Monday, January 20, 2014

Making friends in a post-Witness life

By Joel Gunz

After ten years of hanging out with other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve concluded that not a single one of us has discovered a short cut to healing from the wounds of indoctrination and abuse. One issue that comes up for me again and again is: trust.

I spent 35 years pretending to be someone I wasn’t. As a kid, it wasn’t safe to reveal my inner secrets, questions, doubts and longings to my own parents. Later, when I would take a risk and share a dark and precious part of my soul with another person, I was usually judged to some degree. As a result, few people got to know the real me, and when I was disfellowshipped and “went apostate,” lots of people were shocked. I can understand why some of my friends felt betrayed. My then-teenage son took it very hard.

Of course, the biggest irony is that this religion is filled with people just like me. Whether they're concealing a secret “sin” (porn, pot smoking, being gay, drinking) or privately-held doubts about the Bible or Watchtower doctrine, or unspoken misgivings about sacrificing their dreams for a life of theocratic devotion, many, if not most, Jehovah’s Witnesses present an as-if image of themselves to the congregation that’s quite removed from their authentic selves.

What do you do with a culture like that? Picture it: a Kingdom Hall auditorium filled with people smiling and making nice and calling each other “brother”—faking their way through it all. A roomful of devotees who have practically nothing in common with each other except a shared set of religious doctrines that they secretly might not even believe. I can’t imagine a lonelier community. (Can we even call it that?) Too often, Witness relationships—from mere acquaintances to marriage partners—are rooted in the geometry of physical contiguousness and not much more. Yet, if you’ve been raised a Witness, this is your only frame of reference for companionship. If you were like me, you couldn’t tell the difference between post-meeting fellowship and a game of Blind Man’s Buff.

While I did have some very good friends, the climate of judgmentalism and the specter of judicial discipline kept us emotionally distant. More tellingly, some of those I knew I could trust with my most personal secrets ended up leaving the religion and we've been able to reconnect.

When I left, I had learn to how to trust. I’m still learning it, slowly and with difficulty. At first, not knowing how to build these bridges, I used to overshare with newer acquaintances. Like, I'd dish about my Witness past and the indignities of disfellowshipping—over beer with coworkers, or while on a first date. More often, I don’t share enough of my feelings with people who deserve such vulnerability, such as with my intimate friends. Sometimes I assume the worst about another’s intentions when there’s no real reason to do so. At other times, after offering my trust, it’s been betrayed and that’s been very painful. Theocratic culture didn’t exactly give me the tools I need figure out who I can trust.

And when it comes to love—romantic and otherwise—that’s a whole other ball game.

In the Orwellian world of Jehovah’s Witnessdom, love is conditional and can be revoked at any time for any number of transgressions. Thus, early on, I was taught not to depend on it. On the other hand, hateful acts from Armageddon to disfellowshipping are given a newspeak makeover and described as expressions of “God’s love.” For over three decades, I offered up my love to a non-existent god and an organization that used it without fully reciprocating—I gave more than I got. That's why, for me, love can be a suspect, confusing emotion associated with mistrust and even terror. I don't know about you, but this gets to the core of my relationship challenges. For me, the hardest words to say are: “I Love You.”[1]

So it can be difficult for me to make real friends. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

The other night I met up with an old friend I’ll call Coco, who’s faded from her congregation. In a dive bar where she felt sure she wouldn’t be seen by another Witness having drinks with me, we got to talking about the challenges of making friends in a post-Witness life. She said:
“The Witness environment creates artificial, ready-made relationships based on the fact that everyone is in the same religion. Shared interests are irrelevant—it’s just assumed you’ll be friends. But on the outside, relationships are based on multiple compatibilities. It takes time to develop, which can be puzzling and shocking to someone who is used to instant friendships.”
 Granted, I—and Coco, for that matter—am fairly gregarious. As a Witness, I found others who shared my interests, but it took a lot of work to seek them out; day-to-day, my friendships were far more happenstance (and unfulfilling). And since leaving the religion, I’ve become well acquainted with lots of great people. I have a very active social life. But, for the above reasons, bridging that gap to real intimacy and deeper friendship is difficult.

Of course, ex-Witnesses aren't alone in this. Cities have always been filled with lonely people. It seems, however, that we have a few extra challenges. Like Coco told me, “Add on top of that all the ingrained paranoia, and it’s damn lonely. I feel socially retarded.” 

It can get better. But, at first, it might get worse. My next post will talk about the adolescence of post-Witness life. Good times await!

[1] To be fair, not all the blame for my trust issues can be laid at the feet of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My mother and stepfather also did their part, too. But then, that said, I’ve observed that dysfunctional families are often attracted to high-control and fundamentalist religions, as if a narcissistic god is, for them, a kindred spirit.