that my fervent loyalty to Jehovah (God) was of paramount importance and would even take precedence over my relationship with my mother. He quoted scripture to support my new reality, telling me that Jesus came to “set a man against a father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35, English Standard Version). From that moment on I would be divided, split in two, ripped apart, conflicted and torn. My mother left the Witnesses and never looked back. Over the years she moved from a wild life style to one of Christian devotion and conviction. My father remained a Jehovah’s Witness, even to this day, now approaching 50 years since his own baptism. When I was at my mother’s house, I was expected to celebrate Holidays and Birthdays and other “worldly” events. At my father’s home, I was expected to study the Watchtower magazine, attend mind-numbing meetings and spend Saturday mornings knocking on doors while other kids were watching cartoons. Moving from one house to the other was like sliding through space and time into another dimension in which nothing was familiar on either side of the worm hole.

I began to feel the conflict brewing in my mind, a battle actually for my mind, which led to my developing two personalities, the one my father expected to see, and the one my mother allowed me to be. I learned to move between the two personalities with ease. I fancied myself a chameleon, able to adjust my outward self based on the environment I was in. I didn’t know then just how dangerous this skill would become. In the process of becoming overly adaptable to the opposing worlds that my parents lived in, I didn’t develop my true self. Worse, I did not develop my own internal compass, or my own ability to make healthy choices. I learned to become whatever people wanted or needed me to be at any given moment. It took many years of therapy to unpeel the onion and find out who I really was beneath it all, and to become the person I am today.

As a teenager, I made my own commitment to the Jehovah’s Witness movement, and from that point on I was expected to have no more contact with my mother. I hadn’t really considered this outcome when I chose to get baptized. I thought the bond with my mother was above all others, yet should have known better. After four short years, I came to doubt my beliefs and the reasons I had for believing them. I left the Witnesses, was instantly cut off from friends and family members, but now the tables were turned, as I could no longer speak with my father. Since that time I have been in a situation where I can never have both parents in my life at the same time. If I return to the Witnesses I get my father back but lose my mother; stay where I am, and I remain disconnected from my father.

I’ve learned to accept this arrangement, knowing that the most important connection is the one I have with myself. I’m no longer divided, I’m no longer torn. I’m at peace with this life and know that it is my acceptance of my circumstances which contributes to this peace. I hold no hate in my heart for my father. Hate for others is a punishment one brings on one’s self and I will not allow that to interfere with my devotion to becoming my best self. In the absence of hate, love fills the void, and brings us the true happiness we seek. If you can relate to my experience, I wish you much success with your own healing process.

Please know that any outcome is possible, despite whatever environment you were raised in, and as someone more famous than me once said,”Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.” -Buddha

Burning Down My House

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Some things have a way of staying close to us for longer than we’d like. Events, things we did, things others did, along with many other experiences, both good and bad, settle in and become part of our being. We can’t choose what we remember, our brains an infinite hard drive on which to keep recording every second that passes in our lives. When winter comes, I can’t help but reflect on a very painful, tender spot in my memory bank, the time I self-destructed and ripped off a part of me that was all but permanently attached, leaving an ugly, pitted scar of a soul that almost never healed.

It was the winter of early 1987. I had been living a lie for nearly nine months, ever since I returned from “Bethel,” the world headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Brooklyn, New York. I had seen things there I had wished I had never seen. Prior to my arrival, I, like so many before me, looked forward to going to “God’s House,” to what I thought was the epicenter of the entire universe, the penultimate chapter in my life story, the place where I would come closer to God’s Holy Spirit than I could have ever imagined. Perhaps I was addicted to my own psychological hyperbole, imagining it to be so much more than it could ever hope to be. I may have been doomed from the moment I first set foot there, a victim of a letdown so spectacular that once I started falling I didn’t know how to stop.

Once free of my association with Bethel, I no longer had anything to look forward to. My only goal as a young Jehovah’s Witness was to spend the rest of my life serving God’s “Earthly Organization” to the fullest, rising to become the “Spiritual Giant” that so many encouraging and well meaning “Brothers and Sisters” had seen me becoming. I had large shoes to fill. When I began to question my beliefs as a result of juxtaposing what I had witnessed against what I expected, the spirit within me shriveled up and died, and left my body like cold, foul excrement. A part of me died. A part of me had to die so another part of me could live.

