Updated: May 12
IN THE BEGINNING
I grew up in a devout Jehovah’s Witness family in apartheid South Africa. My mother was emotionally and physically abusive and from the age of three until seven, I was repeatedly sexually molested by my step-brothers (both were not JWs at the time but later joined the faith). I knew from a young age that this religion was not the path for me. I could not fully understand myself or the world through this restricted lens and my questioning attitude towards their beliefs was not tolerated.
Years of trauma memories were deeply etched into my nervous system and the path of self-healing has been a long, painful and arduous journey for me. Growing up, I was taught that all love was conditionally based on my beliefs. I was also carefully trained pavlov-style to mistrust the entire world of men, women and children who were not JWs because the Devil might use them to manipulate me if given any opportunity. I lived in constant fear of being targeted or attacked by evil spirits unless I was hyper-vigilant.
The repressive belief system of my religion combined with the abuse I experienced at home meant that it was almost impossible to reach that very detached and dissociated version of myself. In those days the abuse I had experienced was hidden and denied by many religions including mine. Numerous times, my childhood feelings of self loathing, anxiety and depression was punished by my family, and those same step-brothers were welcomed with open arms by the religion because they repented. I however, was labeled as ‘worldly' and 'unfaithful’ and the very real trauma I was carrying, was dismissed.
Desperate, I left home at eighteen and I was then isolated and left to fend for myself. I lost an entire community and way of living, their hope was to shock me to my senses so that I would return. This in essence, became a blessing, in that I could freely pursue my own approaches to healing, spirituality and self-awareness. At first I was irresistibly drawn to wicca, mysticism, yoga, meditation and hypnosis (all perceived to be demonic activities by the JWs) but which provided me with a deeper knowledge of myself and a core sense of purpose. But despite my hard-won freedom, I continued to live a life pitifully low in self-worth and self-love, with no understanding of why. To the outside world I seemed to be a talented, vivacious young women with a lot going for her. And yet to anyone looking a little deeper, I was an emotionally unstable mess.
Personally, I determinedly pursued relationships with partners that reflected my non-existent self-esteem in vivid technicolor. I was battered physically, emotionally and raped several times (all of which I never felt I had a right to report or do anything about) and worst of all, my unresolved trauma from childhood caused me to be an enigma to almost everyone including me, leaving me feeling misunderstood, a misfit, and so alone.
Religious Trauma Syndrome has been likened to Complex PTSD in that the interpersonal or social trauma is sustained over a long period of time. If this starts from a young age, the child experiences a severe conditioning to gross disempowerment, with no viable escape route for the child who is dependant on their dysfunctional family. (1)
Some symptoms of RTS are; suppression of child development, external locus of control, an inability to assert boundaries, unhealthy sexual views (reinforced with any physical and sexual abuse), difficulty belonging socially, damaged thinking/feeling abilities, feeling condemned, depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, perfectionism and negative self-worth. (2)
Eventually, I was introduced to psychedelic plant medicine. Even doing this in and of itself was traumatic for me. Shamanism? Spirits? The religious grain ran so deep, and even though I had left that religion a long time ago by then, I was secretly terrified for the first few years of drinking Ayahuasca for fear that those 'plant spirits' might just be the minions of the Devil in disguise. Funnily enough, the thought of this being a drug never occurred to me. But the thought of being possessed or misled by Satan and his Demons was by far more torturous!
Despite my sometimes crippling anxiety, something inside me knew to push forward and to keep trying. I dove into a regular practice of self-enquiry and a disciplined spiritual practice of meditation and yoga. I dug deep and walked through a shadowy land of splintered emotional debris that seemed like a black-hole for the better part of six years. Ayahuasca was hardly mainstream back then and there were no real tools available with which to integrate it all, other than the advice to keep drinking medicine. I was left to my own devices with only my intuition as my compass and with long periods where I was emotionally unstable and feeling trapped by an invisible prison, with very little support. All together it took me more than a decade of constant effort to unravel and then begin to heal the full extent of my trauma.
THE HEALING JOURNEY IS NEVER LINEAR - PERSEVERANCE IS KEY
I am so grateful to say that as a result of working with Ayahuasca and Wachuma, my own connection to Spirit could grow, free from guilt. That sense of damnation that I had carried around with me for more than half of my life started to fade. I realized that I too had a right to my own relationship with Universal Source in a way that felt nourishing for me. I perceived that I had a right to choose which spirits to allow close to me, just as I had a right to do with people.
The plants started to re-parent me and my lessons soon involved self-love, self-forgiveness and then forgiveness of those who couldn't seem to love me in return as part of their world view. This took a fair amount of time to accept. There were many ‘spiritual bypass’ moments that served to illuminate the remaining judgments, belief systems and labels I held about human beings. This was really difficult for me, considering that so much of my pain had come from my own mother and from males who could not help but abuse their power when I made the mistake of trusting them. I spent many nights in ceremony, purging my bitterness, anger and vengefulness. Then there were periods of thinking I was over it all, that I was FINALLY healed, only to find myself yet again sitting in meditation and imagining the violent demise of every person who had ever hurt me.
