Raised By a Cult.
By Sadie Mae Cassidy
My name is Sadie. I am 26 years old, and I am a singer, film composer and writer living in New York City. On the outside, I seem like an artistic young woman with a beautiful life, forging my path and figuring things out to the tune of adventure. And this is true; I have a deep, enduring love for life and love and creative outlets. I am also passionate about shedding the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness, and I realize that in order to explain who I am and why I care so much about this, I must begin with a rather involved and traumatic tale about being raised in a cult. It is a story I do not typically share about myself, a story that I have been content to watch fade into oblivion. I have since realized that, although it is a strange truth, it is my truth, and it does not serve me to stifle it. I am committed to telling it, for reasons that will become clear as the story winds along. Mostly, I will say now that healing is a lifelong process, and it cannot happen in stigma, in silence, in suppression. I think too many people believe they are alone in their experiences, and project an image of perfection and beauty brought to you by Instagram and sponsored by shame. I know I believed that for a long time, anyway. But I’m ready to speak, because speaking out is a radical act for a woman who can say #metoo, and was certainly moved when other women were brave enough to do so. So, without further adieu, this is my turn to be brave, and this is my story.
Church Was Different For Me.
I was born into an international mind control cult founded in Boston, Massachusetts. My parents were preachers and missionaries; they led or planted churches in the cities we lived in. We lived in many cities. By my first day of Kindergarten, I had already lived in multiple countries in Eastern Europe, and we were back in Massachusetts. Before middle school, we left Massachusetts due to church controversy, and so on. The church controversy is where my story really begins.
The church was criticized for abusing its members through mind control tactics, and for the convenient misplacement of the funds raised from the required 15% of every members’ income. No member was allowed to have secrets, choose their careers, choose their spouses or even choose who they would date without approval, and these things were often arranged, and always heavily supervised. No member was allowed to have friends outside of the church community. The real world, the one outside of our international cult bubble, was referred to as “The World”. I was never prepared for the real world, but I grew up hearing horror stories about “The World”, two words always spoken in a hushed tone ranging from ominous to scathing.
Many members left the church when this controversy came to light. This controversy is referred to now as “The Letter”. A member pointed out these issues in a public letter, and my father, among many of the other leaders, signed an apology letter, promising to change. And then, to step away from the heat applied to its birthplace in Boston, our family moved to Virginia to lead another smaller church within the umbrella of the cult.
A Sinner in Eden.
This was a significant time, not only because of ‘The Letter’, but because I became a preteen. Our church believed that children were innocent, but that becoming a preteen was to cross the threshold out of Eden and become a sinner. Sinners went to hell when they died, and sinners were reminded of this every day of their mortal lives. Sinners were required to go through a rigorous brainwashing process referred to as “studying the bible”, where one would have to reveal every sin and secret they had and, upon the sufficient breaking of their spirit and willingness to give their autonomy and free will to the organization, they could be baptized. Then, and only then, were they saved. However, one did not remain this way. To stay saved, a member was required to give 15% or more of their income to the church and attend church three to four times a week. These members were then assigned a “discipleship partner” who regularly verbally berated them, threatening them with their imminent damnation to hell if they did not continually confess and repent their wicked worthlessness.
I became a sinner when we moved to Virginia, when I started middle school. As a sinner, I was told I was a whore if I wore a tank top. I was told that I was making the adult male members of our church “struggle with their purity”. I was sexualized and demonized as a child. If I watched a music video containing music of “The World” with my friends, an adult would hear about it and have a five hour long meeting with me to berate me for being wicked and evil and on a fast track to hell, even arguing that God could very well kill me tomorrow to send me to hell if I wasn’t careful. This was how I came to believe I was worthless, and this is how I became terrified of going to hell. My spirit was broken in these long sessions multiple times a week.
One notable sin that could really land a member in hot water was the consumption of “spiritual porn”. “Spiritual porn” was a reference to the countless websites and online forums criticizing the organization and attempting to call it out for what it was. I stumbled across a forum one day where I found a copy of a letter my own Grandmother had written about the church. In the comments, strangers spoke of how my parents used me to blackmail my Grandparents into deleting it. Comments expressed concern for me specifically, and every child of leaders in this organization. What would become of them?
The Perfect Pawn.
