Today’s Mind Control is the second half of a two part series with Karen, a survivor of spiritual abuse. Read the first half of her interview here.
Your description of being at a church camp where everyone yelled at the kids and told them they were going to hell sounds frightening. Were the kids able to fall asleep under those conditions?
They had scared us so badly that none of us could sleep that night. I was as scared as the other kids but I didn’t let them know I was afraid. I just laid under the covers. We were all afraid that God was going to come in the middle of the night. Also, I was at the “age of accountability” which was seven. Which is the age when you realize you’re a sinner. To be saved you have to be baptized in Jesus’ name and you have to speak in tongues; that’s the formula.
Were you able to speak in tongues?
Yes. Two months after camp I spoke in tongues. You have to work yourself up to it. There’s a lot of music and drums in the church; it puts you in a meditative state. It’s an emotional high. There’s almost like an addiction to it. We danced and felt free. But then, when we were emotionally charged and vulnerable from the dance, adults would tell us how worthless we were.
After you spoke in tongues were you saved?
I was, but you can lose the Holy Spirit if you do something wrong. I used to dream about Hell all the time. I would think about it. I would pray that God wouldn’t come back that day just in case I didn’t have enough of the Holy Spirit to go to heaven. It felt like constant torture. People were brainwashed to live in fear.
What were other ways that they inspired fear in people?
The minister said if you didn’t pay your tithe, which was 10% of your salary, that you could lose your first born. He used an example of a man who accidentally ran over his 10 year-old son with his truck. The minister said this happened because he didn’t pay his tithe. Something bad or tragic would happen to you if you didn’t pay your money. That’s the way they controlled you.
How were you able to overcome that kind of fear and ultimately break away from the religion?
It took me six years to wean myself off the religion. My feelings for women would not go away. By the time I was 25, I had prayed to God for six years to take these feelings away. Then I realized either I just didn’t have enough faith or I was just doomed. In the Pentecostal church, if you think it, you did it. One time, when I was 21, we were driving and I was asleep. I was having a dream that I was someone’s girlfriend. We were hit by a drunk driver. He was killed and my parents were badly injured. I was convinced it was because of my dream.
How did things change when you turned 25?
That’s when I said, “Well, if I’m going to hell, then I’m going to make it worth it.” I went on a rampage. That’s what a lot of kids from our religion did. They went buck wild. I also dated men up to the time I was 25, but that changed, too.
Where do you draw the line between spiritual abuse and a religion that just doesn’t work for you?
Spiritual abuse is when a religion beats you down so much that you’re afraid to have your own thoughts and you’re intentionally kept in a constant state of fear. Also, when you cannot express any emotion unless you are in church. Basically, it’s thought control. It makes you feel less than. I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was six and told that I got the disease because of the sins of my fathers and because of my lack of faith. I almost died from it before they would give me actual medical treatment.
In what other ways was the religion spiritually abusive?
You were never taught to think about the future because God might come back at any moment. It was hard to think of my life past 20. You’re obsessed with the rapture. One time, when I was six, I woke up and my parents were outside working in the yard. I didn’t know where they were so I thought the rapture had happened. I went and got my younger siblings and started making plans for taking care of things. Then I found my parents were outside.
How did your parents react when they found out that you are gay?
My mother told me that I wasn’t. My dad didn’t talk to me. I was 26-years-old. Then my mother started fasting for my salvation. Every month she would fast and lose a bunch of weight; then gain it back. I asked her if it was some kind of diet for her. Eventually, my parents became friends with my former partner of 12 years.
Do you still feel the effects of being spiritually abused?
Yes. Even when good things happen to me today, I feel like I don’t deserve them. I believe that something bad is going to happen. When you’re in the religion, anything good that happens has to come from God. If it doesn’t come from God, then something bad is going to happen. Also, you cannot be proud of yourself.
Do you have any advice for others who may have gone through similar experiences and are trying to recover?
I would say to try and connect with others who have been emotionally damaged by that same fear. I read the stories of other ex-Pentecostals online and that helped me a lot. If you have post-traumatic stress from spiritual abuse, you get into a feelings vacuum. Then you have to re-center yourself. You also have to find support groups and then re-write your story.
Karen continues to thrive in her recovery from spiritual abuse, and recently received her Ph.d in counseling. Karen is committed to helping others find the courage to overcome adversity and re-author their own lives.