And even after all that medicine and all that spiritual work on myself, there were still certain men (within the plant medicine world) that made me seeth with their behaviour. At the time I did not have the social justice vocabulary for it. But I knew in my gut what they were doing was wrong. I was called by the plant spirits to purge this in ceremony because only through letting that go could I become a better healer myself and a more compassionate being. I was being called by the plant spirits to acknowledge that such men would continue to come into my world until I truly claimed my own power, accepted my own sacred femininity and recognised my own self-worth.
I was eventually rewarded for my sincere efforts and I grew more confident within the astral world. I dug deeper and connected with ancient tribal ancestors with earth based spiritual practices like me and I drew strength from them. I completed numerous master plant dietas and acquired a deep relationship with my beloved plant spirits which are of the Earth, my true Mother. I found a family that I belonged to that was of the spirit world and the aching loneliness I had felt for so many years dissipated. I began to discern which people to keep close and which to keep at a respectful distance. And as a result, I am beginning to attract different kinds of people into my field. People of kindness and honour. Finally, with the help of these sacred plant medicines and some good quality integration techniques, I slowly learned how to trust human beings again.
Ayahuasca reminded me that we humans do not need a Devil, because we do a good enough job on our own. I saw that it truly is the Devil inside of each of us that needs the greatest healing. I began the practice of loving that within me which is the 'Destroyer' and that within me which is the 'Creator'. And this inner work is ongoing.
Sometime later, with all the scandalous revelations of sexual misconduct within the Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses began to condemn such behavior within their own community. Suddenly my estranged family began to feel uncomfortable at the prospect of the grave mistake they may have made. Numerous religious tribunals were assembled around potential sexual misconduct within the JW congregations. And I was invited by my family to engage in some social justice of my own against my step-brothers.
I sat, bewildered at this news, trembling with emotion and the gravity of that moment. I now had the power to harm these men to even a fraction of the way that their actions had damaged me and my life. If I testified, they would have to go back into their communities and be shamed like I had been, with their spiritual privileges stripped away. I honestly admit, that if given this opportunity several years ago, I would probably have taken it. I had lost so much to my mother, my step-brothers and to the religion, all those precious wasted years that could have been spent living a happy, well-adjusted life.
In a single moment, some monumental karmic event seemed to come full circle. The Universe had now given me the opportunity to apply the lessons I had been learning from my plant teachers for more than a decade. I had a decision to make. I could either continue the cycle of pain with revenge or choose to change the narrative of my story hence changing the kind of world I chose to exist in.
It was an emotional moment for me, when I could honestly say that what those men had done was between them and their God now. When given that power, I chose to use it with compassion and to give them the opportunity to be better.
I cannot say what has happened to them since then. My mother will always be emotionally unwell, and that is her burden to bear. But what I do know is that I am much closer to being fully at peace in my own heart. I wake up every morning feeling grateful to be alive and I open my eyes every morning to a partner who mirrors back to me the love that I am.
IT'S ALL ABOUT WHAT WE CHOOSE TO CREATE WITH IT
It took years for me to stumble through that abyss, to learn to understand exactly what had happened to me with regard to the RTS and its similarity to PTSD. I can finally grasp the irrational anxiety and conditioning that I was plagued with for so long, and I am so grateful that I found a way to transmute all the pain and suffering I endured. I used it to break my heart open so that it could hold more love - for myself, for the planet and more love for humanity. I am now able to move into an uncertain future with clarity and purpose. My own sense of immortality is different to what I was taught as a child. I now have faith in the indestructible spark of divinity that shines forth and creates from its seat inside this physical body.
Tapping into our deepest fear and pain can be terrifying. And the never-ending struggle can seem overwhelming. In times like these, I remind myself that the struggle is also part of the journey and that my own opportunity to change the world I live in, is always just one decision of 'creation' away.
1. Marlene Winell, “Religious Trauma Syndrome”, Article 3 (accessed 9 May 2019) https://www.babcp.com/Review/RTS-Trauma-from-Leaving-Religion.aspx
2. "Religious Trauma Syndrome." Journey Free. July 13, 2016. Accessed May 09, 2019.
Art by Shereelee (www.DeviantArt.com)
About the Author
Scarab Deva is a shamanic practitioner with an MSc in Psychiatry, a certified Kundalini Yoga Teacher, a Reiki Master, Family Constellation Facilitator, an intuitive healer, and spiritual coach. She dedicates her professional life to assisting her clients with the integration processes before and after their psychedelic and sacred plant medicine experiences. www.scarabdeva.com