Friday, April 19, 2013

Guest Post: Breaking Free from Fundamentalism

Today's post is a guest post from Lana of the blog Wide Open Ground. She successfully broke free from her fundamentalist family, who were followers of IFB cult leader Bill Gothard.

She is now a liberal Christian, (a self-described Christian universalist), and a missionary in Southeast Asia.

She writes about her childhood and experiences now in her blog, Wide Open Ground, and she is also now a contributing writer to the wildly successful blog project, Homeschoolers Anonymous, which is a collaborative project where former fundamentalists like us are given a chance to talk about our homeschooling past.

I had asked her recently if she would like to talk about what her advice would be for young adults who are trying to break free from a fundamentalist background, which is something that has been on my mind lately, since I will be coming out to the people around me sometime in the near future. This is her story, and her advice. She said that she wrote this young adults in mind, people who are just starting out their adult lives. If someone is a teen, well of course, this wouldn't work. Short of there being physical/sexual abuse in the home, where local authorities can get involved, there's not much a teen could do if stuck in a fundamentalist home. (Sometimes, it does occur in fundamentalist households).

I came from a fundamental Christian background. I was homeschooled for 12 years, and my family was members of ATI, a fundamentalist group led by Bill Gothard. I grew up in a vacuum, believing that public schools were synagogues of Satan and the teachers were its priests. After elementary school I had only a couple of friends, none of which were from public schools. I wore mostly dresses, never watched TV and never listened to any kind of contemporary Christian music.

Today I’m out of it all and overall thriving. If you are leaving fundamentalism, let me encourage you that it does get better. Here are a few little tips on leaving, and then you can comment and add to the list.
First, admit that fundamentalism damaged you. Oddly, this has been hard for me. See my family was also dysfunctional, so at first I thought my struggles were only a result of childhood hurts. It’s true that my family was dysfunctional, and it’s true my parents hurt me, but let’s not underestimate the kind of damage that social isolation and a gendered childhood did to me as well. If you are leaving fundamentalism, be prepared for everyone to tell you your problem is either in your head, or it’s just your family. Ignore them. 

Second, walk away and make new friends. Don’t try to force your old friends to follow you. My best friend in high school and I are not even friends anymore.  The other issue, at least for me, is that my friends were the children of my parents’ friends. There was no way I could talk about my parents to these friends. I had to walk away.

I recommend making new friends. I deleted my original Facebook account three years ago and started over.  Know that online friends are good, but in real life friends are even better. Be aware that you may have little in common with your new friends, and they may have never heard of fundamentalism.  If so, I understand. I have been there. I am an introvert, but just a couple good friends carried me a long ways. Think outside the box on where you can make friends. My first set of friends outside the fundamental homeschool bubble came from a group who hanged out at Books-A-Million (no kidding).

Third, I recommend moving, if possible to another town. If you don’t have any money, find someone you can trust, and go live with them. I had a guy friend (also a former homeschooled fundamentalist) who could not afford to get out of his parents’ house. He ended up killing himself before he found the money. Don’t wait that long. One option is to go to college. Loans are better than fighting with your parents although I don't like debt. After college I went and stayed on a farm for a few months and worked with my hands. During this time I was able to get tremendous healing because I had no pressures. There are plenty of people in this world who will help you. If you believe no one will help, know that’s a lie, and then go and ask for help. 

If you can move far away, it’s even better. I moved across the world. My sister moved across the country. You don’t have to be that drastic. But if you live more than a couple hours drive away from your hometown, you won’t have pressures to drive in to see friends, you won’t run into old church members who think you’re going to hell, and it’s a chance to start over while you learn mainstream culture skills. But hey, what worked for me may or may not work for you.

Fourth, write down how you envision life at your fullest. In other words, if you could have emotional health, would you like that? If you could have great adventure, would you like that? If money was not the issue, what would you like to do, to learn, and to be? If there’s nothing in your life that you want to do, that’s okay. Fundamental kids often never were allowed to dream. When I was a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my mom taught me to say “a mommy.” I never got to dream. So you’re job now is to learn to dream. I recommend taking a backpack trip out of the country. If you can’t afford it, or you are not emotionally ready, read travel blogs. Start making a bucket list. Perhaps travel has no interest in your life, but you have career goals or health goals or something else. I’m not in the business of telling people how to run their lives. Fundamentalism gave me enough of that. But do practice dreaming.

Fifth, take advantage of your gifts. I cannot emphasize this enough. It’s okay to be out of your comfort zone (indeed, you will be), but if you are out of your gifted zone, that’s often when you sink. This does not mean you shouldn't attempt things that you’re weak at, but if you can find something you really enjoy doing (and are good at), it will carry you along ways in the world. It will give you confidence to push forward. If you can help other people at the same time, you will feel even better. I’d give this advice to any young person, but if you’re a fundamental kid, getting out there is tough. Culture shock is hard. You may feel like you’re in a foreign country. Your natural skills and gifts will make your life easier. Take advantage of them.

Sixth, as you adjust, take things slowly. I always say, “know your limits.” I never went to parties or movies as a kid, and as an introvert, I hit my limits a lot faster than some people. That’s okay. I believe in going out of my comfort zone, but not pushing myself too far. Don’t compare your life to me or anyone else. You know your limits.

Seventh, get to know people completely different than you. Yes,  I recommend taking this slowly. Nevertheless, its important to get out there and meet people of a different race and class than you. If your straight, its important to meet a gay person. When I was a homeschool kid, I never had any friends who were not white or straight (or at least not openly gay), and knew no one truly poor (aka, some were poor because they had 8 kids and one salary). I'll never forget the presentation a student of mine did on being a lesbian, or all the poor people I met in Asia who couldn't begin to afford a car. It changed my life.

Eigth, how you handle your family is up to you. This is how my story went. First, my dad got us out of ATI when I was in 10th grade. He told me I could go to college. I left free and clear, and I never came around my parents much. Well, then, I came home and cried to my mom and told her she was a witch who ruined my life. (No, I wouldn't do this today, and I don't recommend it. I was 19.) My mom yelled at me back. Then we made up, and it’s honestly been a lot better. She still doesn't like that I think Bill Gothard is nuts, and that I believe the Bible is a human book, but she mostly leaves me alone. Some parents would probably cut their kids off completely for doing what I did, so what works for me, may not work for you. Personally I prefer to be honest with my parents, but if not talking about religion at all works for you, that’s fine too. Whatever your boundaries are, make them clear and stick to them. 

Ninth, it’s okay to keep your story to yourself for a while. It’s okay to doubt. It’s okay to wrestle. It’s okay if you believe in God, and its okay if you don’t.  I didn't start blogging until five months ago, yet I left home eight years ago. I simply wasn't ready to tell my story, and then suddenly one day I was. You can start a blog if you want, but don’t feel like you have to. If you have only one friend you can trust, that’s enough. If you’d rather just talk to someone online, that’s okay too. 

ConclusionLeaving fundamentalism is hard because it often involves going into a culture you were set apart from and because it involves learning an entire new identity. If you feel odd and different, you're not alone. For me, I've come to accept that mainstream culture will always be my second language. That's okay. For more on this struggle, see my blog post, Finding My Way 

Sheldon's note: If you wish to write your own guest post for this blog, check out my submission guidelines first, then let me know here in a comment, or e-mail me at ramblingsofsheldon(at)gmail(dot)com, with your idea for a guest post. As in the case with Lana here, you don't necessarily have to be an atheist to write a guest post.


  1. Hey, Sheldon, I didn't realize this was up here already. I'll try to share it soon

  2. Good advice. It's really important for those young people who want to come out to do so in the safest way possible.


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