I had trouble adjusting to my life as a sinner in Virginia. As a preacher’s daughter, I had eyes on me at all times. I watched a movie once where a preacher’s wife referred to her life as being like “a bug under a microscope”. I related to the sentiment. I was a pawn in church politics, a scapegoat in my family, a means to criticize my parents. If I was not perfect, my parents legitimacy as leaders was called into question. I had to be perfect. I remember never really being allowed to cry or show I was upset when I was a kid. I remember that life was some sort of performance to maintain the reputation of our family. I believe I was disproportionately told I was worthless and going to hell, even for how commonplace the practice was. I started getting very depressed, and I developed an eating disorder when I was 12. I didn’t know it then, but I know it looking back. I stopped eating entirely and counted my ribs in the mirror. People commonly develop eating disorders to gain a sense of control somewhere in their lives when a sense of control is lacking. This eating disorder was to become a spector in my life, haunting me for many years.
Three years later, when I was 13, I had adjusted as well as I could. I had studied the bible and, with my sufficiently broken spirit and lack of autonomy, been baptized. There is a space one can inhabit in an organization such as this that feels a lot like happiness. I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt in all the organization professed, including that I was one of the few people on the planet Earth that held the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. Only people baptized into our church could be saved, and I had been taught that my entire life. I spent a lot of time speaking to God in the stars and thinking about Heaven. It became very important to me to help save other people. This was a serious mission for church members. If one did not convert other people to our church, they were deemed unfruitful. If one was unfruitful, they were secretly wicked. God was punishing them, and the church punished them, too. With unwavering faith, I knew I was right with God, and I would be fruitful. I would save everyone I possibly could. My whole life was laid out for me. I was being raised to lead churches myself one day. I would be subservient to some man the church chose for me, as women were required to be, and I had no questions about where my life was going, what it was for, what I believed, and what would happen when I died. There is a certain peace to that.
Alone in a New, Old World.
My father suddenly decided that God had called our family to move to The Netherlands. If this seems an abrupt segway in my little story, I can assure you that living through this felt just as abrupt. It was a decision made within the span of a week to a month, and I think it was based on a dream he had. We moved to Amsterdam, and I started high school. This was when it started to get seriously bad.
There was no one my age in the church in Amsterdam. There were no teenagers, there were no preteens. I had no peers. I was not allowed to be friends with the other students at my private British school, but it was of absolute grave importance that I converted a good many of them to the church. It was my job to start the teen ministry at our little church in Amsterdam. If I was faithful, I would be fruitful. If not, there would be hell to pay. … Literally.
I can only imagine what this conundrum was like for my classmates at my international school, me asking them to come to some church, the first American person they had ever met in their lives. I didn’t believe in reproductive rights and I had been taught that all gay people were sinners, for instance. I had the social skills of a marble, because I had only ever been socially immersed in the church. This had raised zero red flags in Virginia, but I was not exactly in the Bible Belt anymore. I was in one of the most liberal cities on the planet, actually, which looking back was very cool, but in my predicament, I did not know how to appreciate harm reduction, sex education and freedom of expression. I was out of my depth, and I was too naive to know it. I was 13, I listened to Christian rock, and I knew nothing. For example, I didn’t even know I was queer yet. Etcetera.
It was lonely.
The church was not happy with me for being unfruitful, either. The spirit breaking sessions where I was condemned as an evil, worthless sinner got worse.
I started to binge eat to cope with the stress. I gained a lot of weight. I started getting bullied. I started getting harshly bullied. My bus trip to school was an hour and a half each way, and I was ridiculed for every minute of that commute. The spirit breaking sessions began to take new forms and come from all sides. I was bullied for being American. I was bullied more when the church told me that Jesus turned the other cheek, and it was my job as a Christian to be persecuted, and I must not only continue to put up with the bullying, but to continue to invite the bullies to my church. When I was still not fruitful, my life solidified as a very lonely existence with a constant barrage of the criticism that I was worthless.
I began to believe I did not deserve to live. I began self harming when binge eating wasn’t enough. And this was my high school experience. This is when people are ideally supposed to form their social identities, and maybe have some awkward moments, but also have a little fun. This was definitely very far from my experience of high school, and stories of the American high school experience are as fascinating to me as the story of being raised in an international mind control cult might be to other people.
For how awful this time was, I did begin playing the guitar and writing songs. I found that this helped me cope with existence, too. I began sharing the songs to YouTube, and gaining some fans, and it was the one way I knew I could be heard. I wrote lyrics I meant, and I sang them with my entire soul. That was the only refuge I had. This was the beautiful thing that came of all this, looking back. I cannot sing the praises of music enough for saving my life. Music is still very much my identity, and maybe it wouldn’t have been if it had all been easier.
It wasn’t easy, though.
