Erika Martin is 34-years-old and lives in Ferrisburg, Vermont. She is a work-at-home mom and an artist who has been married to her husband David, for 14 years. Erika shares her story of spiritual abuse with My Savvy Sisters in hopes that someone will recognize themselves and find the courage to walk away and heal. You can be a spiritual abuse survivor.
My parents started home-schooling and living the patriarchal lifestyle when I was 14 years old. Before that, we were a normal family with 4 kids in public school, my parents both worked in the bakery they owned, and we were involved in the youth group at church. My sister and I were involved in some of the extra activities at the local high school, namely FHA (Future homemakers of America). I played on the basketball team and had just finished my freshman year of high school as the class president. I was pretty much an ‘A’ student and was socially active. The summer after I finished my freshman year of high school, I went on a mission trip with Teen Missions International to Uganda, East Africa for 2 months. Life was normal and my parents trusted their children.
As for people supporting my parents’ choice of religious lifestyle, they had other families in the area that home-schooled and eventually they had us going to church an hour and a half away (3 hours round trip every Sunday) so that they could be in a church with “like-minded believers.” This meant families that home-schooled, believed in parent led courtships, female submission and male headship, ultra-conservative Christianity, etc.
Before diving into this religious sub-culture, our family’s beliefs were commonplace within mainstream Christianity. We went to a non-denominational church, my mom taught Sunday school and my dad was part of the church ministry. My family was tolerant of other sects within Christianity.
I wasn’t attracted to the organization at all, but my parents were. I was 14 at the time so I really didn’t have much of a choice since I was still a minor. My parents saw other families that looked perfect on the outside and “godly” and they wanted the same thing. My dad has always been kind of an all-or-nothing type of guy so when he went into things, he dove in head first. This subculture of Christianity was no different. He saw children that obeyed without question, women and girls all in long dresses, boys in button-down shirts, seemingly peaceful families sitting all in a row in church and people claiming to live “according to the Bible” and he decided that he wanted that, too. What he had in a normal church-going family wasn’t enough. He wanted more.
A big part of this subculture includes home-schooling and family-togetherness. While those sound good on the outside, it’s very different than what most people would view those on the outside of this subculture. Home-schooling in this subculture is done because they believe it’s the only right way to educate Christian children. They also view a “biblical worldview and biblical education” more important than a traditional education of all the different traditional subjects.
Family togetherness is all about children not being out of the “shadow” of their parents. Since this subculture believes that everything a child should know about the world and how to live a “godly life” is supposed to be taught by the parents, children are discouraged from being by themselves or with other peers. Rather, they are kept under the constant watch of their parents. We really didn’t do a whole lot outside our family. We would go to another family’s house for lunch after the church service and “fellowship.” There were times when we went to the homeless shelter in the city and my dad would preach there and my dad, sister and I would sing hymns together for the people in the shelter.
While my family became close over those years and we spent time with other families within the movement, it added more loneliness to my life. I think for the rest of my family, it brought them some happiness, but because I was against the lifestyle and movement, it added stress, loneliness and frustration to my life.
Right from the beginning, even at 14 years of age, I knew something was wrong within the group. When my father told me that my sister, mom and I would no longer be allowed to wear pants or shorts, I knew something was terribly wrong. To me, it was controlling. It just went downhill from there. Women weren’t allowed to wear make-up, cut their hair, get a job or get a higher education. My father even made my mom, sister and I cover our heads at all times, except when we were sleeping. Women were inferior to men. I knew at the beginning that all of this was bull crap.
I tried to voice my opinions to my parents but quickly learned that any dissent was punished and nipped right away. I took to writing in my notebooks and journals, but eventually those were found by my father snooping through my room when I was 15 years old. I was “made to repent” and then my father took my journals, put them in a can in the backyard and lit a match to them and I had to watch them burn to ashes. After all of my friends being chased away by my father and no longer having a written outlet, the only way I could process my thoughts was to talk with my grandparents when I had the chance and to let them pile up inside.
I talked to my maternal grandparents and a few friends from high school but eventually, I wasn’t able to talk with my old friends from school because my father wouldn’t let them come to the house and phone calls had to be done within ear shot of my parents. Letters from friends also had to be read by my parents to make sure my friends weren’t a “bad influence on me.” I had hidden some letters from friends inside the clothing of some of the Cabbage Patch Dolls I kept on the shelf in my room and my father even went through all of their clothing and took those letters out. There was absolutely no privacy and everything was subject to investigation. That pretty much left my grandparents and they were my saving grace back then. They were my only source of sanity.
My decision to leave the group came when my parents decided that they didn’t like the church my now-husand went to. I was 20 years old and they insisted that I cut off all communication with him, even though they had approved the relationship 10 months before. My sister was also “courting” my now-husband’s brother. I had tried to leave home a year before that (before my husband and I became a “courting couple”) but my parents locked me in my bedroom on the second floor. At 20 years old, I was tired of being played as a pawn in my dad’s life agenda nd decided he wasn’t going to tell me who I could and couldn’t marry and he could no longer control me, an adult.
