Five years on, the scars remain

October 31, 2014 in General

Recently I found myself back in an Exclusive Brethren meeting room.

Everything was just as I remembered it. It’s hard to forget those windowless brick buildings, with their uniform green carpet and black arena-style seating. All my friends and family were there, and as I looked around the room I recognised dozens of faces from my past.

Inside an Exclusive Brethren meeting room. I'll never forget how it felt to be part of that circle.

Inside an Exclusive Brethren meeting room. I’ll never forget how it felt to be part of that circle.

But something wasn’t right. As church leaders preached their doctrine, I began to panic. Disapproving faces revolved around me. I knew what they were saying was wrong, but I felt hopelessly outnumbered. As the walls began closing in I wanted to scream and cry.

I have nightmares like this every few months. They aren’t all the same. In some I’m back with my family, about to be thrown out again. In others I’m desperately trying to persuade them to see my point of view, that they’re trapped in an abusive system and that the separation that’s been forced on us is unnatural and cruel.

It’s five years ago today since my final excommunication from the Exclusive Brethren. Earlier that year I’d told the priests I was leaving the church, and subsequently my parents threw me out of their house. I lost my job, and was cut off by everyone I’d ever known and loved. I found myself adrift in the world with no direction, no compass, no sense of identity, and no idea what the future held.

Berlin, April 2014. Travelling has been one of the best parts of my life since leaving the church.

Berlin, April 2014. Travelling has been one of the best parts of my life since leaving the church.

Since then I’ve successfully rebuilt my life. I have a degree, a career, a partner, and I’ve travelled through nearly 60 different countries in the world. I have a great network of new family and friends who have replaced the support network I lost so abruptly five years ago. I have plans for the future, and I’m very happy with what I’ve achieved.

But the scars remain. No matter how distant my past is there are always reminders of what I’ve lost. When I graduated last year it was cause for celebration. Yet as I stood in Aotea Square in my graduation robes and looked around at everyone else laughing and chatting with their parents, my past came bubbling back to the surface and smacked me in the face. I ended up huddled in a corner at the food court with tears rolling down my cheeks. Life can seem so unfair.

There are small reminders everywhere. The smell of a particular bread recipe baking in the oven reminds me of the communion loaf at church. The neighbour’s child practising the piano reminds me of my brothers and sisters. Seeing elderly people with hearing aids reminds me of my grandmother, and the way her hearing aid squeaked when I hugged her. Hearing certain songs on the radio reminds me of my Mum’s voice as she sang us to sleep as children. These memories are small and insignificant, but writing about them makes me cry.

Our last family photo, taken a few months before I left the church. Memories of my family are frozen at this point in time.

I don’t cry for the way things were. I have no regrets, and if I had my life over I would make the same decisions again. My life is infinitely better now, and remaining in the Brethren would have been a form of living death. Instead, I cry for the memories of those I loved. The people I grew up with and cherished, who shared my brightest and darkest moments for 20 years. The family I loved, the parents who brought me into this world, and the friends who were there for me. The people I haven’t seen now for five years.

Not long after I left the Brethren, I heard a song on the radio. It was Burning Bridges, by the Mike Curb Congregation. The chorus stung like salt rubbed into a wound. “All the burning bridges that have fallen after me, all the lonely feelings and the burning memories. Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door, burning bridges lost forever more.” It summed up my life. Burning bridges lost forever more. That song stayed at the top of my iTunes playlist for more than three years.

Leaving a group like the Exclusive Brethren destroys a part of your soul. When you’ve experienced being abandoned by every person you ever loved and trusted, the damage takes a long time to heal, if ever. It’s almost impossible to ever fully learn to love and trust again. I still don’t trust many people. At the back of my mind there’s always the fear I’ll be abandoned again.

Part of me died five years ago today. And for that, I cry.