The church saw me with my misery and my cuts on my arms and my unfruitfulness as perhaps the worst sinner that ever lived, which called my parents legitimacy into question. I became the symbol of my parents failure, my parents fall from grace from being praised as good leaders within the hierarchy. It was all my fault.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health
My parents decided quite on their own that I had bipolar disorder. They decided that was the problem. No doctor in The Netherlands agreed to diagnose a 15-year-old with such a serious mental illness based on the armchair musings of my American parents. The doctors believed it was unethical, and, after speaking to me, advised my parents they should let me live and grow and figure things out with a certain degree of freedom. They expressed concern about the church. That was when my parents decided to move us back to America, because God bless America, right?
It was halfway through my sophomore year when we moved back to a different part of Virginia. It was in Virginia that my parents found a psychiatrist that felt ethically ok about letting my parents tell them I was bipolar for being emotionally distressed. This elusive psychiatrist they had finally found who would do what they wanted was later outed for malpractice and being a scam artist. She loaded me with every drug for bipolar disorder known to man, experimental or otherwise, and she gave me as much as she could possibly get away with. This was well beyond therapeutic levels, even for someone who did have bipolar disorder. At the time, I believed I did, because this is what the adults in my life told me. However, I did not. Even if I did, this was not a good situation.
During my sophomore year of high school, my hands shook so much sometimes that I could not hold a pencil. I fainted at school regularly, and sometimes needed to be carried out on a stretcher or a wheelchair. Some days I could not walk. Some days I could not physically wake up in the morning. I could not think. I could not feel. I could not control my body or access my mind. I was not allowed to refuse the drugs. The psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and told my parents that I was just manipulating them when I tried to refuse the drugs. I could not say no. I tried, but I was a minor, and I had no choice, and I was told I would go to jail for truancy if I didn’t snap out of it.
I dropped out of high school when I was 16. My body and mind were not physically capable of bridging the wild gaps between the schools I had gone to. The doctors and the church people said that my bipolar was so severe that I would never be capable of independence, driving, holding a job, forming relationships, or being an adult. I was told I had bipolar, and I was told it was a death sentence. I have to note that bipolar disorder is certainly not a death sentence for the people that have it, and it is especially not a death sentence for the people that don’t, but this was the reality I was told I was living in.
Around this time, I gave up hope and I attempted suicide. And I survived.
Wait, My Life Wasn’t Normal?
My week in the mental hospital was the freest I had ever felt in my life so far. I shared about my life with other depressed teens and with a team of therapists and it was there that I realized my life had not been normal, and there was something wrong with my church, and that things hadn’t been right. A heartbreaking fact about abuse and brainwashing in childhood is that one does not grow up knowing any better or knowing any different. This is where I saw the light. And, I knew that it would take many years of hard work through fear and unknowns to be able to push through to a life worth living in this ominous place called “The World” I knew nothing about, but I was determined to get there. And it was in the mental hospital that my resignation to death became a fierce determination to live and to see the other side of all of this.
I asked the social workers at the hospital if I could pursue legal emancipation from my parents. I asked what my options were.
It’s hard to be a minor in the mental health system. The professionals that are supposed to treat the mentally ill and the vulnerable too often write them off as “crazy”, and they are not compassionate or caring. It’s a horrible truth that should not exist, but it does. And that is exactly what happened to me. The therapists, the doctors, the social workers, they told my parents everything, believing that I was under some sort of delusion that I was in a cult.
There are no secrets in the cult. My parents told other leaders, they told the teen leaders, they told other parents.
Suicide was a sin. So was speaking out against the church. When I was released from the hospital, the high school dropout that I was, I was locked in my room for many months, and I was not allowed to socialize with other church members, or leaders, or mentors, or anyone. I was left to stew in isolation. This was a form of punishment. This was meant to break me so I would return to the church. This was the church’s response to a teenager’s suicide attempt.
The Breaking Point.
Once a few months had gone by of my isolation, I was permitted to speak to a woman in the church. I was not allowed to see therapists anymore after my little outburst at the hospital, so she was to serve as my therapist figure. She was really put in my life to break my spirit again and get me back on board, brainwashed again, before I could be deemed fit to rejoin the organization.
I was permitted to go to a weekend camping retreat with the other teens in the church. When I got back, the woman asked me how it had been, and I said it was fun. She then called me an evil liar and continued to tell me that she had sent a team of spies after me who had reported back to her multiple accusations of me being a horrible person. The stories were taken out of context, designed to make me look bad, and they were absolutely false. I think this tactic was to break me back into believing I was wicked, worthless and horrible, and so that I would know I was being scrutinized at all times, and I had no control or say in the matter of my life. I remember sobbing in the Panera Bread we were in, and how smug she was that I was broken. I told her I was done.
