From the Author: When I embarked on the task of writing about the steps I took in order to heal from religious brainwashing in a strict, fundamentalist religion, I did it with the sincere desire to give other cult survivors some “options” to take in the healing and deprogramming process. However, I am not sure that most people would be willing to go to the lengths that I went to in order to deprogram. After all, I did what worked for me. Remember, that in my Recovery and Healing Series, I clearly said that, “. . . what worked for me, may not work for you. Everyone’s situation is different?”
When I received the initial post and email from a mother who was hurting because of the damage the cult indoctrination did to her and her children, I felt it would be helpful for people to hear from one of my children regarding what he did in order to deprogram. So, I enlisted the aid of my third oldest, Aaron, to give his story regarding recovery and healing from cult brainwashing as a young teenager. I believe you will find his ONE STEP Process quite easy; and at the same time, possibly difficult. We all know that sometimes it is easier to say something, than to actually do it. However, I just wanted to give people one more “option” in the healing and recovery process. I hope it is helpful not only for the adults, but for the teens and young adults who are Aaron’s age, to hear his story of growing up in a cult and his one step recovery “option.”
The Teen Years
By Aaron McClaskey
From the day I was born, to the age of roughly 17, most of my life was saturated in the Baptist dogma. When I was three years of age, I was enrolled into a private Christian school. As far as I was aware, it was a fun environment. I remember going to school, meeting with my friends, and mostly having a lot of fun. At that young of an age, there was little I understood. However there was one rule that I never quite fully understood (even till this day), and that was discipline. There were times when I would do something wrong at school, and being that this school was a private one, the teachers had permission to discipline students. If I was spanked at school, then I would get spanked again once I got home. I never understood this. If the punishment for being tardy is a spanking, and I receive one from the principal, then why should I get another one when I get home? I remember strongly disliking a particular teacher. She was always mean to me and often times would pull me by my hair and yell at me for things that I had no idea what she was referring to. However, when you’re the parent and the teacher says your kid was bad and needed disciplined, then there’s not much I can say to state my case. After all, I was considered too young to have a say about it. Anyways, if the punishment was meant to “fit” the crime, then was I over-punished?
At the age of six, I – along with my brother and sister, were pulled out of the private school and out of the church that ran it. We were then homeschooled from that point on. There were several reasons, some of which aren’t related to the church or school, but for the reasons that were related to the church and school, I didn’t understand until many years later. My parents told me why we were leaving, but I simply couldn’t comprehend the size of the situation. After leaving this church and school, my family and I spent many years at a few different churches, and every church we left was for the same reason; corruption.
My purpose here isn’t to give you a full biography on myself, or to say that all churches are bad, but for you to understand the toll that the cult environment took on me. I like to relate the Baptist dogma to smoking; many people start out enjoying themselves, but years later they realize that they’ve been infected with a cancer. As a child, they begin to teach you what you should and shouldn’t do. Some of these teachings are moral, and the others are opinions which are usually disguised as “Bible Truths.” The moral teaching, although some fell under the opinion category, still sticks with me to this day, and I can honestly say that I’m grateful for learning these values at a young age, for example; respecting my parents, respecting others, working hard, and (to an extent) representing myself appropriately.
As for the opinions disguised as “Bible truths,” here’s a list of things that were said to me…in literal form, and while you’re reading the list, I want you to imagine an older preacher yelling these things from behind his expensive pulpit:
• “It is a sin for women to wear pants!” (Yet they never touched on the fact that Jesus never said that.)
• “Woman are subjective to men and should be silent in the church!” (Yet, God allowed women to fulfill his purpose without silence.)
• “Protect yourself from all appearances of evil… It is a sin to go to a movie theatre!” (This one I never understood, especially since Christian films such as Fireproof have played there, and for nearly $10 a movie ticket, I doubt I’ll do anything other than watch the movie.)
• “What’s with all this MySpace and YouTube trash?? YOU DON’T NEED A SPACE!!!” (Funny they said that. Their social media bias was spoken with true conviction, but when you fast forward to present day, almost every church and pastor has a Facebook account… WTF – which clearly means Welcome To Facebook!)
