Over the years since I left Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the more fascinating things to observe, and really to me, the most important, is what to do after you leave.
To be sure, no one leaves because of a positive experience. And therein lies the issues with leaving. Basically, people leave in three general ways: 1. They, like myself, resign or leave due to a disagreement. 2. They are kicked out, disfellowshipped and shunned. 3. They “fade” away, acknowledging to themselves that they disagree with JW dogma and practice, either in whole or in part, yet not wanting to face the sanctions that come with openly disagreeing with Governing Body dogma and practice.
None of the above can be described as either a happy thing to do or to have happen to you. Whether you leave of your own accord, were disfellowshipped, or have to make the decision to lead a somewhat incongruent life so that you can still talk to and associate with friends and family, each path is basically a negative.
If you resign from the religion, it is because you made the decision to separate yourself from a group that claimed to be “the truth”, “a worldwide brotherhood”, “the only organization that God is using today”, and so forth. Likely, at least one, if not other claims by the Governing Body were found by you to be not true. While moving forward is positive, there is no doubt that to leave, to acknowledge to yourself that for whatever reason, you at one time agreed and decided to support this group and no longer can, is a difficult crossroads that can hardly be termed happy.
If you were disfellowshipped, not only might you have to deal with the idea of “sin” and its related guilt, (which by the way, totally wrecks good mental health), but also unique to JW’s, is the practice of shunning. In this extreme, even close immediate family members are to be cut off if the congregation elders make the decision to disfellowship and shun. Being disfellowshipped is an absolute negative, and from here, people must make a decision.
Faders, as they are called, are caught in perpetual limbo. Not wanting to deal with the JW induced consequences of resigning or being disfellowshipped (and who in their right minds would want that?), faders make the calculated, strategic choice of maintaining some of their personal autonomy by mentally, emotionally, and spiritually divorcing themselves from JW doctrine, yet, make this known to no one within the JW community. This is most typically done so that they fader can keep on associating with family and close friends, an option that doesn’t exist if one either resigns or is disfellowshipped. While this is a strategic ploy, it also brings a number of negatives with it, including not being able to lead a congruent life with your beliefs or lack thereof, and sometimes, having to lie about what you really think.
The point of all this is, leaving JW’s in one of these three broad categories, is a negative. It produces a period of negativity that frequently is so powerful to the point of sometimes being paralyzing. While anecdotally it seems that those who resign (or if you want to use the JW term for it, which I don’t, disassociation) turn out better more quickly, they have to go through a period of personal introspection, taking inventory.
Or they don’t. Actually, no one who leaves JW’s really has to do anything.
In describing these three ways most people leave JW’s, I have a very simple point. Few leave for positive reasons. Yes, there are those lucky few who became JW’s, the only one in their family that chose to, and actually go somewhere else instead of just merely leaving, whether that be back to an old belief system or to a completely new one. It might be likened to finally backing out of the driveway of a house you will never visit again. Once you are on the road, you realize that you aren’t driving to anywhere in particular.
Yet, it is important to your future that you actually make the best of it and find the positive. To wallow, for the lack of a better term, is to simply miss the benefits of moving forward. To say “I was a JW, and damn it, I can’t do anything about the future they robbed from me” is to give the victory to the Governing Body. Aren’t they the ones who said if you left you would be miserable?
The problem then lies in going through the negativity of leaving. It has to be done. It isn’t happy. But if you view it as a process, like going through a jungle to get to the helicopter pad so you can fly out of the warzone, then the process of being unhappy after leaving JW’s can be the first step toward positive thinking and future happiness.
But you still have to go through the jungle first, and sometimes, without a map. That is where forums like JWN, and website resources that are found on www.freeminds.org can be invaluable. You can talk to those that have been through it. The map IS available, if you would care to listen to the good experiences that are out there. But there is that pesky jungle…..
