I grew up as a peculiar child. I wore long dresses and skirts that would often swish when I walked or tangle around my skinny legs as I did everything from climbing trees to singing in the church’s choir. I had to always “look and act like a lady” from childhood into my early adult years, knowing my only calling in life was to be a wife and a mother and nothing more. I was always to be overseen by a man and had to submit in all things. A hallmark aspect of the Christian Fundamentalist and patriarchy movement is that men were the bosses in the church and at home, and women were to serve them. To have a “servant’s heart” was preached and I feel that if anyone had that kind of “heart,” it was us, women. You served the church, its pastor, your parents, your husband, your children and it was considered selfish to look after yourself, let alone complain. There were so many restrictions and things we couldn’t do. I didn’t go to public school, to college, let alone have “normal” high school experiences. There was no prom or a dance partner to take you since boyfriends were not allowed. In the “purity culture” movement, you wouldn’t date, you’d court. Never sharing a kiss until your wedding day. If you broke the rules, you didn’t wear white, period. Since girlhood, what little I knew about sex was terrifying. I had survived abuse from childhood and “wifely duties” sounded to me like just more of the same. You had no voice, no choice. If you dared to breathe a word of defiance you were met with condemnation, shame and rebuke. Sometimes, even physical and sexual violence. What if sex is scary? “Wives, submit yourselves…” What if sex hurts? “Wives submit yourselves…” What if I don’t want to have sex? “Wives submit yourselves…” What if my husband treats me badly? “Wives submit yourselves…” What if my husband raped me? “As a wife, you should have submitted yourself…” I was taught to take care of my future husband’s “needs,” to lay there and give my body, my health, my womb to him and by doing this I would be serving God. To say “no” could result in judgment, even from that same god. I grew up in this deeply harmful environment, but I didn’t stay in it. At 21, I left due to years of abuse , trauma and a lack of safety — things that wreaked havoc on my body and brain. I didn’t want to stay anymore, I couldn’t. I stumbled alone and confused and risked damnation and sustained shunning. I left it all: lots of family, friends and people I knew for most of my life, not to mention my only communication line to an all-powerful being. In those first devastating years, I had no idea what I would gain in the future, only what I had lost. Online support groups likely saved my life. I was able to safely connect and find support from those who survived what I had also experienced. Sharing and listening to others created that community I had lost, but a much healthier version of it. Each of us were trying to just keep our heads above water, but some were seasoned swimmers who lent their strength to those of us who were just transitioning into the “real” world post-cult. Some people would say we were “crazy” if we shared our stories, but survivors knew we were far from having lost our minds, even though years and years of religious abuse and narcissistic pastors behind wooden pulpits had damaged them greatly. It took me six long years to finally make the leap that I so desperately needed. Reaching out for support for my mental health , I feel, was the biggest deal changer and most courageous step I’ve taken. Psychology was taught to be evil, manipulative and a sin. Medications for depression and anxiety utterly wicked. Mental health was seen as a spiritual weakness on a believer’s part. Although I was far enough removed from those harmful teachings when I decided to start therapy, those things were still deeply ingrained in me in emotions like guilt, shame and even fear. Those teachings appeared in my lack of boundaries with relatives, sacrificing myself over and over for the people in my life because I had been taught to give my all to the point of depletion. If I didn’t collapse after helping, surely, I felt I hadn’t done my best. A cult survives by feeding off a member’s inability to make boundaries, manipulating them into believing that they must serve and sacrifice themselves to their beliefs, their leader, fellow members and family, and let’s not forget the cult’s cause. They plant guilt for simply being a human with human limitations. Service was really more like a form of slavery. Slavery to an abusive religion, slavery to an authoritarian pastor, slavery to being my Christian parents’ perfect child, and slavery to my future husband if I had stayed. I was a slave to everyone but my own needs. I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and I never went to war, only to church. In the end, what that translated to was very real and vivid flashbacks that still can appear out of nowhere. I struggle with things like depression , feeling like a complete outsider among my peers due to being born and raised in a cult, and not fully being able to relate with others. I learned to socialize by mimicking the banned movies I watched and studying the room around me. Connecting on a deeper level with a person who hasn’t survived a traumatic event or left a religiously abusive group is challenging and takes a lot of determination on my part, and I treasure those connections more for it. Freely enjoying sex can be a constant state of mental gymnastics, giving and taking equally, allowing myself to experience the pleasure that, as a woman, I was never supposed to feel. Having choices and a voice, free will and the ability to explore who I am as a person and what I want out of life is still very foreign to me after decades of being controlled. I was taught to be owned, not to own my own life. If I’m honest, all of this can be incredibly overwhelming. Religious abuse is its own form of complicated and complex trauma . It wounds a human being deep within their core. It steals an innocence that can’t be returned and healing is made that much more difficult because of it. It took me a bit before I openly said the word “cult” with my therapist. I didn’t want to come off as anti-religious because I am not. I’ve seen the very worst religion can do, but I know there is a difference between religion and a cult claiming to be religious. I was afraid to be misunderstood, dismissed, invalidated and hurt all over again. To put it bluntly as a cult survivor: why would I ever want to experience the hell of being shunned, again? I, instead, explained the environment I grew up in, listing the very things that give a cult its definition (behavior control, information control, thought control and emotional control). Then, I bravely said, “I believe, after talking to thousands of survivors from my group, the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, that I was in a cult.” My therapist went silent but never argued. I waited for the dismissal of what I said, for her to reconsider diagnosing me with more than PTSD. But, in fact, what I received next was not disbelief or judgment, not even skepticism — I received support. Escaping and surviving a cult is much like escaping and surviving domestic violence, I was told, and the analogy was one I had already found in processing my experiences. Therapy offers me the resources to help me heal and learn important tools to navigate life not only post-cult but life as a human being with free will. I’d dare say seeking secular help could still be seen as an act of rebellion on my part as a former fundamentalist and even as a female. My experience was positive with a mental health professional, but unfortunately, not all religious abuse survivors’ experiences are. I knew to edge into revealing about my time in an abusive high control group after hearing the horror stories of therapists who wouldn’t support their clients once they shared with them their experiences. Revealing you have been a victim of religious trauma is like sharing any other form of trauma : it’s utterly terrifying. Validation during what can be the most vulnerable moment of a survivor’s life is vital. Validation from professionals should be around every corner on a survivor’s journey. Help should be easily accessible and include religious abuse recovery. So often, it feels to request that alone is asking for a miracle to occur out of thin air. My challenge for the mental health community — and the greater public as well — is to first start recognizing what religious abuse looks like. It may look like little girls wearing long dresses and having no voice and no choice, who grow up into wives who are nothing more than sex slaves to patriarchal husbands. Or, it can look like a young man in a suit who’s secretly battling debilitating depression . Looks can be deceiving, but I promise you that listening to a survivor of religious trauma will paint a more accurate and heartbreaking picture than Hollywood ever could. This leads me to my second challenge: take a moment and get informed on the harm religious abuse does to people everywhere. Those leaving an abusive religion may struggle with drug and alcohol abuse , sexual abuse , domestic violence and suicide. And because they’ve been taught to avoid help for their mental health , they’re more likely to not seek it at all or even know it’s safe to do so. Part of me sharing my story is to smash that stigma once and for all. Not only is it safe to seek help, but it’s also essential. Therapy has saved my relationships , my mental health and is helping me secure a better and healthier future, one bright with possibilities and self-love after a cult taught me there was nothing to love about myself. It’s giving me back an innocence stolen from me many years ago at birth and that’s to own my own life, not be owned.