I began to chart my escape in my isolated life that was not a life at all. It was the only way to one day get to live for myself. I got my GED, I read Nietzsche, I cut my own bangs and I got a job at a music store. I also enrolled in community college at 16 years old. I got a 4.0 my freshman year, and I applied to some in-state schools. I got into every school I applied to, and, at 17, I moved out to begin my sophomore year of college. I was finally free.
Well, at least I wish it had been that easy. I wish I could say that this was the end of my story and it was like a fairytale from there. However, much of my story concerns the long term effects of growing up with a core belief of worthlessness and the shadow of abuse.
Why Do I Feel This Way About Myself?
I had never been socialized, taught how the world works, or had space to develop. I had no idea what I was doing or how to protect myself. In the church, I had to tell anyone I met every single thing about me. I had never learned boundaries. I had also been robbed of a proper education, and at this point probably had the socioemotional intelligence of a fifth grader. And, yes, I believed I was worthless. Everything was very purposefully set up that way in my life so I wouldn’t be able to survive outside of the church. I wasn’t supposed to really be able to leave. Thankfully, I was stubborn. But unfortunately, trying to adjust to the real world was brutal. What followed was an actual series of abusive relationships, rapes and sexual assaults. Standing up to someone who was harassing me or hurting me wasn’t something that even existed in my brain. I had been broken down my entire life into believing I had no autonomy and I was evil, disgusting and worthless. It’s a disaster to have a complex like that in the real world, too.
In my senior year of college, I took a Violence Against Women class. That’s when the flashbacks started. I had been molested as a child in Eastern Europe. It was all rushing back. I had been left with babysitters more than I had spent time with my parents when I was little. They did not have much time for me in their busy jobs as church leaders in such an involved organization. With relentless trust in the members of the organization and the God that believed only their church was right or true, they did not think twice about protecting their young daughter. Or perhaps they did, but they weren’t in a place to know how to see danger anymore. Regardless, this is when I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and this diagnosis began the healing process, which was and is complicated, nuanced and nonlinear, but effective.
To this day, my parents’ blind faith in the cult has never wavered, not even when I’ve told them what happened to me. They still host known sexual predators at their church gatherings in their home. They will never believe me. I stopped talking to them about it when I got fed up enough with being told I was sinful and not rooted in reality for saying what happened to me. My mother told me in no uncertain terms that the church would always come before me. My father and I don’t talk anymore. I haven’t gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas in many years. They still mean well, which has made it hard to speak out about what happened. My mother sends me care packages and is the sweetest woman in the world. No one is really immune from the brainwashing of a cult, and they are often made up of people with good intentions.
HOPE comes from Hearing Other People’s Experiences.
Flash forward to now, and my life in New York that, from the outside at least, is the life of a creative and confident young woman with no hint of a traumatic past. It never actually got all the way better or all the way easier, but I have absolutely been mindful and committed to healing for many years. I do have a beautiful life these days, and part of the task of telling my story is to share how exactly that can be, and I plan to. I want to share how I survived, and what helped me get to a better place, and what helps me today. I also wish to delve into and fully confront the systemic issues in the mental health system that deprive vulnerable people of compassionate care and healing. I wish to speak about how I rewired my internal belief system, and how what I was taught about myself and women in general contributed to the sexual traumas I endured as an adult. There are spaces in my story that enable me to speak up in a way that could potentially change some things and empower others. I hope some of that happens in my lifetime.
We develop Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when we let pain and shame fester within us, and it becomes stored in the psyche and the body. It is born from a core belief of shame and worthlessness that makes me want to be quiet, and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed. I shouldn’t have to carry this burden my entire life. I deserve to have a voice. I deserve to stand up for myself, to say this happened to me, and this happens to other people, and it isn’t ok.
That is not to say I endeavor to tell the “woe is Sadie Cassidy story the LifeTime Movie The Novel” ~ but my silence does not serve the systemic issues that allowed this life to happen to me. I want to tell the stories of others who are confronted with these issues, and I want to fight for them.
My stubborn willpower, my clear cut purpose for using this lifetime to sing songs, my love for life, my ceaseless optimism despite all odds, my resourcefulness, and my ability to work hard and endure loneliness for long periods of time is why I’m still alive and how I got well. And it shouldn’t have to be this hard. People should be able to get help when they seek help. There are so many barriers to that.
And I will admit that I have tried to mask everything and project a version of myself who had a “normal” life so I could feel like I was acceptable, but I didn’t. Suppressing what happened makes me not able to truly share or express my unique talents or personality, and keeps me isolated and disempowered from doing the work I’m capable of. To put it simply, I’m sick of hiding, and I really care about advocating for other people going through these situations
I deserve to connect in authentic ways and be myself.