After I left Bethel, I went on a tear. Lost and disillusioned like a sheep who wandered away from the flock, I resumed my “worldly” ways. I found willing associates who would enable me as I sought an escape at every turn, filling the newfound void within me with alcohol and pot. No one knew the real me, including me, or at least I don’t believe they did. There may have been a few who had suspected but quickly put any such thoughts aside, remembering how loyal and faithful I had been. So convincing I must have been, that in that fateful early part of 1987 I was offered not one but two parts in the local circuit assembly (a large area gathering of JWs). One part was a straightforward talk based on a short bible passage. The other was a part in a short skit or “drama,” about a “brother” who was secretly smoking pot. For some reason the part was cancelled at the last minute, which was simply too bad, as I would have done an excellent job of “acting” like the pot-smoking brother. The talk was another matter. I never prepared for it, unless you were to count my going out to the bar the night before and pounding down about a half dozen beers before returning to the hotel room I was sharing with several other young brothers.

By this point I was becoming less guarded, and the brothers I was staying with knew full well that I had too much to drink. They were shocked and didn’t know how to respond. The next morning I gave the talk, without any preparation, in front of a crowd of just over 1,000. To this day it is the largest audience I have ever spoken in front of. After I was done, many came up to congratulate me on the fine job I did. It was the last talk I would ever give as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Freefall continued. Several weeks later, I took a job about two hours away. I told my “Congregation Overseer” (CO) about the move, and he just asked that I give him my new congregation’s information so he could transfer my “publisher card,” the personal record kept within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. Once I started the new job I made new friends, friends who introduced me to dance clubs, more pot, and new diversions like cocaine and mushrooms. I never looked back. I didn’t even try to find where the Kingdom Hall was in my new town. I visited my old Hall two weeks later, the last time I would ever set foot in a Kingdom Hall for the rest of my life, and delivered the shocking news to my CO, the news that I hadn’t gone to a new meeting in my new location. He was beyond flabbergasted. We wouldn’t speak again until he received my letter of confession two weeks later.

In my mind, I was cornered. I was past the point of no return. My faith in the JW teachings lost, I carried a big empty hole inside of me, which I sought at every turn to fill with pleasure seeking. There was no way I was going back, admitting what I had done and being shamed for it. Alone in my temporary lodgings in an old hotel room on the west side of town, I sat in the bathroom drinking bourbon and listening to Led Zeppelin until I could feel no more. I didn’t care about me and I didn’t believe any God did either. I don’t even know how I managed to work while all this was going on. I was so intently focused on destroying everything I had known, on erasing every memory of my recent past.

I’ve certainly come a long way since those dark days. I know peace now and I have learned much. If you struggle as I once did, know I share my story so you can see your struggle is not yours alone. If you have never been a part of a controlling and authoritarian religion, then please understand that there are many who are, and who need our empathy and assistance should they be willing to receive it. Thank you for sharing part of my personal journey with me.

Rabbit Holes and Butterflies

I’ve often tried to put my childhood into the proper perspective. I don’t believe in blaming others for who I am today. I believe that I am accountable for my own actions and behaviors. I am a responsible adult, and the choices I make today and every day thereafter will determine my destiny. I do not believe in predestination. If such a thing were true then what is the point? There may be a higher power, as I have found no hard evidence to disprove the existence of one, but her, she or “it” is not a puppeteer, pulling the strings from above, dictating our every move. Typically, I want to vomit when someone said God helped them find a good parking spot or guided them to the last $9.99 door buster sweater. Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that there is a “supreme” being that can help you get a rock bottom price on a sweater but can’t prevent a child from dying of starvation or prevent a baby’s mother from overdosing? That’s not a being I would want to worship, let alone even talk to. Therefore, I don’t believe that such intervention exists in the realm of the real.

As a child, I learned early on that the adults don’t always know what they are doing. My mother, for all of her imperfections, has always loved me deep down inside. Like so many, she had flaws and unresolved conflicts from her own childhood. She and my father split for good when I was eight years old. No two parents could have been more dramatically and diametrically opposed. My mother left the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time as she and my father separated. I’m not going to judge and say who did what as there are always two sides to every story. After their separation, my father remained one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What he wanted more than anything in the world was for me to also be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What my mother wanted, more than anything in the world, was for me to NOT be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thus the real fun began. My father picked us up for the meetings even when it wasn’t his weekend. That meant seeing his car pull up to the home we lived in with our mother on Tuesday and Thursday nights as well as Sunday mornings. Somewhere along the way, but very early on, my sister decided she didn’t want to have any part of this. At the age of four she was able to tell my father “no,” and somehow she wasn’t going to meetings anymore while I still was.

