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.

7 comments:

  1. My experience exactly. For me, the additional nail in the trust coffin is the continuous indoctrination and instilling of fear to not trust anybody, least of all yourself. Everybody wants something from you, particularly non-witnesses who will ruin you if you make room for them in your heart. But not just worldly people - everybody you know is capable of it. Never be alone with a woman, as they are supremely untrustworthy, as are you and your uncontrollable urges (I just threw up in my mouth a little). As a result, it has taken me many years of unwinding to even start to really trust anybody at all, or to be able to even hear (much less decipher and listen to) my own intuition. To trust in my own heart and lean upon my own understanding, if you will. :)

    Thanks for this post - keep them coming.

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  2. You've hit the nail on the head Joel; this is something that all exers struggle with. To this fraught topic, I would add the trauma of the actual experience of having family and friends drop you like a bad habit. You describe very well what it's like to live within the paradigm, where any and all relationships are ready to be jettisoned at a moment's notice: it doesn't breed honesty, and it certainly doesn't breed trust. Outside the organization, I've found myself shying away from forming close friendships, one because I'm unaccustomed to the work it requires, but also because I want to protect myself from the inevitable (in my mind) future loss of these friends.

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  3. Very well written Joel. And accurate. After my own 34 years within this group, I can certainly affirm what you've written about. I'm very lucky to have made an easier transition to "worldly" life and thank my close friends and family for their support. I'm the happiest I've ever been and appreciate relationships more so now.

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  4. when Trust is broken, it's like a piece of paper that's been crumpled up,,, it's never the same again.

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  5. Wow. Thank you for sharing your experience - it mirrors my own. I'm still working through my own post JW social dysfunction. It helps to know I am not alone in this.

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  6. Well put. I have to agree with Coco, I feel socially retarded.

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  7. i could not pass this blog without posting something about all the posts and comments from ex witness. first on the matter of friendship, ur write up makes it look like witnesses are not allowed to make friends with non witnesses which i dont agree to. be it a witness or not we all find ourslves in a position to make the right choice when making friends. being a witness does not mean you cant be friends to someone else whos not a witness, there are witnesses who make the best of friends and does who dont,same said for non witnesses. in general you look at an individuals personnality before becoming friends with such one. as a witness and personnally i have friends both in and out, just try and find those that are good for you. then to the other things in here, i figure you have issues with most witnesses who dont practice what they preach i.e hypocrites, which in some cases it could be discouraging to see such once, but you have to know this we are not serving humans we owe our worship to jehovah alone. i dont know how you guys feel right now but from what you learned from the bible from being a witness and if you still belive in in the bible you see that eveything written in it is for our own good and it was given to us from a loving father to his childern. yes, there are some who dont practice what they preach and learn from the bible but we should not let this discourage us from serving jehovah,we all have ourslves to account for. even in other aspects of our lives we are all solo, we came to this world alone and when we die we die alone,even twin babies that were born the same day all have their own life to live. My point, we are running a race of everlasting life not minding what which brother is doing this or that in the congregation or worrying about those who dont show brotherly love outside the congregation. witnesses are not perfect we fall but its wise to allow the bible and what we have learned from it, mold us back to the love we once had at first for jehovah. jehovah is using his organisation to help people come know him, the faithfull slaves are all imperfect humans but are used by jehovah for his work. i know as a witness that what i learn from the bible is the truth and am going to continue to be one and continue to declare jehovahs word to people. looking at the things that were propheced in the bible eg the signs of the last days which are in occurrence today its impotant to remain in jehovahs love. All am trying to say is please try and look back and see if really you guys made the right decision of leaving i know it will be hard but try. take a look back and see if you were not really happy when you were a witness and remember we are not serving humans but jehovah.Jehovah is always ready to welcome anyone back to him. i really hope that you guys will see meaning from what am trying to say and try and re-think your view. am not perfect and personnally am trying my best to remain in jehovahs love because i know its whats right and i hope you guys do the same. take care.

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