Looking back on my two decades as a Jehovah’s Witness, I’ve come to realize how the constant theme of Endurance is playing a detrimental role on the individual's psyche.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have become far too good at keeping going. They’re experts at surrendering to the demands of the Watchtower, living up to what’s expected of them, and getting on with the priorities that those in power have defined and imposed upon them. They keep showing up, presenting themselves a dutiful pioneer or Ministerial Servant. Many can pull this magical feat up for years at a time, without so much as an outward twitch.
And then one day, much to everyone’s surprise (including their own) they break. The rupture can take many forms. The Bethelite develops chronic fatigue. The Coordinator’s wife falls into a catatonic depression. The budding Elder is overcome by social anxiety. The Regular Pioneer restricts calories, or starts eating themselves into a stupor. Perhaps the Witness is compelled to do something extremely scandalous and entirely contrary to their regular JW selves. They might have an affair; get involved in explosive arguments; go down the path of drug or alcohol abuse… only to return, tail between legs, to the organization, pleading for a second chance at enduring.
The breakdown of a Jehovah’s Witness is hugely inconvenient for everyone involved. Salvation is at risk due to inactivity, families will shun loved ones for destructive behavior, and the congregational milieu will take a hit. And so, unsurprisingly, there is an immediate rush to medicate the problem in an attempt to exorcise it from the Witness so that “business as usual” can resume.
It is my sincerest belief that the JW brand of breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction. It’s a very real - albeit very inarticulate - bid for awakening. It is the attempt of one part of their mind trying to force the other into a process of growth, intellectual honesty and self development, which it has been forbidden to undertake.
The go-to fix for many Jehovah’s Witnesses’ breakdowns is to medicalize it. But this is to misunderstand what’s going on when a Jehovah’s Witness finally suffers a break down. This shifts the true issue aside at once , tragically resulting in the missed lesson embedded in their sickness. While this may be a painful breaking down of their soul, it is also an extraordinary opportunity for them to break through into reality.
And so, the vital reason for the breakdown may be chalked up to the abuse of one word: ENDURANCE.
Throughout the years of faithful service, Witnesses were never allowed to flex their own thoughts. There were things they needed to hear in their own minds which were deftly put to one side under the thought-terminating cliché: “leave it in Jehovah’s hands”. There were messages the Witness needed to heed from the outside. There were bits of emotional learning and communicating that weren’t permitted. And then, after being patient for far too long, their true self is attempting to make itself heard in the only way it now knows how.
Above anything else, what the breakdown is telling the Witness is that it must no longer be “business as usual”. That things HAVE to change. Or, in its most frightening case, that death might be preferable than where they are currently.
So why do so many Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to drug themselves into submission in order to meet their hourly requirement? We all know the answer. The JW conscious mind is conditioned into quixotic simplicity and spurred on by fear - completely terrified to engage with what the breakdown has to eventually tell them with brutality. For years, their mind refused to listen to the growing sadness inside, the dysfunction within their own family behind closed doors, or some injustice they’ve witnessed in their congregation. Maybe there were ordinary desires of their true self that were swept very far under the proverbial carpet.
We can compare the process of this breakdown to a revolution. For years, the people press the government to listen to their demands and adjust. For years, the government makes token gestures - but shuts its ears. Until one day, it’s simply too much for the people. They storm the palace gates, destroy the fine furnishings, shoot randomly at the guilty and the innocent.
Mostly, in revolutions, there is no good outcome. The legitimate grievances and needs of the people are not addressed or even discovered. There’s an ugly civil war, and sometimes suicide. But then there are some of us who make it out to the other side. The difference between an active Jehovah’s Witness and an awakened one who has walked away from the battlefield is, we wear our wounds on the outside. There is no need to hide them internally and deal with the pain in ashamed silence anymore.
Breaking through a breakdown involves listening to, rather than censoring the illness with a veil of silence, a tight-lipped smile and an over-dependence on happy pills. Within the oddities and trauma of the breakdown, apostates have detected the internal plea to think critically. The desire to love and be loved unconditionally. For a more honest and fulfilled way of being. For acceptance of who we really are sexually, secularly or spiritually.
For any active Jehovah’s Witness out there who is in the midst of their own mental breakdown, you may feel you are going mad. You have not. You’re behaving oddly, no doubt. But beneath the surface agitation, you are on a hidden, yet logical search for awakening. You didn’t suddenly become mentally ill… You were already. This crisis is an attempt to dislodge you from the Watchtower’s toxic status quo. It represents an insistent call to rebuild your life on a more authentic and sincere basis.
I say all of this with earnestness, because it happened to me.