For example, in the most extreme cases where one has actually been harmed by the JW structure (as in the case of pedophilia victims), a positive first step through the negative jungle of leaving is very clearly to get professional mental help. Cognitive therapy is essential to work through the damage. The same can be said for those who suffer from depression and mental illness. In some cases, people who leave get so down they consider, and sadly, occasionally follow through with suicide. In addition, some people have a negative view of the mental health profession as a whole. There is no need. Social workers and psychologists are better than ever at diagnosing and helping those that really need it. If you are seriously stuck in a depressed mood, and esp. if friends and family point this out to you, why not take advantage of whatever resources are available to you?
There is another subset of those who leave or are kicked out. They “live it up”. They weren’t allowed as a JW to party and have fun. And so they go for it. BOY, do they go for it. Personally, although I suck at partying, I have no problems in general with it. Done responsibly that is. (what I am about to say isn’t a judgment on those that choose to party and have fun. I like to party and have fun. Again, I suck at it. What I am about to talk about is irresponsible partying that sometimes former JW’s do to fill that void)
Because that void does exist, mistakes can be made. Some drink to excess or take drugs to excess. Addiction occurs. These addictions impair good decision making. If you allow partying to cause you to have anonymous, unprotected sex, that sometimes you can’t even remember, then that’s a problem. Same can be said for drug use and abuse. Even if you aren’t an addict, it only takes one night of bad judgment to permanently harm your future.
I want to be careful here. I am not saying this to judge a particular lifestyle. Consider though, that you can party, have your alcohol, even sleep with multiple partners if that is your thing, and do it responsibly and in a healthier manner. You simply can’t do that though if your days and nights are impaired all the time due to an addiction or pre-occupation with drugs and alcohol. And former JW’s will sometimes be the proverbial spring that lets loose due to their former repressed lifestyle and just party all the time, simply because they never got to do it before.
So if you must party and as they say, sow your oats, it is possible to do so in a way that doesn’t harm your future. And it should be noted that for most people, it is a phase to go through. Unless you are Paris Hilton, most people can’t afford to party all the time anyway. It’s a phase, not a lifestyle, an occasional distraction to life, not the point of life.
It should be noted that there are some former JW’s who due to addictions, or just pure simple bad judgment, have gotten in cars and drove while intoxicated and hurt themselves and others. Or have done things with people who take advantage of them and end up in jail. (I know 3 personally)They party not to have fun, but to dull the pain. That can lead to trouble.
It’s better to party because life is good, not because life sucks. Partying won’t solve the issues created by leaving JW’s. In my view, if you work through the issues associated with leaving JW’s first, then partying becomes way more of a positive, not something that you need to do to keep from jumping off a bridge due to loneliness or hopelessness.
There are other issues that deal with leaving the JW jungle map that I don’t have time or room for, such as getting involved in co-dependent relationships, other kinds of addictive behavior and the like. It isn’t my point to list every possible negative, but to be aware that it’s the negativity that must be navigated and dealt with in a positive and healthy manner.
Lastly, one part that doesn’t need to be a positive or a negative, and that should be listed on the JW exit map as a roadside stop is the issue of personal belief systems. As noted above, there is a void that is created when one (whether of their own accord or not) discards the JW belief system. That void DOES need to be replaced in some shape, fashion or form. Some work through these in the form of debates and discussions on internet boards on topics ranging from religion to politics, from monogamy to polygamy, to alcohol and drugs. While it is good to work through these topics, some who leave make in my opinion, a mistake. They feel that their beliefs, their conclusions, having satisfactorily filled their personal void, must also be able to fill that same void in others. That simply isn’t true.
There are many roads. I know that for a JW, or a particularly sincere Christian, to allow for others their beliefs when they believe that there is only one way is difficult.
But if one is truly interested in helping a former JW move on, and to turn that initial negative experience of leaving the JW jungle into an upward spiral of positive decisions and positive outcomes, former JW’s esp in my opinion must respect both the process and the outcomes. The point isn’t to direct a former JW to one potentially positive resting place, it is to direct them to their own unique positive resting place.
If that positive place agrees with your conclusions, then perhaps you have a potential close friend. Even if it doesn’t, to be able to respect how another person leaves and thus turns their lemons into lemonade is something that any person should be happy to observe and support.