My mother’s life was taking its own strange twists and turns. She had moved in with a man much older than she was that had no experience with children. In fact, I believe he regarded them as a nuisance, and believed they were targets for all sorts of flying things whether they be clocks, radios, or chairs. My mother was a target to, and she felt trapped. Shortly after my parents split my father remarried. His new wife seemed kind and caring, and their home seemed peaceful and calm. I was looking for love and attachment, and I would have went anywhere at that time, and my father’s home seemed like the right fit.

I moved in with my father and stepmother three quarters of the way into my eleventh year, at the same time as I was in the process of getting skipped from fourth to fifth grade. It was a lot of transition all at once and I did not handle it well. I didn’t know how to be the new kid at school and approached my new environment in an awkward, haphazard manner. It wasn’t long before I drew the ire of the most popular kid in the class, the son of a lawyer, who made sure I knew my place. On a warm, early June day, he literally kicked my ass all the way home.

When I arrived home, I fell into my stepmother’s arms, seeking solace and comfort in her embrace. She acted as if she believed my story and provided the empathy and support I needed. I felt safe and secure, and believed she and my father would defend me. The fairy-tale came to an abrupt end after she met with the principal and the other kid’s parents. The tables were turned, and I was painted as the instigator. It was my act of calling this other child a “turkey” that had earned my punishment. Shame on me for calling someone a name, shame on me for acting like I didn’t do anything wrong.

Life with my father and stepmother took a sharp right turn immediately over a high, rock strewn cliff. The scars remain with me to this day. My stepmother was no longer a source of peace or protection. She became my enemy and I became hers. I endured silence when I came home, a lack of words accompanied by cold icy stares over the top of her glasses. Then the beatings began, typically when my father was not home. I was told that under no circumstances was I allowed to tell my mother about any of it for fear of worse punishment to come. While this was occurring at home, I became a target at school as well. Add to all of this the fact that I was a Jehovah’s Witness who was not allowed to salute the flag, celebrate birthdays and Holidays, or participate in any school activities.

I was afraid of the final bell at school. I knew that its ring meant I better rush out and run home as quickly as I could before someone caught hold of me and beat me to a dirty mess. I was afraid of getting home for fear of the unpredictable mood of my stepmother. I lived with butterflies in my stomach from the moment I woke up until it was time to go to bed. I don’t know how I slept at all. When I visited my mother the butterflies only intensified as I wanted to so badly tell her the truth. I thought I would explode into a million pieces. I believed physical punishment was what I deserved. It became a part of who I was. Alone in my room at night, just before I was to go to bed, I would pretend to beat myself up, punching myself in the head, stomach or wherever my fists landed. If I was home alone I really went at it, crashing into the wall or throwing myself down to the floor as hard as I possibly could. This was my own private rabbit hole, and I dove full force into it whenever possible. I began to reason that if I could hurt myself worse than anyone else could that I would become immune to the pain that others inflicted upon me. I would use this strategy several times over later in life, hurting myself with drugs or alcohol, trying to find a way to numb the pain while intensifying it at the same time.

I am much older now and I am no longer that little boy or even the twenty-one-year old version of myself that found new rabbit holes to crawl into. I have forgiven myself. I have forgiven my mother. But as much as I want to say I forgive my father and stepmother and set myself free from the hate and the anger that loves to live inside of me, its a real struggle to do so. They don’t speak to me today because I am no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Its probably just as well. I’ve learned that they are more than flawed, they are evil. Evil for not protecting their offspring, evil for inflicting emotional and physical harm on all of their defenseless children. They have created a kind of damage that takes years of self-reflection and determination to undo. They claim to believe in a higher power who will judge each and every one of us when the end comes, and I certainly hope they’re right. In the meantime, I’ve broken the chain and have become the best person and parent I know how to be. That’s what my children, and my children’s children deserve.

May the new year bring peace and blessings to you all.

 

 

 

Self-Actualization: Can you achieve it as a member of a high control group?