These are just some of the legalistic and opinionated views that were directed my way through the years. There’s many more, and the worst part of it all, I believed it. I didn’t believe these things because of my research in scripture, I believed them because I was told to. I wasn’t allowed to question pastors on their beliefs, as I would have the ‘‘hammer of God’’ brought down on me. I was to believe what I was told, say what I was told to say, and maybe – just maybe, I’d be right with God. I behaved and acted in accordance with the truth as I perceived it to be. I remember participating in what they called “Soul-winning” or “Visitation.” I also remember how judgmental and opinionated I was when I would interact with complete strangers, and tell them what I was told to say in order to “bring them to Jesus.” I know for a fact that a lot of people probably looked at me as I walked away and thought “That kid was an a**hole.” They would’ve been right to think that.I was rude and judgmental to people, all in the name of Jesus. I didn’t care though. As far as I was concerned, God was going to bless me for “not letting people be comfortable in their sin.”
In my younger pre-teen years, I was sold on the Baptist cause. However, as I began to enter my mid-teen years, things began to become routine, and I began to get bored. I’m one of those people who begin to think about things when I get bored, and this is when my internal conflicts began. One of the yearly activities I would partake in is summer camp. I loved summer camp, but not for the reasons that I was meant to love it for. Honestly, I liked being able to eat a lot of food, go swimming, and have fun with my friends. What did I dislike about camp? All of the preaching services. Why? Because nearly every service involved the preacher literally telling us just how problematic we were. The preachers would always tell stories about individuals who became “casualties of the faith” and how they succumbed to lust and temptation and made life altering mistakes. Most of those mistakes in correlation with opposite genders locking lips (kissing) or any kind of touching for that matter. It sounds crazy, and it is, but it’s true. I can tell you now, just because the opposite gender is in close proximity does not mean that sex will ensue, yet that’s exactly how we were all treated every time the church would have any type of gathering. Even in Sunday school, boys sat on one side and girls on the other. It was in my mid-teens that I came to the realization that my Sunday school teachers weren’t concerned, they were paranoid!
The main agenda that all the Sunday school teachers and preachers would push is “Do you want to be right with God?” If we said yes, then we would literally be told the things we needed to do, which is quite formulated and legalistic if you ask me. So what is the list of things one would need to do in order to be considered “right” with God? Good question, here you go:
• Attend church three times a week (And yes, Wednesday services are unquestionable!)
• Show up for Sunday-school, morning service and afternoon service (Because you need to make sure you’re right with God).
• Be involved in the church! The more involvement the better, which include but are not limited to:
o Attending “revivals” that take place during week days (Whether or not you have to work is irrelevant, you should get your priorities straight!).
o Attending visitation every Saturday (So what if you work a full time job and want to spend time with your family? The church… I mean “God” comes first!).
o Give at least 10% of your gross income to the church… I mean God… (Doesn’t matter if you’re struggling to provide for your family, the pastor said that God needs your money!).
o Join the church choir! That is, after you have signed the terms and conditions (And no, I’m not making this up. They actually make you sign a document).
As you have read above, you can easily see how feeling that you have to do all these things can seem overwhelming, especially to a kid in their teens. Yet most teens are so naïve that they’ll do it because they literally do not know any different. I had to ask myself at a certain point, “If this is what being Christian is all about, do I want to be Christian?” Do not misunderstand me or this article I’m writing. My goal isn’t to tear down anyone’s personal beliefs, but to challenge you to think on your own and ask the questions that lay in the back of your mind, questions that you never wanted to ask yourself out of fear, fear that you may face rejection by everyone you know, or that you may face the reality that everything you have believed in and stood for in your life has all been a lie. I challenge you to ask the hard questions because in reality, the projection of your life depends on it.
As I reached the age of 16, significant events in my life took place, due to the church. I will not elaborate on those events here, as that is another topic for another time. However, In order for me to question myself and what I’ve believed, I had to face pain. My family had to face pain, and all of it stemmed from the very place we went to find joy and happiness – the church. Earlier I listed some of the things you had to do to be considered “right with God.” Some of you may ask why I mention those things in a negative connotation. Honestly, if you believe in doing those things out of your own merit, then by all means do it. But if you’re trying to secure yourself a place of prestige in the church by publicly doing these acts, then are you acting for God or for man? I’ve noticed many people put on a façade for others by demonstrating how self-righteous they are, and it was irritating to say the least. No one likes self-righteous, arrogant people, yet that’s exactly how you are taught to be, and it gets promoted constantly in the church (although no pastor or deacon will admit that to you).