It took me a year to leave from the first time I attempted to leave when I was 19 years old. A year later, my husband called me and told me that he was going to come and get me and 5 days later, he showed up after coming from Pennsylvania to Vermont where I lived. He proposed and we left 2 days later. I had to work up the courage in 5 days, but it was something that had been building in me for years. I just had to wait until I was legally an adult. Even after I turned 18, the bondage was still there and it was very strong. This movement strips you of your strength, resolve and courage.
My sister also got engaged the same weekend I did and she also came to PA. My father and youngest brother followed us to PA the next day and urged and begged us to come home. We were told how sinful, immature and unrepentant we were. My mother told me over the phone that I was a disappointment. My parents had people sending us letters telling us the same things and how much we were breaking our family’s heart.
My parents refused to let us talk with our younger brothers for a year and they refused to come to our weddings. My father threatened the leaders in my husband’s church that if they supported or attended our weddings, my father would go public and expose them. In my father’s defense, the church my husband grew up in was a William Branham cult, which he has since left about a year after we got married. My father also called around to area churches to tell the pastors not to marry us and that we were “living in sin,” even though my sister and I were living with friends and we did not sleep with our husbands until our wedding nights. My father refused to even acknowledge our marriages for almost a year, due to believing old Mosaic law that he believed gave him the right to “disallow the vows of his daughters.”
For a while, I toed the party line so that I could stay out of trouble. In reality, what this movement did was stifle my own spirituality because it was pounded into us that our parents knew best what God’s will for our lives were. They tried to take the place as mediator between us and God. Rather than being “Spirit-led,” which was also taught to us before we got into the movement, my parents insisted that we be “parent-led,” while wrapping it all up in shiny Jesus-paper to make it look like it was God’s will but it was all my parents’ will instead. The scriptures were misused and used against us.
It has been a work-in-progress to go through healing. I’m not completely there yet. I’ve been writing my story out as well as using scrap booking as a form of creative therapy. My scrapbooks also serve as a way to tell the story of my life to my children. After coming to a head with my battle with depression, I’ve started seeing a therapist recently and I’m also on antidepressants.
My life is very different now. I hardly ever wear a dress or skirt, unless I’m in a wedding and that doesn’t happen often. I have dreadlocks now where that would have been seen as rebellious and ungodly back then. I’m a vocal women’s rights activist and my kids are in public school. My husband and I have an egalitarian marriage. I consider myself a liberal Jesus-follower and a biblical feminist. I do still have times that I grieve for my lost teen years, especially as my children are getting older and they’re able to do the things that I had ripped away from me. It really is a feeling of loss and grief and years down the road from when I left, I’m now realizing I have to deal with this in a new way.
We attend a United Methodist church now, which is very open and non-judgemental. We’ve been going there for 9 months and it really feels like home to us. We had been previously going to a Baptist church for almost 9 years but left last June due to the pastor taking a stance that men are in authority over women and making the belief in his interpretation a “salvation issue.” While we are going to a Methodist church, we don’t consider ourselves to have a label. We follow Jesus and look to emulate his message of love and compassion to others while still speaking out against the injustices of abusive belief systems.
My husband is a huge support for me. Since I’m still healing from the spiritual abuse, there are times when I’m an emotional mess and he’s always there to hold me when I cry, to listen through my frustrations, to help me through the grieving process of the teen years that were stolen from me. I also have some wonderful friends that are a big support to me, even though we live miles apart. We call and email and chat online and keep in touch through LiveJournal.
My kids are now 11 and 12, but over the years, we have taught them to think for themselves, to make their decisions based on how the outcome will effect them and others and that when it comes to their spirituality, it is between them and God and no one else. My husband and I tell them stories from when we were in spiritually abusive churches so they understand how damaging those groups are. We are teaching my son that women are equal to men and both genders should be treated with equal respect. We are teaching our daughter that she has just as much worth as men do and that she should never allow anyone to discriminate against her simply because she’s female. We are teaching both of our children that it is good and right to stand up for their rights as equals.
If you are going through what I went through there is something you can do about it. Find someone outside of the abusive movement/organization/group you are part of to talk to. It’s important that you have someone you trust on the outside as they provide an objective view to what they see you going through and can be there to help you when you have the courage to leave the abusive situation you’re in. Never let anyone else’s situation or pain invalidate your own. Your pain is something you own and no one else and it’s okay to acknowledge it as it’s one of the first steps in finding freedom and healing.
Read More Understanding Spiritual Abuse
Read More Recovering From Spiritual Abuse
Erika is a dear friend and I am so grateful to see her sharing her story. Thank you for all you do to shine a light on the horror that is spiritual abuse.
Your spiritual journey, is just that. It is a personal journey that goes down its own road, curves, hills and valleys. Glad to hear you are seeing light inspite of it all. God also gave me a husband that has helped me down my road and I know that I am very blessed to have him in my life. God bless all our broken roads, if we look they will lead us to Him. Hugs to you gal.
You’re pretty awesome, Erika.