One of the best known American psychologists was Abraham Maslow. As most are aware, he created the famous “Hierarchy of Needs” theory, which sought to explain the connection between an individual’s happiness and the meeting of their psychological needs. As time and experience have shown me, this theory helps to shed light on much of the success of high-control religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. How so? Let’s first take a look at Maslow’s famous pyramid:

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McLeod, S. A. (2016). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

As adults, we are typically responsible and able to meet the most basic needs, the physiological ones, shown at the bottom of the pyramid. There are examples of members in high-control groups who have even these needs met for them. When I served at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a teenager, I was provided with lodging, food, warmth and water. I wanted for nothing physically. Expanding up the next step of the pyramid we find safety needs. As a Jehovah’s Witness, these needs are met by the group as well. I frequently heard “Where else will you go?” as a loyal member. The world outside the confines of the group is painted as a a frightening place, fraught with murderers, thieves and adulterers. If any sheep stray away from the flock, surely they would be instantly devoured by one of the many wolves just waiting for them on the perimeter! Yes, I felt safe and secure among “Jehovah’s people.” I believed that “sometime soon” the rest of the world would be destroyed, so there was no sensible reason for me to seek the meeting of my needs for security outside the group.

The meeting of psychological needs as a Witness is more complex. I learned that my only “true friends” were other Witnesses, and that individuals who were not Witnesses were simply “bad association,” not worthy of my attention unless I was trying to convert them. I believed that I had many great friends in the Witnesses, but when I decided to leave not one remained with me, in fact they never spoke to me again. Is that true friendship? So tight is the need to keep intimate relationships within the Witnesses that those who marry someone “out of the truth,” in other words, a non-Witness, are regarded as “spiritually weak.” And what of the need for esteem, the next level up in the hierarchy? This was my greatest need when I decided to dedicate myself to the group at the age of sixteen. I felt like an outcast at school. However, once inside the Kingdom Hall, I was a star. I participated in all the meetings, raising my hand to answer well formulated and guided responses to the questions raised in the study guides. Many came up after meetings to congratulate me on my “deep spiritual wisdom.” I carried several responsibilities in the Kingdom Hall, such as helping with the microphones and the “literature counter.” When I made it known to all that my goal was to serve at the JW headquarters, one elder remarked that I would be a “spiritual giant.” Me, a giant! Imagine that! My head swelled to epic proportions as all my needs for prestige and accomplishment were met many times over.

Sounds really good so far right? So why did I not stay? Because the highest need in the pyramid above, my need for self-actualization, was not met. There is no room for creativity in the Witness organization. If one dares to make time for creative activities such as writing, painting or singing (unless they are singing Witness songs or writing or painting along Witness themes), they are deemed to be “spiritually weak.” No, a good Witness fills their time with meeting attendance, hours in field service trying to convert non-adherents, and countless hours reading the literature that is released at a breathtaking pace. There is no time for for attention to one’s self, let alone time to think. But I knew that I was meant to do more than be someone’s puppet. Inside I felt suffocated and trapped. My own spirit cried out for release! I was good at doing, at completing the tasks I had been given. I was not allowed to question why I was doing what I was doing or the effectiveness of my own actions. I was dying inside, but I made up my mind to leave before I lost myself for good.

Today, I am grateful to have the time to do the things I love and spend quality time with the ones I love. I write freely, without feeling guilty for the time I spend doing it. My creative urges are no longer suppressed. I am truly free! Free to become the best version of myself. Free to pursue the next level of the hierarchy, added later and not shown here, which is transcendence. I am motivated to share what I have learned, to help others realize their full potential also. If you are in a high-control group, please question what you are doing with your life right now. I recall an aptly named JW book from many years ago title “Is This Life All There Is?” Indeed, is a life spent in all-consuming slavery to an organization’s cause a life fully lived and fully realized?  I suppressed my own voice for years until I learned to follow it. Listen to your inner voice. Follow your heart. Create your own reality. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” It’s never too late.

 

The Paradox of Ego Development in Growth & Healing

Bonnie Zieman

“When you perceive a truth, look for the balancing truth.

― John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton

While writing books on recovery from the undue influence of high-control groups, I was often aware of the puzzling fact that the opposite of what I was saying was also true. The paradox being, as Niels Bohr says, “…the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” For example:

  • while healing from high-control group exploitation requires that we dig up the past and work through the lingering emotions due to all the undue influence, true healing can only take place in the present.
  • while we work to strengthen and heal the self — true freedom, according to the great eastern philosophies, is ultimately found in finally recognizing that there is no separate self.
  • while implicit in the “hero’s journey” is that in the future we will arrive…

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