In my eyes, I felt many times that I couldn’t live up to these standards, and as time went by, I found out I was right – but I’m happier knowing that. I felt that in order for me to fulfill the requirements of the church, I had to be nearly perfect. As a result, I always fell short, and I always felt disappointed with myself. It wasn’t till my later teens that I was made aware of an interesting fact. My dad and I often went to the gym together. There were many people that we would talk with and work out with, but one man in particular said something during a conversation that has stuck with me for many years now. He made the remark;
“Everyone is so caught up with trying to be perfect, yet the last person to walk the earth who really was perfect was killed for it. Do people really want to be perfect?”
That statement was profound, and it certainly will resonate with me for the rest of my life. Jesus never asked for perfection from anyone, any time in history, and therefore no one should ever be required to attempt to live up to this kind of status. This is why I no longer partake in an organized belief system. I no longer attend a local gathering for that belief system. Why? Because religion is man-made, not God-made. A Baptist preacher once made a statement regarding Christianity, and I thought it was also profound, considering it came from Jack Schaap who is currently in jail for corruption. He said the following;
“Christianity has brought alienation instead of unity. Imbalance instead of balance. Christianity is a divider of men.”
To all the young individuals who may be struggling to feel their worth, just know that there is more to life than the church and religion. Jesus wasn’t of any religion, nor did he attend a church. His message was about truth, love, beauty, and unity. He did not alienate himself from people based on their lifestyle, ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual orientation. The bible says “For God so loved the world…” I am responsible for my life and for what I do. It is no one’s place to judge and condemn others just because they sin differently than you. What helped me recover from the Baptist mentality was simply having the will to think on my own terms. I realize that thinking on your own may be difficult, as there are many influences surrounding us every day, but I encourage you to take that leap of faith, and ask the hard questions.
There’s only one word that can appropriately sum up my life after the church: Freedom.
Some of you may be reading this with the hopes of finding out how to go about deprogramming yourself from the religious dogma. If you are anything like me, then you will find this reading beneficial, and something you can relate to. However, if you are not like me, then unfortunately I cannot explain to you any other way that you would be able to relate to. For me, deprogramming was simply a choice. I acted in spite of what I had been told for so many years. For many people, that may come easy. For others, not so much. What works for me will not work for all. This is just my story, but I hope it’s one that you can benefit from.
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As you will see from Aaron’s story, he simply chose to think for himself. Cult brainwashing is all about thinking and believing like the ‘religious leaders and religious system’ one is serving. Independent thought and reasoning is frowned upon and punished in all abusive religions. Aaron, as young as he was when we extracted ourselves from the cult, was smart enough to realize as a young teen that there were ‘red flags’ raised throughout his life. Aaron not only refused to ignore them, he also refused to ignore the reality of the pain we went through as a family because of the religious teachings. What my husband and I went through greatly impacted him and the rest of our children. Amazingly, this shows us that children are more perceptive than we give them credit for as parents. They understand more than we give them credit for. They have the amazing ability to see through the lies that religion tries to pull over their heads once they begin thinking on their own.
I would have to say, that as a parent, I am very proud of the way he chose to recover. For him, it was a choice to simply think differently. That’s how it was for my husband as well. He simply chose to start thinking differently and to question everything he was taught, developing his own belief system based on independent reasoning and experience. For me, I needed to educate myself to prove every thought and question I had because I had almost 20 years of brainwashing to undo. My personality and way of doing things was different than my husband and son’s. I was too AFRAID to accept the truth as truth without evidence to support it because my self-worth and self-esteem had been destroyed by cult teaching. Thankfully, Aaron graciously and wisely accepted our extraction and realized as a young teenager that it’s not about ‘religion,’ it’s about love. It’s not about ‘following rules,’ it’s about following God. It’s not about going to church, it’s about have a relationship with God. It’s not about separating yourself from the world, it’s about being a light and example to follow. It’s not about self-righteous, separated, holier-than-thou living, it’s about exercising humility, kindness, mercy, love, compassion, patience, honesty, and integrity toward others. It’s not about judging others, it’s about accepting them where they are, loving them, encouraging them . . . and letting God do the work in their lives because only HE can change them and only HE can draw them near. As a young teen, he realized these basic truths and life principles and, as a result, he has become a young adult that has gained wisdom beyond his years. Son, your Dad and I are so proud of you!