Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness—Anxiety at a Young Age
Childhood of Fear
Like many current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve had to deal with anxiety, depression, and feelings of guilt. Being raised in, “The Truth” especially lends itself to a unique set of anxieties. You’re told to “throw your burden on Jehovah” and everything will be okay, but what if Jehovah is the source of your anxiety?
From a very young age I was all too aware of what Jehovah would do to sinners at Armageddon. I routinely saw illustrations like this one, which depict people being destroyed at Armageddon, and, yes, that is a dead child. At the congregation meetings I would hear things like this paragraph being read,
By all the evidences this system of things is hastening to its final confrontation with the God of justice at Armageddon. Parents and children who fail to gain the “mark on their foreheads,” that is, an adequate appreciation of God’s moral standard, are sure to suffer. Parents will be held accountable for their children, and children will suffer for the failure of their parents.
-Watchtower 1968 Feb 1 pp.83-84
I took this very seriously as a child and for the most part I was a good little Witness kid. Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t allowed to celebrate holidays or birthdays, so I made sure not to eat birthday cake or to do holiday activities once I started school. I held a clean conscience – until Christmas time in kindergarten.
Rudolf Led My Guilt that Night
It was easy not to draw Santa Claus when I could draw a snow man instead. There were many holiday activities I could opt out of, but when it came to music class I just couldn’t help myself. I got caught up in the Christmas spirit and sang such satanic songs as, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and, “Up on the Housetop.” Eventually I began to feel the weight of my sin, and my little heart couldn’t bear the guilt anymore. I knew I had to act fast because Armageddon was always just around the corner, and I was lined up for everlasting destruction.
It was at one of the Thursday night meetings that I finally made my confession. Trembling, I went with my mother to one of the dark rooms in the back and told all. She held me as I sobbed my guilt ridden tears and assured me that everything was going to be fine. Then together we prayed for Jehovah’s forgiveness and for his help to resist such temptations.
Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of my struggle with anxiety. As you get older Jehovah expects more and more from you in order to stay in his good graces. From the time I could first speak, I was expected to participate at the meetings by answering the questions to the audience. When I was old enough to walk, I accompanied my parents door to door so I could ring the bell and hand out pamphlets. Once I could read, I was put on the Theocratic Ministry School which meant being put on display in front of a large audience.
If you’re like me and prone to social anxiety, then you understand the emotional torment I went through when forced to do these things. Not forced by my parents by threat of punishment, but forced by my own fear of displeasing God; something taught as a good thing by the Witnesses.
In addition to awe and reverence, however, fear of God must include a wholesome dread of displeasing him or being disobedient to him. Why? Because while Jehovah is “slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness,” we must remember that “by no means will he give exemption from punishment.” (Exodus 34:6, 7)
-Watchtower December 1, 2001 pp. 14-18
Looking for Approval
When I was eleven years old I took my first big step towards baptism and became an unbaptized publisher. I was now responsible for going out in the ministry, reporting my monthly hours, and number of publications placed to the congregation elders. I would dread the end of the month because I would usually have so few hours to report. I quickly found out that not reporting isn’t an option because the only thing worse than writing, “one hour” on a time slip, was getting a call from an elder and having to say it out loud. Guilt and shame were my biggest motivators to go door to door.
Once, when I was in high school, it was nearing the end of the month and a Witness friend of mine asked how many hours I had so far. I was very relieved to say ten hours, which is the average amount. Monday through Friday I was in school, Saturday morning I would go out in the ministry, and Sunday morning we had a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. I hadn’t slept in for the entire month and I was quite proud, but that didn’t last long. At hearing this my friend gave me a look as if I had insulted her personally. She then made sure that I spent the rest of my free time that month racking up the hours.
I soon realized that no matter how much you do it will never be enough. I was constantly being asked when I was going to auxiliary pioneer or regular pioneer. Around the age of sixteen I started to feel the pressure to get baptized. All of my friends were already baptized, and I was taught that if I was not baptized into the organization I wouldn’t survive Armageddon.
Today, those who dedicate themselves to Jehovah on the basis of faith in the resurrected Christ get baptized in symbol of that dedication. They proceed to do God’s will for our day and are saved from the present wicked world. (Galatians 1:3, 4) No longer are they headed for destruction with the present wicked system of things.
-Worship God p. 119
So I took the plunge. It was a relief because I felt that I could finally make Jehovah and his congregation happy, but it wasn’t enough. Immediately after my baptism I was told that I could no longer see or talk to my father because he was disfellowshipped. I wasn’t even eighteen yet. Now that I was baptized, if I chose to continue seeing my father then I too would face the threat of being disfellowshipped. I would lose all the rest of my Witness family, and in the end I believed I would also lose my life. I didn’t see my father again for another five years.
Doubts Lead to Freedom
I was almost twenty-one when I started to have doubts about the Watchtower organization. I slowly started to see the inaccuracies in the teachings and the truth about the organization’s history. Even when faced with the truth I still had that nagging feeling of, “what if?” What if the Watchtower really is God’s chosen organization? What if I’m being led astray by Satan? All those fears and anxieties that had been instilled in me from birth reared their ugly heads.
Over time, though, these fears lessened. The more I studied and meditated the less I worried. I did lose my Witness family and it saddens me deeply, but I’ve also gained back those of my friends and family that were disfellowshipped or who were seen as bad association. I no longer fear an end of the world brought on by an angry god, and I no longer feel like I’m walking on egg shells to keep Jehovah happy. There’s no longer a congregation to judge me. I have my free time back to actually enjoy life, and I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m finally free.
Even though I’ve finally found contentment in life, those anxieties don’t just go away. It’s not easy to adjust from a life of fear. If you’ve gone through this, or you’re going through this, then you know that some people just won’t understand. However, your feelings are valid and the best thing you can do is to talk about your experience. Get professional counseling if you can, open up to your loved ones, keep a journal, or talk to the kind people on the ex-Jehovah’s Witness forums. Check out the links on our resources page. Above all, don’t give up because it does get better.