When Leaving Toxic Religion, Make Friends

“Remember the revivals?” my friend Dee asks me.

We are drinking iced coffee on a Sunday morning in the small town we met, the town of our fiery Pentecostal days. The last time I was at this coffee shop, I was a teenager, sipping a strawberry smoothie and listening to my youth pastor talk about how I need to Press In to God more consistently to see the release of miracles in my life.

Everything has changed since then. Today, I have come to this coffee shop to unpack the damage of those Pressing In days.

“Remember those scary camp altar calls, how everyone would convulse and shriek and thrash on the floor for hours?” I say.

Of course, she remembers.

I remember when Dee stopped coming to church. There were whispers and rumors at Youth Group about her backslidden state. She was flirting with serious sin, they said, and it all started with a hardened heart toward her leaders. We were warned, in hushed voices, to pray for her, but keep our distance.

We all knew backsliding was contagious.

When I walked away a few years later, for the same and different reasons as Dee, I wrestled through my grief and anger and questions alone. I didn’t talk to Dee—or anyone else from that time of my life—for years. I tried to bury that part of my story, until it rotted underneath the surface and stunk up everything in my life and I had no choice but to deal with it. As I slowly found my voice, as I finally worked up the guts to process my feelings for those confusing, screwed-up church years, I found a friend in Dee.

“Remember being forced to groan before God?” she asks.

I don’t remember this, specifically, but as Dee tells the story, I feel like I am there.  Kneeling in a circle at a prayer meeting, she says, the Pastor commanded the Youth Group to audibly groan before the Lord, or else they would be asked to leave.

“That was borderline cult stuff,” she says.

“It was a borderline cult,” I say, shaking my head. “It so, so was.”

This sounds so natural and true coming off my tongue now, but the process of realizing and admitting it to myself took years of painful work. We pause for a moment.

With this truth uttered between us, conversation flows to effortlessly to travel, children, God, anxiety, and therapy. There is a shared understanding between us in many things because we remember.

We are two backslidden women—to reclaim the cruel label they gave to us—sharing life with each other, laughing, remembering, and working toward wholeness and peace. We are happy.

“I never thought my life would end up this good,” Dee says.

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My friends are made up of people all over the religious and nonreligious spectrum. I love hearing perspectives of people who grew up entirely secular, or zen Buddhist, or whatever. But there’s a special camaraderie with my friends who have come from a similar background as me. These friendships got me through the hardest years of leaving the faith.

If you are in the process of leaving a toxic religion, find others who are deconstructing as well. If you don’t know anyone in real life, find them on the Internet. There is a Facebook group for recovering members of every kind of cult imaginable. Join those groups, hear their stories. Share yours.

If you can’t meet with them on a Sunday morning for iced coffee, chat with them on Twitter instead. Find your people. You’re going to need each other.