I was born in Marshalltown Iowa in 1958 and grew up in small towns in a midwestern part of the United States. Let’s just say rural, agricultural, conservative, Christian Bible belt, mid-America. I am the second oldest of six siblings and was the middle daughter until my youngest sister was born when I was 17.
My parents joined the Worldwide Church of God (WWCG, then known as the Radio Church of God) run by Herbert W. Armstrong when I was in first grade in public school, age 6. I remember it well because overnight I couldn’t participate in some of the school activities that I loved with a passion, such as the much-anticipated Valentine’s Day party or the Christmas school play.
I remember the joy of decorating “my mailbox” with lace, cut-out construction hearts, and glitter, but then having to throw it in the garbage; and later being picked up from school before the party. I remember the excitement of having the leading role in the Christmas play being crushed by the embarrassment of my Mom coming and literally pulling me off the stage one day during rehearsal and taking me home, being spanked for trying out, and then having to go back to school the next day and try to explain to teachers and classmates when I didn’t even understand.
Over and above those incidents, I think the hardest thing was the sudden, seemingly overnight difference in my parents. They went from loving, fun members of a larger family and community to very serious and distant people. I understand now that they too were frightened, isolated by the church doctrine that cut them off from outside influences or associations, including their own parents and siblings. At the time, though, it just seemed as though mean and distrustful aliens had come to inhabit the bodies of my parents. The world as I knew it, with birthday parties, family gatherings, community involvement, school activities, Christmas, happiness, and joy was forever gone.
In those early years, even though I knew on a visceral and primal level that something was fundamentally wrong with “the church,” and with what was happening, I tried desperately to gain back the love and acceptance I had felt from my parents before WWCG by doing what they said and being good. I couldn’t at the time have described in words my survival skill. Nor was I intellectually aware that it wasn’t a healthy way to live, but outward acquiescence became quite literally a tool I used to survive.
For most of my childhood, I experienced life standing outside myself. I was experiencing “their” life, not mine, so I pretended to go along with it, always knowing that someday I would escape. I still struggle with making authentic connections with other people, remaining to this day something of a hermit. I am still referred to and treated as the “black sheep” and scapegoat of the family—a title I hold dear because that paradigm is what in the end saved me from a life of servitude, narrow-mindedness, and denial of self.
With a will of iron, I took the blame, shouldered the responsibility of awareness, and cleared the way for my younger siblings. As puberty blossomed, I argued, screamed, misbehaved, and snuck out of the house. I was belligerent and willful. I disgraced my parents by wearing short skirts and make-up to church. I stared the ministers down during their sermons to inform us that women are subservient to men and children should be seen and not heard. I repeated over and over to myself, “You know this is a lie,” like a mantra that would protect me from their influences. When old enough (in my mind), I refused to go to church, or I went just to see the only friends we were allowed to have, and then snuck out to smoke and talk in somebody’s car.
By the time I was around 12 or 13, I had finally had enough. There was a pivotal point when I refused to admit that something I did was wrong, because to me it wasn’t. This pattern prompted a round of spankings, a defined process the church taught parents, to “break” a child. It went like this:
Father: “Do you admit what you did was wrong and are you sorry?”
Me: “No.” Spanked and sent to room to think about it….
Father: “Do you admit what you did was wrong and are you sorry?”
“No.” Spanked and sent to room to think about it….
“Do you admit what you did was wrong and are you sorry?”
This went on five or six times until the paddle my father had “lovingly” made (another church-“ordained” parenting tool) actually broke and he gave up. Both of our hearts had been broken. I couldn’t sit for a week, but the resolve of “rightness” in my spirit remained intact, and things were a little different for me from that point on.
After getting pregnant and leaving home at 17 (the only escape route I could come up with at the time), I did many years of off-and-on traditional psychotherapy. This was before there were any programs or mental health professionals trained or experienced in dealing with the impact of cults. There were no support groups or institutions that researched the effects of indoctrination.
I carried rage and hurt as a shield, letting them define my identity. My anger destroyed relationships, jobs, and opportunities. I adopted most of the “legal” addictions—food, tobacco, and antidepressants. I changed personalities, friends, and relationships every two to three years; each took me to yet another life as I looked to find the missing something in them. Their only real redeeming quality was that they weren’t “the church,” which, for a while, was good enough.
Then, at some point, I became tired of the constant struggle to define myself solely as “not being one of them.” I stopped running and, over time, came to realize that my experiences had formed what I am today. Recovery, I learned, does not mean becoming as if the past never happened. That is impossible—it did happen. What we can do is find the strength to look at what did happen, and re-weave it, with compassion, acceptance, and perhaps forgiveness, into who and what we are now. We unravel each thread of damage, each thread of pain, and look at it, understand what it means, how it formed who we are today.
Recovery was finding myself. Not the “me” I had a fantasy that I might have been without the church, but the persona that was formed BECAUSE of it. This was a slow process that took place over many, many years, many experiences, and no little pain. Through the teachings of enlightened authors and people I have had the honor of learning from, who came from every walk and station in life, I did finally find my way home. To me.
I am still unraveling. It’s easier now, the journey; and on occasion the ugly beast of early patterning still raises its head to gasp for air. But now, it’s no longer “recovery.” It’s life. Yes, it was numbingly painful physically, emotionally, and spiritually; but without those experiences, without that challenge, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I am strong, self-reliant, still willful, but with a depth of compassion for my fellow human beings that would not have been possible without growing up the way I did.
Recovery is never going to be the same for any two people, but it is possible. For me it was about accepting what was, having compassion for myself, and then forgiving my parents, the church members, the universe, and forgiving and rewriting my inner myth of what God is. I turned my back on all things spiritual for many years—I call them the lost years. But at the core of me is a spiritual being; and at the right time that being, that spirit, made itself known, and I followed. That is when the true recovery began, about 6 years ago, when I was at the ripe old age of 45.
I am not a Christian, or Jew, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or anything—I am me. I don’t affiliate myself with any group of people that tells others how to live. I shy away from “labels” of any kind. That is my freedom, my recovery from having grown up in a cult. I don’t need labels or someone else’s ideologies anymore. Nor do I even care what others think of me or my actions. I had to fight to be free, so freedom is a deeper experience, a richer experience, than it otherwise might have been.
I live alone now with my 16-year-old daughter, who continues to help me grow as only our children can. I focus now on the worth of my life, the joy and gratitude of “being,” and I look forward with hope and gratitude to the rest of my journey.
About the Author
Julie Katzer lives in the Pacific Northwest and works as an independent graphic designer. Julie, a gifted intuitive, is fascinated by emerging discoveries about human consciousness, the connectedness of our energetic universe, and the wisdom and truths of indigenousness and ancient spiritual lore, which she studies in her free time.