My name is jack Watts, and I understand what you’ve experienced completely. In fact, I’ve just written a book about it, which Simon & Schuster published in February. It’s called “Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom.” Here is a link:http://pushingjesus.com/
Erika, WoW, that took courage! Very well done…! I am so glad your on your way to feeling peacefulness with religion. I love you and Miss you and I didn’t think you would ever wear that dress again….ha ha ha…love you honey so much. Hugs to you and the Family. I am so Proud to know you and have you in my life!
Knowing you from way back when, it is incredible to see the wonderful woman and mom you are becoming. We are all a work in progress.
My heart goes out to you. This is definitely a spiritual abuse, and not all how a family should function. Please, though, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water with other families. We have very similar convictions as your parents had as far as home schooling, courtship, even covering. But. . . . there has to be a freedom with the children, it can’t be a bondage. We cover, but myself many times for my daughters have gone with our hair down and a scarf instead of a traditional covering, and not all the time when we’re here at home. We wear longer dresses, but yet stay away from the traditional “cape dresses”, preferring skirts and blouses. My oldest daughter works a couple different jobs, one of them being at a bakery, bulk food store, well known by the community (and no, it’s not Mennonite owned. :0) ) She is getting married this summer to a wonderful, Godly man with very much the same convictions as her. He did come to us for permission, we checked him out, and then gave him the go ahead. 2 of our other children have a job milking for farmer neighbors who go to the Lutheran church. God has had to balance us out. My husband and I both came from a Baptist background, public school, I wore very short shorts, cut my hair, make-up, etc. As we gradually changed our lifestyle, we believed it was the “only” Christian way. But God has since shown us that no, for whatever reason, God leads us all in different ways. We are far from perfect, and we are struggling in ways to see what God would have for us in many different ways, and we have made mistakes. I’m so glad you’re reaching out to these people, they’re many hurting out there. But please don’t beat down the convictions that many of us have. Our oldest struggled, she was about the same age as you. But by God’s grace, she has the convictions, but hates the bondage that she sees so many are in. It seems the other children are gladly following our example. We’ve had so many comments of how happy are children are, and how peaceful our home is. (Which many times doesn’t feel that way to us, just from every day life.) We are really good friends that have pretty much the same convictions we do, and we have very dear friends who wear pants all the time and have their kids in public school, and about everything in-between. We have a music ministry, and are in different festivals, churches, etc., hoping to show Christ to those we minister to. And maybe that’s why I’m commenting, we certainly don’t want to be portraying the image you grew up with for others who have been in the same kind of up bringing. I would really appreciate your input (and anyone’s), and thanks for being faithful in the ministry God has put you in. God Bless! If you’d like to check us out, our website address is http://www.herrlingerfamily.com.
What a powerful story you should put it on you tube as well. I commend you for your courage. I am a pastors son and have been a pastor, and pretty much all I used to know is the church. Many in your position would have left God altogether, it is also a powerful testament to Gods grace and power to lead you and his faith to keep you. Many do not trust God and by there dependence on men and man made rules and regulations actually deny a the faith and exchange Gods righteousness for there own….I pray that your healing continues I pray that as you share Gods power to deliver you that you get more and more peace about your past. Hearing your story of faith has encouraged me. thank you.
Erika, thank you for sharing your story. My heart goes out to you, I too have experienced spiritual abuse from a conservative church which is located in Williston, Vermont. I am glad that you are teaching your children how to think for themselves and I am thankful that the Lord has given you a kind and understanding husband to help you get through the hurt. I understand what it is like to be devalued as a human “in the name of God” for someone else’s agenda and what it is like to be labeled and abandoned by those who you believed to be your spiritual family. Your testimony is very important and I pray that the Lord will use it and your experiences for good and to help others who have been spiritually abused to be healed.
I was brought up in a similar situation except was born into the abusive religion. I left it a 16 and was kicked out into the ‘world’ for this. My parents thought I would come back and accept their terms that I submit to the religion, but I did not.
I have had a lot of trouble in life but did not link it back to my upbringing. I simply did not want to revisit those years and the morals and beliefs from those years I still contained inside me making me dysfunctional.
I am writing a book and looking for people who are willing to share their stories about religious abuse.
I am naming no religions in it as being abusive. I believe if a person experiences religion as abusive then it it. Mainstream religion or what ever.
Niether am I putting religion down. I think it is a method to enhance spiritual health… but want people to know when and how it is harmful and how to recover.
Please send me your stories and I will keep you up to date on its progress and check editing done is ok with you. No real names please
You can send your stories via firstname.lastname@example.org
So glad that you shared your story online. It is so important to get the word out to others. Everyone feels that it is just them, but it isn’t. People need to hear about others.
You might be interested in my doctoral research and book called: Spiritual Abuse Recovery.
There is some good teaching along with the accounts and statistics of those who experienced recovery after spiritual abuse in their home church.
My website is: http://www.churchexiters.com.
All the best,
Wow! I am an ex United Meth:) T(h)udah/thanks for sharing! May Yahuah continue to give you strength for the coming turmoil. Shalum!